Birds in the Ancient World
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
24 May 2018
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.’
29th August 2018
From nightingales trilling in ancient Rome’s suburbs to the migrating cranes minutely observed by Aristotle in his fourth-century-bc History of Animals, birds pervaded early Mediterranean civilizations. Jeremy Mynott’s masterful cultural and scientific history tours their roles as timepieces, soundscapes, pets, messaging services — even intermediaries with the supernatural. The vivid artworks and literary passages give this wings: here is the Greek poet Aratus on finches “chirruping shrilly at dawn” before a storm; there, a surreal Roman recipe for flamingo stewed with coriander.
Towards the end of his Birds in the Ancient World Jeremy Mynott poses a lepidopteral question. Why do butterflies arrive in Greek literature so late, when birds appear so early? A distinguished publisher and writer on both classics and birdwatching, Mynott has scoured thousands of pages on a literary nature trail. He has quoted more than a hundred authors and identified many wonders, but is finally puzzled by a strange case of absence. Only in the fourth century BC does he find his first butterfly. Other insects, the ant and bee and wasp have by then long played their minor parts, many mammals too. And by the time that Aristotle describes the extraordinary emergence of wings from a chrysalis, the pages of poets, playwrights and prose writers have been packed with birds for as long as 500 years.
What did birds offer Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus and Sophocles that butterflies did not? Both were ubiquitous, brightly coloured, active in daylight and hard for even the most unobservant to avoid. Both offered opportunities for metaphors of fleeting life and fragile beauty. Did the answer lie in the ancient sky or the ancient mind? Mynott offers only suggestions, a reticence which, on this sprawling subject, shows his consistent theme: how hard it is to decode another culture, how the simple and satisfying explanation so often fails the test.
Birds in the Ancient World is both a joy and a challenge. It is in six parts, each focusing on possible reasons why humans chose birds as the most constant companions of their minds. Mynott begins with birds as indicators of the seasons, their spring and autumn migrations, their sensitivity to the weather. There is a chapter on birds for food, for pets, for medicine, for magic and as message carriers to and from the gods. In a section on the sound of antiquity he evokes the density of natural noise in the fields of Greece, the onomatopoeia of birds’ names and their part in human music. Each part contains brief commentary on its quoted sources, some of them familiar like Homer’s army of migrating cranes and Catullus on his mistress’s sparrow, others rarer. Artemidorus, author of the only surviving guide to dreams in antiquity, is cited for his studies of ravens, gulls and storks in the sleep patterns of the second century AD. Crinagoras, a little earlier, makes the list by describing birds for Rome’s city consumers: an eagle might use its feathers to soar through the air but for man they were quill pens and toothpicks. Aratus, who wrote a weather guide for the third century BC called Phaenomena, soon gained a popularity second only to Homer. Mynott gives him his recognition back.
Aristophanes’ beautiful comedy The Birds, the most extended work on why humans might The Birds at the Comedie-Fran9aise, Paris, 2010 see themselves in feathers, is multiply cited with every physical and moral possibility explored. Aristophanes’ avian chorus, first on stage in Athens in 414 BC, has its own city in the sky; birds have fun; they are free from lawyers; they rule like playful gods; they control time and the seasons, the cuckoo sounding the hour for men to have sex – or to harvest the wheat in their fields, as the more literal translators prefer. They can fly away if caught in a tight corner. A crow lives five times as long as a man. A politician bird can shit on anyone who doesn’t vote for it. A bird can be both a pest and a pest-controller, a prophet, an interpreter of prophecy. Birds help pederasts bribe young boys.
In the vulture, the sparrow, the duck and the hoopoe Aristophanes’ audience see themselves. To imagine the mind of a bird is a part of being human. And as in all human activity, some men take their identification too far. “Ortygomania”, for example, is an obsession with quails, a problem as troublesome for the stoic philosopher Chrysippus as “gynaikomania”, craziness for women. The philosophical emperor Marcus Aurelius, too, warns against such madness. Some men play “ortygokopia”, a gambling game where one player puts his quail on a board and another taps its head to try to drive it from its place. A certain Meidias, one of many fellow citizens at whom Aristophanes aims a shot, is as dazed as is a quail when too often tapped on the head. But Mynott still has his lepidopteral question. He considers the possibility that the 500-year absence of literary butterflies is an illusion. Maybe close-reading scholars, like birdwatchers with binoculars, have failed to see what is there under their noses, missing butterflies masquerading under other names. Or maybe there were fewer real butterflies; perhaps the fifth-century birds ate them when the fifth-century poets were looking the other way. Or did the Greek poets just not see butterflies as significant, recognizing that even the biggest, brightest butterflies make a poor supper, do not sing, and are reluctant to act for human entertainment? Mynott rejects the claim that the butterfly, whose Greek name, psyche, is shared with the word for soul, was somehow taboo (“there seem to be few inhibitions in Greek culture about discussing anything”), or that butterflies were mentioned only in literature now lost. The absence, he admits, is a mystery but not a unique mystery in a book which is not just an anthology of quotations but an elegant discussion of intellectual method, stuffed with mismatches between word and bird, misidentifications and other conundrums.
