Birds in the Ancient World
Now available in paperback
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
9th April 2020
95 colour illustrations, 9 black & white illustrations
- Shortlisted for the 2019 Wolfson History Prize.
- 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.
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
‘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.
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.
In two recently published books, Jeremy Mynott has shown that he is currently one of the most interesting and scholarly writers about the intersecting lives of birds and people. In both Birdscapes and Birds in the Ancient World, Mynott takes the reader on an unexpected journey to learn what birds can mean to us as individuals and as a culture.
Shiny New Books
Jeremy Mynott is both a classical scholar and a writer on birds, and his love and deep knowledge of both areas shine through in this fascinating and rather wonderful book. From the preface, where he describes the variety of birds to be found in Athens and Rome, to the epilogue, which pulls together feelings on the environment ancient and modern and shows how our experiences of nature are both different and similar, we follow a clear path through the way birds were markers of the seasons, time and weather; their exploitation as a natural resource to farm and eat; birds as pets and entertainment; their examination as the objects of wonder then science; their appearance as symbols and in dreams; and their role as messengers between people and the spiritual dimension.
24th June 2019
Birds in the Ancient World: Messengers of Omens and Auguries
An extract from Birds in the Ancient World
Translators regularly face the problem that the words and expressions of one language do not always translate exactly into those of another. In fact, a literal translation can sometimes seem incomprehensible, particularly where the beliefs or behaviour of people from another culture are involved.
Libro Full Time
6th June 2019
“Confiding” is a term used in birdwatching for the behaviour of a bird which will allow the approach of humans to observe it. That blue tit blithely feeding off the peanut hanger as you potter about on the patio, the robin on your fork handle or the heron you run past on the canal are all confiding. I can extend the metaphor to this book, in which an acknowledged expert on the relationship between humans and birds takes a gentle, close and approachable look at how birds were seen, experienced and written about by the Greeks and Romans.
31st May 2020
Beautiful books for bird lovers
Jeremy Mynott’s fascinating book explores the many different roles birds played in ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and how they impressed upon the imagination to influence the literature and art of the time.
Using quotations from the classical world, alongside nearly one hundred illustrations from ancient wall-paintings, pottery, and mosaics, Birds in the Ancient World also examines early scientific findings, as well as descriptions from works of history, geography, and travel.
Informative and expertly narrated, Birds in the Ancient World is an enthralling look at the cultural history of birds and the huge influence they had on a bygone age.
All About History
1st June 2020
A vivid exploration of the cultural history of birds
Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize last year, Birds In The Ancient World: Winged Words is the latest book by ornithologist and classicist Jeremy Mynott, who provides a fascinating exploration of the relationship between humankind and birds in Ancient Greece and Rome.
The book is structured thematically and examines the role of birds in a variety of areas including medicine, hunting, farming, entertainment, magic and as messengers for the gods, as well as how they were used by humans to interpret the natural world. Interestingly, Mynott also analyses how birds were perceived through the eyes of around 120 authors of the ancient world, such as Homer, Cicero and Plutarch, using quotes that he translated himself for the book. For readers who may not know anything about these authors, Mynott even includes short biographies for each one at the end, which is extremely helpful.
With an extensive bibliography, it is evident that Mynott has conducted a lot of thorough research and his book is absolutely brimming with detail, although it may be a bit too scholarly for general readers. Nevertheless, his writing style is clear and engaging, plus the fact that his passion for this subject is obvious, something that always makes reading more enjoyable.
It is worth mentioning that the book is also filled with nearly 100 colourful illustrations from ancient pottery, mosaics and wall-paintings, which break up the heavy text nicely. For anyone with a fascination for the ancient world or birds, this is definitely worth a read.
15th June 2020
For all their Parthenons and Colosseums, imperial ambitions and endless warfare, ancient Greek and Roman societies were deeply connected to nature. These connections went far beyond the importance of agriculture for mere survival; they were the lifeblood of classical peoples’ worldviews, religious systems and artistic output. And birds played a central role.
The historical sources from which Jeremy Mynott quotes abundantly in this fascinating book were, of course, the product of a tiny, privileged elite – we must always remember that the vast majority of our ancient ancestors had no means to bequeath us any cultural record of themselves – but they leave no doubt that birds were everywhere.
