Birds on the Brain in the Ancient World

A peacock stands on reddish earth in the center of the image. His briight blue and green plumage fills the enttire frame.

Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018)

Ovid’s Circe transforms Picus into a woodpecker when he spurns her erotic advances. In Vergil’s Aeneid the Harpies—half-bird, half-maiden—befoul the dinner of Aeneas’ Trojan exiles but also reveal a vital prophecy. In Aristophanes’ Birds, two disaffected Athenians go to live with the birds in a new city named Cloudcuckooland. Sappho’s first poem opens with a visit from the love-goddess Aphrodite in a chariot drawn by sparrows. The Iliad, one of the earliest works of Western literature, likens the Greek forces mustering for battle to flocks of migrating cranes. And throughout the Homeric epics, characters utter “winged words” in their conversations with one another.

An image of a bird, comprised of other small birds, appears on the book cover beneath the title, Birds of the Ancient WorldThese are just a few of the hundreds of phrases, passages, and texts that Jeremy Mynott explores in Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words, and which attest to the considerable importance of bird life in the Greek and Roman imaginary. Mynott’s new book, a follow-up to his acclaimed work, Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience (2009), offers a compendious survey of Greek and Roman literary texts (and not a few artworks) that engage with the bird life of the ancient Mediterranean. It embraces works from early to late antiquity, from Homer and Hesiod (eighth or seventh century BCE) to Nemesianus and Claudian (third and fourth centuries CE). The book also covers work  from many different locales, including ancient Egypt and Israel.

Mynott arranges his chapters thematically. “Soundscapes,” “Cooking and Eating,” “Relationships and Responsibilities,” and “Magic and Metamorphosis” are but four of the twenty chapter titles. These thematic studies coalesce around a number of broader categories. This first part begins with a focus on birds in the natural world. Mynott then considers Greeks’ and Romans’ interactions with birds: the exploitation of birds in hunting and cooking (Part 2); relationships between birds and humans (Part 3); and birds in early science (Part 4). In the last two parts of the book (Parts 5 and 6), Mynott studies the place of birds in the symbolic systems of humans, including their roles in ancient religion. In this way, he traces an arc from the natural, through interactions between the cultural and natural, to the more purely cultural.

In this mosaic, a blue and tan bird (left), a green bird (right), and a brown bird (center) rest on a bird bath.

Excavated from ruins near Pompeii, this mosaic suggests the prevalence and diversity of birds in ancient Roman life. Image from Wikipedia.

Inevitably, such an ambitious and comprehensive project encounters problems. Firstly, Mynott’s narrative frequently jumps between texts belonging to quite different time periods and cultures, and thus threatens to elide the distinctions between these various contexts. In the first chapter, for example, readers encounter the epic poet Hesiod (C8 BCE), the lyric poet Stesichorus (C6 BCE), the comic playwright Aristophanes (C5 BCE), the lyric and epic poet Ovid (C1 BCE-C1 CE), and the prose-writer Aelian (C2 CE)—all in the span of a few pages.

Birds would have been a striking presence—both audible and visible—in the landscapes of the ancient world.

Secondly, Mynott’s coverage of such a vast array of texts forces him to offer rather cursory treatments of their complexities. We might take, for instance, Mynott’s treatment of the relationship between the opening hymn to Venus and the remainder of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, which has long puzzled scholars. Lucretius’ poem challenges conventional representations of the gods and is for the most part presented in a rather dry, philosophical style. Nevertheless, it begins with an address to a traditional Roman divinity, Venus, couched in the sort of grand style typical of traditional epic. Mynott, however, addresses this problem only with the following brief statement: Lucretius’ “appeal to the deity [in the opening lines] needs to be read metaphorically… as a standard literary convention, since the whole point of the poem was to explain and celebrate a world without gods” (chapter 19; Mynott’s emphasis). It is not clear to me how such a metaphor would operate, nor how the notion of “read[ing] metaphorically” would relate to that of “standard literary convention.” The one phrase, “read[ing] metaphorically,” seems to evoke a complex texture that the reader must work to decode by teasing out the metaphorical relationship between the hymn and whatever it stands for. The other phrase, “standard literary convention,” suggests that Lucretius’ choice is devoid of meaning: the poet was simply forced by the weight of tradition to open with a hymn.  Mynott’s decision to cover so much terrain through an avian lens might leave readers who are more interested in the literary rather than the environmental or biological aspects of his work looking for a more nuanced treatment of individual texts and contexts.

Close up of a black vase. In bronze paint, two winged men surround a robed man playing a pipe.

