Two centuries ago, the clergyman and antiquary John Bathurst Deane published The Worship of the Serpent (1830), which attempted to explain the entirety of non-Abrahamic religions worldwide as a unified, prehistoric serpent cult descended from the first idolaters, who worshiped the Serpent from the Garden of Eden, i.e. Satan. To make the claim, Deane took an exceedingly common motif—serpents, after all, can be found everywhere and appear regularly in myths and art as a result—and abstracted from it a unified faith that didn’t exist.
Now, novelist and onetime documentarian Ben H. Gagnon has done something similar with a different, very common motif: birds. In his new book Church of Birds, which he discussed in a blog post last week, Gagnon attempts to make the case that ancient people around the world positioned their sacred sites along the paths of migrating birds, which were seen as divine messengers and psychopomps. He also claims, with little evidence, that humans learned to speak by imitating birdsong. (That claim comes from a 2013 MIT study that does not appear to be widely accepted.) Ultimately, in Church of Birds, Gagnon argues that virtually every religion, including the Abrahamic faiths, is grounded in the worship of birds’ migration patterns and occasional transportation of exotic seeds.
Superficially, Gagnon’s ideas aren’t particularly implausible. People around the world recognized the importance of birds, and birds play a role in various mythologies. There are both practical and symbolic reasons for ancient people to have incorporated birds into their belief systems. Birds, after all, were sources of food, both meat and eggs, and birds’ ability to fly provided poetic metaphor for deities, angels, souls, and other supernatural beliefs.
However, Gagnon abstracts from this the claim a unified global pattern that probably isn’t connected to a single source. In his March 31 blog post to promote the book, he uses this to claim that the Nazca lines were designed to “welcome” migratory birds. “In this context it’s plausible the Nazca Lines were the backdrop for a ritual welcome of migratory birds from the north and the seeds they carried with the spring rains.” He bases this on bird imagery in art, which is basically found everywhere because birds are found everywhere, and the claim that ancient cultures were found along bird migration paths. That latter claim might have been interesting if birds didn’t migrate along resource-rich zones, particularly along coasts and major rivers. Gagnon compares bird flyways to ancient American geoglyph sites, but the results are cherry-picked.
Although Gagnon’s blog post provides a lengthy final section discussing the fallacy of falling into the kind of fallacies as Erich von Däniken and the ancient astronaut theory (with quotations from me), he never quite explains why his analysis escapes the fallacy.
In his book, Gagnon expands beyond the blogpost to enter into John Bathurst Deane territory. He attempts to link nearly every religious tradition into the idea that birds stand behind human religion. Again there is some truth in this, but no more or less than the truth we found in Deane’s book on serpent-worship, or in any other common category of animal. Ancient people were certainly aware of their environment and made use of what they saw around them in developing their myths. There is also an interesting analysis to be had in examining the role of birds in myth and religion. Many books have been written on the subject, going back at least to Charles de Kay’s Bird Gods in Ancient Europe. I sincerely doubt, though, that birds were either the primary driver of religion or the undergirding for a unified global faith. They just happened to be there.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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