Birds in the Ancient World: Messengers of Omens and Auguries
Translators regularly face the problem that the words and expressions of one language do not always translate exactly into those of another. In fact, a literal translation can sometimes seem incomprehensible, particularly where the beliefs or behaviour of people from another culture are involved.
Consider the following passage from Aristophanes’ play The Birds , where the chorus of birds is trying to explain to their human visitors all the benefits they bestow on human-kind, principal among which is acting as special consultants:
We are your oracles—your Ammon, Delphi, Dodona, and your Apollo. You don’t start on anything without first consulting the birds, whether it’s about business affairs, making a living, or getting married. Every prophecy that involves a decision you classify as a bird. To you, a significant remark is a bird; you call a sneeze a bird, a chance meeting is a bird, a sound, a servant, or a donkey—all birds. So clearly, we are your gods of prophecy.
Aristophanes, Birds 716–24
Rider and birds, messengers of omens, from the ancient Greek play by Aristophanes. (Jastrow / Public Domain )
Birds and Omens in Translation
That just sounds like a bizarre mistranslation. But it begins to make sense when you remember that the Greek word for a bird, ornis or oionos, was also the word for an omen. Birds were thought of as ‘signs’. They were the principal agents through which the gods revealed their will to humans, so they could reasonably describe themselves as the gods’ messengers and privileged intermediaries, who should be consulted about future plans and important decisions.
And all those items called ‘birds’ towards the end of the extract turn out to involve common superstitions, rather like our habit of saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes. So, to call something ‘a bird’ was simultaneously to say that it might be significant and that birds might be the clue to what that significance was.
That may help explain the linguistic confusion, but what about the larger cultural ones? Just how were birds supposed to fulfil these roles, and was it all birds or only some of them? Who believed in all this and on what basis? How could the societies that effectively invented Western science, philosophy, medicine, engineering, and mathematics entertain such curious superstitions?
Let’s start with the practicalities and nomenclature. If birds were in some sense ‘signs’ that helped to explain the workings of the world and the will of the gods, the first thing you would need were some experts to decode bird behaviour. Early practitioners of this skill were variously known as oionoskopoi (bird-watchers), oionistai and oionomanteis (bird interpreters), or oionopoloi (bird experts), and they appear regularly in classical literature from Homer onwards to advise on matters of state at critical moments.
In Homer they are consulted particularly on military strategy. In the Iliad you have on the Greek side Calchas, “by far the best expert on birds, who knew things present, future, and past” (I 68–70), while on the other side Helenus was ‘by far the best birdman in Troy’ (VI 76); and in the Odyssey Halitherses “surpassed all men of his generation in his knowledge of birds and in expounding omens” (II 157).
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Calchas was a seer with a gift for interpreting the flight of birds. (Waterborough / Public Domain )
The seer Teiresias even had a special ‘bird observatory’ from which to practise his art, located in some place “where every kind of bird finds refuge” (Sophocles, Antigone 998–1002), and this oionoskopeion was famous enough to be mentioned much later as a tourist attraction by the travel writer Pausanias (IX 16.1). Most of the augurs in Homer are men, but Helen too interprets a complicated bird omen in the Odyssey (XV 160–78), and female priestesses and diviners were central to the operation of most oracles.
These interpreters of bird signs were among the exponents of the skill known more generally as mantike (‘divination’), though that was an umbrella notion that also included interpreters of oracles, entrails, lots, the throw of dice, and dreams. The ‘ornithologists’ tended to base most of their judgements on observations of the flight and calls of birds. They were then not usually making predictions as such, but rather establishing whether the prospects for particular courses of action were good ones.
The other exponents of mantike were more likely to be asked to make prophecies as well, for which they might need a little divine inspiration; and as the root of the word mantike suggests they were likely to be touched by a little ‘mania’ to help them perform. The Roman word for the profession was divinatio while a bird interpreter was called an augur or auspex, from which we get the words ‘augury’ and ‘auspicious’ (literally ‘watching birds’ again). The Romans, as you might expect, put all this on an organized basis, with an official body to codify the rules and set professional standards, and we shall be looking at these institutional arrangements later.
An augur interrupts the flight of the birds to the king. Numa, with a veiled face, is declared by the oracle, from the flight of birds, to be a happy king. ( Jdsteakley / Public Domain )
But the point to make first is that though there were recognized experts in ornithomancy or ‘bird augury’, this was by no means thought of as an occult or mysterious skill; it was a common one that everyone believed in and practised to some degree, rather like forecasting the weather, where the basic lore of what constituted good or bad signs was widely understood. It provided a sort of framework of implicit belief of the kind most people had to help them make sense of the world.
