Symbolism of the Pelican

I use plenty of symbolism in my work but generally I don’t like to be too explanatory or didactic with it. I would like the imagery to affect the viewer in a more subtle way; triggering memories and associations rather than being ‘read’.

Still from: Mary MacGregor-Reid (2019) The Pelican Surrenders the Blood of Her Heart

People do ask me for more insight into the symbols I use and I’m always happy to go into more detail if someone is interested. I have a couple of works in my Rubedo series that reference ‘The Pelican’ and this has been a piece of symbolism people have asked me about, so here is a brief delve into it’s meaning.

In Medieval Europe the pelican was erroneously believed to feed her children with blood from her own pierced heart, an ancient belief that in times of famine the mother bird would sacrifice herself to feed her children or even to resurrect her dead young. No one knows quite how this belief came about but it’s possibly due to seeing the birds regurgitating food into the mouths of their young and tucking their bills into the feathers of their breast appearing to stab their heart. The pelican became a symbol for self-sacrifice and for the nurturing mother, as well as being associated with the Eucharist in Christian tradition. The “Pelican in Her Piety” (feeding her young) or the “Pelican Vulning” (wounding herself) is an image found on church facades, mozaics, murals and also used in European heraldry.

Alchemical image from Figuarium Aegyptiorum Secretarum (18th century) showing the Pelican Vulning (one can only assume the artist had never seen a real pelican!) under the moon and the Female archetype on the lefthand side, with the Male, the sun and the Phoenix on the right. The conjunction creates the Double Headed Eagle, a symbol of unification.

The self-sacrificing pelican made her way into Western Esotericism appearing in many traditions, but in particular to the Order of the Rose Cross (Rose Croix). Philosopher Manly P. Hall explains, “The pelican feeding its young from a self-inflicted wound in its own breast is accepted as an appropriate symbol of both sacrifice and resurrection. To the Christian mystic, the pelican signifies Christ, who saved humanity through the sacrifice of His own blood.” The pelican represented “one of the vessels in which the experiments of alchemy are performed and its blood that mysterious tincture [the Philosopher’s Stone] by which the base metals (the seven baby birds) are transmuted into spiritual gold.”

Mary MacGregor-Reid (2019) The Pelican Surrenders the Blood of Her Heart

For me the idea of self-sacrifice through giving up ones own heart is very beautiful. A mother can already feed her young from her own breast, but to willingly pierce the heart and surrender her own blood makes the purity of her offering the kind that could have transformational power.

The above video was from the Rubedo series of alchemical still and moving images. It is intended to be shown alongside corresponding videos that relate to the final process in alchemical transformation.

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