Stalking Ciconia ciconia: The White Stork

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

Proving that elderberries aren’t poisonous (good news for lovers of Mrs Beeton’s elderberry wine) was just one of the discoveries Sir Thomas Browne made in the 17th century.

An aficionado of words as well as wine, Sir Thomas wrote many poems and books. One best-seller was entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths (1646), AKA Vulgar Errors. He was the archetypical 'doubting Thomas' of his time; challenging and debunking many popularly held beliefs such as the elderberry myth. His scientific enquiries led him to question “Drunkenness, or to be drunk once a moneth, whether it be healthfull” and “Whether our B Saviour ever laughed”, and to disprove the common thought that “Crystall is nothing else but Ice strongly congealed” (Old English).

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 16 minutes

Proving that elderberries aren’t poisonous (good news for lovers of Mrs Beeton’s elderberry wine) was just one of the discoveries Sir Thomas Browne made in the 17th century.

‘Pseudodoxia Epidemica’ frontispiece edition by Sir Thomas Browne

An aficionado of words as well as wine, Sir Thomas wrote many poems and books. One best-seller was entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenents, and Commonly Presumed Truths (1646), AKA Vulgar Errors. He was the archetypical ‘doubting Thomas’ of his time; challenging and debunking many popularly held beliefs such as the elderberry myth. His scientific enquiries led him to question “Drunkenness, or to be drunk once a moneth, whether it be healthfull” and “Whether our B Saviour ever laughed”, and to disprove the common thought that “Crystall is nothing else but Ice strongly congealed” (Old English).

Myth-busting Sir Thomas was a lexicographer and a logophile, too, inventing hundreds of words – tricky ones, like antediluvian, ascetic, ambidextrous, anomalous, botanical, carnivorous, factitious, precipitous, and ferocious. He was, in fact, a relatively unsung hero of literature, up there with the likes of writer John Milton (1606-1674) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his linguistic neology prowess.

Sir Thomas was also a physician, theologist, philosopher and botanist; well-travelled and educated, religious and respected as an English polymath (which means ‘having learned much’). He was particularly interested in the ‘New Learning’ movement taking shape in Europe at the time, which would herald the beginnings of modern scientific thought and journalism.

Wise, witty, and whimsical in a literary and theological sense, Sir Thomas Browne also had an eye for the birds. The scientific revolution was in full swing, bringing new ideas on mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, and chemistry, and transforming the way society viewed nature.

Inspired by the flush of new-wave biological enquiry and knowledge, Browne’s contemporaries, Francis Willughby and John Ray, soon laid the first foundations of systematic zoology in Ornithologia (1676) and Historia Piscium (1686). Browne was instrumental in his influence on these works, assisting with classifying and naming dozens of newly discovered species. He utilised his surgical attributes in this process by dissecting and analysing the stomach contents of many animals to determine their habits and migratory patterns.

Browne’s own ornithological observations, drawings, and descriptions were included in his Notes and Letters on the Natural History of Norfolk, 1668. He wrote excitedly about his sightings of what he thinks is a rare spring and autumn visitor to Norfolk; a large, white, straight-beaked bird with long legs.

Sir Thomas was so enamoured with his beautiful white bird that he sent letters and illustrations to both his daughter and to Francis Willughby.

Willughby named it Ciconia alba – Ciconia being Latin for stork (as recorded by Horace and Ovid around 25 B.C.), and alba being Latin for ‘white’. Sir Thomas also sent a missive to his friend, Doctor Christopher Merret requesting that the bird be listed in Merret’s Pinax Rerum Naturalium Britannicarum – a first-of-its-kind alphabetical catalogue of British birds and other flora, fauna, and minerals.

Pinax, Ornithologia and Historia Piscium were revolutionary natural science publications that pre-empted the more sophisticated Systema Naturæ of Linnæus 1735, formulated by Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. As in Pinax, Linnaeus’ work classified the three kingdoms of nature: animal, vegetable, mineral (remember the kid’s game of similar name developed in the 18th century? Rule number 1: No lying allowed!)