Good Omens and Bad Omens
There is a different kind of example in Hesiod’s long poem Works and Days , which is largely a manual of good practice for farmers, organized by the agricultural calendar. At the end of this Hesiod makes an explicit connection between bird augury and the belief in propitious and unpropitious days:
These [fortunate] days are a great blessing to men on earth, but the other ones are fickle, vapid, and offer nothing. Some praise one day, some another, but few understand them. Sometimes a day is a stepmother, sometimes a mother. Happy and fortunate the man who knows all these things and goes about his work without offending the immortals, interpreting bird signs rightly and avoiding transgressions.
Hesiod, Works and Days 822–28
Here are also a few examples from Homer of augury in action, where everyone witnessing the signs could see what they portended. Towards the end of the Iliad the old king of Troy, Priam, prays to Zeus to send him a favourable omen for his dangerous mission to plead with Achilles. The god obliges:
At once he sent an eagle, most significant of winged birds, the dark hunter whom they also call the ‘dusky eagle’, his wings stretched as wide on either side as the well-bolted doors of a rich man’s lofty hall. It appeared on the right as it swooped through the city, and those watching rejoiced and their spirits were raised.
Homer, Iliad XXIV 315–21
Zeus sends an eagle as a favourable omen to Priam. ( Uryadnikov Sergey / Adobe Stock)
An example of an unfavourable omen occurs earlier in the Iliad, when Hector is pressing the attack against the Greek ships:
A bird had appeared to them as they were eager to advance, a high-flying eagle, skirting the army on the left, holding in its talons a monstrous blood-red snake, alive and still writhing. Nor had the snake given up the fight, but it twisted back on itself and struck the eagle gripping it on the breast by the neck; and the eagle in sharp pain dropped it to the ground, so that it fell among the throng, while with a loud cry he soared away on the currents of air. The Trojans shuddered when they saw the gleaming snake lying among them, a portent from almighty Zeus.
Homer, Iliad XII 200–08
Hector is advised by his augur, Polydamas, to hold back, on the grounds that the Trojans will eventually be repulsed like the eagle. But Hector is distinctly unhappy with this advice and impatient with all this ornithology:
Polydamas, I don’t now want to hear this sort of message. Surely you can come up with a better story than that? If you are really serious in what you are saying the gods must have scrambled your brains, since you are telling me to forget the advice Zeus, lord of the thunder, gave me as a solemn promise himself. You tell me to follow the flight of long-winged birds, creatures that do not interest me at all. I do not care whether they fly to the right towards the morning sun or to the left into the murky western gloom. We must listen to the advice of almighty Zeus, who is king of all mortals and immortals alike. One omen alone is best—to fight for one’s country.
Homer, Iliad XII 231–43
Triumphant Achilles dragging the dead body of Hector in front of the gates of Troy. Hector did not value the omen Zeus sent by the birds. (Dr.K. / Public Domain )
As illustrated here, the omens were thought to be favourable when birds flew by on the right, unfavourable when on the left. But this prognosis would seem rather arbitrary since it depended very much on the way the observer happened to be facing at the time. The Hector example perhaps suggests that it was the direction of flight that mattered, which might make rather more sense, since the east—associated with light, morning, and the sun—was regarded as the auspicious quarter.
The Romans thought left was favourable and right unfavourable, which seems to be because they faced south when conducting auguries while the Greeks faced north, so that east was on the right for the Greeks and on the left for the Romans. This confusion is reflected in their left / right etymologies.
There is a marked predisposition in favour of right-handedness in most cultures and the word for ‘right’ tends to have a range of other uses with strongly favourable connotations, as it does in English (the right course of action, the right answer, a legal right, and so on).
In the same way the Latin dexter means ‘right’, ‘opportune’, and ‘dextrous’; but the Latin word for ‘left’, sinister, has to do double duty as both ‘favourable’ (as a sort of euphemism) and ‘unfavourable’ (more literally). No wonder, said Cicero, that there was scope here for “a little error, a little superstition, and a great deal of fraud” (On Divination II 83).
