Birds in the ancient world

Birds in the Ancient World

Winged Words

24 May 2018
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

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.

Barbara Kiser

History Today
January 2019

Pity the wryneck – a species of long-tongued woodpecker – in ancient Greece: it had the great misfortune to be considered an essential part of a sex toy. The poor bird was spread-eagled and bound to the four spokes of a wheel, which, when spun, whistled in a way thought sure to arouse desire in its recipient. We remember its fate today when we jinx people: the word jinx being derived from its Greek name, iunx.
read more…

Matthew Lyons

Greece and Rome
October 2018

I started this review with a pitch, and with a pitch I will end: if you like the outdoors, and are interested in animals, do yourself a favour and get a copy of one of the most beautiful, most engaging, and simply most delightful books I have read in a long time – Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World. Winged Words. In spite of not being much of a birdwatcher myself (save for the hummingbirds that gather in our backyard from May onwards), I thoroughly enjoyed every moment I spent with this book. At a time in UK academia when administrative exercises have placed the notion of ‘impact’ on a pedestal, Mynott has offered a masterclass in writing a work that popularizes Classics and explains the discipline’s relevance authoritatively, clearly, and memorably to outsiders, while adhering to rigorous scholarly standards. This volume tackles the big issue of the relationship between humankind and nature, by providing a highly readable cultural history of birds in Greco-Roman antiquity. Explaining the manifold aspects of birds’ relevance in everyday life, the author zooms in on six distinct foci. First, ‘Birds in the Natural World’ paints a vivid picture of ancient birds as indicators of seasons, weather, and time, before allowing his reader to listen to birds whistle, chirp, and squeak. Throughout the book, Mynott lets a plethora of original texts, regularly presented in new and elegant translations, tell the story: every page is brimming with wonderful excerpts illustrating the main themes, while the author’s voice, coming from a place of lived experience, true mastery, and ornithological expertise, illuminates the passages. Take this as an illustrative sample – after producing a passage from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris (lines 1089–95), in which the chorus mentions that halcyon sings a song of sorrow, Mynott remarks (p. 53):

It’s true that the kingfisher does have a song of sorts – a jumble of high-pitched whistles, which could be thought of as a kind of keening. But the song is very rarely heard, and it seems unlikely that even the bird’s much commoner shrill fight calls could explain the many literary references. However that may be, it is interesting that such a visually striking bird should be mythologized mainly for its dissonant voice, and categorized along with the melodious nightingale as the voice of mourning.

Observations of this kind are the hallmark of the entire work, which is characterized by its learnedness paired with an excellent command of sources: there is much to gain from each page, for experts and non-experts alike. Experts will be grateful for the endnotes, in which Mynott points to relevant literature and offers further guidance, while non-experts will be grateful also for footnotes in which the author quickly explains terms or issues on which non-Classicists might trip. In the next large section, ‘Birds as a Resource’, one will find discussions of hunting and fowling, birds on the menu of the ancients, and a section on farming. Here, too, one learns many fascinating details, such as that the tongue and brain of a flamingo were considered a particular delicacy, served with a special flamingo sauce, or that ibis was an Egyptian speciality. ‘Living with Birds’ tells an often moving story about birds as pets, as exhibits, and as familiars, and their roles in the home, sports, and entertainment. Substantial sections deal then with birds in medicine (including diet!), folk-tales, and science (‘Invention and Discovery’), and religion, magic, and risk management (‘Thinking with Birds’ and ‘Birds as Intermediaries’). The volume is rounded off with an ‘Epilogue: Then and Now’, an account of historical shifts in the perception and significance of birds, and a useful and interesting appendix providing bird lists from ancient sources. The work closes with concise biographies of quoted authors that will be of great help to non-Classicists, bibliography, endnotes, and good set of indices. Among many splendid features of this volume, I wish to highlight its illustrations: there are over one hundred images, the vast majority in colour, and of excellent quality – if you cannot tell your turtledoves from your pigeons, worry not, you will be helped. To sum up: this is a splendidly learned and superbly interesting account of the manifold ways in which birds and humans interacted in antiquity, but it is more than that: this is a book which incites one to ponder upon fundamental ecological and environmental issues and to re-examine our own relationship to the natural world. And here I will stop for this issue – I think I just saw a bluebird in our back yard.

Andrej Petrovic

British Birds
November 2018

Nine years ago, Jonathan Elphick wrote a glowing review (Brit. Birds 102: 414) of Birdscapes: birds in our imagination and experience and was full of praise for its author, Jeremy Mynott. Reading the present book, I can see why. Here, again, there is an astonishing combination of knowledge and sheer readability. In the language of another age, Jeremy Mynott is a learned man, not just a classicist of distinction but a philosopher and a cultural historian. He very clearly knows his birds too. It seems very apt, with the word’s double Greek roots, to call him a true polymath.

