Slavic Cuckoo Bird Mysteries

By Phoenix – I often hear very strange and different birds from around the world enter my personal space for specific reasons – but I have never had the Cuckoo Bird. I have had birds and even a manta rays travel as far away as Australia as messengers. Today I was making a folk doll and thinking at the same time about the Cuckoo Bird. It is a mysterious magical bird and I thought… why did grandfather clocks use its sound as a  time keeper.

The ancient rite of the “Cuckoo Bird” refers to the agrarian magical female ceremonies. In the middle of the circle, of this rite lays a ritual object, called a “Cuckoo Doll” and is a folk doll filled with herbs or a specific made folk doll in the form of a female figure, sometimes a bird woman doll or a decorated tree.

So I went to see if I could find anything on the Slavic Cuckoo and I ran across this rite of the Cuckoo, from a Russian website describing a Russian Cuckoo ritual in Swedish and that intrigued me… A Russian Village Ritual that still existed up until the 20th century and is certainly an open doorway to my soul eyes.


from the book “Russian Rituals and Traditions” Kotova I.N.)

The cuckoo was popular and also called the “Widow” or the carefree mother who abandoned her child or children and became conscious to a greater spiritual rite, if an initiation. If not or it was unconscious from mental or emotional sickness, then it was a lifelong torment.

“The Slavic cuckoo bird sends grief” which is said so when she heard a cuckoo voice she knew it was going to make an impact on her life and she would have a disruptive life, marriage and journey. After hearing the bird crow for the first time in the Spring, one would do water ceremony to protect themselves against the cuckoo’s snare.

No village girl or young woman wanted the cuckoo destiny, it was too difficult and took one on a journey. She wanted to stay with her nest of family and friends, not be be buried in her entire life with the sorrows of hardship (karma).

To avoid this, the cuckoo, puppet (folk doll was usually based on plant material: grass, iris flowers, branches of birch and straw. The number of leaves used to make the cuckoo should have been even numbered. The figure was made of a colorful scarf and colorful cloth pieces.

The doll clothes was taken from one of the participating girls, in a special  tailored dress. The latter corresponded to the girls costume found in the area, the essential elements being a Slavic cross, jewelry, ribbons, beads, her hair in braids; the color scheme was pink and red.

The ceremony was accompanied by a burial process, grief over the Cuckoo girls’ accumulation, fortune and a ritual meal. The main participants in the ritual act were girls from the ages of 10-16 years old, sometimes women who married more than a year and had no children, whose presence in some traditions was considered positive would join them.

Slavic Cuckoo Bird Women Ritual
In the image of the bird doll or cuckoo as well as in the image of the trinity Birch, they see one of the incarnations of the female deity, who provides women who turned to her with embryonic souls of unborn children. An elderly woman, often a widow, led the ritual. A characteristic feature of the ceremony was a procession of girls and young women with a dressed cuckoo, walking around the village. The walk was accompanied by songs.

During the village rounds, money was collected for a meal or for each resident. Like other women’s ceremonies in the Trinity-Semitsky cycle “baptism and burial of the Cuckoo” was accompanied by a mandatory ritual meal with fried eggs, youth festivities.

During the procession, the cuckoo puppet (folk doll) was usually transferred to the forest, in the field, to the river, to the cemetery. There she was “baptized” so that she would not cause problems in the village girls’ lives anymore, so that she would not be destined to solitude. Then the cuckoo was buried (buried) on the crossed branches of birches or in the grass:

Kukushechka Ryabushechka!
On all sides to the light of God!

Sometimes they dug a hole, covered it with strips and buried a cuckoo by hanging it on the tree, and then sang songs. This is a ritual ending of winter and a welcoming of spring is a much more gentle ritual than Marzanna. At the end of the Spring weekend the girls went down near the tree to look at the Cuckoo Folk Doll. They then removed it from the tree, dug the ground, dropped it in or laid it on a birch wreath and carried it to the river, bringing the Cuckoo with a farewell song in the water :

Goodbye goodbye cuckoo
Goodbye, goodbye 
Too new for Birch,
Until red until Dawn
Until it is new to Grass

Kostroma Bird Rites of the Cuckoo.jpg

This meant ending relationships that were established during accumulation. Semitsky holidays ended with the ceremony to see the Spring Kostroma’s funeral. In folklore texts, the term “Spring” is often used as an epithet by Kostroma: Spring-Kostroma. In Saratov province, it was believed that Kostroma’s face was seen in the Spring:

“Kostromushka yes, dressed up,
The girls saw off spring.
Spring will pass, yes Trinity
All the fun will be hidden. ”

This Ritual is associated with the symbols of Spring, a spring’s revival of the forces of nature; with magical rituals aimed to take them into summer and at the end, at the harvest, where Kostroma is then honored as a symbol of Fertility. The costume could be represented by a boy or girl, often it was a stuffed animal. There is a folk doll also called Fatty Kostroma which ties in somehow to this rite and ritual.

Night of the Mothers Folk Doll Night 11 a.jpg

The lyrical bird and its mythology and mystery connected to women and girls helps them grow up and enter adulthood.  There is something very magical about the sound of a cuckoo and a eerie mystical sound. To me the spiritual life of a woman verses her family duties is how the symbol of the Cuckoo plays havoc in its more difficult side, but also how the other women honor the woman who must live a life apart from her children, or divorced. It seems the Cuckoo is an all or nothing expression of this death and rebirth of the nature of sorrow and grief and how to process that equal to honoring the way that winter ends, and spring begins.

Polish song about the Cuckoo on the Spring Equinox Marzanna ritual

Russian song about Kukushechka 

To the Welsh, the cuckoo is a sacred bird.  It is safe from the gamekeeper’s gun.  Its advent is welcomed with pleasure “Have you heard the cuckoo?” is a question put by the fortunate person who first hears its notes to every person she meets.  When it is ascertained that the cuckoo has arrived, parents give their children pence for luck and they themselves take care not to leave their houses with empty pockets, for should they do so, those pockets, if the cuckoo is heard, will be empty all the year.

The cuckoo is a fine bird
She sings as she flies
She brings us good tidings,
and never tells us lies;
She sucks young birds’ eggs
to make her voice clear
And the more she sings “Cuckoo”
The summer is quite near.

~Welsh song

Generally it was thought that if you were the first to hear a cuckoo you would be rich if you had coins in your pocket, turn them over or else roll on the grass as soon as you had heard one and avoid standing on gravel or you would be dead in the week! In Norfolk hearing one would mean what you did at that time you would do all year! Yet in Somersetshire you would run away or else be lazy all year!  Similarly, a child born when the first cuckoo was heard would be lucky and in Scotland it was thought unlucky to hear the cuckoo on an empty stomach.

Those who hear the Welsh Cuckoo for the first time thrust immediately their hand in their pockets and turn their money, or toss a piece into the air, and all this is for luck for the coming year ushered in by the cheering sound of the cuckoo’s notes. Generally the cuckoo is heard for the first time yearly about the same place, and the hill tops not far from the abodes of resorts. Thus we have the ditty:

Cynta’ lle y cân y cogydd, Yw y fawnog ar y mynydd.
The place where first the cuckoo sings, Is by the peat pits on the hills.

The cuckoo is supposed to be accompanied by the wry-neck, hence its name, “Gwas-y-gôg,” the cuckoo’s servant. The wryneck was thought to build the nest, and hatch and feed the young of the cuckoo. Many superstitions cluster round the cuckoo. Should a person be in doubt as to the way to take, when going from home, to secure success in life, he, or she, waits for the cuckoo’s return, and then should the bird be heard for the first time, singing towards the east, as it flies, that is the direction to take, or any other direction as the case may be.

It is, or was, even thought that the flight of the cuckoo, singing as it flies before a person, for the first time in the year, indicated a change of abode for that person and the new home lay in the direction in which the cuckoo flew.

The ‘coo’ delights and warms the heart and stirs nostalgia. How did the cuckoo’s call become the sounds of the clock striking the hours? The answer is simple. The common cuckoo, native to Europe and from whom the sound of the cuckoo clock is derived, returns from their migration to Africa at the beginning of spring. Their song has long signaled the passing of winter and the arrival of spring equinox.

Thus the association between the cuckoo’s call, the changing of the seasons or even the changes of the soul of a woman to begin her spiritual journey can go hand in hand. The bird’s cultural significance in Europe goes beyond seasons and time because its beautiful voice has inspired poets, several composers, some of whom have referenced it in their music, including Beethoven and his Symphony No. 6.