From augury – an omen-interpreting means of decision-making or ‘taking the auspices’ (auspices comes from the Latin words auspicium and auspex, meaning ‘one who looks at birds’) – to the use of wryneck (a species of woodpecker that was cruelly used as part of ancient Greek sexual practices), Mynott comprehensively demonstrates that birds were seen and heard in abundance across his chosen thousand year timespan (approximately 700 BC to 300 AD).
They were used practically as food and as pets, in sports, medicine, magic and much more, and were very present in urban as well as rural settings. Owls became emblematic of Athena and Athens; scavenging kites and ravens were ever present; swifts and swallows nested in temples and government buildings and some ancient cities were visited by more exotic species such as the ibis. Unsurprising then, that birds infiltrated and influenced ancient artistic endeavours – long before (and after) the ‘winged words’ of this book’s title was used by Homer, as a recurring metaphor for saying something powerful and important.
If birds were so present, physically and practically, in the ancient world, Mynott explores how they also infiltrated classical societies’ intellectual and spiritual undertakings. They were often seen as messengers and intermediaries between not just the mortal realms of land, sea and sky, but also the higher world of the gods; Aristophanes’ fifth-century BC comedy The Birds being just one example. Birds also populated the metaphysical worlds of dreaming and desire, as so many of the stunning surviving frescoes from homes in Pompeii and Herculaneum demonstrate. These idealised images of ‘wild’ nature and natural powers beyond human capacity, such as flight, contained and controlled for the purposes of elite identity construction.
Yet as well as offering us examples of ancient deployment of birds that may be thought-provokingly strange to our modern worldviews, Mynott also gives us ‘constants’ to ponder on. For example, from the very beginnings of ‘classical’ literature and Homer’s near-contemporary Hesiod, we learn how long the migrations of birds such as cranes, cuckoos and swallows have been used to mark the passing of the seasons – Hesiod’s Works and Days (c700 BC) citing them as farmers’ ‘diary reminders’ for seasonal agricultural tasks.
Perhaps the idea that, across the centuries, we have always looked to birds and the skies as signs of the enduring cycle of life is one that might currently comfort and resonate with all Ramblers and walk-lovers, as we wait patiently for a time when we can once again fully and freely access beloved green spaces everywhere.
Archives of Natural History
Volume 46.1 (2019)
Ornithology, the scientific study of birds, starts here with Jeremy Mynott’s birds of the ancient world. This scholarly, yet readable and fascinating book presents a detailed account on how our current obsession with birds began. The Greeks and Romans viewed the natural world very differently from us, yet it is intriguing how much they knew and how much of that knowledge, some of it true and some false, survives to the present day.
Mynott’s beautifully produced volume, illustrated throughout with striking colour images, comprises six themes: (i) birds in the natural world (for example, birds as markers of the seasons); (ii) birds as a resource (hunting, farming and feasting); (iii) living with birds (cage birds); (iv) invention and discovery (birds as medicine and the beginnings of science); (v) thinking with birds (omens, magic and signs); and finally, (vi) birds as intermediaries – between men and gods. Each of these sections is in turn divided into individual chapters.
Why birds? The answer is that they relate to humans in so many ways, including their reliance on vision and hearing and walking upright on two legs, similarities not unnoticed by the Ancients. As Mynott relates, Plato defined man as the featherless biped only to be teased by a dissenting Diogenes, who on presenting a plucked chicken to an audience, referred to it as Plato’s man. Apart from physical and cognitive similarities, birds were abundant and conspicuous: as their senses dictate, they are mainly diurnal and visible, and their songs and calls fall within the range of human hearing. But as Plutarch noted, it was the quickness and apprehension of birds that made them such suitable instruments of the gods.
As Mynott identifies, what was so wonderfully original about the Presocratics was their assumption that the natural world was open to rational explanation. This was the first age of enlightenment in the history of Western thought, and these early philosophers ranged over all manner of topics, from cosmology, physics, botany, zoology, including ornithology. One cannot help but be amazed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge and appreciation of birds. Equally impressive is Mynott’s skill in piecing together this mass of ornithological fragments into a coherent whole.
