The Eurasian Wryneck is a drab black-and-cream bird in the woodpecker family without the woodpecker’s typical coloring, long bill, or pecking habit. She forages on the ground and appropriates abandoned tree cavities. She twists her neck in an uncanny way and for this reason she has traditionally been used in reversing spells, especially spells to win back an errant lover. In one of the Greek epics the unwilling heart of Medea, a witch-protégé of Circe and priestess of Hecate, is won using a Wryneck spell. In another myth the goddess Hera changes the nymph Iynx into a Wryneck in retaliation for messing up Hera’s love life. Iynx’s name is the root of the English word “jinx.”
Although the Wryneck sounds like a woodpecker and is placed in the woodpecker family by modern taxonomists, it is unclear how the ancients linked the two. Pan, son of Dryope, is father of Iynx, so they seem to have some relation.
Mars is not the only Classical deity associated with the woodpecker. There is a hero named Picus, a son of Mars who is changed into a woodpecker by Circe, the witch of the Aegean. When he returns to his manly form he has acquired awesome powers of prophecy due to his ability to understand the speech of woodpeckers. Picus later becomes the father of Faunus, the Roman equivalent of the wilderness god Pan.
Alternately, Picus is the first king of the central Italian Peninsula and the son of Saturn. A female woodpecker lands on his head one day, and the Etruscan augur interprets this as a sign of a disastrous armed conflict for the country. Picus personally wrings the neck of the messenger bird, thereby diverting the misfortune onto himself. This self-sacrificing act is more in line with that of a tribal chieftain than a stereotypical king, indicating that this story goes quite a bit back in time.
Among female woodpeckers, there is a Greek deity named Dryope, whose name according to Robert Graves means “woodpecker.” She seems to be a type of dryad. In one story she is transformed into a Lotus Tree and in another into a Black Poplar. Both times she is trying to escape the dastardly clutches of the god Apollo, which is a theme associated with the usurpation of a goddess cult by the priests of Apollo. Dryope is the mother of the god Pan.
North American aboriginal lore is rich in story and folklore about the woodpecker. This wisdom is usually absent in Native animal-spirit books targeted to a mass audience, a testament to the lack of interest most English speaking people have in this bird. In a Lenape (mid-Atlantic) tale Rabbit is invited to dine with the twelve Woodpecker Girls and is impressed with the gourmet meal of grubs they offer him. He is envious and determined to outdo them. Rabbit is very talented – he molded the clan animals from the animals who died during the Great Flood – but unfortunately his pride in this instance is greater than his own greatness. He invites the Woodpecker Girls to dine with him and attempts to re-create the grub delicacies with disastrous results. The Woodpecker Girls laugh at him. This is why Woodpecker laughs at everything, even Creator.
In a myth attributed to the Hasinai-Caddo (Texas), people become woodpeckers after abusing a mescaline producing plant (like peyote). Elders warn that only those initiated in medicine ways should touch the plant, but most people ignore the warnings and spend their days caught up in visions. They forget about their children and one day notice that the children are missing. Creator hears the distraught cries of the parents and changes them into woodpeckers so they can hunt for their children. This is why woodpeckers tap at trees and poke into holes: they are looking for their children.