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New archaeological research demonstrates brown hares and chickens held godly status in Iron Age Britain .
We invite you to tumble down the rabbit hole and learn about a new archaeological analysis from a team of archaeologists from the universities of Leicester, Oxford, and Exeter, led by Professor Naomi Sykes, Lawrence Professor of Archaeology at the later institution.
The team of academic researchers set out to investigate the origins of Easter traditions in Britain. They discovered chickens and hares were “buried with great care” during the Iron Age, between 750 BC to 43 AD, suggesting the two species were revered with godlike status.
Previous research by the same team of scientists determined that the first rabbits were not introduced to Britain by the Normans, as was previously thought, but by the Romans when they invaded in the 1st century AD. Both species were farmed as food during the Roman occupation of Britain and after their withdrawal in 410 AD chicken and brown hare populations decreased for half a century until they were reintroduced to Britain as an “ elite food ” by the Normans in the 11 th century.
Worshipping the Chickens and Hares of Heaven
Historical evidence suggests Britons considered chickens and hares “as too special to eat” and in the researchers post on the Arts and Humanities Research Council website, team leader Professor Naomi Sykes points to Emperor Julius Caesar ’s firsthand account of the Gallic Wars, Commentarii de Bello Gallico . This text says Britons considered it “contrary to divine law to eat the hare, the chicken, or the goose. They raise these, however, for their own amusement or pleasure”.
Historians know Roman records were often works of propaganda and as such their accounts always require a sizable pinch of salt, but in this instance the researchers established the account to be factual, noting previous archaeological excavation reports that detail chickens and hares having been “carefully buried without being butchered”. Furthermore, the team radiocarbon dated hare and chicken skeletons from a number of archaeological sites in Hampshire and Herefordshire showing that these two animals were introduced to Britain between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.
The earliest chicken and hare specimens were complete skeletons showing no traces of butchery. ( Naomi Sykes )
The Church Associated Hares with Homosexuality and Lust
According to Simon Carnell’s 2010 book Hare, in ancient Egypt a hieroglyph of a hare signified “existence itself” and in ancient Greece the animals were associated with the gods Dionysus, Aphrodite, and Artemis as well as with satyrs and cupids.
Egyptian hieroglyph of a hare, which symbolized life. (Dudubot / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
All across pre-Roman Europe these two animals were symbols of sexual virility and fertility (spring and eggs) until the Christian Church connected the hare with the persecution of the church because of the way it was hunted. The Church also associated the animal with the sins of lustfulness and homosexuality.
Professor Sykes said, “Easter is an important British festival, yet none of its iconic elements are native to Britain” and that exotic objects and animals were often given supernatural status. She adds that historical accounts suggest chickens were associated with an Iron Age god worshiped similar to the Roman messenger deity Mercury and that hares were linked with an unknown female hare goddess. The cross-disciplinary academic team also determined that as human population increased the animals were eaten and hares were farmed as livestock, and having fallen from grace, the two animals were disposed of as food waste.
The Chickens Strike Back
Chicken populations, however, slowly increased across Britain and many historians think this occurred because of the 10 th and 11 th century application of the 6 th century Saint Benedict’s words which forbade the eating of “meat of four-footed animals ” during fasting periods such as Lent, making chickens and eggs the most popular fasting day foods.
- The Very Strange History of the Easter Bunny
- Ancient British Bake Off? Cauldrons Fit for Feasting Found at Iron Age Settlement
- The Ancient Pagan Origins of Easter
The eating of chickens and eggs became popular during Lent in the 10 th and 11 th centuries. (Alison Burrell / )
Archaeological evidence show rabbits were reintroduced to Britain as an elite food at the beginning of the 13 th century AD and that their numbers had boomed by the 19 th century contributing to their replacement of the hare as the Easter Bunny, when the Easter festival's traditions were realigned by Victorians.
A 2017 World History article explains how a large variety of modern Easter traditions were created in the Victorian period, for example, sending Easter cards, after a late 18 th century publisher added an Easter greeting to a drawing of a bunny on writing stationery. The bulb of a lily grows, blooms, dies, and grows again the following year, so it naturally became a popular Victorian symbol for life after death, and although tulips, daffodils, and narcissus share the same reproductive cycle the lily’s large white blossom was the most obvious symbol of Jesus’ resurrection .
A 1907 postcard featuring the Easter Bunny, a representation of the replacement of the hare by the rabbit as a traditional Easter animal. (Ras67 / )
Children were especially excited on Easter morning for not only would the day see egg rolling contests and Easter egg hunts, but they all wondered what the Easter bunny might have left in their Easter baskets, rivaling the excitement generated by Santa’s impending arrival on Christmas Day.
Burgundy Culinary Travel: The Ultimate Wine Lover&aposs Trip
S ay "French wine," and like Pavlov&aposs dog, just about everyone will bark Bordeaux or Burgundy — the "Big B" regions. If you&aposre into muscular Merlot and Cabernet, then Southwest France&aposs flat, sandy Bordelais — the region surrounding the city of Bordeaux — is your ticket. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lovers should head instead to Burgundy&aposs suite of rolling, pocket-sized vineyards, which start about 100 miles south of Paris near Chablis and extend 150 miles or so farther south via Dijon to Mฬon in central-eastern France.
Vast and varied, the region — "Bourgogne," in French — covers most of eastern-central France. From a winegrower&aposs perspective, it&aposs the bridge linking Champagne to the Beaujolais. The most expensive wines being produced in the world today come from Burgundy&aposs spectacular Domaine de la Romanພ-Conti on the Côte de Nuits. Unsung, some of the most underrated, underpriced whites in France are quietly grown and bottled in the Côte Chalonnaise and southern Mฬonnais.
There&aposs more to the difference between the two Big Bs than a varietal divide. Sure, Bordeaux is an attractive city surrounded by fabulous châteaux. But even without wine, Burgundy would be wonderful, thanks to its one-of-a-kind scenery and cultural history.
This is pretty much the land of dreamy visions. Rivers run through it — big ones like the Saône, Yonne, and Loire — keeping Burgundy&aposs uncluttered, rolling hills emerald-green year-round. More Romanesque churches, abbeys, and monasteries raise their bell towers here than in the rest of the country combined. Scores of picture-perfect stone-built villages, like Rully or Solutré, perch on vine-groomed limestone escarpments — les côtes — their glazed-tile roofs glistening and foundations set deep.
Each of Burgundy&aposs half dozen subregions has a distinctive character arising from feudal times or as far back as the Iron Age. This was the heart of ancient Gaul, a place where locals still bemoan Julius Caesar&aposs conquest in 52 B.C. During the French Revolution, the area was divided into four administrative départements. Taken north to south, they are Yonne, Nièvre, Côte-d&aposOr, and Saône-et-Loire.
Burgundians cling to their heritage, and it shows in everything from the singsong accent full of rolling Rs to the one-lane farm roads and almost obsessive way food and wine are revered. At worst, this reverence brings with it kitschy folklore, sound-and-light shows, winemakers and peasants in silly costumes, and restaurants, museums, and wineries that feel like theme parks of gastronomy. At best, it reflects Burgundy&aposs role in defining classic French cuisine. Last century&aposs legendary chefs built gastronomic pilgrimage sites along the Paris–Lyon highway. Today, four luxurious Michelin three-star restaurants and a constellation of prestigious but less formal hotel-restaurants and irresistible country auberges that serve food in a casual, often family setting dot the region.
Menus and Trends
Bugundians claim the trend is strictly no trends tradition reigns. That&aposs why Burgundy&aposs ethereal gougère — the original cheese-puff, not cheesy junk food — is still everywhere. Favorite dishes include jambon persillé, which merges chunky cured ham and parsley in aspic. Plump escargots — raised on snail farms these days — are baked in the shell with garlicky parsley-butter. Frog&aposs legs get the same treatment but are pan-fried. Oeufs en meurette are ultraclassic French poached eggs in a red-wine reduction sauce. Crayfish tails swim in creamy Nantua butter sauce. Pike, eel, and other river fish end up as Matelote stew or saut, often with Pinot Noir. There&aposs free-range, premium-quality chicken from Bresse simply roasted or saut with cream. Roasted veal or saut rabbit come with Dijon mustard sauce. Long-cooked lièvre royale is hare simmered in rich blood-and-wine sauce. Thick-sliced bone-in baked ham is right up there in popularity and deliciousness with Charolais beef or lamb that is slow-stewed, grilled, or pan-fried with butter. And Burgundy truffles and wild mushrooms appear in dozens of recipes.
The region also boasts France&aposs biggest herds of goats, and the phenomenal chèvre — cheese made from their milk — comes in every imaginable form. Possibly the world&aposs most lusciously pungent cow&aposs-milk cheese is northern Burgundy&aposs Époises, while milder Citeaux is still made by monks at Citeaux Abbey. For dessert, mille-feuilles, fruit tarts, and chocolate confections, yes, but also sugar-sprinkled pets-de-nonne fritters, gingerbread from Dijon, aniseed bonbons from the abbey of Flavigny and marzipan "rocks" called Rochers du Morvan.
Tradition may reign, but the average calorie count has been reduced over the last 20 years, since the late, great Bernard Loiseau of La Côte d&aposOr restaurant in Saulieu invented what critics initially derided as "cuisine à l&aposeau"—water-based, low-fat cooking that&aposs a lot more flavorful than it sounds. Traditional ingredients reappear now in novel ways, and because of huge demand, most snails and frog&aposs legs and even some fresh-water fish come from outside the region. These days, young Burgundian chefs also serve seafood trucked in from the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Even olive oil appears on some tables. Haute cuisine of the kind found in Paris, Sydney, or San Francisco stars on marquee menus — sometimes it&aposs great, sometimes it&aposs just fussy and rootless.
Like Bordeaux, Burgundy&aposs appellations (geographic areas where grapes are grown) and rankings (by the French government) are maddeningly complex. Unlike Bordeaux, which has centuries-old ties to the merchant class, they reflect a thousand years of winegrowing begun by the monks at Cluny Abbey in the Mฬonnais region. When the French Revolution came along in 1789, church properties were divvied up, resulting in today&aposs 4,600 wineries, most with tiny vineyards five to ten acres. Burgundy&aposs 101 appellations fall into five main wine districts called "vignobles," including Chablis, Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, Côte Chalonnaise, and Mฬonnais.
Rankings break down into four "crus" — growths determined by the cultural intangibles that constitute the vague French notion of "terroir." Terroir is applied liberally to food and wine and means more than "land" or "territory." It can refer to soil, climate, altitude, and a variety of geological factors. Topping the growth pyramid are Grands Crus, with Premiers Crus, Crus Communales (village appellations), and generic Crus Régionales falling one below the next. Grand Crus are subdivided into "climates" — mere parcels. Bottles thus designated are big-ticket items accounting for just one percent of white wines and two and a half percent of reds. But don&apost shun lesser appellations — some Communales and Régionales are as good as Premiers Crus. And a few of the region&aposs 18 cooperative wineries make remarkable wines. It&aposs best to read Burgundy labels carefully because Grands Crus, Premiers Crus, and Communales can all bear the same name — if they come from the same village.
Pinot Noir is the red grape of the great and good wines of Burgundy, while Gamay crops up primarily in the Mฬonnais, producing quaffable bottlings — with a few exceptions. César is an ancient indigenous variety that brings body to some thin northern Burgundian wines. The region makes twice as much white as red, nearly all with the Chardonnay grape, also used in sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne, originally from the village of Rully. When too tart to drink straight, the second most common Burgundy white, Aligoté, is stirred with "cassis" black-currant syrup and served as Kir (add Champagne, and it&aposs a Kir Royal).
The battle over oaky, high-tech wines has deeply affected Burgundy&aposs winemaking. The big oak barrels and vats that were traditionally used are still around, but many more winemakers employ toasted new-oak casks to impart vanilla and other so-called "New World" flavors to wines. Luckily, the soil and climate mean Burgundy wines will never develop the fat of their American or Australian counterparts. The global market𠄼hasing mania of fruit-forward bottlings hasn&apost really taken hold here. Burgundian Pinot Noirs are still subtle, complex, and lightly tannic, with an intense violet nose. Chardonnays range from nervy or mineral to rich and honeyed. Those with heavy vanilla overlays are usually made for export — or to please certain American critics who favor huge, flowery, fat wines. The biggest Burgundy whites and reds take time to develop, aging gracefully for 20 or 30 years.
There are more than 100 major négociants — wine wholesalers that now do everything from bottling, aging, and selling others&apos wines to growing and making their own, and their numbers are rising as they snap up family-run properties.
Making great wine in Burgundy is challenging — centuries of winegrowing have impoverished the soil, and the climate is tricky, with harsh winters and short summers. Small, steep vineyards are labor-intensive, which partly explains the low yields and premium prices we all pay. Reputation, quality, and increasing worldwide demand explain the rest. So while most European wine regions are battling bear markets, Burgundy is bullish.
Each subregion has its wine route — "Route des Vins" — with hundreds of wineries open to the public. They range from the ridiculous to the sublime. This isn&apost the Napa Valley: Many top wineries are accessible only to professionals. It&aposs always best to make an appointment, especially at prestige properties.
David Downie is a Paris-based food and travel writer. His work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Saveur, Departures, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and many other publications. His latest book is Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light. He&aposs currently at work on a travelogue-memoir about crossing France on foot, Hit the Road, Jacques).
Alison Harris, who took most of the pictures for this story, is a Paris-based food, travel, and portrait photographer, and has illustrated books by Sophia Loren, Marcella Hazan, and other international best-selling authors. View a Burgundy travel guide from our sister site Concierge.com Note: All information about restaurants, wineries, and other culinary destinations listed in this article is subject to change without notice. Please contact the establishment for the most current information.
View a Burgundy travel guide from our sister site Concierge.com
Note: All information about restaurants, wineries, and other culinary destinations listed in this article is subject to change without notice. Please contact the establishment for the most current information.
Birds in the Ancient World
Birds pervaded the ancient world, impressing their physical presence on the daily experience and imaginations of ordinary people and figuring prominently in drama, literature and art. They were a fertile source of symbols and stories in myths and folklore, and 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.
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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
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: Fabulous Creatures
18: Messengers and Mediators
19: Mother Earth
20: Epilogue: then and now
Appendix: some bird lists from ancient sources
Biographies of authors quoted
‘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.’
29th August 2018
From nightingales trilling in ancient Rome’s suburbs to the migrating cranes minutely observed by Aristotle in his fourth-century-bc History of Animals, birds pervaded early Mediterranean civilizations. Jeremy Mynott’s masterful cultural and scientific history tours their roles as timepieces, soundscapes, pets, messaging services — even intermediaries with the supernatural. The vivid artworks and literary passages give this wings: here is the Greek poet Aratus on finches “chirruping shrilly at dawn” before a storm there, a surreal Roman recipe for flamingo stewed with coriander.
Pity the wryneck – a species of long-tongued woodpecker – in ancient Greece: it had the great misfortune to be considered an essential part of a sex toy. The poor bird was spread-eagled and bound to the four spokes of a wheel, which, when spun, whistled in a way thought sure to arouse desire in its recipient. We remember its fate today when we jinx people: the word jinx being derived from its Greek name, iunx.
In two recently published books, Jeremy Mynott has shown that he is currently one of the most interesting and scholarly writers about the intersecting lives of birds and people. In both Birdscapes and Birds in the Ancient World, Mynott takes the reader on an unexpected journey to learn what birds can mean to us as individuals and as a culture.
Jeremy Mynott is both a classical scholar and a writer on birds, and his love and deep knowledge of both areas shine through in this fascinating and rather wonderful book. From the preface, where he describes the variety of birds to be found in Athens and Rome, to the epilogue, which pulls together feelings on the environment ancient and modern and shows how our experiences of nature are both different and similar, we follow a clear path through the way birds were markers of the seasons, time and weather their exploitation as a natural resource to farm and eat birds as pets and entertainment their examination as the objects of wonder then science their appearance as symbols and in dreams and their role as messengers between people and the spiritual dimension.
Birds in the Ancient World: Messengers of Omens and Auguries
An extract from Birds in the Ancient World
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.
“Confiding” is a term used in birdwatching for the behaviour of a bird which will allow the approach of humans to observe it. That blue tit blithely feeding off the peanut hanger as you potter about on the patio, the robin on your fork handle or the heron you run past on the canal are all confiding. I can extend the metaphor to this book, in which an acknowledged expert on the relationship between humans and birds takes a gentle, close and approachable look at how birds were seen, experienced and written about by the Greeks and Romans.
Beautiful books for bird lovers
Jeremy Mynott’s fascinating book explores the many different roles birds played in ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and how they impressed upon the imagination to influence the literature and art of the time.
Using quotations from the classical world, alongside nearly one hundred illustrations from ancient wall-paintings, pottery, and mosaics, Birds in the Ancient World also examines early scientific findings, as well as descriptions from works of history, geography, and travel.
Informative and expertly narrated, Birds in the Ancient World is an enthralling look at the cultural history of birds and the huge influence they had on a bygone age.
A vivid exploration of the cultural history of birds
Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize last year, Birds In The Ancient World: Winged Words is the latest book by ornithologist and classicist Jeremy Mynott, who provides a fascinating exploration of the relationship between humankind and birds in Ancient Greece and Rome.
The book is structured thematically and examines the role of birds in a variety of areas including medicine, hunting, farming, entertainment, magic and as messengers for the gods, as well as how they were used by humans to interpret the natural world. Interestingly, Mynott also analyses how birds were perceived through the eyes of around 120 authors of the ancient world, such as Homer, Cicero and Plutarch, using quotes that he translated himself for the book. For readers who may not know anything about these authors, Mynott even includes short biographies for each one at the end, which is extremely helpful.