Mynott’s book brings to life the variety of ancient scholars and artists who were inspired by birds. The sheer volume of material must, one feels, have been daunting, yet Mynott has processed it in a sensible and logical fashion. His approach reminded me of the motto coined by the Royal Society at its inception in 1660, “Nullius in verba”: take nobody’s word for it. For by making his own translations from the original sources, rather than relying on secondary accounts, this definitive and original account of birds in the ancient world will serve as an invaluable reference for all subsequent historians of ornithology, and indeed zoology as a whole.
Among the most enduring images of birds of the ancient world is the “Spring fresco” from Thera (Santorini), until recently preserved under deep layers of volcanic ash. The swallows in this wall painting – the first illustration in Mynott’s book – accurately and evocatively capture the swallow’s natural exuberance, but also serve here as a symbol of the joy of accessible scholarship. Winged words, indeed.
T. R. Birkhead
The Classical Review
19th December 2018
M.’s book provides a comprehensive introduction and overview of the role of birds within ancient society. The book is distinct from previous scholarship on birds in the ancient world with its approach to the material. Where D.W. Thompson’s A Glossary of Greek Birds (1895), J. Pollard’s Birds in Greek Life and Myth (1977) and W.G. Arnott’s Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z (2007) tend to arrange the material by species, M. organises the material into six thematic parts. These parts follow a logical progression from birds as physical actors in the natural world to the abstract use and interpretation of birds in ancient societies. This structure allows M.’s work to act as a companion to its more encyclopaedic predecessors, as his thematic structure provides a more holistic approach to the role of birds.
Additionally, through M.’s original translation and presentation of large extracts of ancient texts, it also serves as a valuable sourcebook for the role of birds in the ancient world. It is certainly not as exhaustive as other sourcebooks on animals, such as S. Lewis and L. Llewellyn-Jones’s The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: a Sourcebook with Commentaries (2015), but still proves useful due to its thematic approach and targeted focus.
Part 1, ‘Birds in the Natural World’, is divided into four chapters: the seasons; weather; time; and soundscapes. The first two of these chapters deal with well-known uses of birds as season-markers and weather predictors, with the second chapter moving on to their impact on time (mostly related to the cockerel’s crow). The last chapter is the most extensive, concentrating on birds as ancient soundscapes. A highlight of the chapter is M.’s concentration on the distinction made between ancient and modern musical aesthetics in relation to birdsong. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the relationship between birdsong and music.
Part 2, ’Birds as a Resource’, is divided into three chapters: hunting and fowling; cooking and eating; and farming. M. does a thorough job in exploring each of these aspects. The use of visual evidence in this chapter enhances it, particularly the inclusion of a modern example of a thrush caught in bird-lime (p. 80, fig. 3.5), which would be unfamiliar to most readers. While the textual tradition provides excellent information for all three of the chapters in this section, I did find that these discussions suffered slightly from a lack of archaeological evidence. Although M.’s approach is centred on the presentation of birds within the texts, I feel that comparing these accounts with the zooarchaeological record would have enhanced the discussion, particularly in the case of what birds were eaten, and provided the reader with a broader knowledge of the use of birds in the ancient world.
Part 3, ‘Living with Birds’, is dedicated to other types of human–bird interaction that are more symbiotic than the previous section. It deals with the use of birds as pets and aviaries/zoos in the ancient world; birds in sports and entertainment, mainly cockfighting and display in the arena; and the relationships formed between birds and people. This last chapter is perhaps the most interesting approach of the section, as M. decides to tackle how ancient authors reflected on their own relationships with birds. M. also deals with the question of falconry and its apparent absence in the classical world. His suggestion that there was ‘no cultural space for it’ (p. 155) seems an intriguing and plausible answer, but not quite enough evidence or time is spent fully exploring the question.
Part 4, ‘Invention and Discovery’, looks at the appearance of birds in the more ‘scientific’ texts. M. begins by dealing with the reported ‘wonders’ of birds in works of ancient geographers (and Herodotus), before moving on to the role of birds in ancient medicine. The final chapter of the section looks at what M. refers to as the ‘first small steps in the long history of scientific discovery’ (p. 220), i.e. the method of observation and enquiry seen in ancient philosophy and mainly Aristotle’s classifications and observations on birds.
Part 5 deals with birds on a slightly more abstract level. This begins with a chapter on augury and divination, followed by a chapter on ‘Magic and Metamorphosis’. This second chapter is an interesting combination of both bird transformation myths and the role that birds played in magical rituals, dances and astrology. The last chapter in this section, ‘Signs and Symbols’, explores the symbolic interpretation of birds. This is a huge topic and M. does an admirable job exploring the vast range of ancient symbolic expressions in this chapter.
