A Pelican in Her Piety

by Harry Miller January 15, 2020

Pelican Art deco design with blue and gold

To reach the afterlife in ancient Egypt you must first deal with the trappings of the underworld.  Here you will have to contend with various Gods, monsters, gatekeepers, and ultimately prove your worth to Osiris, the Lord of the underworld.  

This ordeal could not be bypassed, but if your spirit was feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed, you could always pray to Henet, the ancient Egyptian Pelican God.  She would not only guide you safely through the unknown, she would also protect you from snakes; that’s more than what any satnav can do today… hmmm, I wonder if Henet auto-updates?       

It wasn’t just the Egyptians to hold the pelican is such high esteem.  During the late medieval and early Renaissance periods it was common to see pelicans featuring in Christian art.  You see back then mother pelicans were believed to impale themselves with their own beaks if food was scarce, so as to feed their young with their own blood - a “pelican-in-her-piety”. 

The origins for the pelicans Christ-like depiction most probably falls at the webbed feet of the Dalmatian pelican, who’s beak turns a blood orange colour during the breeding season.  

So where can you see these magnificent birds today?  Well if you’re in London then head to St James’s Park.  They’ve had pelicans there since the mid 1700s - a gift to Charles II from the Russian Ambassador.  Although pelicans aren’t the only exotic creatures to have made this Royal Park their home.  There were once camels, elephants, and even crocodiles roaming around during the reign of James I.     

For the record, Isla, Tiffany, Gargi, Sun, Moon, and Star (the Parks current large billed residents), are fed every day between 2:30pm and 3pm next to Duck Island Cottage.  Although be warned, if the Park keeper’s running late, don’t be surprised to see one of these giant birds scooping up a live pigeon in front of some alarmed onlookers - as fish isn’t the only thing on the menu… oh, and keep an eye on your pack lunch too!         

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
Limerick by Dixon Lanier Merrit, 1910  

Harry Miller
Harry Miller


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