The Honey-Eating Birds and the Tree of Life: Notes on Ṛgveda 1.164.20-22


  • Per-Johan Norelius



The following article is an attempt at interpretation of the oftdiscussed “riddle” of the birds (Ṛgveda 1.164.20-22). Recognizing that the riddle, as much of Vedic poetry, operates on several “levels” (cosmic, ritual, etc.) and may be meant to be answered in more than one way, the present approach sees the enigma as drawing on mythical and cosmological imagery current in early Vedic times; imagery that also finds expressions elsewhere in the Ṛgveda and later texts. Following the majority of earlier interpreters, I take the fig-tree on which the birds are perched to be the world-tree, and the “figs” or “honey” on which they feed to be soma or amŕ̥ta-. Following Hillebrandt and Kuiper, the two birds in 1.164.20 are interpreted as the sun and the moon. The image of one or more birds (suparṇá-) associated with the drink of immortality is traced through the Vedic literature; in some places it is possible to identify it as Soma (from late Ṛgvedic times equated to the moon). It is further suggested that both the bird and the world-tree are associated with the spring or receptacle of soma in heaven, which, following Witzel, is identified as the Seven Seers, the constellation Ursa Maior. The article is concluded by a discussion of the Vedic imagery of a world-tree and a drink of immortality, and its parallels in Indo-European and Eurasian myths and cosmologies.