In some cultures the cuckoo’s song can be a harbinger of good luck and not bad luck like the northern Slavs. For instance, in Switzerland, it is said that when you hear a cuckoo bird’s first call in spring, you should touch coins in your pocket, for by doing so, you will bring good fortune upon yourself for the rest of the year.

Cockoo Bird Rites and RItuals

The Cuckoo by Richard Armstrong
Few birds have inspired as much folklore as the Common Cuckoo. The cuckoo’s distinctive call has been the harbinger of spring for centuries in Western Europe. It arrives there in early spring after its yearly migration to East Africa. The Greek poet Hesiod talked about the time of year…

When the cuckoo first cuckoos in the leaves of the oak
it brings joy to mortals on the boundless earth.

But the cuckoo has also brought confusion to mortals, with its disturbing behavior. This is a bird that lays its eggs in the the nest of another species, leaving the foster parents to raise its young.  Aristotle thought the cuckoo should be praised for its resourcefulness. The cuckoo, he reasoned, is cold by nature. That means it’s less fertile. In Aristotle’s physiology, heat is associated with aggressiveness and fertility. His cuckoo thus cannot incubate or defend its own few eggs, and so it wisely resorts to slipping them into the nest of a surrogate mother.

The word cuckold is derived from cuckoo. A song in Shakespeare describes spring as the time when…

The cuckoo then on every tree
Mocks married men, for thus
it sings: Cuckoo!

The cuckoo hen swoops down and lays an egg very similar to her host’s, and flies off with one of the host’s eggs in her bill. The fate of the foster mother’s other nestlings lingered as a question. The most grisly account comes from Rome’s great naturalist. Pliny the Elder who thought the young cuckoo greedily snatches food from its nest-mates, and the foster mother comes to admire the larger bird as it grows in size and strength. 

Edward Jenner in the 18th century discovered the cuckoo chick instinctively ejects the eggs of its foster siblings. This seemed improbable to many, but it’s been confirmed by photographic evidence, in which we can plainly see the tiny hatching wickedly hoisting an egg on its back and tossing it over the side. 

Greek Mythology
Cuckoos in Greek mythology don’t fare any better, they are the Sacred bird of the great Goddess Hera who is the goddess of women, marriage and the soul of woman (bird). In the story, Zues initially courted Hera and after many unsuccessful attempts, he resorted to trickery and cunning. He transformed himself into a disheveled Cuckoo that seemed to be frozen. Hera, feeling compassion for this bird, held it to her breast to keep it warm. Zeus then resumed his normal form and took advantage of Hera’s surprise and then raped her.

Hera then in shame, married him to looked away from her pain and strove to jealousy instead of healing her pain. The marriage from there forth, was turbulent and they often clashed as Zeus continued to rape and cheat many women throughout his reign as supreme god. 

So now we can understand this totem and why the Russian ritual is not far off of young women not wanting the Cuckoo to be their totem or their initiation of their soul. Hera, the Goddess suffered and bore the seeds of generations to come of this foundation.

The Greeks have a place called Cuckoo Mountain (Mons Coccygia) and beliefs that the cuckoo could be curative curing insomnia, lumbago and even if burnt and the ashes eaten and stomach pains. Another story, once popular as a nursery rhyme tells that the Nightingale and Cuckoo were in a singing competition and they asked the Donkey, based on his long ears to intervene.  He liked the cuckoo, but the nightingale was so annoyed that it has song in appeal of this decision.

The cuckoo legends which are spread across the country from Yorkshire to Dorset relate to this misunderstanding of where cuckoos went. An alternative view being that by fencing or burying the bird summer could be retained a view common in Scandinavia.

Cuckoo Birds

But do you know Cuckoo’s own story? This is what I was told…
Celtic Fable originally appearing in Otherworld Arts. Rewritten by Jessica Macbeth © 1995

It seems that the gods decided (for godly reasons, no doubt) that they wanted to stop the to-ing and fro-ing between Tir na nÓg (the Land of Eternal Youth) and the mundane world. Probably having so many mortals (heroes and druids and suchlike) rollicking about lowered the property values.

Anyway, they told everyone in Tir na nÓg, including all of the animals and all of the birds, that they would have to choose which world they wanted to live in — the world of immortality and stasis or the world of mortality and seasons, of growth and decay. (They forgot to tell the bees who, ever since, have simply ignored the whole thing and done as they pleased, but that’s another tale.)

