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Occult Meanings behind the Trendy Bird Form in Popular Craft

As I mentioned in my last Medusa's Ladder piece, I have been absorbed in many art projects lately, namely, creating jewelry. Because of this, I've also been poring through all manner of books on vintage jewelry, how-to type books, jewelry and craft magazines.

One thing about jewelry making: it dangles right there in the middle between craft and art. Hence, much of the literature devoted to it does as well, with many on the absolute craft team, of the dried-pasta-beads-on-yarn-necklaces style. But most off the bookstand jewelry magazines lean toward a middle of the road crafty-arty middle.

I have noticed several interesting aesthetics within these pages, as well as within popular craft sites and venues such as Esty.com. For example, hugely present are turn-of-the-century, Victorian era women and children tintype portrait figures placed in whimsical collages, usually accompanied by uplifting or wacky short text, arranged in a kind word-cutout, ransom note style.

Also, there are a bazillion positive, pseudo-spiritual, reaffirming type single words stamped or printed onto metal, clay, rocks, and every imaginable medium, for every imaginable item of adornment or novelty. This isn't so new—it's a holdover from the mid-90's Oprahfied era of abundance and simplicity—but at least in the crafting world, it seems to be just now reaching its zenith.

The endless, (literally) cookie-cutter necklace charms and bookmarks reminding us to "believe," "dream," "breathe," "laugh," surely lead to "peace," "love," and "friends." Although the sentiment has fairly bled the stamp pad dry and become trite and ridiculous, (breathe? really?) this is no doubt a culturally condoned way of partaking of an ancient magical and occult tradition: the creating and wearing oftalismans and amulets.

Rivaling these talismanic charms though, for the title of #1 Craft King Thing, there is a seemingly humble contender: that of a stylized little bird. The more and more I have found these cute little critters, the less and less cute they have become. There is something a bit creepy about their silent uprising.

In general, The Bird is a rather austere line drawing, utilizing curves to play on basic geometric shapes in fashioning the bird body in profile, with few embellishments—maybe a slopey hint of wing here, a dash of eye there*. More often than not, the bird stands on a single twig, with a couple of clumps of leaves.

The colors are muted in a monochromatic palette, usually a Martha Stewartesque baby blue or minty green—with a very cool or laundered feel. Believe me when I say this is one bird that is not rare.

Just as an experiment, I went to Etsy and randomly clicked on different categories and pages, purposefully not looking The Bird image. As I suspected, I found forms of The Bird on pendants, earrings, stencil wall decals, stationary, buttons, bags, and even knitted, stuffed animal birds on twigs.

I have questions. What does it mean? Is it just a meaningless trend—or is there something behind it that has ensured its catching on, even becoming somewhat meme-like within certain circles? Why not caterpillars, oxen, or bats—why birds, and why now?

First, there are some obvious existent connections with eras and animals, and general animal symbolism. The Chinese Zodiac scheme, in which years are related to animal and their characteristics come to mind.

Native American totemic animals are associated with different phases and experiences of individuals and groups. Further, cave paintings featuring line drawings of animals—not too far removed aesthetically from The Bird—were implemented for magical or meditative reasonings in prehistoric times.

Because of this precedent, it's not a stretch to conclude there is some collective occult force—meaning--behind the popularity and presence of The Bird. In general, birds are a symbol of spiritual identity—of the soul. Also involved are ideas of freedom, of transition and liminality: the bird is a symbol of the passage between the physical and spiritual realms.

It would be fairly easy to find a fit for this sentiment in the state of things. The idea of forsaking conflicts after controversial wars, moving into and through the economical and ecological crises, lurching toward the much touted, spiritual but scary 2012 date, and general fin de siècle dynamics do seem to fit.

However, considering the actual bird imagery more thoughtfully alludes to even more ideas. I mentioned before there is usually a branch present—a perch for the bird. If we are to take the symbolism ideas and apply them here, it means flight is not yet begun, or has finished—it's ambiguous. The idea of transition and between-realms is even more punctuated.

The idea of a tree being part of the imagery is important as well—the Tree of Life being a very central and ancient occult symbol, standing for the interconnectedness of everything, and like the bird, the Tree of Life is also liminal, as it connects the heaven and underworld. However, that only a tiny portion of it—a small branch with a clump of leaves-- is involved may be meaningful as well.

The term "out on a limb" packs a double whammy with its obvious and apt metaphorical meaning and its usage within the New Age movement as the title of Shirley McClain's 1983 book that opened the floodgates for New Age to enter into mainstream culture.

Considering the overall aesthetic of The Bird, there is no sense of formality, of precision, intellectualism, realism; yet neither is there a sense of fantasy, cartoonery, (purposeful) pretension, infantilism or primalism—but it's hard to pin down just what there is—which could further suggest the liminality of the entire thing.

But, if I had to pinpoint it, I would call it simplistic. But it doesn't really say anything or describe it at all—the style and subject is jam packed with conflicted meaning. There's an innocence in it-- a sweet and sad vulnerability (the precise type present in some manga illustrations, many avatars, and camera phone self-portraits taken by emo-bent tweens.)

This simplistic vibe is quite effective in conveying an angst-ridden and threatening message—"I'm all alone, stuck and fragmented, out on a limb here…"-- in a non-threatening way.

*The Twitter bird is a more fanciful example of The Bird. Of course, there is a whole chapter to be written on the appropriation of The Bird and the term "tweeting" by the revolutionary social networking site…

Photo Credit:

Handmade Greeting Card by achook on Etsy

Contact Richelle Hawks

Visit Richelle's blog: Beamships Equal Love