Owls, Elves, and Avian Affinity (essay)
Title: Owls, Elves, and Avian Affinity: A discourse on affinity with avian species and how it manifests itself in the cultural practices of the five Elven Houses.
Author: Rohese Bayvel-Timsh'l
Throughout history and across cultures, owls or Strigiformes, have been regarded with fascination and awe. Few other creatures have engendered so many different and contradictory beliefs about them.
Owls are well known as being solitary and are mostly nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). As such, they have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish. They have been associated with witchcraft and the weather, as well as birth and death. According to superstition, an owl flying past the window of a sick person means imminent death and its screech means that a storm is coming. Raw owl eggs are supposedly a cure for alcoholism or, cooked until they turned to ashes, could be used as a potion to improve eyesight.
Such speculation appears in tales, songs, and poems that have been passed down the generations. One particular children's tale about the wisdom of the owl over other birds prompted this research into whether elves have developed an affinity with certain avian taxon and whether those associations have manifested themselves in cultural practices, fashion, or even dietary preferences.
The Wisdom of the Owl
When the acorn first began to sprout, an owl, in her wisdom, counselled the birds to pull it from the ground and not allow it to grow. It would, she claimed, host the mistletoe from which a poison could be extracted by the Nalfein elves to ensnare them.
The owl, seeing an Ardenai approach, predicted that this elf, being on foot, would contrive darts armed with feathers that would fly faster than the wings of the birds themselves and hunt them from the sky.
The owl then advised them to pluck up the seed of the flax that the Vaalorians had sown in their fields, as it was a plant that brought no good to them.
In desperation, the owl beseeched them to hide their eggs for they were deemed a delicacy by the Illistimi who gathered their ingredients with disregard for their provenance.
The owl finally cautioned them to jam the new-fangled devices made by the Loenthran with twigs or else be caught in their traps.
The birds gave no credence to any of these warnings; they considered the owl to be beside herself and said that she was mad. But, on finding her words to be true, they wondered at her knowledge and deemed her to be the wisest of birds. Hence it is that when she appears, they flock to her as knowing all things; yet she no longer gives them advice, but in solitude laments their past folly.
The Ardenai and the Piciformes
Known for their love of woodlands, the Ardenai have seemingly established a connection with Piciformes, and the woodpecker in particular. They are held in thrall by the mysterious, agile bird that is seldom seen in daylight, yet is master of the shadow: often heard, but hardly ever seen. Like their avian counterparts, the Ardenai highly value the flora and fauna found beneath the leafy canopy; not for bloodsport but more for the pleasure of simply being abroad in their ancestral forests and appreciating nature's bounty.
Largely arboreal, shy birds, woodpeckers subsist mostly on fruit, nuts, seeds, and wood-boring insect larvae. They tend to frequent the uppermost branches of trees, their presence only announced by a loud call or distinctive tapping and drumming sound. It is, in fact, the yaffle of the green woodpecker that is often mimicked by Ardenai hunting parties in wooded areas to signal their position or intentions.
The woodpecker is able to find food hidden under layers of bark and wood and this manifests itself in Ardenai symbolism as the need to dig deeply to find truth and deceptions. Woodpecker energy is therefore associated with prophecy and the ability to see deeper than surface falsehoods. As a totem or spirit animal, the woodpecker stands for self-discovery, opportunity, balance, and resilience. Never one to give up, it sees value in the most hopeless of things and endeavours to make good of it; it goes with the flow of life.
Ardenai elves adopt a naturalistic approach to many aspects of life, including that of divination. They employ a method called Wind-sight, which involves a querent drawing to mind the matter to be resolved and, following a period of careful meditation, releasing natural debris into the air to note the patterns of behaviour. The use of dirt, leaves, and flower petals are most commonly used but adepts of this form of practice prefer to use bird feathers.
In elven folklore, birds are believed to hold knowledge of speaking with all animals. They are the "initiators of air" in opening to realms beyond the physical. The belief is that psychic perceptions – the energy within the mental mana weave - is transformed into spiritual intuition and birds are the epitome of flight between the spiritual and physical being. Wind-sight doctrine claims that in order to be a proficient, elves must learn to use their innate intuitions to ride the currents of life, like that of the woodpecker spirit animal.
The type of feather used or stumbled upon during a Wind-sight foretelling has great significance to the Ardenai diviner who believes that each plume corresponds to mana flow changes and is therefore a message from nature to contemplate. Coming across a woodpecker feather in an unexpected place is deemed to be particularly fortuitous; it is considered to be a gift and one that is meant to inspire. This totem is the power of discovery and determination; it stimulates new rhythms.
