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Avians and Humans, in Antiquity and Today

A review by Alison L. Beringer

Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words, by Jeremy Mynott

Oxford University Press, 2018

426 pages—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14880

At the risk of revealing that I am a slow reader—and an even slower writer—I admit that I began reading Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World while I was in central Nebraska, where I had met up with my family to view the springtime crane migration. This circumstance is not superfluous: It ties in well with both the overarching theme of Mynott’s work and an important detail. 

The book is about the history of the interaction between humans and birds; its author sees his role as that of “a cultural and ornithological guide” to the Greek and Roman past. The result is a thoroughly well-researched and richly evocative book exploring ancient and modern conceptions of the natural world. Thus, this is not so much a book about birds as it is a book about human representations of birds—physical, imaginative, literary, and pictorial. Mynott draws extensively on primary sources (all translated), inviting the reader to recognize the familiar, to pursue the obscure, and above all to consider why either matters. One thing becomes astoundingly clear: the powerful effect that birds have and continue to have on humans. Though we no longer study the entrails of birds to make our next political decisions, anyone who has witnessed a crane migration—be it the Sandhill Cranes of North America or the Common Cranes of Europe—can attest to the sense of awe and respect those birds call forth in us.

The detail that resonates with my visit to Kearney is at the very beginning of Mynott’s first chapter, where he notes the first reference to birds in all of European literature: Homer’s comparison of the flocking and flying, the calling and crying of cranes, geese, and swans to the arrival of the Greek army preparing to attack Troy. Having heard the cranes earlier that day—and having recently taught the Iliad—I found the selection of Mynott’s book as my holiday reading serendipitous. 

I was not in any way disappointed with the choice. Divided into six thematic parts, each with a brief introduction followed by three or four chapters, Birds in the Ancient World covers roughly the thousand years from 700 BCE to 300 CE, drawing largely on textual sources but also including visual material. The six parts investigate the different roles that birds play in human culture. For example, the section titled “Birds in the Natural World,” as one might expect, includes analyses of classical sources that record birds as marking seasonal changes, but also contains a chapter about the auditory aspect of birds and how humans respond to it. 

One bird treated in that chapter is the Common Nightingale. Mynott poses the simple but intriguing question of why humans so frequently recognize the nightingale’s song as a lament, a question that leads to the matter of identification—were the birds the ancients called nightingales the same birds we call nightingales? Perhaps most memorable in this section is Mynott’s wry observation that “as we know from our own times, ‘nightingale’ is a sort of cultural construct, which everyone identifies with but only few could actually identify.” One might add that nightingales are notoriously difficult to see, making it challenging for even the most dedicated birder to really master their visual field marks. 

This book also offers a great deal for readers who are not avid birders. Part 5, for example, “Thinking with Birds,” discusses augury and magic and symbolism—here we read about avian roles in ancient (literary) necromancy rituals and in magic potions for sexual fulfilment. Mynott reveals that the Eurasian Wryneck was viewed as a particularly powerful erotic aid by the ancients—an interesting tidbit for the next ABA cocktail hour. Even more interesting, however, is Mynott’s subsequent discussion of why the wryneck might have been viewed in this way and how the bird was physically treated—spread-eagled on a wheel that was then spun around to create a mechanical love charm). In the process of this discussion we further learn the Greek origins of our word “jinx,” which echoes the scientific name of the wryneck: Jynx torquilla, “literally ‘little twister, bringing bad luck,’ though the spell or charm could be lucky for some, of course.” Mynott’s attention to the origins of cultural practices and beliefs, as well as to scientific terminology and even quotidian words, bears testimony to the author’s sensitivity to his material. 

Throughout the book, Mynott is careful to warn against quick and easy generalizations, even distortions, of antiquity. In his chapter on farming, Mynott cautions against our modern idea of the great importance of cities in the classical period, when, in fact, Greek and Italian societies were strongly agrarian. Likewise, the author warns against generalizing about culinary practices and diets, in particular given the existence of vegetarian sects such as the Pythagoreans. Those who prefer their birds on the table rather than in the wild are directed to the excerpts from the first-century CE satirist Martial and his tidbits of culinary advice for preparing various birds. 

Deeply familiar with his classical sources, Mynott combines his knowledge with astute, if occasionally unpleasant reflections on the present. Readers might, for example, dismiss as a thing of the past Mynott’s quotation of a second-century BCE poem describing the snaring of a thrush and a blackbird—but such readers will be jarred by the recent photograph illustrating the poem: a song thrush hanging upside down with wing, tail and both feet stuck to a limed stick. Though the juxtaposition of poem and picture is unsavory, it is highly effective in reminding us that we moderns are not always more sophisticated than our ancient forebears.  

Birds in the Ancient World is rich in supplementary material, including a useful timeline and two maps of the classical world. The numerous illustrations depict mosaics, frescoes, wall paintings, and vases. The book ends with an appendix reflecting the twin focuses of Mynott’s study: birds and people of antiquity. The appendix provides several annotated lists of bird names mentioned by “Aesop” or Aristophanes and of birds depicted in works of plastic art from Pompeii; for the most part, those lists offer only generic identifications—“goose” or “hawk”—though there are a few instances where a bird name can be identified as belonging to a currently recognized species, such as the Western Jackdaw. The remainder of the appendix comprises brief biographies of the ancient authors referred to throughout the book. 

The wealth of material in Birds in the Ancient World may be overwhelming when read cover to cover. However, the book is so well written and clearly structured that readers can immerse themselves in one  section at a time, with no need to proceed in a strictly linear fashion. Full of fascinating tidbits, grounded in thorough research, Mynott’s book is a careful and thought-provoking study of avians and humans in the classical—and contemporary—world.

– Alison Beringer holds the Ph.D. in German Studies from Princeton University and is Associate Professor of Classics and Humanities at Montclair State University. Her book The Sight of Semiramis appeared in 2016; her current project is a study of monumental sculpture in the geography and literature of the early modern city. She co-leads Birds and Art tours for VENT in France, Austria, and Germany with her husband, Rick Wright. 

Recommended citation:

Beringer, A. L. 2018. Avians and humans, in antiquity and today [a review of Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words, by J. Mynott]. Birding 50 (6): 65-66.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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