The Maya of central America believe that every person has an animal companion who shares their soul, and that you could transform into your animal companion. The Haida of Canada believe animals are another type of people, more intelligent than humans and able to transform themselves into human form. The Iban of Borneo believe that an all-powerful god sent his seven sons-in-laws to live among humans, in the form of birds.
Beliefs amongst the ancient peoples were strongly influenced by what they saw around them. What they saw around them was not tall buildings, mighty big ships on the oceans or sleek shiny metal objects flying in the sky. They saw trees, mountains and rivers all under one enormous never-ending sky. They saw animals of different shapes, colours and patterns. They saw animals living in the water where humans could not live. They saw birds flying effortlessly in the sky, something humans could not do.
It is not surprising that early people had to find some explanation for how and why all these other living things around them could do things they could not. These amazing animals were bigger than them, faster than them, and many incredibly more beautiful than us plain humans. These other animals must be special. Perhaps they were really special humans in different shapes, colours and sizes. So they became gods and spirits.
The wonderfully curious thing about ancient beliefs is that animal gods or spirits are usually good, benevolent and take care of us. These beautiful creatures of the forest speak to people. They speak to us sometimes through shamans and medicine-men, or sometimes through signs. Some of these animals are also bearers of bad news, like the impending death of someone in your house. Many cultures share the old tales of the owl, that mysterious bird of the night, with its large eyes, silent flight and eerie call. Its bad luck if an owl landed on the roof of your house and called out in the night. But never do we find it culturally accepted to kill owls on sight. Why is this so, if this bird brings bad news? Is it not human nature to kill those who do us harm, or even threaten our families?
The ancient Romans had a practice of observing the flight of birds and interpreting signs, fortunes or omens from them. These “readers of birds” were called Augers, and were priests of special rank. It is from these augers that we have the word auspicious. We have auspicious days for weddings, for ceremonies and even for repairing a house, buying a car or closing a business deal. Although with its origins lost in the passage of time, we are today still saying things will be well if the birds say it will be so. It also works for inauspicious days, meaning when the birds say it will not be good.
So, just as the Roman God Jupiter’s will was interpreted through birds, here on Borneo the everyday lives of the Iban were interpreted through birds as well. Sinalung Burung is the name of the almighty God, and his seven sons-in-law are his messengers on earth. These seven help and guide humans. They tell us when it the time is right to plant rice, when it is a good time to go hunting or go trading with a neighbouring village. They even warn us if there is an illness approaching our longhouses. They are good and helpful gods.
It is also from the augers that we have the word inauguration. It means to celebrate the beginning of something. It could be a new building, or someone being admitted to office for the first time, like a new prime minister! It appears even today we still invoke the favour of the birds in accordance with the ancient traditions and beliefs of our ancestors.
This is a rather poignant reminder to us all that whether we accept it, or admit it, our past beliefs continue to influence greatly our beliefs today. Would understanding the origins of our beliefs today, in a world of changing climates, disappearing forests and annual choking hazy seasons, change our attitudes and practises? Let’s admit it, in the name of human progress, we have adopted poor human practises in almost every aspect where we deal with nature. Should we ask the birds for some guidance? Can the old Gods help us find better understanding and sense?
Nature is so much a part of us that it is really, really time to take notice and start doing things better. The birds of old guided our forefathers. They haven’t stopped. They talk to us right now. The old birds we used to see in our gardens are mostly gone. There are new birds in our gardens today, birds our fathers and grandfathers do not recognise. They are telling us of things to come, but are we listening? Do we know what they are saying? Do we wish we had augers today to tell us what these beautiful gods are telling us? Do we know how to listen?