With an extensive bibliography, it is evident that Mynott has conducted a lot of thorough research and his book is absolutely brimming with detail, although it may be a bit too scholarly for general readers. Nevertheless, his writing style is clear and engaging, plus the fact that his passion for this subject is obvious, something that always makes reading more enjoyable.
It is worth mentioning that the book is also filled with nearly 100 colourful illustrations from ancient pottery, mosaics and wall-paintings, which break up the heavy text nicely. For anyone with a fascination for the ancient world or birds, this is definitely worth a read.
15th June 2020
For all their Parthenons and Colosseums, imperial ambitions and endless warfare, ancient Greek and Roman societies were deeply connected to nature. These connections went far beyond the importance of agriculture for mere survival they were the lifeblood of classical peoples’ worldviews, religious systems and artistic output. And birds played a central role.
The historical sources from which Jeremy Mynott quotes abundantly in this fascinating book were, of course, the product of a tiny, privileged elite – we must always remember that the vast majority of our ancient ancestors had no means to bequeath us any cultural record of themselves – but they leave no doubt that birds were everywhere.
From augury – an omen-interpreting means of decision-making or ‘taking the auspices’ (auspices comes from the Latin words auspicium and auspex, meaning ‘one who looks at birds’) – to the use of wryneck (a species of woodpecker that was cruelly used as part of ancient Greek sexual practices), Mynott comprehensively demonstrates that birds were seen and heard in abundance across his chosen thousand year timespan (approximately 700 BC to 300 AD).
They were used practically as food and as pets, in sports, medicine, magic and much more, and were very present in urban as well as rural settings. Owls became emblematic of Athena and Athens scavenging kites and ravens were ever present swifts and swallows nested in temples and government buildings and some ancient cities were visited by more exotic species such as the ibis. Unsurprising then, that birds infiltrated and influenced ancient artistic endeavours – long before (and after) the ‘winged words’ of this book’s title was used by Homer, as a recurring metaphor for saying something powerful and important.
If birds were so present, physically and practically, in the ancient world, Mynott explores how they also infiltrated classical societies’ intellectual and spiritual undertakings. They were often seen as messengers and intermediaries between not just the mortal realms of land, sea and sky, but also the higher world of the gods Aristophanes’ fifth-century BC comedy The Birds being just one example. Birds also populated the metaphysical worlds of dreaming and desire, as so many of the stunning surviving frescoes from homes in Pompeii and Herculaneum demonstrate. These idealised images of ‘wild’ nature and natural powers beyond human capacity, such as flight, contained and controlled for the purposes of elite identity construction.
Yet as well as offering us examples of ancient deployment of birds that may be thought-provokingly strange to our modern worldviews, Mynott also gives us ‘constants’ to ponder on. For example, from the very beginnings of ‘classical’ literature and Homer’s near-contemporary Hesiod, we learn how long the migrations of birds such as cranes, cuckoos and swallows have been used to mark the passing of the seasons – Hesiod’s Works and Days (c700 BC) citing them as farmers’ ‘diary reminders’ for seasonal agricultural tasks.
Perhaps the idea that, across the centuries, we have always looked to birds and the skies as signs of the enduring cycle of life is one that might currently comfort and resonate with all Ramblers and walk-lovers, as we wait patiently for a time when we can once again fully and freely access beloved green spaces everywhere.
Ornithology, the scientific study of birds, starts here with Jeremy Mynott’s birds of the ancient world. This scholarly, yet readable and fascinating book presents a detailed account on how our current obsession with birds began. The Greeks and Romans viewed the natural world very differently from us, yet it is intriguing how much they knew and how much of that knowledge, some of it true and some false, survives to the present day.
Mynott’s beautifully produced volume, illustrated throughout with striking colour images, comprises six themes: (i) birds in the natural world (for example, birds as markers of the seasons) (ii) birds as a resource (hunting, farming and feasting) (iii) living with birds (cage birds) (iv) invention and discovery (birds as medicine and the beginnings of science) (v) thinking with birds (omens, magic and signs) and finally, (vi) birds as intermediaries – between men and gods. Each of these sections is in turn divided into individual chapters.
Why birds? The answer is that they relate to humans in so many ways, including their reliance on vision and hearing and walking upright on two legs, similarities not unnoticed by the Ancients. As Mynott relates, Plato defined man as the featherless biped only to be teased by a dissenting Diogenes, who on presenting a plucked chicken to an audience, referred to it as Plato’s man. Apart from physical and cognitive similarities, birds were abundant and conspicuous: as their senses dictate, they are mainly diurnal and visible, and their songs and calls fall within the range of human hearing. But as Plutarch noted, it was the quickness and apprehension of birds that made them such suitable instruments of the gods.
As Mynott identifies, what was so wonderfully original about the Presocratics was their assumption that the natural world was open to rational explanation. This was the first age of enlightenment in the history of Western thought, and these early philosophers ranged over all manner of topics, from cosmology, physics, botany, zoology, including ornithology. One cannot help but be amazed by the breadth and depth of their knowledge and appreciation of birds. Equally impressive is Mynott’s skill in piecing together this mass of ornithological fragments into a coherent whole.
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 sensible and logical fashion. His approach reminded me of the motto coined by the Royal Society at its inception in 1660, “Nullius in verba”: take nobody’s word for it. For by making his own translations from the original sources, rather than relying on secondary accounts, 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.
Among the most enduring images of birds of the ancient world is the “Spring fresco” from Thera (Santorini), until recently preserved under deep layers of volcanic ash. The swallows in this wall painting – the first illustration in Mynott’s book – accurately and evocatively capture the swallow’s natural exuberance, but also serve here as a symbol of the joy of accessible scholarship. Winged words, indeed.
T. R. Birkhead
M.’s book provides a comprehensive introduction and overview of the role of birds within ancient society. The book is distinct from previous scholarship on birds in the ancient world with its approach to the material. Where D.W. Thompson’s A Glossary of Greek Birds (1895), J. Pollard’s Birds in Greek Life and Myth (1977) and W.G. Arnott’s Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z (2007) tend to arrange the material by species, M. organises the material into six thematic parts. These parts follow a logical progression from birds as physical actors in the natural world to the abstract use and interpretation of birds in ancient societies. This structure allows M.’s work to act as a companion to its more encyclopaedic predecessors, as his thematic structure provides a more holistic approach to the role of birds.
Additionally, through M.’s original translation and presentation of large extracts of ancient texts, it also serves as a valuable sourcebook for the role of birds in the ancient world. It is certainly not as exhaustive as other sourcebooks on animals, such as S. Lewis and L. Llewellyn-Jones’s The Culture of Animals in Antiquity: a Sourcebook with Commentaries (2015), but still proves useful due to its thematic approach and targeted focus.
Part 1, ‘Birds in the Natural World’, is divided into four chapters: the seasons weather time and soundscapes. The first two of these chapters deal with well-known uses of birds as season-markers and weather predictors, with the second chapter moving on to their impact on time (mostly related to the cockerel’s crow). The last chapter is the most extensive, concentrating on birds as ancient soundscapes. A highlight of the chapter is M.’s concentration on the distinction made between ancient and modern musical aesthetics in relation to birdsong. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the relationship between birdsong and music.
Part 2, ’Birds as a Resource’, is divided into three chapters: hunting and fowling cooking and eating and farming. M. does a thorough job in exploring each of these aspects. The use of visual evidence in this chapter enhances it, particularly the inclusion of a modern example of a thrush caught in bird-lime (p. 80, fig. 3.5), which would be unfamiliar to most readers. While the textual tradition provides excellent information for all three of the chapters in this section, I did find that these discussions suffered slightly from a lack of archaeological evidence. Although M.’s approach is centred on the presentation of birds within the texts, I feel that comparing these accounts with the zooarchaeological record would have enhanced the discussion, particularly in the case of what birds were eaten, and provided the reader with a broader knowledge of the use of birds in the ancient world.
Part 3, ‘Living with Birds’, is dedicated to other types of human–bird interaction that are more symbiotic than the previous section. It deals with the use of birds as pets and aviaries/zoos in the ancient world birds in sports and entertainment, mainly cockfighting and display in the arena and the relationships formed between birds and people. This last chapter is perhaps the most interesting approach of the section, as M. decides to tackle how ancient authors reflected on their own relationships with birds. M. also deals with the question of falconry and its apparent absence in the classical world. His suggestion that there was ‘no cultural space for it’ (p. 155) seems an intriguing and plausible answer, but not quite enough evidence or time is spent fully exploring the question.
Part 4, ‘Invention and Discovery’, looks at the appearance of birds in the more ‘scientific’ texts. M. begins by dealing with the reported ‘wonders’ of birds in works of ancient geographers (and Herodotus), before moving on to the role of birds in ancient medicine. The final chapter of the section looks at what M. refers to as the ‘first small steps in the long history of scientific discovery’ (p. 220), i.e. the method of observation and enquiry seen in ancient philosophy and mainly Aristotle’s classifications and observations on birds.
Part 5 deals with birds on a slightly more abstract level. This begins with a chapter on augury and divination, followed by a chapter on ‘Magic and Metamorphosis’. This second chapter is an interesting combination of both bird transformation myths and the role that birds played in magical rituals, dances and astrology. The last chapter in this section, ‘Signs and Symbols’, explores the symbolic interpretation of birds. This is a huge topic and M. does an admirable job exploring the vast range of ancient symbolic expressions in this chapter.
Finally, Part 6, ‘Birds as Intermediaries’, looks at the position birds occupy between us and both the natural and supernatural. M. begins this section by looking at various mythological birds, but also by looking at the interesting problem of the absence of the butterfly in classical texts. He finishes with a brief examination of the connection of birds to the divine, through both sacrifice and the varied birds presented as psychopomps.
The book suffers slightly from the usual problems of an overview of this type: the minor conflations of Greek and Roman culture and the homogenisation of attitudes across time and space. However, M. is clearly aware of these issues and indicates this to his reader at the beginning of Chapter 6 when discussing the consumption of birds, where he states: ‘we must remember that practices will have varied considerably across times and places, and not only according to social class’ (p. 92). This point could have been emphasised more frequently.
I have already talked about the absence of zooarchaeological evidence, which I believe would have improved certain aspects, and this is also the case for the integration of visual evidence. While M. includes a variety of images, often they are not directly related to the point he is making and some, such as the inclusion of a Portrait of Frederick II with a falcon (p. 152, fig. 3.7), while interesting, do not add anything to the discussion of birds in their ancient context. This is not to say that all these images are superfluous: in fact, as mentioned, the inclusion of an image of the use of bird-lime enhances and illustrates the discussion. I felt that more of these latter images could have been included, along with a more in-depth discussion of the representation of birds in the art of the ancient world, as often images are presented without commentary.
These are minor issues, however, and certainly do not impact on the usefulness of the book. M. outlines his aim for the book in the preface, where he states his hope that it ‘may in a way serve both as a contribution to the cultural history of birds and as an introduction for non-classicists to this formative period of Western history and some of its greatest literature’ (p. vi). The book certainly achieves these aims. M.’s style will no doubt engage non-Classicists, particularly ornithologists and bird-watchers, through his intelligent use of modern comparisons and presentations of extracts of ancient texts. However, I also believe his book could work as a set-text for undergraduate students, particularly for modules that discuss the interaction between ancient societies and the natural world. It not only serves as a sourcebook for birds in the ancient world, but M.’s discussion of the source material introduces the reader to some of the larger issues in the study of the ancient world, such as the definition of ancient terms and ancient conceptions of time. Additionally, through M.’s inclusion of both a timeline and brief biographies of each included ancient author, it allows both students and non-Classicists to contextualise their knowledge without resorting to an outside text.
The reviewed monograph is a unique compendium of information about the role of birds in the culture of the Ancient world. It is difficult to imagine any nation, in life of whom birds did not played a significant role, but in the culture of the Ancient world, birds occupied a special place. The material presented in the monograph co-vers a fairly long period of time from the VIII century BC to the IV century AD and mainly the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome. The author of the book is a unique fusion of a scientist, translator from ancient Greek, con-noisseur of ancient texts and a practicer, who devoted a significant part of his life to the study and observation of birds in nature. It is difficult to call Professor J. Mynott an Amateur ornithologist, because he embodies an amaz-ing fusion of enthusiasm of a bird-watcher and exceptional awareness of a professional who is able to identify the bird by forms, sounds or behavior. The monograph is not a simple collection of various facts about birds, it is really a scientific study that introduces into scientific circulation a huge number of ancient texts, many of which were previously not translated into English and were known only to a narrow circle of specialists. The book is of great interest to a wide range of readers from specialists in the history of the Ancient world to people interested in ornithology and cultural history.
Yakushenkov Sergei N.
Jeremy Mynott’s new book is by far the most erudite book on birds I have ever read. It is a compelling combination of the history of birds and the ancient world that throws both into new relief. The book is formed of six parts, each with its own introduction and brimming with quotes from classical authors, including Homer, Ovid, Catullus and Aristotle.
While this could be daunting, it proves fascinating. Mynott’s fresh translations and the numerous illustrations that accompany the text keep the narrative bowling along without bogging it down. The book begins with “the first reference to birds in the whole of European literature” in Homer’s Iliad, the Greeks are compared to migratory cranes. From here, seasonal migration of birds in the Ancient World unfolds, there are swallows on illustrated pottery and the ‘lamenting’ swallow song heard by Socrates.
Mynott’s guide goes way beyond ornithological interest. Nominated for the Wolfson History Prize, this original guide comes highly recommended.
I love birds and so does the author of this book, who published a previous book on birds in 2009.1 Mynott has written a book intended for bird lovers perhaps more than for academics. This does not mean that the book is not carefully researched on the contrary, the wealth of information and detail is superb. It makes for excellent reading for anyone curious about the Greek and Roman worlds who likes birds or the outdoors. With this reader in mind, the book includes an appendix at the end containing short biographies of a hundred and thirty ancient authors who mentioned birds in one capacity or another. The book includes quotes from authors like Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and Ovid but also many lesser authors, who may not be familiar to the general classicist. It did come as a surprise to me that birds were so ubiquitous in Greek and Roman literature, probably much as they were in life, as Mynott makes clear throughout the book. The passages of ancient authors are given only in translation, as the work is intended for the general reader. It is beautifully produced and contains many colour illustrations both of ancient and modern depictions of birds: Minoan frescoes, Greek pottery, Roman mosaics, coins, Renaissance paintings and engravings, early twentieth century books, and taxonomic drawings. As with birds themselves, variety and abundance of topics constitute the strength of the book.
The book is divided into six sections, each of which contains a short introduction and three or four short chapters. The structure is the same throughout: Mynott gathers quotes from several authors to illustrate each of the points he wants to make. From the richness of quotes it becomes clear right away that the author must have been collecting these passages for many years before putting them together in an organized manner.
The first part, “Birds in the Natural World,” comprises four chapters: “The Seasons”, “Weather”, “Time”, and “Soundscapes”. The section discusses how the Greek idea of nature included the human world and was not contrasted to it, as we tend to do in modern times. The first three chapters illustrate how certain species of birds were associated with the change of seasons, prediction of weather patterns and other changes in the natural world. Birds were a standard point of reference for cyclical changes in natural phenomena. In the fourth chapter the author argues that the world would have sounded rather different from ours since there was a greater abundance of wildlife and at the same time there were less mechanical noises to compete against. He also discusses how the songs of certain birds like nightingales, larks or swans were interpreted as lamentations. Many of the birds that the ancients valued for their song are still iconic birds in Westerns culture.
The second part, “Birds as a Resource,” is divided in three chapters: “Hunting and Fowling”, “Cooking and Eating”, and “Farming”. This part explores how birds were valuable as a source of food. Hunting birds, as opposed to the elite pastime of hunting big game, was seen more as an activity for the countryman. Everything was basically deemed edible, not just wildfowl, pigeons or partridges but also sparrows, larks or even cuckoos. The ancients had at their disposal a great array of snares, traps, nets and decoys to hunt for birds. Birds constituted welcome additional protein to anybody’s table and the ancients developed elaborate ways to cook them. The last chapter in this section reviews Roman agricultural writers’ advice on breeding geese, chickens, ducks and pigeons. Some of this advice is at odds with modern sensitivities, including breaking the legs of the animals so they would fatten faster.
Part three, “Living with Birds,” also contains three chapters: “Captivity and Domestication”, “Sports and Entertainments”, “Relationships and Responsibilities”. The first deals with keeping birds as pets, either peacocks for the rich or sparrows, nightingales or parrots for everybody else. Even jays would have been kept as pets and some of them were taught to speak. The second chapter discusses the absence of falconry in ancient times, as far as we can tell. It also mentions cockfights and the use of ostriches in the Roman circuses. The last chapter considers how birds were common in daily life and would have shared the same dwellings as humans. Birds could be a nuisance and agricultural pests, but they could also control insects. Corvids and vultures were seen disposing of animal and human carrion. Some birds were also valued for their feathers and pigeons were used as messengers.
Part four, “Invention and Discovery,” is also divided into three chapters: “Wonders: travellers’ tales and tall stories”, “Medicine: folklore and science”, and “Observation and Enquiry: the beginnings of ornithology”. Mynott argues in this section that humans were curious about the behaviour of birds and differences among species and attempted a classification of birds. The first chapter in this section starts with Herodotus’ well-known stories about the birds that lived around crocodiles and the mythical phoenix. It also discusses the fascination with ostriches as well as with monsters like the Sirens, the Stymphalian birds or the Harpies. The second chapter examines the importance that medical writers attributed to birds for a balanced diet and several bizarre recipes prepared with parts of birds for the treatment of all types of diseases from aches and pains to hemorrhoids. The last chapter focuses on Aristotle’s taxonomy of birds.
