The ibis is a group of wading bird whose cultural significance to mankind cannot be overstated. The African Sacred Ibis is among the most important and meaningful symbols in ancient Egyptian mythology.
There are a number of different birds belonging to the ibis group spread across the planet. In each place where they dwell, ibis make a lasting impression. Their distinctive decurved bill shape sets them apart from similar wading birds and makes them an instantly recognizable artistic motif.
Connected with sacred wisdom, with healing, with art and magic; the ibis is an animal that evokes wonder and awe in humans worldwide. If this exceptional animal speaks to you, then read on to discover the myths associated with the ibis, its role as a spirit animal or totem, and the symbolism of this exceptional bird!
Ibis Symbolism and Meaning
The ibis predominantly symbolizes the human soul. It is connected with the afterlife, with transit between the worlds of the dead and the living, and with purity.
Because the ibis raises its young in colonies, this bird is also associated with socialization and cooperation.
Additionally, ibis have a tendency to steal from one another. In certain urban environments this bird can sometimes be a scavenger. So, the ibis is associated with thieving. (1)
Because the ibis is prominent in the religious traditions of a number of cultures, the ibis is also associated with religion, faith, and storytelling.
Because some Christian traditions insist that the ibis is the enemy of snakes, this bird can be associated with honesty, justice, and arbitration.
Finally, the ibis can be associated with flirtatiousness, embarrassment, and romance. This is because some species of ibis have red or pink faces which may flush darker during courtship. These species of ibis have a built in blush! (2)
Ibis Native American Symbolism
To the Native American cultures of the Gulf Coast regions, the ibis is a symbol of unyielding courage. This bird is connected with storms, hurricanes, and the powerful forces of nature.
Ibis Christianity Symbolism
According to Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews, the Ibis is the enemy of serpents. In this same text, Josephus states that Moses used the Ibis’s ability to repel serpents to triumph against Ethiopia. (3)
In some areas, it is also believed that the bird that Noah released after the flood was the Northern Bald Ibis. (4)
Both of these accounts support the ibis as a Christian symbol of sanctity, purity, and protection from harm and deceit.
Ibis in Dreams
Dreaming of an ibis can be a sign of a spiritual injury or wound that needs healing. This is due to the ibis’s connection with sacred healing and medicine. Dreaming of an ibis may be a call to look inward and begin the healing process.
Additionally, an ibis dream may indicate that a deceased loved one is looking out for you, or is with you in spirit. This is because the ibis is said to move between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Finally, an ibis dream may be a sign of judgment. The ibis often symbolizes arbitration. This can be a warning to make sure that your judgment is impartial and that you hold others to the same standard to which you hold yourself.
Ibis Encounters and Omens
Encountering an ibis is often a sign that a trial is approaching. The ibis can signify the onset of a storm. Note, however, that this is rarely a sign to flee. Instead, the ibis acts as a sign to face the oncoming storm with courage.
An ibis encounter may also indicate the need for support. Ibis raise their young in large social colonies. An ibis encounter may be a sign that you need to learn to ask others for the help that you need. Seek out a support network that you can trust and rely upon.
Ibis in Mythology & Folklore
Ibis are one of the most important animals in Egyptian mythology, and feature in a number of other cultural and artistic traditions. From Native American legends to Greek-Egyptian syncretism, here are just a few of the mythological and cultural significances of the ibis.
Native American Mythology:
In the Native American mythology of the Gulf Coast, where Ibises live in the United States, the Ibis is connected with storms. It is said that before a hurricane, the Ibis is the very last bird to seek shelter. (5)
The Australian White Ibis is an Australia native despite myths that this bird arrived in Australia from Egypt and proliferated after a zoo escape. Though these birds are native to the land down under, they have only begun to encroach into cities and populous areas over the course of the last few decades. Bafflingly, this swamp-dwelling bird has become an urban pest in Australia, earning the questionably affectionate nickname of “bin chickens.” Australian White Ibises are frequently reported as stealing human scraps and pillaging garbage bins. (6)
Though not a traditional mythological story, the purported zoo escape is a common folk tale which may be rooted in truth. The Taronga Zoo apparently experimented with free-flying aviaries including Australian White Ibises. Some credit this flock with the widespread presence of “bin chickens” in Australian cities.
The ibis is an incredibly sacred and important animal in Egyptian mythology. Firstly, in ancient Egypt the human soul was thought to exist in three parts after death. These were the Ka, Ba, and Akh. The Ka was the afterlife double of the human being, the Akh was a transcended form of humanity achieved when the soul was judged as just, and the Ba was a bird, often depicted as an ibis, with a human head which could travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. (8)
The primary role of the ibis in Egyptian myth, however, was as the votive animal of the god Thoth. Thoth was the scribe of the Egyptian pantheon; associated with learning, science, magic and the moon. Thoth was said to be the heart and tongue of the god Ra, although some stories claim that he emerged from the skull of the god Set. Thoth is usually depicted as an ibis, or more frequently, as a humanoid with the head of an ibis. He is an incredibly important deity with many dedicated shrines and important roles in myths and stories. (9)
In the myth that chronicles the murder of Osiris, Thoth is said to be the deity responsible for giving Osiris’s wife the magical phrase necessary to raise the dead. She does this in order to become pregnant with Horus, one of the main ruling gods of Egyptian myth. (10)
Thoth was also responsible for tricking the fearsome lion goddess Sekhmet. In this story, Sekhmet has become a vicious menace; devouring humankind and drinking their blood. To save humanity, Thoth formed a plan. He filled the Nile river with beer and grenadine to lure Sekhmet. Thinking this mixture was blood, Sekhmet drank her fill of the Nile before falling into a drunken sleep. Thanks to Thoth, she was no longer a threat to humanity. (11)
Thoth was often depicted as a healer and an arbiter. Upon death in the traditions of ancient Egypt, one’s deeds on earth would be used to determine the fate of the spirit. Thoth would act as the scribe while the god Osiris presided over this process. Some also credit Thoth with the creation of the Egyptian calendar.
