How Stork Legends, Myths and Omens Set Their Place in History
Contrary to what is happening today, humans of the past had close relationships to nature and wild animals. These bonds did not concern only utilitarian aspects, but also involved the sphere of the imaginary and myth. This article is a short overview of the relationship the ancient Mediterranean civilizations had with the stork, an animal which has always fascinated humans and stimulated man's creative imagination and curiosity. Perhaps this is thanks to the sharing of the same open environments - often agricultural - and to the use of anthropogenic structures for the placement of their bulky nests. It is little wonder that there are so many ancient stork legends.
Representations of Storks in Ancient Art
The stork has always been such a familiar presence for humans that it gave rise to one of the most ancient examples of linguistic zoomorphism: Isidore of Seville (6th cent. AD) mentions a ciconia to indicate an instrument used by Roman and Hispanic farmers to draw water. It consisted of an upright frame on which a long pole or branch is suspended at a distance of about one-fifth of its length from one end. People would hang a bucket, skin bag, or coated reed basket at the long end of the pole.
It was a simple but very ingenious irrigation tool, already in use in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia from at least the second millennium BC, where it was known as a shadoof. The silhouette of this machine very much resembles a stork eating or drinking from ponds.
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The Roman ciconia mechanism resembles storks feeding. (Image courtesy of Filippo Marmo /Associazione Centro Cicogne et Anatidi)
Ancient representations on sacred buildings dating back to the early Neolithic culture of the Near East, such as in Göbekli Tepe in southern Anatolia (11,500 years ago), Egyptian papyrus and artifacts, Roman wall paintings, Byzantine mosaics, and medieval friezes often depict storks, sometimes putting so much care in rendering the details to make them absolutely identifiable, even if, especially in the Middle Ages, they are often confused with cranes or ibis.
In Avenche in Switzerland (the ancient Aventicum), in the major temple complex dedicated to the genius of Helvetia-Roman Switzerland, one column stands as the "cigognier" because, since time immemorial, it has been a nesting place for storks. The nest appeared for the first time in an engraving of M. Merian the Elder, dating back to 1642, and since then it has been constantly frequented by the birds, only being removed in 1978 during the restoration of the archaeological site. By the way: Merian’s coat of arms and publisher seal was a stork with the motto " Pietas contenta lucratur".
Storks have been regarded as very important symbols over the ages: Egyptians originally represented the divine spiritual Ba, one of the parts of the human soul, with the saddle-billed stork ( Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis). Aelian confirms this habit, highlighting that the stork's breast, if seen from the front, vaguely resembles a heart, intended as a soul.
Saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis). (DannyIacob /Adobe Stock)
Ancient Roman References to the Stork
The evidence on the presence and distribution of storks in Italy during Roman times shines both through naturalistic treatises, such as Pliny's " Naturalis historia", and from works of another nature. Juvenal, for example, (1st/2nd century AD) records of a white stork nest built on the roof of the Temple of Concordia in Rome around the year 100.
In some cases, references to the species provide vague information on its presence. In others they allow the identification of the nesting sites in well-defined historical periods and hints at stork legends. In a work of 37 BC, for example, Virgil suggests to "plant vines in the period in which the stork, enemy of snakes, arrives".
However, there is no explicit indication of their nesting place and it is not possible to know if the author refers to a part of Italy in particular. What is sure is that, depending on when and where information is written, storks are reported either as nuncios of spring (as seen in Virgil, but also in Petronius), or as carriers of winter (in Pliny, Hesiod, or Aristophanes).
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Pliny, who could have observed the storks in their autumn migration, describes their migration, refers to places where there were no storks at all, and tells us that they were also kept domestically. Some storks were probably bred and raised in places called vivaria, which is where the ancient Romans kept wild animals they planned to use for their entertainment.
Closeup of the lion skin of Hercules and a stork fighting a snake on gladiator shin guards recovered from the gladiator barracks in Pompeii Roman 1st century AD. (Mary Harrsch/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Pliny's observations about stork migrations are correct, except for the fact that he says they occur at night; on the contrary, storks fly during the day because, like all the soaring birds, they make use of rising columns of warm air called "thermals” – which are available only in the hot daytime.
Being a generally silent animal, some ancients created legends that storks didn’t have tongues. Indeed, the only vocal sound adult birds generate is a weak, barely audible hiss, but, in a variety of social interactions, they can also produce a noisy bill-clatter by rapidly opening and closing the beak. Young birds can also generate harsh hisses, various cheeping sounds, and a cat-like mew when begging for food. The Romans considered this clattering as a sign of derision and symbolized it by joining all the fingers of the hand in the form of a stork beak.
The form and the single handle suggest that this jug was used for pouring wine. It is decorated with two stork-like birds facing a large plant in the middle, framed by a garland of ivy leaves around the neck of the jug. Such idyllic scenes with animals and plants are typical of ceramic and metal vessels made during the time of Emperor Augustus. (Public Domain)
Ancient sources give other curious legends about storks. For example, according to Aristotle, when injured in a fight, storks (and other birds) heal their wounds with origanum. This is perhaps the reason why the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Paris has three silver storks as its emblem, each with a sprig of origanum in its beak.
Pliny also writes that a stork's stomach was believed to be a powerful remedy against all poisons (especially with the addition of sheep's milk) and that eating stork chicks was considered a good remedy against conjunctivitis. Aelian says that storks are enemies of bats and seagulls and Juvenal reports about their food: snakes and lizards found in the deserted countryside.
