The Fascination of Storks

The Fascination of Storks

Source: Honza and Ivan Ebr

I recall the sense of enchantment I felt one spring over 20 years ago when Charles and I drove into Náměšť nad Oslavou, the picturesque town where he lived in Czechoslovakia during World War II. The castle, the bridge, the red rooftops, and the white storks with their gangly legs and orange beaks were perched in their massive nest on the towering chimney of a former brewery.

I’ve been fascinated by storks and the legends and stories associated with them since my childhood. From ancient times people have said that’s where babies came from – they were delivered by storks.

In Egyptian mythology, a person’s soul was thought to be a stork and the return of the stork in the spring meant the soul had returned to the person. The stork was associated with the bâ, the “soul” of which it was the hieroglyph. It evoked kindness and mercy. But, a Greek myth told of storks stealing babies after Hera (goddess of women, marriage, family and childbirth) turned its rival into a stork and then that stork-woman tried to steal Hera’s son.

German folklore spoke of storks finding babies in caves or marshes and bringing them to homes in a basket on their backs or held in their beaks. The babies would then be given to the mother or dropped down the chimney. When potential parents wanted children they put sweets for the stork on their windowsills. Storks nesting on chimneys were considered good luck in Austria and Germany and the presence of a nest on a house was believed to protect against fires.

In Eastern Europe, it was thought that nesting storks on a house would bring harmony to the family, a village with many of these birds would make a good harvest, and that the animal could predict the weather: agitation among the stork was omen of bad weather, if the bird was standing on one leg he would be cold, and if he slammed its beak the day would be sunny.

Slavic mythology and religion told of storks carrying unborn souls from Vyraj (a place where birds go for the winter and souls go after death) to earth in the spring and the story of a stork delivering babies continues.

In Victorian England, the story of the stork bringing a baby became valuable as a way to conceal the realities of sex and birth. It was a useful image for those embarrassed about explaining the facts of life.

One of my favorite childhood storytellers was also fascinated by storks – Hans Christian Andersen, Danish author of fairy tales, borrowed from Germanic and Slavic folk tales for his stories.  In these tales, animal spirits, animal-human hybrids, magic, and shape-shifting were common.  Andersen took the traditional stork beliefs he knew as the inspiration for his stories “The Storks,” and “The Marsh King’s Daughter.”

Stork Club menu

In addition to reading Hans Christian Andersen tales, I viewed “The Stork Club Television Show” televised from the Sherman Billingsley’s legendary club of the same name at 3 East 53rd Street in Manhattan.  Here celebrity guests performed and were interviewed at their tables. The show was a talk show for an adult audience (not eight year olds), but I liked its name, its stork logo and attractive menus. I enjoyed the glamorous movie and TV stars like Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Judy Garland, Perry Como and Elizabeth Taylor and the authenticity like when a waiter spilled a tray of dishes.

Later on TV the Vlasic Pickle Company (Polish pickle maker founded in my hometown of Detroit) sponsored an ad campaign featuring an animated stork that imitates comedian Groucho Marx’s voice and mannerisms holding a pickle like a cigar. According to the Vlasic website the ‘spokesbird’ was chosen to “deliver pickles since babies were in such short supply!” The national birthrate was dropping in the mid-1970s and Vlasic took this opportunity to capitalize on the trend. Taking the classic stork mythology and combining it with the belief that pregnant women crave pickles, they created their marketing campaign which they still use!

It’s autumn now and many storks in Czech lands are gathering for their annual migration to places like North Africa for the winter. I’ve read some storks that once flew to Africa now remain all year long. Wherever they are, I wish them well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *