BMCR 2012.06.05

The Birds in the Iliad, Identities, Interactions, and Functions. Gothenburg Studies in History 2

, The Birds in the Iliad, Identities, Interactions, and Functions. Gothenburg Studies in History 2. Göteborg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 2012. vi, 277; + 25 photographs. ISBN 9789173467124 SEK 222.00 (pb).

Karin Johansson’s dissertation on the birds in the Iliad is a multi-disciplinary study, with all the advantages and disadvantages that are implied in that label. The disciplines she sets out to bridge are ornithology, semiotics, and hermeneutics (Ricoeur), and she cites the importance for her work of “recent posthumanist discussions of animals as agents” (38). The promise of such a study is clearly its diversity and capacity to offer a new and liberating perspective (or perspectives) on its subject. The attendant hazard is superficiality and a failure to make any substantial contribution to any of the disciplines in question. What this exceptionally handsome publication accomplishes lies somewhere between those extremes and closer, I am happy to report, to the former.

“Identifying” the birds in Homer is an activity with a distinguished history, beginning for all practical purposes with the great naturalist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Birds (1895) and extending through the 20th century in commentaries on Homer and in such overviews as J. Pollard, Birds in Greek Life and Myth (Thames and Hudson, 1977). It is also a highly speculative activity and one that seems to have been undertaken with steadily decreasing methodological clarity since Thompson’s time. This is largely because Thompson, accomplished no less as a classical linguist than as a naturalist, did not expect the impossible of the Homeric vocabulary. He was acutely aware that the words used to refer to birds in Homer were very unlikely to designate species as understood by the taxonomists of his own day. Those 19th-century species, in fact, did not exist in the Greece of the second millennium BCE or of the eighth century BCE (or whenever one chooses to date “Homeric” vocabulary). Biologically (and genetically) similar birds may or may not have been there—one of the commonest doves in Athens today ( Streptopelia decaocto) arrived in the 19th century from India via Afghanistan1—but such exceptional range expansions aside, the taxa themselves are the creations of taxonomists and they change with the decisions of science about which distinctions are the important ones. Even the 20th-century taxonomy is now falling by the wayside, under pressure from DNA studies. Thompson knew as well that there exist in any linguistic community and at any given moment multiple simultaneous taxonomies of birds, from those of hunters, reflecting the distinctions of importance to them, to those of ornithologists, and those of “ordinary” people who make far fewer distinctions and so require far fewer taxa. Still, the fascination of “identifying to species” the birds of Homer is undeniable, even if it is clear that this involves doing procrustean violence to the Homeric terms and fitting them into alien, anachronistic, and restrictive cubbyholes of definition.

Johansson’s ornithological research was largely a matter of holding up thirty-five passages, ranging from four to sixty-two lines, of the Iliad referring to birds against the usual range of field guides and handbooks of European birds, with occasional glances beyond these at the literature of field ornithology. Each passage is treated separately, in narrative sequence, and the thirty-five “Background” sections along with the passages themselves amount to a paraphrase and summary of a good part of the epic. For each section a series of issues is touched upon, with the unrelenting predictability and completeness of the data base and the unfortunate side effects of a great deal of useless information and repetition. This is true not only of the tabular presentations of the results for each passage but of the accompanying discussion as well—just as an example, we are told no less than four times (pp. 119, 128, 138, and 152) that the Peregrine’s stoop is “estimated [at] 160-410 km per hour,” accompanied in each instance by virtually the same footnote. One of the data-base fields is “Ornithological accuracy,” which in thirty-one of thirty-five passages is claimed to be “High” (and “Moderate” in the other four), though it is difficult to understand how the same score for ornithological accuracy can be given to the cranes bringing death to the pygmies (Passage 5, p. 71; Il. 3.1-9) and to the repeated references to γῦπες eating the corpses on the battlefield (e.g. Passage 6, p. 77; Il. 4.234-239).

