BMCR 2021.06.03

Speaking animals in ancient literature

, Speaking animals in ancient literature. Kalliope - Studien zur griechischen und lateinischen Poesie, 20. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2020. Pp. 619. ISBN 9783825346904 €78,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The scholarly interest in the portrayal of animals in ancient literature has been steadily increasing in recent years.[1] However, research focusing on the depiction of talking animals in antiquity is still a desideratum. The volume under review, which publishes the results of an international interdisciplinary conference held in Potsdam in September 2018, is an attempt to fill this gap. The book gathers twenty-one papers that deal with the representation of talking animals in ancient Greco-Roman literature and other ancient cultures (Egyptian, Hebrew, Indian). An introduction by the editor, an index locorum, and an index animalium complete the volume. The contributions are grouped into three sections, the first of which is likewise organized in three parts. (Tierrede als literarisches Mittel, Tierrede als übernatürliches Phänomen, Imitation menschlicher Rede durch reale Tiere).

Schmalzgruber’s short introduction speaks to the importance of the volume. It sets the contributions within the broader context of Cultural Animal Studies (CAS), which have been particularly promoted in Germany by the Germanist Roland Borgards, and explains the rationale behind the section groupings. In particular, Schmalzgruber emphasizes that the papers focus on a broad spectrum of different literary genres (fable, comedy, didactic poetry, epigrams, epyllia, philosophical literature, novel). Thus, she highlights—and this is one of the main merits of the volume – how omnipresent the phenomenon of animal speech is in ancient Greek literature. All contributions examine in detail central problems such as the anthropomorphization of animals, the relationship between animals and humans, and the literary representation of the limits of human existence. They are impressive for their clarity and methodological as well as conceptual diversity and so offer a good starting point for further reflections and discussions. Within the framework of a review, it would be impossible to address all of the contributions in detail. I would therefore like to focus only on a few papers that I find particularly stimulating.

Ursula Gärtner’s paper on Phaedrus’s fables is particularly instructive. Gärtner examines the extent to which CAS can improve our interpretation of ancient fables. First, this approach enables us to consider the fables within the discourses of their times. Second, it helps place them in their cultural context without reducing them to allusions to specific historical or biographical circumstances. Third, it reminds us to read fables historically, i.e. it stresses that the impact of literature on its audience changes with time. However, Gärtner also emphasizes that Borgards’s distinction between semiotic and diegetic animals is not entirely applicable to fables. Borgards distinguishes between animals that in a text either function exclusively as carriers of meaning (semiotic animals) or act as living beings (diegetic animals). But “the fable world,” as Gärtner puts it, “thrives on being both realistic and fantastic” (59). Gärtner goes on to analyze animal speech acts in Phaedrus and points out some illuminating elements. For instance, she notes that Phaedrus does not address why humans and animals can talk to each other. While other philosophical or literary works explain why such communication is possible (e.g. Callimachus, frag 152 Asper = 192 Pfeiffer; Philo of Alexandria, De confusione linguarum 6-8), Phaedrus accepts it as an essential characteristic of his genre. Moreover, she shows that animal-human communication, although often presented as problem-free, is questioned in some fables (e.g., 1:23; 2:8; 3:16) or even represented as failing (1:1; 1:29). Accordingly, taking Gärtner’s remarks further, one can rightly ask to what extent Phaedrus’s fables contribute to a critical if not even pessimistic view of the animal-human relationship.

Stefan Feddern’s contribution is decidedly different in that it focuses on the fictional character of fables in Augustine. Feddern’s paper is impressive for its analysis of Augustine’s concept of fictionality, but it is unclear, in my opinion, how it relates to the rest of the volume. Feddern generally criticizes the application of Borgards’s distinction between semiotic and diegetic animals to ancient texts. Instead he argues for using the analytical and literary principles present in the ancient texts themselves as tools for interpretation. His criticism of Borgards is partly valid. Indeed, a more traditional distinction between realistic and fantastic animals or animal behavior seems to do more justice to the ancient texts. Equally important is Feddern’s account of Augustine’s allegorical classifications, which the Bishop of Hippo respectively applies to pagan/rhetorical texts and the Bible. According to Augustine, pagan texts, especially fables, offer an allegoria in verbis. In other words, they express a superficially ‘untrue’ fact which nevertheless turns out to bear a true meaning. The Bible displays, instead, allegoriae in facto. It presents, consequently, statements that have a true meaning both superficially and figuratively. This theoretical perspective builds the bulk of Feddern’s paper, but treatment of ‘speaking’ animals (both in terms of allegoria in verbis and allegoria in facto) is almost absent from his analysis. A different collocation within the volume would have emphasized the importance of this contribution for the discussion.