All four classification systems contributed to ordering what had previously been chaotic, although, in the classification of birds, Francis Willughby and John Ray were trailblazers.

Once logged and described, Ciconia ciconia took flight into the hearts, minds, and mythological fantasies of people worldwide.

“This is a picture of the stork I mentioned in my last. butt it is different from the com̄on stork by red lead colourd leggs and bill and the feet hath not vsuall sharp poynted clawes butt resembling a mans nayle, such as Herodotus discribeth the white Ibis of Ægypt to haue. The ends of the wings are black & when shee doth not spred them they make all the lower part of the back looke black, butt the fethers on the back vnder them are white as also the tayle. it fed upon snayles & froggs butt a toad being offered it would not touch it. the tongue is about half an inch long. the quills of the wing are as bigge or bigger then a swans quills. it was shott by the seaside & the wing broake. Some there were who tooke it for an euell omen saying If storks come ouer into England, god send that a com̄onwealth doth not come after.” (Old English) Notes and Letters on the Natural History of Norfolk, Sir Thomas Browne, 1668

The Dutch fable that storks would only inhabit republican countries was just one of the mystical identities attributed. Its imposing presence has birthed folklores and influenced cultures right throughout the world since Before Christ.

How did this grandly-gawky, posturing and haughty, clattering, hunch-backed bird manage to become so revered and, in some countries, feared?

Ancient Greeks created the myth that storks deliver new-born babies, using the story of Gerana (Queen of the Pygmy folk) and Hera (Goddess of marriage, women, childbirth, and family).

In this tale, Hera turned Gerana into a stork to punish Gerana’s boast of being more beautiful. (Alternative versions say she was turned into a crane – and the Greek geranos, meaning crane, endorses this. In ancient mythology, storks, cranes, and herons were often intertwined.) Naturally, the heartbroken Gerana, in stork form, sought to retrieve her child from Hera’s clutches, and the Greeks depicted Gerana as a bird with a baby dangling from its beak. This image of Gerana is the origin of the modern connotations of storks and babies. In some cultures, the birthmark common on the backs of babies’ heads is called a ‘stork bite’ after this imagery.

Hera and Juno – her Roman counterpart – were both high-flying goddesses responsible for keeping the home fires burning while their menfolk were out fighting and philandering. They give us strong clues to why the white stork has created folklore around hearth, home and protection, babies, and parents.

Once Hera and Juno set the standard, the white stork became known as the ‘deliverer of babies’ in a myth that has endured over multiple cultures. I find that interesting: how many different cultures can share the same mythology – and for time immemorial.

Vintage image of a White Stork

Birds have long been associated with maternal symbols from such feisty pagan goddesses as Hera and Juno to the Holy Ghost. The stork’s acquired maternal role might also be due to its white plumage (depicting purity), size (in that it is big enough to carry an infant), and high altitude, long-distance flight (likened to flying between Earth and Heaven).

Other Greek and Roman mythology portray storks as models of parental devotion. The stork was symbolised as caring for aged parents, feeding them, and transporting them to wherever they fancied – which they were thought to have done literally in the wild. Third-century Roman writer Aelian noted in his De natura animalium (Schofield, A.F., ed. 1958) that geriatric storks would fly to oceanic islands to be transformed into humans as a reward for their parental piety.

Piety to parents? Whatever next! Who wouldn’t love a bird that instils that worthy virtue? A Greek law called Pelargonia (from the Ancient Greek word Pelargos for stork) still exists, requiring citizens to take care of their aged parents.

