Of the King-fisher.

THAT a King-fisher hanged by the bill, sheweth in what quarter the wind is by an occult and secret propriety,[1] converting the breast to that point of the Horizon from whence the wind doth blow, is a received opinion, and very strange; introducing natural Weather-cocks, and extending Magnetical positions as far as Animal Natures. A conceit supported chiefly by present practice, yet not made out by Reason or Experience.

Unto Reason it seemeth very repugnant, that a carcass or body disanimated, should be so affected with every wind, as to carry a conformable respect and constant habitude thereto. For although in sundry Animals we deny not a kind of natural Meteorology or innate presention both of wind and weather, yet that proceeding from sense receiving impressions from the first mutation of the air, they cannot in reason retain that apprehension after death, as being affections which depend on life, and depart upon disanimation. And therefore with more favourable Reason may we draw the same effect or sympathie upon the Hedg-hog, whose presention of winds is so exact, that it stoppeth the North or Southern hole of its nest, according to the prenotion of these winds ensuing; which some men observing, have been able to make predictions which way the wind would turn, and been esteemed hereby wise men in point of weather. Now this proceeding from sense in the creature alive, it were not reasonable to hang up an Hedg-hogs head, and to expect a conformable motion unto its living conversion. And though in sundry Plants their vertues do live after death, and we know that Scammony,[2] Rhubarb, and Scena[3] will purge without any vital assistance; yet in Animals and sensible creatures, many actions are mixt, and depend upon their living form, as well as that of mistion; and though they wholly seem to retain unto the body, depart upon disunion. Thus Glow-worms alive, project a lustre in the dark, which fulgour notwithstanding ceaseth after death;[4] and thus the Torpedo which being alive stupifies at a distance, applied after death, produceth no such effect;[5] which had they retained in places where they abound, they might have supplied Opium,[6] and served as frontals[7] in Phrensies.

As for experiment, we cannot make it out by any we have attempted; for if a single King-fisher be hanged up with untwisted silk in an open room, and where the air is free, it observes not a constant respect unto the mouth of the wind, but variously converting, doth seldom breast it right. If two be suspended in the same room, they will not regularly conform their breasts, but oft-times respect the opposite points of Heaven. And if we conceive that for exact exploration, they should be suspended where the air is quiet and unmoved, that clear of impediments, they may more freely convert upon their natural verticity; we have also made this way of inquisition, suspending them in large and capacious glasses closely stopped; wherein nevertheless we observed a casual station, and that they rested irregularly upon conversion. Wheresoever they rested, remaining inconverted, and possessing one point of the Compass, whilst the wind perhaps had passed the two and thirty.

The ground of this popular practice might be the common opinion concerning the vertue prognostick of these Birds;8 as also the natural regard they have unto the winds, and they unto them again; more especially remarkable in the time of their nidulation, and bringing forth their young. For at that time, which happeneth about the brumal Solstice, it hath been observed even unto a proverb, that the Sea is calm, and the winds do cease, till the young ones are excluded; and forsake their nest which floateth upon the Sea, and by the roughness of winds might otherwise be overwhelmed.[9] But how far hereby to magnifie their prediction we have no certain rule; for whether out of any particular prenotion they chuse to sit at this time, or whether it be thus contrived by concurrence of causes, and providence of Nature, securing every species in their production, is not yet determined.[10] Surely many things fall out by the design of the general motor, and undreamt of contrivance of Nature, which are not imputable unto the intention or knowledge of the particular Actor. So though the seminality of Ivy be almost in every earth, yet that it ariseth and groweth not, but where it may be supported; we cannot ascribe the same unto the distinction of the seed, or conceive any science therein which suspends and conditionates its eruption.[11] So if, as Pliny and Plutarch report,[12] the Crocodils of Ægypt so aptly lay their Eggs, that the Natives thereby are able to know how high the floud will attain; it will be hard to make out, how they should divine the extent of the inundation depending on causes so many miles remote; that is, the measure of shores in Æthiopia; and whereof, as Athanasius in the life of Anthony delivers, the Devil himself upon demand could make no clear prediction.[13] So are there likewise many things in nature, which are the fore runners or signs of future effects, whereto they neither concur in causality or prenotion, but are secretly ordered by the providence of causes, and concurrence of actions collateral to their signations.

It was also a custom of old to keep these Birds in chests, upon opinion that they prevented Moths;[14] whether it were not first hanged up in Rooms to such effects, is not beyond all doubt. Or whether we mistake not the posture of suspension, hanging it by the bill, whereas we should do it by the back; that by the bill it might point out the quarters of the wind: for so hath Kircherus described the Orbis and the Sea Swallow. But the eldest custom of hanging up these birds was founded upon a tradition that they would renew their feathers every year as though they were alive: In expectation whereof four hundred years ago Albertus Magnus was deceived.


* [My or others' notes are in square brackets]; Browne's marginalia is unmarked; {passages or notes from unpublished material by Browne is in curly braces}.

