Birds of Omen

‘Birds of omen dark and foul,

Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,

Leave the sick man to his dream –

All night long he heard your scream’

from an Ancient Gaelic Melody by Sir Walter Scott

As early man was fearful of the night it is not surprising that ancient stories depict the owl as a harbinger of death, and a bird of ill omen.

There are so many stories and superstitions about the owl from different cultures around the world, too many to write here, but here’s a few I found interesting during my research.

In Greek mythology  the underworld spirit Ascalaphus, reports Persephone for eating pomegranate seeds. Dementer punishes him for telling tales and buries him under a rock. However Persephone takes pity on Ascalaphus by releasing him and transforming him into a screech owl (barn owl).

According to the Roman poet Ovid, Ascalaphus became ‘a loathsome bird, ill omen for mankind, a skulking screech-owl, sorrow’s harbinger.’

In ancient Rome and later throughout the Medieval age it was believed that witches would turn themselves into owls and suck the blood of babies and malevolent  spells were made with owl feathers and eggs.

The Romans gave ‘auguries’ by listening to birds and ‘auspices’ by watching the direction of their flight, as a form of fortune telling.  The owl was always an ill omen. If they heard one or saw one close to their home they would nail a dead owl to the door. By accepting the evil in this way they hoped it would  stop any more bad luck that might befall them.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses he tells us about a girl called Nyctymene who was seduced by her father. Out of shame she fled to the forest refusing to show her face in daylight. Taking pity on her the goddess Minerva transformed her into an owl which, as we will see, in later Greek mythology, becomes the symbol of the goddess.

In the Celtic story of Mabinogian, the tribal chief Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘ mother places a curse on him where he will never have a wife. So the magicians Math and Gwydion make a spell to counter the curse. With flowers from the oak, broom and meadowsweet they make a beautiful wife for him and name her Blodeuwedd (Flowerface) . However she has an affair with Gronw Pebr , lord of Penlynn and together they conspire to murder Lleu. Lleu escapes by becoming an eagle and chases Blodeuwedd and her lover into a lake where they are drowned. There Gwydion turns her into an owl, the most hated of birds, so that forever she will be attacked by the other birds.

In other cultures they are seen as a spirit guide to fly the dead to the after-life. Native American tribes would place an owl feather in the hand of the dying person to help them to make a safe journey to the other side. In China during the Shang dynasty (1500 – 1045 BC) owl figures were placed in graves for the same reason.

Ollie the barn owl

(stained glass, marble, ceramic tile, copper wire on cement structure)

Athene Noctua

In contrast to the Roman hatred of owls, the Greeks came to revere them. Athene Noctua, the little owl, was associated with the Greek goddess Athene (Roman Minerva). She had an owl as a companion and guardian, which we see in depicted in ancient Greek art works and coins . Due to this the owl became a symbol of protection and wisdom and even today in Athens there are little owl trinkets and model sculptures you can buy for good luck, prosperity and to remind you of beautiful Athens!

little bronze guardian owl from Athens

Due to the Roman beliefs and superstitions the owl had a bad image in England. Later this was further exasperated  by Shakespeare’s writings such as…

‘It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night.’ (Lady Macbeth in Macbeth)

The owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign’ (King Henry in King Henry 1V)

In the Victorian era they were killed in their hundreds, shot for their feathers for fashionable hats or by farmers who believed they were eating their chicks . This led to a sharp decline in numbers which still hasn’t fully recovered, and today pesticides and loss of habitat due to farming and housing hasn’t helped either.

Right now I think we should be inspired by Athen’s many years of owl veneration!

Hail the owl!

Athene Noctua (Little Owl)

(ceramic and glass tile, marble, pearl shell rounds, milliefiori, copper wire on cement structure)

Available to purchase at The Erwood Station Gallery, Builth Wells, Wales.

I love this poem by Aaryan Deshpande who describes the Little Owl in a much more positive light …

‘Oh nocturnal owl,
The prettiest of all the fowls.
At sunset your eyes’ iridescency,
And as you’re lunar wings expand,
In the dark you shimmer brightly;
As there is no sound by the wings you fan.
Large eyes, body brown,
Dressed in a spotted gown;
Your tufts like the moon crescent,
Your holy appearance as wisdom is my present;
Warrior of light, advisor of the moon,
Annihilating demonic snakes,
As I see you will leave soon.
Whatever the world says about you is fake;
Because you are a nocturnal owl,
The prettiest of all the fowls.

Messenger of Athena, Vaahan of Laxmi,
Your beauty is felt close by me;
Because you are a nocturnal owl,
The wisest of all the fowls.’

Aaryann Deshpande 2013

 

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All That We Did To Them Until There Were None

All That We Did To Them Until There Were None
(gilded and painted plastic animals, smalti, gold leaf glass, hand gilded glass, glass marbles and nuggets, lead smelts, fossils, agate, glass tile, fools gold, Boris Anrep’s gold lipped oyster shell)

An apocalyptic vision in response to the environmental problems that are tipping our fragile eco-system.

