On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Vultures in Symbolism, Myth and Lore

Sky burial

Sky Burial. Image via Wikipedia

I have a soft spot for vultures. Even with their bald heads and carrion-eating ways (they’ve even been known to urinate on their feet as a form of sanitization), I relish the chance to see them soaring, so free-spirited in the skies. Little did I know that vultures have made their presence widely known in both the belief and operating systems of different cultures in the “New World” and “Old World.”

  • Ancient Egyptians viewed vultures, who are very protective and nurturing of their young, as wonderful mothers. In Egyptian mythology, Nekhbet, a local goddess of childbirth and feminine energies, is usually illustrated as an Egyptian white vulture. Also known as Mother of Mothers and the Great White Cow of Nekheb, she is considered the mother of the godly aspect of the pharaoh. In fact, the priestesses of the city of Nekhbet were called mothers, or muu, and sported robes made of vulture feathers.
  • Sky burials, or jhator, is a practice in Tibet, whereby Buddhists will prepare the body of the recently departed and expose it to the elements and animals, namely the Eurasian Griffon or Old World vulture who will consume the flesh, upon a mountaintop. Depending on how many bodies are available, the birds may have to be coaxed to eat through a ritual dance. If the vultures do not eat the flesh, it is considered a bad omen. Jhator helps to teach the impermanence of life and live out Buddhist principles including compassion and generosity to all beings.
  • In the same spirit as the Tibetan Buddhists, Zoroastrians also offered their dead up to the vultures upon a raised platform known as a dakhma. In their belief system, vultures are the ones that help release the soul from one’s body.
  • And of course all throughout North and South America, vultures play a large symbolic role in native cultures. The Mayan believed vultures regulated rain. Some Native Americans interpreted their flight patterns as a way to assess and predict the weather.

Who knew? Seriously, who knew?

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