1 [I.e., that a kingfisher can show the direction of the wind outside when hung by its bill inside. It is not clear how widespread a belief this was; Willoughby reports it in his Ornithology (1678, p. 146): "It is a Vulgar persuasion, that this bird, being hung up on an untwisted thread by the Bill in any room, will turn its Breast to that quarter of the Heaven whence the wind blows: They that doubt of it may try it." The 1685 "translation" of The Magick of Kirani, King of Persia, and of Harpocration concludes its description of the halcyon with no mention of such a property (Book III, pp. 108-109): "If any shall carry its eyes, when he sails at Sea, he shall not fear Tempest nor Storm, nor any necessity whatever. Also the Pilot, that carries them, shall steer his Vessel quietly, and without the affliction of a Storm. And its heart carried, will make a man beautiful and beloved, and endeared, and peaceful to all people; tho' a man fall into the midst of his enemies, he shall receive no harm, and he shall neither be hurt by storm, nor by thunder; but he shall be acceptable and peaceable to all. But it must be put in its own Skin, and sewed, and put into a golden Pipe. And if a Fisher carry the Belly, or the Head, or the Feathers, that Fisher shall never be disappointed. And the whole Bird roasted in its Feathers, and eaten, quiets people possessed with the Devil. And set in the House, it averts all sedition and strife." Shakespeare alludes to the belief, Lear II.ii:

Such smiling rogues as these,
Like rats, oft bite the holy cords a-twain
Which are too intrinse t' unloose; smooth every passion
That in the natures of their lords rebel;
Bring oil to fire, snow to their colder moods;
Renege, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks
With every gale and vary of their masters,
Knowing nought, like dogs, but following.

And Marlowe, Jew of Malta, I.i, 38-39:

But now how stands the wind?
Into what corner peeres my Halcions bill?]

2 [Or Syrian bindweed, Convolvulus scammonia, whose roots yield a violently cathartic resin.]

3 [I.e., senna; contains chemicals similar to those in rhubarb. Both are used as purgatives and laxatives.]

4 [The glow-worm is further discussed in Chap. 27.]

5 [The same point is made a little more fully in the same place cited in the previous note. Compare the story in Jobson of a fish whose very strong electric effects are lost on death.]

6 ["Opium" in its general sense, a frequent use of Browne, shading into the figurative, as in Hydriotaphia V.]

7 [OED: "A medicament applied to the forehead to cure headache". Applying an electrical fish to the forehead might not be the most pleasant of cures, even for Phrensies, but stranger things have been done, notably in the similar 20th-century application of electricity as a cure for everything from headaches to psychoses.]

8 Commonly mistaken for the true Halcion, ours being rather the Ispida. [Willoughby, loc. cit., heads his article "The Kingfisher. Ispida an Veterum Alcyon?" Unfortunately, he does not answer the question. See also Browne's Miscellany Tract, Certain Queries Relating to Fishes, Birds, Insects.]

9 [That is, "halcyon days". Wren: "halcionian dayes, i.e. dayes of peace." Halcyonian days, figuratively and literally: see Plautus, Poenulus 1,2,142; Pliny HN x(90)(englished by Holland), xviii(231).]

The Kingfisher: from T. XXIV of Willoughby's Ornithology

10 [Wren: All creatures know not only the meanes but the times of their preservation: and therefore that the halcyon knowing that at the winter solstice there is such a calm, chooseth that time to hatch his young, as the crowes did in 1652, when the mildnes of January was such, that they, supposing the spring was come in, did build their nests, and as I was credibly informed, some did hatche their broode.]

11 [Wilkin points out that "the ground affords a sufficient support; for ivy will certainly grow where it has no other". Most plants will germinate where they are planted, given proper conditions of moisture, light and temperature; many climbing plants, however, will die if they do not find some support early in their lives. This I have found by experience, as have a number of infant clematis, morning glory, and sweet peas who had the misfortune to be born in my garden.]

12 [On the crocodile's premonitions, Pliny HN viii(89) (in Holland's translation, Book VIII, Chap. 25); Plutarch, De sollertia animalium, 34; in Holland's translation (1603), p. 977:

The crocodiles deale much after this manner [that is, after the careful manner of tortoises in caring for their eggs and young] in all other points; but at what marks they aime in chusing or finding out the place where they breed, no mortall man is able to imagine or give a reason; whereupon it is commonly said, that the foreknowledge of this beast in that respect, proceedeth not from any discourse of reason, but of some supernaturall divination: for going neither farther nor neerer than just to that gage and heigth where Nilus the river for that yeere will rise and cover the earth, there laieth shee her egges: so that when the paisant or countrey man chanceth by fortune to hit upen a crocodiles nest, himselfe knoweth and telleth his neighbours how high the river will overflow that Summer following: so just doth she measure the place that will be drowned with water, that herselfe may be sure not to be drenched while she sitteth and coveth: furthermore, when her yoong bee newly hatched, if she see any one of them (so soone as ever it is out of the shell) not to catch with the mouth one thing or other comming next in the way, be it flie, pismire, gnat, earth-worme, straw or grasse, the damme taketh it betweene her teeth, teareth it and killeth it presently; but such as give some proofe of animositie, audacitie and execution, those she loveth, those she cherisheth and maketh much of, bestowing her love as the wisest men judge it meet and reasonable, according to reason and discretion, and not with blinde affection.]

13 [Vita S. Ant., 32: at the Medieval Sourcebook; in the 1697 translation of "D.S." (part of sect. 31-32), p. 39:

Suppose a Person begins to walk from Thebes, or any other Town, and the Devils, before he begins to walk, don't know that he will walk; but when they see him walking, run before-hand, and give Notice of it before he is come, and accordingly he comes at the time mentioned; Can this be call'd a Prediction? nay, oftimes when those who began to walk return back, they deceive them. In like manner they trifle about the River-Water; for having seen many Rains falling in some Quarters of Egypt, and thence conjecturing, that the River will overflow before the Water come to Egypt, they run and give Notice of the Flood: Which Men might easilly do if they could run so fast.

14 [There is very little trace of this "custom". The many cures for moths I have found in 16th- and 17th-century books are eminently sensible: the use of the lees of oil in chests, as well as brushes and pomanders of wormwood or lavender, fleabane or some mixture. Aside from its likely ineffectiveness, a treatment by rotting halcyon seems highly unsanitary.]

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