Vulture Gods

Myths of vultures and vulture gods come to us from all over the world. In the Middle East, there was a vulture deity known as Nasr who was also sometimes called an "Eagle God." In Egypt, Neret is the male counterpart of the vulture goddess Nekhbet. The Native Americans of North America told many stories about the vulture or buzzard (although in none of these was he named a god or even a king. "Grandfather Buzzard" is as close as he got.) Below are a couple of stories of two vulture gods from South America, followed by information on the recurrence of vulture motifs throughout the world's mythology.

Urubutsin (Amazon/Brazil):

Iae represents the Moon god for the Mamaiurans, an Amazon Indian tribe living along the banks of the Xingu river in Brazil. According to a Mamaiuran legend, at the beginning of time it was always night and the Indian tribes were forced to live in perpetual fear of attack from wild animals. The light could not reach the Mamaiurans because the wings of the birds blocked the sky.

Iae and his brother, Kuat, decided to steal some light from the vulture god Urubutsin, king of the birds. The two brothers hid themselves in a corpse, and waited until the birds approached. As soon as Urubutsin landed on the corpse to eat the maggots that it was supposed to contain, Kuat grasped the Urubutsin's leg. Unable to get away and deserted by his followers, Urubutsin was forced to compromise with the two brothers.

He agreed that he would share daylight with the Mamaiurans. To make the light last for long time, it was established that day should alternate with night. As a result, Kuat became associated with the Sun and Iae with the Moon.

Canadian stamp depicting the Thunderbird.

Mural of vultures from Catal Huyuk

Heresa Heri (Brazil):

In the beginning of all things, there was no light, no sun, no moon, no stars, only the Lubu Byu-Y-Teke ("Dark Tent of Rain" - the night sky). There was no way of counting time, the crops were meager for the lack of light, the Kuni-Bina (restless souls) rampantly walked the dark forests, and the animals were intelligent and could speak among themselves and with the Inan (people). Each animal group had its own Bedu (shaman), responsible for the welfare of the race as a whole.

The gods were worshiped by both man and animal, as most gods were animals as well. Fire was a gift from Haloe, the Puma, and with it the Inan were able to find some relief from the darkness and cold winds. But that was not enough.

Then a young brave shaman called Kananciwe was blessed by Haloe and went deep into the forests, seeking for a light that might be permanent. He fought a Kuni-Bina and was able to find an answer from the restless spirit.

It told him that in a forgotten age, before the Beginning, the Greater Spirit had shared a bit of His wisdom with the most powerful and ancient of the animal gods, and those had shared such wisdom and power with their own Bedu. He had given gifts and guardianship of powers and knowledge to each one of the animal races.

Among them, Haloe (the Puma), protector of all hunters, had received power over fire and all creatures on the ground, and Heresa Heri (the Giant Vulture King) had received the skies, disease and death. It was said that Heresa Heri did not even come down to earth to sleep, preferring to rest on the rainy clouds. The Vulture King was the most beautiful of all birds, as his feathers were white and he had a shining, silver and golden plumage cascading over his head and shoulders. The Kuni-Bina suggested that the headdress might be more than a mere adornment.

"Kananciwe decided to see it for himself. He prepared an herbal medicine that feigned death, keeping his own Kuni (spirit) alert just outside his body, and so he managed to lure the scavenging animals to him. The blue fly, seneschal of the Vulture King, told its master of the new, still-warm human corpse found on the top of a hill, and that he was no less the greatest hero of the Inan. The voracious bird decided it would be an unparalleled pleasure to eat the remains of such a hero and plummeted down on him from the high skies.

"But Kananciwe's own spirit was ready for the attack. He quickly got up, jumping and grappling the creature. During the brief battle, he showered the bird with another magical potion that prevented spellcasting and reduced the bird's size to that of a normal vulture. Unable to cast spells and being true to his coward nature, the Vulture King accepted defeat, saying he would gladly barter anything for his freedom.

The Inan asked about the secret of the Vulture's shining headdress. Dismayed by the hero's knowledge about his most well-guarded secret, the enchanted bird confessed that the Vulture God, upon receiving the gift of the skies, had imbued him, his most devoted Bedu, with the ability of enchanting pieces of crystal, diamonds and other gems, turning them into a permanent type of light unknown at that time. But instead of sharing that light with all, he had decided to enchant the gems only for himself, and fused them with his own body, creating that shining feathered headdress.

