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.
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.
– Shortlisted for the 2019 Wolfson History Prize
"Jeremy Mynott's Birds in the Ancient World is an absolute joy, beautifully written and gloriously illustrated."
– Peter Thonemann, Books of the Year 2018, The Times Literary Supplement
"Superb book [...] Mynott quotes [...] 120 authors in total, some translated into English for the first time. All the translations are Mynott's own. The period covered is approximately 700 BC to AD 300 and, since Mynott's approach is thematic, each chapter ranges pretty freely across those thousand years. It is, without doubt, a major achievement and a brilliantly sustained exercise in what Mynott [...] calls 'thinking with birds' [...] We are fortunate to have in Mynott, who is both an ornithologist and a calssicist, the perfect guide for such explorations."
– Mathew Lyons, History Today
"Classical literature is a rich source of bird-related forteana, as this superb study reveals [...] a delightfully easy read, thanks to Mynott's stylistic panache: fluent, quasi-Herodotean, jargon-free, consistently witty [...] Not many writers can claim to have the last word on their subject. Mynott though, is that – have to say it – rare bird [...] For naturalists, scientists, social historians, twitchers, this superlative study will surely fly [...] "
– Barry Baldwin, Fortean Times
"An astonishing combination of knowledge and sheer readability [...] a copiously and richly illustrated review [...] I think we should be grateful to Jeremy Mynott for this wonderful book, which both illuminates that understanding and broadens our knowledge."
– Roger Riddington, British Birds
" [...] stunning new book [...] reading this splendid study, I experienced some of the excitement that humanists must have felt at entering into a lost world [...] Beautifully produced, informed by wonderful scholarship, Birds in the Ancient World embodies the Renaissance spirit, as a model of humane and civilised learning."
– Mike McCarthy, Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine
" [...] excellent new book [...] "
– Robin Lane Fox, Financial Times
"Jeremy Mynott's masterful cultural and scientific history tours their [birds] roles as timepieces, soundscapes, pets, messaging services even intermediaries with the supernatural. The vivid artworks and literary passages give this wings [...] "
– Barbara Kiser, Nature
"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 [...] 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 once familiar and strange [...] Thanks to Jeremy Mynott, the birds of the ancient world have taken flight, and we can go birding in that magical lost world."
– Peter Marren, British Wildlife
"For Dr Mynott, 'the significance of birds' is his binding theme in this illustrated cultural history with liberal quotations from some of humanity's greatest literature at this formative period of Western history."
– John McEwen, Country Life
"A distinguished publisher and writer on both classics and bird-watching, Mynott has scoured thousands of pages on a literary nature trail [...] "
– Peter Stothard, The Times Literary Supplement
"With a glorious array of references, vivid images, and his own astute philosophical commentary, Mynott deftly brings all this into sharp focus: are all these ancient associations, uses and abuses really so different from the way we see birds?"
– Philip Hoare, New Statesman
"Mynott organises his elegant and thought-provoking book by theme and deploys a comprehensive range of quotes from throughout the classical period [...] His approach is nuanced and open-minded, and he writes with a light, often wry touch [...] The book is full of delightful titbits."
– Philip Womak, The Literary Review
"It is [...] thought-provoking, highly readable and exhaustive. Mynott has made an enormous effort to trawl the whole of the classics for bird references. The materials unearthed are far greater than anything previously considered and an appendix supplying potted biographies of the Greek and Roman authors discussed in the book includes more than 100 names [...] Perhaps the pre-eminent achievement of the book is not its fastidious examination of classical birds, but the way it pans backwards from the avian minutiae to give us a much broader vision of the two great civilisations."
– Mark Cocker, Spectator
"Birds in the Ancient World is a welcome and important resource for the scholar working on any aspect of birds in all spheres of medieval life [...] Mynott's erudite discussions, though, will make an excellent companion for those wishing to explore the classical legacy in medieval 'nature' paradigms."
– Michael Warren, Medium Aevum
"This scholarly, yet readable and fascinating book presents a detailed account on how our current obsession with birds began [...] beautifully produced volume, illustrated throughout with striking colour images [...] Mynott's book brings to life the variety of ancient scholars and artists who were inspired by birds. The sheer volume of material must, one feels, have been daunting, yet Mynott has processed it in a sensitive and logical fashion [...] this definitive and original account of birds in the ancient world will serve as an invaluable reference for all subsequent historians of ornithology, and indeed, zoology as a whole."
– Tim Birkhead, Archives of National History
"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 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
"One of the most beautiful, most engaging and simply most delighful books I have read in a long time [...] Mynott has offered a masterclass in writing a work that popularizes Classics and explains the discipline's relevant authority, clearly and memorably to outsiders [...] Among many splendid features of this volume, I wish to highlight its illustrations [...] this is a splendidly learned and superbly interesting account of the manifold ways in which birds and humans interacted in antiquity, but it is more that that: this is a book which incites one to ponder upon fundamental ecological and environmental issues and to re-examine our own relationship to the natural world."
– Andrej Petrovic, Greece & Rome
"At a time when we need to be listening to the messages from birds from declining puffins losing their sand eels from warming seas, to Mediterranean Great White Egrets now breeding each year in Somerset this book offers brilliant insights into an earlier human culture's intimate relationship with another species."
– Terry Glifford, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism
"The history lover inside me drew me to this title but I was pleased to find my ecologist's curiosity satisfied many times whilst reading this book [...] From the earliest images and writings that birds can be identified from, you will find yourself amazed at what can be discovered from sources well over 1000 years old that can be linked with present day species and their distributions. It is such a richly detailed book that you might not be able to read it from start to finish in one go, but the chaptering allows you to dip in and out and discover something new each time you pick it up."
– Katharine Bowgen, British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)