Birds in the ancient world

Birds in the Ancient World

Winged Words

24 May 2018 (Estimated)
ISBN: 9780198713654
480 Pages
95 colour illustrations, 9 black & white illustrations


  • A fresh account of the relationship between humankind and birds in ancient Greek and Roman civilisations.
  • Explores the many practical and symbolic roles birds played in daily life: as portents of weather, markers of time, their use in medicine, hunting, food, and farming, and also as omens and messengers of the gods.
  • Wide-ranging account of a huge body of historical and cultural material with extensive quotations in translation from over 120 Greek and Roman authors.
  • 95 colour illustrations from ancient wall-paintings, pottery and mosaics.
  • Thought-provoking comparisons with modern attitudes to birds and the natural world.

Birds pervaded the ancient world, impressing their physical presence on the daily experience and imaginations of ordinary people and figuring prominently in drama, literature and art. They were a fertile source of symbols and stories in myths and folklore, and central to the ancient rituals of augury and divination.

Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World illustrates the many different roles birds played in culture: as indicators of time, weather and the seasons; as a resource for hunting, eating, medicine and farming; as domestic pets and entertainments; and as omens and intermediaries between the gods and humankind.

We learn how birds were perceived – through quotations from well over a hundred classical Greek and Roman authors, all of them translated freshly into English, through nearly 100 illustrations from ancient wall-paintings, pottery and mosaics, and through selections from early scientific writings, and many anecdotes and descriptions from works of history, geography and travel.

Mynott acts as a stimulating guide to this rich and fascinating material, using birds as a prism through which to explore both the similarities and the often surprising differences between ancient conceptions of the natural world and our own. His book is an original contribution to the flourishing interest in the cultural history of birds and to our understanding of the ancient cultures in which birds played such a prominent part.


‘A book the world has been waiting for: rich, scrupulously organised, imaginative, beautifully written, and driven by a double passion. On the one hand, for birds and human interactions with for them. On the other, for the ancient world, especially those Greeks who ‘invented the concept of nature’ and the scholarship which brings their thoughts and observations alive.’
Ruth Padel


Birds in the Natural World

1: The Seasons
2: Weather
3: Time
4: Soundscapes

Birds as a Resource

5: Hunting and Fowling
6: Cooking and Eating
7: Farming

Living with Birds

8: Captivity and Domestication
9: Sports and Entertainments
10: Relationships and Responsibilities

Invention and Discovery

11: Wonders: travellers’ tales and tall stories
12: Medicine: folklore and science
13: Observation and Enquiry: the beginnings of ornithology

Thinking with Birds

14: Omens and Auguries
15: Magic and Metamorphosis
16: Signs and Symbols

Birds as Intermediaries

17: Fabulous Creatures
18: Messengers and Mediators
19: Mother Earth
20: Epilogue: then and now

Appendix: some bird lists from ancient sources
Biographies of authors quoted