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Payne, S. (1929). The Myth of the Barnacle Goose. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 10:218-227.

(1929). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 10:218-227

The Myth of the Barnacle Goose

Sylvia Payne

The Barnacle Goose is a species of wild fowl found in the Arctic seas and visiting the British coasts in winter. The breeding place of this bird was long unrecognized and an interesting myth grew up to explain its origin, which, like all myths, bears a peculiar relation to unconscious phantasy.

The myth is quoted by many writers from the eleventh century onwards and has various forms. The bird was said to be produced from the fruit of a tree growing by the seashore; or from the tree itself, after the exudation of a 'viscous humour'; or from a shell-fish growing on rotting timber on the hulks of ships or elsewhere.

Geraldus Cambrensis, in 1187, gives the following account. He says: 'There are in this place many birds which are called Bernacæ. Nature produces them against nature in the most extraordinary way—they are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hang down by their beaks as if they were a seaweed attached to the timber, and are surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water or fly freely away into the air. They derive their food and growth from the sap of the wood or from the sea, by a secret and most wonderful process of alimentation. … They do not breed, and lay eggs, like other birds, nor do they ever hatch any eggs, nor do they seem to build nests in any corner of the earth. Hence Bishops and religious men in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh. … But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat'.

Alexander Neckam, writing in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, gives this account: 'the bird, which is commonly called bernekke, takes its origin from pinewood which has been steeped for a long time in the sea.

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