What we have this time is a copiously and richly illustrated review of a selection of Greek and Roman writing, roughly from 700 BC to AD 300, in which birds or bird-related topics appear. I was amazed to learn how much has survived: it is a sobering thought, however, that a colossal amount must also have been lost. There are extracts from the words of some 120 classical authors, all (believe it or not) freshly translated by Jeremy Mynott. We meet historians, politicians, geographers, philosophers and poets. It was no surprise to find Aristotle so prominent, and I knew about some of the others, such as Pliny the Elder, but there are plenty of names I did not know, and some surprises. I had not expected to encounter the witty satirist Martial, translating whose verse caused me so much agony all those years ago…

There is ample warning about the differences in what people thought, believed and knew 2,000 years ago and what we know (or think we know) now, which is obviously important in trying to interpret what we are reading here. This is no mere catalogue of ‘classical mentions’ – the book has a definite theme, and to be understood and appreciated fully it has to be read from beginning to end: it does not readily lend itself to the ‘dipping in’ treatment. The main text is supplemented by a handy brief biography section covering the classical authors, 26 pages of endnotes to the various chapters and 10 pages of modern references.

The first of the six main parts of the book deals in succession with birds as markers of seasons, weather and time, setting the context of the relationships of birds with people in the natural environment. Next comes exploitation – birds being eaten, basically – while part 3 covers entertainments and birds as pets. In part 4 we come to the ancients’ curiosity about birds – the first real moves towards science and what we might begin to call ornithology. For birders, this is a particularly intriguing part of the book. Next there is the fascinating area of dreams, imaginings and symbols involving birds, which then leads logically into part 6, where we are faced with the more difficult topics of how and why birds have become so inextricably linked with our thoughts and ideas about our life and our environment. As you might expect, there is a lot to think about here.

Fewer and fewer people have any knowledge of Classical Greek and Latin, or ancient history, and perhaps many might wonder what relevance a book like this has to present-day birding, or indeed life in general. I would argue that an understanding of our past, which for me has to include knowing something about the history of birds and wildlife, and the world we share with them, will always be important. I think we should be grateful to Jeremy Mynott for this wonderful book, which both illuminates that understanding and broadens our knowledge.

Mike Everett

TLS review

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.

Peter Stothard

Financial Times
31st August 2018

A prayer for butterflies on the wing

Some gardens are bereft of the colourful migrants this year

I am waiting keenly for my first painted lady. She will be a butterfly, not another film star. She is one of the wonders of late summer, but so far she has been staying away. She is not indigenous to Britain. She is a migrant from the shores of north Africa.

This heavenly butterfly is Vanessa cardui, not rare, not fussy, but skilled at migrating along a route which border controls are even less able to block than usual. Improved monitoring reveals that painted ladies migrate from Tunisia and neighbouring coastlines in huge clouds, often at heights above 10,000 feet. A more recent discovery is that they breed in Britain and that some of the young migrate south again to escape the British winter. They deserve to be welcomed as short-stay visitors, even if the “cardui” bit of their name refers to their fondness for thistles as food. Diligent gardeners do not have thistles to offer, but there are substitutes. One of the best is the superb blue-flowered ceratostigma, an essential small shrub. Its brilliant flowers of cobalt blue attract painted ladies and red admirals by the dozen. Ceratostigma willmottianum originates from China. They are far more beautiful than a garden of nothing but “native” plants.

This year, will the migrants actually come? I have the right plants ready and waiting: the lateflowering buddleias and verbenas, the proper type of buckthorn, asters galore and some thistlyheaded centaureas. I even have some holly and uninvited ivy, said to be beloved by holly blues. Butterflies like to feed on all these plants, especially on the tall — stemmed, mauve-flowered Verbena bonariensis, a free-seeding variety whose name commemorates Buenos Aires. My Buenos Aires verbenas survived last winter and are looking good, but they have only attracted cabbage whites. This year, other varieties are giving me a wide berth. What is going on?

One absence does not make a national shortage. Elsewhere in Britain there have been some excellent viewings. Large blues have proliferated in the south-west. Green-veined whites have been abundant and so have commas, one of Britain’s everyday favourites. It seems that these species revelled in the wet and mild May weather before the long dry spell began in June. They may even have had an over-exuberant surge and next year, they may be less prolific as a result. Like investors, butterflies can get ahead of reality.

