Mythical birds have soared through the legends and folklore of cultures worldwide for as long as people have been telling stories. Perhaps it’s their gift of flight that has sparked people’s imaginations, or maybe it’s the beauty of their feathers or songs. Whether as symbols of divine intervention, resilience, or impending doom, birds clearly captivated the imaginations of ancient people whose stories about them reflected the full range of human emotions and creativity. In this post, we’ll embark on a journey through various cultures to uncover the most fascinating mythological birds.
Birds in Greek Mythology
Culture: Greek and Egyptian
The Phoenix, known for its cycle of death and rebirth, is a powerful symbol of transformation and renewal. Arising from its ashes, it represents hope, eternal life, and the undying spirit. The Phoenix features in both Greek and Egyptian myths as a majestic, colorful bird associated with the sun and fire.
In Greek mythology, Harpies are depicted as fearsome creatures with the body of a bird and the face of a woman. They are known as the spirits of wind and were often considered as personifications of destructive nature. Harpies are famously remembered for relentlessly stealing food from the blind king Phineus and being driven away by the heroes of the Argonaut expedition.
The griffin, or gryphon, is a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle (or vulture.) In Greek mythology, griffins were exalted. They were powerful guardians of treasure and priceless possessions. They symbolized strength, power, and vigilance.
4. Stymphalian Birds
Stymphalian birds are mythical creatures that appear in Greek mythology. They were known for their destructive nature. Indeed, they possessed metallic feathers that they could launch at their victims. They were inhabitants of the Stymphalian Lake, and their defeat by Heraclex during his sixth labor is a well-known Greek myth, symbolizing the triumph of humanity over nature’s menaces.1
Named for the Greek word for “burning” or “blazing,” Aethon was the eagle who was sent as punishment from Zeus. The crime? Prometheus stole fire and gave it to human beings. The child of monsters, Aethon would perpetually eat out the liver of Prometheus.
Alectryon is a figure in Greek mythology who is transformed into a rooster as a punishment by the god Ares. He was set to guard the door when Ares was having in illicit love affair with Aphrodite. However, he fell asleep and the lovers were caught by Helios, the god of the sun. As a consequence, Alectryon would turn into a rooster that announces the arrival of the sun each morning.
A cockatrice is a mythical beast that has the tail of a serpent, dragons’ legs, giant wings, and a rooster’s head. According to Greek mythology, this can happen if a hen lays an egg that is then incubated by a toad or a serpent! The cockatrice had the power to kill with their gaze and was a symbol of fear and death.
Also in Greek mythology, the strix was a bird that predicted bad events. They would also feed on human flesh and drink blood. The strix was particularly feared by parents as they believed they preyed upon children.
European and British Mythical Birds
In more recent English folklore, the Owlman is a mysterious creature who has been compared to America’s Mothman. Reportedly seen in Cornwall, England, the Owlman is described as an owl-like humanoid with very large wings. The Owlman is usually seen around a local church tower. Some fear the Owlman is the result of the church having been built on grounds that were formerly sacred pagan sites.2
10. Adar Rhiannon
Also known as the “birds of Rhiannon” in Welsh folklore, the Adar are three mythical birds who are celebrated for their entrancing, melodious songs. Believed to possess healing powers, their songs are said to have the ability to cure the sick and even revive the dead. As their name implies, they are linked to the goddess Rhiannon, who ruled the Welsh and Celtic Otherworld.3
The Nachtkrapp, also known as the “Night Raven,” is a creature from Germanic folklore. It is often described as a large, black bird-like creature that preys upon misbehaving children. It is a nocturnal creature and is associated with omens and the supernatural, embodying the fear of the dark and the unknown.
The turul is a mythological bird of prey in Hungarian mythology. It is often depicted as a falcon or hawk and is a symbol of power, strength, and nobility. In fact, the turul is a national symbol of Hungary, representing the guardian spirit that led the ancient Magyars to their homeland.
Culture: Australian and British
The Oozlum bird, featured in Australian and British folk tales, is known for its peculiar behavior of flying backward. It’s often used in stories as a metaphor for absurdity and paradox. This mythical bird is a whimsical representation of the unexpected and the nonsensical in folklore.
In Russian mythology, the alkonost is a creature with the body of a bird and the head of a woman. It is said to have a mesmerizingly beautiful voice that soothes and brings joy to listeners. The alkonost is associated with paradise and is believed to bring happiness and hope, symbolizing the harmony between nature and humanity.
You can read more about the alkonost in my post about heron symbolism.
Sirin, in Russian folklore, is a mythical creature with the head and chest of a beautiful woman and the body of a bird. The sirin bird sings songs that lead listeners to forget everything and follow it, often resulting in sorrow. Sirin symbolizes the temptation of worldly pleasures and the danger of being led astray by them.
