Birds in the Ancient World: winged words

Birds in the Ancient World

Birds in the Ancient World: winged words

By Jeremy Mynott

Oxford University Press, 2018; hbk, 470pp; 95 colour photographs and illustrations; ISBN 978-0-19-871365-4

£30.00 buy it from the BB Bookshop

Nine years ago, Jonathan Elphick wrote a glowing review (Brit. Birds 102: 414) of Birdscapes: birds in our imagination and experience and was full of praise for its author, Jeremy Mynott. Reading the present book, I can see why. Here, again, there is an astonishing combination of knowledge and sheer readability. In the language of another age, Jeremy Mynott is a learned man, not just a classicist of distinction but a philosopher and a cultural historian. He very clearly knows his birds too. It seems very apt, with the word’s double Greek roots, to call him a true polymath.

What we have this time is a copiously and richly illustrated review of a selection of Greek and Roman writing, roughly from 700 bc to ad 300, in which birds or bird-related topics appear. I was amazed to learn how much has survived: it is a sobering thought, however, that a colossal amount must also have been lost. There are extracts from the words of some 120 classical authors, all (believe it or not) freshly translated by Jeremy Mynott. We meet historians, politicians, geographers, philosophers and poets. It was no surprise to find Aristotle so prominent, and I knew about some of the others, such as Pliny the Elder, but there plenty of names I did not know, and some surprises. I had not expected to encounter the witty satirist Martial, translating whose verse caused me so much agony all those years ago… 

There is ample warning about the differences in what people thought, believed and knew 2,000 years ago and what we know (or think we know) now, which is obviously important in trying to interpret what we are reading here. This is no mere catalogue of ‘classical mentions’ – the book has a definite theme, and to be understood and appreciated fully it has to be read from beginning to end: it does not readily lend itself to the ‘dipping in’ treatment. The main text is supplemented by a handy brief biography section covering the classical authors, 26 pages of endnotes to the various chapters and 10 pages of modern references.

The first of the six main parts of the book deals in succession with birds as markers of seasons, weather and time, setting the context of the relationships of birds with people in the natural environment. Next comes exploitation – birds being eaten, basically – while part 3 covers entertainments and birds as pets. In part 4 we come to the ancients’ curiosity about birds – the first real moves towards science and what we might begin to call ornithology. For birders, this is a particularly intriguing part of the book. Next there is the fascinating area of dreams, imaginings and symbols involving birds, which then leads logically into part 6, where we are faced with the more difficult topics of how and why birds have become so inextricably linked with our thoughts and ideas about our life and our environment. As you might expect, there is a lot to think about here.

Fewer and fewer people have any knowledge of Classical Greek and Latin, or ancient history, and perhaps many might wonder what relevance a book like this has to present-day birding, or indeed life in general. I would argue that an understanding of our past, which for me has to include knowing something about the history of birds and wildlife, and the world we share with them, will always be important. I think we should be grateful to Jeremy Mynott for this wonderful book, which both illuminates that understanding and broadens our knowledge.

Mike Everett

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Source: Bird Watching

Author: Roger Riddington