Saturday, 7 February 2015


The other day, while I was driving my son to school, we saw a flock of crows flying overhead. My son immediately uttered the following verse:

"Flock of birds before my eyes name the day of my surprise"

This little verse, which can also be found in this version: "A flock of birds before my eyes, what will be my next surprise", is all that is left today of the ancient practice of divination by interpreting the sound of birds and their behavior particularly flight. 

It was believed that birds, being able to fly in the sky, can commune with the sky god, which was inaccessible to humans. So all the people who used divination through flight and sound of birds, believed that the birds were messengers whose behavior carried encoded messages or signs sent to people by the sky god. 

According to the historical accounts, many nations used birds for divination among them Romans, Greeks, CeltsEtruscans, Egyptians, Arabians, Phrygians, Cilicians, Umbrians, Hindus, Chinese...and Slavs

A word for divination used in South Slavic languages is "gatanje". I believe that this word originally meant divination by interpreting the sound of flocking birds, particularly crows. I also believe that this word is extremely old and probably comes from the earliest layers of the language development in Evroasia. And this is why.  

In my post about Bran - Vran, I talked about the well known ability of crows to detect trouble and danger. Crows quickly learn that a moving car is no danger, but will rapidly flee if the driver stops and gets out. In areas where they are constantly hunted, they learn the difference between a hunter with a gun and a farmer with farming implements. Crows use a system of guards that observe and sound warnings to all other crows in the area. These sentinels guard fields of feeding crows. They also send scouts in advance of feeding forays to check for danger.  Crows are extremely territorial and will protect their colony against any potential predators. They are the only bird known to attack hawks and eagles and even peopleSo crows (vran, bran) have guards (bran) which defend (bran) the colony. People probably quickly noticed that crows use "g(r)a", "g(r)a" sound as warning signal to alert everyone that someone or something dangerous is coming. So people probably started associating the sound "G(r)a" with the meaning "I see him, it, something, danger is coming". On this video you can see the crows sounding the warning call.

Every time Crows sounded "G(r)a", people started looking around to see what kind of danger is approaching. I believe that people quickly started using the same sound to warn each other about the incoming danger. The link between the sound and the meaning already existed and all people had to do was to imitate the sound "G(r)a" to trigger the meaning of "I see danger".  "G(r)a" very quickly becomes "Ga" as "r" gets swallowed during shouting. So we end up with "GA" = "I see danger". What is interesting is that in Serbian "GA" means "him, it, that" and is used as a pointing sound accompanied with the pointing outstretched hand meaning "I see him, it, that". 

But it is not just crows that produce a sound that sounds like "GA" when they are agitated. It seems that all major flocking birds of Europe use a variant of the "GA" sound as a warning sound. These are the warning sounds made by rooks. These are the warning sounds made by ravens. These are the sounds of mallard ducks. These are the warning sounds of geese. These are the warning sounds of seagulls. 

Some people will say that this warning sound of the flocking birds sounds more like "k(r)a". And that is possible. Different people hear things differently. So if the sound that we hear is "k(r)a", it becomes "KA" as "r" gets swallowed during shouting. What is interesting is that in Serbian "KA" means "towards", at him, it, that...

Vidim GA - I see him, it, that
Idem KA - I am going towards him, it, that
Pokazujem KA - I am pointing at him, it, that

Both variants of the perceived sound have the meaning directly related to observing, noticing, identifying, signaling, informing. Is it possible that these two words developed from human imitation of the warning sounds of flocking birds? And if so how old are these words then? Are we looking at the true linguistic relics, which survived to this day from the Mesolithic or even Paleolithic times?

It seems that people listened to birds and interpreted their calls, flight and general behavior from very early days. Of all the flocking birds, the ones that lived in closest association with people have always been crows and ravens. So the "GA" warning sounds of crows and ravens were the ones people heard and interpreted most often. For our ancestors "gakanje", the sounding of crows and ravens, was not a meaningless noise, but a sound that carried a clear meaning: danger. So the "GA" sound of crows and ravens, and the crows and ravens themselves were associated with danger. And in the distant past danger usually meant mortal danger. Many thousands of years later, these birds are still considered the birds of black omen, death, even though the reason why this is so has been forgotten. 

So how long did it take before people started looking for other messages in birds sounds and behavior, including birds flight? And how long did it take before they started looking at other birds, not just flocking birds? Probably not long. And this is how divination by observing birds was born. Because what is divination, fortune telling, but the interpretation of the warning signs, in this case contained in the sounds and behavior of birds including flight. 

Knowing all this it is not a surprise to find that the word for divination in Serbian is "gatati". Gatati comes from ga + da + ti = ga (message in the "ga" sound of birds) + give + you = message given to you by birds. 

gátati - tell fortune, divine
gátanje - fortune telling, divination
gatka - mystery, riddle, puzzle
gatavac, gátalac, gatar, gatalo - fortune teller

This word is found in other Slavic languages as well as "gatati", "gadati" or "hadati" meaning both to divinate and to speak. The fact that this word means both divination and speech is extremely important, as it directly links speaking with fortune telling, warning, "GA" sound of flocking birds. We also find this word in Sanskrit as "gadati" meaning to speak, to say. And in Irish as a word isolate "gadán" meaning noise, shouting, human voice. This Irish word also directly links the noise of flocking birds with the human voice and language. This is probably a borrowing similar to Serbian "galama" meaning noise, human voices but even closer to the original Slavic root "gata, gada" meaning both to tell fortune and to speak. The distribution of these words leads me to believe that they come from an ancient R1a language family.

So. What do you think?


  1. This is very interesting. Any reason that you know for the crow being connected to smiths? The crow is associated with the black smiths of the Saharan. The Inadan metal workers are said to be "old as the crow" and "sons of David."

    1. I actually thought about this myself recently as well. Read my post about Taraiš, Taraba. Both places associated with smiths have name with the root Vran meaning crow. In Serbia there are legends about celtic metalurgical stronghold where bad people lived who "harked like ravens". In serbian word for raven is Gall and it means black. Ancient Vinca figurines with bird faces were interpreted by some Serbian archaeologists as mask used by early smelters to protect themselves from poisonous gases released during smelting or arsenic copper. Like raven masks used in medieval Europe as a protection against plague. In Irish the word for beak is gobh and for smith is gobhan. Is this because of the old smiths with beak masks?