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The Pelican

Or; Some Further Notes Towards the Bestiary

To the researches of the antiquary and scholar Jorge Luis ‘Vintage’ Borges, a few points offer further context on that most peripatetic of birds in this, our present century.

Learned reports come from South Asia, where the spotted-bill Filipino pelican (phillipensis) is found, with no small irony, only in Cambodia, the Indian peninsular, and in Sri Lanka (or the contemporary Ceylon). Here they are known to congregate by the Beira Lake, ‘an urban oasis’ in the capital city of Colombo, whereat they feed upon raw sewage, single-use plastics, and the flesh of those who commit crimes against the state. Herefrom they derive their green hue, as in former legendary illustrations.

In the Americas, along the Gulf Coast of the northern continent, at La Nouvelle-Orléans, the pelicans play a game named ‘basketball’ by ornithologists, in which they catch a round ball within their bucket-like beaks (the Hebrew word kavas meaning both ‘cup’ and ‘pelican’), attempting to deposit it one to the other, but are not allowed then to transport it thus, which is termed ‘travelling’, as one might think befits the wanderous nature of the species.¹

And within Europe the fabulist Dahl has transmitted at least one account in which a pelican was found to be running a window-cleaning business in collaboration with a giraffe, a monkey, and a small child (the child’s right to employment and/or fitness as regards working with wildlife having thus far not been ascertained). This incident fell out, it is averred, in England, where the pelican is held in certain high regard, not least in aristocratic and heraldic circles – vide ‘Hampshire House’. The Royal Park of St James is particularly noted for their population, and in the age of the automobile it has become necessary for a pelican crossing to be erected, enabling the animal to venture to and from St James’s Palace safely, across the modern thoroughfares.

Though not know to the British (or at any rate witnessed by them) for many centuries, in recent times the sceptre’d isle has hastened to catch up, the venerable Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to take just one example, having of course the pelican as its emblem, also inaugurating as a new ‘tradition’ a college anthem – as accompaniment to their ancient and sacred reverse-pelican-walk – on a theme of Thomas Aquinas: ‘Bye, bye, Mrs Pelicane Pie’. They then partake of a huge banquet.

On Anglican feast days more widely, church choirs sing in honour of the ‘soft, self-wounding pelican’ (Finzi, 1946) ‘whose breast weeps Balm for wounded man’ – this strange image arising, as Borges notes, from St Jerome’s commentary on Psalm 102 (‘I am like unto the pelican in the wilderness’), in turn commented upon by the inquisitorial S Roberto Bellarmino SJ, wherein ‘as the pelican wages constant war on noxious animals, [and] especially on serpents, so the Anchorets constantly do combat with the demons’. That doctor of the church cites Mary Magdalen, Mary of Egypt, Paul the first hermit, Anthony, Hilarion and others in his analogy.

This is susceptible to two conjoined interpretations.

The first is that the pelican connotes the solipsistic tendencies of our age: self-loathing, body-dysmorphia disorder, psychological perturbances, and so on. It may be for this reason that the pelican is still found engraved upon cilices. (Compare also, the ‘pelican daughters’ of King Lear with the earlier, and the more overtly Christological implications in King Leir.)

More charitable interpretations might well be put forward for a bird that – according to one Spanish fable – would rather set itself on fire than lose its fledglings (a gloomy and inverted version of the phoenix myth) – whence the popular legend of the stork (considered the same bird by the ancients) delivering a baby. The unreliable Horapollo (Hieroglyphica), however, speaks of a creature noted for its blindness or imprudence, because they nest needlessly upon the ground and are thus vulnerable to traps:

Though like other birds, it can lay its eggs in the highest places, it does not. But rather it hollows out a place in the ground, and there places its young. When men observe this, they surround  the spot with dry cow-dung to which they set fire. When the pelican sees the smoke, it wishes to put out the fire with its wings, but on the contrary only fans the flames with its motion. When its wings are burned, it is very easily caught by the hunters. For this reason, priests are not supposed to eat of it, since it died solely to save its children. But the other Egyptians eat it, saying that the pelican does not do this because of intelligence, as the vulpanser, but from heedlessness. (transl. Jean Martin)

In the Hieroglyphica, it is the vulture which allows its young to drink its blood. Either legend might well stem from a translation error; but Joseph Hall, in his Meditations, takes Horapollo’s conception of the pelican as a caution against meddling – ‘the flame of discension’ – in church doctrinal matters, to one’s own destruction.

Modern Egyptians, meanwhile, do also sometime eat the pelican, which they call gemmal al bahr, or ‘the camel of the river’. But the meat thereof is coarse and strong and greasy, for which reasons it had been proscribed among the Israelites (Levit. xi. 18). And at this season, our thoughts turn likewise to the tribulations of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott and crew (the Terra Nova expedition, 1911) who subsisted, for as long as they did – according to his own handwritten journals, in the British Library – on a diet of ground pelican and biscuits, this meal named for the ancient belief that the pelican can store a weeks’ supply of food in its beak. More evidence of the nutritional value of this sustenance would have been afforded by their safe return, and welcomed, no doubt, by later generations of polar explorers. Alas, though, they did not survive their great endeavour.

There remain, quite inexplicable, the events surrounding General Guise, who, while ‘marching up to Carthagena’ (c.1754), was apparently fired upon by artillery pieces stuffed with pelicans, from which he scoffed that he would make a pie. A commentary in The Spectator notes politely that the General was perhaps ‘a little cracked’.

¹ The legal historian Grisham relates a 1992 case in which two Supreme Court Justices, Rosenberg and Jensen, were assassinated on the orders of an oil tycoon wishing to drill on nearby marshland which is home to this endangered species. The Justices in question had a history of environmental rulings.

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