Kenneth S. Rothwell Jr. analyzes the animal choruses in the comedies of Aristophanes with great insight. He describes the formal differences among the choruses of Birds, Frogs, and Wasps and stresses that Aristophanes characterizes them distinctively. Furthermore, he shows that the three choruses share some thematic and content-related features. For instance, they all identify themselves with or consider themselves deeply bound to a specific place (Athens, pastoral landscape, water). However, it is surprising that, in the second half of his paper, Rothwell focuses exclusively on Birds. He aptly shows that some characteristics, which hint at technical abilities or community-building characteristics of the chorus members, represent a sort of distinction mark. We might ask, then, which aspects are really meaningful for all animal choruses. Rothwell emphasizes towards the end of the paper that a ‘communitarian nature’ is central to both Birds and Wasps. But, does it follow that “this sense of social cohesion that both wasps and birds exhibit can be related … to … a sense of rootedness and organic connection to the places they live” (203)?

Janet Spittler, who in her contribution deals with the Acts of Thomas and more extensively with the Physiologus, pursues a slightly different approach. She admits that her notion of ‘talking animals’ is not what one would expect. Spittler maintains that ‘speaking animals’ are, at least in the Physiologus, mainly ‘semiotic animals.’ As a result, she argues that animals would speak ‘constantly’ in some Christian texts, in the sense that they serve as signs for ethical or theological truths. She thus accepts a traditional interpretation of the Physiologus. However, it would have been more fruitful if she had used a similar method in her analysis of both texts. In analyzing the Acts of Thomas, she considers the pagan cultural context from which the zoological and ethological information stem. Such a comparison, instead, does not play any role in her interpretation of the Physiologus.

The last four contributions by Angela McDonald, Daniel Vorpahl, David Hodgkinson, and Thomas Gärtner offer valuable background (and comparative) materials. I will focus only on Vorpahl’s and Gärtner’s papers here.

Vorpahl emphasizes at the outset of his paper the essential difference between Hebrew biblical culture and the other ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. While Egyptian religion, for example, was zoomorphic, Hebrew religion had established itself as an androcentric culture, which considered humans, and especially man, the standard of creation. This conception implies that man is different from all other animals and dominates them. According to Vorpahl, this attitude is the reason for the fundamental absence of talking animals in biblical literature. Even the only two exceptions to this ‘basic rule’ (Genesis 3, the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 22, the donkey of Balaam, where animals can miraculously communicate with humans) prove it, in that they show how this form of communication is impossible. These passages thus point to the exceptional position of humans in the cosmos. Vorpahl’s contribution—as well as that by Angela McDonald—would have profited from a brief comparison with Greek-Roman representations (of the sort that David Hodgkinson masterfully makes in his own paper). Since the contributions were presumably revised in light of the conference discussions, this would have been quite possible and desirable.

Finally, Thomas Gärtner offers a brief introduction, critical edition with apparatus similium, and German translation of a 19th-century epic poem written in Greek hexameters. Apart from the sheer pleasure of reading the text (even in translation), the merit here lies in Gärtner’s ability to situate this curious example of modern ‘reception’ of ancient Greek literature in its historical and cultural context, thereby elaborating its political implications.

In summary, this volume has many strengths. The variety of contents and methodological approaches shows impressively why ‘talking animals’ are fruitful as a literary stratagem. The single contributions are thought-provoking, engaging, and readable also for non-specialists. The editing is impeccable (I did not find any typo or misquotation). Perhaps one would have wished for even broader interdisciplinarity, with more papers focusing on other ancient Mediterranean cultures or modern reception (not only from a literary but also from other artistic points of view).

