“By them there sat the loving pelican, Whose young ones, poison’d by the serpent’s sting, With her own blood to life again doth bring.”
– Michael Drayton
Hundreds of years ago, on a beach that perhaps no longer exists, a pelican was seen preening itself. Watching the unwieldy beak pierce the feathered breast, this witness – with a typically medieval combination of romance and ignorance – believed that the creature was purposefully wounding itself, to feed its young with its own blood.
The ferocity of parenthood – its mindless, intuitive courage, found a symbol on that forgotten, salty day. Thereafter, in the coiling margins of sacred manuscripts the pelican would nest: fledglings at her feet, sprayed with the blood dripping from their mother’s breast. Devout and sacrificial, she faced inwards, towards a page of biblical and gothic story-telling.
The pelican became known as a symbol of the Passion of Jesus, its purity and feathers drifting throughout St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Adoro te devote”, trapped in frozen carvings above the hair-shirted choirs. During this ancient time the world was teeming with mystery, and its creatures lived forever in green myths and legends. Their songs echoed in empty courtyards.
It lived in bestiaries, where creatures of the earth and of the imagination would lie together in a zoological parable – an ark that floated through literature for thousands of years.
It was sewn into a knight’s pennon, flying into the jousting air; it was a sculpture on his helmet: golden and clumsy. The pelican mixed into the alchemy of heraldry: taking its place with lions, leopards, unicorns and oak trees – supporting the shields of nobility.
It glittered within jewelry – in baubles heavy with allegory, pearls and rubies.
Elizabeth I wore such a metaphor: a brooch all but lost in a maze of velvet, diamonds and seed pearls. Thin, pale, pressed inside a corset of wood, she wore the emblem of love and voluntary pain.
Nature, in a fit of whimsy, had given the pelican a foolish profile – elongated and unbalanced. But, as if to make up for her mischief, she gave pelicans the gift of dramatic flight. Flying across the blue ceiling, they carve black chevrons in the sky…
or plunge directly into the water, as if Neptune himself had thrown a noose around their heads and was drawing them into the fishing depths. They will fly a hand’s span above the waves, riding the maritime currents that held them in a pelagic grasp.
The earliest remains of the pelican are 30,000,000 old. Ribs and pinions lay flat beneath slabs of shale and amber, the neck curled and broken – the body twisted into a prehistoric coil. Motionless within the sediment and crumbs of centuries, it held within its bones an ancient story which was told inside books of veiled myth, which flew above fermenting oceans, and which perched on the spavined chest of a Virgin Queen.