Cor Hendriks – The Macaws | Myth and Folktale (11): The Bird-Nester

Lévi-Strauss calls his first paragraph ‘The Bird-Nester’s Aria’ (aria, because he compares his opus with a musical composition) and the title of the key myth is ‘The macaws and their nest’ (see As we have seen the macaws play a very subordinate role in the myth and can be compared with the jewels from the jewel-mountain. The feathers of the macaws are used in the making of diadems and crowns and to decorate bows and other objects. The rock faces where the birds nest rise to a height of 200 or 300 meters above the low-lying marshy land. (R&C 47) We also meet these birds in myth 7 of the Kayapo-Gorotire:

Noticing that a pair of macaws had built their nest on the top of a steep rock, an Indian took his young brother-in-law, Botoque, with him to help him to capture the nestlings. He made Botoque climb up an improvised ladder; but when the boy got up to the nest, he said that he could find only two eggs. His brother-in-law insisted that he should take them; but as the eggs fell down, they changed into stones which hurt the older man’s hand. This made him furious with the result that he dismantled the ladder and went away, not realizing that the birds were enchanted (oaianga). Botoque remained caught on top of the rock for several days. He grew thin: hunger and thirst obliged him to eat his own excrement. Eventually he noticed a spotted jaguar carrying a bow and arrow and all kinds of game. He would have liked to call out but fear kept him silent.” [R&C, 66. The Jaguar is so much part of South American myth, that the Time-Life edition of South American myths is called ‘The Spirit of the Jaguar’ (Allan 1998b).]

The situation is the same as in the key myth, but this time the saving is not done by birds but by a supernatural jaguar who repairs the ladder and adopts the boy, takes him to his ‘world’, where there is fire, that is later stolen by the boy and brought to mankind (and now the jaguar has to eat his meat raw and hates mankind).

A variation is myth 8 from the Kayapo-Kubenkranks:

One day a man noticed two macaws coming out of a hole in a cliff. To get at their nest, he made his young brother-in-law (his wife’s brother) climb a tree trunk in which he had cut foot holds. But there were nothing but round stones in the nest. An argument ensued, degenerating into a quarrel, which ended as in the previous version. In this case it seems that the lad, annoyed by his brother-in-law’s taunts, threw the stones deliberately and wounded him. In response to his wife’s anxious inquiries, the man said the boy must have got lost, and to allay suspicion, he pretended to go and look for him. Meanwhile, suffering extreme hunger and thirst, the hero was reduced to eating his excrement and drinking his urine. He was nothing but skin and bones when a jaguar came along carrying a caititu pig on his shoulders (etc.).” [R&C, 67]

A third version comes from the Apinaye:

A man found a macaw’s nest with two young birds in a high and vertical cliff. He took his little brother-in-law along, chopped down a tree, leaned it against the wall of rock, and bade the boy climb. The boy went up, but the parent birds rushed at him with fierce screams; so he got frightened. Then the man got angry, knocked the tree aside, and left. The boy, unable to descend, remained sitting by the nest for five days. He nearly died of thirst and hunger. He was completely covered by the droppings of the macaws and swallows that flew above him. Then a jaguar came past (etc.).” [R&C, 68. Another version (M9a) differs in several respects: The two men are a father-in-law and his son-in-law (etc.) (ID., 69).]

A fourth version is from the Eastern Timbira.

A man once took his younger brother-in-law on an expedition to rob macaws’ nests in a cleft of a vertical cliff. But the fledglings made such an outcry that the boy did not dare take hold of them. The man grew angry, knocked down the ladder, and went off. The hero remained sitting by the nest, suffering from thirst, his head covered with birds’ droppings, ‘so that maggots grew there; and the young birds soon lost all fear of him.’ (What follows is identical with the Apinaye version.)” [R&C, 71]

A fifth version is from the Kraho group of the Eastern Timbara.

Two brothers-in-law undertook an expedition (to rob macaws). The younger of the two men was abandoned on the cliff face, where he wept among the angry birds: ‘After two days the birds became used to him. The macaw deposited its droppings on his head, which swarmed with vermin. He was hungry.’ (The end is similar to the other versions.)” [R&C, 71]

A sixth version is from the Sherente.

One day a man went into the woods with his little brother-in-law in order to take young macaws out of a nest in the hollow of a tree. The man made his brother-in-law climb a pole; but when he got up there, the young man declared that there were only eggs there. When the man said he knew there were young in the nest, the hero took a white stone in his mouth and threw it down. The stone turned into an egg that was smashed against the ground. The man was angry, pulled away the ladder, and went home, leaving the hero in the tree where he was forced to remain for five days. Then a jaguar passed by and asked what he was doing up there (etc. The jaguar catches the boy who has to jump down.)” [R&C, 72]

The reasons for the abandonment are different, but the result is each time the same: the boy is left in a place from where he can’t come down.