Part five, “Thinking with Birds,” also has three chapters: “Omens and Auguries”, “Magic and Metamorphosis”, and “Signs and Symbols”. The first chapter in this section presents what can only be a quick overview of the topic of auguries, which, of course, has merited many studies on its own. In the next chapter we learn how birds were used for love magic and necromancy. Several passages of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are discussed as well. The third chapter of this section deals with the interpretation of dreams, how birds were often symbols for our longing to fly away from difficult situations, and it also discusses the military symbolism of the eagle.
Part six “Birds as Intermediaries” includes three chapters and an epilogue: “Birds as Intermediaries”, “Messengers and Mediators”, “Mother Earth”, and “Epilogue: then and now”. This section is a bit repetitive since most of the topics have already been dealt with elsewhere in the book. Nevertheless, Birds in theAncient World is a welcome addition to anyone’s library. The prose is clear and engaging and the author reflects on our modern attitudes towards birds in particular and nature in general. Mynott’s great accomplishment is that he brings to the forefront the presence of a type of animals among the ancients that we often take for granted or ignore. Birds lived much closer to humans in the ancient world than they do today. There were more birds and more kinds of birds in evidence and they shared the space in the cities and in the fields. Just as today, birds belonged to the reality of life and to the imagination.
Reyes Bertolín Cebrián
LXXXVIII.1, pages 142-143
It goes without saying that no medievalist can ignore the influence of classical writing in medieval scholarly and literary traditions. There can be few subjects addressed by medieval writers for which there was not some classical precedent consulted, translated, or adapted to some degree, and this is certainly no exception when it comes to the medieval natural world. Antique legacies shaped a great deal of ‘natural history’ discourses in succeeding centuries: Plato, subsumed into early patristic theology Aristotle, encountered through Pliny’s Naturalis historia – a huge influence in itself – and then through direct translations in later centuries. Texts like Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiæ, and later the bestiaries, were deeply indebted to classical learning de natura rerum ‘on the nature of things’.
Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World, then, offers rich material for scholars engaged with medieval non-human and environmental interests, an area of study that has gained much traction in recent years. At its simplest, the book provides a highly impressive catalogue of sources on avian appearances in classical literature. This achievement is a boon in itself to those specifically interested in birds in medieval texts (worthy of ‘special mencioun’ among all animals, as Bartholomaeus Anglicus states). Readers can trace sources in one single volume, reassured by fresh and authoritative translations that will contribute very admirably to scholarly footnotes. Mynott is eminently qualified on his subject: he knows his birds and has an extensive background in the classics (his translation of Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians was published in 2013 with Cambridge University Press).
But the book is much more than an anthology, and will certainly appeal to those with more general requirements, too. Mynott’s narrative elegantly coheres the astonishing array of materials into parts and chapters that explore how birds mattered in the wider natural and cultural environments of Greek and Roman lives: as food or medicine, entertainment, markers of seasons, as omens, metaphors, and messengers. Significantly, many of these contexts are directly or closely relevant to medieval theorizing on the natural world, in which age, too, we might say humans and non-humans ‘were understood to be in the same sphere of activity’, and that ‘With this intimacy went an interdependency’ (p. 5). Readers working on medieval concepts of voice, for instance, encountering birdsong in grammar theories, would do well to consult Mynott (pp. 57–60 142–9) for sources and lines of transmission. Or what of the phoenix in classical experiences and learning (pp. 195–7) Aristotle’s monumental influence (pp. 222–41) or antique responses to metamorphosis (pp. 276–84), which became such an enduring concept in late medieval literature?
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 – in bestiaries, fables, romances, dream-visions, and debates, in falconry, heraldry, hunting, and writing, in species- and place-names. Mynott’s erudite discussions, though, will make an excellent companion for those wishing to explore the classical legacy in medieval ‘nature’ paradigms.
Michael J. Warren
I started this review with a pitch, and with a pitch I will end: if you like the outdoors, and are interested in animals, do yourself a favour and get a copy of one of the most beautiful, most engaging, and simply most delightful books I have read in a long time – Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World. Winged Words. In spite of not being much of a birdwatcher myself (save for the hummingbirds that gather in our backyard from May onwards), I thoroughly enjoyed every moment I spent with this book. At a time in UK academia when administrative exercises have placed the notion of ‘impact’ on a pedestal, Mynott has offered a masterclass in writing a work that popularizes Classics and explains the discipline’s relevance authoritatively, clearly, and memorably to outsiders, while adhering to rigorous scholarly standards. This volume tackles the big issue of the relationship between humankind and nature, by providing a highly readable cultural history of birds in Greco-Roman antiquity. Explaining the manifold aspects of birds’ relevance in everyday life, the author zooms in on six distinct foci. First, ‘Birds in the Natural World’ paints a vivid picture of ancient birds as indicators of seasons, weather, and time, before allowing his reader to listen to birds whistle, chirp, and squeak. Throughout the book, Mynott lets a plethora of original texts, regularly presented in new and elegant translations, tell the story: every page is brimming with wonderful excerpts illustrating the main themes, while the author’s voice, coming from a place of lived experience, true mastery, and ornithological expertise, illuminates the passages. Take this as an illustrative sample – after producing a passage from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris (lines 1089–95), in which the chorus mentions that halcyon sings a song of sorrow, Mynott remarks (p. 53):
It’s true that the kingfisher does have a song of sorts – a jumble of high-pitched whistles, which could be thought of as a kind of keening. But the song is very rarely heard, and it seems unlikely that even the bird’s much commoner shrill fight calls could explain the many literary references. However that may be, it is interesting that such a visually striking bird should be mythologized mainly for its dissonant voice, and categorized along with the melodious nightingale as the voice of mourning.
Observations of this kind are the hallmark of the entire work, which is characterized by its learnedness paired with an excellent command of sources: there is much to gain from each page, for experts and non-experts alike. Experts will be grateful for the endnotes, in which Mynott points to relevant literature and offers further guidance, while non-experts will be grateful also for footnotes in which the author quickly explains terms or issues on which non-Classicists might trip. In the next large section, ‘Birds as a Resource’, one will find discussions of hunting and fowling, birds on the menu of the ancients, and a section on farming. Here, too, one learns many fascinating details, such as that the tongue and brain of a flamingo were considered a particular delicacy, served with a special flamingo sauce, or that ibis was an Egyptian speciality. ‘Living with Birds’ tells an often moving story about birds as pets, as exhibits, and as familiars, and their roles in the home, sports, and entertainment. Substantial sections deal then with birds in medicine (including diet!), folk-tales, and science (‘Invention and Discovery’), and religion, magic, and risk management (‘Thinking with Birds’ and ‘Birds as Intermediaries’). The volume is rounded off with an ‘Epilogue: Then and Now’, an account of historical shifts in the perception and significance of birds, and a useful and interesting appendix providing bird lists from ancient sources. The work closes with concise biographies of quoted authors that will be of great help to non-Classicists, bibliography, endnotes, and good set of indices. Among many splendid features of this volume, I wish to highlight its illustrations: there are over one hundred images, the vast majority in colour, and of excellent quality – if you cannot tell your turtledoves from your pigeons, worry not, you will be helped. To sum up: 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 than 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. And here I will stop for this issue – I think I just saw a bluebird in our back yard.
Nine years ago, Jonathan Elphick wrote a glowing review (Brit. Birds 102: 414) of Birdscapes: birds in our imagination and experience and was full of praise for its author, Jeremy Mynott. Reading the present book, I can see why. Here, again, there is an astonishing combination of knowledge and sheer readability. In the language of another age, Jeremy Mynott is a learned man, not just a classicist of distinction but a philosopher and a cultural historian. He very clearly knows his birds too. It seems very apt, with the word’s double Greek roots, to call him a true polymath.
What we have this time is a copiously and richly illustrated review of a selection of Greek and Roman writing, roughly from 700 BC to AD 300, in which birds or bird-related topics appear. I was amazed to learn how much has survived: it is a sobering thought, however, that a colossal amount must also have been lost. There are extracts from the words of some 120 classical authors, all (believe it or not) freshly translated by Jeremy Mynott. We meet historians, politicians, geographers, philosophers and poets. It was no surprise to find Aristotle so prominent, and I knew about some of the others, such as Pliny the Elder, but there are plenty of names I did not know, and some surprises. I had not expected to encounter the witty satirist Martial, translating whose verse caused me so much agony all those years ago…
There is ample warning about the differences in what people thought, believed and knew 2,000 years ago and what we know (or think we know) now, which is obviously important in trying to interpret what we are reading here. This is no mere catalogue of ‘classical mentions’ – the book has a definite theme, and to be understood and appreciated fully it has to be read from beginning to end: it does not readily lend itself to the ‘dipping in’ treatment. The main text is supplemented by a handy brief biography section covering the classical authors, 26 pages of endnotes to the various chapters and 10 pages of modern references.
The first of the six main parts of the book deals in succession with birds as markers of seasons, weather and time, setting the context of the relationships of birds with people in the natural environment. Next comes exploitation – birds being eaten, basically – while part 3 covers entertainments and birds as pets. In part 4 we come to the ancients’ curiosity about birds – the first real moves towards science and what we might begin to call ornithology. For birders, this is a particularly intriguing part of the book. Next there is the fascinating area of dreams, imaginings and symbols involving birds, which then leads logically into part 6, where we are faced with the more difficult topics of how and why birds have become so inextricably linked with our thoughts and ideas about our life and our environment. As you might expect, there is a lot to think about here.
Fewer and fewer people have any knowledge of Classical Greek and Latin, or ancient history, and perhaps many might wonder what relevance a book like this has to present-day birding, or indeed life in general. I would argue that an understanding of our past, which for me has to include knowing something about the history of birds and wildlife, and the world we share with them, will always be important. I think we should be grateful to Jeremy Mynott for this wonderful book, which both illuminates that understanding and broadens our knowledge.
Towards the end of his Birds in the Ancient World Jeremy Mynott poses a lepidopteral question. Why do butterflies arrive in Greek literature so late, when birds appear so early? A distinguished publisher and writer on both classics and birdwatching, Mynott has scoured thousands of pages on a literary nature trail. He has quoted more than a hundred authors and identified many wonders, but is finally puzzled by a strange case of absence. Only in the fourth century BC does he find his first butterfly. Other insects, the ant and bee and wasp have by then long played their minor parts, many mammals too. And by the time that Aristotle describes the extraordinary emergence of wings from a chrysalis, the pages of poets, playwrights and prose writers have been packed with birds for as long as 500 years.
What did birds offer Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus and Sophocles that butterflies did not? Both were ubiquitous, brightly coloured, active in daylight and hard for even the most unobservant to avoid. Both offered opportunities for metaphors of fleeting life and fragile beauty. Did the answer lie in the ancient sky or the ancient mind? Mynott offers only suggestions, a reticence which, on this sprawling subject, shows his consistent theme: how hard it is to decode another culture, how the simple and satisfying explanation so often fails the test.
Birds in the Ancient World is both a joy and a challenge. It is in six parts, each focusing on possible reasons why humans chose birds as the most constant companions of their minds. Mynott begins with birds as indicators of the seasons, their spring and autumn migrations, their sensitivity to the weather. There is a chapter on birds for food, for pets, for medicine, for magic and as message carriers to and from the gods. In a section on the sound of antiquity he evokes the density of natural noise in the fields of Greece, the onomatopoeia of birds’ names and their part in human music. Each part contains brief commentary on its quoted sources, some of them familiar like Homer’s army of migrating cranes and Catullus on his mistress’s sparrow, others rarer. Artemidorus, author of the only surviving guide to dreams in antiquity, is cited for his studies of ravens, gulls and storks in the sleep patterns of the second century AD. Crinagoras, a little earlier, makes the list by describing birds for Rome’s city consumers: an eagle might use its feathers to soar through the air but for man they were quill pens and toothpicks. Aratus, who wrote a weather guide for the third century BC called Phaenomena, soon gained a popularity second only to Homer. Mynott gives him his recognition back.
Aristophanes’ beautiful comedy The Birds, the most extended work on why humans might see themselves in feathers, is multiply cited with every physical and moral possibility explored. Aristophanes’ avian chorus, first on stage in Athens in 414 BC, has its own city in the sky birds have fun they are free from lawyers they rule like playful gods they control time and the seasons, the cuckoo sounding the hour for men to have sex – or to harvest the wheat in their fields, as the more literal translators prefer. They can fly away if caught in a tight corner. A crow lives five times as long as a man. A politician bird can shit on anyone who doesn’t vote for it. A bird can be both a pest and a pest-controller, a prophet, an interpreter of prophecy. Birds help pederasts bribe young boys.
In the vulture, the sparrow, the duck and the hoopoe Aristophanes’ audience see themselves. To imagine the mind of a bird is a part of being human. And as in all human activity, some men take their identification too far. “Ortygomania”, for example, is an obsession with quails, a problem as troublesome for the stoic philosopher Chrysippus as “gynaikomania”, craziness for women. The philosophical emperor Marcus Aurelius, too, warns against such madness. Some men play “ortygokopia”, a gambling game where one player puts his quail on a board and another taps its head to try to drive it from its place. A certain Meidias, one of many fellow citizens at whom Aristophanes aims a shot, is as dazed as is a quail when too often tapped on the head. But Mynott still has his lepidopteral question. He considers the possibility that the 500-year absence of literary butterflies is an illusion. Maybe close-reading scholars, like birdwatchers with binoculars, have failed to see what is there under their noses, missing butterflies masquerading under other names. Or maybe there were fewer real butterflies perhaps the fifth-century birds ate them when the fifth-century poets were looking the other way. Or did the Greek poets just not see butterflies as significant, recognizing that even the biggest, brightest butterflies make a poor supper, do not sing, and are reluctant to act for human entertainment? Mynott rejects the claim that the butterfly, whose Greek name, psyche, is shared with the word for soul, was somehow taboo (“there seem to be few inhibitions in Greek culture about discussing anything”), or that butterflies were mentioned only in literature now lost. The absence, he admits, is a mystery but not a unique mystery in a book which is not just an anthology of quotations but an elegant discussion of intellectual method, stuffed with mismatches between word and bird, misidentifications and other conundrums.
Birds are “good to think with”, he argues, adapting Claude Levi-Strauss’s phrase for the feathered part of the anthropologist’s natural world. They stand on two legs and make men think why that matters. Some can talk – or at least challenge men to argue why human and bird talk is different. Others seem to communicate over long distances, as in Aristotle’s account of prophetic ravens calling their colleagues from all over Greece after a particularly grisly massacre at Pharsalus in 395 BC. The largest of the crows both recognize a sign and are the sign itself, says Pliny, “a rather sophisticated thought”, says Mynott, “if that is what he meant”.
Birds, unlike butterflies, are not imprisoned by silence. The wings of the mute swan sound even though its throat does not. The ripple of the partridge’s wings, like the noise of a human breaking wind, gives the bird its name in Greek, perdix, the farter, “thought to be a rare case of anal not oral onomatopoiea”. The bugling of cranes summons rain but their brains charm women into giving sexual favours, says Aelian, a Roman teacher of persuasive speech. Birds are linked through sound to many kinds of human music. Storytellers were happy to use insects to show simple human virtues, ants and bees for hard work and. organization wasps for vices. But birds could show humans to themselves in so many more complex ways. Their variety was sufficient for the most demanding early poet.
There was soon quite enough fuzziness and confusion in the skies. When was a partridge a partridge or a nightingale a nightingale or even a bird a bird? Such questions attracted scholars keen to fit names to observation. Mynott mines a deep thesaurus. Aratus’ popular weather guide contained a crow diving into water to predict rain, not something often seen, and a.. ololugon, possibly a nightingale but possibly not, loudly prophesying bad weather. An ololugon was a melancholy singer but may be a tree frog. A kissa was usually a jay but maybe sometimes a magpie the most important definition was that, unlike cranes’ brains, the kissa was not much use to eat.
Then there were the half-birds. Aristotle was puzzled by the ostrich, a creature that seemed to come from between bird and beast. The human imagination had already created Scylla the grabber of sailors, the singing Sirens, the blood-stained Harpies, the Furies, feared by all. These creatures stood for the opposite of usefulness, for defilement and pollution, not as gods or former or would-be gods but as metaphorical transformations, in which birds played early so dominant and distinctive a part, connections across the whole ofnature, visible, audible, edible, everywhere.
A prayer for butterflies on the wing
Some gardens are bereft of the colourful migrants this year
I am waiting keenly for my first painted lady. She will be a butterfly, not another film star. She is one of the wonders of late summer, but so far she has been staying away. She is not indigenous to Britain. She is a migrant from the shores of north Africa.
This heavenly butterfly is Vanessa cardui, not rare, not fussy, but skilled at migrating along a route which border controls are even less able to block than usual. Improved monitoring reveals that painted ladies migrate from Tunisia and neighbouring coastlines in huge clouds, often at heights above 10,000 feet. A more recent discovery is that they breed in Britain and that some of the young migrate south again to escape the British winter. They deserve to be welcomed as short-stay visitors, even if the “cardui” bit of their name refers to their fondness for thistles as food. Diligent gardeners do not have thistles to offer, but there are substitutes. One of the best is the superb blue-flowered ceratostigma, an essential small shrub. Its brilliant flowers of cobalt blue attract painted ladies and red admirals by the dozen. Ceratostigma willmottianum originates from China. They are far more beautiful than a garden of nothing but “native” plants.
This year, will the migrants actually come? I have the right plants ready and waiting: the lateflowering buddleias and verbenas, the proper type of buckthorn, asters galore and some thistlyheaded centaureas. I even have some holly and uninvited ivy, said to be beloved by holly blues. Butterflies like to feed on all these plants, especially on the tall — stemmed, mauve-flowered Verbena bonariensis, a free-seeding variety whose name commemorates Buenos Aires. My Buenos Aires verbenas survived last winter and are looking good, but they have only attracted cabbage whites. This year, other varieties are giving me a wide berth. What is going on?
