History Today review: Birds in the Ancient World by Jeremy Mynott

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 the wryneck’s Greek name, iunx.

Pity, too, the pigeon squab on a Roman farm, force fed two or three times a day and confined to a caged nest with its legs broken to ensure it couldn’t be – as one contemporary vividly put it – liberated “from the slavery of fat”.

And spare a thought for the quail. The sport of ortygokopia, or quail-tapping, was wildly popular. A contestant placed his quail on a board, and his opponent hit it on the head. If it moved, the latter won; if it stayed put, the former. So beloved was the game that ortygomania was a recognised addiction to it; the Athenian politician, Alcibiades carried his own quail with him under his cloak wherever he went.

But if such greater and lesser cruelties seem to us to carry echoes of the vast ones in the Roman arena, they are far from defining the role birds played in the lives – intellectual, practical, emotional and otherwise – of men and women in the classical world. As Jeremy Mynott shows in this superb new book, birds were everywhere: on the table, of course, but also in houses, both as pets and as co-habitants in nests under the eaves; in medicine and magic; in sports and entertainments; in marking time, in military planning, in communication.

This ubiquity is in part a function of classical societies being infinitely more rus than urbe; Mynott quotes Robin Osborne’s point that “The Greek city was not a town and its territory… it was a variously peopled landscape”. He might have added that the landscape was variously – prodigiously – birded too. Even urban spaces were home to scavengers such as kites and corvids; to cuckoos and hoopoes; to owls, swallows and swifts; and to stranger visitors, too, such as the ibis.

This gave both a depth of familiarity and an intimacy to the relationship that we have to work at to recapture. Aristophanes mentions perhaps 75 species of bird in his works; some 69 can be identified in the surviving wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum et al. For such abundant specificity in art to be meaningful, it must speak to a detailed and shared understanding of the characters and behaviour of the birds themselves, not merely their physical traits.

This is borne out by, among other things, the frequency with which birds seem to have appeared in people’s dreams. Artemidorous, a writer and analyst of the 2nd century AD, has left us 95 case studies of his patients, who dreamt of numerous species, from eagles and vultures, to cormorants, kites and storks. The spurious meanings he reads into them – “A raven represents an adulterer and a thief”, and so on – are less interesting than the fact they took up such secure residency in the classical psyche.

The idea that birds signified something in someone’s subconscious is not, in context, far-fetched. Nor is the step to thinking their appearance in a dream might cause something to happen a large one. After all, birds weren’t merely a physical presence in the ancient world, they were a metaphysical presence, too; there is a reason that the Greek word for bird, ornis, was also the word for omen.

Simple observation demonstrated that the arrival of the swallow signalled the beginning of spring, for example. Indeed, so close was the identification here that the swallow (chelidon) gave its name to both the spring wind (chelidonia) on which it arrived, and the greater celandine (chelidonion) that blossomed alongside. But did the swallow come with spring, or did the swallow bring it? The line between empirical observation, which the Greeks invented, and what we might call speculative observation is less clear than we think.

And if the swallow did bring spring in its wake, what might the flight of other birds portend? And what else might they predict, aside from the weather? After all, a swallow warned Alexander the Great of a plot against his life, Arrian said. And Herodotus reports the belief that the oracles at Dodona and the shrine at Ammon were founded on the advice of two black doves; in the former case, the dove, as a messenger of the gods, spoke with a human voice. The use of birds as couriers is ancient, more ancient even than the scope of this book, although the earliest recorded instance dates back to 444BC, and the practice survived well into the modern era: the British decorated 32 pigeons for ‘conspicuous gallantry’ in the second world war, Mynott notes. And again, it is only a small step from mankind’s use of birds as messengers, to conceiving the gods using them for the same purpose.

Such an explicit message as that brought to Dodona was, of course, not to hard to decipher, but the art of decoding bird signs in the ancient world was a complex web of inter-related practices that ranged from interpreting flight patterns to reading fresh entrails. Indeed the Romans ultimately had – in the form of the College of Augurs – a flock of sacred chickens and panel of experts to decipher their feeding behaviour. One of their words for those who performed bird augury was an auspex, from which we get the word ‘auspicious’ – literally, ‘watching birds’, Mynott says.

We might agree with Cicero that such phenomena left scope for “a little error, a little superstition, and a great deal of fraud”; but, Mynott says, we should caution against dismissing them as mere expressions of irrationality. We should see them not as “mistaken forms of explanation about how the world works, but as modes of dealing with it”. It is one of the book’s particular strengths that it frames folkloric practices not as a part of a Manichean struggle between reason and magic, but as processes that offered genuine – and rational – utilitarian benefits: they were tools to think with, in other words. So bird augury represented less of a belief system than a means of evaluating how we wish to respond to life’s contingencies; it offered an advisory, not a prescriptive, service. This is evident even in Homer, Mynott points out, where an irate Hector scolds his augur for recommending actions based on the direction of an eagle’s flight: “Surely you can come up with a better story than that?” Hector asks. “I do not care/whether they fly to the right towards the morning sun/or to the left into the murky western gloom.”