Finally, Part 6, ‘Birds as Intermediaries’, looks at the position birds occupy between us and both the natural and supernatural. M. begins this section by looking at various mythological birds, but also by looking at the interesting problem of the absence of the butterfly in classical texts. He finishes with a brief examination of the connection of birds to the divine, through both sacrifice and the varied birds presented as psychopomps.
The book suffers slightly from the usual problems of an overview of this type: the minor conflations of Greek and Roman culture and the homogenisation of attitudes across time and space. However, M. is clearly aware of these issues and indicates this to his reader at the beginning of Chapter 6 when discussing the consumption of birds, where he states: ‘we must remember that practices will have varied considerably across times and places, and not only according to social class’ (p. 92). This point could have been emphasised more frequently.
I have already talked about the absence of zooarchaeological evidence, which I believe would have improved certain aspects, and this is also the case for the integration of visual evidence. While M. includes a variety of images, often they are not directly related to the point he is making and some, such as the inclusion of a Portrait of Frederick II with a falcon (p. 152, fig. 3.7), while interesting, do not add anything to the discussion of birds in their ancient context. This is not to say that all these images are superfluous: in fact, as mentioned, the inclusion of an image of the use of bird-lime enhances and illustrates the discussion. I felt that more of these latter images could have been included, along with a more in-depth discussion of the representation of birds in the art of the ancient world, as often images are presented without commentary.
These are minor issues, however, and certainly do not impact on the usefulness of the book. M. outlines his aim for the book in the preface, where he states his hope that it ‘may in a way serve both as a contribution to the cultural history of birds and as an introduction for non-classicists to this formative period of Western history and some of its greatest literature’ (p. vi). The book certainly achieves these aims. M.’s style will no doubt engage non-Classicists, particularly ornithologists and bird-watchers, through his intelligent use of modern comparisons and presentations of extracts of ancient texts. However, I also believe his book could work as a set-text for undergraduate students, particularly for modules that discuss the interaction between ancient societies and the natural world. It not only serves as a sourcebook for birds in the ancient world, but M.’s discussion of the source material introduces the reader to some of the larger issues in the study of the ancient world, such as the definition of ancient terms and ancient conceptions of time. Additionally, through M.’s inclusion of both a timeline and brief biographies of each included ancient author, it allows both students and non-Classicists to contextualise their knowledge without resorting to an outside text.
The Caspian Region: Politics, Economics, Culture
No. 1, 2019
The reviewed monograph is a unique compendium of information about the role of birds in the culture of the Ancient world. It is difficult to imagine any nation, in life of whom birds did not played a significant role, but in the culture of the Ancient world, birds occupied a special place. The material presented in the monograph co-vers a fairly long period of time from the VIII century BC to the IV century AD and mainly the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome. The author of the book is a unique fusion of a scientist, translator from ancient Greek, con-noisseur of ancient texts and a practicer, who devoted a significant part of his life to the study and observation of birds in nature. It is difficult to call Professor J. Mynott an Amateur ornithologist, because he embodies an amaz-ing fusion of enthusiasm of a bird-watcher and exceptional awareness of a professional who is able to identify the bird by forms, sounds or behavior. The monograph is not a simple collection of various facts about birds, it is really a scientific study that introduces into scientific circulation a huge number of ancient texts, many of which were previously not translated into English and were known only to a narrow circle of specialists. The book is of great interest to a wide range of readers from specialists in the history of the Ancient world to people interested in ornithology and cultural history.
Yakushenkov Sergei N.
Jeremy Mynott’s new book is by far the most erudite book on birds I have ever read. It is a compelling combination of the history of birds and the ancient world that throws both into new relief. The book is formed of six parts, each with its own introduction and brimming with quotes from classical authors, including Homer, Ovid, Catullus and Aristotle.
While this could be daunting, it proves fascinating. Mynott’s fresh translations and the numerous illustrations that accompany the text keep the narrative bowling along without bogging it down. The book begins with “the first reference to birds in the whole of European literature” in Homer’s Iliad, the Greeks are compared to migratory cranes. From here, seasonal migration of birds in the Ancient World unfolds, there are swallows on illustrated pottery and the ‘lamenting’ swallow song heard by Socrates.