One absence does not make a national shortage. Elsewhere in Britain there have been some excellent viewings. Large blues have proliferated in the south-west. Green-veined whites have been abundant and so have commas, one of Britain’s everyday favourites. It seems that these species revelled in the wet and mild May weather before the long dry spell began in June. They may even have had an over-exuberant surge and next year, they may be less prolific as a result. Like investors, butterflies can get ahead of reality.
Are they shunning me because I am devoted to the classical Greek world? It is a most extraordinary fact, but butterflies are never mentioned in Homer. They occur nowhere in the post-Homeric Greek poets despite their fond references to items in the natural world. Homer mentions flies, but never so much as a clouded yellow or a butterfly tout court. Fluttering briefly through the world, they would have been an ideal item for one of his similes, illustrating the passage of humans’ spirits or souls to the world of the dead. In later Greek, butterflies even shared the same word-name as the Homeric soul: psyche. Instead Homeric souls twitter like bats. As I see the world through Homeric eyes, maybe butterflies are boycotting me for my icon’s short-sightedness.
In his excellent new book, Birds in the Ancient World, Jeremy Mynott pauses to consider why Homer and the Greeks before Aristotle never mention a butterfly. Rightly, he discards the view that the conditions were somehow different and butterflies did not exist. They have been detected in early Greek art and when Aristotle finally referred to them c3330BC, he did not imply they were novel. In later texts they are sometimes called “little birds”, but Mynott is surely right to deny that butterflies were therefore classed as birds by early writers. The great authority on Greek birds, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, had a different theory. He thought that butterflies’ Greek name, psyche, might be an explanation for the silence. Mynott, a fellow birdlover, quotes his suggestion that “the Greeks found something uncanny or not to be lightly spoken of in that all but disembodied spirit which we call butterfly, and they called by the name of the Soul”. I agree with Mynott that this theory is most unlikely. Ancient Greek writers had no inhibitions about anything else. On its silver coins, c200BC, the island of Rhodes had no scruples about showing a butterfly beside what I now believe to be a damask rose. Early Christians, also writing in Greek, felt no scruple, either, about citing the “soul” — butterfly as a symbol of the resurrection.
Butterflies were not mentioned in the Bible either: are they avoiding me because I have written a book about the Bible too? In my view, these silences are just silences, proving nothing about butterflies’ everyday prominence or observation. Ancient Greeks must also have observed the glorious red tulips which flower wild in places in spring, but they never mention tulips either. They were not later imports from Turkey, as an urban historian once solemnly assured me. Literary silence does not entail contempt or even oversight.
If the painted ladies now avoid me, it may simply be a hazard of so-called “butterfly gardening”. Gardeners are now in competition. The more they plant buddleias and butterfly — friendly types of daisy, the more they bid for a zero-sum goal, the attention of passing butterflies. We cannot all lure them in. Painted ladies are migrants, so it is not essential to plant food-plants for their caterpillars in order to enjoy their presence. Even when it is essential, the right food-plant does not necessarily retain adults. I have planted the exact buckthorn which non-migrant brimstone butterflies like, the one called Rhamnus catharticus, but even so, the hatched young brimstones do not hang around in gratitude. This year, they have migrated to other Oxford gardens because they too have ivy and flowers on offer.
If you are having a lean butterfly year, do not generalise it or blame yourself. Butterflies will be back when they find that the neighbours’ ivy and thistles are no greener than yours. Meanwhile, Mynott’s book has reminded me of a fine mosaic from ancient Pompeii which ought to be the personal logo of sharp financial traders. On the left side of it, a robe of luxurious purple is shown hanging, a mark of worldly success and social rank. On the right side, hang the clothes of a poor beggar. In the middle, between these extremes, hangs a large human skull, a reminder of mortality. Below the skull’s chin a butterfly is spreading its wings and resting on a wheel. The wheel is surely a wheel of fortune and the butterfly is a symbol of the soul. On one side, therefore, the mosaic shows worldly riches, on the other, poverty and, in between, death which comes to us all. Beneath, a soul is basking on the wheel of chance. The butterfly in the mosaic is usually identified as a lesser purple emperor, but it has round spots on the wings and may not be realistically shown. So far, it has not been seen in my garden.
Robin Lane Fox
Tusen år av bevingade möten
I den andra körsången i Sofokles tragedi “Antigone” skildras hur människan, hon som är deinos (oerhörd, fantastisk och skrämmande), betvingar naturen och grundar samhällen. Även om filosofen Heidegger var av uppfattningen att västerlandets historia kunde härledas ur denna körsång, är övergripande psykologiska, sociala eller ekonomiska perspektiv frustrerande otillräckliga när det gäller att fånga människans speciella egenart…
The sacred chickens that ruled the roost in ancient Rome
No affairs of family or state could be settled unless the birds approved
Even the most cursory glance at the classical period reveals the central place that birds played in the religious and political lives of the two key Mediterranean civilisations. Their gods, for example, were often represented in avian form, so that the Athenian currency bore an owl image, which was intended as a portrait of the city’s patron, Athene. ‘Owls to Athens’ was a proverbial expression, much like ‘coals to Newcastle’. From North Africa to the shores of the Black Sea there are still Greek temples dedicated to Zeus that are topped by weathering stone eagles as symbols of their supreme deity, while the imperial legions of Rome fought under an eagle standard for much the same symbolic reasons.
As the author of this new book explains, one of the most telling, if weirdest, expressions of their bird-mindedness is the significance that Romans accorded their sacred chickens. It involved a form of augury — a word that meant ‘watching birds’ — that required an official, known as a pullarius, to note the manner in which the fowl foraged, and also the sound and force of the grain as it spilt it on the ground. In his History of Rome, Livy wrote that ‘no action was ever undertaken, in the field or at home, unless the auspices had been consulted: assemblies of the people, war levies, great affairs of state — all would be put off if the birds withheld their approval’.
These ancient fixations have been the subject of more than a century of modern British scholarship but unfortunately the books have often been deficient, primarily because the subject demands a deep knowledge of two radically separate disciplines — the cultural lives and literature of Greece and Rome and modern ornithological science.
At last, here comes an author with the requisite dual scholarship. Jeremy Mynott, fresh from an acclaimed translation of Thucydides for Cambridge University Press, at which he was the former chief executive, has also been a lifelong birdwatcher. In 2009 he published a detailed anatomy of his pastime in a book called Birdscapes. This new work is thus a consummation of all his accomplishments. It is also 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. Some of their original passages have never been translated before, but Mynott has converted them all into highly idiomatic English. At the same time, he has been careful not to load them with modern ideas or prejudices, so that they are both faithful translations and highly readable.
To give a single example of how the author’s expertise sheds new light on old problems, there is a famous passage in Virgil’s Georgics translated by C. Day Lewis (now used for the Oxford World’s Classics edition) that includes material assumed to be about rooks as they ‘visit again their baby broods, their darling nests’. Mynott points out that there is deep ambiguity not only about the word corvus, which could be used for any of several species of crow. And the word cubiles, that Day Lewis renders as ‘cradle’, can in fact be any kind of resting place, including those used by dogs and even elk.
Choosing to describe it as a rook’s nest begs questions that were probably of no matter to a poet. Yet rooks don’t breed at all in Italy now, so taking Day Lewis’s version on trust generates an intriguing ornithological problem. Why are the birds extinct in Italy today? It requires someone of Mynott’s hybridised scholarship to identify and analyse the issues at stake when we place such precise interpretations on the original texts.
Mynott divides his own analysis into broad categories: birds as a resource birds as pets and familiars or sporting elements and birds as symbols and vehicles of religious and magical practices. Finally he tackles birds as objects of study, especially for the Greek philosopher who is central to the book, and described as a ‘one-man university’: Aristotle. In his massive oeuvre this genius named 140 birds and initiated much of the intellectual groundwork that led to modern biological science.
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 two great civilisations. Birds and nature may remain centre stage, but ultimately we are asked to consider how Greek and Roman attitudes towards these other parts of life say so much about human nature, both in the past and also today.
Friday, 22nd June 2018
In Birds of the Ancient World, Jeremy Mynott, author of the brilliant Birdscapes (2009), takes us back to the beginning of birds in European culture. The classical world was open to the presence and meaning of birds because southern climates allowed life to be lived outdoors. Birds were readily co-opted as auguries – the word itself shares the same root as avian. The seasonal migrations became markers of time when time, too, was yet to be “invented” in the way that we measure it birds could be clocks or calendars in the sky. The first reference to birds in European literature is Homer’s account of Greek troops mustering like “the many tribes of winged birds/geese or cranes or long-necked swans”, taking their stand, “there in the bright meadows,/numberless as the leaves and flowers in spring”.
Swallows and swifts announced that spring but so did the kingfisher, whose name, the alcyon, brought halcyon days. Darker messages were carried by crows and ravens. The Latin poet Lucretius writes of “the ancient race of ravens or flocks of rooks” summoning storms inland, while at the beach, “the raven spraying his head with brine,/anticipates the rain and stalks the shore with unsteady gait”. Birds come alive in these texts, but were also hunted, cruelly. Passerines got stuck to limed branches. Ostriches unwittingly settled to brood on nests filled with spears. Jackdaws were caught by a bowlful of oil in which they admired their own reflections, only to fall in. Great crested grebes could be deceived at night by a lantern, which they’d mistake for a star. But Aristophanes’ play The Birds imagined an avian revenge familiar to Daphne Du Maurier or Alfred Hitchcock, announcing that anyone abusing their number “will be arrested by the birds/and it will be your turn to be tied up and serve us as decoys”.
Geese, ducks and pigeons were regularly farmed. Julius Caesar believed that only Britons were fussy about such matters, considering it wrong “to partake of hare, cockerel, or geese, but they keep these instead for reasons of affection and pleasure”. Yet Greeks and Romans certainly kept peacocks and gallinules for their decorative value, rather like moveable garden ornaments, and Lesbia the poet cherished her sparrow. Birds spanned this and the other world, by virtue of their ability to fly it was easy to imagine them slipping in and out of human business. Ovid’s Metamorphoses is full of transformations: the raven was changed from white to black because of its love of gossip, and Ascalaphus was punished for spying on Persephone by being turned into “a slothful owl, a dire omen for mortal men”.
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? We still kill, venerate or tame them. In The Silent Spring (1962), the founding text of modern environmentalism, Rachel Carson employed the plight of birds poisoned by insecticide as a symbol for our dysfunctionality. Birds remain our closest yet farthest connections with the natural world. If they were once dinosaurs, then they also seem relics of another empire, spanning and outliving our gravity-bound species. In the great vista of deep time, it hardly matters what names or attributes we give them now.
Flights of Imagination
The Roman poet Horace claims in one of his odes that he will not die but will instead be transformed into a ‘melodious’ swan. He describes the metamorphosis as he imagines it happening. Rough skin forms on his legs his upper parts become white feathers sprout. He will not need a tomb and his song will be known throughout the world. The essence of his humanity will take avian form.
It is a strange, lovely poem that, although it does not appear in Jeremy Mynott’s book, illustrates many of the themes found in his wide-ranging study of the complex relationships between birds and humans in the ancient world. These include problems of translation and interpretation (in Latin, ales can mean any kind of bird, as well as – at least in Horace – a swan), the sense of the bird being an essential part of the observable universe and questions of the numinous and the transcendent.
The ancients kept birds as pets, watched them, set them to fight, ate them, greeted them with delight and dreamed about them. More strangely (to us), birds were medicines, conduits for prophecies, essential for spells and connections to the divine. Birds of all kinds swoop, soar, perch and sing throughout Greek and Roman literature. Peacocks spread their gorgeous tail feathers in dusty Athenian houses cranes fight elephants in the Roman arena parrots die and are mourned by elegiac poets. Birds are used to create a sense of the monumental and epic, as when the massing armies at Troy are compared to cranes (which, fancifully, were thought to have given Greek letters their shape). They also grace moments of intimacy, as when the pet passer (usually translated as ‘sparrow’) of Catullus’s girlfriend hops about in her lap as he’s courting her, making him jealous.
Mynott organises his elegant and thought-provoking book by theme and deploys a comprehensive range of quotes from throughout the classical period. His aim is to understand why and how deeply these ‘feathered bipeds’ and the signs and symbols they have given rise to are entrenched in our make-up. His approach is nuanced and open-minded, and he writes with a light, often wry touch.
There are great difficulties in attempting to recalibrate ourselves towards an ancient perspective. The Greek word ornis means ‘omen’ as well as ‘bird’, making lines like this one from Aristophanes’s Birds – ‘Every prophecy that involves a decision you classify as a bird’ – suitably loaded. Ostriches caused Aristotle difficulties with categorisation: were they birds or terrestrial animals? And we’re often not even sure that the birds the ancients refer to by name are the same birds we might be thinking of: their nightingales are probably not our nightingales, and there’s even a word that could mean ‘frog’ as well as ‘bird’. But Mynott manages to guide us fully through this often alien worldview, in which humans and the natural world are not separate but are interacting elements in the same matrix.
The first chapters deal with birds as ways of marking time – signs in and of themselves – and consequently of attempting to predict the weather. The swallow, for example, then as now, was a herald of spring, which, as Mynott charmingly notes, quoting the Roman writer Aelian, was welcomed ‘according to Homer’s laws of hospitality, which bid us cherish a visitor while he is with us and speed him on his way when he wishes to depart’. Time and weather were therefore closely linked, with the Latin word tempestas (‘storm’) being often equivalent to tempus (‘time’) the word hora in Greek could mean anything from ‘a period’ to ‘spring’. The birds themselves were expressions of the natural order of time. There are fine chapters on rearing and cooking birds (cruelty to animals was not a great concern) and on birds as pets, combatants and cures, each providing lively and entertaining examples. But the greatest insight into how birds and the ancients worked together comes in Mynott’s discussion of the widespread practice of augury.
The Greeks attached significance to ‘unsolicited omens’ – eagles swooping on the pregnant hare in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, for example – whereas the Romans sought them out deliberately, marking out quadrants in the sky in which birds could be observed and their patterns of flight interpreted. This was a notoriously haphazard matter. Augurs, then as now, liked to cover their backs. Attitudes towards the practice were complex: a mixture of ‘enlightened scepticism’ alongside belief. Mynott gives the example of Hector in The Iliad pouring scorn on a seer for not providing the prediction he wants. Birds here display all the aspects that Mynott identifies: they are an organic part of their surroundings they ‘interact’ (because they are observed) with human beings and they are intermediaries between man and the divine, as messengers and guides.
The book is full of delightful titbits. I had not noticed that there were no chickens in Homer. I would like to play a round of ortygokopia, or ‘quail-tapping’. You place your quail on a board and your opponent taps it. If it stands its ground, you win if it runs away, you lose. The nickname ‘quail’ was thus given to a man who ‘always looked rather dazed’. Cranes cast magic spells on women, leading them to grant sexual favours. Flamingos’ tongues were a great delicacy – you cooked them with pepper, cumin, coriander, silphium root, mint and rue. Some recipes sound like they could have been made by a Wodehousean chef – chicken à la Parthian? If you want to catch a lover, tie a iunx, or wryneck, to a revolving wheel (we get the word ‘jinx’ from this creature).
There is a lovely anecdote about a poor cobbler who trained a raven to hail Augustus. Augustus told him, ‘I have enough birds at home to greet me like that.’ The raven remembered his master’s complaints and squawked, ‘all that work and money down the drain.’ The emperor eventually bought the bird, at a higher price than all the others he had purchased. But pity Hanno the Carthaginian, who secretly trained birds to say ‘Hanno is a god’, and then released them, hoping they would propagate his message. They all forgot their lines.
Resurgence and Ecologist
Issue 310, September/October 2018
A World Closer to Nature
Our modern ignorance of the natural world seems to increase with every year that passes. It’s not just young children no longer knowing what acorns are. In a recent survey of first-year biology students at Oxford University, for instance, researchers made the startling discovery that 42% of the sample could not name even five species of British bird. Let that sink in. Biology students? Not even five?
Contrast this with the sort of easy familiarity with Nature in general, and with birds in particular, enjoyed by the ordinary citizens of ancient Greece and Rome, as evidenced by their literature and the way they decorated their houses. Twenty-eight species of bird figure in Aesop’s Fables, 75 figure in the plays of Aristophanes, and 75 different types of bird featured on the wall paintings of Pompeii before its destruction by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Jeremy Mynott, who makes this comparison in his stunning new book, Birds in the Ancient World, says this is only to be expected. Birds, he points out, have always been among the most prominent features of the natural world for humankind (in contrast with wild mammals, say), readily visible and audible almost anywhere humans happen to be but in classical times the contact was even more robust and vivid, because in Mediterranean societies, which were basically agrarian, people lived out of doors and there were many more birds to be seen and heard. Nightingales sang and hoopoes flashed cinnamon-pink within the city boundaries of Athens eagles were a regular feature of the skies farmers watched out in the autumn for flocks of migrating cranes, which signalled the time to start ploughing.
This more direct contact meant that birds were simply more significant in the lives of Greek and Roman citizens, and Mynott details this intense relationship in a work that is a marvellous combination of classical scholarship, ornithological expertise and lightness of touch. A former publisher – he was head of Cambridge University Press – he is a noted classical scholar, and he translated Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War in 2013 but he is also a highly skilled birder, and in 2009 he published Birdscapes, a lauded personal account of the human responses to feathered creatures, and why we watch them.
This double proficiency enables him to paint a picture of the avian connection in the ancient world that is endlessly fascinating, often amusing and sometimes surprising. The people of Greece and Rome looked at birds closely and sometimes rejoiced in them and sometimes feared them, and they not only ate them and used them in medicine, but they also kept them as pets and employed them in sport and put them in their stories and sometimes saw them as messengers from heaven.
