In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in Case 29A (1932.88.160) on the Middle gallery, there resides the little body of a storm-petrel bird (Procellaria pelagica). A tarred string wick has been passed through its body for use as a candle. Originally owned by the folklore collector Edward Lovett in 1892 it was donated to the museum by Henry Balfour in 1932.
These bird candles were used by Shetland Islanders as recently as the end of the 19th century. The reason being these birds are so fat and oily that, when caught, they secrete oil into their digestive tract. Fishermen often snared them as the birds followed a boat’s lights. Of all the seabirds storm-petrels are the smallest and, so strictly pelagic are they, only come to land to breed.
The name ‘petrel’ is a diminutive of ‘Peter’ and a reference to the saint because the birds sometimes appear to walk on water – which they do in a series of leaps. The ‘storm-petrel’ refers to their inclination of hiding in the lee of ships during storms. Early sailors saw this as a harbinger or storm warning and named them Mother Carey’s Chickens – a name based on a corruption of Mata Cara a name of the Virgin Mary.
Moreover, storm-petrels were also regarded in maritime folklore as soul-birds. Breton fishermen saw them as spirits of harsh skippers condemned forever to overfly the sea. Storm-petrels are also the souls of drowned sailors, or as devil-birds flying over the bodies of the drowned. In France the storm-petrel is the oiseau du diable, satanita, or satanique. In Britain they are the Waterwitch, whereas in the Caribbean the diablotin survives from French colonialism.
Armstrong, E. A. (1958). The Folklore of Birds. Collins, London.
O’Dea, W. T. (1951). Artificial Lighting Prior to 1800 and its Social Effects. Folklore, 62 (2).
July 16th, 2009. First printed in the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum Newsletter, July 2010.