The falcon turning and circling overhead is a stirring sight even today, and we can only imagine how inspiring it must have seemed before human beings had learned to fly.
The peregrine falcon, which is indigenous to Egypt, not only is capable of elaborate aerial maneuvers, but also has been clocked at the fastest speed of any bird. A poem on a fragment of pottery from the vicinity of ancient Cairo celebrated the sun god Ra in his incarnation as a falcon.
Since Egyptian times, the falcon has remained a symbol of transcendence and of love.
The Egyptians also depicted their god Horus, who came to be partially conflated with Ra, as a falcon. After Osiris had been murdered by his wicked brother, Set, Isis, wife of Osiris, conceived Horus as she mourned by hovering over the body of her husband in the form of a kite. Horus later defeated Set in combat to gain dominion over Egypt, but he lost one eye in the battle, which was replaced by the god Thoth. As the Egyptians realized, raptors have remarkable eyesight, and the lost “eye of Horus” was frequently represented as a protective talisman in Egyptian culture. The motif eventually entered Christianity as the “all-seeing eye of God.”
Although biologists now place hawks and falcons in separate families, ancient and medieval people did not distinguish clearly between the two. Egyptian representations of the god Horus combined features of several species, though the most important model is probably the peregrine falcon. In what is probably the oldest animal fable to have come down to us from the Greeks, Hesiod used a hawk to represent the inexorable power of fate. A hawk had caught a nightingale in his claws and carried her high into the clouds, at which point she began to weep. The hawk rebuked her, saying, “Goodness, why are you screaming? . . . He is a fool who seeks to compete against the stronger: he both loses the struggle and suffers injury on top of insult” (Works and Days, p. 43). The context, however, made this fable ambiguous, since Hesiod in the following passage urged his brother to refrain from violence, saying that justice would triumph over force in the end. Perhaps Hesiod was assuming his readers knew of a now lost ending in which the call of the nightingale brought help and the hawk was punished.
Falconry goes back to very ancient times and has been practiced throughout Eurasia, but its greatest popularity was probably in the European Middle Ages. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who was known for his prodigious learning, wrote a treatise on falconry. Hunting with falcons became a favorite recreation of medieval lords and ladies, who would ride out on horseback in the spring, dressed in elaborate finery and with the hooded birds perched on their wrists. When the eyes of the falcon were uncovered and the bonds released, the people would vicariously participate in the pursuit of game. Wooing was frequently compared to the hunt in medieval times, and metaphors from falconry were often used to describe amorous relationships. The medieval troubadours and minnesingers often celebrated the falcon as a symbol of unhindered love. “The Falcon” by minnesinger Dietmar von Aist begins She goes on to compare her knight to a falcon and to long for his return.
Not only proper falcons but also a variety of other birds of prey, including hawks, were used in hunting. Sir Gawain, the greatest of King Arthur’s knights in early tales, though less significant in the later ones, is called Gwalchmai, meaning “hawk of May,” in early Welsh tales. He appears to be a version of the Irish hero Cúchulainn, whose father was the sun, so perhaps the name comes from the raptor’s archaic solar associations. Merlin, the legendary magician of Arthur’s court, also takes his name from a raptor that was sometimes used in falconry.
The Irish poet W. B. Yeats used the image of a circling falcon to represent the social and cosmic order in his poem “The Second Coming,” which begins Later references in the poem to Egyptian culture indicate that Yeats may have connected his falcon with the deity Horus. The image of a circling falcon, however, also suggested a bomber, particularly since the poem was published in a brief period of peace between the two world wars.