The Ecphorizer

The Case of the Pious Pelican
George Towner

Issue #39 (November 1984)

Armorial observations on a little-known myth

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

...on a cru que cet oiseau nourrissait ses petits de son propre sang.

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)

There are similar references in King Lear (III.4.77) and Richard II. (II.1.126).

Where did such a bizarre idea come from? The heraldic system, as it survives today, was not fixed and recorded until the seventeenth century; before that it was transmitted through oral tradition and the practices of the College of Heralds. But the myth that the pelican feeds her young on her own blood goes back at least to classical times, probably farther. The Dictionary of the British Philological Society (1905) finds that "it appears to be of Egyptian origin, and to have referred originally to another bird." So let's trace it back a few more centuries. The most striking change as we proceed back from the seventeenth century is that the pelican becomes a male bird. This is suggested by Guillim, who notes that "the Aegyptian priests used the Pellican for a Hieroglyphick to expresse the four duties of a Father toward his children." Similarly, the Dictionary compiled by the Academie Francaise asserts that "On fait du Pelican le symbole de l'amour paternel parce qu'on a cru que cet oiseau nourrissait ses petits de son propre sang" (my emphasis). It is worth noting that the name of this bird is masculine in the Romance languages.

Even more surprising, however, is that in the earlier versions of the pelican myth the story is no longer one of parental love and self-sacrifice; it is one of infanticide and remorse. A circumstance suddenly emerges that the heraldic writers never mentioned and of which they may indeed have been ignorant--namely, that the pelican first kills its brood and then restores them to life with its blood. Vinycomb, in his Fictitious and Symbolic Creatures in Art (1906), recognizes this feature in reproducing what seems to him to be the medieval form of the myth, although he still ascribes the act of nurturance to the mother bird:

"...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."

Stith Thompson's definitive Motif-Index of Folk Literature lists the pelican story in that form.

Well! Where are you, Freud, now that we need you? Although it didn't enter English literature until 1398 (in an obscure work by Trevisa), what we may now call the "oedipal pelican" was quite active in early Christian iconography. It was taken to be a symbol of Christ; so we see Dante referring to Jesus as "nostro pelicano," and find a similar metaphor in Milton's Paradise Lost. This pre-medieval treatment has been preserved by Hervieux in his Fabulistes Latins, a corpus of classical fragments:

"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."

This partly explains the following curious passage in Skelton's Armory of Birds (1510):

   "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."

Returning once more to Hervieux's collection, we are fortunate to find there what was probably the original Greco-Roman form of the pelican myth:

"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."

So this is where the idea of the self-sacrificing "pelican in her piety" came from --as raw a tale of familial violence as one could dredge up from the collective id of Western Civilization. It had to be sanitized into its modern form before the good Bishop of Winchester could decently adopt it in his coat of arms. As a symbol of maternal solicitude, I suppose it makes a good logo for an insurance company: we'll take care of you with our lifeblood. But one wonders whether they know how the pelican story originated and what it really means.

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