Everyone made their choice except Cuckoo. She thought and she thought, but she couldn’t decide. The gods probably said, ‘Come on! Hurry up!’ They probably tapped their toes impatiently. I don’t know for sure, because I wasn’t there, and she who reported what happened didn’t say, but I expect that they did. It would be just like them. And I most definitely wouldn’t like them tapping their toes like that at me.

Poor undecided Cuckoo just couldn’t make up her mind. At last she told the gods that she couldn’t bear to live without the beauty and magic of Tir na nÓg, but neither could she give up growing and changing, living and bearing and someday, but please not too soon thank you very much, dying. She begged and she pleaded and she argued. She just wouldn’t give up or give in. The gods got fed up with this and put their heads together (gods can do these things; the rest of us would probably get our brains all mixed and mushed up).

After a certain amount of argument and cogitation, they made a decision. They said to Cuckoo, ‘All right. You can continue to travel between the worlds. But there are conditions.’

Poor Cuckoo’s heart sank. You know what sort of things that gods tend to think up when they start thinking about conditions. ‘First, you must agree to serve as our messenger between the worlds, carrying our messages to mortal creatures.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Cuckoo interrupted happily, her heart bobbing back up. ‘I’d be honored to do that, Great Ones.’ ‘That isn’t all,’ they said grimly and smugly at the same time. Cuckoo’s heart sank back down again, even lower.

‘You must never build a nest in either world. You must lay your eggs in the nests of other birds to be hatched or not hatched by them, as they will. For this you will be castigated and vilified and blamed. If ever you build a nest in either world, you will be confined to that world evermore.’

Now, when humans say ‘evermore’ it only means ‘until we change our minds’ or ‘until we forget about it’, but when the gods say it, they really mean it. Poor Cuckoo’s heart fell on the ground and cracked.

‘Does this mean,’ she asked sadly, ‘that I would not be allowed to feed and care for my own children, to nurture and protect and teach them?’ ‘Yes,’ said the gods.

‘Does it mean I’d have to depend on the charity of other birds for the well-being of my little chicks, for their very lives?’ ‘Yes,’ said the gods.

‘Does it mean that I would never know my own chicks, and they would never know their own parents?’ ‘Yes,’ said the gods.

Cuckoo thought and she thought. Her wings drooped sadly, and her heart felt as though it would crack forever in two. At last, she asked, ‘But does it also mean that my children will have the freedom of both worlds, forever and evermore?

‘Yes,’ said the gods. ‘You swear? No games, no tricks, and no more conditions?’ ‘Yes,’ said the gods, squirming a little because they had been thinking of a godly trick or two. (I certainly do hope that the gods feel at least a little bit guilty and ashamed about this whole thing, because it was a terrible thing to do to anyone, least of all to a little bird with a loving mystic’s heart.)

So that is how cuckoo became a woman with a very important job to do. For this she paid the huge price of never knowing her own children, never being able to feed them and cuddle them warm, never feeling the pride of watching their first flight, never… never… never… But in exchange for the things she lost, she gained her chicks free entry to the Land of the Ever Young.

Nowadays many people think that cuckoos migrate to Africa or somewhere every winter, and they are right. But on the way to and fro, they detour through Tir na nÓg, where they rest for a while, refresh their spirits, and pick up messages from the gods for delivery.

This is why spring, when the cuckoos first arrive, is such a magical time and everything grows so quickly. They not only bring messages, but caught in their wings, they also bring a bit of the air and the magic of Tir na nÓg to a bereft mortal world.

And this is why their song has such a mournful note. This is also why it is most unlucky to harm a cuckoo or a cuckoo’s egg. It’s every bit as bad as harming a wren, and you know what that means. This is also why it is important to listen, listen, listen with all your senses, inner and outer, high and low, when you hear the song of the cuckoo. There is always a message from the gods in it for you. And as exasperating as they can be at times, it’s just as well to pay attention to the gods when they deign to speak to us.

I know these things are true, not only because they are Celtic legend (which is the best and truest kind of legend), but also because the cuckoo swears they’re true. And if you can’t believe a messenger from the gods, who can you believe?

Beethoven’s tribute to the Cuckoo Bird…


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