THE ELUSIVE BIRD: SEVEN WINGS AND MYTH
Edie Darleth, Edinburgh
The search for a clear mythological corollary to the seven winged bird that appears in the Corvus folio has become emblematic of the overall mystery of the folio. There are tantalizing breadcrumbs here and there, but the further one travels down a supposed path the more apparent it becomes that it has been devoured.
The first folio's discovery at Newgrange in 1699 made Irish myth and folklore the most obvious starting point in the hunt for Seven Wings. The three pronged symbol on the Folio's cover led antiquarians at the turn of the century to conclude that the collection of symbols and images were dedicated to the war goddess Morrigan, and her three aspects: Barb, Macha, and Anand. Obviously that association has stuck, even giving name to the three predominant schools of the folio, though it has skewed research towards western sources and crow imagery in general. Despite being a snap conclusion, the Morrigan association to the Folio has maintained as strong a hold on Folio lore as any other theory, which is to say it is tenuous at best.
If research is extended beyond Western Europe(as it should considering the locations of the other reported Folios) and the same amount logical latitude is applied, there are several other mythologies to consider when evaluating the origin, or even purpose of the Folio. While there have yet to be any references found to a seven winged bird, aside from the much disputed Hilkin/Alamite lore, there are at least a few alternative theories worth considering.
Most intriguing, perhaps, is the Maya god Vucub Caquix, translated Seven Macaw, which appears in the Popul Vuh as a great god who magnified himself and gives light after the flood. The deity's likeness appears on stele in many major Maya cites but bears little resemblance to Seven Wings of the print. However the south American tinged imagery of the Storm Sting print and some key numerological corollaries with Maya mythology makes for some intriguing connections.
In brief: the number seven occurs frequently in Mayan mythology associated, of course, with Seven Macaw, but also with the uncle of the aforementioned Hero twins as well as one of the two primary death gods. Recent evaluations of the ritual significance of the ball game also tend towards teams of seven. This recent evaluation also interprets the games as a sort of shortcut through the struggles of the afterlife. Numerical parallels continue with the nine "underworld" levels of Xibalba represented by the nine prints of the Folio and the thirteen additional levels of the "upper world" that one needed to climb in order to reach the apex of the Ceiba (Tree of Life) art represented by the thirteen panes of the window of the print through which the tree is interlaced.
The number of parallels has many scholars citing the print in conjunction with the theory that the ritual sacrifice that likely took place after the ball games was of the winners rather than the losers. This honorable death would grant them access to paradise without having to endure the trials of the afterlife. Of course at this point, its speculation layered upon speculation, and the numbers 7, 9, and 13 are common in many mythologies, but the search for answers must begin somewhere.
Equally speculative is a theory that focuses on the East Asian influences in the Folio(most notably on the Snake Woman print, the fifth of the Newgrange). Though only two legs are apparent on the seven winged bird in the print, several researchers have equated it with the three-legged crow that appears in the mythologies of China, Japan, and Korea. Though the bird plays distinctively different roles within each culture, all three equate the bird, in some way, with the sun, and it's this association that is fairly explicit within the print image with the seven wings of the bird distinctively matching the seven rays of the sun.
Of course the discovery of the third Folio in the Tomb of Marquis Yi in Siuzhou, and the similarity of the Folio glyphs to the oracle bone script of the Shang dynasty, has led some scholars to consider a possible Chinese origins for the Folio. And the seven wing print is now often equated with the popular Story of the Time of the Ten Suns, with seven wings standing in for the one remaining Sunbird after nine others were shot down by the mythical Houyi. Some also interpret the Folio with an astronomical bent and point to the Seven Houses of the Vermillion Bird, though such interpretations are in their infancy.
As the second Folio was found during the excavation of the Royal Tomb of Ur a third theory about the seven winged bird places its origin in the Fertile Crescent. Most connect the seven wings to the benevolent Apkallu, the seven sages who taught civilization to savage man. Tasked with teaching many aspects of higher culture including art, architecture, and agriculture, it was the Apkallu who the helped man transition from neolithic tribes to the great kingdoms described by Herodotus. Though they are described as half-fish many reliefs and cylinder seals depict them with bird features.
The apkallu are mention in the Erra Epic, an ancient poem that was carved into stele and amulets throughout Mesopotamia, most notably in Babylonian sites. The Erra Epic is believed to be a mythological account of an era of a great, unknown, turmoil in Mesopotamia and refers to seven Sibitti who aided the plague god Erra in desolating man. This, of course, paints the seven winged bird in a much different light as a force of destruction rather than creation, though many believe that the bird image is meant to be cyclical, representing death and rebirth, mirroring the perfect symmetry of the the seven dark and seven light beams protruding from the sun, which represent the Apkallu and and Sibitti.
None of the above theories can be backed beyond speculation and the thinnest thread of archeological research, and most of them cull from historical sources that are themselves incomplete at best. Amid all the theories, the Hilkin tale Seven Wings is still considered the most direct corollary to the image and even considering the disputed origin of the Hilkin cannon. It is the hope that this spurs further research into these theories, and the myriad others that exist, in the pursuit of the real origin of the Corvus Folio. In truth though, it may only prove the ease at which disparate mythologies can be applied to the Seven Wings print and the Folio at large. But the power or the image cannot be denied and, hoax or not, it’s appearance at major historical sites around the world, however perplexing, cannot be ignored.
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