Vulture Symbolism: It Is Not All Bad!

Vulture sitting on a branch with clouds main

Vultures are large scavengers who today have a bad reputation as symbols of death and those that take advantage of the helpless. Vultures had a much more complex reputation throughout history. They symbolized life and death, cleansing, motherhood, and served as a connection with the supernatural. Vultures are also positive symbols of wide open spaces, but then are known as “condors”!

Vultures Are Not ALL Bad 

Imagine. You are watching a movie, maybe a Western, and someone is struggling through a hot desert scene.  They are tired and thirsty.  Losing hope.  They look up.  And, a flock of vultures is circling above.  Just ready to swoop in.  Yes.  That person is in trouble.  

Vultures have a bad reputation.  They symbolize a lot of dark and nasty things.  But, I am here to tell you that vultures are getting a bad rap.  Vultures symbolize a lot of things, not all bad.  

Basic Vulture Facts  

A common summary of vultures labels them a “species of large carrion-eating birds that live predominantly in the tropics and subtropics.”  They are scavengers, animals who consume dead animals.   We might find this disgusting but early humans often obtained food the same way. 

Vultures are closely related to hawks, eagles, and falcons.  Condors, which are considered by many a wonderful bird, are actually a type of vulture.  (They rather that you not know this.)  

They live in groups on cliffs, in tall trees, or on the ground and have the ability to soar through the air gracefully with their large wings.  Vultures are often very colorful birds and have colorful names such as “Pharaoh’s chicken” (the Egyptian vulture).  

There are various names for a flock of vultures that is determined by their activities, including in flight (kettle), at rest (committee), and feeding (wake).  Most vultures have a large pouch in the throat (crop) and can go for long periods without food.  

Vultures in Mythology

Vultures played a major role in the mythology of many cultures.  The Bible also references the creature multiple times.  These accounts show the complexity of their symbolism.  

[1] Egypt

In Ancient Egypt, the goddess Nekhbet was also portrayed as a vulture.  The vulture was believed to serve the essential function of cleansing the land akin to one of those fish you buy to clean waste from a fish tank.  Killing a vulture was a capital offense.  

Ancient Egyptians also believed that all vultures were female and were born without the involvement of males. This began an association of vultures with purity and motherhood, including their reputation as strong defenders of their young.  

Hindus had similar beliefs.  Vultures play a role in many of their myths, including as mother goddess.  Vultures were fierce-looking creatures who soared in the heavens, often roosting high up in mountains beyond the sight of humans. Were not they living with the gods?

Egyptians believed vultures demonstrated the cycle of life.  Vultures were associated both with life and death. They watched over the dead while also being symbols of rebirth.  Egypt was the breadbasket of the Old World and the ebbs and flows of crops were very important to them.  

[2]  The Bible

Vultures are also among the many birds found in the Bible, usually in a negative way that reflects their association with death.  There is a reference to the very good sight of vultures, used to symbolize a prophecy.  The roosts of vultures in cliffs were also noted.   

Proverbs threaten that those who do not honor their parents will be eaten by vultures.  One reason this is such a grave punishment is because it would be a sacrilege to the dead. The birds surely are not kosher, since anything that touches death would be impure.  

A vulture was a bad omen, a symbol of bad luck and future misfortune.  Egyptians respected the underworld.  The underworld in the Bible eventually was the realm of Satan. A symbol of evil.

[3] Greeks and Romans

Ancient Greeks and Romans often associated vultures with death and battlefields.  This makes sense given that vultures are scavengers of the dead.  

Romans also believed the flight of birds and their entrails (ewww) could tell the future.  Vultures even were believed to have helped choose the location of the founding of Rome.   

Greeks respected the way vultures cared for their young.  Romans used parts of vultures as medicine, something that is still studied today.  

[4] Aztecs  

There were many cultures in America that thrived before Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.”  For instance, many are familiar with the Aztecs, who even influenced the symbols on the Mexican flag.  Many wondrous birds, including vultures, inhabited Aztec mythology.  

According to Aztec mythology, Cozcacuauhtli (a vulture) was responsible for cleaning up the remains of the dead.  A vulture’s importance was shown by its portrayal on the Aztec calendar. 

Its job was to purify the earth and allow the dead to travel to the afterlife. The Aztecs saw vultures as a symbol of death, rebirth, and renewal.  They had important religious significance.  

The vulture was therefore a creature to hold in awe, which traditionally had a twofold meaning. You would both respect a vulture, but also fear it for its connection with death.  

Vultures Today 

We use a lot of bird symbolism today, good and bad.  This website might not be “for the birds,” but there are many pages that talk about our feathered friends.

Vultures usually symbolize bad things.  Not friendly.  They feed off dead animals. A “vulture” is someone who takes advantage of people, and swoops in to attack the vulnerable.

History shows, however, that this only tells part of the story.  The disposal of dead animals is part of the cycle of life.  Yes, there is a dark side, an evil side.  But, it is still part of life.  

Vultures are still symbols of grace in flight, the wonders of nature, and the wide open spaces of America.  We just talk about condors when we talk about that.  

Perhaps, a symbol that reflects the whole of existence is worthy of our respect.