Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year

Of Birds, Symbols, and Omens

The first bird I saw in this newest of years was my friend the cardinal.

Again I looked out of the kitchen window as I just had gotten up and I was on my way to prepare some much needed coffee and there he (or she?) was gently pecking on the ground. The crimson plumage contrasted brightly against the fresh white snow.

Was this an omen? If so, is it a good one or a bad one? By the way, is there ever a neutral omen? How about an indifferent omen? Never mind.

So a red bird. Being an anthropologist interested in symbols, I thought about it and this is what I came up with:
  • Red is supposedly the first color perceived by humans. So it is appropriate that it be the first color of the year.
  • Red is a sign of properity and luck in China and elsewhere, so it may be a good sign. Red bed-clothes were customary in Germany up to the Middle Ages as protection against the "red illnesses", such as fever, rashes or even miscarriages.
  • Red, however, also has negative connotations. Red in ancient Egypt was the color of the desert and of the destructive god Seth who inpersonated the Evil. "Making red" was synonymous with killing someone, evil doings were refered to as "red affairs". Writers of Egyptian papyri used a special red ink for nasty words.

But what of the bird? A red bird?

The first thing that came to mind was a firebird, or Phoenix, which appears in many cultures. In Egypt, China and Central America it was associated with cleansing and revival. In China its name is Fenghuang and it promises luck and longevity. I guess that is good, but of course there is that dying part that one needs to get through. It might be the death of 2005 and 2006 will emerge triumphally.

One can only hope.

Or maybe it was just a stupid red bird that forgot to fly south for the winter and is now stuck here in snowy Boston.

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