An Animal Rights Article from

FROM Gracia Faye Ellwood, The Peaceable Table
June 2020

We activists are rightly concerned to open the hearts of our fellow humans about our race’s appalling sins of causing terror, anguish, and death to other animals. But we must also help people to realize that we human animals also sin against them in depriving them of the various pleasures inherent in their natural ways of life.

Birds have wings. And (with some exceptions) they fly!

Human beings have decided that we are so vastly superior to all (other) animals, including birds, that we can do whatever we like with any of them--kidnap infants from their mothers and adopt them, enslave them for their milk or eggs, hunt and kill them, eat them. But, annoyingly, there is one enviable power birds have that we lack, and that is spreading out their wings and flying. (If we want to travel through the air, we must depend on contraptions modeled on birds.)

How unfair! Well, we can always cram birds tightly into cages and prevent them from taking off, but that doesn’t give their power to us deserving humans, unfortunately for our egos.

Cherubim and Seraphim

Traditionally, humans have tried to make up for the lack of wings by imagining ourselves as winged, or as linked in some way to powerful winged beings. Hybrid human-animal images expressing these feelings were common in the ancient Middle East, and wings seem to have been a frequent feature. One early instance was the Babylonian kirubu or karabu (cognate to cherub), who not only had a human head, and wings, but a lion (or ox) body, suggesting intelligence, enormous power, potential violence, and the freedom from gravity that wings give.

A carved Assyrian version of such a tri-brid has been found in the area that was Canaan. Kirubu seem to have been formidable guardian figures, probably more or less the same as the cherubim (together with a flaming sword) in Genesis chapter three who were set to guard the entrance to Paradise after the Fall.

A pair of cherubim facing one another, made of hammered gold, were made for the lid called the Mercy Seat, of the ancient Israelites’ sacred chest, the Ark of the Covenant. Apart from their wings and (we assume) faces, the details of their appearance are unknown. In the initiatory vision of the prophet Ezekiel, winged cherubim, probably with lion bodies, seem to draw God’s chariot; in two Psalms, God rides up into the sky on the back of a cherub. (In this conception, the cherub must have had a lion or ox body, because if he had a wholly human form, God would have been riding piggyback, rather a comedown for the divine dignity!) However, in time, cherubim did come to be seen as having completely human shape, but with wings; and now they are always thought of that way, either as small children or as numinous adults.

That some details are unknown is also true of seraphim, even more powerful than cherubim, each of whom has three pairs of wings. They are always in the presence of God, burning with love and praising him, says the second-century book of Enoch. Similarly, in Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple, they cry “Holy, holy, holy, YHWH of hosts; the whole earth is full of your glory” [YHWH, probably pronounced Yahweh, is the name of God; in time it was considered too holy to utter, and substitute terms were used.] They are strongly associated with fire, seen in this vision in a seraph’s touching a burning coal he takes with tongs from the altar to the seer’s mouth, thus cleansing him from his dangerously sinful and unclean condition. The temple is filled with smoke, either from the seraphim or the altar, or both. They evidently had arms and hands, but further features are not given. Interestingly, in the passage in Numbers in which the Israelites complained to God and Moses and were bitten by venomous serpents, seraph is the word used to refer to the bronze serpent Moses is instructed to make, to mediate healing to them. Seraphim may also refer to dragons, beings who in Western tradition are still thought of as breathing fire. Could Isaiah’s seraphim have had part-dragon bodies?

There are other ancient orders of powerful spiritual human and animal beings, who may be winged, though originally none are close counterparts for human beings. But human-looking beings, understood to be messengers (Latin angelus, from Greek ‘aggelos) sent by God to important biblical persons, are also featured in the biblical texts. It is common for artists to depict these messengers with wings to indicate their power to move between the divine presence and the human scene. According to the texts, they evidently frighten those to whom they come; in a number of cases they preface their message with “Fear not.” Often their message is to announce, to a childless woman or couple, the coming birth of a very special son who will liberate God’s people from the power of their enemies. Or angels may be seen as members of a divine army liberating or protecting God’s people. In the Bible, then, a human-like winged being doesn’t have wings just for the fun of flying, or to bolster his or the collective human ego. Wings mean that one is a child both of heaven and of earth; finite, yet also in the divine presence. (Are we all, in this sense, winged?)

Do You See What I See?

