For All Souls Day, friend and colleague Eddi – the original Culture Vulture on the Inglorious Bustards team – reflects on a recent trip to experience the awe-inspiring Griffon Vulture migration, and gain understanding of their liminal nature in local lore…
The Strait of Gibraltar last Saturday morning was calm, suspended between us and Morocco. A calm day perfect for the Griffon Vulture migration, but the skies were empty. Then, like some blessing from birders’ heaven, we found ourselves in the flight path of up to three thousand Vultures. Catching the thermals, they spiralled up before soaring across the 14km Strait. This is the diciest moment of their migration to the Sahel and our adrenaline rocketed when their column fell closer to us. Suddenly these immense birds soared metres from our heads. Claws, feathers, bone, a glinting eye were almost within touch.
Vultures have been loathed and detested throughout most of western history, written off as nature’s ghastly gourmet feasting on carrion. Charles Darwin called them “disgusting birds that wallow in putridity”. Long associated with death, battles and rotting meat, in our cultural imagination the Vulture is earthly and gothic, belonging to the nether worlds and giving “material form to the idea of a dark angel.” Swooping over the body of a loved one, it is easy to see how much this awesome bird would look like death itself.
As we stood under their thermal on Saturday we could see their bulkiness, their physicality. Over 2,000 birds weighing up to 11kg each is literally tonnes of flesh in the sky.
Yet for all their earthiness, in the air they are in their element. Transgressive, the Griffon Vulture lives between heaven and earth, building their nests in the highest rocks and crossing continents while still young. Both Christianity and Ancient Greek cultures have figured them as messengers between humans and gods. The Greeks saw them as “from some foreign and unknown land”, often flocking to and predicting the site of battle. In Christianity Vultures were bad omens appearing at sites of destruction “where the slain are, there the Vulture is.” (Job 39:30) But it was the ancient Egyptians who recognised their liminal state and deified them.
In Ancient Egypt Vultures were valued for their abilities as carrion eaters. In such a hot climate, where dead flesh rots very quickly the bird was important for the health of the people. So much so that one Pharaoh decreed the death penalty for anyone who killed a Vulture, making them the first ever protected species. But this ability to clean the world of stench and rottenness came with taboo. While grateful to the Vulture for ridding them of contamination, it is likely people feared and detested them for touching the same object. The Ancient Egyptians reconciled this conflict in the mother goddess Nekhbet.
The goddess Nekhbet was the protective deity of southern Egypt and often took on Vulture form. In paintings and engravings from 3,200 BC we find her hovering watchfully over the heads of kings or, with her wings spread wide, over queens giving birth. She gave protection to royals as seen by the ornate Vultures headdresses they wore. But the mother goddess as Vulture had a very strange role in the culture’s mythology and religion. As “Terrible Mother” she offered both shelter and protection but at the same time the death-bringing, corpse-devouring goddess of death. The Ancient Egyptians saw Life/Death as two sides of the same coin and Nekhbet perfectly captures the dual role of Vultures in her associations with female, life-giving energy and death.
But isn’t this all a long way from Andalucía? Well, two things suggest it might not be that far: Vulture culture and rock-tombs. The Egyptian influence on Spain and Portugal can be seen at the mysterious rock cut tombs at the Sanctuary of Panóias in northern Portugal. This is a largely forgotten temple to Serápis, the Graeco-Egyptian god of the underworld and resurrection. Latin inscriptions next to the sarcophagi shaped tombs read
“To the Gods and Goddesses of this sacred place. The victims sacrifice themselves, and are killed in this place. The viscera are burned in the square cavities in front. Blood is poured here to the side for the small cavities. It was established by Gaius C. Calpurnius Rufinus, a member of the senatorial order”
The sacrifices made by the cult to Serápis at Panóias were symbols of rebirth, acknowledging the dual role Life/Death. Hundreds of rock-carved tombs, similar to those at Panóias, litter the hills of the Cádiz province. These enigmatic sites are attractive precisely because they are so mysterious. Lacking in inscriptions, we know little about their function or origins. These empty sarcophagi lie open to the sky, filled with rainwater and decades of archaeological frustration. Often they have panoramic views of the mountains or oceans, are near a spring or water source and, most crucially, near vulture colonies.
The rock tombs of Betis, for example, are only 14km from the Straits and just beneath a limestone outcrop called Cerro de Bartolo. Some of the young vultures migrating over the Straits would have nested at this colony. Prime position overlooking these rock-tombs. Many of us would recoil at the idea of sky burial and early Christians saw it as the ultimate punishment. But there are those who revel in the idea. When in his poem Vulture Robinson Jeffers plays dead on a hillside, I imagine him lying down in one of these graves –
“To be eaten by that beak
and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
Perhaps Vultures are the key to understanding these mysterious tombs in the sierras of Cádiz. The proximity of these rock tombs to the Griffon Vulture colonies point towards their use as places of symbolic ritual, an “enskyment” transmuting earthly bodies to air, reconciling birth and death in rebirth.
While Vultures no longer has god-status, we are rediscovering that which our ancestors clearly knew and awarding them ‘keystone species’ status. They cut down disease transmission and act as carcass recyclers. Protecting Vultures means protection of the entire European mountain ecosystems. Vultures offer us the key to examining age-old human questions of life, death and regeneration. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the awe we felt watching their migration over The Straits. We were witnessing an event older than the rock tombs, more ancient than Nekhbet and the Egyptian gods, something that continues to pierce us right to our core.
Eddi Pitcher is author of Wild Guide Portugal and lives in Cádiz, researching her new book, Wild Guide Andalucía and leading cultural tours in Spain and Portugal. We are very honoured to have her on board! Contact us about enriching your bespoke wildlife trip with some fascinating local cultural and historical highlights with Eddi!