The Ardenai also believe that donning a woodpecker feather enables them to communicate with natural forces and dominate them in some way. Some have taken to simply wearing the dappled feathers as earrings or in their hair, usually woven into a braid or tucked behind the ear. Folklore also claims that the woodpecker's drumming will bring on the rain so others opt to wear them attached to their ruhana for protection. Since the feathers are colorful but rarely garish, they make suitably discreet adornments for such a practical garment.
But the woodpecker is not the only bird on the Piciforme order that holds a special place in the Ardenai hearts. Vinification is a popular pastime in the Ta'Ardenai countryside and the wines produced are delicious with inherent earthy or woody undertones and a natural sweetness. A particular favourite is mead, created by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with fruits, spices, or grains. One of the lesser known near-passerine birds in the Piciforme order is the honey bird or honeyguide. Ardenai vintners share a mutualistic relationship with this aptly named honey-coloured bird because of its ability to lead them directly to bee colonies so that it can feast on the grubs and beeswax left behind.
The Illistim Connection with the Galliformes
For over 50,000 years more than 80 Illistim elves have held the Peacock Throne as Argent Mirror. In elven folklore, the peacock is regarded as a guardian to royalty and it is no surprise, therefore, that the prestigious branches of Illistim nobility have a strong affiliation with the Phasianidae family of the order Galliformes. The magnificent bird features on the House crest and is characterized throughout the Shining City's Keep in its glazed windows, fixtures, and soft furnishings; of particular note is the mosaic in the Council Salon ceiling.
With the familiar blue and green peacocks, the male has an impressive train of tail feathers that are coloured a brilliant metallic green. This train is mainly formed of the bird’s upper tail coverts, which are enormously elongated. Each feather is tipped with an iridescent eyespot that is ringed with blue and bronze. In courtship displays, the cock elevates his tail, which lies under the train, thus elevating the train and bringing it forward. At the climax of this display, the tail feathers are vibrated, giving the feathers of the train a shimmering appearance and making a rustling sound.
An elaborate dance performed at formal events beautifully mimics this avian display. Called "The Aewen Lilta," it dates back to the reign of Lilorandrych and the complex instructions have been documented in several books on courtly dances that can be found in private libraries across the City-State. Gowns made from cloth-of-faenor or cloth-of-imflass sell for exorbitant amounts of silver and are coveted for this presentation. The elegant, controlled steps allow the lines of the dancers' bodies and the folds and drape of their metallic gowns to be brilliantly displayed. Since it is a highly stylized, dance-like procession, its steps involve simple, short movements of the feet, the raising and lowering of the body, and gentle sideways sweeping motions. In the final step - the reprise - dancers move backwards, and great care is needed so that the women do not trip on their elaborate feathered trains.
No other culture in Elanthia values knowledge more than the Illistim and, when it comes to symbolism, the peacock is widely represented. The "eyes" in the peacock's tail feathers are alleged to represent the omniscience of the Argent Mirror and – in some interpretations – the Council as a whole. The image of a peacock drinking from a vessel has been used on many artefacts throughout history as a symbol of the Illistimi drinking from the fount of wisdom. The peacock can also symbolise the cosmos if one interprets its tail with its many "eyes" as the vault of the Elanthian firmament dotted by the sun, moons and stars.
White peacock symbolism is another matter. These birds are particularly striking in appearance and are said to denote purity, illumination, and ultimately ascension - it is worth noting that the Argent Mirror is often referred to as "Her Illumination." Its beautiful white tail radiates a soft white glow, the light of which supposedly filters all negativity, and one cannot help to stop and admire the pair that freely roam the Vars and Weys of the Shining City.
The extremely rare golden peacock is a symbol for joy and creativity, with quills1 from the bird's feathers considered to be a metaphor for a writer's inspiration. There are unsubstantiated claims that Tenesi, daughter of Lilorandrych, acquired a breeding pair of golden peacocks in honour of her mother, the so-called Golden Mirror, and this was the catalyst that led to the financial ruin of the government at the end of her reign.
The people within Illistim society who are less high profile – the mercantylers, administrators, and other non-state employees - relate more to other members of the Phasianidae family; that of chicken, turkey, quail, partridges, pheasants, and grouse. The eggs of the smaller birds excel visually with their beautiful pale coloured shells and are considered to be a delicacy. As such, they feature prominently on the dining tables of social-climbing families in an attempt to impress their peers.
The Loenthran Link to the Passeriformes
Songbirds or Passeriformes range in size from tiny kinglets and sunbirds to comparatively large crows. They are mainly land birds that live in a wide variety of situations, from open grassland to forest. The picturesque landscape of Ta'Loenthra with its lush green grass dotted with vineyards and orchards plays host to many avian families of this order. It is largely because of this that the painting or even capturing and caging of actual specimens has become common practice among the nobility who look to not only bring a little of the local beauty into their homes but gain political leverage in the gifting of the same.
