Birds of Paradise
Voyage to the Terrestrial Paradise. Five hundred years ago, in 1519, a fleet of ships set out from Spain, to make the first voyage around the entire globe. They also sailed to find the source of highly prized exotic spices, such as cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg to harvest them for themselves. Spices were thought to come from an Earthly paradise in the Far East. A land of exoticism and mystery waiting to be discovered. It lured the seafaring nations to seek “a strange, and for so many ages, an unknown world, in order to search for the islands where spices grow”.
These spices grew only in the Moluccan islands in South East Asia which the Spanish Ships did eventually reach. But only one ship from the fleet survived the entire voyage around the globe, returning alone to Spain in 1522. The rest had fallen to battles, disease and accidents along the way.
Amongst the marvellous things that the sailors brought back were the skins of birds of paradise. Five of them had been given by a Sultan of one of the Moluccan islands as a royal gift for Spanish King. Birds this spectacular had never been seen in Europe before. A Portuguese writer, Antonio Pigafetta, who had been on the voyage, described the strange creatures: “These birds are as large as thrushes; they have small heads, long beaks, legs slender like a writing pen, and a span in length; they have no wings, but instead of them long feathers of different colours.” The skins looked unusual because they were dried and did not have wings. They were prepared in this way by hunters in New Guinea who found the birds in deep, tangled rainforests and used them as adornments for tribal dances. To heighten the drama of the feathers, the hunters removed the birds’ flesh, wings and legs, and dried them above a fire.
The birds of paradise had been traded around New Guinea and throughout Asia for over 5000 years before Europeans arrived. The Moluccan traders that had given these skins to the Spanish had never seen the living birds. But they told plenty of stories about them, that Pigafetta reported:‘they never fly, except when the wind blows. They told us that these birds come from the terrestrial Paradise, and they call them 'bolon dinata', that is, “divine birds”. Accompanied by such fabulous stories, these beautiful skins seemed magical: floating jewel-like birds; symbols of a terrestrial Eden that had been rediscovered. It was a paradise that held the promise of riches.
The Portuguese poet, Luis Vaz de Camoen, wrote a poem called Os Lusiadas in 1572 about the bounty of this spice-filled region and its birds.
The golden birds that ever sail the skies
Here to the sun display their shining dyes
Each want supplied, on air they soar;
The ground they touch not till they breathe no more.
And birds of ev’ry beauteous plume display
Their glitt’ring radiance, as, from spray to spray,
From bower to bower, on busy wings they rove,
To seize the tribute of the spicy grove.
Feathers of emerald and gold
Two decades after the first few bird of paradise skins arrived in Europe in the early 16th century, Portuguese and Spanish ships returning from the East Indies with cargoes of spices brought back increasing numbers of skins. The skins were rapidly bought by wealthy collectors for their curiosity collections. These cabinets of wonder, were worlds in minature including things from around the globe allowing the viewer to take on the universe at a glance. Carefully chosen objects showed the power, taste and learning of the collector. So the shining, spectacular feathers of the birds of paradise were irresistible.
Most of these skins had the iridescent green and velvety brown plumage of the greater bird of paradise, Paradisaea apoda. A few other species arrived too, such as the twelve-wired bird of paradise, but were never seen because they were buried deep in curiosity collections. Some vivid descriptions were written of the skins, and the intense experience of looking at them. One scholar, Joseph Scaliger gave a detailed description in 1551: ‘The head is not round but squashed, like that of a swallow, as big as the walnut. It has a very long and forked tail. The feathers on the upper part of the head are so small that I almost mistook them for hairs. Its greenness was… so vivid that it imitated the splendour of an emerald. In the underside… [the feathers were]… yellow and gleamed like citrine... worthy of admiration. Since it is always moving in the air, the barbs of the feathers do not stick together... Yet the rigidity of the quill is remarkable, which is like the keel of a ship…’.
Another scholar, Carolus Clusius wrote an account of a skin he examined in 1601:
‘From the throat right up to the breast the feathers resemble featherlets…
as if decorated with silken threads, saturated with a green colour so elegant and splendid, like the throat of a wild male duck the feathers covering the breast are very fine… long and very soft, coloured dark rufus of the wing feathers, there is a great variety of colours. Some shone with a golden colour; some had a colour blood red from black, but, splendid in short, they are absolutely lovely.’
Like the stained glass windows of churches, the striking colours and shapes of the bird of paradise plumes created awe. Clusius described the ‘infatuation’ he felt when looking at the skins, as if the beauty of their feathers could make him feel drunk with wonder.
Just as the bird of paradise feathers were likened to precious gems used in jewellery, the irresistible feathers were quickly used in headdresses and other adornments. Several paintings show nobles wearing whole skins or plumes.
Everyone wanted to wear a piece of paradise. Over the next few hundred years, the birds would be slaughtered in their thousands to provide panaches and decorative plumes for the European social elites.
Myths of Fallen Angels. When the birds of paradise arrived in Europe in 1522 from South East Asia, they did not arrive alone. They came with a collection of mystical stories that had been told about them by traders and travellers there. The secretary at the Spanish court recorded some of these myths in 1523: ‘The kings of Marmin began to believe that souls were immortal a few years ago, induced by no other argument than that they saw that a certain most beautiful small bird never rested upon the ground nor upon anything that grew upon it; but they sometimes saw it fall dead upon the ground from the sky. And as the Mahometans… told them that this bird was born in Paradise, and that Paradise was the abode of the souls of those who had died…they call the bird Mamuco Diata [Bird of God].’
The birds arrived in Europe as supernatural creatures, capturing the imagination of writers and scholars so these ideas only escalated. They wove an elaborate mythology around these plumed skins, which persisted for over a century. Strangely, most of these descriptions were written by people who had never seen the rare skins. In 1550, the Italian scholar Jerome Cardan reasoned that, because these birds were never seen alive and could not land without feet, they must exist always airborne, circling in the sky. Given that nothing solid was ever found in the birds’ bodies, they must be like a mythical ‘little Persian Bird’ he knew o
which was thought to live upon air and dew. He also suggested that male birds had a cavity in their backs in which females laid eggs.
A few years later, the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner took the ideas further. He suggested the birds of paradise were effortlessly suspended in the air by their large plumed feathers The skins also had hair-like threads that stuck out behind, which Gessner called cirri. He thought that the birds might use these to hang from tree branches when they were tired. The cirri might also be important in the birds’ love lives. Gessner imagined couples winding their cirri together when mating, or when females sat on the male to keep her eggs warm in the sky. There was a limit to what Gessner was prepared to believe though. He argued that they could not possibly live only on watery dew. They were birds, after all.
In other books, birds of paradise became important symbols. The unending flight of the birds of paradise and their light diet of dew became an icon of spiritual living, and restless, quick thought. In these writings and images,the small, shining skins from a far-away paradise became angels from Eden: untouchable, pure and sustained only by heavenly dew. The skins were the bodies of Fallen angels that had descended from heaven. Fittingly, the birds of paradise were even placed in the stars, where they did float perpetually above the earth. In 1598, the Dutch astronomer Petrus Planchius made the bird of paradise into a new southern hemisphere constellation called Paradysvogel Apis Indica.