An osprey overlooking his fishing grounds at the mouth of Big River. Yellow eyes, banded face, six-foot wingspan, talons like a Klingon Bat'leth... Isn’t he handsome? In medieval times, people believed that the osprey was such a formidable hunter, that the fish in the sea would turn belly-up and surrender when he flew overhead. I can see why.
From Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Act 4, Scene 5:
I think he'll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.
Shakespeare wasn’t the only one to notice the osprey’s astounding skills as a fisher and a hunter. In Bolivia, certain tribes ritualistically implant osprey bones under their skin in order to imbue themselves with the osprey’s hunting and fishing prowess.
In fact, the osprey is built for fishing, complete with talons uniquely adapted to this task. Consider this amazing shot by wildlife photographer Graham Owen:
Not only is the talon’s surface rough for a better grip, but the osprey’s toes are “double jointed” in a way that sets it apart from all other raptors. Most raptors can only hold their prey with three of their toes forward, and their one “opposable” toe back. Conversely, all of the osprey’s toes are “opposable” - the osprey can move or arrange his talons in whichever way best suits his fishing. The only other bird that can do this with its talons is the owl. This toe arrangement also allows the osprey to fly through the air with a fish positioned in his talons “head first” – allowing the fish to behave like a rudder in-flight. Glaven.
Ospreys nest according to convenience, and man-made perches are just as sweet as natural ones sometimes. Harbor buoys, channel markers, chimneys, telephone poles, cell-phone towers... It doesn’t matter to the osprey. Same with nesting materials. Sticks and branches, to be sure. But also fishing nets and bicycle tires.
The above photo by Eva Casey is of an osprey nesting on a sign in the Florida Everglades. A nest is typically maintained and enhanced year after year by the same pair of birds. Not that they mate for life; ospreys will separate after the mating season and go their respective ways for migration. But the same two tend to gravitate back to the same nest, year after year, giving them a reputation for familial fidelity.
Which is perhaps why, according to Greek myth, it's an osprey who enacts revenge on the princess Scylla when she "betrays" her father. There are lots of different representations of Scylla, but I’m telling her story like this: Scylla, the princess of Megara, is offered a gold necklace by King Minos of Crete if she'll help him betray and kill her father, Nisus. King Nisus of Megara has a lock of purple hair on his head that grants him invincibility in battle. Minos convinces Scylla to cut this lock of hair from her father’s head so that Minos may take over the city - which Scylla does, not for the necklace, but because she has fallen in love with Minos. However, once Scylla cuts the lock of purple hair and has it delivered to Minos - thereby allowing Minos to sack the city and kill Scylla’s father - Minos decides that he is disgusted by Scylla’s lack of familial fidelity, and he sails away on his boat, leaving the princess crying on the shore. Scylla, despondent, swims out after Minos’ boat. However, the gods have turned Scylla’s father into an osprey, and the giant raptor flies out over the sea and attacks and drowns Scylla. According to some versions of the myth, Scylla then turns into a horrible sea monster.
First, had I known that purple hair gives you immortality, I might have chosen that color for my hair over blue. Not necessarily, though. Immortality doesn’t exactly come problem-free. Second, I can only guess what Scylla’s father did to her to make her want to sell out so quickly to a jackass like Minos. I mean, that guy’s a douche of the first order. Here’s a man who uses his wealth and power to seduce a young, gullible girl - and even gets her to betray her father’s kingdom. Then, once she has thoroughly succumbed to his charms, he dumps her for being too disloyal to the people he had previously convinced her to betray. Then he stands by while an osprey drowns her. Serious douche. The sea monster part is cool, though.
Some osprey nests - which can weigh half-a-ton and can be very difficult to build - have been in use for decades. That we know of. Since ospreys only live up to 25 years, this means that generations of ospreys inherit and use the same nest, possibly giving the impression that ospreys are immortal. This is perhaps why the quality of immortality is seen in tandem with ospreys in all kinds of legends. Not only is King Nisus’ immortality returned to him by an osprey, but in William Butler Yeats' epic poem, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), Yeats chooses an osprey to represent the immortal character of Sorrow. The poem follows the exploits of the mythic warrior, Oisin. According to legend, the incomparably-handsome Oisin was a great fighter, an even better lover, and the best poet of all time. Upon reading some of Oisin’s poetry, the fairy princess Niamh fell madly in love with him and persuaded him to join her in the immortal islands where they would forever hunt, dance, and feast.
Niamh, trying to convince Oisin to remain with her on the immortal islands:
But never, never on our graves,
Heaped beside the glimmering waves,
Shall fall the leaves of damask roses.
For neither Death nor Change comes near us,
And all listless hours fear us,
And we fear no dawning morrow,
Nor the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.
Oisin joined Niamh in the immortal islands, and they had hundreds of years of bliss. However, one day, Oisin was walking along the shore and found a spear, which made him long for his warrior comrades back in the land of the living. Niamh lent him her enchanted horse so that he could go back to visit the world of mortals, but she warned him that he could not dismount and touch the earth or else he would return to mortality himself. Once back in the land of the living, Oisin, still a young man, found his warrior companions dead, his old home in ruins, and the beloved pagan faith of Ireland displaced by the harsh and unforgiving Christianity of St. Patrick.
Niamh warned him:
Shake loose the reins: you slaves of God.
He rules you with an iron rod,
He holds you with an iron bond,
Each one woven to the other,
Each one woven to his brother
Like bubbles in a frozen pond;
But we in a lonely land abide
Unchainable as the dim tide,
With hearts that know nor law nor rule,
And hands that hold no wearisome tool,
Folded in love that fears no morrow,
Nor the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.
Saddened by the loss of the old religion to the new, Oisin decides to return to Niamh, but on his way back he stops to help some men lift a bag of sand into a wagon. As he bends over from the back of his horse to help, the saddle girth breaks and he falls to the ground, becoming a three-hundred-year-old pile of dust in an instant.
See. I told you that immortality comes with its own set of problems. The moral here is, as with ospreys to fish, there's always a catch.