You read that right. Before Christianity, there was a tradition that mother pelicans pierced their own breasts until they bled and fed the blood to their starving chicks. Another version suggested that the male pelican killed the baby pelicans. Three days later, the mother returned and pierced her own breast and fed the babies with her blood. The babies came back to life and a story that conveniently reflects important parallels with Jesus’s death and resurrection–the blood, the three days, and the return to life.
Obviously, the story has holes. And it is rather brutal–the father killing the babies and the blood from the mother’s breast. For those who are wondering, pelicans do not kill their babies and therefore have no need to revive them. This story is simply the result of many misinterpretations of bird behavior.
Pelicans, however, are in the Bible. At least five Old Testament verses refer to pelicans, but not in the context of self-sacrifice. The verses are:
I resemble a pelican of the wilderness; I have become like an owl of the waste placesPsalm 102:6
and the white owl and the pelican and the carrion vulture,Leviticus 11:18
the pelican, the carrion vulture, the cormorant,Deuteronomy 14:17
But pelican and hedgehog will possess it, And owl and raven will dwell in it; And He will stretch over it the line of desolation And the plumb line of emptiness.Isaiah 34:11
Flocks will lie down in her midst, All beasts which range in herds; Both the pelican and the hedgehog will lodge in the tops of her pillars; Birds will sing in the window, Desolation will be on the threshold; For He has laid bare the cedar work.Zephaniah 2:14
If you go to your Bible to look for the context of these verses, in all likelihood you will not find the word “pelican.” Translators have changed it to “cormorant” or “owl.” I do not know the reason, but I am looking for it.
There is also some wonderful art based upon the mother pelican as Christ-like. In addition to the art that accompanies this post. Some of the art can be found searching bing images for “pelican as Christ.”
The legend of the mother piercing her breast to feed her babies her blood pre-dates Christianity. An anonymous second century work from Alexandria, Physiologus, seems to be the earliest written version of the legend. The work includes legends about several animals, including lions and unicorns. The pelican imagery became widely used in the Medieval Ages as symbols for Christ. Artists working as recently as in the twentieth century have included the imagery in churches–as sculptures, wood carvings and in stained glass windows. In addition, Dante and other authors referred to the pelican as a model of charity. Thomas Aquinas also referred to the pelican in a Eucharistic hymn.
Regardless of the legend’s misunderstanding of life in the natural world and the changing translations from pelican to cormorant, the female pelican as a symbol of God is significant for those seeking images of God. Many people, trust me on this one, object to the idea of representing God as feminine. These people object to using feminine pronouns for God, as one person told me, because God is masculine. This person and others can only imagine God as male and consider it demeaning and disrespectful to God to associate God with things feminine. Clearly, the pelican and her sacrifice are a metaphor for God. It is a metaphor that has found acceptance for most of two millennia.
People can understand that a pelican is a metaphor for God, but seem unable to understand that all references to God are metaphors. The image of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is only a metaphor. For many of us, God is beyond the limitations imposed by the very handsome and quite muscular fellow portrayed there. For many of us, God is beyond human dimensions and imagination.