The motif of the hero (or as in this case heroine) abandoned in a tree forms the introduction of a Yemenite tale. Seven village girls play together and the oldest suggests to put on their most beautiful dress and to go to the ‘ilb-tree to collect its dó-um-fruits. So they all go home to put on their best dress except for the youngest who is too poor. Then they go to the tree and say to the oldest that she must climb up, but she makes excuses: she is wearing her best dress. All the other girls have the same excuse, except the youngest, so she must climb up and make the fruit drop down by shaking the branches. When the girls have filled their baskets, they run away and leave the little girl in the tree. She calls weeping: ‘Sisters, come back and get me down; otherwise the Afrits (demons, cf. Aladdin’s genie) come and eat me.’ But it is all in vain. After a while she sees someone coming; it is the garguf, the genie of the wilderness. The girl is glad to see help arriving. The garguf comes sniffing, smelling human flesh, but the girl greets him very cheerful as her ‘uncle’, wishing him a good evening and asking him to help her down. Because she has greeted him so kindly the garguf spares her, introduces himself and says that six others will follow him, each one worse than his predecessor. He goes away and soon the next one comes and the same conversation takes place. Finally comes the seventh, who tells her to jump down in his hand, but he has conditions depending on which finger she lands on; she falls on the middle finger which means that she has to marry him. They fly to his castle, which is on the top of a high mountain, and here the story becomes a Blue-Beard-version (ATU 311/312): she is not allowed to open the seventh room, does it anyway, and it is full of human bones. She becomes sick from the idea that her ‘husband’ turns out to be a man-eater, but doesn’t want to reveal him the cause of her illness. He comes to test her, first in the shape of her mother, then of a best girl-friend, to whom she reveals what has happened. [Daum 1983, 55ff nº5: ‘Der Garguf’ (told by Chäl Abdallah). Continuation infra.]

A version of this story from the Tamils is called ‘Killing the monkey-husband’. Six brothers live with their sister who is cripple. One day going to school she is playing with the other children in the forest. When the school-bell rings, all the children climb down and run away, leaving the cripple girl behind, who can’t come down. They say: ‘You are cripple; why did you climb up?’ and leave her in the tree. A monkey passes by and she says: ‘Monkey, please help me down.’ ‘Only if you marry me.’ The girl refuses, but the monkey sticks to his demand, and finally she agrees. He brings her down and takes her to his house. Hereafter the story also becomes a version of ATU 312: her brothers help her in killing the monkey-husband and robbing him of his treasures (as the jaguar is robbed of his treasure: fire). [Blackburn 2001, 59f nº11: ‘A parrot’s story’, which should be ‘Story of the seven parrots’.]

In another Tamil-story a brother and sister live together. One day they play with other children and the girl climbs in a high tree, all alone, to pick its dark fruits. A pêy comes and asks her to throws some fruits down with her hands. She does this, but he can’t grab her because she is so high in the tree. So he asks her to throw fruits down with her legs, but he still can’t reach her. Then he asks her to throw it down with her hair. She has very long hair [cf. Rapunzel] and this time the pêy grabs her hair, pulls her out of the tree and takes her home. The girl is rescued by seven parrots, who have seen her abduction, and take her, when the pêy is away, to their house [which is of course also in a tree]. She is not to open the door [as Snow-White, ATU 706], but the girl soon has nothing to eat, opens the forbidden front door, sees a house [probably smoke rising up, as she is usually out of fire and so can’t cook] that is from the pêy, but she doesn’t know, and steals food. The pêy pursues her, but she throws the door shut before his nose and he attaches a claw on top and a claw at the bottom. When the girl opens the door because the parrots are coming back, she hits the claws and fall down dead. The parrots find her and put her in a chest in the ocean, where a raja and a minister find it, etc. [Blackburn 2001, 69f nº17. See infra ‘The nail of the Rakshasa’.]

A Siberian Eskimo tale, told by the 26-years old Eskimo-woman Asuja in the settlement Caplino in the Chukchee-area in 1954, is called ‘The five girls and Majirachpak’. Five girls are walking in the tundra, which is noticed by Majirachpak, the giant-woman, who overtakes them and puts them all in her anorak. The girls are frightened and start to cry. Majirachpak walks to a tree and says: ‘Tree, bow down!’ The tree bows and the giantess binds the girls to its top. Then she says: ‘Tree, stretch yourself!’ And the tree stretches itself, and Majirachpak leaves the girls in the tree and goes away. A bear passes by, but he doesn’t want to help them, as well as the raven. Finally a fox comes and wants to help. Advised by the girls he tells the tree to bent down, unties the anorak, and four girls come out. The fifth is sleeping in the sleeve and cannot be awakened. Thereupon the other girls fill the anorak with berries and leave the sleeping girl behind. After a while Majirachpak returns, orders the tree to bend down, cuts one sleeve, and all the berries fall out (‘What many eyes!’), then the other sleeve, and the girl tumbles out with a cut-off finger. The girl cries that it hurts: ‘Don’t kill me, I will light your lamp!’ She takes the girl with her, to live in her earthen hut. The girl calls her grandmother and escapes one day with the magic flight (ATU 313: obstacles). [Barüske z.j., 21-23 nº1 = Menovščikov, G.A., Eskimosskie skazki, Magadan 1958, 43-45.]