Three Golden birds, Two Nordic Snow Birds and a Brave Robin Redbreast

I’ve made some new birds inspired by winter just for you!

 

 

Nordic Snow Birds

 

The Brave Robin

There are several different stories about how the robin got his redbreast. I particularly like an Irish folk tale I found which I’ll attempt to retell…
It was a harsh and very cold winter and a boy and his father were out in the forest collecting wood for their home fire. It was getting dark and they still had many miles to go before they were home so the father made a fire to keep them warm for the night and warn away any hungry wolves.  As they sat warming their hands and trying to get comfortable, father found he was finding it hard to stay awake so he told his son to keep the fire going while he had a nap. His son agreed and kept a nice fire going until he too found himself beginning to nod off. Before he could wake his father to take his turn and  look after the fire, he had fallen fast asleep. It wasn’t long before the fire began to dwindle, getting lower and lower. Meanwhile a wolf was waiting for the right moment…
Whilst this was happening a robin watched from a nearby tree and flew over to the fire. To stop the fire from going out and keep the wolf at bay, he fanned the embers with his wings, keeping the flames high. As the hot flames licked his chest he didn’t fly off but bravely continued fanning the flames until it was safe and the wolf had gone away.

Brave Robin

As with my other birds (Starlings, Kingfishers and Doves) these birds have a three dimensional front wing and body…

The front wing shown here is made with my special hand gilded metal leaf glass, as too are the golden birds and the Snow Birds also have a good sprinkling of the irresistible golden glass mixed in with those pretty iridescent tiles.

So what are you waiting for…they are the perfect gift for you or your friend!

You can see more pictures and buy these new pieces by flying over to OddLittleFlock .

Whilst you are there you will see I am offering 20% off angels and fairies and free shipping on selected collections.

Fly quickly now….

🙂

 

 

Bones of Saints

Yes, Yes, I know it is one of the songs on Robert Plant’s new album “Carry Fire” ! However, this time it was synchronicity, I had already made these by the time I heard of his new song! If you don’t understand this connection I have with Robert Plant then check out my last post!

These are some of the other exhibits I have at the exhibition Traces Revealed at Glastonbury Abbey.

Bones of Saints

One of the bones is gilded, and edges are gilded and they are all painted with glow in the dark paint. In the dark they come alive as you see here!

Kilner jars seemed like a perfect modern reliquary container! They are gilded and decorated with jewels, string and liquid leaf.

Here are some more of my exhibits from the exhibition…

It had to be done … not that I’m a Saint or anything!

Artist’s Reliquary box

 

Oh yes he wuz!

🙂

 Traces Revealed continues until January 28th 2018.

 

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The Robert Plant Guardian Bird of Relics

And so to the final one of the six birds! It’s Robert Plant, our wonderful living rock legend!

I thought it would be nice to have someone who is still alive as inspiration for a guardian bird. I chose Mr. Plant because of his connections with Glastonbury and the Abbey itself. In 2014 for the first time after many years of worshipping him as front man of Led Zeppelin I got to see him play live at Glastonbury Abbey with his new band the ‘Sensational Space Shifters’. I went with my partner and our two youngest (teenagers) . It was a fantastic concert, I love the mix of old and new songs, blending world music musicians and sounds  into the old Led Zepp rock songs such as ‘Whole Lotta Love’

But his most iconic song that seemed to fit the ‘religious theme’ was of course the much played and over played Stairway to Heaven. Coming from a family of rock music lovers, I found my younger teenage years progressed into punk (or was that regressed?) and then back to rock. (I won’t tell you about my crush on David Essex when I was 10, luckily Sting came along at just the right time to save me from embarrassment with my friends! Shh! Did I really just tell you that?)

The Four Symbols or Led Zeppelin 1V as it’s more commonly known (the album with the song Stairway to Heaven) was played frequently in my house and various tracks were played in the pub where I would spend my evenings after college. But the first time I really sat down and listened to the whole album was when I was 18.  It was a night after the pub with a friend of a friend who offered to put me up on his sofa to save me from a very long walk home in the dark. I had a tendency to listen to music but not the words in those days, so as we listened he handed me a bit of paper which had the words to the song written down. That piece of paper was a magical script , it was as if each word was made of gold and silver, I had treasure in my pocket and  I could also sing along!

The Robert Plant Guardian bird (cement structure, stained glass, hand gilded metal leaf glass, shell rounds, glass beads, hand painted eyes, wire)

The feather on the heart of the bird is Robert Plant’s symbol on the Four Symbols album. Each member of the band had a symbol, the feather was designed by Mr. Plant being based on the feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness that came from the mythical lost Continent of Mu.

 

Stairway to Heaven song relic snow globe

I made the stairway with marble cubes and gilded them in gold and metal leaf.

Here’s the bird in the exhibition…

I think I just made you a Saint, oh Mr. Robert Plant!

😉

 Traces Revealed continues until January 28th 2018.

