Birds pervaded the ancient world, impressing their physical presence on the daily experience and imaginations of ordinary people and figuring prominently in literature and art. They provided a fertile source of symbols and stories in myths and folklore and were central to the ancient rituals of augury and divination.
Jeremy Mynott's Birds in the Ancient World illustrates the many different roles birds played in culture: as indicators of time, weather and the seasons; as a resource for hunting, eating, medicine and farming; as domestic pets and entertainments; and as omens and intermediaries between the gods and humankind.
We learn how birds were perceived – through quotations from well over a hundred classical Greek and Roman authors, all of them translated freshly into English, through nearly 100 illustrations from ancient wall-paintings, pottery and mosaics, and through selections from early scientific writings, and many anecdotes and descriptions from works of history, geography and travel.
Jeremy Mynott acts as a stimulating guide to this rich and fascinating material, using birds as a prism through which to explore both the similarities and the often surprising differences between ancient conceptions of the natural world and our own. His book is an original contribution to the flourishing interest in the cultural history of birds and to our understanding of the ancient cultures in which birds played such a prominent part.
"[...] This is a wonderfully readable book, scholarly but fully accessible, continually thoughtful, properly sceptical, often amusing, and culled from knowledge of ancient literature that must be second to none (Mynott cites 120 authors, whose short biographies are all listed at the back). It is nicely illustrated in full colour. Whether you read the book straight through, or in a series of dips, it is full of revelation and insight into the ancient mind-set, which was at once familiar and strange. The ancients may have relied on hearsay as much as direct observation, but they obviously shared the same sense of wonder and affection as we do. The subtitle of this book is ‘winged words’. Thanks to Jeremy Mynott, the birds of ancient world have taken flight, and we can go birding in that magical lost world."
– Peter Marren, British Wildlife 29(6), August 2018
"A book the world has been waiting for, rich, scrupulously organised, imaginative, beautifully written, and driven by a double passion. On the one hand, for birds and human interactions with for them. On the other, for the ancient world, especially those Greeks who 'invented the concept of nature' and the scholarship which brings their thoughts and observations alive."
– Ruth Padel, author of Darwin: A Life in Poems, The Mara Crossing, and In and Out of the Mind.
Birds in the Natural World
1: The Seasons
Birds as a Resource
5: Hunting and Fowling
6: Cooking and Eating
Living with Birds
8: Captivity and Domestication
9: Sports and Entertainments
10: Relationships and Responsibilities
Invention and Discovery
11: Wonders: travellers' tales and tall stories
12: Medicine: folklore and science
13: Observation and Enquiry: the beginnings of ornithology
Thinking with Birds
14: Omens and Auguries
15: Magic and Metamorphosis
16: Signs and Symbols
Birds as Intermediaries
17: Birds as Intermediaries
18: Messengers and Mediators
19: Mother Earth
20: Epilogue: then and now
Appendix: some bird lists from ancient sources
Biographies of authors quoted
Acknowledgements and picture credits
Jeremy Mynott is the author of Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience (2009), a book exploring the variety of human responses to birds, described by reviewers as 'the finest book ever written about why we watch birds' (Guardian) and 'a wonderful rumination on birds and birders through space and time for anyone interested in our relationship with nature' (THES). He has also published an edition and translation of Thucydides in the series, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought and, more recently, Knowing your Place, an account of the wildlife in a tiny Suffolk hamlet. He has broadcast on radio and television, is a regular reviewer for the TLS and wildlife magazines, a founder member of 'New Networks for Nature', and is the former Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press and an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.