The Pelican: Tampa Bay's Symbol

The pelican is a venerable and important bird in the tradition of symbolism. Adult pelicans dip their beaks into their pouches to feed their nestlings, and often rest with their beaks sunk into their breast feathers. The ancient Egyptians believed that a human mother nurtured her infant in utero with her heart's blood; similarly, they believed, a mother pelican nourished her babies by tearing open her own breast to let her heart's blood flow into her nestlings' mouths. In the Physiologus, a text from late antiquity, the pelican kills her disobedient young but can restore them to life three days later with her heart's blood, whereby she gives up her own life.

The self-sacrificing mother pelican became a popular motif on both ecclesiastical (as the Sacred Heart) and secular coats of arms. The pelican is also a symbol in alchemy, not only as a specific type of retort whose “beak” bends down toward its “pot belly,” but also as an image for the philosopher's stone, which, when pulverized and mixed with molten lead, transforms the lead into gold. In this sense, the pelican symbolizes selfless striving for purification. The Knights of the Rosae Crucis (Rosicrucians) were also sometimes called the Knights of the Pelican. There is a medieval hymn that contains the words “Pie pelicane, Jesu domine” (“O merciful pelican, Lord Jesus”).

Why are we telling you all this? Because in 1975, when Tampa Bay Mensa split away from Central Florida Mensa and became a local group in its own right, it adopted the pelican as its symbol — Central Florida having already “taken” the owl.

And here is a limerick that you're probably already familiar with:

A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His beak will hold more than his belly can.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I'm damned if I see how the helican. — Dixon Lanier Merritt