Birds are “good to think with”, he argues, adapting Claude Levi-Strauss’s phrase for the feathered part of the anthropologist’s natural world. They stand on two legs and make men think why that matters. Some can talk – or at least challenge men to argue why human and bird talk is different. Others seem to communicate over long distances, as in Aristotle’s account of prophetic ravens calling their colleagues from all over Greece after a particularly grisly massacre at Pharsalus in 395 BC. The largest of the crows both recognize a sign and are the sign itself, says Pliny, “a rather sophisticated thought”, says Mynott, “if that is what he meant”.
Birds, unlike butterflies, are not imprisoned by silence. The wings of the mute swan sound even though its throat does not. The ripple of the partridge’s wings, like the noise of a human breaking wind, gives the bird its name in Greek, perdix, the farter, “thought to be a rare case of anal not oral onomatopoiea”. The bugling of cranes summons rain but their brains charm women into giving sexual favours, says Aelian, a Roman teacher of persuasive speech. Birds are linked through sound to many kinds of human music. Storytellers were happy to use insects to show simple human virtues, ants and bees for hard work and. organization; wasps for vices. But birds could show humans to themselves in so many more complex ways. Their variety was sufficient for the most demanding early poet.
There was soon quite enough fuzziness and confusion in the skies. When was a partridge a partridge or a nightingale a nightingale or even a bird a bird? Such questions attracted scholars keen to fit names to observation. Mynott mines a deep thesaurus. Aratus’ popular weather guide contained a crow diving into water to predict rain, not something often seen, and a.. ololugon, possibly a nightingale but possibly not, loudly prophesying bad weather. An ololugon was a melancholy singer but may be a tree frog. A kissa was usually a jay but maybe sometimes a magpie; the most important definition was that, unlike cranes’ brains, the kissa was not much use to eat.
Then there were the half-birds. Aristotle was puzzled by the ostrich, a creature that seemed to come from between bird and beast. The human imagination had already created Scylla the grabber of sailors, the singing Sirens, the blood-stained Harpies, the Furies, feared by all. These creatures stood for the opposite of usefulness, for defilement and pollution, not as gods or former or would-be gods but as metaphorical transformations, in which birds played early so dominant and distinctive a part, connections across the whole ofnature, visible, audible, edible, everywhere.
24th May 2018
The sacred chickens that ruled the roost in ancient Rome
No affairs of family or state could be settled unless the birds approved
Even the most cursory glance at the classical period reveals the central place that birds played in the religious and political lives of the two key Mediterranean civilisations. Their gods, for example, were often represented in avian form, so that the Athenian currency bore an owl image, which was intended as a portrait of the city’s patron, Athene. ‘Owls to Athens’ was a proverbial expression, much like ‘coals to Newcastle’. From North Africa to the shores of the Black Sea there are still Greek temples dedicated to Zeus that are topped by weathering stone eagles as symbols of their supreme deity, while the imperial legions of Rome fought under an eagle standard for much the same symbolic reasons.
As the author of this new book explains, one of the most telling, if weirdest, expressions of their bird-mindedness is the significance that Romans accorded their sacred chickens. It involved a form of augury — a word that meant ‘watching birds’ — that required an official, known as a pullarius, to note the manner in which the fowl foraged, and also the sound and force of the grain as it spilt it on the ground. In his History of Rome, Livy wrote that ‘no action was ever undertaken, in the field or at home, unless the auspices had been consulted: assemblies of the people, war levies, great affairs of state — all would be put off if the birds withheld their approval’.
These ancient fixations have been the subject of more than a century of modern British scholarship; but unfortunately the books have often been deficient, primarily because the subject demands a deep knowledge of two radically separate disciplines — the cultural lives and literature of Greece and Rome and modern ornithological science.
At last, here comes an author with the requisite dual scholarship. Jeremy Mynott, fresh from an acclaimed translation of Thucydides for Cambridge University Press, at which he was the former chief executive, has also been a lifelong birdwatcher. In 2009 he published a detailed anatomy of his pastime in a book called Birdscapes. This new work is thus a consummation of all his accomplishments. It is also thought-provoking, highly readable and exhaustive.
