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That Melodious Linguist: Eloquence and Piety in Christian and Islamic Songbirds
Cam Lindley Cross
University of Chicago, December 8 (2010)
“Birds,” writes Albertus Magnus, “generally call more than other animals. This is due to the lightness of their spirits.” Although Albertus here employs “lightness” (levitas) as a technical term, the broader valences of the word are very significant; a lightness of spirit does not only indicate one who is fickle, flighty, and unconcerned with the problems of the world (as we see in its cognates légèreté in French and levity in English), but can also suggest a state of moral purity and innocence. The etymological relationship between lightness (levis) and light itself (lux, both from the Indo-European root leuk-) adds another level of interpretive meaning—as Dante illustrates in the Divina Commedia, sin is both dark and heavy, a kind of moral weight that crushes the body and hinders spiritual progress. As creatures of light and levity, whose wings take them beyond the borders of terra firma that demarcate the domain of man, birds can be seen as residing in a state of proximity to the spiritual world that no other living thing may access; their myriad and musical songs only reinforce their depiction as bearers of secret knowledge, concealed by a secret tongue.
Solomon, wisest of all kings, is granted the ability to speak with the birds in both Jewish and Islamic tradition; the Qur’anic passage ʿulimnā manṭiq al-ṭayr (“We were taught the language of birds,” Qur’an 27:16) is directly referenced by the Persian poet and mystic Farid al-Din ʿAttar (d. c. 1221) in his well-known Manṭiq al-Ṭayr, a metaphysical journey into the sublime realm of unity, usually translated into English as The Conference of the Birds. Birds have long played the role of messengers of heavenly tidings and portents in Jewish and Hellenic augury, while the Holy pirit takes the form of a dove at Jesus’s baptism in the Bible (Luke 3:22) and is similarly depicted at the Annunciation in Christian iconography. Birds are found in the liminal spaces at the ends of the earth: in the early Irish Voyages (immrama) of Bran (8th c.) and St. Brendan (10th c.), birds are found to sing the Canonical Hours in the Isles of Earthly Paradise and transform into angels.”