Barüske, Heinz (ed.), Volkssprookjes en Legenden van de Eskimo’s, Rijswijk z.j.
Stuart Blackburn, Moral Fictions. Tamil Folktales from Oral Tradition, Helsinki 2001 (FFC 278)
Daum, Werner (ed.), Märchen aus Jemen. Mythen und Märchen aus dem Reich von Saba, Köln 1983

A myth in which macaws play a major part is a story of the Canarians, an Indian tribe of Ecuador, of the flood from which two brothers escaped by going to the top of a high mountain called Huaca-ynan. As the water rose the mountain grew higher, so that the two brothers escaped the disaster. When the waters retired, the provisions of the two brothers were all consumed, so they went down to the valley, and built a little house where they eked out existence on plants and roots. One day, when exhausted and almost dying of hunger, they returned home after a long excursion in search of food, and found that food and chica were there, although they did not know who could have brought them. The elder brother concealed himself, and soon there entered two macaws dressed as Canarians. As soon as the birds came in they began to prepare the food they had brought with them. When the man saw they were good-looking and had the faces of women, he came out of his hiding-place, but when the birds saw him they were angry and flew away without leaving anything to eat. The younger brother had been out looking for food, and when he returned he found nothing ready as had happened on other days. He asked his brother the reason, and both felt very cross. Next day the brother decided to hide himself, and wait for the birds. After three days the macaws came back, and started to prepare food. The two brothers waited until the two birds had finished cooking, and then closed the door. The two birds were very angry at being caught, and while the two brothers were catching the smaller, the other flew away. The two brothers married the smaller macaw, and had by her six boys and girls, from whom the Canarians are descended. Ever since then the Indians consider the Huaca-ynan mountain as sacred. They venerate macaws, and prize their feathers, which they use to deck themselves out for festivals. [New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, London 1974 (1968, 1959), 441f. See ATU 400, Swan Maiden Motif D361.1; B652.1.]

For more information on the bird-nester: A chapter from John Toth’s book ‘The Bird-Nester, the Jaguar and the Fire-Theft: A New Approach to the Culture-Nature Dimension in Amazonian Myth’ by Deon Liebenberg, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa, 2016.

This is a very interesting article on which I have many critical points to make. Take for example the myth of the mythic age. “According to some myths, night, death, or disease escapes from a sealed container when it is opened up, usually in response to a noise from within the container. This brings the mythic age to an end.” (p. 17) I would compare this with the story of the spirit in the bottle (ATU 331). The frog in the container (p. 23) is the form the spirit has taken in the version of the Brothers Grimm (KHM 99). In myth it is of course the myth of Pandora (or of Adam and Eva eating from the forbidden fruit).

The long day and the long night are part of the theory of Velikovsky. The long night was part of the last plague in Egypt in Exodus. The long day took place at the same time at the other side of the earth (by which I mean America). The long day in the Bible took place 50 years after the long night in the time of Joshua and of course there was a long night at the same time in the America’s. In fairytale we see the long night in versions of ATU 304, where the hero binds the man who is busy rolling up the night (a ball of thread) and releases him after his adventures, so day may come. [Compare on p. 23 a ball of thread.]

“[In] ancient Egypt the king, as the representative of the sun, walked solemnly round the walls of a temple in order to ensure that the sun should perform his daily journey round the sky without the interruption of an eclipse or other mishap” (Frazer [1922] 1987, 78). (p. 20) This is a sign that in previous times the sun had a mishap, creating a long night and a long day.

The cosmic ladder, to climb to heaven, can be compared to Jack’s beanstalk to climb up and the long rope to climb down in tales of the type ATU 301 (which has variants in which the hero climbs up, as in ‘The Castle in the Air”).

Honey is also a topic which we have already seen, see

Hence the myths in which cooking fire, musical instruments, adornments, sacred rites, the art of hunting, agriculture, and other aspects of culture are stolen from the otherworld” (p. 24). See and

Less on the mark is the article

See also the paragraph ‘Bird-Nester’ with a discussion on Lévi-Strauss’ key-myth in

Meer informatie: