Friday, November 2, 2012

Bird Myths, Pt. 1: Garuda, King of the Birds

When I was writing "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," (see the Prologue and first three chapters here), I made Capt. Robbin Nikalishin a birder. What better qualification for the man who will head up the mission that encountered the first intelligent lifeform known to humanity -- and who happened to be big birds? During the mission out, there was a lot of boring downtime and one way the crew entertained itself was by telling bird myths, each crewmember telling tales from his or her own culture. Now, this section will be cut or drastically emended if I ever get that monster ready for publication, but I did too much research and had too much fun writing it to let it all disappear, so what better place to display it than on a blog devoted partially to myth in literature?
The following has been abridged.  I left in the Captain's preamble about Survivor because it ties in with the book’s “Prologue.”

       Robbie, coffee cup in hand, stood up at a vacant table at the front of the assemblage and banged his spoon for order.  “Your Captain cooked up this get-together today so he could inflict his fascination with birds on all of you.  It’s show-and-tell time, children! – and I’ve got the visual aids to prove it.”  He opened the big port hidden in the bulwark behind him and displayed a short vid of a martial eagle soaring over the savanna and swooping down to land on a branch and mantle fiercely.  “Later we’re going to hear fantastic tales of mythological birds, but I don’t know any of those, so I’m going to tell a tale that really happened – it’s become for me almost mythical in its implications.”
And he proceeded to speak of the martial eagle Survivor and how he was brought to the Islands for breeding purposes, only to escape and be shot in both wings for attacking newborn lambs in Kent.  And he told how a small boy had viewed that crippled but unbowed eagle in the Lunden Zoo and been spiritually drawn to him, and how, when his own wings had been clipped, an older version of that boy had re-experienced that kinship.  “And the odd thing is,” concluded Robbie, “two years ago, while I was visiting the Zoo right before I left Britan for the Phenix Project, I ran into the ornithologist who had rescued Survivor and he introduced me to the vet who had been involved, who now teaches avian surgery at NWQC.  I’ve become fast friends with both of those fine men.  If that’s not a strange coincidence, I don’t know what is!”
And Robbie added, “That’s the end of my own presentation …  please, please – no applause necessary!  But I have another visual aid … ”  And he tapped the remote programmer and displayed a scanned image of his Garuda picture.  Most of the crew stared in befuddlement at the bizarre representation.  “Lt. Cmdr. Das, the floor is yours!”

I have no idea if I'm violating copyright, since
I copied this some years ago from a Japanese website that's
no longer available.  However, since this is the picture
 on which I based the description, I'm presenting it here!
       The Captain handed the remote to his Ops Officer and took a seat.  A shyly smiling Nani sat down on the edge of the table.  “All of you know I’m from Ind, and some of you know I was brought up with remnant traditions of the Indu religion.  One time the Captain asked me if the Indus had any bird gods and one thing led to another until he found the picture you’re looking at here ...
“The bird-man on the port there is named Garuda and the blue chap with the four arms who’s riding on his back is Vishnu.  Vishnu is one of the three principal Indu gods and Garuda is his vahanam, or mount.  When I was home over the Midwinter holiday, I talked to my grandmother and one of my uncles, who are both more into Indu culture than the rest of my family.  They helped me work up my tale and they got me into what we call in Ind the Data Basement, certain underground links that EarthGov knows exist but chooses to overlook.  From that I got these additional pictures that I’m going to show you now.  Depictions of Garuda are quite common wherever Induism influenced the culture over millennia.  How do you like this one?”  And Nani flashed up a frontal view of a sculpted figure squatting on clawed feet, with a loincloth, impressive spread wings and man-arms, and a huge head with an intimidating beak.  He also had pointed ears adorned with large, round earrings and he was painted a fiery orange and red.

This work has been released into the public domain
by its author, GourangaUK at the wikipedia project.
 This applies worldwide.
 There was astonished laughter and Robbie exclaimed, “Holy cry, Nani!  That’s Garuda?  He doesn’t look a thing like the pleasant little fellow in my icon!”
“Well, Garuda can be benevolent, but he can also be really fierce – in fact, he’s considered the very symbol of fierceness and speed and martial ability.  Here’s another interpretation – a painted miniature from the 18th century.  The female figure there is Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife, riding on Garuda along with her husband.”