Mynott’s guide goes way beyond ornithological interest. Nominated for the Wolfson History Prize, this original guide comes highly recommended.
Bryn Mawr Classical Review
I love birds and so does the author of this book, who published a previous book on birds in 2009.1 Mynott has written a book intended for bird lovers perhaps more than for academics. This does not mean that the book is not carefully researched; on the contrary, the wealth of information and detail is superb. It makes for excellent reading for anyone curious about the Greek and Roman worlds who likes birds or the outdoors. With this reader in mind, the book includes an appendix at the end containing short biographies of a hundred and thirty ancient authors who mentioned birds in one capacity or another. The book includes quotes from authors like Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and Ovid but also many lesser authors, who may not be familiar to the general classicist. It did come as a surprise to me that birds were so ubiquitous in Greek and Roman literature, probably much as they were in life, as Mynott makes clear throughout the book. The passages of ancient authors are given only in translation, as the work is intended for the general reader. It is beautifully produced and contains many colour illustrations both of ancient and modern depictions of birds: Minoan frescoes, Greek pottery, Roman mosaics, coins, Renaissance paintings and engravings, early twentieth century books, and taxonomic drawings. As with birds themselves, variety and abundance of topics constitute the strength of the book.
The book is divided into six sections, each of which contains a short introduction and three or four short chapters. The structure is the same throughout: Mynott gathers quotes from several authors to illustrate each of the points he wants to make. From the richness of quotes it becomes clear right away that the author must have been collecting these passages for many years before putting them together in an organized manner.
The first part, “Birds in the Natural World,” comprises four chapters: “The Seasons”, “Weather”, “Time”, and “Soundscapes”. The section discusses how the Greek idea of nature included the human world and was not contrasted to it, as we tend to do in modern times. The first three chapters illustrate how certain species of birds were associated with the change of seasons, prediction of weather patterns and other changes in the natural world. Birds were a standard point of reference for cyclical changes in natural phenomena. In the fourth chapter the author argues that the world would have sounded rather different from ours since there was a greater abundance of wildlife and at the same time there were less mechanical noises to compete against. He also discusses how the songs of certain birds like nightingales, larks or swans were interpreted as lamentations. Many of the birds that the ancients valued for their song are still iconic birds in Westerns culture.
The second part, “Birds as a Resource,” is divided in three chapters: “Hunting and Fowling”, “Cooking and Eating”, and “Farming”. This part explores how birds were valuable as a source of food. Hunting birds, as opposed to the elite pastime of hunting big game, was seen more as an activity for the countryman. Everything was basically deemed edible, not just wildfowl, pigeons or partridges but also sparrows, larks or even cuckoos. The ancients had at their disposal a great array of snares, traps, nets and decoys to hunt for birds. Birds constituted welcome additional protein to anybody’s table and the ancients developed elaborate ways to cook them. The last chapter in this section reviews Roman agricultural writers’ advice on breeding geese, chickens, ducks and pigeons. Some of this advice is at odds with modern sensitivities, including breaking the legs of the animals so they would fatten faster.
Part three, “Living with Birds,” also contains three chapters: “Captivity and Domestication”, “Sports and Entertainments”, “Relationships and Responsibilities”. The first deals with keeping birds as pets, either peacocks for the rich or sparrows, nightingales or parrots for everybody else. Even jays would have been kept as pets and some of them were taught to speak. The second chapter discusses the absence of falconry in ancient times, as far as we can tell. It also mentions cockfights and the use of ostriches in the Roman circuses. The last chapter considers how birds were common in daily life and would have shared the same dwellings as humans. Birds could be a nuisance and agricultural pests, but they could also control insects. Corvids and vultures were seen disposing of animal and human carrion. Some birds were also valued for their feathers and pigeons were used as messengers.
Part four, “Invention and Discovery,” is also divided into three chapters: “Wonders: travellers’ tales and tall stories”, “Medicine: folklore and science”, and “Observation and Enquiry: the beginnings of ornithology”. Mynott argues in this section that humans were curious about the behaviour of birds and differences among species and attempted a classification of birds. The first chapter in this section starts with Herodotus’ well-known stories about the birds that lived around crocodiles and the mythical phoenix. It also discusses the fascination with ostriches as well as with monsters like the Sirens, the Stymphalian birds or the Harpies. The second chapter examines the importance that medical writers attributed to birds for a balanced diet and several bizarre recipes prepared with parts of birds for the treatment of all types of diseases from aches and pains to hemorrhoids. The last chapter focuses on Aristotle’s taxonomy of birds.