Kananciwe was enraged at such vile treachery. Heresa Heri explained that the Vulture God had given him the gift and ordered him to enchant the stones, but not to scatter them throughout the skies. The Inan was not convinced at all and, taking one claw of puma, a present from the Haloe Bedu, he started to cut the creature's scalp, scattering the white feathers in the winds.

Feeling great pain, the Heresa Heri let go of some starlight, and immediately all nature understood what had happened and how the Vulture had betrayed them. At the same time, all vultures flew to rescue their leader.

Spotting the human shaman, they thought better of it and decided to wait for the best moment.

Kananciwe was happy but not satisfied with the light. He took more feathers and this time blood flowed from the wounds, covering the vulture's head, neck and beak. The feathers reassumed their true shape as gems and then turned into stars and constellations. But the sky was still deep blue and cloudy. Then the human shaman once again hurt the bird, and the full moon spread its silver light over the land.

There were no more silver feathers on the top of the vulture's head, only a bunch of golden ones. Heresa Heri told the hero that those were not enchanted and there would come no light from them. Suspecting another lie, the hero cut deeply into the evil bird's flesh, and all golden feathers came together, suddenly lighting up as a large bonfire. The flames spread more and more, and the sky turned pink and orange, as the giant star, the Tsuu (Sun) finally shone. Then Haloe took notice of it, and as it was made of pure fire the Puma held power over it and renamed himself, from that day on, as Haloe-Tsuu (Sun Puma).

The new light dazed Kananciwe, and tears rolled down his cheeks. He loosened his grip on the Vulture King that regained his size and powers at once.

Heresa Heri immediately and fiercely attacked the surprised hero, killing him on the spot. The Sun Puma saw that new treason, and immediately condemned the Vulture for his selfish deeds.

Heresa Heri was cursed to never again face the sunlight, lest he be utterly destroyed and become an incorporeal Kuni. His only trophies from his victory in that doomed encounter would be his still white feathers that set him apart from the other vultures and the dried blood over his head, neck and beak, that formed a deep red bonnet. He was driven to the deepest caves by the scorching rays of the sun, but before he could escape the burning light mortally wounded him. From the dark tunnels he summoned the other vultures and their shamans, and they all gathered in a ceremonial rite that would preserve his spirit, as he did not want to become a Kuni.

As he was prepared and buried, he cursed the Inan that had found his secret, the Kuni that had told the Inan about it, the puma that had taken his most prized gift of light from him, and the very skies for now being the house of the light he would never be able to behold again. Some powerful spirit must have heard his curse, as the puma lost a bit of his control over the sun, and the giant star never again fully left the sky. The night was over forever and our lands were taken away from the rest of the large forests around us. And we, the true descendants of the hero Kananciwe and his tribe, must now go on with our lives in a burning land under the endless daylight, awaiting the time when the sun will finally give us more relief than one only night per month. Yet, we fear and despise the dark, for the Vulture King might still be somewhere out there, waiting for the night to come as well..."

Vulture Associations:

In Egypt the bird is an emblem of Isis, who once took this form, and is also sacred to Mat as goddess of maternity; she can be depicted as vulture-headed or with a vulture headdress. Hathor can also be vulture-headed and Nekhabet of Southern Egypt sometimes appears as a vulture. The bird was known as "Pharaoh's Hen", representing the feminine principle associated with the Scarab as the male.

In Graeco-Roman myth the vulture is associated with Pallas, Ares/Mars and Apollo and is the mount of Kronos/Saturn. Hercules slew the vulture which tore the liver of Prometheus and the bird was sacred to him. Harpies were represented as having the body of a vulture with the head and breast of a woman. There was a legend that the vulture, like the eagle, did not lay eggs but gave birth to fully-fledged live young. Aelian says that sweet perfume kills vultures and that myrrh and pomegranates are also fatal. The claw of a vulture, like the horn of a unicorn, detects the presence of poison in food or drink.

The Griffin Vulture was a royal emblem on the standards of Assyrian and Persian armies.

There was an Arabian vulture god Nasr.

In West Africa the vulture Fene-Ma-So is the Bird of the Sky, the King of the Birds.