Mynott has made an enormous effort to trawl the whole of the classics for bird references. The materials unearthed are far greater than anything previously considered, and an appendix supplying potted biographies of the Greek and Roman authors discussed in the book includes more than 100 names. Some of their original passages have never been translated before, but Mynott has converted them all into highly idiomatic English. At the same time, he has been careful not to load them with modern ideas or prejudices, so that they are both faithful translations and highly readable.
To give a single example of how the author’s expertise sheds new light on old problems, there is a famous passage in Virgil’s Georgics translated by C. Day Lewis (now used for the Oxford World’s Classics edition) that includes material assumed to be about rooks as they ‘visit again their baby broods, their darling nests’. Mynott points out that there is deep ambiguity not only about the word corvus, which could be used for any of several species of crow. And the word cubiles, that Day Lewis renders as ‘cradle’, can in fact be any kind of resting place, including those used by dogs and even elk.
Choosing to describe it as a rook’s nest begs questions that were probably of no matter to a poet. Yet rooks don’t breed at all in Italy now, so taking Day Lewis’s version on trust generates an intriguing ornithological problem. Why are the birds extinct in Italy today? It requires someone of Mynott’s hybridised scholarship to identify and analyse the issues at stake when we place such precise interpretations on the original texts.
Mynott divides his own analysis into broad categories: birds as a resource; birds as pets and familiars or sporting elements; and birds as symbols and vehicles of religious and magical practices. Finally he tackles birds as objects of study, especially for the Greek philosopher who is central to the book, and described as a ‘one-man university’: Aristotle. In his massive oeuvre this genius named 140 birds and initiated much of the intellectual groundwork that led to modern biological science.
Perhaps the pre-eminent achievement of the book is not its fastidious examination of classical birds, but the way it pans backwards from the avian minutiae to give us a much broader vision of two great civilisations. Birds and nature may remain centre stage, but ultimately we are asked to consider how Greek and Roman attitudes towards these other parts of life say so much about human nature, both in the past and also today.
Friday, 22nd June 2018
In Birds of the Ancient World, Jeremy Mynott, author of the brilliant Birdscapes (2009), takes us back to the beginning of birds in European culture. The classical world was open to the presence and meaning of birds because southern climates allowed life to be lived outdoors. Birds were readily co-opted as auguries – the word itself shares the same root as avian. The seasonal migrations became markers of time when time, too, was yet to be “invented” in the way that we measure it; birds could be clocks or calendars in the sky. The first reference to birds in European literature is Homer’s account of Greek troops mustering like “the many tribes of winged birds/geese or cranes or long-necked swans”, taking their stand, “there in the bright meadows,/numberless as the leaves and flowers in spring”.
Swallows and swifts announced that spring; but so did the kingfisher, whose name, the alcyon, brought halcyon days. Darker messages were carried by crows and ravens. The Latin poet Lucretius writes of “the ancient race of ravens or flocks of rooks” summoning storms inland, while at the beach, “the raven spraying his head with brine,/anticipates the rain and stalks the shore with unsteady gait”. Birds come alive in these texts, but were also hunted, cruelly. Passerines got stuck to limed branches. Ostriches unwittingly settled to brood on nests filled with spears. Jackdaws were caught by a bowlful of oil in which they admired their own reflections, only to fall in. Great crested grebes could be deceived at night by a lantern, which they’d mistake for a star. But Aristophanes’ play The Birds imagined an avian revenge familiar to Daphne Du Maurier or Alfred Hitchcock, announcing that anyone abusing their number “will be arrested by the birds/and it will be your turn to be tied up and serve us as decoys”.
Geese, ducks and pigeons were regularly farmed. Julius Caesar believed that only Britons were fussy about such matters, considering it wrong “to partake of hare, cockerel, or geese, but they keep these instead for reasons of affection and pleasure”. Yet Greeks and Romans certainly kept peacocks and gallinules for their decorative value, rather like moveable garden ornaments, and Lesbia the poet cherished her sparrow. Birds spanned this and the other world, by virtue of their ability to fly; it was easy to imagine them slipping in and out of human business. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is full of transformations: the raven was changed from white to black because of its love of gossip, and Ascalaphus was punished for spying on Persephone by being turned into “a slothful owl, a dire omen for mortal men”.
With a glorious array of references, vivid images and his own astute philosophical commentary, Mynott deftly brings all this into sharp focus: are all these ancient associations, uses and abuses really so different from the way we see birds? We still kill, venerate or tame them. In The Silent Spring (1962), the founding text of modern environmentalism, Rachel Carson employed the plight of birds poisoned by insecticide as a symbol for our dysfunctionality. Birds remain our closest yet farthest connections with the natural world. If they were once dinosaurs, then they also seem relics of another empire, spanning and outliving our gravity-bound species. In the great vista of deep time, it hardly matters what names or attributes we give them now.
