I thought that any look at the air in relation to folklore had to include creatures that fly, and as I’ve already covered dragons pretty extensively in other posts I wanted to look at birds, which it seems to me are a good subject for study in any context, but here are three examples that struck me:
In folklore the wren is often characterised as female (“Jenny Wren”), wife to the robin. In Latin it is called regulus, or “little king”. Harming or killing a wren is said to bring misfortune – in Scotland, killing one was meant to make your cows give bloody milk, and in France if you robbed a wrens’ nest your house could burn down, or your fingers rot off as your punishment. However, for one day in the year – usually St Stephen’s Day (26th December) – there was once a custom called Hunting the Wren, found in Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and some parts of England, which saw groups of boys (the Wren Boys of Christmas) use poles and cudgels to catch and kill one of the birds. The unfortunate creature was then laid on a tiny bier, and with it the boys would visit every house in the village, and be given ale in exchange for a feather plucked from the bird’s breast. It would then be solemnly laid in a specially dug grave. There are many different explanations of this ritual, some connected to Christianity – that the wren’s fluting song betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, or even St Stephen himself as he tried to escape his jailers. But it is likely that this most sacred of birds, haunter of hedgerows and dark places, has been ritually sacrificed since pre-Christian times, so it might bring people good fortune for the coming year.
The screech of a barn owl is an eerie sound, and it’s perhaps no wonder that traditionally it is said to presage death – likewise, if you see one during the day, or one knocks against your window, it is an ominous sign.
Again, there’s a Christian connection – the apocryphal story of Jesus begging a baker’s wife for bread. When she was about to bake him a good-sized loaf, her daughter snatched most of it away, deeming it too large for a mere beggar – but the dough swelled up suddenly, and in her surprise the daughter turned into an owl.
Like the wren, the robin is held sacred – it was once said to have had a white breast, turned red by Christ’s blood from the cross (various versions account for how this happened – that the robin was taking water in its beak to relieve Christ’s suffering, or that it was trying to pluck a thorn from the crown of thorns; another story is that it was singed while carrying water to souls in Purgatory).
To injure a robin, or steal its eggs, therefore brings misfortune, as it would for a wren – but as is often the case, there are counter-traditions that hold that the robin is a bird of ill omen, and there are accounts of people throwing away Christmas cards with pictures of robins on them for this very reason.
The link with death is more general that just the crucifixion, too – if they came across a dead body, robins were supposed to cover its face with leaves and twigs, out of charity and respect.