16. The Firebird
The firebird is a magical and elusive bird in Slavic folklore. It’s known for its bright, fiery plumage and its enchanting song. The quest for the firebird is a common theme in Slavic fairy tales, where it is often sought after for its beauty and mystical power.4
The gamayun is a mythical bird in Russian folklore that has the face of a woman. In her song, you can hear secrets about what will happen in the future and access other important universal knowledge. She allegedly lives on Buyan Island. Gamayun represents wisdom, knowledge, mystery, and insight.
Mythical Birds of Scandinavia
In Norse mythology, Hræsvelgr is a giant eagle-like bird. His name translates to “shipwreck current” or “corpse swallower”5 most likely because he controls the wind. Hræsvelgrat perches on the edge of the world and when he flaps his massive wings, he causes the wind to blow.
19. Hugin and Munin
Hugin and Munin are a pair of ravens who are messengers for the Norse god Odin. Their names translate to “thought” and “memory,” respectively. Hugin and Munin fly around the Earth, or Midgard, and then bring messages about what’s going on back to Odin.
Mythological Birds of Asia
20. Bai Ze
Bai Ze is a mythical bird-like creature in Chinese culture. A revered creature, Bai Ze is sometimes described as a dragon-goat hybrid with a single horn. At other times, as a winged lion-goat. Bai Ze is celebrated for having extensive knowledge of all living beings and they bring joy, good fortune, and protection against evil. It’s said that anyone who brings harm to Bai Ze can face divine retribution through a lightning strike.6
Culture: Hindu and Buddhist
In Hindu mythology, Garuda is a giant mythical bird who serves as the mount of Lord Vishnu. Representing speed, power, and martial prowess, Garuda is often depicted as a protector against evil and a devourer of serpents, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.
Gandaberunda is a tmythological bird in Hindu mythology who is one of the manifestations of the god Vishnu. He is sometimes depicted as a two-headed eagle. Gandaberunda represents might, resilience, and the ability to face and overcome great challenges.
23. Ulama, the Devil Bird
Culture: Sri Lankan
In Sri Lankan folklore, Ulama, who is an owl-like creature that is also called the devil bird because of their blood-curdling scream. According to Sri Lankan folklore, the scream of the devil bird is a harbinger of death.7
In Philippine mythology, the Minokawa is a giant dragon-like bird. According to the Bagobo people, this bird is large enough to swallow the moon, causing eclipses. It is often depicted as a ferocious creature, representing the powerful forces of nature and the mysteries of the cosmos.
Tengu are mythical creatures found in Japanese folklore. They are often depicted as bird-like humanoids with long noses. The tengu are known to be skilled warriors and are sometimes revered as protective spirits. They also represent deified natural forces. While at other times, they are feared as mischievous demons.
Yatagarasu is a mythical three-legged crow in Japanese mythology. He is viewed as a divine creature sent by the sun goddess Amaterasu. According to Japanese folklore, Yatagarasu guided Emperor Jimmu on his initial journey from the region of Kumano to Yamato. Yatagarasu symbolizes divine intervention and guidance.
In Japanese mythology, Itsumade is a monstrous bird with a human face. This creature appears during tumultuous times, crying out loudly and causing destruction. Itsumade represents chaos and the fears associated with natural disasters and societal unrest.
28. Feng Huang
Feng Huang, also known as the Chinese phoenix, is a mythological bird that symbolizes grace, virtue, and the union of yin and yang. It is depicted with colorful plumage and is said to appear only in areas blessed with peace and prosperity. Feng Huang represents harmony, balance, and grace.
29. Vermilion Bird
The Vermilion bird, known as Zhu Que in Chinese culture, is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. It is often depicted as a red bird that resembles a pheasant. It’s associated with fire, the south, and summertime. The Vermilion bird symbolizes elegance, nobility, and the transformative power of fire.
In Chinese mythology, Shangyang is a mythical bird that is associated with bringing rain. Shangyang symbolizes renewal, growth, and prosperity.
Zhenniao, whose name translates to “poison bird,” is a mythical bird in Chinese folklore known for its toxic feathers. According to local legends, arrows made from Zhenniao’s feathers can cause instant death.
In Buddhist mythology, Karura is a mythical bird-man creature who is similar to the Hindu mythical bird Garuda. Karura is a fire-breathing creature who feeds on dragons, or nagas, and is revered as a protector figure. The karura symbolizes spiritual power and protection against evil.
Made famous in the Philippine epic Ibong Adarna, the adarna bird is known for its beautiful colorful plumage. The adarda bird is said to have the power to heal any ailment with its song. In addition, its droppings can petrify creatures, adding an element of danger to its otherwise beneficial nature.
