Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds
An exquisitely illustrated journey through the complex and crucial relationship between humans and birds.
Avian Illuminations examines the many roles birds have played in human society, from food, messengers, deities, and pets, to omens, muses, timekeepers, custodians, hunting companions, decorative motifs, and, most importantly, embodiments of our aspirations. Boria Sax narrates the history of our relationships with a host of bird species, including crows, owls, parrots, falcons, eagles, nightingales, hummingbirds, and many more. Along the way, Sax describes how birds’ nesting has symbolized human romance, how their flight has inspired inventors throughout history, and he concludes by showing that the interconnections between birds and humans are so manifold that a world without birds would effectively mean an end to human culture itself. Beautifully illustrated, Avian Illuminations is a superb overview of humanity’s long and rich association with our avian companions.
Praise for Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds
"Birds can go wherever they want, muses Sax in Avian Illuminations, his wide-ranging, wistful history of human connections with the bird world, from the first drawings on cave walls to Rachel Carson’s dire warnings. Some birds may beat their wings, some might just prefer to let themselves be carried by the wind. It is almost impossible, writes Sax, 'to imagine this sort of freedom.'"
— Christoph Irmscher
"Captivating and graced with exquisite illustrations, Sax’s Avian Illuminations blends history, folklore, art, literature, and ornithology to explain why birds are such an integral part of human dreams and aspirations. . . . Avian Illuminations, with its rich content and glorious illustrations, educates, entertains, and aims a body-blow to human pride with its reminder that when birds reigned as dinosaurs, human ancestors were still 'relatively small marsupial-like balls of fur.'"
— Foreword Reviews, Starred Review
"Sax says his overall purpose in the book is 'to show how intimately our bonds with birds are bound up in the matrix of ideas, practices, fears, and hopes that make up what we call "human civilization."' In fact, he believes 'these interconnections are so profound . . . that a world without birds would effectively mean the end of humankind, even if we continued to pass on some approximation of our DNA.' To this end, he draws on a rich assemblage of examples from ornithology, history, folklore, literature, popular culture, and graphic arts to weave together what he calls his 'bird’s nest' of facts, stories, myths, and images."
— Jeremy Mynott
"Beautifully illustrated, Avian Illuminations is a superb overview of humanity’s long and rich association with our avian companions."
— Birdbooker Report
"A wide-ranging, profound, and captivating book on the relationships between humans and birds... Sax has assembled a prodigious amount of information from ornithology, folklore, history, literature, and art to show that birds 'have had many roles in human society.' Most importantly, they act as 'embodiments of our aspirations'—what we hope to be or wish not to be."
— Winnipeg Free Press
"Speaking of birds, I spent an hour recently . . . paging through a wonderful book: Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds by Boria Sax. It focuses on the role of birds in history, art, philosophy, religion. Think about how much birds figure into our world and imagination. The Phoenix arising from the ashes. The Thunderbird of Pacific Northwest Haida culture. The Harpy of Greek mythology."
— Jim Chatfield
"The book examines birds’ many roles in human society, myth-making, and folklore. . . . The book is full of gorgeous illustrations of birds in art and avian symbolism. . . . This book would be a marvelous gift for a birdwatcher or budding ornithologist in your home."
— Andrew Rowan
"This lavishly illustrated book is quite an ambitious undertaking. Sax covers a wide range of themes, from birds in mythology, in history, religion, and in art, to birds in the future. A whistle-stop tour of our historical relationship with birds from the dawn of humanity to the present."
— Morning Star
"Sax's latest book, Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds, is a must-read. I had no idea about the many roles birds have played in different human societies, ranging from food, messengers, deities, and pets, to omens, muses, timekeepers, custodians, hunting companions, decorative motifs, and, most importantly, embodiments of our aspirations. . . . [An] illuminating and beautifully illustrated book."
— Marc Bekoff
"In this eclectic work, Sax provides a 'cultural history of birds' that is actually more a cultural history of humans in their interactions with birds, whether used as adornment or food and employed as messengers, pets, and art objects... Selected chapters may fascinate, whether for their detail or because birds are revealed to be so much a part of the fabric of human life throughout history."
"Magnificently illustrated, this is a superb overview of our long and rich association with our feathered friends."
— Alauda Journal
“The wonderful Avian Illuminations traces in rich and fascinating detail the cultural relationships between humans and birds through history, philosophy, religion, and art. This is a book for difficult times—it entertains, educates, elucidates, and, in its assessment of what might be necessary to repair a damaged world, gives us hope.”
— Esther Woolfson, author of "Corvus: A Life with Birds" and "Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species"
“Sax has long been my most trusted guide to understanding the complex relationships between humans and animals. In Avian Illuminations . . . he weaves a complex portrait of the symbolic richness of our portrayals of birds throughout history and myth.”
— Ceridwen Dovey, author of "Blood Kin" and "Only the Animals"
“A beautifully written intellectual treat that will delight anyone interested in the feathered creatures we share our world with.”
— Hal Herzog, author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals"
"Birds have provided models in almost every aspect of human culture. Their songs inspired our music; their courtship rituals, our dance; their plumage, our fashion. . . . Avian illuminations by Sax covers the vast range of practices that diverse cultures have taken from birds with extraordinary thoroughness. It also goes beyond listing the colorful array of practices and motifs in isolation to show how they have provided much of the emotional and intellectual foundation of human culture."
— Roberto Marchesini, director, Centro Studi Filosofia Postumanista (Center for Posthuman Philosophy), author of "Over the Human: Post-humanism and the Concept of Animal Epiphany"
"A fascinating exploration of those ecstatic moments when a human becomes enraptured by contemplation of a bird—moments that, as Sax explains, can approach a religious level of intensity. I never imagined that birds had occupied so many roles in human lives and imaginings and through such a deep swath of history. An inspiring and fascinating read."
— Clive Wynne, professor of psychology and animal studies, University of Arizona, coauthor of "Animal Cognition" and author of "Dog is Love"
"In Avian Illuminations, Sax, with the deep probing intellect of a renaissance scholar, reveals how human culture has been informed and shaped by birds. His history covers thousands of years and has something special for everyone, whether a poet, artist, historian, folklorist, falconer, or birder."
— John Marzluff, author of "Welcome to Subirdia," "Gifts of the Crow," and "In Search of Meadowlarks"
"Avian Illuminations is a gorgeous—and heavy—book. . . . Beautifully written and drawing deeply on ornithology, history, religion, and mythology, Avian Illuminations is a book to be savored, not just read."
— Fortean Times