With the rebuilding of elven society over the last 10,000 years – following the Undead War - the re-emergence of painting and other forms of artwork 2 has resulted in a resurgence of such transactions. The price of commissioning grand portraits is now beyond the wealth of many Loenthran families so they look to other forms of expression that incorporate the traditional symbolism of their House.
Most passerine birds sing very well. Each is prized in Loenthran society for its particular characteristics and this is evident in how they feature in the Arts, both literary and visual. The trilling nightingale or soft-plumaged thrush top the list of songsters in elven prose and a favourite of poets is the lark. Renowned for their brilliantly coloured plumage, the splendid astrapia, yellow canary, scarlet tanager, crested satinbird, bluebird, and fairy wren are all popular subjects for miniature paintings.
The Hanesyddol Museum in the city proper is a major institution of the fine arts and houses an impressive collection of miniature art, most notably of the aforementioned passerine birds. Each piece is of considerable value in both aesthetic and economic terms. The main aim of the Hanesyddol Miniature Art Society is to ensure that such work is preserved for the benefit of the House but those eager to make their mark in Illistim high society – particularly in association with the Greyvael family - have been known to present courtiers with favoured pieces.
Lissil Yfira, a Loenthran painter of some historical significance, was known for her series of gouache miniatures depicting various Passeriformes. She attested that such birds had been a part of her artistic life since she first learned to hold a paintbrush as a precocious child. A lifetime resident of the port city, she would demand specimens be caught and brought to her for study. It is said that her chambers resonated with the sound of birdsong day and night but they all fell silent on the day she passed beyond the Ebon Gate. Her gems of fine art now change hands for quite breath-taking sums and a few have found their way to the private collections of the Illistim elite.
Some Loenthrans have been known to go as far as presenting favoured citizens – usually those with the ear of the Council of Thrones - with ornamental cages and highly decorative aviaries with equally attractive and vocal occupants. One of the smallest birds on Elanthia, and the smallest of the passerines is the short-tailed pygmy tyrant. Fairly common in the forests and open woodlands of Ta'Loenthra, the tiny bird is uncannily pretty with its olive-green and yellow colouring. It is also particularly vocal, making it the perfect affordable gift for aesthetes in other Houses.
Those with more limited means who cannot dabble in the artworld like to pay homage to the songbird in their own way. Lyrebirds are not only notable for their ability to mimic natural sounds from their environment but also for the striking beauty of the male tailfeathers when fanned out in courtship. Thought to resemble a lyre, it consists of 16 highly modified feathers (2 long slender lyrates at the centre, 2 broader medians on the outside edge and 12 filamenteries arrayed between). Ranging in colour from white, through glossy burnt orange, and black, they make the perfect adornment for the ostentatious hats often seen paraded on the marble-lined streets of the city.
The Nalfein and the Strisores
Strisores is a clade of birds that include diurnal aerial specialists such as swifts and hummingbirds (Apodiformes), as well as several predominantly nocturnal lineages such as nightjars and nighthawks (Caprimulgiformes). This dichotomy of day and night is the perfect avian representation of the Nalfein with their complex interplay of extrinsic beauty with intrinsic cruelty. Despite the reputation of their accommodating and talented couturiers, many consider the Nalfein to be ruthless, especially within their politics, because they will let practically nothing stand between themselves and what they want.
The port city of Ta'Nalfein is the most southerly of the Elven City-States. With the diversity of its terrain and climate, the vast expanse of surrounding land claimed by the House is home to the majority of Elanith’s hummingbirds. These tiny pugnacious little birds have highly reflective feathers that can display an intense, metallic spectral colour when they catch the sunlight.
As a taxonomic relative, swifts have a range of habitats from meadows, open water and woods, to the skies above the city and outlying villages. They are amongst the fastest of birds and have a distinctive shape, with a short, forked tail and very long swept-back wings that resemble a crescent. Both birds are able to stroke with power on the down- and up-beat of a wing flap. Their power and small size allow tremendous agility in flight with some characterised by a distinctive "flicking" action.
Many of these avian features are replicated in the fans popular among Nalfein ladies in the higher social circles. Fan blades are often constructed of iridescent metals to mimic the spectacular display of the hummingbird gorget – the most sought-after of which is alexandrite with its vitreous lustre. Much of the choreography of the traditional Nalfein Fan-Dance is said to symbolise the aerial acrobatics of their Apodiform associates with its precision catching and tossing, sweeping crescentic arm movements, and percussive punctuations. A lady who can competently wield the Nalfein fan makes it look effortless and perfectly poised, just like the hummingbird who appears to almost levitate - hovering in mid-air, practically motionless except for their blur of wings beating more than 40 times per second.