From Wikimedia Commons
“Oh, so your gods are like the Griek ones,” said Robbie, “with spouses and families and all that.  In this one, Garuda doesn’t have the claws, but his head is pretty impressive.”
“Not all the iconography depicts exactly the same characteristics,” said Nani.  “I’ll show you one more – it’s a favorite of mine.  It’s from some ancient temple – I’m not sure which … ”
I copied this some years ago from
but the specific link is no longer available. My notes say,
"Picture source not given."  So I have no way of knowing
if it's copyrighted, and I don't know where the sculpture is
located.  But it's too great a depiction to pass up!
This image was a relief carving of a husky man-bird, with thighs like barrels, heavily girded loins, clawed feet, and a beaked head that resembled a snapping turtle more than an avian.  The figure’s huge arms were hoisting a giant snake above his head.  The wings and feathered headdress were intricately engraved. 
       "Yeah, that one really projects a sense of power!” said Robbie.  “Why is he shown with a snake in some of these?”
“You’ll find out as I tell my tale.  You understand, the story of Garuda has a lot of variations, so I synthesized my version out of elements my grandmother and uncle provided.  I’ve never really studied any Indu literature.  I can speak and read a little Indi, but Sanskrit is way beyond me.
 “Garuda came from an impressive family.  His father was Kashyapa, who was one of the great Sages and a grandson of the Creator-God Brahma.  Kashyapa had many wives – in fact, he married a set of thirteen sisters – but the two that concern us were named Kadru and Vinata.  Kadru asked the gods to give her many offspring, but Vinata wanted only a few as long as they were more powerful than her sister’s.  Now, it happened that instead of bearing live children, these two females laid eggs … ”
“Really?” interrupted Robbie.  “So they were birds, too?”
“Well, I don’t think so,” said Nani, obviously perplexed, “but as mythical beings, I suppose they wouldn't necessarity have to be like humans … ”
  “Anyway, however it was, Kadru hurried to lay about a thousand eggs, while Vinata laid only two.  Kadru’s soon began to hatch, and what came out of them were snake creatures.  We call them … ”
“The Nagas!” cried Lt. Chay in amazed recognition.  “I’m a Kampucheean – a Kemer – and we believe ourselves to be descended from a Naga king!  The Seven-Headed Naga was the symbol of our nation in the days before Unification!  The seven heads represented the seven races of Kemer.  Did you know that, Lt. Commander?”
“No, I didn’t,” said Nani.  “Like I said, I’ve never studied this very extensively.  And, yes, we call the creatures who emerged the ‘Nagas.’  They are sort of a serpent-human mixture.  They can be good or evil, depending on the story.
“Vinata was jealous of how fast her sister’s eggs were hatching while hers were still incubating, and she thought she would hurry things along by breaking one of them open.  And out came a shining, red-colored bird whom they named ‘Aruna,’ or ‘reddish.’  But there was a problem.  Because his egg had hatched prematurely, his body hadn’t completely developed and he had deformed legs.  Some say he had no feet and others say he had no thighs.  But just the same, he could fly, and in a whole different story he went on to become the Charioteer of Surya, the Sun God.
“When he first hatched, Aruna was very upset at what his mother had done to him and he cursed her, predicting that she was doomed to be enslaved.  But then he relented and said that if she would allow the second egg to develop for the proper length of time, the being who would spring from it would save her.  And Vinata was wise enough to follow his advice.
“Now here is how Vinata came to be enslaved.  Her evil sister Kadru engaged her in an argument over whether the celestial steed that had sprung from the churning of the primeval Ocean of Milk (and that is yet another tale) was completely white or had a black tail.  And Kadru made a bet with her sister – whichever one of them was wrong would be enslaved to the other.  Vinata had seen the horse before and she was positive its tail was pure white, and yet when they went to look, it did indeed have a black tail!  The truth was that Kadru had ordered her black Naga children to intermingle themselves in the tail and make it appear black.  And so Vinata became Kadru’s slave through deceit.
“In the meantime, Vinata’s second egg had hatched into an astonishing creature.  It was, of course, Garuda.  Some say he burst forth as a lightning flash and others say he showed himself as a raging conflagration big enough to consume the world.  It scared even the gods themselves, and so Garuda obligingly made himself smaller and took on a milder form.  Then he was seen to have a golden body, a white face, and red wings.  The beak, wings, and talons were those of an eagle but the body and arms were those of a man.  He was so large that men could hide in his plumage and he blocked out the sun when he flew; his wingspan was measured in kilometers.  He could fly faster than the wind; indeed, when his wings flapped, they made winds of cyclonic force, and his strength was such that he could tear up trees by the roots and carry them off!”
Everybody was hooting at this hyperbole, but Nani shook her finger at them.  “Well, it shouldn’t surprise you that myths tend to exaggerate things!  Besides, it’s said that before the hatching of Garuda Kashyapa was making a sacrificial offering for the purpose of increasing his progeny, and the King of the Gods Indra – another of Kashyapa’s sons – laughed at the assembled Sages, who were having trouble carrying in a log of wood that Indra could throw around like a toothpick.  So the Sages plotted to make a son of Kashyapa stronger and more powerful than Indra himself and, what’s more, to make him able to change his shape.  This scared Indra, who feared losing his kingship, and he begged his father to offer an apology on his behalf.  The Sages were mollified and decreed that the offspring should still be a King, but he would be King of the Birds.  And that is what we call Garuda today and why he is always depicted with a crown; and he was indeed born with a shape-shifter’s abilities.  And he had six sons himself, from whom all birds are descended. 
“Now, here is how Garuda came to be Vishnu’s mount.  Garuda sometimes didn’t have enough to occupy his spare time, so one day he flew up and seized the moon and hid it under his wings.  This act of vandalism annoyed the Gods and especially Indra, who still resented his sibling’s power.  The King of the Gods led an attack on the big bird-man, but Garuda was able to overcome them all except for Vishnu.  Now Vishnu had always admired Garuda’s power and speed in spite of the bird-man’s tendency to wreak mischief, and so after Garuda had agreed to restore the moon to its proper setting, Vishnu made him his steed.  After that, Garuda had no more problems with too much leisure!