Flights of Imagination
The Roman poet Horace claims in one of his odes that he will not die but will instead be transformed into a ‘melodious’ swan. He describes the metamorphosis as he imagines it happening. Rough skin forms on his legs; his upper parts become white; feathers sprout. He will not need a tomb and his song will be known throughout the world. The essence of his humanity will take avian form.
It is a strange, lovely poem that, although it does not appear in Jeremy Mynott’s book, illustrates many of the themes found in his wide-ranging study of the complex relationships between birds and humans in the ancient world. These include problems of translation and interpretation (in Latin, ales can mean any kind of bird, as well as – at least in Horace – a swan), the sense of the bird being an essential part of the observable universe and questions of the numinous and the transcendent.
The ancients kept birds as pets, watched them, set them to fight, ate them, greeted them with delight and dreamed about them. More strangely (to us), birds were medicines, conduits for prophecies, essential for spells and connections to the divine. Birds of all kinds swoop, soar, perch and sing throughout Greek and Roman literature. Peacocks spread their gorgeous tail feathers in dusty Athenian houses; cranes fight elephants in the Roman arena; parrots die and are mourned by elegiac poets. Birds are used to create a sense of the monumental and epic, as when the massing armies at Troy are compared to cranes (which, fancifully, were thought to have given Greek letters their shape). They also grace moments of intimacy, as when the pet passer (usually translated as ‘sparrow’) of Catullus’s girlfriend hops about in her lap as he’s courting her, making him jealous.
Mynott organises his elegant and thought-provoking book by theme and deploys a comprehensive range of quotes from throughout the classical period. His aim is to understand why and how deeply these ‘feathered bipeds’ and the signs and symbols they have given rise to are entrenched in our make-up. His approach is nuanced and open-minded, and he writes with a light, often wry touch.
There are great difficulties in attempting to recalibrate ourselves towards an ancient perspective. The Greek word ornis means ‘omen’ as well as ‘bird’, making lines like this one from Aristophanes’s Birds – ‘Every prophecy that involves a decision you classify as a bird’ – suitably loaded. Ostriches caused Aristotle difficulties with categorisation: were they birds or terrestrial animals? And we’re often not even sure that the birds the ancients refer to by name are the same birds we might be thinking of: their nightingales are probably not our nightingales, and there’s even a word that could mean ‘frog’ as well as ‘bird’. But Mynott manages to guide us fully through this often alien worldview, in which humans and the natural world are not separate but are interacting elements in the same matrix.
The first chapters deal with birds as ways of marking time – signs in and of themselves – and consequently of attempting to predict the weather. The swallow, for example, then as now, was a herald of spring, which, as Mynott charmingly notes, quoting the Roman writer Aelian, was welcomed ‘according to Homer’s laws of hospitality, which bid us cherish a visitor while he is with us and speed him on his way when he wishes to depart’. Time and weather were therefore closely linked, with the Latin word tempestas (‘storm’) being often equivalent to tempus (‘time’); the word hora in Greek could mean anything from ‘a period’ to ‘spring’. The birds themselves were expressions of the natural order of time. There are fine chapters on rearing and cooking birds (cruelty to animals was not a great concern) and on birds as pets, combatants and cures, each providing lively and entertaining examples. But the greatest insight into how birds and the ancients worked together comes in Mynott’s discussion of the widespread practice of augury.
The Greeks attached significance to ‘unsolicited omens’ – eagles swooping on the pregnant hare in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, for example – whereas the Romans sought them out deliberately, marking out quadrants in the sky in which birds could be observed and their patterns of flight interpreted. This was a notoriously haphazard matter. Augurs, then as now, liked to cover their backs. Attitudes towards the practice were complex: a mixture of ‘enlightened scepticism’ alongside belief. Mynott gives the example of Hector in The Iliad pouring scorn on a seer for not providing the prediction he wants. Birds here display all the aspects that Mynott identifies: they are an organic part of their surroundings; they ‘interact’ (because they are observed) with human beings; and they are intermediaries between man and the divine, as messengers and guides.