In contrast to the dazzling daytime displays of the Apodiformes, the Caprimulgiform are mostly twilight or night-flying birds and many produce sounds that are startling, strange, or weirdly beautiful. The calls are surrounded by an aura of mystery richly endowed to elicit interest and sometimes fear. They resemble owls in many ways, being primarily crepuscular, but can often be seen abroad when there is sufficient illumination such as moonlight.
Nighthawks are more or less solitary. Their soft plumage is cryptically coloured to resemble bark or leaves. Some species perch facing along a branch, rather than across it as birds usually do, which helps to conceal them during the day. This gives credence to some of the unsubstantiated references found in socio-political propaganda to a secret order of Nalfein called the Nighthawks who specialise in intelligence gathering and spreading of disinformation.
Vaalorians and Birds of Prey
Birds of prey include species that primarily hunt and feed on vertebrates (like mice, voles and other birds.) They have keen eyesight for detecting food at a distance or during flight, strong feet equipped with talons for grasping or killing prey, and powerful, curved beaks for tearing flesh. Known as the finest warriors of the elven race, it is little wonder that House Vaalor have been associated with these precision killers of the sky, the diurnal raptors within the Falconiformes and Accipitriformes orders of birds.
Hawks, kites, falcons and kestrels are primarily woodland birds that hunt by sudden dashes from a concealed perch, with long tails, broad wings and high visual acuity facilitating such manoeuvrability. Most raptor species look relatively dull, with shades of brown, grey, and buff dominating the plumage and paler underparts, which make them less visible from below. One exception is the red kite - a medium-large bird of prey with angled, crimson wings that are tipped with black and a long, reddish-brown, forked tail.
The red kite symbolises visionary power and clear sight with strong observational habits and patience. It embodies the art of mobility and finesse to reach goals in both the spiritual and physical world and has associations to the undead, due in part to its preference for eating carrion rather than catch live prey. This has led to a symbolic connection being made to the Crimson Legion's defeat of the undead hordes at the Battle of Maelshyve.
Magnificently graceful in flight, it is also a popular choice among Vaalorians who participate in falconry/hawking - the capturing of quarry using trained birds of prey – and the intense relationship between falconer/hawker and bird is mysteriously strong. One of the first documented elven falconers was Thaedhal Vaalor, who allegedly watched a wild falcon take a passing bird. He was so captivated by the grace and beauty of the bird that he ordered it to be caught and learnt a great many lessons from it. Falconry is a pastime well-suited to the Vaalor; considered to be both a sport and an art, yet serving the practical purpose of procuring food, it seems appropriate and socially relevant for a House known for its strictures.
There is nothing more elegant or efficient, however, than a hawk in flight or a Vaalorian muster and this applies on both the battlefield and the dance floor. As the daughter of Sinlycha Vaalor, there were calls for Lahrair, The Child Argent, to serve in the Crimson Legion. The Council of Thrones dismissed this as an absurdity, so Lahrair sent her own legion to serve in her place. While still part of the Vaalor army, it was a separate unit, and would eventually evolve into the Sabrar. As a mark of respect for this long-standing military connection, the Vaalor have developed an adaptation to the Illistim "Aewen Lilta" that involves a call and a response. This sequential choreographic form - in which one dancer performs a phrase while another responds by imitating the same phrase or performing a related one - is referred to as the "ostentation" and the "muster," following the accepted nomenclature for a group of peacocks.
In stark contrast to the majestic Illistim promenade, the hawkish display of the "Aewen Ohta" is made up of a series of smooth darting movements and swift directional changes within circular, wheeling motions. An observer could almost accuse them of being predatory on the dance floor. The dancers predominantly wear neutral colours but they are bedecked with flamboyant feathered epaulettes, which often extend down to the elbow and sometimes even to the wrist. These accessories lend a certain amount of rigidity to their arm movements, which is probably why the elaborate display is considered by some to be overtly aggressive.
Many conclusions can be drawn from observing elven interactions with birds and while some of the associations are self-evident, others are more subtle and undefined. The intention of this discourse is to encourage further discussion and it should be made clear that the interpretations presented within are solely those of the author.
1 The representation of such a quill rests on the open page of a cast bronze book outside of the Library Aies on the Errisian Var with the inscription, "May our Work Never Be Finished."
2 Reference: Time on Their Hands: The Evolution of Elven Art