 “Now I must return to the part of the tale concerning the curse on Garuda’s mother.  Even fearsome as Garuda was when he was first hatched, he emitted a loud, concerned chirp and ran immediately to his mother to see if there was any way he could help her.  She told him about how her sister Kadru had enslaved her through deceit and she asked him to help appease her.  Garuda agreed, but actually he was furious, and he resolved to do something to end this outrageous situation.
“Now I should make clear that this next adventure took place before the incident of the stolen moon.  It happened that one day Kadru wanted to take her serpent children for a holiday on an island, and she demanded that Garuda and Vinata carry them there.  Vinata carried Kadru while Garuda carried all thousand of the Nagas.  Yes, that does seems to imply that Vinata had wings, so maybe she was something like a bird.  But however that was, Garuda decided this was a good opportunity to kill all the Nagas and he flew up near the sun so that the cold-blooded snakes would be roasted to death.  But they cried out to their mother and she prayed to Indra for help, and the enemy of Garuda sent a torrential rainfall that cooled the Nagas and saved them.  Garuda was forced to set them down on the island.
“But once there, according to a prearranged plan with their mother, the Nagas seized Vinata and whisked her off to a demon-infested region called Patala.  There they imprisoned her and stood guard over her.  Garuda was enraged, but he could see that the curse was too strong for him to overcome the Nagas by physical power alone, so he decided to try negotiation.  He went to his Naga half-brothers and asked them what he had to do to free his mother from Kadru’s curse.  They told him that, if he would bring them a cup of amrita, they would release her in spite of their mother’s wishes.  Amrita is the elixir of immortality – what the Grieks call ‘ambrosia.’
“Garuda knew it would not be an easy ransom, because the gods jealously guarded this source of their own immortality.  But no amount of adversity could ever daunt the King of the Birds and so he set off for the celestial mountain where the amrita was kept.  The gods met him in full battle dress, but he scattered them all and arrived at the mountain’s gate.
“Garuda found this gate to be surrounded by a ring of flames that soared up to the sky.  He overcame this obstacle by taking the water of many rivers into his mouth and spitting it onto the fire to extinguish it. 
“Then at the gate itself, he discovered a great rotating wheel with sharp blades on its spokes that would cut to pieces anyone who tried to pass through.  Garuda solved that problem easily by exercising his shape-shifting abilities and making himself small enough to slip between the blades.
“And finally he reached the amrita only to discover that it was guarded by a pair of monstrous fire-spitting serpents.  These he defeated by fanning his wings and blowing dust into the serpents’ eyes, then attacking them and cutting them to bits with his sharp beak. 
“Quickly, Garuda seized the amrita in his beak, being careful not to swallow any of it, although surely he must have been tempted, for who doesn’t desire immortality and the status of a god?  He then flew as quickly as possible back toward Patala.  On the way he met Vishnu, who didn’t attack him, having been favorably impressed by the bird-man from the moment of his hatching.  Instead, Vishnu made a bargain with him; because Garuda had refrained from consuming any of the amrita, Vishnu would give him immortality as a gift on condition that Garuda should become Vishnu’s mount sometime in the future.  Vishnu also warned Garuda that Indra and the other gods were lying in wait for him on his return path.
“Garuda flew on, prepared for the confrontation.  As soon as he came in sight of the gods’ army, Indra hurled a thunderbolt at him, but Garuda was able to dodge it.  Then he called out to Indra that he would like to negotiate a truce.  If he were allowed to deliver the amrita to the Nagas, he would contrive a way for the gods to get it back.  If the plot that he and Indra would concoct was successful, then in return the gods would have to allow Garuda and his descendents to take snakes as their primary food source
“Indra agreed to this and Garuda continued on his journey.  When he reached Patala and came into the presence of the Nagas, he laid the amrita on the grass in front of the overjoyed serpents, but he continued to hover over it, saying that he would release the amrita to them only after they had set his mother Vinata free.  Quickly the Nagas released their prisoner, who ran to take refuge among her son’s feathers. 
“At that moment, Indra, who had followed Garuda, rushed in with his warriors, seized the amrita, and made off with it.  Garuda flew away with his mother, leaving the Nagas wailing in despair behind him.
“However, a few drops of amrita remained on the grass.  The Nagas licked it up and this was enough to add them to the role of Immortals.  The substance was so potent that it split their tongues, and that is why to this very day all snakes have forked tongues.  And Garuda and his descendants became the implacable enemies of snakes; that is why so many of today’s birds are snake-eaters. 
“This was not the end of Garuda’s adventures, but it’s the last I’ll say about him right now.  I’ll add only that Aruna, the deformed charioteer of Indra, himself had two bird-sons – Garuda’s nephews – who performed great deeds in their own right.
“They were called Sampati and Jatayu.  When they were young, they would compete to see which of them could fly higher, but Jatayu overdid it and flew so near the sun that he seared his wings.  His brother saved his life by spreading his own wings between Jatayu and the sun, but in the process Sampati’s wings were destroyed and he was forced to live flightless for the rest of his life, like the eagle in your tale, Capt. Nikalishin.
“And later in Jatayu’s life, he performed a selfless act of courage that is narrated in my people’s epic the Ramayana.  When Rama’s wife Sita was abducted by the demon lord Ravana, Jatayu engaged the demon in battle in order to save her, but by that time he was old and although he fought with supernatural heroism, he couldn’t win.  Ravana tore off his wings and then escaped with Sita.  Rama soon arrived, but it was too late.  The mortally wounded Jitayu died in the hero’s arms and was deeply mourned.
“And that really is the end of my presentation.”  Nani looked self-conscious.  “I just hope I haven’t bored all of you too much.

