Feature Articles – Tweet tweet: the language of birds
The “bird language” or “Green language” is an intriguing system of codes, practiced by some traditions. But what lies at its origins – and could its origin actually not be a language, but what many termed the original method of communication?
by Philip Coppens
The “language of birds” has many names; some call it the “Language of the Gods”, others the “Green language”. Michael Sells has referred to this “sacred language” as the “language of unsaying”, whereby the core of what needs to be said, is actually not said, though everyone understands what is being said.
The “language of birds” is therefore the mystical language, by default an unpopular subject amongst scholars, specifically because of the apparent lack of “clarity”: a clear and distinct sense. The sense is inferred. And whereas this may be possible to map in extant languages, when it comes to extinct languages, or even extant languages the way they were spoken in the past, grasping this “undefined core sense” is not an easy task.
The link with green – as in the Green Language – as the colour of alchemy is never far away, specifically as alchemy is equally “obscure” in its words. Alchemy is not so much obscure in what it tried to do; even when it is clear that the process described is chemical in nature, the substances themselves are difficult if not impossible to identify. Birds are also present in alchemy, specifically the phoenix that rises from its own ashes. But a peacock, the pelican, the white swan and the black crow all feature in alchemy. Birds in general represented the element air, but at the same time, their flight was identical to the ascension to heaven. The phoenix also incorporated the element fire, thus portraying the union of two elements and its transformative – regenerative – outcome. What is “bird language”? On first inspection, it would be the language that the birds use to communicate amongst themselves. It is a language the birds understand, but we humans do not. Largely, it is a system of human communication, which has been around for a very long time, but which is ill-understood. Then again: the ability not to be understood unless by those who were initiated into the language was actually its purpose. Fulcanelli stated that the alchemists had to resort to this means in order to obscure from one that which was to be disclosed to the other. To many, the language of birds is therefore nothing more or less than a series of secret codes and phrases, which pass by in daily conversation, except for those with ears that “hear”. The most famous example of this today are certain key words, learned amongst Masons. Each group and grade of Masons has their own specific keywords, which are largely unrecognisable when spoken in daily conversation. Some of these expressions have nevertheless become part of normal parlance. One Masonic expression is “to give someone the third degree”, referring to the strenuous initiation a third degree mason had to undergo. This, together with a series of handshakes and other signals, identify a person and his role – whereby a non-Mason sitting in on the conversation may be totally unaware of what is going on.
English is largely void of a “green nature”, whereas French seems to be full of it. The words “L’hasard” – coincidence – and “Lazare” – Lazarus – are pronounced identically. But in certain conversations, people will play with these two words, and ask whether it is “L’hasard” or “Lazare”, whereby it is interpreted that “Lazare” is no coincidence at all. Anyone not “in” on the conversation will be completely bewildered and will not understand.
In the final outcome, it is nevertheless clear that Masonic and the “green language” as present in French is more a system of codes than a specific “language”. If anything, they seem to be only remains of what was once perhaps a vast system of knowledge. Some have described the “language of birds” as “the tongue of Secret Wisdom. Its vocabulary is myth. Its grammar is symbolism.” They argue that the development of the written language and the language of birds go hand in hand. According to the Fables of Caius Juliius Hyginus, the god Mercury (the Greek Hermes) invented the alphabet by watching cranes, because “cranes make letters as they fly”. The Egyptian god of writing is Thoth, and his animal is actually a bird: the ibis. For the Egyptians, hieroglyphics therefore was the language of birds – and one often recurring hieroglyph is a bird itself.
Hieroglyphics is a symbolic system of writing. Some have argued that hieroglyphs were indeed the “sacred – secret – language” of the Gods, specifically because they were symbols – and the Egyptians only used them within a religious setting. Though they were an alphabet, it is felt that at some point, the symbol itself had a meaning, which is now lost. What Champollion was able to decode, was only the basest of its nature – and no-one has since been able to fathom its deepest meaning. The origin of the “bird language” may go back to primitive societies. When shamans enter a trance, they attempt to speak the language of nature; they are said to speak “the language of birds”. Historians of religion have documented this phenomenon around the entire world and depictions of shamans with wings or as a bird are common.
