On a recent visit to Europe I noticed that an insurance company had adopted as its symbol the old heraldic charge of "a pelican in her piety." This evoked a flood of associations from the days when I fancied an expertise in matters armorial. So on returning here I dug up my notes on the subject, and offer them now.
The charge blazoned as "a pelican in her piety" has been traditionally represented as a bird resembling a cross between an eagle and a phoenix, standing in its nest with neck embowed and wings endorsed and elevated. It is piercing its own breast with its sharp hooked beak. Drops of red blood issue from the wound and fall into the open mouths of the pelican's brood, which are gathered about it. The pelican is said to be "vulning herself."
This peculiar device was not at all uncommon. It is or was borne by the English families of Bigger, Buxton, Chauntrell, Pelham, and Somerset; by Alphonso the Wise (King of Castille, fl. 1252), William of Nassau, Pope Clement IX, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. It has been described by every heraldic authority from Gerard Leigh to A. C. Fox-Davies. The idea that the female pelican feeds her brood on her own lifeblood has a basis in European mythology; but the fascinating part is the psychological overtones, which I will describe presently.
First, however, we have to trace the pelican myth backward from its incorporation in heraldry to its ultimate source. At the heraldic end, the earlier writers agree that it represents maternal solicitude. Thus we find Guillim (1660), the source of most modern British heraldry, describing "a Pellican in her nest, with wings displayed, feeding of her young ones," borne by Fox, Bishop of Winchester. Similarly, De Vallemont (1701) mentions "au Pelican, ensanglante avec sa piete" in the arms of Camus. M. Costa y Turrell, the Spanish herald (1856), notes that "el pelicano se dibuja siempra de frente, las alas estendidas y picandose el pecho para alimenter a sus polluelos." Other examples are recorded in Germany, Switzerland, and Holland. The modern authorities--Boutell, Cussans, Dugdale, Fox-Davies, and de Genoillac--go along, reporting that the pelican in her piety represents parental love and self-sacrifice.
This notion had apparently attained some scientific and literary stature by the seventeenth century. In 1673 the Royal Society published an account of pelicans in Upper Egypt with the observation that "Some will have a Scar in the Breast, from a wound of her own making there, to feed (as is reported) her young with her own bloud, an action which ordinarily suggests devout fancies." Keats has the line "Nurtured like a pelican brood," and in Hamlet, Laertes says:
"To his good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms;
And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood." (IV.5.142-44)
"...the pelican is very fond of its brood, but when the young ones begin to grow they rebel against the male bird and provoke his anger, so that he kills them; but the mother returns to the nest in three days, sits on the dead birds, pours her blood over them, and they feed on the blood."
"Ut Pellicanus fit Patris sanguine sanum,
Sic Genus humanum fit Christi sanguine sanum."
"As the pelican is made whole by its father's blood,
So mankind is revived through the blood of Christ."
"Then sayd the pellycane
When my byrdts be slayne
With my bloud I them revyve
Scrypture doth record,
The same dyd our Lord,
And rose from deth to lyve."
"Pellicanus, quando pulli sui erigunt rostrum et picant contra ipsum, interficit eos. Postéa, cum videt pullos suos mortuos, pietate motus, extrahit sanguinem de latere et super filios suos regurgit, et reviviscunt."
"The [male] pelican, when his [male] young unsheath their beaks and begin to peck him, kills them. Afterwards, as he sees his dead brood, moved by piety, he draws forth blood from his side and sprinkles it over his young, and they revive."
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