Symbols in the sky

Red-tailed hawk duotone

Omens don’t tell the future, they tell the present.

image enhanced from original, and posted under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license

– by B. T. Newberg

I double-checked my suit pocket: yes, the rings were there.  Everything was ready.  I just had to take the trash out before we left to join our lives together.

Checklists ran through my head as I walked into the alley.


Something swooped down onto the lamppost, and it wasn’t the typical crow or pigeon.

The speckled breast, the hook-shaped beak, the grasping talons…

“A hawk!”

It wasn’t an everyday sight in the heart of Minneapolis.

The beast shifted its weight from foot to foot, shuffled its feathers.

I noted that hawks were closely related to kites, a bird sacred to my patron goddess, Isis.  There were few kites in Minnesota, so if Isis wanted to send a message she might have to use a hawk.

That brought a self-ridiculing smile across my face, as I teased myself for wanting the sight to have special significance.  As if it were meant just for me.

Then another burst of feathers swooped down to land beside the other.

Wow, two hawks.  You never see that.  They must be mates.

The symbolism was too perfect: on the morning of my wedding day, a bird like the one sacred to my goddess is joined by its mate.  What are the odds!

Omens above

The idea that bird sightings can have special significance belongs to an ancient tradition called ornithomancy, a kind of omenry.  It was one of the great divinatory arts of the ancient world.  Meaning was seen in the flight of birds.

In Homer’s Iliad, for example, there is a famous dispute over a bird sighting.  Just as the Trojan soldiers attempt to overtake their enemies’ rampart, an eagle appears grasping a serpent in its talons.  The serpent bites the eagle, causing it to let go and fly off without food for its young.  The Trojan Polydamas thinks this means they would not take the rampart, but Hector dismisses it, saying:

“Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!”  (Iliad, Book XII, 281, trans. Robert Fagles)

So who is right?  Polydamas believes there is a special message intended just for them, a message which predicts the future.  Hector shrugs it off, confident in our human ability to create our own future.

Polydamas’ view was common in ancient Greece.  Henri Frankfort believes this was how the natural world appeared to ancient humanity.  During the myth-making, or mythopoeic stage of our history, prior to the emergence of philosophy and modern science, significance filled every event.  It was as if nature was talking to directly to us.

Today we see things differently.  Natural events are impersonal.  There is no special message for us.  The bird may have some intention, like finding its next meal, but nothing that concerns us.

So who did I agree with on that morning of my wedding, Polydamas or Hector?

It could have been anyone witnessing those two hawks on the lamppost, or no one at all.  It just happened to be me.  With Hector, I might put confidence only in myself.

Yet it was the morning of my wedding.  The timing was just too perfect.  There was an urge in me to find personal meaning in it, like Polydamas.  Was that crazy?

The sky inside

What did the Trojans see when they caught sight of the eagle?  What did I see when I noticed the two hawks?

When we looked up at those birds, we were actually looking down into ourselves.  What we saw was the sky inside.

There is a part of ourselves beyond the reach of conscious direction.  It’s the part that throws up dream images in the night, and pops ideas into your head during the day.  How did you come up with that clever joke you just cracked?  What, you don’t know, it just came to you?  That’s because a great deal of mental functioning is unconscious.

One of the most significant functions of the unconscious mind is to find meaning.  If you had to consciously decode the meaning of every word in your best friend’s story, it would take all day.  The unconscious does it for you in a flash.  So that deeper part of the mind is quite capable of constructing a meaningful message out of sensory input.

Even the input of two birds on a lamppost?  Was my unconscious meaning-maker on overdrive that morning, or what?

I don’t think so.  Rather, it was sending a message to me – that is, to my conscious mind.

Now, my unconscious didn’t arrange for the two hawks to land there.  But it did arrange for me to notice them.

So it was a message after all.  And what it was saying was, “Hey – wake up!  Get your head in the right mindset.  Today is meaningful to us.”

I was about to get married, and where was my mind?  Going over checklists.  Is that what I wanted going through my head as I said I do?  I needed to slow down, take a breath, and recognize the meaning of the day.

