Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words

15 June 2020

Price: £16.99

Author: Jeremy Mynott

Publisher: Oxford University Press

For all their Parthenons and Colosseums, imperial ambitions and endless warfare, ancient Greek and Roman societies were deeply connected to nature. These connections went far beyond the importance of agriculture for mere survival; they were the lifeblood of classical peoples’ worldviews, religious systems and artistic output. And birds played a central role.

The historical sources from which Jeremy Mynott quotes abundantly in this fascinating book were, of course, the product of a tiny, privileged elite – we must always remember that the vast majority of our ancient ancestors had no means to bequeath us any cultural record of themselves – but they leave no doubt that birds were everywhere. 

From augury – an omen-interpreting means of decision-making or ‘taking the auspices’ (auspices comes from the Latin words auspicium and auspex, meaning ‘one who looks at birds’) – to the use of wryneck (a species of woodpecker that was cruelly used as part of ancient Greek sexual practices), Mynott comprehensively demonstrates that birds were seen and heard in abundance across his chosen thousand year timespan (approximately 700 BC to 300 AD). 

They were used practically as food and as pets, in sports, medicine, magic and much more, and were very present in urban as well as rural settings. Owls became emblematic of Athena and Athens; scavenging kites and ravens were ever present; swifts and swallows nested in temples and government buildings and some ancient cities were visited by more exotic species such as the ibis. Unsurprising then, that birds infiltrated and influenced ancient artistic endeavours - long before (and after) the ‘winged words’ of this book’s title was used by Homer, as a recurring metaphor for saying something powerful and important. 

If birds were so present, physically and practically, in the ancient world, Mynott explores how they also infiltrated classical societies’ intellectual and spiritual undertakings. They were often seen as messengers and intermediaries between not just the mortal realms of land, sea and sky, but also the higher world of the gods; Aristophanes’ fifth-century BC comedy The Birds being just one example. Birds also populated the metaphysical worlds of dreaming and desire, as so many of the stunning surviving frescoes from homes in Pompeii and Herculaneum demonstrate. These idealised images of ‘wild’ nature and natural powers beyond human capacity, such as flight, contained and controlled for the purposes of elite identity construction. 

Yet as well as offering us examples of ancient deployment of birds that may be thought-provokingly strange to our modern worldviews, Mynott also gives us ‘constants’ to ponder on. For example, from the very beginnings of ‘classical’ literature and Homer’s near-contemporary Hesiod, we learn how long the migrations of birds such as cranes, cuckoos and swallows have been used to mark the passing of the seasons – Hesiod’s Works and Days (c700 BC) citing them as farmers’ ‘diary reminders’ for seasonal agricultural tasks.

Perhaps the idea that, across the centuries, we have always looked to birds and the skies as signs of the enduring cycle of life is one that might currently comfort and resonate with all Ramblers and walk-lovers, as we wait patiently for a time when we can once again fully and freely access beloved green spaces everywhere.

Deborah Hyde, media and PR manager at the Ramblers