They eagerly watched for the arrival of migrants such as the cuckoo and the swallow as indicators of season change, much as we do today, but they also used bird behaviour in weather forecasting. Most significantly of all, the ancient world used birds for formal divination and foretelling the future: they were central to augury, which was itself central to public life – without it no major public enterprise would be undertaken.
In Greece, augury consisted in interpreting un solicited omens – what does that eagle mean, suddenly appearing on our right? – but the Romans institutionalised it, with a college and a set of rules, and sought out omens themselves by, for example, observing how their sacred chickens fed.
But birds figured widely in less portentous aspects of life. Among pets, the most famous was Lesbia’s sparrow, whose elegy Catullus so movingly wrote, but sometimes there were others that now seem rather rarefied, such as the big, dark-blue Mediterranean moorhen relative that used to be known as the purple gallinule but is now labelled the western swamphen. It was a favourite pet of the Romans. In classical Greece, Alcibiades, Mynott informs us, had a pet quail.
The ancients (as used to be said) were also enthusiastic about birds that could be taught to talk, and Mynott retells an amusing anecdote about a man hedging his bets at the end of the Roman civil war between Augustus Caesar and Mark Antony by training two ravens to speak on the victor’s return, one saying, “Hail Caesar, victorious commander!” and the other, “Hail Antony, victorious commander!” (Augustus, the victor, ended up buying them both.) In sport, cockfights were very popular, but surprisingly falconry seems not to have existed at all in the classical world, a puzzle Mynott explores without finding an answer.
His remarkable erudition – he draws on 120 Greek and Latin authors, extracts from all of whom he translates himself – continuously throws up titbits that are absorbing for anyone interested in the classical world. I did not know, for example, that the chicken/cock/rooster does not appear in Homer (nor for that matter, in the Old Testament) because it was not introduced to the Mediterranean world – from Persia – till the 7th century BCE. I did not know that our lovely spring flower, the celandine, is named after the swallow (chelidon in Greek) because it appears at about the same time. I certainly did not know that the partridge is named from the Greek verb meaning ‘to fart’ because of the noise of its wingbeats!
Five hundred years ago, in the Renaissance, the humanists, as the early classical scholars were called, thrilled to the rebirth of classical literature and the ancient texts that were being rediscovered. We pay much less attention now to Greece and Rome, but reading this splendid study I experienced some of the excitement the humanists must have felt at entering into a lost world so incomparably rich in its life and in its letters. Beautifully produced, informed by wonderful scholarship, Birds in the Ancient World embodies the Renaissance spirit, as a model of humane and civilised learning.
Volume 29, Number 6, August 2018
Did the ancient Greeks go birdwatching? Perhaps not in today’s sense but they certainly knew (or thought they knew) a lot about birds. As Jeremy Mynott, who is both a birder and a classical scholar, relates in this splendid book, the Greeks and Romans wove birds into their culture and everyday activities in numerous ways. Symbolic birds perch on coins and seals, they come to life in paintings and mosaics and on pots they live on in poems and plays. Expressions we still use date back to ancient times: ‘swan song’, ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’ or ‘halcyon days’ (the original halcyon was a kingfisher). The appearance of birds like the swallow and cuckoo was a sign of the seasons and passing time. By their behaviour birds could help men to see into the future and warn of imminent peril. The Greek word ornis means bird (hence ornithology) but it also meant an omen.
Although the Greeks knew an impressive number of birds, it is not always easy to know which species were meant by a passer or a kemphos, unless there is a picture or description to go with them. But they clearly liked birds. Alcibiades carried around a tame quail in his cloak. Lesbia nestled a sparrow in her lap, which nipped her occasionally, and chirruped with a sound that Catullus renders as pipiabat. More surprisingly, it seems that Purple Gallinules were popular pets, sometimes as a gift from a lover. But the Greeks and Romans also ate wild birds in profusion. Thrushes, swans and flamingos were among those on the menu, and ancient recipes survive for sauces that bring out their flavour. Medicinal bits of birds, or their poo, could be used to cure all manner of ills. There were bird sports too. Falconry seems to have been unknown, but cockfighting was popular, and countless ostriches met a bloody end in the arena. On gala occasions the Romans staged animal contests, among which the most unlikely has to be a battle between cranes and elephants!
They did not always get it right. The ancients thought it was the female nightingale that did the singing (a view that survived right through the Middle Ages). Pliny believed that hawks tore up dandelion-like plants to help their eyes, hence the name ‘hawkweed’. They also believed that crows live as long as nine generations of mankind. There were traveller’s tales of harpies, half women, half bird, and wholly bloodthirsty or the terrible cranes of the Stymphalian marshes that could shoot bronze feathers at you or the phoenix that rises from the ashes of its previous incarnation. Did people believe them? Who knows? But one gets the sense that the divide between tales and reality was much narrower back then.
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.
Birds can fly we can’t…
This book is an extension of classicist/ornithologist Mynott’s earlier Birdscapes (2009) and Knowing Your Place (2016), a Gilbert White-like description of wildlife in a Suffolk hamlet.
Despite the dense text and parenthetic opulence, it’s a delightfully easy read, thanks to Mynott’s stylistic panache: fluent, quasi- Herodotean, jargon-free, consistently witty.
This sumptuous volume includes lavish source translations maps a timeline a list of 152 species (“only a fraction,”) illustrations 28 pages of end-notes a 20-page bibliography and separate bird and general indexes. Also, a 20-page bibliography of the 152 ancient authors consulted, some Englished for the first time. Aulus Gellius is misdated as elsewhere are Apicius and Galen. To complete the nitpicking, Apuleius does have an actual avian transmogrification.
Despite his “rank absurdities”, Aristotle (“The Master of Those Who Know”, as Dante put it) dominates, billed as the founder of ornithology. The other constant companion is, logically, Aristophanes’s Birds, whose avians specialise in, for instance, signalling men when to fuck and helping pæderasts to seduce boys.
The 19 chapters (‘Soundscapes’ is my favourite) include ‘Birds in the natural world’ ‘Birds as a resource’ ‘Living with birds’ ‘Invention and discovery’ ‘Thinking with birds’ ‘Birds as intermediaries’.
There’s a special section on the apparent absence of butterflies from classical literature. Rejecting various modern suggestions, Mynott leans towards a deathconnection, ‘psyche’ in Greek meaning both butterfly and soul.
The final sentence crystallises Mynott’s message: “The birds (sc. in Aristophanes) have successfully challenged human domination, and through winged words (a Homerism) the power of imagination has transcended the limitations of human experience.” Or, more simply: Birds Can Fly, We Can’t.
Throughout, Mynott points to the debts to antiquity acknowledged by such as Darwin (“Proceeds by small steps”), Freud and Hawking.
Whilst warning against generalisations, Mynott himself makes some arresting ones. “Translation always involves interpretation” (he frequently disputes standard ones) “Folklore Dies Hard”. And, a pithy reminder that the lack of competing man-made noise made the Græco-Roman world “sound very different from ours”.
‘Forteana’ abound, especially medical ones, e.g. goose-grease heals sore bums, pigeon-shit beneficial for kidneys and liver, pelicans kill offspring then resuscitate with their own blood. (See also FT140:18 and 370:17.) Mynott cautions against modern mistakes that will not die and famous moments that never happened, such as Archimedes/Eureka, Newton/Apple, jettisoning the enduring belief that Spinachiron is good for you – really, only for Popeye. He also exposes the persistent claim that Ælian (Animals) says kites swoop to steal human hair for Birds can fly we can’t… Classical literature is a rich source of bird-related forteana, as this superb study reveals sadly, though, it largely omits Byzantine sources nests. Fake news! They dive to plunder meat-market stalls.
Mynott is keen to detect sexual double entendres in Aristophanes and company. Yet, discussing Catullus’s poetic laments for his girlfriend’s dead sparrow, he seems unaware of Giuseppe Giangrande’s claim that the deceased avian really means ‘erectile disfunction’ – a Lincolnshire woman once complained to me that “My old man’s bird’s dead,” meaning the same.
Apart from dismissing Demetrius of Constantinople on classical falconry, which he finds “strangely absent”, Mynott largely ignores Byzantine texts, which means he missed Patriarch John ‘The Faster’ excoriating ‘ Immorality with Birds’, so no explanation of the erotic mechanics involved. I fancy poultry are meant. Many websites detail cases of ‘Avisodomy’ – my favourite headline reads: ‘He Shagged Our Sunday Dinner Chicken But I Still Love Him’.
Minnesota Statute 609:294 BESTIALITY proclaims: “Whoever carnally knows a dead body or animal or bird may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than one year or payment of a fine of not more than $3,000 or both.” A propos such fowl play, your house grammarian wonders: Did the hendiadys?
Thucydides, whom Mynott has translated, boasted his History was “a possession for all time.” Same goes here. Not many writers can claim to have the last word on their subject. Mynott, though, is that – have to say it – rare bird (a classical expression). For naturalists, scientists, social historians, twitchers, this superlative study will surely fly…
1st August 2018
We may think ourselves scientifically superior to mythology, a word that can sum up our idea of the ‘ancient world’, but we, too, generate myths. Take spinach. Many of us, as Popeye does, eat spinach because of its strength-giving iron content, but this is a fallacy. Spinach is of low nutritional value and may even prevent the absorption of the iron we need. Just one revelation in this wide-ranging work of scholarship. Jeremy Mynott, classical scholar and ornithologist among many distinctions, is Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, translator of Thucydides and author of Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience, for its Guardian reviewer ‘the finest book ever written about why we watch birds’.
His new book, covering the period from 700BC to AD300, is organised thematically to illustrate the different roles birds played as food, quarry (no account of falconry), pets, omens, intermediaries and much else. Some 120 authors are cited, all re-translated by the author to clarify meaning for a modern reader.
The famous names are all there, together with some new to translation. In his 11 plays, Aristophanes mentions 34 species of bird at least twice. Twenty-eight species are the subject of Aesop’s fables and, above all, there is Aristotle, described by Dante as ‘the Master of those who know’ and by Dr Mynott as ‘a one man university’ (he did, indeed, found a university, the Athens Lyceum). Why, our author asks, did no one before Aristotle notice butterflies?
In Greek, Latin and, presumably, any other ancient language, there are no words for what we mean by such contemporary indispensables as ‘nature’, ‘weather’, ‘landscape’ or ‘science’. The Greek word for bird, ornis, also meant omen. 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. And how!
He quotes the actress and politician Melina Mercouri: ‘Forgive me if I start by saying a few words in Greek: democracy, politics, philosophy, logic, theory, music, drama, theatre, comedy, athletics, physics, mathematics, astronomy.’
This is such a magnificent book that even a dry summary cannot but hint at the riches within. Part one investigates the ways in which the ancients understood birds in their natural setting, as predictors of seasons (the swallow and spring) and of weather (ravens indicate a tempest), as a sign of the time (the cockerel at dawn) and as architects of the aural landscape (the nightingale, probably mentioned more often than any other bird in ancient literature men imitating bird-song and so inventing music).
Part two examines birds as a resource: hunting and fowling (quails and partridges caught using decoys, mirrors and human scarecrows, these latter frightening them into the nets) cooking and eating (thrushes especially, pigeons, turtle doves, and the best sauces for boiled ostrich and flamingo) farming (Penelope’s dream about her flock of twenty geese, though Caesar said the Brits preferred them as pets rather than dinner, aviaries, hen-coops).
Part three turns from consuming birds to living with them: capturing them for domestication and display (was there a private peacock menagerie in Athens? Severus Alexander kept 20,000 doves) as pets (jackdaws, magpies, sparrows, nightingales, parrots, Pliny’s talking raven that greeted the public by name) for sport and entertainment (hunting, as target practice for archers, cockfighting, quail-tapping [ortygokopia], in the arena [ostriches] but not falconry, perhaps because not obviously competitive) and as aids or nuisances (models of human behaviour in Aesop’s fables thieves, scavengers and raiders, or pest-controllers suppliers of feathers for fans, arrows etc. guards [those geese on the Capitol] and messengers and with some empathy with humans, e.g. the goose that fell in love with the philosopher Lycades).
In part four, M. reflects on birds as sources of wonder (Herodotus’ ‘cinnnamon birds’, the phoenix) healthy foods (small montane birds very good for those on slimming diets, said Galen) as solutions to medical problems (goose for aches and pains pigeon dung dipped in vinegar removed a slave’s branding marks) and as subjects of observation and enquiry (Aristotle is especially significant here, e.g. his views on bird-song as a ‘kind of speech’, and on the intelligence demonstrated by swallows in the sound principles they exhibited in nest-building).
The mystical world of birds is the subject of part five: in divination, as mediators of the gods’ will (eagles here were the most significant ones, but ravens—usually bad news—owls, woodpeckers and chickens also played their parts) as mediums of magic (the wryneck, Greek iugx, source of our ‘jinx’, for erotic purposes) and metamorphosis (how the woodpecker—picus—got its name from one Picus, who rejected Circe’s advances) and as signs and symbols (e.g. Artemidorus discussing dreams identifies hawks and kites as signifying robbers and bandits birds regularly feature in similes and proverbs and as metaphors of human longing to escape from the world).
In part six, M. extends the analysis of the first five parts to consider birds as creatures both like and unlike us (Harpies, winged women Zeus taking on the forms of a swan or eagle for seduction purposes the Sirens Aristophanes’ Birds) as messengers and mediators (Deucalion’s dove, as reincarnated humans, sacrificial victims) and as crucial components of the beauty, variety and fertility of Gaia, ‘Mother Earth’).
An epilogue summarises similarities and differences in our and ancient views of nature and birds. Appendices provide bird-lists from ancient sources, detailed bibliographies of the 119 authors quoted, end-notes, and two indices, one of birds, one of general topics.
M. is to be warmly congratulated on composing a book that is a joy to read—elegant, relaxed, wide-ranging, humane—rich in well-translated sources accompanying the narrative, with 82 delightful illustrations (almost all in colour), and secure scholarly underpinning tucked away in the excellent end-notes. O si sic omnes.
Crammed with beauty and meaning
Did you know that the first recorded zoo existed in Egypt about 5,500 years ago? There may not have been any birds in it, though there were plenty elsewhere in the collections of the ancient world. During the fifth century BC there was, it seems, a peacock zoo in Athens. The public was admitted (sounds like one of our bird shows) on the first day of each month.
“The ancient world”, here meaning primarily Greece and Rome, has become forbiddingly remote during our lifetime. Outside academia, nobody understands the languages, so we need user-friendly academics to explain what it was like. One such is Jeremy Mynott, and we are extremely lucky to have him on our side: a scholar with the required historical and linguistic firepower (he did all of this book’s translations from Greek and Latin himself), yet also a true birdman. His thing is really “birds and the imagination”, and in our more modest way, it ought to be ours, too.
The first thing this book helps us to grasp is that birds were far more abundant in those days, far more present to the eye and mind than in our sanitised and impoverished times. More significant to the average person, in short, to whom it came naturally to use birds and their behaviour to interpret the world. The extent to which this was done seems to us dizzying, if not a bit mad: we’re told that the Romans “kept a collection of sacred chickens and appointed a college of experts to interpret their feeding behaviour.” It helps to learn that the Greek for “bird” (omis) also meant “omen”. Birds were signs, “the principal agents through which the gods revealed their will to humans”. In Homer’s epic poems, army generals sought tactical tips in the flight of eagles later, Roman armies would allot a holy vantage point to scan a chosen sector of the sky and interpret the birds that entered it.
For me, reading about “the ancient world” arouses a mixture of bafflement at the alien oddity of it all, and envy at the beauty and meaning that, seemingly crammed every facet of experience. This book does the same. It’s a chewy read, and of formidable scope, but eminently dippableinto. The photos and their captions of all those weird and lovely vases and frescoes are an education and delight in themselves. Whatever your bird, there’s something fresh for you here.
Researching my book Birds in the Ancient World took me, literally, into another world, a weird and wonderful one where birds had a significance of a kind we can scarcely imagine today. They were then a familiar part of daily life and entered deeply into popular culture. They were used to forecast the weather and mark the seasons they were an important resource for hunting, farming, eating and medicine they were kept as domestic pets and exchanged as lovers’ presents (“say it with birds”) they featured in magic spells, dream interpretations, myths and fables and above all they were treated as omens and auguries that could guide important personal and political decisions if you read the signs right.
One ancient text that illustrates this is the satirical comedy The Birds by the playwright Aristophanes (translated by Stephen Halliwell, Oxford World’s Classics). It’s fantasy about an outbreak of ornithomania (“bird madness”) in Athens, in which the Athenian citizens crave to join the birds in their “cloud cuckoo land” in the sky.
We also become aware just what we have lost if we compare the picture presented by ancient art and literature, overflowing with images of abundant birdlife, with our own impoverished and de-natured world, as vividly described in Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snow Storm (John Murray).
Studying the wildlife of another culture helps us stand outside the bubble we happen to live in now and then perhaps see ourselves differently. Mark Cocker’s mighty Birds and People (Jonathan Cape) is a beautifully written and illustrated survey of the multifarious responses to birds in the world’s cultures.
And what all these books are really about in the end are ourselves as much as the birds.
Ne fût-ce que par leur présence physique, les oiseaux ont imprégné le monde antique et influencé l’imagination des gens ordinaires. Ainsi, ils ont toujours occupé une place prépondérante dans la littérature et l’art. Ils furent également une source fertile de symboles et d’histoires dans les mythes et le folklore et ont été au cœur des anciens rituels de prédiction et de divination. Dans cet ouvrage, Jeremy Mynott illustre les différents rôles qu’ont joués les oiseaux dans la culture de l’Antiquité: comme indicateurs du temps et des saisons en tant que ressources pour la chasse, l’alimentation, la médecine et l’agriculture comme animaux domestiques comme simple divertissement comme intermédiaires entre les dieux et l’humanité. Nous apprenons comment les oiseaux ont été perçus – à travers des citations de plus d’une centaine d’auteurs grecs et romains, tous traduits récemment en anglais -, grâce à près de 100 illustrations de poteries et de mosaïques ainsi qu’une sélection d’écrits scientifiques.
