Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 224

Weary am I with love, with love,
Oh, whither shall I go?[487]

Pigeons, as indicated, are in Egypt still regarded as sacred birds, and a few years ago British soldiers created a riot by shooting them. Doves were connected with the ancient Greek oracle at Dodona. In many countries the dove is closely associated with love, and also symbolizes innocence, gentleness, and holiness.

The pigeon was anciently, it would appear, a sacred bird in these islands, and Brand has recorded curious folk beliefs connected with it. In some districts the idea prevailed that no person could die on a bed which contained pigeon feathers: "If anybody be sick and lye a dying, if they lye upon pigeon feathers they will be languishing and never die, but be in pain and torment," wrote a correspondent. A similar superstition about the feathers of different varieties of wild fowl[488] obtained in other districts. Brand traced this interesting traditional belief in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, and some of the Welsh and Irish counties.[489] It still lingers in parts of the Scottish Highlands. In the old ballad of "The Bloody Gardener" the white dove appears to a young man as the soul of his lady love who was murdered by his mother. He first saw the bird perched on his breast and then "sitting on a myrtle tree".[490]

The dove was not only a symbol of Semiramis, but also of her mother Derceto, the Phoenician fish goddess. The connection between bird and fish may have been given an astral significance. In "Poor Robin's Almanack" for 1757 a St. Valentine rhyme begins:--

This month bright Phoebus enters Pisces,
The maids will have good store of kisses,
For always when the sun comes there,
Valentine's day is drawing near,
And both the men and maids incline
To choose them each a Valentine.

As we have seen, the example was set by the mating birds. The "Almanack" poet no doubt versified an old astrological belief: when the spring sun entered the sign of the Fishes, the love goddess in bird form returned to earth.

Advocates of the Totemic theory, on the other hand, may hold that the association of doves with snake goddesses and fish goddesses of fertility was due to the fusion of tribes who had various animal totems. "The Pelew Islanders believed", says Professor Frazer, "that the souls of their forefathers lived in certain species of animals, which accordingly they held sacred and would not injure. For this reason one man would not kill snakes, another would not harm pigeons, and so on; but everyone was quite ready to kill and eat the sacred animals of his neighbours."[491] That the Egyptians had similar customs is suggested by what Herodotus tells us regarding their sacred animals: "Those who live near Thebes and the lake Moeris hold the crocodile in religious veneration.... Those who live in or near Elephantine, so far from considering these beasts as sacred, make them an article of food.... The hippopotamus is esteemed sacred in the district of Papremis, but in no other part of Egypt.... They roast and boil ... birds and fishes ... excepting those which are preserved for sacred purposes."[492] Totemic animals controlled the destinies of tribes and families. "Grose tells us", says Brand, "that, besides general notices of death, many families have particular warnings or notices: some by the appearance of a bird, and others by the figure of a tall woman, dressed all in white.... Pennant says that many of the great families in Scotland had their demon or genius, who gave them monitions of future events."[493] Members of tribes which venerated the pigeon therefore invoked it like the Egyptian love poet and drew omens from its notes, or saw one appearing as the soul of the dead like the lover in the ballad of "The Bloody Gardener". They refrained also from killing the pigeon except sacrificially, and suffered agonies on a deathbed which contained pigeon feathers, the "taboo" having been broken.