So I was flicking over a manuscript in a digital collection, and saw a scene of Adam and Eve in Paradise. I looked up and saw birds in the trees.
And I thought, that’s beautiful. I love birds.
But then I saw blood…
That bird is feeding her chicks her own blood. Where on earth did that come from?
As it turns out, it’s a recurring feature of the pelican. Isidore of Seville wrote what he heard about the pelican, though he doubted whether it was true:
The Pelican is a bird that lives in Egypt by itself on the river Nile, from where it takes its name; for it is called “Canopos” in Egyptian. It is said (if that may be true) that she kills her own offspring, and mourns them for three days; then she wounds herself and revives her children by the sprinkling of her blood.
Pelicanus avis Aegyptia habitans in solitudine Nili fluminis, unde et nomen sumpsit; nam Canopos Aegyptus dicitur. Fertur, si verum sit, eam occidere natos suos, eosque per triduum lugere, deinde se ipsam vulnerare et aspersione sui sanguinis vivificare filios.
– Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book 12, 7:26
Manuscript illustrators took up the story, though, and produced some unexpectedly beautiful yet gory illustrations of the scene.
The bird’s blood-letting story seems to have been popular, especially when details such as the three days death of the chicks allegorise the death and resurrection of Christ. And yet the gore is not what really surprises me about these illustrations.
What surprises me the most is that they don’t obviously look like pelicans. Where is the pelican’s enormous pouchy bill, that unmistakable feature which Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book 10, 66) called a “second stomach”?
The pelican, after all, is hardly an exotic species. It’s found all over Europe.
And what’s more, in the original image I found the illuminator had painted several different species of birds with a fine eye for colour and anatomical detail. The artisan was certainly capable of painting more than just a generic bird shape for all the birds in the world.
The clue is in Isidore of Seville. He wrote that “the pelican is a bird that lives in Egypt.” While the species of birds from the family Pelecanidae were native all over Europe, this “pelican” is said to be Egyptian. That fact alone makes it exotic and unapproachable. And if the literary descriptions in the Medieval Bestiary online are representative, it looks like the other descriptions of blood-letting pelicans don’t contain references to the pouch-bill, but do sometimes refer to the bird as Egyptian. It was an exotic tale for an exotic bird.
The conclusion I’m left with is that the bird named “pelican” emerged as a purely literary trope. The actual species of birds from the family Pelecanidae did continue to exist and people in Europe would have seen them. However the “pelican” of manuscript fame was not meant to resemble those birds. The literary, Egyptian “pelican” was understood to be different from those big-billed birds at the local beach.
Granted, it is quite hard to imagine how one could even draw the real pelican stabbing herself in the chest with such a large and unwieldy bill.