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Birds And Beasts


Source: Welsh Folk-lore

Folk-lore respecting animals is common in Wales. It has been supposed
that mountainous countries are the cradles of superstitions. But this
is, at least, open to a doubt; for most places perpetuate these strange
fancies, and many of them have reached our days from times of old, and
the exact country whence they came is uncertain. Still, it cannot be
denied that rugged, rocky, sparsely inhabited uplands, moorlands, and
fens, are congenial abodes for wild fancies, that have their foundation
in ignorance, and are perpetuated by the credulity of an imaginative
people that lead isolated and solitary lives.

The bleating of the sheep, as they wander over a large expanse of barren
mountain land, is dismal indeed, and well might become ominous of storms
and disasters. The big fat sheep, which are penned in the lowlands of
England, with a tinkling bell strapped to the neck of the king of the
flock, convey a notion of peace and plenty to the mind of the spectator,
that the shy active mountain sheep, with their angry grunt and stamping
of their feet never convey. Still, these latter are endowed with an
instinct which the English mutton-producer does not exercise. Welsh
sheep become infallible prognosticators of a change of weather; for, by a
never failing instinct, they leave the high and bare mountain ridges for
sheltered nooks, and crowd together when they detect the approach of a
storm. Man does not observe atmospheric changes as quickly as sheep do,
and as sheep evidently possess one instinct which is strongly developed
and exercised, it is not unreasonable to suppose that man in a low state
of civilisation might credit animals with possessing powers which, if
observed, indicate or foretell other events beside storms.

Thus the lowly piping of the solitary curlew, the saucy burr of the
grouse, the screech of the owl, the croaking of the raven, the flight of
the magpie, the slowly flying heron, the noisy cock, the hungry seagull,
the shrill note of the woodpecker, the sportive duck, all become omens.

Bird omens have descended to us from remote antiquity. Rome is credited
with having received its pseudo-science of omens from Etruria, but whence
came it there? This semi-religious faith, like a river that has its
source in a far distant, unexplored mountain region, and meanders through
many countries, and does not exclusively belong to any one of the lands
through which it wanders; so neither does it seem that these credulities
belong to any one people or age; and it is difficult, if not impossible,
to trace to their origin, omens, divination, magic, witchcraft, and other
such cognate matters, which seem to belong to man's nature.

Readers of Livy remember how Romulus and Remus had recourse to bird omens
to determine which of the brothers should build Rome. Remus saw six
vultures, and Romulus twelve; therefore, as his number was the greater,
to him fell the honour of building the famous city.

But this was not the only bird test known to the Romans. Before a battle
those people consulted their game fowl to ascertain whether or not
victory was about to attend their arms. If the birds picked up briskly
the food thrown to them victory was theirs, if they did so sluggishly the
omen was unpropitious, and consequently the battle was delayed.

Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, gives us many proofs of that great
general's credulity. The historian says:--Upon his (Alexander's)
approach to the walls (of Babylon) he saw a great number of crows
fighting, some of which fell down dead at his feet. This was a bad
sign. But I will not pursue the subject. Enough has been said to prove
how common omens were. I will now confine my remarks to Wales.

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