The best way to get me to do that, apparently, was to project meaning onto the birds.  What would otherwise have been a curiosity became a symbol.

In the same way, the Trojans received messages from their unconscious minds.  In the heat of battle, with their lives at stake, they were desperate for meaning.  The more skiddish among them, like Polydamas, saw their own fear projected.  Hector, on the other hand, felt no meaning projected onto the bird sighting.  Fear was not what his unconscious needed him to see in that moment.  Instead, it showed him just what he needed: confidence in his own two hands.  Empowered thus, he led the charge that smashed the rampart to pieces.

What my unconscious showed me was also just what I needed.  The day was sacred, so I was shown a sacred symbol.

In a flash, my mind went from chatter to silence.   And a sense of the sacred filled my being.

I was getting married.

Symbols in the sky

There are messages for us in the sky.  We see the symbol up there, but it comes from in here.

Bird omenry can be a powerful way to develop a sense of awe and wonder at our world.  We need only remember where the message is really coming from: the deepest part of ourselves.  Whenever we look outside for meaning, we also look within.

The unconscious is greater than us, beyond our conscious control and perception.  It is at our very root, and its messages show us who we are.  It is where the gods live.

Polydamas thought the gods sent the eagle to them, but perhaps the gods sent them to the eagle.  They made them notice what was already there, and project meaning onto it.  Each saw what was inside them, whether fear or confidence.

Polydamas’ mistake was not so much that he saw meaning in a natural event, but that he thought it could control his destiny.  Hector avoided that, knowing full well fate was in his hands.

A sign from within cannot predict the future, but it can influence it through our own actions.  If I had not seen those two hawks, perhaps my mind would have been less open, and the ceremony might have gone differently.  If Hector had not felt confidence in his bones, instead of fear in the sky, the battle may have been lost.

To create the best outcome, both of us needed to see what was inside us at that very moment.

Divination doesn’t tell the future, it tells the present.

And in so doing, it gives you a chance to change the future with your own two hands.

15 Comments on “Symbols in the sky

  1. Excellent description of “naturalistic omenry”. Coming from an art background, it reminds me of art forms in which it is assumed the viewer will bring their personal elements to the piece and therefore a work of art can have different meanings to different viewers, each learning something about themselves in the process. Why couldn’t this take place for everything we observe and not just art? I learned the value of these kinds of rituals and practices when going on a vision quest to find my spirit animal guide once. It really did give me better insight into what was ‘on my mind’ and awareness of my subconscious issues and concerns.

    • >Why couldn’t this take place for everything we observe and not just art?

      Great point. I guess in some ways it’s like learning to see art without needing a picture frame around it.

  2. Very nice, you put this perfectly into words.

    I often have similar experiences with seeing rune shapes in nature. After putting a lot of time into exploring their shapes and meanings, I began to notice them in natural formations (tree limbs, fallen twigs, in the water, the sky, etc.). Often, they’ll divert my attention and I’ll stop and think on why my subconscious mind pulled that particular shape out. It can be very stimulating to stop and spend time exploring what I might be trying to tell myself in these situations.

  3. I read this from a search I put in through Google, I wanted to know if a great big bald eagle showing up on my wedding day has any specific meaning to it? He just sat there on the deck railing watching everyone, quietly for several minutes and then left. I was amazing to see him and he was gorgeous, but I’ve never gotten over the reason as to why he showed up on my wedding day? We live on a lake so I see him from time to time swooping down to pluck fish from the lake but never like that! Hoping to get some answers!

      • Excitement and awe came over every one, it just felt like it was a good day and it was…. Not too sure what you mean by thay tho, LOL sorry!

        • Did you get the feeling that what might otherwise have seemed like a random, lucky occurrence was actually meaningful to you in some special way? If so, then maybe your unconscious took the lucky opportunity to create meaning.

          You said you never could quite come up with a reason why the eagle showed up on your wedding day, but you also said it made you feel like it was a good day. IMO, those kinds of feelings are meaningful, deeply therapeutic, and enriching. They turn our universe into a home.

          An eagle… wow!

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