The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while people could observe the migrations of cranes, storks and wildfowl. The cities themselves were in any case tiny by modern standards – ancient Athens, for example, had a population of about 120,000 at the height of its power in the 5th century BC, compared with its modern metropolitan equivalent of some 3.7 million. And most townspeople were intimately involved in the life and produce of the countryside around them, anyway. Rus in urbe was a reality, not an illusion of municipal planning.
Small wonder, then, that birds impressed their physical presence on people’s daily lives, to a degree now hard to imagine. There they were – visible and audible at most times of day; occupying all the domains of land, sea and air; and in an abundance and diversity we can only dream of today. Not surprising either, therefore, that they also populated people’s minds and imaginations and re-emerged in their culture, language, myths and patterns of thought in some symbolic form. This progression from daily familiarity to symbolic representation must be what Claude Lévi-Strauss had in mind in the much-quoted dictum, taken from his book Totemism (1962): ‘Les espèces sont choisies non comme bonnes à manger, mais comme bonnes à penser.’ The last phrase is usually rendered in English by the epigrammatic: ‘Animals are good to think with.’ Not an exact translation but a suggestive manifesto.
Birds were certainly ‘good to think with’ in the ancient world. They crop up in all manner of figures of speech, proverbs, myths, fables, and in ritual and magical practices, some of which now seem very strange. But let’s start first with some more familiar instances. [Continue reading…]