The net result is that nineteen pieces of Homeric vocabulary are lined up opposite Latin binomials. Some of Johansson’s claims are plausible, some not. Seventeen of these words (including the adjective πολυτρήρων, which is not a substantive, much less a name of a bird) are presented as names for those species (at least in the tabular presentation of the results, Table 3, pp. 220-221), while one (γύψ) is said (plausibly) to designate any or all of three different species of vultures and another (αἰετός) is said at various times to represent three species of eagles. This last claim is rather odd, and Johannson elaborates: “Thus, αἰετός in the Iliad is not mainly used to signify “eagles” in a general sense but refers to different species of eagles such as the Golden Eagle, the Verreaux’s Eagle and the Short-toed Eagle” (p. 219). What she seems to mean is that characteristics of three (modern) species (one of which, as bird of sub-Saharan Africa, does not belong in the list) are all more or less plausibly attributed in the Iliad to birds designated as αἰετοί. But surely this is no different from simply saying that αἰετός means “eagle” (as in LSJ). The Greek word and the English one cover roughly the same semantic field and Homeric epic seems to attribute to the eagle behavior that we can, using our own scientific taxonomy, identify as belonging to a more restrictive taxon or group of taxa, for which the Homeric poets did not have designations. (In modern Greek, αετός is used more often—if “incorrectly”—to designate the Buzzard ( Buteo buteo) than any of the rapidly disappearing Greek eagles.)

Aside from the contribution to ornithology (or the history of ornithological vocabulary) to be found in this dissertation, it is first and foremost a contribution to Homeric studies, a field so divided at this point in time that it is a minefield for the non-specialist. Johansson’s orientation is explicit (pp. 21-28), though it is not clear that she is conscious of the significance of her decisions. While oralists from Parry to Foley and Nagy are mentioned in her survey of the field, the poet she is writing about is clearly more recognizable in the accounts of Janko and West (whose recent book The Making of the Iliad [Oxford, 2011] is repeatedly cited). Hers is an individual Homer, locatable somewhere in the eighth century (if not the seventh, with West), and about whom Johansson can write: “… the composer of these [thirty-five] scenes possessed a high and detailed knowledge of different birds that was presumably achieved by extensive observations in the field” (219). Quite a feat for the τυφλὸς ἀνήρ from rocky Chios!

In general, a more plausible account of the relationship between the bird lore and the poem would have made this study more useful. Homer, it seems, also encoded allegories into the similes, linking them to their narrative context. When Hera bullies and chases Artemis in the Theomachia (Il. 21.494-5; Scene 30, p. 186), and the latter flees “like a dove” escaping a falcon and dives into “a hollow rock, a cleft,” Johansson’s observation that “the hollow rock may associate to Mount Olympus and the cleft to Zeus’ knee where she finally found rescue” (p. 189) is unnecessary but perhaps defensible. When she goes on to associate the arrows that in the process drop from Artemis’ quiver with fright-molted flight feathers (p. 189), the reader has a right to ask just who can be imagined to have encoded this meaning, and for whose benefit.

What, then, is the overall contribution to the knowledge made by this dissertation? It is slight, but not insubstantial. Johansson calls attention to some examples of bird behavior in the Iliad —particularly, but not exclusively, in the similes—and points to similar behavior noted by field observers of modern species in the field. The further claims are weakened by the lack of any account of the generation of this text and of Homeric poetics in general that might provide a context and perhaps render them more persuasive. Still, the appeal of having a field-guide identification of, say, the στρουθός of Calchas’ prophecy (Il. 2.299-335; Scene 1, p. 56) is very strong, and it does no harm to think of it as a Spanish Sparrow (even if other, equally plausible identifications are possible).2


1. W. Makatsch, Die Vogelwelt Makedoniens, Leipzig, 1950, p. 379. Cf. G. Handrinos and T. Akriotis, The Birds of Greece, London, 1997, p. 200.

2. The book under review is a dissertation “submitted” (defended?) in the Department of Historical Studies of the University of Göteborg on January 28, 2012 (according to an insert in the review copy). Since the review copy reached BMCR before January 29, 2012, it would appear inevitable that the dissertation has received no correction or editing (though the elegant presentation with artwork and photographs leads the reader to expect a more polished text). In view of this, I have avoided mentioning the very frequent errors in English, misspellings, and other matters that should have been edited out before the dissertation was committed to print.)