Folklore isn’t simply a precursor to science, then, nor is it necessarily antithetical to it. Which is why science hasn’t entirely replaced it. (I’m using ‘folklore’ here as a portmanteau term for a wide range of beliefs and practices; Mynott is more discerning.) Nor, for that matter, is the propagation of error the preserve of ancient ritual, magic and myth. Mynott notes that an erroneous reading of Aelian, claiming that kites snatched the hair from men’s heads, was introduced in an academic work in 1921 and was still being uncritically repeated as recently as 2014. If we, with all the resources at our disposal, cannot correct ourselves, it seems unkind to judge ore forebears for the same failing in far more challenging circumstances.

Homer is, of course, the earliest author Mynott cites. But he quotes, sometimes at length, from some 120 authors in total, some translated into English for the first time. (All the translations are Mynott’s own.) The period covered is approximately 700BC to 300AD and, since Mynott’s approach is thematic, each of the 19 chapter ranges pretty freely across that thousand-year period. It is, without doubt, a major achievement, and a brilliantly sustained exercise in what, paraphrasing Claude Levi-Strauss, he calls thinking with birds.

Mynott cites Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500 to 1800 as a precedent for his approach. David Wootton memorably described the way Thomas constructs his arguments as “history as tessellation”, and Mynott’s technique certainly bears comparison. Readers expecting the kind of sustained and detailed arguments a historian like Thomas develops from their sources may, I think, be a little disappointed. But that would be like chiding Herodotus for not being Thucydides. The comparatively fragmentary nature of Mynott’s sources inevitably means that his work is more allusive, less assertive and more suggestive – more playful, even. Arguably, it is all the better for that.

If birds in the ancient world were intermediaries between the gods and mankind, they are Mynott’s intermediaries between that world and this. He uses them to illuminate classical civilisation’s sense of the world and humanity’s place in it. But in so doing, he encourages us to think more profoundly about our own, often un-reflective relationship with nature – and, in particular, how the development of modernity has depredated habitats and vastly diminished bird populations. The Arabian ostrich became extinct in the mid-20th century; of the three species of ibis once found in Egypt, two have disappeared; there are probably fewer than 200 pairs of breeding wrynecks in Greece today; and so on.

The counterpoint to this is both their abundance and ubiquity in the ancient world. Quail migrations, for instance, involved extraordinary numbers: it has been calculated that Moses fed his people with nine million of them on their way through the Biblical wilderness. Pliny recorded that migrating quail were known to rest at night on the sails of ships in such quantities that their combined weight would sink the ships beneath them.

Mynott also encourages us to think about the ways in which experience of the world and understanding of it are inextricably linked. What does it mean to say the classical world was an aural – and oral – one, for example? “[T]he sounds of the natural world were communicative, not distracting”, he argues. But what did they communicate? Something different, would seem to be the answer. Something different and, in a world more steeped in symbolism, augury and metaphor, something more expansive, too. The case of the poor wryneck on its wheel is but one example. There is also the peculiar fact that larksong, beloved of us today, was hardly mentioned by poets or other writers, and when it was, it was usually in disparaging terms. Dioscorides, for example, placed the skylark “among [the] musical illiterates”. Why? We don’t know. Did it perhaps have mythological associations now lost to us? But the mere fact itself nudges us into an awareness of our own prejudices and subjectivities. Mynott pointedly cites the musicologist Christopher Page’s mischievous observation that we might be less inclined to think of the ancient Greeks as the fathers of Western rationalism if could actually hear the music they so much admired. (Although much extraordinary work into the recovery of this very music has been done in recent years: I highly recommend Armand D’Angour’s 2017 lecture to the Hellenic Society, available online here, as an introduction.) In any event, the point is that heard world, no less than aesthetics or rationality, is a social construct; other ways of thinking – with or without birds – are never far away.

It is a particular pleasure to follow Mynott’s thoughts as he teases at possible explanations or associations. He wears his immense knowledge lightly, and shares it in such a way that it allows the reader – howsoever ignorant of ornithology or classical literature – to accompany him everywhere on his quests for meaning. Why, for example, was the nightingale associated with lament? Was the association due to the erroneous belief that singing nightingales were female, and funeral laments in the ancient world were conventionally the preserve of women? (‘Waking the nightingale’ was, incidentally, slang for a woman’s sexual arousal.) Or was it due to the myth of Aëdon – who shared her name in Greek with the bird – grieving for her murdered son? Perhaps. But, Mynott asks, wouldn’t one expect myths to explain phenomena, not cause them? Mynott doesn’t have definitive answers, and he is rightly dismissive of the seductive allure of the “vague but sweeping explanation”. It’s an intellectual habit – open, agile, questioning – that is one of the book’s great strengths. Part of thinking with birds, it seems, is a profound lightness of mind.

