The Bird that ruled over an ancient civilisation

This Egyptian falcon may have worn red 'trousers' but that wasn't where its royal characteristics stopped. . .
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Falcon box with wrapped feathers, 332–30 BC. Painted and gilded wood, linen, resin and feathers, 58.5 × 24.9 × 33.3 cm / 23 × 9 ¾ × 13 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Falcon box with wrapped feathers, 332–30 BC. Painted and gilded wood, linen, resin and feathers, 58.5 × 24.9 × 33.3 cm / 23 × 9 ¾ × 13 in, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

What do birds mean to us? They may serve as morning wake-up calls, an evening meal, or an indication of the changing seasons, however our new book, Bird: Exploring the Winged World, demonstrates just how widely bird imagery has been employed by mankind.

As the book notes, birds appear in cave paintings during the paleolithic era, and continue to recur throughout the course of human history, in paintings, sculptures, cartoons, TV shows and digital endeavours, right up until the present day.

Bird features works by well-known artists such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Édouard Manet and Frida Kahlo, yet there are a great many more lesser-known avian depictions, created for a wide range of purposes. In this book, birds rally a warring nation, spread a message of peace, decorate a fashion magazine, encourage cigarette consumption, charm royalty, and herald the arrival of men on the moon.

This ancient Egyptian depiction of a falcon may not have reached the heights of the lunar landings, but, in its own way it did grip the popular imagination of its day, as our book explains.

“Carved in ancient Egypt, a falcon guards a painted and gilded box that contains not the mummy of a bird, as might be expected, but a linen-wrapped bundle of what X-rays reveal to be feathers,” reads the text in Bird. “The falcon was the most common depiction of the Egyptian god Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris who was born after his mother retrieved the dismembered body parts of his murdered father. Using her magic powers, Isis resurrected her husband and was impregnated, giving birth in the marshes of the Nile delta.

 

Bird: Exploring the Winged World

 

“The living pharaoh had among his titles a royal ‘Horus name’, and the falcon came to symbolize divine kingship in Egypt,” Bird goes on to explain. “The bird was later associated with the sun god Re and with Montu, god of war, in addition to Horus. Falcon representations are consistent throughout ancient Egyptian history, usually shown in an upright stance with wings folded, but they are ornithologically unrealistic and seem to combine characteristics of several types of birds found in the region.

The reddish ‘trousers’, in combination with the distinctive facial markings and streaked underparts of this depiction indicate that it represents a Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo), which may have passed through Egypt on its annual migration between Africa and Europe. Like other animals, the falcon was the object of mummification and votive offerings, though sometimes a mummy contained no actual bird, just as the feathers in this elaborate box presumably served as a symbolic substitute for the creature itself.”

For more equally impressive flights of fancy, order a copy of Bird: Exploring the Winged World here


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