The book is full of delightful titbits. I had not noticed that there were no chickens in Homer. I would like to play a round of ortygokopia, or ‘quail-tapping’. You place your quail on a board and your opponent taps it. If it stands its ground, you win; if it runs away, you lose. The nickname ‘quail’ was thus given to a man who ‘always looked rather dazed’. Cranes cast magic spells on women, leading them to grant sexual favours. Flamingos’ tongues were a great delicacy – you cooked them with pepper, cumin, coriander, silphium root, mint and rue. Some recipes sound like they could have been made by a Wodehousean chef – chicken à la Parthian? If you want to catch a lover, tie a iunx, or wryneck, to a revolving wheel (we get the word ‘jinx’ from this creature).
There is a lovely anecdote about a poor cobbler who trained a raven to hail Augustus. Augustus told him, ‘I have enough birds at home to greet me like that.’ The raven remembered his master’s complaints and squawked, ‘all that work and money down the drain.’ The emperor eventually bought the bird, at a higher price than all the others he had purchased. But pity Hanno the Carthaginian, who secretly trained birds to say ‘Hanno is a god’, and then released them, hoping they would propagate his message. They all forgot their lines.
Resurgence and Ecologist
Issue 310, September/October 2018
A World Closer to Nature
Our modern ignorance of the natural world seems to increase with every year that passes. It’s not just young children no longer knowing what acorns are. In a recent survey of first-year biology students at Oxford University, for instance, researchers made the startling discovery that 42% of the sample could not name even five species of British bird. Let that sink in. Biology students? Not even five?
Contrast this with the sort of easy familiarity with Nature in general, and with birds in particular, enjoyed by the ordinary citizens of ancient Greece and Rome, as evidenced by their literature and the way they decorated their houses. Twenty-eight species of bird figure in Aesop’s Fables, 75 figure in the plays of Aristophanes, and 75 different types of bird featured on the wall paintings of Pompeii before its destruction by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Jeremy Mynott, who makes this comparison in his stunning new book, Birds in the Ancient World, says this is only to be expected. Birds, he points out, have always been among the most prominent features of the natural world for humankind (in contrast with wild mammals, say), readily visible and audible almost anywhere humans happen to be; but in classical times the contact was even more robust and vivid, because in Mediterranean societies, which were basically agrarian, people lived out of doors and there were many more birds to be seen and heard. Nightingales sang and hoopoes flashed cinnamon-pink within the city boundaries of Athens; eagles were a regular feature of the skies; farmers watched out in the autumn for flocks of migrating cranes, which signalled the time to start ploughing.
This more direct contact meant that birds were simply more significant in the lives of Greek and Roman citizens, and Mynott details this intense relationship in a work that is a marvellous combination of classical scholarship, ornithological expertise and lightness of touch. A former publisher – he was head of Cambridge University Press – he is a noted classical scholar, and he translated Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War in 2013; but he is also a highly skilled birder, and in 2009 he published Birdscapes, a lauded personal account of the human responses to feathered creatures, and why we watch them.
This double proficiency enables him to paint a picture of the avian connection in the ancient world that is endlessly fascinating, often amusing and sometimes surprising. The people of Greece and Rome looked at birds closely and sometimes rejoiced in them and sometimes feared them, and they not only ate them and used them in medicine, but they also kept them as pets and employed them in sport and put them in their stories and sometimes saw them as messengers from heaven.
They eagerly watched for the arrival of migrants such as the cuckoo and the swallow as indicators of season change, much as we do today, but they also used bird behaviour in weather forecasting. Most significantly of all, the ancient world used birds for formal divination and foretelling the future: they were central to augury, which was itself central to public life – without it no major public enterprise would be undertaken.
In Greece, augury consisted in interpreting un solicited omens – what does that eagle mean, suddenly appearing on our right? – but the Romans institutionalised it, with a college and a set of rules, and sought out omens themselves by, for example, observing how their sacred chickens fed.
But birds figured widely in less portentous aspects of life. Among pets, the most famous was Lesbia’s sparrow, whose elegy Catullus so movingly wrote, but sometimes there were others that now seem rather rarefied, such as the big, dark-blue Mediterranean moorhen relative that used to be known as the purple gallinule but is now labelled the western swamphen. It was a favourite pet of the Romans. In classical Greece, Alcibiades, Mynott informs us, had a pet quail.
The ancients (as used to be said) were also enthusiastic about birds that could be taught to talk, and Mynott retells an amusing anecdote about a man hedging his bets at the end of the Roman civil war between Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony by training two ravens to speak on the victor’s return, one saying, “Hail Caesar, victorious commander!” and the other, “Hail Antony, victorious commander!” (Augustus, the victor, ended up buying them both.) In sport, cockfights were very popular, but surprisingly falconry seems not to have existed at all in the classical world, a puzzle Mynott explores without finding an answer.