Moreover, Horace suggests that in his time (1st century BC) Romans ate neither turbot nor storks. But when Sempronius Rufus, a political candidate for the trial court, began to judge them as an exquisite taste, storks started to be hunted for food.
That taste did not last long, since things had changed by Pliny’s time, when storks were no longer eaten and were replaced by cranes. Sempronius’ political end we know from a scholar of Horace: rejected by the magistrate's court, he was dedicated an epigram that joked about his failure, considered as the revenge of the popolus ciconiarum - the stork people.
Storks were believed to be strong omens of future events. (Image: Filippo Marmo / ACCA)
Stork Omens and Enemies
Artemidorus Daldianus was a professional diviner in the 2nd century AD. He attributed the dreamlike image of a stork to a negative omen suggesting bad weather, drought, and imminent attacks by enemies and pirates.
Speaking of assaults: Procopius of Caesarea (6th century AD), in his "Vandal Wars", informs that even Attila was helped by a stork during the Sack of Aquileia in 452. Legend tells that just as he was about to retire, a white stork flew from a tower of the walls and left the city with the nestlings on its back. At that sight, convinced that the stork was leaving presaging the destruction of its nest, the superstitious Attila ordered his army to stay and attack the part of the walls left by the stork, which collapsed. Attila was thus able to take possession of the city.
Convinced that the stork was leaving presaging the destruction of its nest, the superstitious Attila ordered his army to stay and attack the part of the walls left by the stork… (Mr.Ilkin /Adobe Stock)
Stork legends depicting them as the deadly enemies of snakes are seen in many stories. Many authors recall how these birds were highly regarded in Thessaly, for example, where killing a stork was equated to murder.
Greek mythology also includes a story about Antigone. She was the daughter of the Trojan king Laomedon and the sister of King Priam. In the myth, Antigone said she had hair that was more beautiful than the goddess Hera’s. This incited Hera to turn the girl’s hair into snakes, but another god took pity on Antigone and then turned her into a stork. This myth was an explanation why storks preyed on snakes.
At the advent of Christianity, these ancient beliefs helped to build the symbology of the stork in the Christianity revelation, when the serpent represented the devil and the stork took over the role of ophiomachos, attacking the snakes in the fight against him. Though the positive Christian/New Testament interpretation of the stork was not present in the Old Testament: Leviticus and Deuteronomy include storks among the birds whose feeding was forbidden and in general in the Bible (especially reading Zechariah) storks do not seem to have such positive values.
Black and white mosaic with stork and snake from the Villa della Pisanella at Boscoreale, third quarter of 1st century AD. (Carole Raddato/CC BY NC SA 4.0)
Storks were Also Positive Symbols
Back to positive symbology: for Egyptians, as well as for Greeks and Romans, storks also represented filial piety, as they believed that storks demonstrated family loyalty by returning to the same nest every year and caring of their parents in old age. That was what Petronius described as pietaticultrix, "cultivator of pietas."
In Rome there was even a law, the lex ciconiaria or alimentaria, or antipelargia, which referred to a previous Greek law dating back to Solon (7th/6th century BC), which required sons and daughters to assist their elderly parents. The stork’s reputation for caring for elderly parents continued into Christianity and the animal was cited as an exemplum in an exhortation to children made by Basil of Caesarea (4th century AD).
More generally, the stork was seen as symbol of pietas, of natural gratitude (άντιπελαργεῖν, antipelargia = to do like the stork = meant to return a benefit) and of fidelitas, because it was thought that storks punished infidelity and could not bear marital betrayal among humans. This belief remained in the collective imagination. Centuries later, in "The Parliament of the Birds", the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer still defined the stork as the "avenger of adultery".
Storks in the ruins of Chellah, ancient Roman ruins in Rabat, Morocco. (Cocoabiscuit/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
The image of a stork as fidelitas was also used by various Roman legions (such as Legio III Italica) and some important families, such as the gens Cecilia, with politically propagandistic purposes.
And storks are also the protagonists of some of the oldest fairy tales in history. For example, they feature in the tales of the Greek Aesop (6th century BC), later taken up by the Roman Phaedrus, in the 1st century BC.
More Stork Legends - Carrying Children and Naming Flowers
Remaining in the world of children, we cannot fail to remember the legend of storks being responsible for bringing babies to new parents. Although this stork legend may be an ancient one stemming from Greece or Egypt (there is some confusion whether the creatures in those myths were storks or cranes or herons), it became popular to many people when Hans Christian Andersen wrote the story called ‘ The Storks’ in the 19th-century. In this fairy tale, families have sleeping babies brought to them by storks who pick up the young ones at ponds or lakes.
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Illustration in Hans Andersen's fairy tales (1913) London: Constable. (Public Domain)
From children to flowers: the Greek term "pelargos", πελαργός, (=stork), gave its name to the scientific name of the Pelargonium, commonly called geranium, due to the similarity of the seed pod with the beak of this bird.
And contrary to what Artemidorus thought centuries before, let’s finish with a positive take on storks: in Lenormand tarot cards, the card number XVII (17), The Stork, is considered a positive card that indicates significant changes, spiritual and existential renewals, loving reconciliations, or pleasant encounters with people from far away or from the past.
What a beautiful wish! So, in this horrible time of coronavirus (this article was written in Italy in March, 2020), good stork wishes are being sent to you all!
With thanks to Filippo Marmo at Associazione Centro Cicogne et Anatidi Italy for some of the images included here.
Top image: The stork has been a bird of legends through the centuries. Source: Serghei Velusceac / Adobe Stock
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