Five Mythical Birds from Around the World

Alicanto Image by JohnnyMellado – CC BY-SA 4.0

Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world.  Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.

The Legendary Alicanto Bird

In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America.   The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal.  Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights.   These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten.  For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green.  Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted.  Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.

Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless.  When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster.  It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats.  According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros.  These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish.  It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.

Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness.  If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness.  If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death.  One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore.  This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.

The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore

In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also  known as the “Fire Rooster”.    It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture.   According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.

They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements.   The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped.  If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.

The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales

In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it.  The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name.  The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room.   They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist.   It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger.  This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.

The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero.  All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable. The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout.  The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king.  On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess.  On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire.  In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.

The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore

In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form.  It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull.  The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region.   When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land.   It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses.  However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk.  Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.

The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator.  Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep.  Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa.   They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.  Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by.   Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe.   Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well. 

The Anqa of Arabian Mythology

In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun.  She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib.   Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.

Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf.   He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves.  The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.

© 12/05/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 12th, 2021 zteve t evans

Welsh Folklore: The Mythical Beasts of Llyn Cowlyd

cat jackson / Llyn Cowlyd / CC BY-SA 2.0

Llyn Cowlyd

Llyn Cowlyd is a long and narrow lake almost two miles long and about a third of a mile wide situated in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales.  It is the deepest lake in northern Wales and has given soundings of 229 feet. Today it is used as a reservoir and its depths have been raised twice from its natural depth and its natural depth was believed to be about 184 feet.  Today, it has a bleak, treeless appearance though according to the Red Book of Hergest, written around 1382 from oral tradition  it was once forested. According to legend and tradition there were three mythical beasts associated with it; the water horse, the water bull and the Owl of Cowlyd. This work will briefly discuss the myths associated with each of them.

The Legendary Ceffyl Dŵr, the Water Horse

Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain]

According to ancient tradition Llyn Cowlyd is the home of a legendary Ceffyl Dŵr or water horse, which are featured in many legends and folktales.  They are said to have been shape-shifters that could also fly and despite their solid appearance could evaporate quickly into a fine mist. Although there were many alleged sightings of water horses during the 18th century no records were made until the 19th century.

According to tradition the water horse has fiery eyes and it is dangerous for humans  to look into them. It is said that when a water horse is close a dark and forbidding feeling is experienced and those who work near its known haunts will quickly make themselves scarce.   Sabine Baring-Gould in 1903 gave the following warning for anyone who should encounter a water horse, 

“Should he see a horse, however quiet and staid, browsing near, let him not venture to mount it, although the beast seems to invite the weary traveller through the heather to take a seat on its back. No sooner is he in his seat than all its want of spirit is at an end. It flies away with its rider towards the lake, plunges in, and will never be seen again. It is the Ceffyl y Dwfr, the Water-horse, a spirit that lives in the depths, with a special taste for human flesh, which it will munch below when it has its victim at the bottom of the blue water.” (1)

The water horse of Llyn Cowlyd was believed to be an evil entity that only appeared at night assuming the shape of a horse and trying to entice unwary people to try and ride it.  Once a rider was mounted it would fly into the clouds, perhaps over the mountains or over water and then suddenly dissipate into fine mist leaving the rider to fall to their death.   It was said that members of the clergy alone could safely ride the water horse as long as they did not speak a word. Although Llyn Cowlyd had its own water horse another was said to haunt Llyn Crafnant.

Sometimes in Wales, the water horse is associated with the sea and is said to be the bringer of storms.   They are believed to change their appearance before and after the storm. Before the storm they would be seen stamping around in the waves their coats a dapple grey or white.  After the storm they changed their coats into a chestnut or piebald coloring and were seen trotting along the shore. During long stormy periods their coats became the colour of sea foam.

The Water Bull of Llyn Cowlyd

by George W. Hobbs [Public domain]

Llyn Cowlyd is also the home of another mythical beast called a water bull, which is also found in Scotland.  Water bulls are usually seen as being nocturnal and make moorland lakes their homes and also have amphibious and have shape shifting abilities.   Water bulls can be dangerous and alarming and are sometimes seen with fiery horns and hoofs with flame spouting from their nostrils. According to tradition, solitary walkers near the lakeside have been known to have been dragged into the water to their deaths.

The Owl of Cowlyd

artist – Miller [Public domain]

The Mabinogion the tale of Culhwch and Olwen mentions the Owl of Cowlyd as one of the oldest animals in the world that lived in the cwm, or valley of Cowlyd.   Culhwch the protagonist of the story, has to find him in order to complete a series of near impossible tasks as ordained by Ysbaddaden the giant, before he will grant  permission for him to marry his beautiful daughter, Olwen. Culhwch recruits the aid of King Arthur who is his cousin. Arthur provides Culhwch with companions to help him on his quest and the adventures begin.

One of the tasks he was set by Ysbaddaden  was to find Mabon, who was the son of Modron whose whereabouts were unknown.  Mabon was essential to the success of the quest of Culhwch. To succeed he had to kill the legendary wild boar. the Twrch Trwyth.  The only dog who could track the Twrch Trwyth was the hunting dog named Drudwyn and the only man who could handle Drudwyn was Mabon.  The problem was that Mabon was being held captive in some secret place and no one knew where.

It was believed only  the oldest and wisest animals in the world may possess the knowledge  of the whereabouts of Mabon therefore these were sought out. The questers came to the Blackbird of Cilgwri, who led them to the Stag of Redynfre, who led them to the Owl of Cowlyd,  living in the valley surrounding the lake.  The owl told them,

“If I knew I would tell you. When first I came hither, the wide valley you see was a wooded glen. And a race of men came and rooted it up. And there grew there a second wood; and this wood is the third. My wings, are they not withered stumps? Yet all this time, even until to-day, I have never heard of the man for whom you inquire. Nevertheless, I will be the guide of Arthur’s embassy until you come to the place where is the oldest animal in this world, and the one that has travelled most.” (2)

The Owl of Cowlyd led them to the Eagle of Gwern Abw, who led them to the Salmon of Llyn Llyw who revealed that Modron was being held prisoner and showed them the whereabouts of his prison. 

Lesson For The Future

Llyn Cowlyd is associated with some very strange mythical beasts although by its appearances today you would not think it possible but the lake and its valley have not always been as they are now.   If we look closely at what the owl says we will see it has changed from a wooded vale into the bleak and treeless place we see today through human activity. Indeed, the lake itself has been altered by humans to serve the needs of humans and we see how humanity changes the landscape and environment for its own needs perhaps providing a lesson for the future, or a warning.

© 06/11/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 6th, 2019 zteve t evans

The Scottish legend of the Each-uisge

In Scottish mythology the each-uisge is a supernatural water horse that haunts the Highlands. The name each-uisge means water horse in Scottish Gaelic. In Ireland the equivalent is the each-uisace, or Ech-Ushkya and on the Isle of Man they have the cabyll-ushtey.

Each Uisge by Liza PhoenixCC BY-SA 3.0 – From Wikimedia Commons

It has a reputation of being the most dangerous water monster in Britain. The each-uisge reputedly lives in the sea and also freshwater lochs. It is often erroneously taken for Kelpie, which are also supernatural water creatures, but live in rivers and streams. These are not regarded as being as dangerous as the each-uisge.   Continue reading