His remarkable erudition – he draws on 120 Greek and Latin authors, extracts from all of whom he translates himself – continuously throws up titbits that are absorbing for anyone interested in the classical world. I did not know, for example, that the chicken/cock/rooster does not appear in Homer (nor for that matter, in the Old Testament) because it was not introduced to the Mediterranean world – from Persia – till the 7th century BCE. I did not know that our lovely spring flower, the celandine, is named after the swallow (chelidon in Greek) because it appears at about the same time. I certainly did not know that the partridge is named from the Greek verb meaning ‘to fart’ because of the noise of its wingbeats!
Five hundred years ago, in the Renaissance, the humanists, as the early classical scholars were called, thrilled to the rebirth of classical literature and the ancient texts that were being rediscovered. We pay much less attention now to Greece and Rome, but reading this splendid study I experienced some of the excitement the humanists must have felt at entering into a lost world so incomparably rich in its life and in its letters. Beautifully produced, informed by wonderful scholarship, Birds in the Ancient World embodies the Renaissance spirit, as a model of humane and civilised learning.
Volume 29, Number 6, August 2018
Did the ancient Greeks go birdwatching? Perhaps not in today’s sense but they certainly knew (or thought they knew) a lot about birds. As Jeremy Mynott, who is both a birder and a classical scholar, relates in this splendid book, the Greeks and Romans wove birds into their culture and everyday activities in numerous ways. Symbolic birds perch on coins and seals, they come to life in paintings and mosaics and on pots; they live on in poems and plays. Expressions we still use date back to ancient times: ‘swan song’, ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’ or ‘halcyon days’ (the original halcyon was a kingfisher). The appearance of birds like the swallow and cuckoo was a sign of the seasons and passing time. By their behaviour birds could help men to see into the future and warn of imminent peril. The Greek word ornis means bird (hence ornithology) but it also meant an omen.
Although the Greeks knew an impressive number of birds, it is not always easy to know which species were meant by a passer or a kemphos, unless there is a picture or description to go with them. But they clearly liked birds. Alcibiades carried around a tame quail in his cloak. Lesbia nestled a sparrow in her lap, which nipped her occasionally, and chirruped with a sound that Catullus renders as pipiabat. More surprisingly, it seems that Purple Gallinules were popular pets, sometimes as a gift from a lover. But the Greeks and Romans also ate wild birds in profusion. Thrushes, swans and flamingos were among those on the menu, and ancient recipes survive for sauces that bring out their flavour. Medicinal bits of birds, or their poo, could be used to cure all manner of ills. There were bird sports too. Falconry seems to have been unknown, but cockfighting was popular, and countless ostriches met a bloody end in the arena. On gala occasions the Romans staged animal contests, among which the most unlikely has to be a battle between cranes and elephants!
They did not always get it right. The ancients thought it was the female nightingale that did the singing (a view that survived right through the Middle Ages). Pliny believed that hawks tore up dandelion-like plants to help their eyes, hence the name ‘hawkweed’. They also believed that crows live as long as nine generations of mankind. There were traveller’s tales of harpies, half women, half bird, and wholly bloodthirsty; or the terrible cranes of the Stymphalian marshes that could shoot bronze feathers at you; or the phoenix that rises from the ashes of its previous incarnation. Did people believe them? Who knows? But one gets the sense that the divide between tales and reality was much narrower back then.
This is a wonderfully readable book, scholarly but fully accessible, continually thoughtful, properly sceptical, often amusing, and culled from knowledge of ancient literature that must be second to none (Mynott cites 120 authors, whose short biographies are all listed at the back). It is nicely illustrated in full colour. Whether you read the book straight through, or in a series of dips, it is full of revelation and insight into the ancient mind-set, which was at once familiar and strange. The ancients may have relied on hearsay as much as direct observation, but they obviously shared the same sense of wonder and affection as we do. The subtitle of this book is ‘winged words’. Thanks to Jeremy Mynott, the birds of ancient world have taken flight, and we can go birding in that magical lost world.
1st August 2018
We may think ourselves scientifically superior to mythology, a word that can sum up our idea of the ‘ancient world’, but we, too, generate myths. Take spinach. Many of us, as Popeye does, eat spinach because of its strength-giving iron content, but this is a fallacy. Spinach is of low nutritional value and may even prevent the absorption of the iron we need. Just one revelation in this wide-ranging work of scholarship. Jeremy Mynott, classical scholar and ornithologist among many distinctions, is Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, translator of Thucydides and author of Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience, for its Guardian reviewer ‘the finest book ever written about why we watch birds’.
