Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.25

Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World. Winged Words.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. 480.  ISBN 9780198713654.  $39.95.  


Reviewed by Reyes Bertolín Cebrián​, University of Calgary (rbertoli@ucalgary.ca)

Publisher's Preview

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.


Notes:


1.   Mynott, Jeremy, Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

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