March 4, 2020
The Auspicious Bird
By Samuel McCabe
In the year 530 CE, Caesarius of Arles gave a sermon to his parishioners entitled: An Admonition to Those Who Not Only Pay Attention to Omens, but, What is Worse, Consult Seers, Soothsayers, and Fortune Tellers in the Manner of Pagans. While the theme of his sermon is self-evident thanks to its descriptive title, it highlights a form of divination that seems to have fallen out of modern practice. Caesarius states, “Likewise, do not observe omens or pay attention to singing birds when you are on the road, nor dare to announce devilish prophecies as a result of their song.” The art of divination prior to the invention of tarot cards and magic eight balls was performed by observing signs in the natural world. Two such ways of reading omens are watching the flight of birds and interpreting their song.
Ornithomancy is the Greek word for the practice of bird divination. The Greek language also gives us the words oionos, which is a bird of omen, and oionistes, oionethetes and oionoskopos, which all refer to someone who reads bird omens. The Romans also practiced bird divination, calling it augury. Augur and auspex are Latin words for a person who reads omens from the flight of birds. Auspices and auspicious are also derived from this family of words. Augurs were greatly respected in Rome, and were consulted for all state matters. The word inauguration means to take omens from birds in flight. These omens were then used to determine the fortune or failure of elected officials. Apparently this was an important form of divination for the Greeks and Romans. References to ornithomancy appear in both Homer’s Odyssey and in the writings of Hesiod. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus identified Prometheus as the original teacher of this art, and evidence of bird divination exists in both Hittite and Etruscan cultures.
Bird omens have existed in literature for thousands of years. Both doves and ravens appear in the Bible as bringing messages from the spirit realm. An albatross is the persistent, malefic omen in Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Poe’s Raven is yet another example of a bird omen. In all cases, the meaning of the bird’s presence is interpreted by the protagonist in relation to their current situation or foretelling future events. Isidore of Seville (560-636 CE) sheds a little more light on the art: “Augurs are those who understand the cries and the flight of birds, or other signs or observations of things that predict what will happen to men. The same is the case with auspices. Auspices are observances made by those making a journey. Auspices are said to be like the appearance of birds, and auguries like the chatter of birds, that is, the voices and tongues of birds. Augury is almost avigerium, what birds do. There are two kinds of auspices: one pertaining to the eyes, the other to the ears. Flight pertains to the eyes; the voice of birds pertains to the ears.” Considering the plethora of written testimonial dating back to the Classical period and continuing on into the Romantic era, it is safe to assume that this form of divination goes back into the mists of Neolithic shamanism, but how does one learn today?
Little information is given or has survived about how one actually reads bird omens. Greek tradition suggests facing north, while Roman augurs faced the south. The augur then chooses a section of the sky to focus upon, called a tempulum. Favorable omens emerge from the East. The rest of the equation relies on practice and personal discovery. It helps to begin by asking simple yes or no questions, similar to using a pendulum. If a bird or birds arrive from the East, the answer is yes. From the West, no. You could start with a question that you know the answer to, to test the process. Other considerations when getting started is figuring out what different flight patterns mean. What does a flock of birds traveling south to north mean? What do the sky acrobatics of a raven foretell? I recommend journaling your findings so that you have a record of your observations. This will enable you to look for patterns according to your observations, and to test the accuracy of your prophecies.
The common, non-magical pastime of bird-watching can easily be adapted to ornithomancy. The same tools: binoculars, field guides and notebook still provide the basic necessities needed for this work. Choosing a park, nature preserve or backyard with lots of bird traffic will make your time easier. Sometimes you may go into the field with the intent of conducting auguries, but at other times the birds may give you a sign when you least expect it. Being a keen sky-watcher is a necessary prerequisite. Observing auguries is an art that requires patience and determination. There will be times when the skies are silent. Dale Pendall writes, “To understand the language of birds, one needs not ears, not cochlea and tympanum, but cellular hearing, where the organs of perception have expanded to include skin, hair follicles, heartbeat, and whatever it is that is all of it together.”
Folklore and magic also suggest the use of familiars and other spirits to aid in the learning of auguries. In the court records of witchcraft trials, the accused often claimed the ability to speak with birds and other animals thanks to the help of familiar spirits. In the Ars Goetia, both Barbatos and Caim are spirits that can be conjured to confer the gift of learning the secret language of birds. Classical literature names Calchas, Melampus and Tiresias as adept augurs. If learning the art of augury seems too daunting without a guide, employ the service of a spirit well-versed in the language of birds to assist. Considering the modern neglect of augury, any of these spirits should jump at the chance to help you.
One final thought to remember, is that if you do truly undertake the study of this lost art, repay the birds when you receive messages. Forming a reliable relationship with birds requires gifts and sacrifices. Become knowledgeable about bird ecology in your region, donate to local bird sanctuaries, and learn about local endangered species. Pollution, habitat loss and invasive predation from non-native animal species have all left indelible marks on worldwide bird populations. My hope is that renewed interest in auguries will coincide with renewed fervor for conservation of vulnerable species and respect for birds who suffer from human prejudice and misunderstanding. May your auspices be favorable and accurate!
Connect with Samuel on his instagram @thepeacockgrimoire,
or through our classes at Ritualcravt School.