Monthly Archives: February 2015

Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition by Peter Tate (2007)

I’m knee deep in my next novel — now titled Only Breath (after Sappho’s famous line ‘Although they are only breath, they words I command are immortal’). Only Breath has birds and birdsong woven throughout the narrative. So, I looked for credible references for myths, legends, and superstitions about birds to weave in. I found Peter Tate’s marvelous book, Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition.

flights of fancyTate is a renowned ornithologist and historian and has published several books on ornithology, including Bird, Men and Books: A Literary History of Ornithology, The Swallow, and A Century of Bird Books. Flights of Fancy is ideal for my research. Tate has a broad deep knowledge of the subject, documents his sources responsibly, and shares my interest in the curiosities’ of history, apparently.

Examples? Did you know robins were thought to cover the bodies of murder victims in moss and leaves (an idea I use in Only Breath)? Playwright John Webster (a contemporary of Shakespeare) references this idea in The White Devil (Act V, Scene 1):

Call for the robin red-breast and the wren; since o’er shady groves they hover; and with leaves and flowers do cover; the friendless bodies of unburied men.

English poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) expresses the same idea in The Owl (1604):

Covering with moss the dead’s unclosed eye; the little redbreast teacheth charitie.

So, here’s where you learn why blackbirds are black (they were white to begin with), the reason for the loon’s haunting call, how cranes transport smaller birds great distances on their backs, and so on.

Tate draws on mythology from around the world, from ancient stories to twentieth-century confusions. He organizes them by species and presents them with authority and wit — a pleasure to read.

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