The pelican has a long and interesting history in folklore and symbolism. The Ancient Egyptians associated the bird closely with death, the afterlife, and as a mode of transport from one world to the next. In other ancient mythology, it was believed that, during times of famine, a mother pelican would strike her breast—thus drawing blood which she could feed to her starving chicks (though, in the process, she would lose her own life). In the Second Century A.D., early Christians adopted this symbolism as a metaphor for Christ, His Passion, and the Eucharist.
Not to be outdone, Queen Elizabeth I appropriated the symbol as an allegory for her reign on Earth—as “mother of the Church of England.” At about the same time, Shakespeare wrote: “And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican / Repast them with my blood.” (Hamlet)
At both Oxford and Cambridge, the colleges of Corpus Christi—which, translated, means “The Body of Christ”—use the pelican in their coats-of-arms. Likewise, many medical schools and medical services in Europe use the bird in their crests.
The English, brass bookends (shown above) each show a pair of the iconic birds. Click on the photo to learn more about them.