Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.05.30

Harald Mielsch, Griechische Tiergeschichten in der antiken Kunst. Kulturgeschichte der antiken Welt, Band 111.   Mainz:  Philipp von Zabern, 2005.  Pp. 148; color ills. 73, b/w 22.  ISBN 3-8053-3548-2.  €24.90.  

Reviewed by Annetta Alexandridis, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington DC (
Word count: 664 words

Animal studies have recently become a fast growing field in the humanities and social sciences as well as in popular culture.1 So a new volume on this theme, published by Zabern's "Kulturgeschichte der antiken Welt" series, already well-known to the German public for books of both popular and scientific interest, would seem to be a welcome contribution. The book, unfortunately, turns out to be a lost opportunity.

Mielsch (henceforth M.) focusses on fictional stories about animals as far as they are represented in Greco-Roman art. The cover text promises that these stories can tell us a lot about the changing relationship between man and nature, but the book itself never deals with the question. In the first chapter M. rightly states that the invented stories were part of man's environment in antiquity. The book's supposed aim is to "retrieve" this "lost reality" (p. 12), but it remains unclear as to what this really means. With some recent publications in mind, one could expect a cultural anthropological approach.2 What role do animals play in the ancient imaginary and what does their conceptualization tell us about ancient systems of knowledge that formed the perception of reality?3 In fact, M.'s main interest is in checking whether the ancient fantastic stories about animals correspond to zoological observation4 or correct descriptions of hunting methods (esp. pp. 29-34, 36-40, 42-5) and to what extent the images follow the literary tradition. I doubt that this approach helps us to reconstruct "lost realities".

The slender volume is divided into 29 chapters, some of which are less than two pages long. The first two chapters ("The pleasure of the marvelous -- stories about animals", pp. 11-3; "Study of nature or visualization of texts", pp. 14-23) and the last one ("Additional observations", pp. 129-36) are devoted to more general observations on the literary and visual tradition. The other 26 chapters deal with different animals or groups of animals, their appearance in ancient texts and in the visual sources. There seem to be no specific criteria as to the sequence of the chapters. Each chapter retells the ancient tradition in more or less chronological order, over a period of several hundred years, from Ktesias to Timotheos of Gaza. M. is particularly concerned with the Christian reinterpretaion of stories in the Physiologus, but there is no attempt at further historical analysis or differentiation. The same can be said for the images. Regrettably M., who is an archaeologist, offers no iconographic or iconologic analysis. Instead, he treats Greek vases, Roman wall paintings and mosaics, and medieval book illustrations all in the same manner. His main interest is in seeing whether the images match the texts. Apart from the fact that this often is simply not the case,5 it makes no sense to discuss the depictions out of their context.

The "additional observations" (pp. 129-36) that follow the chapters on single animals deal with the (possible) origins of stories about animals, the association of certain motifs with specific animals in these narratives, the phenomenon of anthropomorphization, fantastic motifs in the stories, and animals as suppliers of exotic goods. M.'s observations are neither particularly new nor of great analytical value, nor do they form a coherent conclusion.

The volume concludes with a brief discussion of the most important ancient authors and texts utilized (Aelian, Aristotle, Dionysios, Oppian, Physiologus, Pliny the Elder and Timotheos of Gaza), a bibliography, a list of illustrations, and an index of animals.

I wonder for whom this book was written. Whereas the entries on ancient authors are too general for scholars, the scrupulous enumeration of different versions of a story would be tiring for a non-specialist. The bibliography is too specific for non-classicists; for scholars it is too scanty and it reinforces the impression the text already gives: studies on animals as part of the ancient imaginary are largely ignored.

The illustrations are beautiful and show at least that the theme is worth being pursued more thoroughly. But this is not enough to recommend the book.


1.   H-Net, the Internet Forum of humanities and social sciences, has recently created a new online-forum, H-Animal, devoted to animal studies in human culture.
2.   See e.g. Barbara Cassin and Jean-Louis Labarrière (eds.), L'animal dans l'antiquité. Paris: Vrin 1997; Fabio Gasti and Elisa Romano (eds.), 'Buoni per pensare'. Gli animali nel pensiero e nella letteratura dell'antichità. Atti della II giornata Ghisleriana di Filologia classica (Pavia, 18-19 aprile 2002). Como and Pavia: Ibis 2003. For an interdisciplinary approach, that also uses ethology, ethnozoology or psychology see e.g. Liliane Bodson (ed.), Contributions à l'histoire des connaissances zoologiques. Journée d'étude, Université de Liège, 17 mars 1990 (Liège: Université de Liège 1991); ead. (ed.), L'histoire de la connaissance du comportement animal. Actes du Colloque International, Liège, 11-14 mars 1992 (Liège: Université de Liège 1993); ead. (ed.), Les animaux exotiques dans les relations internationales: especes, fonctions, significations. Journée d'études, Université de Liège, 22 mars 1997 (Liège: Université de Liège 1998). On particular animals or fantastic creatures, like the weasel or the martichoras, see Maurizio Bettini, Nascere. Storie di donne, donnole, madri ed eroi. Turin: Giulio Einaudi 1998; Pietro Li Causi, Sulle tracce del manticora. La zoologia dei confini del mondo in Grecia e a Roma. Palermo: Palumbo 2003.
3.   In the sense of Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses. Une archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard 1966); engl. The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon books 1971).
4.   E.g. p. 24 on the sting in a lion's tail; p. 74 on the question whether porcupines can shoot their quills, p. 102 on the hedgehog's capacity to pick up fruits with its quills, p. 120 on the mating of ravens etc.
5.   To cite but a few examples: The representation of African animals (elephant, python and gnu) in the House of Remulus and Remus and Pompeii (p. 55-6, 60-1) shows none of the characteristics the texts ascribe to these animals, as M. himself admits. I cannot see that the beaver on a mosaic in Adana (p. 97) points to his missing testicles. Some birds are ascribed the virtue of chastity in ancient texts. M. interprets a pair of two birds on a funerary wallpainting of Morlupo in this sense (p. 112-3). But the birds seem to be more part of an iconography of luxury and beauty, as they are shown on either side of a glass bowl filled with cosmetic instruments and perfume containers.

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