Are they shunning me because I am devoted to the classical Greek world? It is a most extraordinary fact, but butterflies are never mentioned in Homer. They occur nowhere in the post-Homeric Greek poets despite their fond references to items in the natural world. Homer mentions flies, but never so much as a clouded yellow or a butterfly tout court. Fluttering briefly through the world, they would have been an ideal item for one of his similes, illustrating the passage of humans’ spirits or souls to the world of the dead. In later Greek, butterflies even shared the same word-name as the Homeric soul: psyche. Instead Homeric souls twitter like bats. As I see the world through Homeric eyes, maybe butterflies are boycotting me for my icon’s short-sightedness.

In his excellent new book, Birds in the Ancient World, Jeremy Mynott pauses to consider why Homer and the Greeks before Aristotle never mention a butterfly. Rightly, he discards the view that the conditions were somehow different and butterflies did not exist. They have been detected in early Greek art and when Aristotle finally referred to them c3330BC, he did not imply they were novel. In later texts they are sometimes called “little birds”, but Mynott is surely right to deny that butterflies were therefore classed as birds by early writers. The great authority on Greek birds, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, had a different theory. He thought that butterflies’ Greek name, psyche, might be an explanation for the silence. Mynott, a fellow birdlover, quotes his suggestion that “the Greeks found something uncanny or not to be lightly spoken of in that all but disembodied spirit which we call butterfly, and they called by the name of the Soul”. I agree with Mynott that this theory is most unlikely. Ancient Greek writers had no inhibitions about anything else. On its silver coins, c200BC, the island of Rhodes had no scruples about showing a butterfly beside what I now believe to be a damask rose. Early Christians, also writing in Greek, felt no scruple, either, about citing the “soul” — butterfly as a symbol of the resurrection.

Butterflies were not mentioned in the Bible either: are they avoiding me because I have written a book about the Bible too? In my view, these silences are just silences, proving nothing about butterflies’ everyday prominence or observation. Ancient Greeks must also have observed the glorious red tulips which flower wild in places in spring, but they never mention tulips either. They were not later imports from Turkey, as an urban historian once solemnly assured me. Literary silence does not entail contempt or even oversight.

If the painted ladies now avoid me, it may simply be a hazard of so-called “butterfly gardening”. Gardeners are now in competition. The more they plant buddleias and butterfly — friendly types of daisy, the more they bid for a zero-sum goal, the attention of passing butterflies. We cannot all lure them in. Painted ladies are migrants, so it is not essential to plant food-plants for their caterpillars in order to enjoy their presence. Even when it is essential, the right food-plant does not necessarily retain adults. I have planted the exact buckthorn which non-migrant brimstone butterflies like, the one called Rhamnus catharticus, but even so, the hatched young brimstones do not hang around in gratitude. This year, they have migrated to other Oxford gardens because they too have ivy and flowers on offer.

If you are having a lean butterfly year, do not generalise it or blame yourself. Butterflies will be back when they find that the neighbours’ ivy and thistles are no greener than yours. Meanwhile, Mynott’s book has reminded me of a fine mosaic from ancient Pompeii which ought to be the personal logo of sharp financial traders. On the left side of it, a robe of luxurious purple is shown hanging, a mark of worldly success and social rank. On the right side, hang the clothes of a poor beggar. In the middle, between these extremes, hangs a large human skull, a reminder of mortality. Below the skull’s chin a butterfly is spreading its wings and resting on a wheel. The wheel is surely a wheel of fortune and the butterfly is a symbol of the soul. On one side, therefore, the mosaic shows worldly riches, on the other, poverty and, in between, death which comes to us all. Beneath, a soul is basking on the wheel of chance. The butterfly in the mosaic is usually identified as a lesser purple emperor, but it has round spots on the wings and may not be realistically shown. So far, it has not been seen in my garden.

Robin Lane Fox

Svenska Dagbladet
22nd September 2018

Tusen år av bevingade möten

I den andra körsången i Sofokles tragedi “Antigone” skildras hur människan, hon som är deinos (oerhörd, fantastisk och skrämmande), betvingar naturen och grundar samhällen. Även om filosofen Heidegger var av uppfattningen att västerlandets historia kunde härledas ur denna körsång, är övergripande psykologiska, sociala eller ekonomiska perspektiv frustrerande otillräckliga när det gäller att fånga människans speciella egenart…
(view original)

Hans-Roland Johnsson

The Spectator
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.

Mark Cocker

New Statesman
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.

Philip Hoare

Literary Review
June, 2018 

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.

Philip Womack

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.