Authors and Titles

Einführung, Hedwig Schmalzgruber
Is a Praying Fox a Humanised Animal or a Human in an Animal Body? A Cognitive Reading of Archilochus’ Fox and Eagle Epode (frr. 172–181W), Ines Silva
Sua tamen sollertia – ‚Reden von Tieren’ bei Phaedrus, Ursula Gärtner
Articulate Animals in the Fables of Babrius, Sonia Pertsinidis
Verbis certare volucres […] fecimus: Tierrede in Avians Fabeln, Hedwig Schmalzgruber
Der allegorische und der fiktionale Charakter der Fabel und der Bibel im Urteil des Augustinus, Stefan Feddern
Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: Speaking Animals in Aristophanes’ Comedy, Babette Pütz
The Animal Voices of Greek Comic Choruses, Kenneth S. Rothwell Jr.
Rede toter Tiere. Tierrede in antiken Epigrammen und im Culex, Nina Mindt
At mea diffusas rapiuntur dicta per auras! The Weight of a Mosquito’s Words in the Pseudo-Vergilian Culex, Sandro La Barbera
Animal Speech and Animal Silence in the World of Apuleiusʼs Golden Ass, Niall W. Slater
Prosopopoeia in Didactic Poetry, Morgane Cariou
Wenn die Tiere reden könnten – Vom Logos-Gebrauch der Wesen ohne logos bei Plutarch, Angela Pabst
Philosophy in the Farmyard: The Speaking Cock in Lucian’s Gallus sive Somnium, Émeline Marquis
Sprechende Schweine im Kontext der Saturnalien in der Spätantike: Symphosius’ Aenigmata und das Testamentum porcelli, Susanna Fischer
Presentifying the Divine in Ancient Greek Tales: Human Voices in Animal Bodies, Marco Vespa
How Do Animals Talk to Christians? Animals in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles and the Physiologus, Janet E. Spittler
Talking Birds and Sobbing Hyenas: Imitative Human Speech in Ancient Animals, Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr.
The Evolution of the Animal Voice in the Egyptian New Kingdom, Angela Mcdonald
A Donkey That Speaks Is a Donkey No Less: Talking Animals in the Hebrew Bible and Its Early Jewish Reception, Daniel Vorpahl
Jaṭāyus, the King of the Vultures: A Comparative Study of the Function of Non-Human Speech in the Rāmāyaṇa and Homeric Tradition, David Hodgkinson
Tierische Kampfansage. Die Paränesen der Mäusekämpfer in der Anthropomyomachie des Eduard Eyth (1840) vor dem Hintergrund der späthellenistischen Batrachomyomachie, Thomas Gärtner


[1] To mention a few examples: Ingvild Saelid Gilhus, Animals, Gods and Humans: Changing Attitudes to Animals in Greek, Roman and Early Christian Ideas (London & New York, 2006); Stephen Thomas Newmyer, Animals in Greek and Roman Thought: A Sourcebook. Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World (London & New York, 2010, reviewed in BMCR 2010.07.38); Annetta Alexandridis, Markus Wild and Lorenz Winkler-Horaček (eds), Mensch und Tier in der Antike: Grenzziehung und Grenzüberschreitung (Wiesbaden, 2008); Mark Payne, The Animal Part (Chicago, 2010, reviewed in BMCR 2011.02.21); Gordon Lindsay Campbell (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (Oxford, 2014); Kenneth F. Kitchell, Animals in the Ancient World from A to Z (London & New York, 2014, reviewed in BMCR 2014.04.28); Jean-François Lhermitte, L’animal vertueux dans la philosophie antique à l’époque impériale (Paris, 2015, reviewed in BMCR 2016.01.09); Patricia A. Johnston, Attilio Mastrocinque, Sophia Papaioannou, Animals in Greek and Roman Religion and Myth. Proceedings of the Symposium Grumentinum Grumento Nova (Potenza) 5-7 June 2013 (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2016, reviewed in BMCR 2017.06.17); Tua Korhonen, Erika Ruonakoski, Human and Animal in Ancient Greece Empathy and Encounter in Classical Literature (London & New York, 2017, reviewed in BMCR 2018.01.39); Julia Kindt, Animals in Ancient Greek Religion(Abingdon & New York, 2020, reviewed in BMCR 2021.03.28). Compare also the very lively Facebook-group: Zoa – Animals in Greco-Roman Antiquity.