Strictly orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims tend to affirm that these beings have a literal existence (though most probably aren’t thinking of cherubim as having lion bodies); the more liberal adherents tend to hold that the beings are symbolic of human or divine powers or energies. In fact, however, when a certain kind of spiritual being is widely affirmed throughout a culture, a small percentage of members will in fact have visions of that being. In regard to angels, it is difficult to estimate the percentage of the number of claimed angel experiencers who see winged beings, because so many experiences that could be classed in other ways (telepathy, precognition, contact with the deceased (including deceased relatives), extraordinary light, or just hunches, are thought of as angel communications. On a website of such experiences Angel Encounters, 83 readers tell their stories. Of the ten who saw extraordinary-appearing figures, only five had wings. It seems likely that when cherubim were thought of as having lion bodies with wings, a few visionaries saw them with that appearance.

Co-Creation in Visions

What can be going on? It seems that in the case of any class of visions, there is a substantial cultural contribution; there is probably an individual contribution as well, as one can see in the (non-visionary) mystical experience Faith Bowman had in 1974, while nursing her baby; she experienced the empowering presence of an all-mothering God as pouring out life, love, and nurturance to all living beings, including herself, and though her to her child. It is evident that her own present activity and consuming preoccupation with her baby during that period in her life had a large part in shaping her conception of the presence she perceived. This may be compared and contrasted to Isaiah’s perception of God as an evidently masculine figure seated on a throne in the temple, and concerned to save the seer from the destructive power of uncleanness. But both experiences are numinous, powerful, and empowering.

The Peaceable Kingdom, Woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg

These shaping influences do not, however, mean that the presence experienced is not real, only that the deep-level consciousness of the experiencer co-creates, together with the divine or preternatural presence, the form of what she or he sees and hears. The presence is real; as the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Isaiah’s vision was his prophetic calling to a career of warning, transforming, and empowering others. For example, remember that the magnificent image of the Peaceable Kingdom in which both predatory and prey animals, led by a human child, live in peace together (and after which this journal is named) has fostered hope and inspired work toward healing the world for more than 2500 years. The “Holy, holy, holy” cries of the seraphim have been echoed in hymns and in millions of Masses.

Back to the Birds

So far we have been dealing with wings and the power of flight on the symbolic level, with particular reference to us human beings. We are in danger of exploiting real, physical birds again for our own benefit. So we need to ask: what good does this symbol exploration do for the chickens, the eagles, the larks, and all their kin, including bats? Does their power of flight express a truth about their status as children of both heaven and earth as well?

It does indeed. Birds and other winged creatures such as bats are certainly part of the Beloved Community of all beings. Of course such an idea cannot be proved, but its truth is sounded and echoed over and over in the stories of medieval saints, and in the work of religions animal activists today. Francis of Assisi is the saint best known; stories are told of his love for and communication with animals, especially birds, of his preaching to them as well as to people. Also beloved if less known than Francis is Martín de Porres, the Black saint of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lima, Peru, who had a healing gift, as well as knowledge of healing herbs, which he used on behalf of both of animals and humans. Animals, probably including birds, were said to follow him down the streets. Milburh or Milburga, a princess and saint of Mercia in what is now the Midlands of England, was said to have power to communicate with birds, who would obey her. Similarly, seventh-century saint Cuthbert, who came to live on the island of Inner Farne, communicated with the island’s birds, and promised them “Cuthbert’s Peace,” some kind of punishment for anyone who harmed them. Of sixth-century Irish saint Kevin it was told that a bird built her nest and laid her egg in his outstretched hand, and that he remained in that position until the baby hatched out.

There are other accounts. Many of these stories, especially those from the early Middle Ages, are very probably legendary, but the fact that so many have been lovingly told and re-told testifies to a deep conviction that humans and animals, including birds, have a deep spiritual link of love, which was manifest paranormally in the lives of saints.

Flying is Fun, Too

I commented above on the painful irony that birds, especially chickens, who can fly when they grow up in normal conditions--high enough to roost in trees--are the animals most often enslaved and virtually immobilized before being murdered and eaten. Admittedly, chickens can’t soar, but for birds who do, like the waterfowl featured in the first poem below, flying is often seen as a serious and tiring business, which, especially for migrating birds, it is. But it can also be fun. Jonathan Balcombe in his eye-opening 2006 book The Pleasurable Kingdom points out that animals normally have many pleasures, including enjoying doing something they are really good at. The second poem below, featuring a kestrel having a great time on a windy morning, is an example: “. . . the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! . . .”

We activists are rightly concerned to open the hearts of our fellow humans about our race’s appalling sins of causing terror, anguish, and death to other animals. But we must also help people to realize that we human animals also sin against them in depriving them of the various pleasures inherent in their natural ways of life. As the staretz (spiritual counselor) Father Zossima in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov says, "Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive them of their happiness, don't work against God's intent."

baby Bird
Baby Bird taking the adventure

Don’t stop them from flying!
- Editor

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