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Norwegian Bird-legends

from Boys And Girls Bookshelf - STORIES FROM SCANDINAVIA





The Norwegians have several quaint old legends connected with some of
their birds. This is the story of the goldcrest, known in Norway as the
"bird-king":

Once upon a time the golden eagle determined to be publicly acknowledged
as king of the birds, and he called a meeting of every kind of bird in
the world. As many of the birds would come from tropical countries, he
appointed a day in the warmest month; and the place he chose was a vast
tract called Groenfjeld, where every species of bird would feel at home,
since it bordered on the sea, yet was well provided with trees, shrubs,
flowers, rocks, sand, and heather, as well as with lakes and rivers full
of fish.

So on the morning of the great congress the birds began to arrive
in a steady stream, and by noon every description of bird was
represented--even the ostrich, though how he contrived to cross the seas
the story does not say. The eagle welcomed them, and when the last
humming-bird had settled down he addressed the meeting, saying that
there was no doubt that he had a right to demand to be proclaimed their
king. The spread of his wings was prodigious, he could fearlessly look
at the sun, and to whatever height he soared he could detect the
slightest movement of a fly on the earth.

But the birds objected to the eagle on account of his plundering
habits, and then each in turn stated his own case as a claimant for the
kingship--the ostrich could run the fastest, the bird of paradise and
the peacock could look the prettiest, the parrot could talk the best,
the canary could sing the sweetest, and every one of them, for some
reason or other, was in his own opinion superior to his fellows. After
several days of fruitless discussion it was finally decided that
whichever bird could soar the highest should be, once and for all,
proclaimed king.

Every bird who could fly at all tried his best, and the golden eagle,
confident of success, waited till last. Finally he spread his wings, and
as he did so an impudent little goldcrest hopped (unbeknown to his great
rival) on to his back. Up went the eagle, and soon outdistanced every
other bird. Then, when he had almost reached the sun, he shouted out,
"Well, here I am, the highest of all!" "Not so," answered the goldcrest,
as, leaving the eagle's back, he fluttered upward, until suddenly he
knocked his head against the sun and set fire to his crest. Stunned by
the shock, the little upstart fell headlong to the ground, but, soon
recovering himself, he immediately flew up on to the royal rock and
showed the golden crown which he had assumed. Unanimously he was
proclaimed king of the birds, and by this name, concludes the legend, he
has ever since been known, his sunburnt crest remaining as a proof of
his cunning and daring.

In those parts of Norway where the goldcrest is rarely seen the same
story, omitting the part about the sun and the burnt crest, is told of
the common wren, who is said to have broken off his tail in his great
fall. And to this is applied the moral: "Proud and ambitious people
sometimes meet with an unexpected downfall."

There are at least seven kinds of woodpeckers found in Norway, and of
these the great black woodpecker is the largest. The woodmen consider it
to be a bird which brings bad luck, and avoid it as much as possible.
They call it "Gertrude's Bird" because of the following legend:

"Our Saviour once called on an old woman who lived all alone in a little
cottage in an extensive forest in Norway. Her name was Gertrude, and she
was a hard, avaricious old creature, who had not a kind word for
anybody, and although she was not badly off in a worldly point of view,
she was too stingy and selfish to assist any poor wayfarer who by chance
passed her cottage door. One day our Lord happened to come that way,
and, being hungry and thirsty, he asked of Gertrude a morsel of bread to
eat and a cup of cold water to drink. But the wicked old woman refused,
and turned our Saviour from the door with harsh words. Our Lord
stretched forth his hand toward the aged crone, and, as a punishment,
she was immediately transformed into a black woodpecker; and ever since
that day the wicked old creature has wandered about the world in the
shape of a bird, seeking her daily bread from wood to wood and from tree
to tree. The red head of the bird is supposed to represent the red
nightcap worn by Gertrude."

Legends of this description were doubtless introduced in the early days
of Christianity in order to impress the new religion on the people, and
several have been preserved. Thus the turtle-dove is revered as a bird
which spoke kind words to our Lord on the cross; and, similarly, the
swallow is said to have perched upon the cross and to have pitied him;
while the legend of the crossbill relates how its beak became twisted in
endeavoring to withdraw the nails, and how to this day it bears upon its
plumage the red blood-stains from the cross.

One more Christian legend--about the lapwing, or peewit: The lapwing was
at one time a handmaiden of the Virgin Mary, and stole her mistress's
scissors, for which she was transformed into a bird, and condemned to
wear a forked tail resembling scissors. Moreover, the lapwing was doomed
forever and ever to fly from tussock to tussock, uttering over and over
again the plaintive cry of "Tyvit! tyvit!" ("Thief! thief!")

In the old viking times, before Christianity had found its way so far
north, the bird which influenced the people most was the raven. He was
credited with much knowledge, as well as with the power to bring good or
bad luck. One of the titles of Odin was "Raven-god," and he had as
messengers two faithful ravens, "who could speak all manner of tongues,
and flew on his behests to the uttermost parts of the earth." In those
days the figure of a raven was usually emblazoned on shield and
standard, and it was thought that as the battle raged, victory or defeat
could be foreseen by the attitude assumed by the embroidered bird on the
standard. And it is well known that William the Conqueror (who came of
viking stock) flew a banner with raven device at the battle of Hastings
where he won such a great victory.

But the greatest use of all to which the sable bird was put was to guide
the roving pirates on their expeditions. Before a start was made a raven
was let loose, and the direction of his flight gave the viking ships
their course. In this manner, according to the old Norse legends, did
Floki discover Iceland; and many other extraordinary things happened
under the influence of the raven.





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