BIRDS IN MYTHOLOGY (5) THE ALBATROSS
This week, whilst continuing my with my mythology theme, the format of the post is slightly different. To explain, I had intended to group together a number of birds, and highlight the myths & legends associated with them, starting with the ALBATROSS. Now, the Albatross is not surrounded so much by myth & legend, but more by superstition, and I thought it would be interesting to explore the background to that superstition, so yet again, I crave your indulgence!!
The popular superstition associated with the Albatross is due largely to SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE’s poem THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER. A few days prior to my trip to Mull, I was in Waterstone’s in Liverpool, browsing through a few poetry books when I came across a collection of Coleridge’s poems. Not being under any time constraints, and never having read the Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, I bought a coffee, settled down in a comfy chair, and set about reading the poem. It’s of epic proportions (VERY long!) but I was enthralled, and completely drawn into this fascinating tale of misdeed, misadventure, and misfortune!!
The poem is written as the narrative of a sailor, just returned from a lengthy voyage. He stops a man who is on his way to attend a wedding, and begins to relate the story of his adventures, or more accurately, his MISadventures!! The man’s reactions to this range from bemusement, impatience, fear, and fascination, as the Mariner gives his account!
The basic premise of the story is that of the Mariner’s ship being blown off course, ending up in Antarctica. An Albatross appears, and leads them away from Antarctica, and from the ice and mist. For this, the Albatross is praised by the crew, but tragically, the Mariner shoots down the bird with an arrow (“With my cross-bow/I shot the albatross”) The crew are angry with the Mariner, for they believe the Albatross brought with it the wind which would steer them away from Antarctica, but their minds are soon changed when the weather changes dramatically, and becomes much warmer and they escape the shroud of mist. (“Twas right, they said, such birds to slay/that bring the fog and mist”) The crime of shooting the Albatross however, incurs the wrath of the spirits who follow the ship, and in time the southerly wind that led them from the cold, now takes them into uncharted waters, where all becomes calm, with not a breath of wind with which to fill the sails.
Day after day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion,
As idle as a painted ship,
Upon a painted ocean
And then the lines everyone will be familiar with:
Water, water, everywhere
And all the boards did shrink,
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink
Now the crew change their outlook yet again, holding the Mariner responsible for their raging thirst. Tormented, they force the Mariner to wear the body of the dead bird around his neck as a burden of punishment for his crime.
“Ah well a-day, what evil looks/had I from old and young,
Instead of the cross, the Albatross/around my neck was hung”
Now the story takes on a slightly eerie and sinister veneer, as the ship meets a “ghost ship” aboard which are DEATH (a skeleton) and the NIGHTMARE, LIFE-IN-DEATH (a deathly pale woman) They are playing dice for the souls of the crew – DEATH wins the lives of the crew, and LIFE-IN-DEATH the Mariner, which she considers the higher prize. Her name is given as a clue to the Mariner’s fate, as he is about to endure a fate worse than death in punishment for his foolish haste in killing the Albatross.
One by one, the crew all eventually die, but the Mariner remains alive, and for 7 days and nights, is haunted by the curse in the eye’s of the crew’s dead bodies. In time, he sees some creatures swimming near the ship, and despite having described them earlier in the poem as “slimy things” (“Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/upon the slimy sea”), the curse is lifted for a while as he now sees their real beauty, and proceeds to give them blessing (“a spring of love gush’d from my heart and I bless’d them, unaware”) Whilst he prays, the dead Albatross slips from his neck, and his guilt partly expiated. Possessed by good spirits, the bodies of the crew are returned to life, and sail the ship back to land, whereupon it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. A hermit, watching as the ship approached, came, along with a pilot and his boy, to meet the Mariner in a boat – thinking him dead as they haul him out of the water, the pilot has a fit as he opens his mouth to speak, and laughs madly, and assuming him to be the devil, says “The Devil knows how to row”
As full penance for killing the Albatross, the Mariner is cursed to roam the earth, relating his tale to everyone he should meet along the way, with, as a lesson, these words:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small,
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
And so, his story complete, the Mariner makes his way, and the wedding guest returns home to sleep. He awakes the next day “A sadder, but wiser man”
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn,
A sadder, and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
The poem is seen by many as a Christian allegory, by some as having a moral. Others regard it as semi-autobiographical of Coleridge himself, based on his own experiences. Me? I just think it’s a fantastic poem!! Yes, it’s incredibly long, some would say tedious, for it was heavily criticised by such as Wordsworth, in it’s day, but it’s a great tale, whatever your outlook on it’s basis.
For me, the Albatross evokes images of loneliness, as it spends so much of it’s life at sea, travelling thousands of miles riding the various weather systems, following ships – perhaps immortalised by Coleridge’s longest poem, it will surely be forever associated with sailors, a harbinger of good fortune, lest anyone is foolish enough to shoot one down!
Perhaps not imbued with quite the same mythical status as the other birds I’ve included in this series of posts, the Albatross nevertheless, is a fascinating bird, steeped in superstition, and deserves it’s place in the mythology & legends of birds. It’s enigmatic nature only serves to enhance, and deepen the mystery attached to it
I saw the poem as the best way in which to illustrate the Albatross’ air of mystery, I hope you’ve been able to bear with me, as it’s a slight diversion from the path I usually take in my posts. I hope too, that you may have enjoyed another look at the myth & folklore of birds that so captures my imagination.
The Dyfi Osprey Project and the Scottish wildlife Trust have kindly given their permission for us to post still and video images from their webcams. To visit their sites please click on the relevant link.
Loch of the Lowes. Dyfi Osprey Project.