His new book, covering the period from 700BC to AD300, is organised thematically to illustrate the different roles birds played as food, quarry (no account of falconry), pets, omens, intermediaries and much else. Some 120 authors are cited, all re-translated by the author to clarify meaning for a modern reader.
The famous names are all there, together with some new to translation. In his 11 plays, Aristophanes mentions 34 species of bird at least twice. Twenty-eight species are the subject of Aesop’s fables and, above all, there is Aristotle, described by Dante as ‘the Master of those who know’ and by Dr Mynott as ‘a one man university’ (he did, indeed, found a university, the Athens Lyceum). Why, our author asks, did no one before Aristotle notice butterflies?
In Greek, Latin and, presumably, any other ancient language, there are no words for what we mean by such contemporary indispensables as ‘nature’, ‘weather’, ‘landscape’ or ‘science’. The Greek word for bird, ornis, also meant omen. For Dr Mynott, ‘the significance of birds’ is his binding theme in this illustrated cultural history with liberal quotations from some of humanity’s greatest literature at this formative period of Western history. And how!
He quotes the actress and politician Melina Mercouri: ‘Forgive me if I start by saying a few words in Greek: democracy, politics, philosophy, logic, theory, music, drama, theatre, comedy, athletics, physics, mathematics, astronomy.’
Classics For All
This is such a magnificent book that even a dry summary cannot but hint at the riches within. Part one investigates the ways in which the ancients understood birds in their natural setting, as predictors of seasons (the swallow and spring) and of weather (ravens indicate a tempest), as a sign of the time (the cockerel at dawn) and as architects of the aural landscape (the nightingale, probably mentioned more often than any other bird in ancient literature; men imitating bird-song and so inventing music).
Part two examines birds as a resource: hunting and fowling (quails and partridges caught using decoys, mirrors and human scarecrows, these latter frightening them into the nets); cooking and eating (thrushes especially, pigeons, turtle doves, and the best sauces for boiled ostrich and flamingo); farming (Penelope’s dream about her flock of twenty geese, though Caesar said the Brits preferred them as pets rather than dinner, aviaries, hen-coops).
Part three turns from consuming birds to living with them: capturing them for domestication and display (was there a private peacock menagerie in Athens? Severus Alexander kept 20,000 doves); as pets (jackdaws, magpies, sparrows, nightingales, parrots, Pliny’s talking raven that greeted the public by name); for sport and entertainment (hunting, as target practice for archers, cockfighting, quail-tapping [ortygokopia], in the arena [ostriches] but not falconry, perhaps because not obviously competitive); and as aids or nuisances (models of human behaviour in Aesop’s fables; thieves, scavengers and raiders, or pest-controllers; suppliers of feathers for fans, arrows etc.; guards [those geese on the Capitol] and messengers; and with some empathy with humans, e.g. the goose that fell in love with the philosopher Lycades).
In part four, M. reflects on birds as sources of wonder (Herodotus’ ‘cinnnamon birds’, the phoenix); healthy foods (small montane birds very good for those on slimming diets, said Galen); as solutions to medical problems (goose for aches and pains; pigeon dung dipped in vinegar removed a slave’s branding marks); and as subjects of observation and enquiry (Aristotle is especially significant here, e.g. his views on bird-song as a ‘kind of speech’, and on the intelligence demonstrated by swallows in the sound principles they exhibited in nest-building).
The mystical world of birds is the subject of part five: in divination, as mediators of the gods’ will (eagles here were the most significant ones, but ravens—usually bad news—owls, woodpeckers and chickens also played their parts); as mediums of magic (the wryneck, Greek iugx, source of our ‘jinx’, for erotic purposes) and metamorphosis (how the woodpecker—picus—got its name from one Picus, who rejected Circe’s advances); and as signs and symbols (e.g. Artemidorus discussing dreams identifies hawks and kites as signifying robbers and bandits; birds regularly feature in similes and proverbs and as metaphors of human longing to escape from the world).
In part six, M. extends the analysis of the first five parts to consider birds as creatures both like and unlike us (Harpies, winged women; Zeus taking on the forms of a swan or eagle for seduction purposes; the Sirens; Aristophanes’ Birds); as messengers and mediators (Deucalion’s dove, as reincarnated humans, sacrificial victims); and as crucial components of the beauty, variety and fertility of Gaia, ‘Mother Earth’).
An epilogue summarises similarities and differences in our and ancient views of nature and birds. Appendices provide bird-lists from ancient sources, detailed bibliographies of the 119 authors quoted, end-notes, and two indices, one of birds, one of general topics.
M. is to be warmly congratulated on composing a book that is a joy to read—elegant, relaxed, wide-ranging, humane—rich in well-translated sources accompanying the narrative, with 82 delightful illustrations (almost all in colour), and secure scholarly underpinning tucked away in the excellent end-notes. O si sic omnes.