A scene from ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes’ comedy, Birds, immortalized on a vase. Image from EnglishShare.

Thirdly, it is not clear to me which readers will benefit most from this book. Mynott’s explorations of bird species and of ancient attitudes to birds will presumably be of interest to ornithologists, zoologists and/or nature enthusiasts seeking comparanda for contemporary bird life or for modern conceptions of birds. Mynott’s book might, however, prove less satisfying for environmental humanists and ecologists. Given the more or less ahistorical arrangement of his Greek and Roman texts, Mynott does not often have the opportunity to explore dynamic changes in ancient bird life, in its environmental contexts, or in the relationships between the two. And since Mynott’s chapters move quickly between different regions of the ancient Mediterranean, we lose a sense of the variations between the different ecosystems hosting the birds of the ancient world.

Mynott’s text might serve the valuable purpose of encouraging non-experts to engage with the aspects of the ancient world that he addresses. Such readers, if they are familiar only with modern representations of birds or only with the birds of a certain region, will benefit from new historical and geographical perspectives. Some of Mynott’s statements might, however, prove misleading to non-classicists. Take, for example, his references to the writings attributed in the ancient world to Hippocrates. The useful “Biographies of Authors Quoted” at the back of the book states quite rightly that Hippocrates “has given his name to a remarkable corpus of about sixty medical treatises that are now thought to have been composed by various different writers between 430 and 330 BC.” In a discussion of how birds figured prominently in medical texts (chapter 12), Mynott speaks of Hippocrates in the same vein: “‘Hippocrates’ is a convenient single name for the various authors of extensive medical treatises produced between 430 and 330 BC.” But elsewhere in chapter 12 Mynott seems to treat “Hippocrates” as an author in the modern sense: “Hippocrates produced… a pioneering treatise on the ‘sacred disease’”; “Hippocrates wrote a book on the importance for health of diet and exercise…”.  As this example suggests, at times Mynott glosses over historical detail in his efforts to welcome a wide variety of readers and sustain the book’s avian focus.

A brown and white bird rests on a stone with a worm in his mouth, looking off to the left. Small pink flowers bloom in the background.

Sparrows like this one flutter throughout ancient Greek and Roman texts as portents, pets, and sacred animals. Photo by David Spender.

Nevertheless, Mynott’s survey may have much to offer as a resource for classical scholars. Without succumbing to positivism (which, as an end in itself, mines texts for “facts” about their authors or about the worlds they inhabited), scholars might draw on Mynott’s findings to enrich their readings of ancient works. Rather than skipping over references to particular kinds of bird in Greek and Roman texts—or translating them with a rough English equivalent drawn from one of the major dictionaries—Mynott’s expertise could offer scholars a nicer appreciation of the particular varieties of bird mentioned in ancient prose and poetry. For instance, I am not sure how much it matters that the passer in Catullus’ famous ode to his girlfriend’s dead pet is (following Mynott’s suggestions in chapter 8) a bullfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch or blue rock thrush (Italian passero), rather than, as commonly assumed, a sparrow. But these and other insights offered by Mynott might prove crucial to scholars’ understanding of a given passage, and such a careful analysis of bird species is beyond the competence of the vast majority of classicists. At the very least, then, future interpretations of the place of birds in ancient literary texts had better not proceed in ignorance of Mynott’s observations.

Mynott demonstrates that birds in our texts cannot be dismissed as merely conventional usages, learned allusions, or ornamentation.

With all that said, perhaps the most telling contribution of Mynott’s book is in demonstrating the importance of bird life both to the imaginary worlds created by ancient poets and prose authors and to the real worlds experienced by those composers and their audiences. As Mynott reminds us, birds would have been a much more striking presence—both audible and visible—in the rural and urban landscapes of the ancient world than in their modern equivalents. And as Mynott’s work suggests, such importance was reflected in the responses that ancient writers and artists made to the bird life that they encountered. Mynott demonstrates clearly that mentions of particular kinds of birds in our texts cannot be dismissed as merely conventional usages, learned allusions, or ornamentation, but often constitute sensitive engagements with the diverse bird life of the ancient world. In this respect, then, Mynott’s expertise has much to teach us all.

Featured image: Although peacocks are not native to the Mediterranean region, ancient Greeks and Romans quickly adopted the birds into their homes, their pantheon, their cuisine, and their art. Photo by Gerry Merrigan.

Will Brockliss is Assistant Professor of Classics in the Department of Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research explores the environmental contexts of ancient literature, as well as the themes of horror and the monstrous. His monograph, Homeric Imagery and the Natural Environment, is due out shortly from the Center for Hellenic Studies.