Animal folklore: the heron
The heron, like many animals crosses cultural boundaries and appears in many mythic cycles throughout the world. It also is used in many shamanistic cultures showing us that the heron is a bird that has impacted on people down the ages.
In Greek myths the heron has long been seen as a messenger. Indeed Athena sent a heron to Odysseus as a sign that she was watching them. This theme of being a messenger is seen again in Celtic mythology where herons are considered messengers of the gods and were thought to be imbued with superior intelligence.
In Egypt the purple heron was associated with the sun god Ra. This was due to the herons resting in high places and then flying over the water, making their reflections look like sunlight on water. Another Egyptian myth was that the purple heron created itself from a fire burning in the sacred precinct in the temple of Ra. It was from here that the myth of the phoenix appeared and spread. Because of this in Egypt the heron became associated with death and rebirth. While in Aztec mythology the god Huitzilopochtli was sometimes known as “the blue heron bird” as was considered to be an incarnation of the sun.
In Africa one of the creation myths attributed to the Bantu tribe was that Bumba was all alone in the water. Then he got sick, vomited land, sun, moon stars etc. Then he vomited nine animals, one of which was the white heron. This shows us that the heron plays an important part in the life of the African tribe’s people.
Indian folklore tells us that if a heron perches on your house then you will have good luck. This is extended to the plumage as well, so if the heron perched on your house and some feathers floated down to you then you could reasonably expect amazing luck.
The Maori word for the heron is “kotuku” and in the wisdom of the Maori the saying “Te kotuku rerenga tahi,” roughly translated as the the heron that flies singly is often applied to rare visitors to the tribe. The sort you will only see once in a lifetime. There is also “He kotuku kai-whakaata.” The meaning of which is the heron that daintily eats its food. To the Maori tribes the heron is a courteous rare and special visitor. In addition to these sayings the feathers of the white heron are kept exclusively for Maori chieftains.
According to the Fiji islanders flying foxes originated when a rat stole a herons wings. To the Samoans this is how bats came into being. While in the Philippians the heron isn’t responsible for the creation of an animal but rather a dance. The Tinikling dance of the Philippians imitates herons dodging bamboo traps set by farmers.
In Native American mythology the heron crops up in several stories. One is the heron and hummingbird who race for possession of all the fish in the rivers and lakes. The birds raced for four days with the heron flying slow and never stopping while the hummingbird zipped ahead and slept each night. The hummingbird lost and now has to eat nectar while the heron enjoys the fish. There is more than a passing resemblance to the tortoise and the hare story here!
Another Native American legend shows why wolves and herons don’t mix. In this a blue heron helps two weasels across a river because they spoke nicely to it. A wolf comes along and speaks foolishly and after seeing that he has spoken foolishly then tries to speak flatteringly. The wolf gets flown halfway across then gets dumped in river and drowns.
The Yaqui tribe also have a heron myth. In this one the heron and a fox go to each other’s house for dinner. The fox gives the heron food on a flat stone which the fox can eat and the heron cant due to its bill. The heron pretends to have enjoyed its meal and the next day feeds the fox oysters in a bottle. The fox couldn’t eat this thanks to its jaw while the heron enjoys its meal. At the end of the story the fox thanks the heron and goes away ashamed.
The symbolism of the heron means different things to different cultures. In china the heron represents strength, purity and long life. In Native American tradition the heron is associated with wisdom since it seems to have good judgement skills. In Egypt the heron is a symbol of creation while in Africa and Greece the heron is a messenger of the gods. Herons are a water bird though and should be seen as going with nature rather than against it like all water creatures.