Cage and Aviary Birds
11th July, 2018
Crammed with beauty and meaning
Did you know that the first recorded zoo existed in Egypt about 5,500 years ago? There may not have been any birds in it, though there were plenty elsewhere in the collections of the ancient world. During the fifth century BC there was, it seems, a peacock zoo in Athens. The public was admitted (sounds like one of our bird shows) on the first day of each month.
“The ancient world”, here meaning primarily Greece and Rome, has become forbiddingly remote during our lifetime. Outside academia, nobody understands the languages, so we need user-friendly academics to explain what it was like. One such is Jeremy Mynott, and we are extremely lucky to have him on our side: a scholar with the required historical and linguistic firepower (he did all of this book’s translations from Greek and Latin himself), yet also a true birdman. His thing is really “birds and the imagination”, and in our more modest way, it ought to be ours, too.
The first thing this book helps us to grasp is that birds were far more abundant in those days, far more present to the eye and mind than in our sanitised and impoverished times. More significant to the average person, in short, to whom it came naturally to use birds and their behaviour to interpret the world. The extent to which this was done seems to us dizzying, if not a bit mad: we’re told that the Romans “kept a collection of sacred chickens and appointed a college of experts to interpret their feeding behaviour.” It helps to learn that the Greek for “bird” (omis) also meant “omen”. Birds were signs, “the principal agents through which the gods revealed their will to humans”. In Homer’s epic poems, army generals sought tactical tips in the flight of eagles; later, Roman armies would allot a holy vantage point to scan a chosen sector of the sky and interpret the birds that entered it.
For me, reading about “the ancient world” arouses a mixture of bafflement at the alien oddity of it all, and envy at the beauty and meaning that, seemingly crammed every facet of experience. This book does the same. It’s a chewy read, and of formidable scope, but eminently dippableinto. The photos and their captions of all those weird and lovely vases and frescoes are an education and delight in themselves. Whatever your bird, there’s something fresh for you here.
Big Issue North
9-15th July, 2018
Researching my book Birds in the Ancient World took me, literally, into another world, a weird and wonderful one where birds had a significance of a kind we can scarcely imagine today. They were then a familiar part of daily life and entered deeply into popular culture. They were used to forecast the weather and mark the seasons; they were an important resource for hunting, farming, eating and medicine; they were kept as domestic pets and exchanged as lovers’ presents (“say it with birds”); they featured in magic spells, dream interpretations, myths and fables; and above all they were treated as omens and auguries that could guide important personal and political decisions if you read the signs right.
One ancient text that illustrates this is the satirical comedy The Birds by the playwright Aristophanes (translated by Stephen Halliwell, Oxford World’s Classics). It’s fantasy about an outbreak of ornithomania (“bird madness”) in Athens, in which the Athenian citizens crave to join the birds in their “cloud cuckoo land” in the sky.
We also become aware just what we have lost if we compare the picture presented by ancient art and literature, overflowing with images of abundant birdlife, with our own impoverished and de-natured world, as vividly described in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snow Storm (John Murray).
Studying the wildlife of another culture helps us stand outside the bubble we happen to live in now and then perhaps see ourselves differently. Mark Cocker’s mighty Birds and People (Jonathan Cape) is a beautifully written and illustrated survey of the multifarious responses to birds in the world’s cultures.
And what all these books are really about in the end are ourselves as much as the birds.
Ne fût-ce que par leur présence physique, les oiseaux ont imprégné le monde antique et influencé l’imagination des gens ordinaires. Ainsi, ils ont toujours occupé une place prépondérante dans la littérature et l’art. Ils furent également une source fertile de symboles et d’histoires dans les mythes et le folklore et ont été au cœur des anciens rituels de prédiction et de divination. Dans cet ouvrage, Jeremy Mynott illustre les différents rôles qu’ont joués les oiseaux dans la culture de l’Antiquité: comme indicateurs du temps et des saisons; en tant que ressources pour la chasse, l’alimentation, la médecine et l’agriculture; comme animaux domestiques; comme simple divertissement; comme intermédiaires entre les dieux et l’humanité. Nous apprenons comment les oiseaux ont été perçus – à travers des citations de plus d’une centaine d’auteurs grecs et romains, tous traduits récemment en anglais -, grâce à près de 100 illustrations de poteries et de mosaïques ainsi qu’une sélection d’écrits scientifiques.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Birds in the Natural World
1: The Seasons
Birds as a Resource
5: Hunting and Fowling
6: Cooking and Eating
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