Empiricists based knowledge on the practical success of treating patients, in contrast to rationalists who used experiments and theories (Cosans 1997).
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Non-Native Wildlife in Iceland
Iceland only had one native land animal when the Norse first arrived here. Today, there are multiple species to be found across the country.
None arrived naturally, either being brought over by humans or sneaking across on boats, but all have established themselves successfully, for better or worse.
Reindeer in East Iceland
Reindeer were brought over to Iceland much later than domestic animals, in the 18th Century.
Initially, they were supposed to be farmed as they were across Scandinavia, but Icelanders never took to the practice. The population, therefore, became wild.
About 3,000 reindeer now live in the country, all concentrated in the east. The reindeer are most commonly found around Snæfell, on the higher ground throughout summer and in the warmer lowlands throughout winter, but have been seen as far south as Jökulsárlón and as far north as Vopnafjörður.
Those driving through or staying in the East Fjords have a reasonable chance of spotting a herd.
While the reindeer are well-loved across Iceland, their population is controlled seasonally, as it is a concern that they may take food away from the grazing lands used by the free-roaming sheep.
This consumption would cause significant damage to the economy in the case of a brutal winter or a large-scale volcanic eruption, both of which are not at all uncommon in Iceland.
Rodents and Mink in Iceland
Throughout history, whenever humans discovered and settled new lands, they brought rodents with them, and Iceland is no exception.
Brown rats, along with wood and house mice, came over either with early settlers or later with trading ships and formed populations. The rats primarily live in populated areas, while the mice have spread all across the country.
Iceland also has a population of wild mink that was established more recently. They were imported for use in fur farms throughout the early 20th Century but escaped and became wild.
Now, they are often spotted fishing in the waterways around Reykjavík, hunting for bird-eggs along nesting cliffs, and have become the bane of chicken farmers across the country.
Rabbits are another invasive species and came even more recently than the mink. The majority of the rabbits are descendants of pets released in 2010. Now, they have spread across the country and wreak havoc wherever they go.
In Öskjuhlíð, a forested area in Reykjavík, they gnaw through tree roots and fences, damaging nature and human constructions alike.
In farms across the country, they dig into, and ruin hay meant for other animals, and their habit of running into the roads has caused several crashes.
Still, they make for a charming sight in the capital&rsquos green spaces.
The Tragedy of the American Military
The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can&rsquot win.
In mid-September, while President Obama was fending off complaints that he should have done more, done less, or done something different about the overlapping crises in Iraq and Syria, he traveled to Central Command headquarters, at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. There he addressed some of the men and women who would implement whatever the U.S. military strategy turned out to be.
The part of the speech intended to get coverage was Obama’s rationale for reengaging the United States in Iraq, more than a decade after it first invaded and following the long and painful effort to extricate itself. This was big enough news that many cable channels covered the speech live. I watched it on an overhead TV while I sat waiting for a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. When Obama got to the section of his speech announcing whether he planned to commit U.S. troops in Iraq (at the time, he didn’t), I noticed that many people in the terminal shifted their attention briefly to the TV. As soon as that was over, they went back to their smartphones and their laptops and their Cinnabons as the president droned on.
Usually I would have stopped watching too, since so many aspects of public figures’ appearances before the troops have become so formulaic and routine. But I decided to see the whole show. Obama gave his still-not-quite-natural-sounding callouts to the different military services represented in the crowd. (“I know we’ve got some Air Force in the house!” and so on, receiving cheers rendered as “Hooyah!” and “Oorah!” in the official White House transcript.) He told members of the military that the nation was grateful for their nonstop deployments and for the unique losses and burdens placed on them through the past dozen years of open-ended war. He noted that they were often the face of American influence in the world, being dispatched to Liberia in 2014 to cope with the then-dawning Ebola epidemic as they had been sent to Indonesia 10 years earlier to rescue victims of the catastrophic tsunami there. He said that the “9/11 generation of heroes” represented the very best in its country, and that its members constituted a military that was not only superior to all current adversaries but no less than “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
If any of my fellow travelers at O’Hare were still listening to the speech, none of them showed any reaction to it. And why would they? This has become the way we assume the American military will be discussed by politicians and in the press: Overblown, limitless praise, absent the caveats or public skepticism we would apply to other American institutions, especially ones that run on taxpayer money. A somber moment to reflect on sacrifice. Then everyone except the few people in uniform getting on with their workaday concerns.
The public attitude evident in the airport was reflected by the public’s representatives in Washington. That same afternoon, September 17, the House of Representatives voted after brief debate to authorize arms and supplies for rebel forces in Syria, in hopes that more of them would fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, than for it. The Senate did the same the next day—and then both houses adjourned early, after an unusually short and historically unproductive term of Congress, to spend the next six and a half weeks fund-raising and campaigning full-time. I’m not aware of any midterm race for the House or Senate in which matters of war and peace—as opposed to immigration, Obamacare, voting rights, tax rates, the Ebola scare—were first-tier campaign issues on either side, except for the metaphorical “war on women” and “war on coal.”
Why does civilian technology grow ever cheaper and more reliable while military technology does the opposite? An animated explainer narrated by James Fallows.
T his reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them—has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm. But it is not. When Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a five-star general and the supreme commander, led what may have in fact been the finest fighting force in the history of the world, he did not describe it in that puffed-up way. On the eve of the D-Day invasion, he warned his troops, “Your task will not be an easy one,” because “your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped, and battle-hardened.” As president, Eisenhower’s most famous statement about the military was his warning in his farewell address of what could happen if its political influence grew unchecked.
At the end of World War II, nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population was on active military duty—which meant most able-bodied men of a certain age (plus the small number of women allowed to serve). Through the decade after World War II, when so many American families had at least one member in uniform, political and journalistic references were admiring but not awestruck. Most Americans were familiar enough with the military to respect it while being sharply aware of its shortcomings, as they were with the school system, their religion, and other important and fallible institutions.
Now the American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military. (Well over 4 million people live on the country’s 2.1 million farms. The U.S. military has about 1.4 million people on active duty and another 850,000 in the reserves.) The other 310 million–plus Americans “honor” their stalwart farmers, but generally don’t know them. So too with the military. Many more young Americans will study abroad this year than will enlist in the military—nearly 300,000 students overseas, versus well under 200,000 new recruits. As a country, America has been at war nonstop for the past 13 years. As a public, it has not. A total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent, served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once.
The difference between the earlier America that knew its military and the modern America that gazes admiringly at its heroes shows up sharply in changes in popular and media culture. While World War II was under way, its best-known chroniclers were the Scripps Howard reporter Ernie Pyle, who described the daily braveries and travails of the troops (until he was killed near the war’s end by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Iejima), and the Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who mocked the obtuseness of generals and their distance from the foxhole realities faced by his wisecracking GI characters, Willie and Joe.
From Mister Roberts to South Pacific to Catch-22, from The Caine Mutiny to The Naked and the Dead to From Here to Eternity, American popular and high culture treated our last mass-mobilization war as an effort deserving deep respect and pride, but not above criticism and lampooning. The collective achievement of the military was heroic, but its members and leaders were still real people, with all the foibles of real life. A decade after that war ended, the most popular military-themed TV program was The Phil Silvers Show, about a con man in uniform named Sgt. Bilko. As Bilko, Phil Silvers was that stock American sitcom figure, the lovable blowhard—a role familiar from the time of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners to Homer Simpson in The Simpsons today. Gomer Pyle, USMC Hogan’s Heroes McHale’s Navy and even the anachronistic frontier show F Troop were sitcoms whose settings were U.S. military units and whose villains—and schemers, and stooges, and occasional idealists—were people in uniform. American culture was sufficiently at ease with the military to make fun of it, a stance now hard to imagine outside the military itself.
“Full-victory—nothing else”: General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the order to paratroopers in England the night before they board planes to join the first assault in the D-Day invasion of Europe. (U.S. Army Signal Corps/AP)
Robert Altman’s 1970 movie M*A*S*H was clearly “about” the Vietnam War, then well into its bloodiest and most bitterly divisive period. (As I point out whenever discussing this topic, I was eligible for the draft at the time, was one of those protesting the war, and at age 20 legally but intentionally failed my draft medical exam. I told this story in a 1975 Washington Monthly article, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?”) But M*A*S*H’s ostensible placement in the Korean War of the early 1950s somewhat distanced its darkly mocking attitude about military competence and authority from fierce disagreements about Vietnam. (The one big Vietnam movie to precede it was John Wayne’s doughily prowar The Green Berets, in 1968. What we think of as the classic run of Vietnam films did not begin until the end of the 1970s, with The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.) The TV spin-off of Altman’s film, which ran from 1972 through 1983, was a simpler and more straightforward sitcom on the Sgt. Bilko model, again suggesting a culture close enough to its military to put up with, and enjoy, jokes about it.
Let’s skip to today’s Iraq-Afghanistan era, in which everyone “supports” the troops but few know very much about them. The pop-culture references to the people fighting our ongoing wars emphasize their suffering and stoicism, or the long-term personal damage they may endure. The Hurt Locker is the clearest example, but also Lone Survivor Restrepo the short-lived 2005 FX series set in Iraq, Over There and Showtime’s current series Homeland. Some emphasize high-stakes action, from the fictionalized 24 to the meant-to-be-true Zero Dark Thirty. Often they portray military and intelligence officials as brave and daring. But while cumulatively these dramas highlight the damage that open-ended warfare has done—on the battlefield and elsewhere, to warriors and civilians alike, in the short term but also through long-term blowback—they lack the comfortable closeness with the military that would allow them to question its competence as they would any other institution’s.
The battlefield is of course a separate realm, as the literature of warfare from Homer’s time onward has emphasized. But the distance between today’s stateside America and its always-at-war expeditionary troops is extraordinary. Last year, the writer Rebecca Frankel published War Dogs, a study of the dog-and-handler teams that had played a large part in the U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of the reason she chose the topic, she told me, was that dogs were one of the few common points of reference between the military and the larger public. “When we cannot make that human connection over war, when we cannot empathize or imagine the far-off world of a combat zone … these military working dogs are a bridge over the divide,” Frankel wrote in the introduction to her book.
It’s a wonderful book, and dogs are a better connection than nothing. But … dogs! When the country fought its previous wars, its common points of reference were human rather than canine: fathers and sons in harm’s way, mothers and daughters working in defense plants and in uniform as well. For two decades after World War II, the standing force remained so large, and the Depression-era birth cohorts were so small, that most Americans had a direct military connection. Among older Baby Boomers, those born before 1955, at least three-quarters have had an immediate family member—sibling, parent, spouse, child—who served in uniform. Of Americans born since 1980, the Millennials, about one in three is closely related to anyone with military experience.
Interactive graphic: The first map above (in green) shows per-capita military enlistments from 2000 to 2010, grouped by 3-digit zip code. The second (in red) shows the home towns of deceased soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Enlistment rates vary widely—in 2010, only 0.04 percent of the Upper East Side of Manhattan (zip code prefix 101) enlisted, while the U.S. Virgin Islands (prefix 008) had an enlistment rate of 0.98 percent. When it comes to lives lost, U.S. territories (particularly Guam) shoulder an outsized burden. (Map design and development: Frankie Dintino. Sources: Department of Defense, US Census Bureau)
The most biting satirical novel to come from the Iraq-Afghanistan era, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, is a takedown of our empty modern “thank you for your service” rituals. It is the story of an Army squad that is badly shot up in Iraq is brought back to be honored at halftime during a nationally televised Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game while there, is slapped on the back and toasted by owner’s-box moguls and flirted with by cheerleaders, “passed around like everyone’s favorite bong,” as platoon member Billy Lynn thinks of it and is then shipped right back to the front.
The people at the stadium feel good about what they’ve done to show their support for the troops. From the troops’ point of view, the spectacle looks different. “There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need,” the narrator says of Billy Lynn’s thoughts. “That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.” Fountain’s novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 2012, but it did not dent mainstream awareness enough to make anyone self-conscious about continuing the “salute to the heroes” gestures that do more for the civilian public’s self-esteem than for the troops’. As I listened to Obama that day in the airport, and remembered Ben Fountain’s book, and observed the hum of preoccupied America around me, I thought that the parts of the presidential speech few Americans were listening to were the ones historians might someday seize upon to explain the temper of our times.
Always supportive of the troops: Crowds in Macon welcome back 200 members of the Georgia National Guard's 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team returning from Afghanistan, September 2014. (David Goldman/AP)
I. Chickenhawk Nation
If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.
Americans admire the military as they do no other institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress.
Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”
Moulton told me, as did many others with Iraq-era military experience, that if more members of Congress or the business and media elite had had children in uniform, the United States would probably not have gone to war in Iraq at all. Because he felt strongly enough about that failure of elite accountability, Moulton decided while in Iraq to get involved in politics after he left the military. “I actually remember the moment,” Moulton told me. “It was after a difficult day in Najaf in 2004. A young marine in my platoon said, ‘Sir, you should run for Congress someday. So this shit doesn’t happen again.’ ” In January, Moulton takes office as a freshman Democratic representative from Massachusetts’s Sixth District, north of Boston.
What Moulton described was desire for a kind of accountability. It is striking how rare accountability has been for our modern wars. Hillary Clinton paid a price for her vote to authorize the Iraq War, since that is what gave the barely known Barack Obama an opening to run against her in 2008. George W. Bush, who, like most ex-presidents, has grown more popular the longer he’s been out of office, would perhaps be playing a more visible role in public and political life if not for the overhang of Iraq. But those two are the exceptions. Most other public figures, from Dick Cheney and Colin Powell on down, have put Iraq behind them. In part this is because of the Obama administration’s decision from the start to “look forward, not back” about why things had gone so badly wrong with America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But such willed amnesia would have been harder if more Americans had felt affected by the wars’ outcome. For our generals, our politicians, and most of our citizenry, there is almost no accountability or personal consequence for military failure. This is a dangerous development—and one whose dangers multiply the longer it persists.
O urs is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive. By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years. No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.
Yet repeatedly this force has been defeated by less modern, worse-equipped, barely funded foes. Or it has won skirmishes and battles only to lose or get bogged down in a larger war. Although no one can agree on an exact figure, our dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and neighboring countries have cost at least $1.5 trillion Linda J. Bilmes, of the Harvard Kennedy School, recently estimated that the total cost could be three to four times that much. Recall that while Congress was considering whether to authorize the Iraq War, the head of the White House economic council, Lawrence B. Lindsey, was forced to resign for telling The Wall Street Journal that the all-in costs might be as high as $100 billion to $200 billion, or less than the U.S. has spent on Iraq and Afghanistan in many individual years.
Yet from a strategic perspective, to say nothing of the human cost, most of these dollars might as well have been burned. “At this point, it is incontrovertibly evident that the U.S. military failed to achieve any of its strategic goals in Iraq,” a former military intelligence officer named Jim Gourley wrote recently for Thomas E. Ricks’s blog, Best Defense. “Evaluated according to the goals set forth by our military leadership, the war ended in utter defeat for our forces.” In 13 years of continuous combat under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the longest stretch of warfare in American history, U.S. forces have achieved one clear strategic success: the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Their many other tactical victories, from overthrowing Saddam Hussein to allying with Sunni tribal leaders to mounting a “surge” in Iraq, demonstrated great bravery and skill. But they brought no lasting stability to, nor advance of U.S. interests in, that part of the world. When ISIS troops overran much of Iraq last year, the forces that laid down their weapons and fled before them were members of the same Iraqi national army that U.S. advisers had so expensively yet ineffectively trained for more than five years.
“We are vulnerable,” the author William Greider wrote during the debate last summer on how to fight ISIS , “because our presumption of unconquerable superiority leads us deeper and deeper into unwinnable military conflicts.” And the separation of the military from the public disrupts the process of learning from these defeats. The last war that ended up in circumstances remotely resembling what prewar planning would have considered a victory was the brief Gulf War of 1991.
After the Vietnam War, the press and the public went too far in blaming the military for what was a top-to-bottom failure of strategy and execution. But the military itself recognized its own failings, and a whole generation of reformers looked to understand and change the culture. In 1978, a military-intelligence veteran named Richard A. Gabriel published, with Paul L. Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, which traced many of the failures in Vietnam to the military’s having adopted a bureaucratized management style. Three years later, a broadside called Self-Destruction: The Disintegration and Decay of the United States Army During the Vietnam Era, by a military officer writing under the pen name Cincinnatus (later revealed to be a lieutenant colonel serving in the reserves as a military chaplain, Cecil B. Currey), linked problems in Vietnam to the ethical and intellectual shortcomings of the career military. The book was hotly debated—but not dismissed. An article about the book for the Air Force’s Air University Review said that “the author’s case is airtight” and that the military’s career structure “corrupts those who serve it it is the system that forces out the best and rewards only the sycophants.”