UPDATE: Now available to buy on my shop: rattraymosaics.co.uk/shop/birds/double-headed-eagles/

 

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Saint Dunstan Guardian Bird of Relics

The penultimate guardian bird of relics made for  the Traces Revealed exhibition at Glastonbury Abbey.

Born in Baltonsborough near Glastonbury, Saint Dunstan was guided by the Irish monks in the 10th Century A.D at Glastonbury Abbey. Later he became abbot of the Abbey. When he was canonised after his death, his patronage included metalsmiths, goldsmiths, silversmiths, musicians and locksmiths. He was very talented in the arts including illumination and writing. It’s possible he might have built the glass kiln that was discovered in archaeological digs at the abbey.

But my favourite story has to be about his struggle with evil. After being accused of witchcraft and thrown into a cesspit he travelled to Winchester where he contracted leprosy. After he recovered he returned to Glastonbury abbey and built himself a small cell. It was here that the devil tried to tempt him so with his blacksmith tongs he took off the devils nose and kept it in a cage!

I have a strange little story too. I had made the devils nose and it was sitting behind me in a cage whilst I was making the Saint Dunstan guardian bird …

I could hear a rustling noise and a sort of scratching sound. I thought it was probably a mouse until I had a real shock when I turned around. The devils nose was shaking and it appeared to be moving, like it was crawling slowly out of the cage! I noticed the door of the cage was open so I was very brave at this point and I quickly grabbed the cage and shut the little door. Later when I had calmed down I opened the little door, grabbed the nose, shouted at it and then smeared it with silicone and stuck it to the inside of the cage in the hope it would stay still! If you look at the last post you can see the finished bird with the nose in the cage. In the exhibition the door is open so you can see the nose …but I hope the staff remember to close the little door at night!

Saint Dunstan Guardian bird of relics (cement structure, stained glass, hand gilded copper leaf glass, van gogh glass, shell rounds, hand painted eyes)

Here we go … hope you are ready for this … a quick glimpse of non such more repulsive as the devils nose!!

Yuck! Want a closer look?

the devils nose (copper gilded and distressed fimo clay, wire nose hairs, glass boils!)

 

You can see this one plus the guardian birds of relics of 2 other saints, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere birds and a living rock legend guardian bird, plus other pieces of work at Glastonbury Abbey’s exhibition Traces Revealed which continues until January 28th 2018.

🙂

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St.Brigid Guardian Bird of Relics

It is said that the Irish Saint Brigid (of Kildare) visited Beckery chapel just outside Glastonbury in the 5th Century AD. Although the chapel is no longer there I went to find the hill (Brides mound) where it once was. I wish I had been in on the recent excavations where they re-found seven skeletons for carbon dating. (Excavations during the 1960’s uncovered a cemetery of at least 50 skeletons believed to be monks who used the chapel) It might have been easier to find if I had gone with the archaeologists!

Me and my partner spent several hours trying to find the hill, it didn’t seem to be where google maps said it was. We had to resort to books in the library and finally after a good walk along the river we found it!

The hill was quite unremarkable and there was no evidence of recent excavations, they did a good job of covering it all up again.

But it has a good view of one of the old tannery buildings and the Tor in the distance!

 

Offerings on the mound.

Saint Brigid is venerated in Glastonbury as the original Celtic goddess who holds the eternal flame as midwife and earth mother. In the town there is the Saint Brigid healing centre and just under the Tor there is a shrine at the White Spring .

On the walls of St. Patrick’s Chapel at the Abbey, murals painted by Fleur Kelly depict the saints in a style appropriate to early 16th Century. This is Saint Brigid depicted with a cow. She is patron saint of many things including milk maids!

Saint Brigid by Fleur Kelly

To return to the story, when Saint Brigid left Beckery Chapel legend has it that she left some of her belongings behind; a bell, some jewellery and her bag. (I don’t know why she would leave her bag behind, perhaps she in a hurry or maybe she never returned to Kildare and died at Beckery)

I chose to make her bag for the Guardian bird’s relic. I used cement and mesh and gilded it in silver leaf, then stained it with tea and rust to make it look old. I hung plastic cows on the bottom as a nod to her patronage whilst referring to the modern plastic collectible world our kids live in. The cows were black and white Friesians but I painted them badly in white with red horns, the colours associated with her cow.

Saint Brigid’s bag with kitsch overtones

Saint Brigid Guardian bird (stained glass, hand-gilded glass, hand painted eyes, metal buttons, shell rounds)

The heart bears the Saint Brigid cross which was a Celtic symbol associated with Brigid. It was originally made of straw, symbolised the sun and was hung above people’s doors to warn off evil.

This is the fourth Guardian bird in the series, please refer to the last posts to read about the others!

You can see this one plus the guardian birds of relics of 2 other saints, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere birds and a living rock legend guardian bird, plus other pieces of work at Glastonbury Abbey’s exhibition Traces Revealed which continues until January 28th 2018.

🙂

UPDATE: Now available to buy on my shop: rattraymosaics.co.uk/shop/birds/double-headed-eagles/

 

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