why the cassowary?
How does one of the largest birds in the world go from roaming the rainforests of Queensland and Papua New Guinea to adorning this website?
It began when I moved to the Queen's Foundation in Birmingham in 2021. I was running the global programme and looking for a suitable symbol to connect my work with Birmingham’s century of engagement with the rest of the global church. It turns out that Handsworth College, the Methodist predecessor of the ecumenical Queen’s Foundation, had a cassowary emblazoned on its coat of arms. The flightless bird became the title of the student newspaper and even the road to the college was renamed in its honour. Although we only had a few Pacific Islanders through the programme, it felt like a natural fit.
The more I found out about the cassowary, the more intriguing it became. Despite its heft, it can run at up to 30 mph and jump five feet in the air. It is also one of the few species where the female mates with more than one male and then leaves the males to brood on the eggs and rear the young alone. It has an unwarranted reputation for attacking and even killing humans, but truth be told, this is very rare and the bird is actually very shy.
The reason why it was adopted by Handsworth seems lost in the mists of time. Many of the ministers trained there ended up on the mission field so perhaps it was related to the Punch cartoon, published in 1868, that chronicled the misadventures of a missionary in Timbuktu:
Where stalked the dusky Cassowary
On the plains of Timbuctoo;
There he ate the Missionary
Beads, and prayer-, and hymn-books too.
It would have been a very lost cassowary who ended up in West Africa! In Pacific mythology, the bird is the creator of the world and gives birth to humanity itself. In her death, she provides sustenance for this new humanity and enables civilisation to develop.
For me, the cassowary symbolises both links to the
ancient past as probable descendants of the dinosaurs,
as well as connection to the whole of life in all its
weirdness and diversity. Its creative role in Aboriginal mythology, contrasts markedly with the reputation of destruction given it by Westerners, and speaks
powerfully of the need for deep dialogue across
cultures to right wrongs and misunderstandings in
pursuit of decolonisation and justice.