But what of birds themselves? Were they sentient, too, or were they merely vessels for human (and divine) metaphor and communication, as per the 12th-century French philosopher Alain de Lille’s observation, “Every creature is for us like a book, a picture and a mirror”, which Mynott cites as an epigraph? If the question of non-human species’ capacity for thought remains contested, it was no less so 2,000 years ago. It was observably true that birds had different kinds of calls for different circumstances – mating calls, calls of alarm, and so on: Lucretius used birdsong’s limitless variety as an analogy for the human development of language.

But the presence of language surely implied some kind of rational faculty; logos was, after all, the Greek term for both ‘word’ and ‘reason’. Aristotle, in considering the issue, noted both the way swallows constructed their nests and the complex migratory patterns of cranes as evidence of some kind of mental organisation. And the penchant of some philosophers to have birds as pets must have persuaded some of them of avian intelligence: Pliny records that the philosopher Lacydes was accompanied everywhere, night and day – even to the public baths – by a goose, a state of affairs which Pliny interestingly ascribes to the goose’s own cognitive abilities. Later, in the 3rd century AD, Porphyry had a pet partridge which, he believed, only spoke to him when he spoke to it, and did so in a way that was different to the way in which other partridges spoke to each other, which suggested – to Porphyry, at least – that the bird was trying to communicate with him directly. (Perhaps it was this experience that led Porphyry to believe some peoples capable of understanding the language of particular species of bird: Arabs could understand ravens, the Etruscans, eagles, and so on.)

The subtitle of Mynott’s book is Winged Words, and there is a gentle but insistent interest in words, their meanings, their etymologies, their uses, throughout – not least because it is not necessarily obvious what birds are being referred to in classical text. The Greek poet Aratus, writing in the 3rd century BC, refers to a crow ducking into a wave on the shore. Crows do not do this, Mynott says. So is this Aratus simly being wrong about corvid behaviour? Or does he in fact mean a cormorant or shag, as Mynott suggests? It is impossible to know even where the problem lies, let alone resolve it: neither ravens, crows, cormorants or shags were clearly distinguished, he says, and the name for one could be used to describe another.

These kind of translation issues may seem trivial, but they should alert us to the fact that language – the primary means we have for understanding how the ancient world understood itself – is not a transparent medium. Translation requires choices which requires interpretation. Meaning and definition – no less than mapping classical taxonomies onto our own – are slippery things. And perhaps that slipperiness speaks to the particular quality that birds possess of being part of our world, but also something somewhat alien and ethereal – as if flight didn’t simply give them access to another element, but a different dimension of reality altogether. Thus Mynott’s birds – like the distant past – remain, in some perfect way, elusive and unknowable. But it is not the knowing that is important, perhaps, so much as the reaching towards knowledge.

There is much pleasure to be had, incidentally, in what Mynott has to say about the naming of birds. The current scientific name for the cormorant and shag genus, he notes, replicates the confusion in Aratus: its literal meaning is ‘bald raven’. The Greek word for partridge – perdix – is a rare case of anal, rather than oral, onomatopoeia, he says: it derives from the verb perdomai, meaning to break wind, which recalled the sound of a flight of partridges breaking cover. (The scientific name for the English partridge is Perdix perdix, which would seem to compound the insult.) Meanwhile, the Greek word strouthos could refer to both the sparrow and ostrich; and the peculiar characterisation of the latter as a ‘camel-sparrow’ lingers in its proper name, Struthio camelus. We revere modern science for its order and reason, but you don’t have to dig deep to find its roots in something quite other.

Behind this playful interest in language lies the question, why were birds so good to think with? Is it simply that, in Plato’s words, mankind is no more than a featherless biped? Is it because the ancient world had such varied and intimate relationships with them – as company, as exemplars of aural and visual beauty, as markers of daily and seasonal time, as messengers, as entertainment, as intermediaries with the gods, as harbingers and omens, and so on? Is it their capacity to embody both the creative and the spiritual instinct, as well as to inspire it? Birds have both flight and song, and we have language only. But, as Aristophanes has a character say in The Birds: “Words can help everyone take wing.”

We are fortunate to have in Mynott, who is both an ornithologist and a classicist, the perfect guide for such flights of intellect and imagination, being witty, sceptical, warm and wise. The Greeks had a phrase for such luck: we are under good birds, they would say.


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