I saw an odd thing this afternoon. There’s a small baptist church a few miles from my house with a large sanctuary added on. In lieu of a steeple they have a doorframe shaped tower with three crosses on top to represent the crosses of Calvary.
There was a vulture atop of each cross as I drove past. All three faced the same direction (more or less East).
I found this pretty creepy in spite of the fact that I’m an atheist who tends to suppress his superstitious upwellings.
After the initial uneasiness passed, I started wondering why I, who don’t subscribe to this religion and reject superstition, would be so affected. First, I reasoned, I was raised in a Christian family and attended a Christian high school, and therefore I’ve been innoculated with the significance of Christian symbolism. I’m also raised a semi-rural Southerner, so I have heuristical assumptions about the meaning behind certain animal behaviors (folk wisdom, you might say). I also have preconceived ideas about some animals, such as crows, opossums, squirrels, hawks and cattle. And vultures, who do not carry a nice connotation. So, mix two diametrically opposed symbols and get a pretty creepy scene.
Is there more to it? Is there some gestalt need in the human psyche to attribute meaning to such a sight? Or is it merely the confluence of two different ideas, mere happenstance? I see such a thing and how it affects me, a skeptic (or, more accurately, a cynic) and suddenly I think I can understand how ancient peoples could look upon such things as bad omens. Where my eyes see three birds resting on top of metal perches, something else sees carrion-eaters hunched over a powerful symbol of eternal life.
And if I didn’t know what a Christian cross stood for, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.