You may have noticed that the tale of Garuda employs elements of the heroic epic as well as folklore.  Garuda is both noble hero and trickster, he makes a descent into the Underworld, and he’s a shape-shifter.
Here is one more picture that I didn't use in the text, but it has such a nice look to it that I thought I ought to share it with you, too!
This work has been released into the public domain by its author,
DoktorMax at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide.
"I made this picture myself and release it into the public domain.
It is a photo of a 12th century sculpture in the
Thap Mam style of Champa. " 
I was going to add some bibliographical notes, but I find that a lot of my research notes (made several years ago) may not be accurate as to sources (this piece would never pass muster as a Master's thesis - LOL!)  If you want to learn more, I would suggest googling Garuda and various other names and allusions within the above text.


  1. This is a very impressive work. Being an Indian, it was very surprising to know about this. You did a great deal of research to write this.

    1. I'm pleased you enjoyed it, Amit! I hope I didn't make too many glaring errors! And I just realized: I meant to include some bibliographical notes of the sources I used, but I forgot. Maybe I'll add that when I get around to it!
      I find Hindu myth fascinating! What other religion these days still incorporates such a diversity of wonderful stories into their ritual? I really like that!
      And one could write a whole novelistic retelling of the Garuda stories. What a neat Big Bird he is!

  2. I learned about Hinduism when I was younger and this 'Garuda' brought back nice memory ...