Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by Jeremy Mynott

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Jeremy Mynott is both a classical scholar and a writer on birds, and his love and deep knowledge of both areas shine through in this fascinating and rather wonderful book. From the preface, where he describes the variety of birds to be found in Athens and Rome, to the epilogue, which pulls together feelings on the environment ancient and modern and shows how our experiences of nature are both different and similar, we follow a clear path through the way birds were markers of the seasons, time and weather; their exploitation as a natural resource to farm and eat; birds as pets and entertainment; their examination as the objects of wonder then science; their appearance as symbols and in dreams; and their role as messengers between people and the spiritual dimension. He states early on that his aim is

using birds as a prism through which to explore both the similarities and the often surprising differences between early conceptions of the natural world and our own.

and he also aims to contribute to the cultural history of birds and to introduce those not experienced in the classics to this time period in Western history. In my opinion, he achieves these aims very well.

Through the book, often substantial quotations are pulled from more than a hundred classical authors, all of whose quotations have been newly translated by the author for the book (there are biographies of these authors in the back of the book, which avoids breaking up the very freely flowing text too much). The structure of the book is really clear, referring back to itself where it needs to, although he’s at pains to point out that there are other ways to structure the material and, indeed, other material that could be brought in.

Mynott is at pains, too, to check that we don’t map our modern views and attitudes directly onto those of the Greeks and Romans. He starts off by explaining that the Greeks were the first to describe the concept of nature, but is clear this doesn’t mean quite the same as our conception, and later makes the distinction between the words for sacrifice in Greek and Roman. He is academic, precise and intelligent, but never talks over the heads of his readers – although for anyone with an interest in trying to work out which bird is being referred to where, in bird behaviour or, indeed, in the struggles of translation, lots of detail adds an additional level of satisfaction and enjoyment. One example of the former will suffice – he spends quite a lot of time trying to work out what actual species Catullus’ girlfriend Lesbia’s “sparrow” actually was. He is clear that the Ancients probably had a closer relationship to nature than many of us do, with so many species and their behaviours being mentioned suggesting that audiences were familiar with a wide range of birds.

He is also careful to note that what we might see as superstition or over-reliance on augury and religion is not necessarily so different from our need to wear certain clothes and engage in particular behaviours on specific days of the year, and there are some lovely examples of bird-related folk sayings that are still in use today – and probably “believed” to the same degree. Arguments for the value of the natural world are examined in their context and also against modern ideas.

The author never seems to mind a mystery – in fact, he highlights and embraces them. Why is the sport of falconry hardly mentioned in Ancient texts, and why are butterflies almost never written about, even though both appear in illustrations? Mynott examines the various theories put forward but accepts that there is no actual answer, and I like him even more for that. He is definitely a guide rather than a lecturer.

Any reader will learn an awful lot from this book. I loved finding out that the current Latin names for birds incorporate the names of the folk in Ovid’s and others’ Metamorphoses who were turned into birds – the Picus viridus or green woodpecker being named for Picus who rejected Circe and was transformed by her. Familiar and unfamiliar writers and their new translations make you think about the sources, and different translations are also discussed.

The end of the book holds one more smile for the avid birdwatcher. A lovely illustration of a confiding bird in an identifiable plant is described as a “little brown job” whose actual species cannot be identified. A lovely little in-joke, but again benign and inclusive.

Of course it almost goes without saying that this is a beautifully produced volume, with full-colour illustrations, acknowledgements, a bird index and a general index, a very full bibliography, detailed references, footnotes and lists of the bird species found in the sources. These academic accoutrements only add a flourish, though, to the approachable and enjoyable nature of the actual read.

Thank you to Midas PR for sending me this book in return for my honest review, as part of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour. They gave permission for me to publish an expanded version of my review here.

Liz Dexter “did” slightly too much Catullus at school but still retains an interest in the classics, and is a keen birdwatcher and photographer. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words (Oxford University Press, 2018). 978-0500501351, 223 pp., ill., hardback.

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  1. Pingback: Book review – Paul Newman – “Lost Gods of Albion” #20BooksOfSummer plus @shinynewbooks links and a confession | Adventures in reading, running and working from home

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