Birds have always been potent symbols in world religions, especially in Christianity. The dove has been the sign of peace since Noah’s ark, as well as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Up to Victorian times, people believed it that was the only bird the devil could not turn into.
The mythical phoenix represents resurrection. Folk legend has it that it was the only bird that refused to eat from the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden. As a result it remained immortal. Every five hundred years it built a funeral pyre of perfumed woods and set itself a light. An egg materialised in the ashes, from which a rejuvenated phoenix hatched. To the early Christians, the pelican symbolised Christ on the cross, because it was believed to shed its own blood to feed its young.
Two more birds are associated with Good Friday and Holy Week. The first one is the robin. A pan-European legend tells that when God was handing out colours to the birds, the robin was the last in the queue. God ran out of paint by the time he got to him and he remained colourless. The luckless fellow became a pariah among his fellow birds, haunting places where no one else would build his nest to hide his shame. One of these forsaken places was Golgotha, a hill outside Jerusalem where the Romans crucified Jewish criminals. The robin happened to be flitting around, looking for twigs to build a nest, when Jesus’ cross was erected. The bird had pity on him and, wanting to help alleviate his pain, pulled a thorn out of Jesus’ head with his beak. Blood splashed on to his chest, staining it a bright red. Ever since then, robins have had red breasts, to show that one of the ancestors helped Jesus in his hour of need.
A second legend comes from Scandinavia and features the swallow. It is said that a lot of birds were flying over Jerusalem on the day that Christ was condemned to die on the cross. Sensing a storm gathering overhead, the birds fled to the nearby desert. But the swallow remained behind. When Jesus was crucified, it flew in circles above the cross, chirping, ‘Svale, Svale,’ which means ‘cheer up, cheer up.’
The swallow’s association with Good Friday and Easter was recognised beyond Scandinavian shores. In early Christian times people had no idea that swallows migrated. They believed that the bird hibernated in the mudbanks where it built its nest, emerging from its hidey-hole at the end of winter. This apparent Spring ‘rebirth’ was seen as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, and has survived the revelation of the swallow’s migratory habits.