The annual Halloween season has a way of letting the weird, the unexplained, and the downright scary rule for a time. Both my kids have seen the latest spooky movie - "Paranormal Activity." Our culture has a way of cultivating a certain uneasiness this time of year, at least the retailers do. I think it has something to do with sales. Being freaked out, it seems, is worth paying for.
There is more value inherent in those things we call legends and myths beyond money. They serve as a form of entertainment and can be a rich source of ideas. But more importantly perhaps, they give us some idea of how earlier peoples wrestled with and tried to explain what was then unexplainable. Before science there was myth and virtually every early culture was ripe with it. From how the earth was formed, to why grain went bad, to what eclipses were; it all begged for clarity. And legend provided it in each culture.
Universal themes, such as good and evil, prevailed too. When good things happened, such as a bountiful harvest or the birth of a healthy newborn, a benevolent being of some sort must have been responsible. But when bad things happened, like crop failure or a loss in battle, well, that was the purview of malevolent creatures we don't even want to think about.
Not to be left out of the mix, birds have been historically prominent in world lore, or at least bird-like creatures. One of the more well known among these is the phoenix, a colorful and immortal creature said to burn up every 500 years and be reborn from its own ashes according to Phoenician legend. The griffin is another prominent player among the cast of legendary beasts. It's the half lion, half eagle beast which is usually depicted as being quite powerful and majestic and often guarding some sort of treasure.
On the darker side there were things like harpies, thanks to Greek mythology. These pesky winged spirits would always arrive just as King Phineas was about to eat, then steal his food. From ancient Persia came the huge legendary bird known to all doers of crossword puzzles, the roc. It was so large it was said to carry off then dine on elephants.
Even we fairly modern people retain remnants of such beliefs. Through the ages we became less and less dependent upon mythical creatures for our explanations and began instead to attribute unearthly abilities to known beasts.
For some reason, births and deaths are areas ripe with such lore. Storks, for reasons I cannot fathom, are associated with the birth of our children. Death brings the less desirable birds to the show. Vultures and other carrion eaters are often connected with disasters or wars. This may be due to the presence of such birds on the ancient battlefields which gathered to feed on the dead combatants.
In today's so-called enlightened world, there is really very little to fear from the birds of the world with one possible exception: The cassowary. Of the three species of cassowary left in the world, all are of the genus Casuarius and of tropical origin. At one time the Guinness Book of World Records called the cassowary the world's most dangerous bird, capable of delivering bone-breaking kicks or fatal blows with sharp claws. It was said a number of soldiers died in WWII after not heeding the warning about the cassowary in New Guinea. Did they? Some sources dispute the body count and attribute only one known death ever to the bird. See how hard it is to winnow truth from fiction?
The real risks associated with birds today are sort of yawners and I can really only think of two. One is the involvement with diseases like West Nile Virus and bird flu. The other is aircraft collisions, a low level but persistent threat to worldwide aviation.
Missing from both are dripping fangs, spewing blood, or sweat-inducing specters. It seems Hollywood and book publishers will have to generate fantastical stories of winged beasts because the real ones are rather boring and not worthy of a Halloween mention.