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Ancient Greek coin with eagle standing right, a favorable omen. (Flickr upload bot / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Omens of War
Some omens required a more complex interpretation anyway. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (112–20) two eagles, one ‘black’ and one ‘white-tailed’ (representing Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus), appear on the side of the spear hand (the right, auspicious side) and are devouring a hare (Troy) that is pregnant (inauspicious, suggesting eventual retribution). And in another play (probably also by Aeschylus) we are told some of the technicalities that need to be mastered by the serious ornithoscopist:
I took pains to determine the flight of crook-taloned birds, marking which were of the right by nature, and which of the left, and what were their ways of living, each after his kind, and the enmities and affections that were between them, and how they consorted together.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound , 488–92
Poor old Aeschylus had a particularly intimate connection with raptors, having reputedly died after being hit on the head by a tortoise dropped from a great height by a lammergeier (the bearded vulture), who mistook his bald pate for the sort of rock on which the bird regularly dropped tortoises to smash their shells.
Another problem was deciding which birds were significant. Just as Hector had objected to a prophecy from his augur, Polydamas, when it didn’t suit his military plans, so in the Odyssey the famous seer Halitherses makes a prediction, based on the flight over the town of Ithaca of two aggressive eagles, that Odysseus is returning to take his revenge on the suitors. They, of course, don’t want Odysseus’ son or wife to believe this and sneer at the forecast:
Off with you, old man, go home now and prophesy to your children to save them from future troubles. On this matter, I am a far better prophet than you. Many are the birds that fly back and forth under the sun’s rays and not all are fateful. As for Odysseus, he died far away and you should have perished with him.
Homer, Odyssey II 177–84
Raptors, and particularly eagles, were the species most often referred to in military contexts needing interpretation. There are many other examples, not only in Homer but also in the wars and campaigns reported by Herodotus, Xenophon, and Arrian. No doubt this was because raptors were predators, who conveyed the necessary sense of power and physical violence; and since they were also often carrion eaters they had a literally visceral relationship with animal entrails, whose interpretation (haruspicy) constituted another branch of the discipline.
Raptorial birds (defined more generally) tended to have special relationships to the gods, too, perhaps for related reasons: the eagle was the bird of Zeus (king of the gods), the falcon and raven were the messengers of Apollo (god of prophecy), while the little owl (Athene noctua) was the eponymous bird of Athena (goddess of war).
War wasn’t the only context in which omens were consulted, however, and eagles weren’t the only significant birds. Birds were also weather forecasters, and they might be asked about any number of difficult problems to do with journeys, business affairs, marriage, or other private matters, as listed in the quotation from Aristophanes’ Birds at the start of this chapter.
Other Ominous Birds
Any bird could be ominous in the right circumstances, it seems. In the Iliad, again, Athena sends a heron to encourage Odysseus and Diomedes on their clandestine night mission to penetrate the enemy camp, and the bird calls out in the darkness as a comforting omen. By contrast, the travel writer Pausanias tells us that it was a crested lark that guided settlers from Attica to found a new colony (always an important venture, needing a good send-off).
And it was a swallow that flitted insistently round the head of Alexander the Great while he was taking a nap in his tent, to warn him of a plot against his life. These seem to be special cases, however, and apart from eagles, the other ‘ominous’ species that crop up most often in Greek literature are ravens and crows (not always reliably distinguished) and owls.
Ravens were generally bad news. They were often portents of death or disaster. Pausanias tells the story that when the Athenians were preparing for their calamitous military expedition to Sicily in 415 BC. “An uncountable flock of ravens descended on Delphi” and vandalized all the precious images the Athenians had dedicated to the god there.
Ravens were generally a bad omen. (Linnaea Mallette / Public Domain )
Pausanias reports all this with a straight face, but makes the worldly comment, “I put the blame on human rogues and thieves myself” (Description of Greece X 15.5). Ravens could also act as guides, though, as they did to Alexander and his troops:
When the guides became confused over the landmarks and the travellers got separated, lost their way, and started wandering about, ravens appeared and took over the role of guiding them on their journey. They flew swiftly in front for them to follow, but then waited for them if they slowed down and lagged behind. What was most remarkable of all, we’re told, was that they called out to those who strayed away at night and by their croaking set them back on the right track.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 27.2–3
Top image: Bird are the messengers of omens. Source: Yuriy Mazur / Adobe Stock
© [Oxford University Press]
Extract from Birds in the Ancient World by Jeremy Mynott, published by Oxford University Press in May 2018, available in hardback and e-book format.