Mythical Birds of Africa
Bennu is a giant bird in Egyptian mythology who associated with the sun, creation, and rebirth. Often depicted as a heron or a similar bird, Bennu is said to have played a role in the creation of the world and is a symbol of life and renewal.
You can read more about Bennu in my post on egret symbolism.
Ra, the Egyptian sun god, is often depicted with a falcon’s head. He is the king of all gods and the bringer of light. As the god of the sun, Ra represents creation, life, and warmth. He is one of the most important gods in Egyptian mythology, embodying the power of the sun and its vital role in sustaining life.
Horus is also one of the most significant ancient Egyptian deities. Like Ra, he was often depicted as a falcon or as a man with the head of a falcon. The god of the sky, the moon, and war, Horus is known for his iconic eye, which represents protection, royal power, and good health. He is a symbol of divine kingship and the protector of the ruler of Egypt.
Thoth is the Egyptian god of writing, magic, wisdom, and the moon. He is depicted as a man with the head of an ibis, or as a baboon. Both of these animals were sacred to him. Thoth is known as the mediator among the gods and the scribe of the underworld, representing knowledge and scholarly pursuits.
The axex is a griffin-like mythical bird-like creature in Egyptian mythology. He is is depicted with the head of a hawk or rooster, and the body of a leopard or lion. Tjhe axex was a revered and worshiped creature in ancient Egyptian society.
Culture: Akan, Ghana
The Sankofa bird is a significant symbol in Akan culture. It is depicted as a bird with its head turned backward, often holding an egg in its beak. This imagery represents the Akan principle of reflecting on the past to build a prosperous future. The Sankofa bird emphasizes the importance of learning from past experiences and understanding one’s cultural heritage.8
40. Impundulu, or Lightning Bird
Culture: South Africa, Zimbabwe
The impundulu or lightning bird is a supernatural being in the folklore of the Pondo, Zulu, and Xhosa peoples. The impundulu is said to possess the ability to summon thunder and lightning. It is often linked to witchcraft and is considered a powerful familiar of witches and witch doctor. In some stories, the impundulu takes the form of a beautiful man who seduces women. He also loves to drink blood.
Culture: Islamic and North African
Mentioned in the Quran, the ababil are a flock of birds who are are revered for their divine intervention during the invasion of Mecca by Abraha’s army. They are said to have protected the city by dropping stones on the invaders. The Ababil birds represent divine protection and the miraculous preservation of sacred places.
Culture: Egyptian and Mesopotamian
Anzu, a massive bird of prey in Mesopotamian and Egyptian mythology, is sometimes depicted with the head of a lion and the body of an eagle. Known for stealing the Tablet of Destinies in Mesopotamian myths, Anzu embodies chaos and the challenge to divine order. In some tales, he is a guardian, representing the duality of protective and disruptive forces.
You can read more about Anzu in my post on mythical lions.
Mythical Birds of the Middle East
Culture: Middle Eastern
The Roc is a gigantic bird from Middle Eastern tales, notably in “One Thousand and One Nights.” Known for its immense size and strength, it’s said to be able to carry off elephants. The Roc symbolizes overwhelming power and the mystery of faraway lands.
The Simurgh is a majestic, benevolent bird in Persian mythology, often depicted as a peacock with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion. It’s a symbol of wisdom and healing, known for its immense age and knowledge. The Simurgh is said to reside on Mount Qaf, the mythical world tree, and represents the union of the earth and the sky.
In Persian mythology, Chamrosh is a mythical bird with the body of a dog and the wings and head of a bird. It lives on the peak of Mount Alborz and is responsible for bringing water and fertility to the land. The Chamrosh represents the interplay between the heavens and the earth, symbolizing prosperity and growth.
The chol, found in Biblical mythology, is often considered a regenerative or immortal bird, akin to the Phoenix in Greek mythology. It symbolizes renewal, rebirth, and immortality. This bird is often interpreted as a symbol of undying hope and the continual cycle of life and death.
47. Cinnamon Bird
The Cinnamon Bird, or Cinnamolgus, from Arabian mythology, is famed for building its nests from cinnamon sticks. These nests are located high upon cliffs, making them challenging to reach. The Cinnamon Bird represents wealth and the exotic nature of foreign lands, embodying the allure and danger of the spice trade in ancient times.
In Jewish mythology, the Ziz is a giant griffin-like bird, so large that its wingspan can block out the sun. It is considered a protector of all birds and a symbol of the unfathomable aspects of divine creation. The Ziz’s size and strength represent nature’s untamable and awe-inspiring aspects.