The White Stork baby-deliverer

Historians agree that the concept of the baby-bringing stork was established firstly in southern then northern Europe particularly, Germany and Norway. During the Pagan era, 600 years ago, it was common for couples to wed during the summer solstice because summer was associated with fertility. At the same time, storks would commence their annual migration, flying all the way from Europe to Africa. The birds returned to nest the following spring, exactly nine months later. (“Aha,” I can hear you thinking!) The newly-wed parents birthed their human babies around the same time, spawning the fanciful idea that the storks had delivered them.

Thus, storks became the heralds of new life. Such bountiful fertility extends to Egyptian mythology, where storks went even grander and were associated not with the humble births of human babies but instead with the birth of the whole world!

White stork nesting

Ciconia ciconia may also have invited superstitious speculation due to its confidence and apparent disregard towards human presence. It suffered no qualms about becoming over-familiar with people, nesting on tall structures like rooftops, belfries (no bats allowed!) and chimneys. In medieval times, the close proximity of the nests was believed to bring good luck and, of course, the possibility of new birth to the family below.

According to European folklore, the stork’s responsibility for bringing babies to new parents was popularised by a 19th-century Hans Christian Andersen story called ‘The Storks’, in 1839. In this tale, a family of storks pluck sleepy babies from ponds and lakes and deliver them to deserving families. There was a dark underside, too. The parents of naughty children would receive a dead or handicapped baby – the stork having dropped the baby en route to the household as punishment for bad behaviour.

In Victorian England, the baby-bearing stork was a valuable and convenient way of side-lining the ‘embarrassing’ realities of sex and birth. Victorian parents now had a useful alibi to help them attribute the facts of life to stories of the stork’s contribution to family numbers. We can imagine what fun Sigmund Freud (Margolis, Parker, 1972) and Carl Jung (American Journal of Psychology, 1910) had with the stork fable – bearing in mind that Jung recalled being told the story himself upon the birth of his own sister.

In Germany, storks were protected because of the belief that their souls were human and that their presence brought good luck. It’s a great pity this belief didn’t endure worldwide, because although they have strongholds in parts of Europe, storks are rarely seen in the UK; the home turf on which first documented.

The last breeding record was a famous pair that nested on Saint Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416. Other historical records make mention of the white stork taking centre stage in medieval banquets. In 2020, a re-introduction initiative called the White Stork Project saw a pair breed in the United Kingdom for the first time in 600 years.

Let’s hope that these fascinating birds, shrouded in myth and dedicated to home and family, will breed once again naturally and thrive. Ciconia ciconia, you truly deserve your place in historical and contemporary ornithology – one that Sir Thomas Browne and his cohorts would be delighted to see.

Original Receipt (Old English) in The Book of Household Management, 1861, by Isabella Beeton.

ELDER WINE. 1818.

INGREDIENTS: To every 3 gallons of water allow 1 peck of elderberries; to every gallon of juice allow 3 lbs. of sugar,½ oz. of ground ginger, 6 cloves, 1 lb. of good Turkey raisins;½ pint of brandy to every gallon of wine. To every 9 gallons of wine 3 or 4 tablespoonfuls of fresh brewer’s yeast.

Mode: Pour the water, quite boiling, on the elderberries, which should be picked from the stalks, and let these stand covered for 24 hours; then strain the whole through a sieve or bag, breaking the fruit to express all the juice from it.

Measure the liquor, and to every gallon allow the above proportion of sugar.

Boil the juice and sugar with the ginger, cloves, and raisins for 1 hour, skimming the liquor the whole time; let it stand until milk-warm, then put it into a clean dry cask, with 3 or 4 tablespoonfuls of good fresh yeast to every 9 gallons of wine.

Let it ferment for about a fortnight; then add the brandy, bung up the cask, and let it stand some months before it is bottled when it will be found excellent.

A bunch of hops suspended to a string from the bung, some persons say, will preserve the wine good for several years.

Elder wine is usually mulled and served with sippets of toasted bread and a little grated nutmeg.

Time: To stand covered 24 hours; to be boiled 1 hour.

Average cost: when made at home, 3s. 6d. per gallon.

Seasonable: Make this in September.

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