I was walking in South Wales recently and came upon this strange pub sign in the village of Ogmore.
The Pelican in her Piety.
What an odd name. Why call the pub after this particular bird? And why is she pious?
Later I resorted to that fountain-of-all-knowledge – the Google search – and discovered the origin of the expression.
In medieval times, the pelican was represented in drawings as having a cruel beak. The story goes that some baby pelicans started pecking at their mother, who pecked back and killed them. Overcome by remorse, the mother pelican attacked her own breast with her sharp beak. Her blood fell on the dead baby birds, and revived them. They came back to life.
A variation of the tale is that it is the father bird who is the killer, and who then pecks at his own breast to draw blood and revive the young. A further variation is that the chicks were killed by a marauding snake, and so their mother pierces her chest to revive them with her blood. In some stories the blood drips onto the chicks, in others it is fed to the chicks.
Apparently, the pelican pecking at its own breast is a common motif in medieval carvings and paintings, and on some coats of arms. It is a religious allegory, signifying self-sacrifice and resurrection. I had never seen it before – but will keep a watch out in future.