Zu, in Sumerian mythology, is a divine storm-bird and a personification of the southern wind and the thunder clouds. This bird is known for stealing the Tablet of Destinies, intending to control the fates. Zu embodies chaos and the desire for power, representing the struggle between order and disorder.
Culture: Sufi and Persian
The Huma Bird, often mentioned in Sufi and Persian mythology, is a compassionate bird of fortune. It is said that its shadow brings great luck to anyone it touches, but it never lands, always remaining in flight. The Huma Bird symbolizes eternal bliss, and seeing it is said to free the viewer from all constraints and limitations.
Native American Mythological Birds
Culture: Native American
In Native American mythology, the Thunderbird is a powerful spirit in the form of a bird, often associated with thunder, lightning, and storms. Revered by many tribes, the Thunderbird is a protector and enforcer of morality, capable of creating storms and wielding lightning as a weapo\
Culture: Native American (Illiniwek)
The Piasa bird is a creature from Native American mythology, specifically from the legends of the Illiniwek tribes of the Mississippi River Valley. Depicted as a dragon-like beast with the features of several animals, including the face of a man, the Piasa is said to have terrorized local tribes until it was killed. It symbolizes the dangers lurking in the unknown and the courage of those who face their fears.
53. Rain Bird
Culture: Native American
The Rain Bird, found in various Native American cultures, is often seen as a harbinger of rain and a symbol of life-giving water. These birds are revered as sacred beings that have the power to bring rain, which is essential for agricultural communities. The Rain Bird represents renewal, fertility, and the interconnectedness of life and nature.
Pamola is a mythological bird spirit in the lore of the Abenaki people, indigenous to the northeastern United States. Described as having the body of a man, the head of a moose, and the wings and talons of an eagle, Pamola is said to be the protector of Mount Katahdin and is revered as a weather spirit. This creature symbolizes the power of nature and the respect that must be given to the natural world.
Cetan is a hawk spirit in Lakota mythology, embodying the qualities of speed, vision, and agility. Revered as a messenger and a guide, the Cetan is often invoked for its wisdom and insight. This spirit animal plays a significant role in Lakota ceremonies and is a symbol of spiritual elevation, perspective, and the connection between the physical and spiritual realms.
Each of these mythical birds from Native American cultures embodies unique aspects of their respective cultural beliefs and values, from the representation of natural forces to spiritual guidance and the sacredness of the natural world.
In Maya mythology, Vucub-Caquix is a prideful bird demon known for his great beauty and arrogance. He is associated with the kingfisher bird. His failing was that he claimed to be the sun and the moon, unwittingly positioning himself as a false deity. Vucub-Caquix represents the dangers of vanity and the inevitable downfall that comes with hubris and overweening pride.
Quetzalcoatl, a central figure in Aztec mythology, is known as the feathered serpent deity. This entity is often associated with birds and is depicted as a combination of a serpent and the resplendent quetzal bird.
Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, sun, and human sacrifice, is often depicted as a hummingbird or associated with hummingbirds. Known as the “Hummingbird of the South” or “Left-Handed Hummingbird,” he is revered as the patron of the city of Tenochtitlan. Huitzilopochtli guides warriors in battle and the afterlife, symbolizing the sun’s journey and the warrior’s path.
Amaru, in Incan mythology, is depicted as a powerful two-headed serpent, sometimes with bird-like features. This mythical creature serves as a bridge between the earthly world and the spiritual realm, representing the duality of existence. Amaru embodies spiritual transcendence and the interconnectedness of the physical and metaphysical worlds.
The Alicanto is a mythical bird from Chilean folklore, known for its luminescent feathers that shimmer like metallic ores. This bird is said to feed on gold and silver, and its appearance is considered an omen of good fortune for miners. However, leading those who follow it to their doom in pursuit of wealth, the Alicanto also symbolizes the dangers of greed.
Yacuruna, in the mythology of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, is a mythical being often depicted as a bird or a man riding a water creature. Associated with water, Yacuruna is believed to control aquatic animals and act as a guardian of underwater worlds. This entity symbolizes the mysterious and powerful nature of water, embodying the deep and unknown aspects of the Amazon.
We can only assume that many of the stories about these mythological birds predate the written word. Yet, it’s our enduring fascination with them that has kept these mythical birds alive in our imaginations. And while each reflects the culture of their origin, many of them have a cross-cultural magic that intrigues people regardless of where they’re from.
You might enjoy these other articles on UniGuide:
- Vulture Mythology
- Bird Symbolism
- Phoenix Bird
- Grasshopper Symbolism
- Symbols of Rebirth
- Crow Symbolism
- Hummingbird Symbolism
- Owl Symbolism