Michael McCarthy

British Wildlife
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.

Peter Marren

Fortean Times

Birds can fly; we can’t…

This book is an extension of classicist/ornithologist Mynott’s earlier Birdscapes (2009) and Knowing Your Place (2016), a Gilbert White-like description of wildlife in a Suffolk hamlet.
Despite the dense text and parenthetic opulence, it’s a delightfully easy read, thanks to Mynott’s stylistic panache: fluent, quasi- Herodotean, jargon-free, consistently witty.
This sumptuous volume includes lavish source translations; maps; a timeline; a list of 152 species (“only a fraction,”); illustrations; 28 pages of end-notes; a 20-page bibliography; and separate bird and general indexes. Also, a 20-page bibliography of the 152 ancient authors consulted, some Englished for the first time. Aulus Gellius is misdated; as elsewhere are Apicius and Galen. To complete the nitpicking, Apuleius does have an actual avian transmogrification.
Despite his “rank absurdities”, Aristotle (“The Master of Those Who Know”, as Dante put it) dominates, billed as the founder of ornithology. The other constant companion is, logically, Aristophanes’s Birds, whose avians specialise in, for instance, signalling men when to fuck and helping pæderasts to seduce boys.
The 19 chapters (‘Soundscapes’ is my favourite) include ‘Birds in the natural world’; ‘Birds as a resource’; ‘Living with birds’; ‘Invention and discovery’; ‘Thinking with birds’; ‘Birds as intermediaries’.
There’s a special section on the apparent absence of butterflies from classical literature. Rejecting various modern suggestions, Mynott leans towards a deathconnection, ‘psyche’ in Greek meaning both butterfly and soul.
The final sentence crystallises Mynott’s message: “The birds (sc. in Aristophanes) have successfully challenged human domination, and through winged words (a Homerism) the power of imagination has transcended the limitations of human experience.” Or, more simply: Birds Can Fly, We Can’t.
Throughout, Mynott points to the debts to antiquity acknowledged by such as Darwin (“Proceeds by small steps”), Freud and Hawking.
Whilst warning against generalisations, Mynott himself makes some arresting ones. “Translation always involves interpretation” (he frequently disputes standard ones); “Folklore Dies Hard”. And, a pithy reminder that the lack of competing man-made noise made the Græco-Roman world “sound very different from ours”.
‘Forteana’ abound, especially medical ones, e.g. goose-grease heals sore bums, pigeon-shit beneficial for kidneys and liver, pelicans kill offspring then resuscitate with their own blood. (See also FT140:18 and 370:17.) Mynott cautions against modern mistakes that will not die and famous moments that never happened, such as Archimedes/Eureka, Newton/Apple, jettisoning the enduring belief that Spinachiron is good for you – really, only for Popeye. He also exposes the persistent claim that Ælian (Animals) says kites swoop to steal human hair for Birds can fly; we can’t… Classical literature is a rich source of bird-related forteana, as this superb study reveals; sadly, though, it largely omits Byzantine sources nests. Fake news! They dive to plunder meat-market stalls.
Mynott is keen to detect sexual double entendres in Aristophanes and company. Yet, discussing Catullus’s poetic laments for his girlfriend’s dead sparrow, he seems unaware of Giuseppe Giangrande’s claim that the deceased avian really means ‘erectile disfunction’ – a Lincolnshire woman once complained to me that “My old man’s bird’s dead,” meaning the same.
Apart from dismissing Demetrius of Constantinople on classical falconry, which he finds “strangely absent”, Mynott largely ignores Byzantine texts, which means he missed Patriarch John ‘The Faster’ excoriating ‘ Immorality with Birds’, so no explanation of the erotic mechanics involved. I fancy poultry are meant. Many websites detail cases of ‘Avisodomy’ – my favourite headline reads: ‘He Shagged Our Sunday Dinner Chicken But I Still Love Him’.
Minnesota Statute 609:294 BESTIALITY proclaims: “Whoever carnally knows a dead body or animal or bird may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than one year or payment of a fine of not more than $3,000 or both.” A propos such fowl play, your house grammarian wonders: Did the hendiadys?
Thucydides, whom Mynott has translated, boasted his History was “a possession for all time.” Same goes here. Not many writers can claim to have the last word on their subject. Mynott, though, is that – have to say it – rare bird (a classical expression). For naturalists, scientists, social historians, twitchers, this superlative study will surely fly…

Barry Baldwin

Country Life
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.’

John McEwen

Classics For All
June 2018 

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.

Peter Jones

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.

Rob Innes

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.

Jeremy Mynott


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.

Walter Belis


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