Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by Jeremy Mynott

We still talk about Halcyon Days which are days of calm weather during the winter months when the gods decreed that the kingfisher (named after Alcyone) could nest their young.

The Voice and Wings of Perfect Augury

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

Before any major decision, Romans consulted the birds. Taking the auspices, augury from birds, was systematised and institutionalised. The Greeks had practised it on a much more casual basis. The word ornis meant both bird and omen in Greek. If, at important moments, birds flew overhead the Greeks were happy to read their fortunes from them, but they didn’t bother going out of their way to find birds.

It was different in Rome. At a relatively early stage in their history, an office of bird watcher was created on the Capitoline Hill in Rome to examine the flight of birds. Roman armies took chickens along with them so that military chaplains could read the way they ate food. Chickens eating quickly was a good omen. Chickens eating slowly or not at all was bad. It was not the most precise science. It was also a very high pressured and dangerous job. In one case before battle, a military commander was so annoyed at a bad omen from the chickens he ordered the augur into the front line where he was quickly killed. The army went on to victory. In another case during the Carthaginian war, the general Pulcher was so furious at a bad omen, he threw his army’s sacred chickens into the sea shouting “If they won’t eat, let them drink”. His army lost and he was courtmartialed. Not for losing the battle or disregarding the chickens, but for damaging his men’s faith in the sacred chickens.

But if it could be bad for the people reading the birds, it was much worse for the birds themselves. The word “jinx” comes from the Greek for wryneck. One particularly effective love spell involved pinning a wryneck to a wheel and spinning it round and round whilst uttering the name of your intended and saying: “Wryneck, draw my man here to my house”.

A bird tormented or held in embrace?

Birds, birds everywhere

Birds were everywhere in the ancient world; probably in greater density and diversity than today and closer to human babitation. They performed a variety of roles (or had them performed on them). They were food, friends and fun.

A great variety of birds were ate by a wide spectrum of society. Greek bird hunting, often by liming trees with a sticky gum, was seen as a relatively lowly occupation by the elite. Plato banned it from his ideal Republic. Yet bird meat, whether through hunting or farming, was likely an important source of protein.

Birds also provided feathers which were useful for a variety of important tasks, not least sleeping.

Yet one of the most common pets we see in Greek and Roman art and literature was the bird. Lesbia, the love object of the poet Catullus, had her passus. Mynott argues this was likely a generic name for any small bird, although it could also be slang for Penis as Iain Ferris writes in Cave Canem.

Birds were also entertainment, most notoriously in the arena where Romans watched the torture and murder of hundreds of animals, including birds such as ostriches.

Cock fighting was even more common and popular. The domestic chicken may had been transported primarily for its entertainment value and secondarily as sources of food.

Mosaic from Roman Cologne


One popular game was quail tapping (ortgokopia). Contestants would place their quail on a board and the other contestant would prod at it and tap on its head. If the quail ran away the tapper won.

According to Aristophanes, the nickname “quail” was given to anyone who walked around looking dazed, “as though he has been hit on the head too-hard by a heavy-handed tapper”.

It was such a popular game that Chrysippus (c. 297 – c. 206 BCE) put it on par with women-madness as a dangerous addiction. Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 CE) even mentions it in his Meditations (a common place book for internal reflections, rather than a programme for living as it is sometimes presented):

“Don’t get obsessed with keeping quails or other crazes like that”.
Marcus Aurelius

Stories about birds

It was perhaps the uncanny tension between closeness and difference that led to the great variety of stories about Birds, which Mynott has collected in his book. Birds crop up repeatedly in Aesop’s fables and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Most famously, Zeus turned himself into a swan to assault Leda. An image that has resonated throughout culture, most recently in Eli Goldstone’s powerful novel from 2017 Strange Heart Beating.

Alongside literary stories, a variety of scientific stories developed and grew during this period as well. Herodotus discussed a bird, possibly the plover, which would pick the teeth of crocodiles. This idea has been repeated for centuries and is only now being firmly refuted. Tacitus, the hard nosed historian, even says that the Pheonix is still sometimes seen in Egypt.

These stories, symbols and motifs still resonate. The stork brings babies to new parents and the phoenix is still the symbol of rebirth. We still talk about Halcyon Days which are days of calm weather during the winter months when the gods decreed that the kingfisher (named after Alcyone) could nest their young.

Leda and the swan oil lamp

The Birds of Egypt

Throughout the book, Mynott shows his erudition as a classical scholar and an ornithologist. His examines the writings of the ancients and brings to bear the profound knowledge he has gained in the field watching birds. His examination of the swan song, is one highlight of his unique insight.

One small criticism, Mynott claims on page one that the Greeks invented Natural History, as a concept. It is a controversial opener and gets the blood running, but it can’t really stand up to questioning. It would come as a surprise to the Egyptians who drew on natural images of the Nile as a symbol of fecundity and life. The Assyrians too depicted lion hunts in their palances.

Indeed, the lack of other ancient cultures within the book is a shame. Both the domestic chicken and the peacock came to Greece, mostly likely through the Persian Empire but this is discussed only in passing. How did the Persians see these animals and how much of their own meaning making was transferred to the Greeks?

The greatest absence in the book is perhaps that of Egypt which had a deep symbolic language of birds and profoundly influenced Roman concepts of landscape. Views of the Nile Valley (called Nilotic landscapes) were common and showed a variety of flora and fauna unique to Egypt. Their meaning (or whether they even had one) and the reason for their popularity is an area of scholarly argument.

Yet this would expand the book considerably both in terms of topic and size; its combination of focus and breadth is one of its strenths.

From Tutankhamun:  Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh



Mynott is a warm and learned guide to this fascinating area. His book is humane and discursive. It deserves to be kept and regularly consulted in any study or snook. I would just hope that for the next editions, Oxford focus some greater attention on the paper. This book deserves a higher quality and heavier paper for the study, or perhaps a lighter and tougher field guide type paper for people inspired to go back to nature. I would recommend anyone interested in the topics covered to buy, read and consult this important book.


By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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