Today, you hear judgments like that frequently from within the military and occasionally from politicians—but only in private. It’s not the way we talk in public about our heroes anymore, with the result that accountability for the career military has been much sketchier than during our previous wars. William S. Lind is a military historian who in the 1990s helped develop the concept of “Fourth Generation War,” or struggles against the insurgents, terrorists, or other “nonstate” groups that refuse to form ranks and fight like conventional armies. He wrote recently:
During and after even successful American wars, and certainly after the standoff in Korea and the defeat in Vietnam, the professional military’s leadership and judgment were considered fair game for criticism. Grant saved the Union McClellan seemed almost to sabotage it—and he was only one of the Union generals Lincoln had to move out of the way. Something similar was true in wars through Vietnam. Some leaders were good others were bad. Now, for purposes of public discussion, they’re all heroes. In our past decade’s wars, as Thomas Ricks wrote in this magazine in 2012, “hundreds of Army generals were deployed to the field, and the available evidence indicates that not one was relieved by the military brass for combat ineffectiveness.” This, he said, was not only a radical break from American tradition but also “an important factor in the failure” of our recent wars.
Partly this change has come because the public, at its safe remove, doesn’t insist on accountability. Partly it is because legislators and even presidents recognize the sizable risks and limited payoffs of taking on the career military. When recent presidents have relieved officers of command, they have usually done so over allegations of sexual or financial misconduct, or other issues of personal discipline. These include the cases of the two famous four-star generals who resigned rather than waiting for President Obama to dismiss them: Stanley A. McChrystal, as the commander in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus in his post-Centcom role as the head of the CIA. The exception proving the rule occurred a dozen years ago, when a senior civilian official directly challenged a four-star general on his military competence. In congressional testimony just before the Iraq War, General Eric Shinseki, then the Army’s chief of staff, said that many more troops might be necessary to successfully occupy Iraq than plans were allowing for—only to be ridiculed in public by Paul Wolfowitz, then Shinseki’s superior as the deputy secretary of defense, who said views like Shinseki’s were “outlandish” and “wildly off the mark.” Wolfowitz and his superior, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, ostentatiously marginalized Shinseki from that point on.
In that case, the general was right and the politicians were wrong. But more often and more skillfully than the public usually appreciates, today’s military has managed to distance itself from the lengthening string of modern military failures—even when wrong. Some of this PR shift is anthropological. Most reporters who cover politics are fascinated by the process and enjoy practitioners who love it too, which is one reason most were (like the rest of the country) more forgiving of the happy warrior Bill Clinton than they have been of the “cold” and “aloof” Barack Obama. But political reporters are always hunting for the gaffe or scandal that could bring a target down, and feel they’re acting in the public interest in doing so.
Most reporters who cover the military are also fascinated by its processes and cannot help liking or at least respecting their subjects: physically fit, trained to say “sir” and “ma’am,” often tested in a way most civilians will never be, part of a disciplined and selfless-seeming culture that naturally draws respect. And whether or not this was a conscious plan, the military gets a substantial PR boost from the modern practice of placing officers in mid-career assignments at think tanks, on congressional staffs, and in graduate programs across the country. For universities, military students are (as a dean at a public-policy school put it to me) “a better version of foreign students.” That is, they work hard, pay full tuition, and unlike many international students face no language barrier or difficulty adjusting to the American style of give-and-take classroom exchanges. Most cultures esteem the scholar-warrior, and these programs expose usually skeptical American elites to people like the young Colin Powell, who as a lieutenant colonel in his mid-30s was a White House fellow after serving in Vietnam, and David Petraeus, who got his Ph.D. at Princeton as a major 13 years after graduating from West Point.
And yet however much Americans “support” and “respect” their troops, they are not involved with them, and that disengagement inevitably leads to dangerous decisions the public barely notices. “My concern is this growing disconnect between the American people and our military,” retired Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and whose mid-career academic stint was at Harvard Business School), told me recently. The military is “professional and capable,” he said, “but I would sacrifice some of that excellence and readiness to make sure that we stay close to the American people. Fewer and fewer people know anyone in the military. It’s become just too easy to go to war.”
Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.
A new F-35, part of the first delivery of an anticipated 144 planes, in a hanger at Luke Air Force Base, in Glendale, Arizona, before an unveiling ceremony, March 2014 (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
II. Chickenhawk Economy
The Draft: Why the Country Needs It
"If citizens are willing to countenance a decision that means that someone's child may die, they may contemplate more deeply if there is the possibility that the child will be theirs."
Read the full story by James Fallows in the April 1980 Atlantic
America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts. This distance also means that we spend too much money on the military and we spend it stupidly, thereby shortchanging many of the functions that make the most difference to the welfare of the troops and their success in combat. We buy weapons that have less to do with battlefield realities than with our unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory, and with the economic interests and political influence of contractors. This leaves us with expensive and delicate high-tech white elephants, while unglamorous but essential tools, from infantry rifles to armored personnel carriers, too often fail our troops (see “Gun Trouble,” by Robert H. Scales, in this issue).
We know that technology is our military’s main advantage. Yet the story of the post-9/11 “long wars” is of America’s higher-tech advantages yielding transitory victories that melt away before the older, messier realities of improvised weapons, sectarian resentments, and mounting hostility to occupiers from afar, however well-intentioned. Many of the Pentagon’s most audacious high-tech ventures have been costly and spectacular failures, including (as we will see) the major air-power project of recent years, the F-35. In an America connected to its military, such questions of strategy and implementation would be at least as familiar as, say, the problems with the Common Core education standards.
Those technological breakthroughs that do make their way to the battlefield may prove to be strategic liabilities in the long run. During the years in which the United States has enjoyed a near-monopoly on weaponized drones, for example, they have killed individuals or small groups at the price of antagonizing whole societies. When the monopoly ends, which is inevitable, the very openness of the United States will make it uniquely vulnerable to the cheap, swarming weapons others will deploy.
The cost of defense, meanwhile, goes up and up and up, with little political resistance and barely any public discussion. By the fullest accounting, which is different from usual budget figures, the United States will spend more than $1 trillion on national security this year. That includes about $580 billion for the Pentagon’s baseline budget plus “overseas contingency” funds, $20 billion in the Department of Energy budget for nuclear weapons, nearly $200 billion for military pensions and Department of Veterans Affairs costs, and other expenses. But it doesn’t count more than $80 billion a year of interest on the military-related share of the national debt. After adjustments for inflation, the United States will spend about 50 percent more on the military this year than its average through the Cold War and Vietnam War. It will spend about as much as the next 10 nations combined—three to five times as much as China, depending on how you count, and seven to nine times as much as Russia. The world as a whole spends about 2 percent of its total income on its militaries the United States, about 4 percent.
Yet such is the dysfunction and corruption of the budgeting process that even as spending levels rise, the Pentagon faces simultaneous crises in funding for maintenance, training, pensions, and veterans’ care. “We’re buying the wrong things, and paying too much for them,” Charles A. Stevenson, a onetime staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former professor at the National War College, told me. “We’re spending so much on people that we don’t have the hardware, which is becoming more expensive anyway. We are flatlining R&D.”
Here is just one newsworthy example that illustrates the broad and depressingly intractable tendencies of weapons development and spending: the failed hopes for a new airplane called the F-35 “Lightning.”
Today’s weapons can be decades in gestation, and the history of the F-35 traces back long before most of today’s troops were born. Two early-1970s-era planes, the F-16 “Fighting Falcon” jet and the A-10 “Thunderbolt II” attack plane, departed from the trend of military design in much the same way the compact Japanese cars of that era departed from the tail-fin American look. These planes were relatively cheap, pared to their essentials, easy to maintain, and designed to do a specific thing very well. For the F-16, that was to be fast, highly maneuverable, and deadly in air-to-air combat. For the A-10, it was to serve as a kind of flying tank that could provide what the military calls “close air support” to troops in combat by blasting enemy formations. The A-10 needed to be heavily armored, so it could absorb opposing fire designed to fly as slowly as possible over the battlefield, rather than as rapidly, so that it could stay in range to do damage rather than roaring through and built around one very powerful gun.
There are physical devices that seem the pure expression of a function. The Eames chair, a classic No. 2 pencil, the original Ford Mustang or VW Beetle, the MacBook Air—take your pick. The A-10, generally known not as the Thunderbolt but as the Warthog, fills that role in the modern military. It is rugged it is inexpensive it can shred enemy tanks and convoys by firing up to 70 rounds a second of armor-piercing, 11-inch-long depleted-uranium shells.
And the main effort of military leaders through the past decade, under the Republican leadership of the Bush administration and the Democratic leadership of Obama, has been to get rid of the A-10 so as to free up money for a more expensive, less reliable, technically failing airplane that has little going for it except insider dealing, and the fact that the general public doesn’t care.
The weapon in whose name the A-10 is being phased out is its opposite in almost every way. In automotive terms, it would be a Lamborghini rather than a pickup truck (or a flying tank). In air-travel terms, the first-class sleeper compartment on Singapore Airlines rather than advance-purchase Economy Plus (or even business class) on United. These comparisons seem ridiculous, but they are fair. That is, a Lamborghini is demonstrably “better” than a pickup truck in certain ways—speed, handling, comfort—but only in very special circumstances is it a better overall choice. Same for the first-class sleeper, which would be anyone’s choice if someone else were footing the bill but is simply not worth the trade-off for most people most of the time.
Each new generation of weapons tends to be “better” in much the way a Lamborghini is, and “worth it” in the same sense as a first-class airline seat. The A-10 shows the pattern. According to figures from the aircraft analyst Richard L. Aboulafia, of the Teal Group, the “unit recurring flyaway” costs in 2014 dollars—the fairest apples-to-apples comparison—stack up like this. Each Warthog now costs about $19 million, less than any other manned combat aircraft. A Predator drone costs about two-thirds as much. Other fighter, bomber, and multipurpose planes cost much more: about $72 million for the V-22 Osprey, about $144 million for the F-22 fighter, about $810 million for the B-2 bomber, and about $101 million (or five A‑10s) for the F-35. There’s a similar difference in operating costs. The operating expenses are low for the A-10 and much higher for the others largely because the A-10’s design is simpler, with fewer things that could go wrong. The simplicity of design allows it to spend more of its time flying instead of being in the shop.
In clear contrast to the A-10, the F-35 is an ill-starred undertaking that would have been on the front pages as often as other botched federal projects, from the Obamacare rollout to the FEMA response after Hurricane Katrina, if, like those others, it either seemed to affect a broad class of people or could easily be shown on TV—or if so many politicians didn’t have a stake in protecting it. One measure of the gap in coverage: Total taxpayer losses in the failed Solyndra solar-energy program might come, at their most dire estimate, to some $800 million. Total cost overruns, losses through fraud, and other damage to the taxpayer from the F-35 project are perhaps 100 times that great, yet the “Solyndra scandal” is known to probably 100 times as many people as the travails of the F-35. Here’s another yardstick: the all-in costs of this airplane are now estimated to be as much as $1.5 trillion, or a low-end estimate of the entire Iraq War.
The condensed version of this plane’s tragedy is that a project meant to correct some of the Pentagon’s deepest problems in designing and paying for weapons has in fact worsened and come to exemplify them. An aircraft that was intended to be inexpensive, adaptable, and reliable has become the most expensive in history, and among the hardest to keep out of the shop. The federal official who made the project a symbol of a new, transparent, rigorously data-dependent approach to awarding contracts ended up serving time in federal prison for corruption involving projects with Boeing. (Boeing’s chief financial officer also did time in prison.) For the record, the Pentagon and the lead contractors stoutly defend the plane and say that its teething problems will be over soon—and that anyway, it is the plane of the future, and the A-10 is an aging relic of the past. (We have posted reports here on the A-10, pro and con, so you can see whether you are convinced.)
In theory, the F-35 would show common purpose among the military services, since the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps would all get their own custom-tailored versions of the plane. In fact, a plane designed to do many contradictory things—to be strong enough to survive Navy aircraft-carrier landings, yet light and maneuverable enough to excel as an Air Force dogfighter, and meanwhile able to take off and land straight up and down, like a helicopter, to reach marines in tight combat circumstances—has unsurprisingly done none of them as well as promised. In theory, the F-35 was meant to knit U.S. allies together, since other countries would buy it as their mainstay airplane and in turn would get part of the contracting business. In fact, the delays, cost overruns, and mechanical problems of the airplane have made it a contentious political issue in customer countries from Canada and Holland to Italy and Australia.
The country where the airplane has least been a public issue is the United States. In their 2012 debates, Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for supporting “green energy” projects, including Solyndra. Neither man mentioned the F-35, and I am still looking for evidence that President Obama has talked about it in any of his speeches. In other countries, the F-35 can be cast as another annoying American intrusion. Here, it is protected by supplier contracts that have been spread as broadly as possible.
“Political engineering,” a term popularized by a young Pentagon analyst named Chuck Spinney in the 1970s, is pork-barrel politics on the grandest scale. Cost overruns sound bad if someone else is getting the extra money. They can be good if they are creating business for your company or jobs in your congressional district. Political engineering is the art of spreading a military project to as many congressional districts as possible, and thus maximizing the number of members of Congress who feel that if they cut off funding, they’d be hurting themselves.
A $10 million parts contract in one congressional district builds one representative’s support. Two $5 million contracts in two districts are twice as good, and better all around would be three contracts at $3 million apiece. Every participant in the military-contracting process understands this logic: the prime contractors who parcel out supply deals around the country, the military’s procurement officers who divide work among contractors, the politicians who vote up or down on the results. In the late 1980s, a coalition of so-called cheap hawks in Congress tried to cut funding for the B-2 bomber. They got nowhere after it became clear that work for the project was being carried out in 46 states and no fewer than 383 congressional districts (of 435 total). The difference between then and now is that in 1989, Northrop, the main contractor for the plane, had to release previously classified data to demonstrate how broadly the dollars were being spread.
Whatever its technical challenges, the F-35 is a triumph of political engineering, and on a global scale. For a piquant illustration of the difference that political engineering can make, consider the case of Bernie Sanders—former Socialist mayor of Burlington, current Independent senator from Vermont, possible candidate from the left in the next presidential race. In principle, he thinks the F-35 is a bad choice. After one of the planes caught fire last summer on a runway in Florida, Sanders told a reporter that the program had been “incredibly wasteful.” Yet Sanders, with the rest of Vermont’s mainly left-leaning political establishment, has fought hard to get an F-35 unit assigned to the Vermont Air National Guard in Burlington, and to dissuade neighborhood groups there who think the planes will be too noisy and dangerous. “For better or worse, [the F-35] is the plane of record right now,” Sanders told a local reporter after the runway fire last year, “and it is not gonna be discarded. That’s the reality.” It’s going to be somewhere, so why not here? As Vermont goes, so goes the nation.
The next big project the Air Force is considering is the Long Range Strike Bomber, a successor to the B-1 and B-2 whose specifications include an ability to do bombing runs deep into China. (A step so wildly reckless that the U.S. didn’t consider it even when fighting Chinese troops during the Korean War.) By the time the plane’s full costs and capabilities become apparent, Chuck Spinney wrote last summer, the airplane, “like the F-35 today, will be unstoppable.” That is because even now its supporters are building the plane’s “social safety net by spreading the subcontracts around the country, or perhaps like the F-35, around the world.”
Admiral Mike Mullen, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a press conference in Baghdad in August 2011. (Joseph Epstein)
III. Chickenhawk Politics
Politicians say that national security is their first and most sacred duty, but they do not act as if this is so. The most recent defense budget passed the House Armed Services Committee by a vote of 61 to zero, with similarly one-sided debate before the vote. This is the same House of Representatives that cannot pass a long-term Highway Trust Fund bill that both parties support. “The lionization of military officials by politicians is remarkable and dangerous,” a retired Air Force colonel named Tom Ruby, who now writes on organizational culture, told me. He and others said that this deference was one reason so little serious oversight of the military took place.
T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine Corps colonel who has a doctorate in modern history from Oxford, told me that instead of applying critical judgment to military programs, or even regarding national defense as any kind of sacred duty, politicians have come to view it simply as a teat. “Many on Capitol Hill see the Pentagon with admirable simplicity,” he said: “It is a way of directing tax money to selected districts. It’s part of what they were elected to do.”
In the spring of 2011, Barack Obama asked Gary Hart, the Democratic Party’s most experienced and best-connected figure on defense reform, to form a small bipartisan task force that would draft recommendations on how Obama might try to recast the Pentagon and its practices if he won a second term. Hart did so (I was part of the group, along with Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University, John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School, and Norman R. Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin), and sent a report to Obama that fall. [Here is that memo.] He never heard back. Every White House is swamped with recommendations and requests, and it responds only to those it considers most urgent—which defense reform obviously was not.
Soon thereafter, during the 2012 presidential race, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney said much about how they would spend the billion and a half dollars a day that go to military programs, except for when Romney said that if elected, he would spend a total of $1 trillion more. In their only direct exchange about military policy, during their final campaign debate, Obama said that Romney’s plans would give the services more money than they were asking for. Romney pointed out that the Navy had fewer ships than it did before World War I. Obama shot back, “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” It was Obama’s most sarcastic and aggressive moment of any of the debates, and was also the entirety of the discussion about where those trillions would go.
J im Webb is a decorated Vietnam veteran, an author, a former Democratic senator, and a likely presidential candidate. Seven years ago in his book A Time to Fight, he wrote that the career military was turning into a “don’t break my rice bowl” culture, referring to an Asian phrase roughly comparable to making sure everyone gets a piece of the pie. Webb meant that ambitious officers notice how many of their mentors and predecessors move after retirement into board positions, consultancies, or operational roles with defense contractors. (Pensions now exceed preretirement pay for some very senior officers for instance, a four-star general or admiral with 40 years of service can receive a pension of more than $237,000 a year, even if his maximum salary on active duty was $180,000.)
Webb says it would defy human nature if knowledge of the post-service prospects did not affect the way some high-ranking officers behave while in uniform, including “protecting the rice bowl” of military budgets and cultivating connections with their predecessors and their postretirement businesses. “There have always been some officers who went on to contracting jobs,” Webb, who grew up in an Air Force family, told me recently. “What’s new is the scale of the phenomenon, and its impact on the highest ranks of the military.”