Because of Thoth and the Ba, Ibises were deeply sacred and revered creatures. They were domesticated or taken from the wild and kept for ritual purposes. Upon the deaths of ibises, these birds were embalmed and made into mummies. These mummies would fill ibis-shaped figurines or pottery jars. (12)
In Japan, the Crested Ibis is an important bird for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the Crested Ibis actually became extinct in Japan in 2003. It was through extensive conservation efforts involving specimens from China that this species was able to be rereleased and repopulated. (13)
Throughout Japanese history, however, this bird was common enough to be considered a nuisance at times. During the Edo period, children would sing “tori oi uta” or “bird-chasing songs” to drive ibises from the fields where they destroyed rice crops. One such song had these lyrics: “The birds I hate the most / the Crested Ibis, heron, and sparrow / spirit of the paddies, please drive them away.” (14)
The Crested Ibis must not have been a universally hated bird in preindustrial Japan. Despite its later status as an agricultural nuisance, this bird was ritually significant in ancient Japan. The Sugari no Ontachi, a legendary sword used in important ceremonies for the Ise shrine, was meant to be wrapped in Crested Ibis feathers whenever it was used for a ritual. This tradition dates as far back as the year 927. (15)
In Greek mythology, the Ibis was connected with the god Hermes. This is because of the cultural interactions between the Greeks and the Egyptians. When the Greeks entered Egypt, at the start of the so-called Hellenistic Period, they recognized similarities between Egyptian deities and the pantheon of gods that they themselves worshipped. The god Thoth, seemed, to the Greeks, to be another form of their messenger god Hermes. Thoth was specifically referred to as Hermes Trismegistos, or “Hermes Thrice-great.” (16) Thus, Ibises became, themselves, symbols of the Greek god Hermes.
The Egyptian city of Khmun was the center of Thoth worship for the ancient Egyptians. During the Hellenistic Period, this city was renamed “Hermopolis” by the Greeks. (17)
Ibis Spirit Animal
If the ibis is your spirit animal then it’s more than likely that you are a natural born healer drawn towards helping others. The spirit of the ibis is most often present in people with an intellectual nature and an intense curiosity towards the mysteries of life.
People with the ibis spirit animal have a tendency to come off as eccentric. This, however, does not stop them from craving social acceptance. If the ibis is your spirit animal then it is important that you remember not to tone down your interests or your individuality for the sake of fitting in with others.
Additionally, the ibis spirit animal tends to be present in people who hold spirituality and faith in great importance. If the ibis is your spirit animal then you must nourish your spiritual growth through learning and through meaningful relationships with like-minded peers.
Ibis Totem Animal
The ibis totem is associated with justice and honesty. People with the ibis as their totem animal are disgusted by deceit and unfairness. They tend to look at things from an objective perspective, but may have their judgment clouded by passion.
If the ibis is your totem animal then it is important that you remember that fighting all of the injustices of the world is neither your responsibility nor your privilege. Do not allow your love for truth to lead you down a path towards capriciousness.
Ibis Power Animal
The ibis power animal is associated with memory and record-keeping. As stated above, the ibis adores truth. If the ibis is your power animal then you likely have a very strong memory. Additionally, you may find that you have a tendency to want to “set the record straight” whenever you see falsehoods being perpetuated.
For someone with the ibis as their power animal, memory is a gift. Note, however, that it is not infallible. Your memory is as subject to emotion and bias as anyone else’s. Ensure that you treat others fairly by giving them the benefit of the doubt when their memories do not match yours.
Ibis Tattoo Meaning
An ibis tattoo may be a sign of an individual with an interest in Egyptian mythology. It may also represent medicine, wisdom, and sanctity.
A Crested Ibis tattoo may represent conservation and a love for the natural world.
An Australian White Ibis or “bin chicken” tattoo may represent a love for the misunderstood “nuisance” that these birds represent.
From sacred mummy to pillager of urban dumpsters, the ibis has played a number of fascinating roles in human cultures throughout its vast history as a species. Perhaps, it is the unique appearance of this bird that has inspired so much story-telling, art, and religion. Maybe instead there is something special about the ibis. It seems to me that this bird has a unique sense of wisdom and mystery, of mischief and magic that has been igniting human creativity since ancient times. What an incredible achievement for a bird called the “bin chicken!”