Crane Folklore

Cranes are solar birds, and when they returned in springtime, they were thought to bring the sun back with them. Standing by the waters, cranes and herons are among the first birds to greet the dawn. The Celts associated marsh birds with the supernatural, dwelling as they do in a misty ‘place between places’ that is neither land nor water, thought to be one of the entrances to the Otherworld. It was commonly believed that the crane was the epitome of vigilance, standing on one leg and holding a stone in its raised foot; if the bird fell asleep, the stone would drop, waking it. Cranes were sentinels at the castle of the sea god Manannan on the Isle of Man.

Cranes were sacred to gods and goddesses who presided over the mysteries of death and rebirth. Flying cranes are sometimes said to be the souls of the dead or mark the death of the old year. The mating dance of cranes was once thought to be a magical ritual and the movements were imitated by human dancers. It was performed round a horned altar and represented the labyrinth- the twisting path into the Otherworld.

Two girls called Aoife and Iuchra both fell in love with Ilbrec, the son of the sea god Mannanan. Iuchra deftly rid herself of her rival by turning Aoife into a crane. In this form, Aoife lived on the Isle of Man for two hundred years, and when she died, her skin was made into a bag for Mannanan. It became one of his most important possessions, as he kept five magical items in it. Some suggest that these were the five letters of the ogham alphabet. The Druids kept their ogham lots in craneskin bags, with the carved letters being pulled out as a rite of divination. The god Ogma was said to have invented ogham after watching the flight of cranes, with the shapes of the birds against the sky giving him the idea for the angular letters.

In Ireland, the sudden appearance of a crane heralded the cessation of hostilities in a war. If a warrior on his way to battle chanced to see one, he was doomed, since the sight of it would rob him of his courage. For this reason, cranes were often engraved on shields and pieces of armour to strike terror into the enemy.

The crane was a hallowed bird, and its meat was forbidden. Breaking this taboo would result in ill fortune, the loss of courage, illness, or perhaps even death. This prohibition was preserved in folklore well into the seventeenth century when Scotsmen would get rid of unwelcome guests by inviting them to eat the flesh of cranes.

© Anna Franklin & Paul Mason, Celtic Animal Oracle, Vega, 2003


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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