One biblical example is King Solomon. Solomon was told that he would “be able to understand the language of the birds and beasts… Then Solomon woke up from his dream. He wondered if God had really spoken to him or whether it had been a spirit beguiling him in his dreams. Then he heard the birds squawking and twittering to each other in his garden below. He heard one suddenly cry out, ‘Silly birds — stop all this noise! Don’t you know that the God has just given Solomon the ability to understand what we say and to make us do as he wishes!’” In these societies, bird language is usually learnt by eating snake or some other magical animal. These animals can reveal the secrets of the future because they are thought to be receptacles for the souls of the dead or epiphanies of the gods. The birds are psychopomps, as birds were believed to undertake the ecstatic journey to the sky and beyond; they made the voyage to the Otherworld. Equally, serpents were said to be able to understand the language of birds.
In Christian tradition, some saints are said to have communicated with the animals, whereas the exploits of St Patrick in Ireland, which involves both flight and snakes, clearly have the saint following in the footstep of the “Celtic shamans”. Still, Robert Temple has argued that this “language of birds” was in essence a large con, practiced by the oracles of the ancient world. He argues that the “language of birds” was in fact a form of communication: birds were used as messenger services, as they would be throughout history, until the advent of modern means of communication. The ancient Greek world would use them to dispatch information across the nation, whereby the oracles were the first to receive this information. Therefore, Temple claims, what they prophesized was not so much “Otherworldly”, but merely information from elsewhere in this world, dispatched by “express pigeon”, to give the oracles the semblance of psychic ability. Most authors, including Andrew Collins, in From the Ashes of Angels: The Forbidden Legacy of a Fallen Race, argue that the origins of the association of the bird and the shaman should be sought within the anthropological realm. He and others have shown that shamans often dressed up as a bird, or used the feathers of a bird to resemble a bird. From a man dressed with feathers to an angel is a small step. Furthermore, the link between the shaman and the bird occurs specifically because in a trance, the shaman is said to be able to fly – like angels. But the connection goes beyond this. In the tenth Homiliarum in Ezcechielem, Gregory the Great compared the music of the angels, heard in the heavenly spheres, to birds’ singing. This was then encapsulated in the “Gregorian chants” that became famous throughout the Christian world – and which continue to lure people to churches.
Still, the angels were said not to speak; like birds, they articulated sounds in the air. At the same time, the sound that was produced was not their mode of communication; angels – like shamans – were believed to be psychic – they only required thoughts to communicate; there was no need for a “language” and the “music of the spheres” was merely the outcome; in short, music had to be dissociated from its lyrics, for in origin, music was either felt to be instrumental, or “Gregorian”. People who are fluent in several languages – including many autistic people – know that thinking often occurs in symbols. They will see an apple, but need to scan their brain for the word, sometimes in all languages, some only in a few. Learning to speak is exactly that: the process by which we associate words with shapes. “Apple.” “House.” “Car.” Words such as “altruistic” or “disingenuous” only come about at a much later state; not because they are more difficult, but because they themselves require a definition that is based on other words.
So where does this leave the language of birds? Some argue that modern languages are a diminutive form of an original, “non-linguistic language”, which is precisely the origin of the “language of birds”. It echoes the story of the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the tongues. It is therefore an interesting phenomenon to note that English, which is a very basic language when compared to other extinct and extant forms of verbal communication, is making major inroads in uniting the world once again in a common tongue. Some have even joked that we are getting God back on the Tower of Babel.
So where does this leave the language of birds? Was it indeed a communication of symbols – whereby the core needs to be divined, and remains elusive, unless “understood”? Does it underline the old distinction between “hearing” and “understanding”? Was hieroglyphics an attempt to bring down into the material world this “divine language”, whereby symbols were transformed into letters – whereby we are now no longer able to grasp their core meanings? Birds in the Egyptian alphabet include the Egyptian vulture, the owl and the quail chick. As such, each played a part in the divine utterances of the Egyptian gods, and their message to the nation. But it was the Bennu bird’s cry at the creation of the world that marked the beginning of time… for the Egyptians, the primeval scream was that of a bird…