Birds have been honored, revered and worshipped in many different cultures throughout human history, and birds as gods or god-like figures is just one of the many cultural connections humans and birds share. Understanding the history of birds as gods or associated with gods is one more facet of understanding just why we are so fascinated with avifauna today.
Why Birds Become Gods
Birds have many qualities that may have seemed supernatural or god-like to ancient cultures.
Birds fly with ease, taking them closer to heaven and crossing dangerous barriers such as canyons, rivers or mountain ranges without trouble. They can also create a wide range of sounds impossible for human vocal cords, as well as mimic the sounds of other creatures with startling accuracy. Birds change appearance as they molt, seemingly renewing themselves, and they survive dramatic seasonal shifts, even disappearing and reappearing through the mystery of migration.
Because of these and other amazing qualities, many ancient cultures revered birds. Whether birds were considered messengers to the gods or were thought of as gods themselves, they were held in high esteem and treated with reverence in many ways.
Most Familiar Bird Gods
Birds have figured prominently in the mythology and theology of many cultures, and while many bird god legends have been lost to history or are discussed in many different incarnations, the most popular and familiar bird-god figures include…
- Horus – from Egyptian theology
The god of all Egypt and the son of the goddess Isis, Horus is most often depicted with the distinct head of a peregrine falcon or similar raptor with the body of a man. Horus is the god of the sky, sun and moon, as well as the god of war and hunting, attributes that well suit an apex predator like a peregrine falcon.
- Thoth – from Egyptian theology
Most commonly depicted as a man with the head of an ibis, including the long, distinctly decurved bill, Thoth is typically associated with writing, science and philosophy. This god is also often consulted for mediation and is believed to have control of the seasons. At times, Thoth may take full ibis form. Another name for Thoth is Tehuti.
- Huitzilopochtli – from Aztec theology
The Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli is also the god of the sun and is depicted as a hummingbird or with hummingbird characteristics, including feathers and a hummingbird helmet. It is believed that when Aztec warriors die, they become hummingbirds and fly away to join Huitzilopochtli. This god is also the patron of Tenochtitlan, the former capital of the Aztec empire and the present site of Mexico City.
- Nekhbet – from Egyptian theology
Often depicted as a vulture, this Egyptian goddess is a caretaker and guardian of mothers and children and is honored as turning death into life, since vultures use death – carrion – as food. The broad wingspan of the vulture is appropriate for the wide reach and protective grasp of the goddess, and she is also often believed to be a guide to the next life and guardian of the dead or underworld.
- Hecate – from ancient Greek mythology
While Hecate – the goddess of witches – is depicted in different forms, one of those forms is an owl, a bird often associated with witchcraft. Hecate is also seen as a symbol of a crossroads, death and magic in general.
- Thunderbird – from North American native tribes
This mythical figure is common in many legends from indigenous tribes in North America, including the Lakota, Ojibwe, Odawa, Algonquin, Sioux, Menomini and Cowichan tribes. The thunderbird was a supernatural bird whose beating wings created the thunder and wind of tremendous storms, and lighting sparked from the bird's eyes. This bird was considered a shapeshifter, and was often represented on totem poles.
- Morrigan – from Irish mythology
Morrigan is the Irish goddess of war, hunting and battle, with connections to death and protection as well. This goddess is often seen as a crow, and a crow flying over battlefields is considered a positive omen. Crow feathers or symbols may be used as good luck charms on weaponry in honor of Morrigan.
- Manannan Mac Lir – from Irish and Celtic mythology
Often seen as a gull, Manannan Mac Lir is the god of the sea. This god is also considered a trickster, an ideal association for gulls since these intelligent birds often play tricks on one another, such as stealing prey or just playing games. Manannan Mac Lir is honored in the hopes of bountiful fishing and safe sea passage.
- Garuda – from Hinduism and Buddhism
While not a god itself, the Garuda is the bird-like mount of Lord Vishnu, often depicted as having a human body with an eagle or falcon head. Renowned for speed and force, this bird figure is often associated with powerful raptors and is depicted in sacred illustrations, sculptures and other artwork.
In addition to individual gods and god-like mythological figures, many birds such as eagles, hawks, ibises and herons are considered sacred in different cultures. While many of today's birders may not exactly consider birds gods, treating birds with the same respect and admiration as the gods associated with them can only be a positive step toward bird conservation and appreciation for all the world's birds.
Photo – Thunderbird on a Totem Pole © Steven Depolo