Part five, “Thinking with Birds,” also has three chapters: “Omens and Auguries”, “Magic and Metamorphosis”, and “Signs and Symbols”. The first chapter in this section presents what can only be a quick overview of the topic of auguries, which, of course, has merited many studies on its own. In the next chapter we learn how birds were used for love magic and necromancy. Several passages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are discussed as well. The third chapter of this section deals with the interpretation of dreams, how birds were often symbols for our longing to fly away from difficult situations, and it also discusses the military symbolism of the eagle.
Part six “Birds as Intermediaries” includes three chapters and an epilogue: “Birds as Intermediaries”, “Messengers and Mediators”, “Mother Earth”, and “Epilogue: then and now”. This section is a bit repetitive since most of the topics have already been dealt with elsewhere in the book. Nevertheless, Birds in theAncient World is a welcome addition to anyone’s library. The prose is clear and engaging and the author reflects on our modern attitudes towards birds in particular and nature in general. Mynott’s great accomplishment is that he brings to the forefront the presence of a type of animals among the ancients that we often take for granted or ignore. Birds lived much closer to humans in the ancient world than they do today. There were more birds and more kinds of birds in evidence and they shared the space in the cities and in the fields. Just as today, birds belonged to the reality of life and to the imagination.
Reyes Bertolín Cebrián
LXXXVIII.1, pages 142-143
It goes without saying that no medievalist can ignore the influence of classical writing in medieval scholarly and literary traditions. There can be few subjects addressed by medieval writers for which there was not some classical precedent consulted, translated, or adapted to some degree, and this is certainly no exception when it comes to the medieval natural world. Antique legacies shaped a great deal of ‘natural history’ discourses in succeeding centuries: Plato, subsumed into early patristic theology; Aristotle, encountered through Pliny’s Naturalis historia – a huge influence in itself – and then through direct translations in later centuries. Texts like Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiæ, and later the bestiaries, were deeply indebted to classical learning de natura rerum ‘on the nature of things’.
Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World, then, offers rich material for scholars engaged with medieval non-human and environmental interests, an area of study that has gained much traction in recent years. At its simplest, the book provides a highly impressive catalogue of sources on avian appearances in classical literature. This achievement is a boon in itself to those specifically interested in birds in medieval texts (worthy of ‘special mencioun’ among all animals, as Bartholomaeus Anglicus states). Readers can trace sources in one single volume, reassured by fresh and authoritative translations that will contribute very admirably to scholarly footnotes. Mynott is eminently qualified on his subject: he knows his birds and has an extensive background in the classics (his translation of Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians was published in 2013 with Cambridge University Press).
But the book is much more than an anthology, and will certainly appeal to those with more general requirements, too. Mynott’s narrative elegantly coheres the astonishing array of materials into parts and chapters that explore how birds mattered in the wider natural and cultural environments of Greek and Roman lives: as food or medicine, entertainment, markers of seasons, as omens, metaphors, and messengers. Significantly, many of these contexts are directly or closely relevant to medieval theorizing on the natural world, in which age, too, we might say humans and non-humans ‘were understood to be in the same sphere of activity’, and that ‘With this intimacy went an interdependency’ (p. 5). Readers working on medieval concepts of voice, for instance, encountering birdsong in grammar theories, would do well to consult Mynott (pp. 57–60; 142–9) for sources and lines of transmission. Or what of the phoenix in classical experiences and learning (pp. 195–7); Aristotle’s monumental influence (pp. 222–41); or antique responses to metamorphosis (pp. 276–84), which became such an enduring concept in late medieval literature?
Birds in the Ancient World is a welcome and important resource for the scholar working on any aspect of birds in all spheres of medieval life – in bestiaries, fables, romances, dream-visions, and debates, in falconry, heraldry, hunting, and writing, in species- and place-names. Mynott’s erudite discussions, though, will make an excellent companion for those wishing to explore the classical legacy in medieval ‘nature’ paradigms.
Michael J. Warren
Greece and Rome
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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…
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.
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…
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.