BIRDS IN THE ANCIENT WORLD: Winged words

Jeremy Mynott

OUP (2018) h/b 451pp £30 (ISBN 9780198713654)

This is such a magnificent book that even a dry summary cannot but hint at the riches within. Part one investigates the ways in which the ancients understood birds in their natural setting, as predictors of seasons (the swallow and spring) and of weather (ravens indicate a tempest), as a sign of the time (the cockerel at dawn) and as architects of the aural landscape (the nightingale, probably mentioned more often than any other bird in ancient literature; men imitating bird-song and so inventing music). 

Part two examines birds as a resource: hunting and fowling (quails and partridges caught using decoys, mirrors and human scarecrows, these latter frightening them into the nets); cooking and eating (thrushes especially, pigeons, turtle doves, and the best sauces for boiled ostrich and flamingo); farming (Penelope’s dream about her flock of twenty geese, though Caesar said the Brits preferred them as pets rather than dinner, aviaries, hen-coops). 

Part three turns from consuming birds to living with them: capturing them for domestication and display (was there a private peacock menagerie in Athens? Severus Alexander kept 20,000 doves); as pets (jackdaws, magpies, sparrows, nightingales, parrots, Pliny’s talking raven that greeted the public by name); for sport and entertainment (hunting, as target practice for archers, cockfighting, quail-tapping [ortygokopia], in the arena [ostriches] but not falconry, perhaps because not obviously competitive); and as aids or nuisances (models of human behaviour in Aesop’s fables; thieves, scavengers and raiders, or pest-controllers; suppliers of feathers for fans, arrows etc.; guards [those geese on the Capitol] and messengers; and with some empathy with humans, e.g. the goose that fell in love with the philosopher Lycades).

In part four, M. reflects on birds as sources of wonder (Herodotus’ ‘cinnnamon birds’, the phoenix); healthy foods (small montane birds very good for those on slimming diets, said Galen); as solutions to medical problems (goose for aches and pains; pigeon dung dipped in vinegar removed a slave’s branding marks); and as subjects of observation and enquiry (Aristotle is especially significant here, e.g. his views on bird-song as a ‘kind of speech’, and on the intelligence demonstrated by swallows in the sound principles they exhibited in nest-building).

The mystical world of birds is the subject of part five: in divination, as mediators of the gods’ will (eagles here were the most significant ones, but ravens—usually bad news—owls, woodpeckers and chickens also played their parts); as mediums of magic (the wryneck, Greek iugx, source of our ‘jinx’, for erotic purposes) and metamorphosis (how the woodpecker—picus—got its name from one Picus, who rejected Circe’s advances); and as signs and symbols (e.g. Artemidorus discussing dreams identifies hawks and kites as signifying robbers and bandits; birds regularly feature in similes and proverbs and as metaphors of human longing to escape from the world).

In part six, M. extends the analysis of the first five parts to consider birds as creatures both like and unlike us (Harpies, winged women; Zeus taking on the forms of a swan or eagle for seduction purposes; the Sirens; Aristophanes’ Birds); as messengers and mediators (Deucalion’s dove, as reincarnated humans, sacrificial victims); and as crucial components of the beauty, variety and fertility of Gaia, ‘Mother Earth’). 

An epilogue summarises similarities and differences in our and ancient views of nature and birds. Appendices provide bird-lists from ancient sources, detailed bibliographies of the 119 authors quoted, end-notes, and two indices, one of birds, one of general topics.

M. is to be warmly congratulated on composing a book that is a joy to read—elegant, relaxed, wide-ranging, humane—rich in well-translated sources accompanying the narrative, with 82 delightful illustrations (almost all in colour), and secure scholarly underpinning tucked away in the excellent end-notes. O si sic omnes.

Peter Jones

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