Of course, the modern military advertises itself as a place where young people who have lacked the chance or money for higher education can develop valuable skills, plus earn GI Bill benefits for post-service studies. That’s good all around, and is part of the military’s perhaps unintended but certainly important role as an opportunity creator for undercredentialed Americans. Webb is talking about a different, potentially corrupting “prepare for your future” effect on the military’s best-trained, most influential careerists.
“It is no secret that in subtle ways, many of these top leaders begin positioning themselves for their second-career employment during their final military assignments,” Webb wrote in A Time to Fight. The result, he said, is a “seamless interplay” of corporate and military interests “that threatens the integrity of defense procurement, of controversial personnel issues such as the huge ‘quasi-military’ structure [of contractors, like Blackwater and Halliburton] that has evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and inevitably of the balance within our national security process itself.” I heard assessments like this from many of the men and women I spoke with. The harshest ones came not from people who mistrusted the military but from those who, like Webb, had devoted much of their lives to it.
A man who worked for decades overseeing Pentagon contracts told me this past summer, “The system is based on lies and self-interest, purely toward the end of keeping money moving.” What kept the system running, he said, was that “the services get their budgets, the contractors get their deals, the congressmen get jobs in their districts, and no one who’s not part of the deal bothers to find out what is going on.”
Of course it was the most revered American warrior of the 20th century, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who warned most urgently that business and politics would corrupt the military, and vice versa. Everyone has heard of this speech. Not enough people have actually read it and been exposed to what would now be considered its dangerously antimilitary views. Which mainstream politician could say today, as Eisenhower said in 1961, that the military-industrial complex has a “total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—[that] is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government”?
Seth Moulton, a few days after his victory in last fall’s congressional race, said that the overall quality and morale of people in the military has dramatically improved since the days of a conscript force. “But it’s become populated, especially at the highest ranks, by careerists, people who have gotten where they are by checking all the boxes and not taking risks,” he told me. “Some of the finest officers I knew were lieutenants who knew they were getting out, so weren’t afraid to make the right decision. I know an awful lot of senior officers who are very afraid to make a tough choice because they’re worried how it will look on their fitness report.” This may sound like a complaint about life in any big organization, but it’s something more. There’s no rival Army or Marine Corps you can switch to for a new start. There’s almost no surmounting an error or a black mark on the fitness or evaluation reports that are the basis for promotions.
E very institution has problems, and at every stage of U.S. history, some critics have considered the U.S. military overfunded, underprepared, too insular and self-regarding, or flawed in some other way. The difference now, I contend, is that these modern distortions all flow in one way or another from the chickenhawk basis of today’s defense strategy.
At enormous cost, both financial and human, the nation supports the world’s most powerful armed force. But because so small a sliver of the population has a direct stake in the consequences of military action, the normal democratic feedbacks do not work.
I have met serious people who claim that the military’s set-apart existence is best for its own interests, and for the nation’s. “Since the time of the Romans there have been people, mostly men but increasingly women, who have volunteered to be the praetorian guard,” John A. Nagl told me. Nagl is a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who was a combat commander in Iraq and has written two influential books about the modern military. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel and now, in his late 40s, is the head of the Haverford prep school, near Philadelphia.
“They know what they are signing up for,” Nagl said of today’s troops. “They are proud to do it, and in exchange they expect a reasonable living, and pensions and health care if they are hurt or fall sick. The American public is completely willing to let this professional class of volunteers serve where they should, for wise purpose. This gives the president much greater freedom of action to make decisions in the national interest, with troops who will salute sharply and do what needs to be done.”
I like and respect Nagl, but I completely disagree. As we’ve seen, public inattention to the military, born of having no direct interest in what happens to it, has allowed both strategic and institutional problems to fester.
“A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it,” Andrew Bacevich wrote in 2012. Bacevich himself fought in Vietnam his son was killed in Iraq. “Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do.”
Mike Mullen thinks that one way to reengage Americans with the military is to shrink the active-duty force, a process already under way. “The next time we go to war,” he said, “the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean that half a million people who weren’t planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn’t been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.”
With their distance from the military, politicians don’t talk seriously about whether the United States is directly threatened by chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, or is in fact safer than ever (as Christopher Preble and John Mueller, of the Cato Institute, have argued in a new book, A Dangerous World?). The vast majority of Americans outside the military can be triply cynical in their attitude toward it. Triply? One: “honoring” the troops but not thinking about them. Two: “caring” about defense spending but really viewing it as a bipartisan stimulus program. Three: supporting a “strong” defense but assuming that the United States is so much stronger than any rival that it’s pointless to worry whether strategy, weaponry, and leadership are right.
The cultural problems arising from an arm’s-length military could be even worse. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general who now teaches at Duke law school, has thought about civic-military relations through much of his professional life. When he was studying at the National Defense University as a young Air Force officer in the early 1990s, just after the first Gulf War, he was a co-winner of the prize for best student essay with an imagined-future work called “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012.”
His essay’s premise was cautionary, and was based on the tension between rising adulation for the military and declining trust in most other aspects of government. The more exasperated Americans grew about economic and social problems, the more relieved they were when competent men in uniform, led by General Thomas E. T. Brutus, finally stepped in to take control. Part of the reason for the takeover, Dunlap explained, was that the military had grown so separate from mainstream culture and currents that it viewed the rest of society as a foreign territory to occupy and administer.
Recently I asked Dunlap how the real world of post-2012 America matched his imagined version.
“I think we’re on the cusp of seeing a resurgence of a phenomenon that has always been embedded in the American psyche,” he said. “That is benign antimilitarism,” which would be the other side of the reflexive pro-militarism of recent years. “People don’t appreciate how unprecedented our situation is,” he told me. What is that situation? For the first time in the nation’s history, America has a permanent military establishment large enough to shape our dealings in the world and seriously influence our economy. Yet the Americans in that military, during what Dunlap calls the “maturing years of the volunteer force,” are few enough in number not to seem representative of the country they defend.
“It’s becoming increasingly tribal,” Dunlap says of the at-war force in our chickenhawk nation, “in the sense that more and more people in the military are coming from smaller and smaller groups. It’s become a family tradition, in a way that’s at odds with how we want to think a democracy spreads the burden.”
People within that military tribe can feel both above and below the messy civilian reality of America. Below, in the burdens placed upon them, and the inattention to the lives, limbs, and opportunities they have lost. Above, in being able to withstand hardships that would break their hipster or slacker contemporaries.
“I think there is a strong sense in the military that it is indeed a better society than the one it serves,” Dunlap said. “And there is some rationality for that.” Anyone who has spent time with troops and their families knows what he means. Physical fitness, standards of promptness and dress, all the aspects of self-discipline that have traditionally made the military a place where misdirected youth could “straighten out,” plus the spirit of love and loyalty for comrades that is found in civilian life mainly on sports teams. The best resolution of this tension between military and mainstream values would of course come as those who understand the military’s tribal identity apply their strengths outside the tribe. “The generation coming up, we’ve got lieutenants and majors who had been the warrior-kings in their little outposts,” Dunlap said of the young veterans of the recent long wars. “They were literally making life-or-death decisions. You can’t take that generation and say, ‘You can be seen and not heard.’ ”
In addition to Seth Moulton, this year’s Congress will have more than 20 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, including new Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Joni Ernst of Iowa. The 17 who are already there, including Democratic Representatives Tulsi Gabbard and Tammy Duckworth and Republican Representatives Duncan D. Hunter and Adam Kinzinger, have played an active role in veterans’ policies and in the 2013 debates about intervening in Syria. Gabbard was strongly against it some of the Republican veterans were for it—but all of them made arguments based on firsthand observation of what had worked and failed. Moulton told me that the main lesson he’ll apply from his four tours in Iraq is the importance of service, of whatever kind. He said that Harvard’s famed chaplain during Moulton’s years as an undergraduate physics student, the late Peter J. Gomes, had convinced him that “it’s not enough to ‘believe’ in service. You should find a way, yourself, to serve.” Barring unimaginable changes, “service” in America will not mean a draft. But Moulton says he will look for ways “to promote a culture where more people want to serve.”
For all the differences in their emphases and conclusions, these young veterans are alike in all taking the military seriously, rather than just revering it. The vast majority of Americans will never share their experiences. But we can learn from that seriousness, and view military policy as deserving at least the attention we give to taxes or schools.
What might that mean, in specific? Here is a start. In the private report prepared for President Obama more than three years ago, Gary Hart’s working group laid out prescriptions on a range of operational practices, from the need for smaller, more agile combat units to a shift in the national command structure to a different approach toward preventing nuclear proliferation. Three of the recommendations were about the way the country as a whole should engage with its armed forces. They were:
Barack Obama, busy on other fronts, had no time for this. The rest of us should make time, if we hope to choose our wars more wisely, and win them.
To read more about the arguments for and against the F-35, see this list of articles and official statements compiled by James Fallows.
Author Complaints at City Limit Publishing
I first heard of City Limits Publishing (CLP) in September 2020, via a question about author-unfriendly guidelines in a contest it was running (simply by entering, writers granted “a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish”). At the time, CLP had published just eight books, all by the same two authors . . . and was calling for submissions.
To me, CLP looked like a self-publishing endeavor that was trying to expand into traditional publishing. This doesn’t always work out well, since not all self-publishers have a solid knowledge of publishing (or, necessarily, any business experience) and may unintentionally disadvantage writers with nonstandard business practices, or author-unfriendly contracts, or both. And indeed, CLP’s original contract had some problems. It included a transfer of copyright, a major red flag in a non-work-for-hire contract…
…that was directly contradicted by a clause stipulating the printing of copyright notices in the author’s name (not the publisher’s, as would normally be the case with a copyright transfer), as well as an extremely generous termination clause allowing authors to cancel their contracts post-publication at will for any reason. This kind of internal contradiction is something I see not infrequently in small press contracts, and is a red flag all on its own: it suggests that the publisher has a less than perfect understanding of its own contract terms.
CLP appears to have recognized this at some point, because the copyright grab disappeared from its contracts in September or October 2020 (the generous termination provision remains). CLP’s catalog has ballooned to over 40 titles, including those original eight, and it has big ambitions for 2021, with plans to publish more than 50 books in total. That’s a very large list for a small press–something that can (and often does) lead to trouble if staff and resources aren’t adequate to handle the load.
UPDATE: Robert Martin, CLP’s owner, contacted me after this post went live to say that CLP has “never moved or delayed a publishing date. Ever.” The dates on the CLP website listings, he explained, are actually “pre-sale” dates [I assume this is the date the book goes live for pre-orders] the reason they’re labeled “publish” dates is because “[t]he Shopify theme we purchased automatically uses the date we put the product into our online store as the Publish date.” CLP’s web developer is apparently working to change this.
When I asked why, if the books are available for pre-order on the CLP website, they aren’t also available on Amazon and other retailers, he told me “As for why they aren’t all on retail sites yet, we put them up as we are able and as projects come to a close, but I don’t feel like we have to explain ourselves for every little thing we do.”)
Also of concern: the multiple documented complaints I’ve recently received from CLP authors. These include late royalty payments, missed editing and other deadlines, difficulty getting CLP staff to respond to questions and concerns, free author copies and books ordered at author discount not received or received months late, books ordered by readers not received or received months late, formatting and other errors in finished books that authors struggled to get corrected (for instance, the author’s name spelled wrong on the spine), substandard editing and proofing, and copyrights not registered as required in contracts. Some writers reported problems with CLP’s heavily hyped online author portal–confusingly named AuthorCentral–which they said suffers from frequent crashes. I also heard from an audiobook narrator who told me that they weren’t informed when CLP lost the rights to a book the narrator was in the process of recording, posing payment issues for the narrator, who was working on a royalty-share contract.
Authors also highlighted issues of transparency: being told that copyright registrations had been filed and later discovering they had not been, claims that print runs of thousands of copies were being done when in fact CLP uses on-demand technology to produce books in much smaller batches as ordered.
I contacted CLP’s founder, Robert Martin, for comment on all of the above. He gave me the following statement, which I have edited to remove mention of an individual author (not by name, but likely recognizable even so).
When I started City Limits Publishing, I committed to full transparency and I’ve tried to provide that from the very beginning. Through our bi-weekly author newsletter to frequent direct updates and notices from me to all of our authors, I’ve kept them appraised of shipping issues related to COVID, updates to our financial systems, implementation of our new author intranet system that would provide them greater access to information and updates, as well as any challenges we’re facing as an organization. And, being a new, small press, there are many. The authors who have stuck with us have been absolutely amazing and their support is inspiring. Together, we’re building something great here. Many of our authors have emailed me thanking me for the transparency they’re getting and have been so encouraging even when receiving direct, unsolicited messages from a handful of authors on a war path.
We’re aware of the situation and some of the issues a small group of former authors have brought up. First, with regards to late royalty payments, we were delayed in sending out payments as we both moved to a new system and I had a personal matter that required my attention and took me away from work for a bit. The payments were made up in full with tracking and confirmation of receipt, along with my sincerest apologies, and a promise that our next payout, July 20, would be made in full and on time, with the exception of authors who have entered into final accounting after requesting to be released from their agreements. Their final payments are being made this month as agreed during termination discussions. We’re in the process of hiring a Business Manager that will take help ensure we are not late in the future. Our royalty statements were delayed in April as we made the transition to RoyaltyTracker (MetaCommet). Their implementation schedule caused us delays in sending out statements. We made a major investment in this new system so that going forward everything would operate more smoothly. With progress comes growing pains.
With regards to author copies, we have committed to making sure that our authors receive at least half of their author copies in the weeks leading up to their release, and half within 90 days of release. Author copies are a large expense for the company. We’re a small business trying to get started during a global pandemic. As for ordering problems, we admit that during our early months we faced many delays, especially with our original printer and our transition to the IngramIgnite program. Still, all orders were fulfilled, and we’re now shipping out daily with no delays.
With copyright registration, we did drop the ball on some of our earlier titles. Before we brought on a full team, I was working mostly on my own with operations. I’m human and did make mistakes with copyright registration of some of our earlier titles. Now, we have a system in place to make sure registration happens within 90 days of publication, as outlined in the agreement. And, we have made steps to help educate authors on the copyright registration process. It’s not a fast process, so we’ve made sure to provide information to authors on timelines and how that process works.
Other complaints mentioned: Our early editing process was not as refined as it is now. We were just getting started, and we really learned a lot. We’ve even gone back through older titles for extensive checks and proofing to ensure we’re putting out the highest quality of work. Authors complained about books going to print with errors, but we do require all of our authors to initial the bottom corner of every page of their book before it goes to print. So, respectfully, that’s a shared mistake, and one we’ve worked extremely hard to rectify, now having four sets of eyes on all works published. Additionally, we do still have a contract with ACX and with Audiobook Universe. We were temporarily suspended from ACX for a contract mix-up where exclusive rights were selected when non-exclusive was intended. We removed the book from our website (it had not sold any copies) and our contract was reinstated. With regards to our printing, we originally used an up-front printing method, but were approached by Ingram’s IngramIgnite program (a program specifically for small presses) about using their system. We transitioned to their system, but still process upfront orders of copies of books and fulfill them to bookstores in the US and Canada that are ordered directly from us through our marketing efforts. Additionally, we make sure our wholesale pricing is competitive to get our books listed with as many retailers as possible, and we’ve enjoyed great success with the help of our partners at Ingram.
Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Are we learning from our mistakes and putting in place processes to ensure they don’t happen again? Absolutely.(I’m not familiar with IngramIgnite websearches don’t turn up any information.)
To his credit, Martin admits mistakes. But fostering an us-and-them mentality (hints of this come through in the statement, and it’s clear from my communications with Martin, as well as what CLP authors–both pro and con–have shared with me, that the complaining authors are being badmouthed internally), and blaming writers, if only partially, for mistakes such as poor proofing (authors certainly owe their publisher the duty of checking their proofs, but ultimately it’s the publisher’s responsibility, and not the author’s, to make sure books are error-free), doesn’t seem like the most positive way forward.
Good intentions are all very well. But most of the publishers I’ve featured on this blog had good intentions, at least to start. Writers need to keep in mind that good intentions–like responsiveness, enthusiasm, praise, and all the other non-publishing-related things that so often entice writers into questionable situations–aren’t a substitute for knowledge, experience, qualified (and adequate) staff, and working capital–all of which are far more important factors in a publisher’s success. Just as new writers can get into trouble if they set out to get published without taking the time to learn about publishing, inexperienced publishers can run into difficulties if they start up too quickly and attempt to learn on the fly.
In effect, such publishers are using their writers as subjects in a kind of science experiment. Sometimes the experiment succeeds, against odds and errors. Sometimes it doesn’t. But while unwary writers’ screwups harm only themselves, a publisher’s screwups harm its authors.
PG noted the following in the publisher’s comments about the problems reported in the OP:
Author copies are a large expense for the company.
For PG (who may be wrong), this statement caused a large flashing sign to appear in his mind’s eye:
Why British theatre is setting the global agenda
So, then, a big round of applause. The Brits have done brilliantly at this year’s Tonys, the most prestigious theatre awards in the States.
Take a bow Dame Helen Mirren, crowned Best Actress in a play, as the Queen in Peter Morgan’s The Audience step forward from nowhere young Alex Sharp, receiving Best Actor gong for his reportedly spellbinding turn as the fragile but gifted teenager Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Simon Stephens’s hit National Theatre adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel won the Best Play award too – and Marianne Elliott was rewarded for her direction. And there were five wins besides, including a notable one for a revival of David Hare’s Skylight.
If we needed a cue for patting ourselves on the back, then we’ve got one here. Yet in the case of those two big-hitters, The Audience and Curious, New York’s enthusiastic response reflects more than just reverence for our stage-craft, class and accents.
Dame Helen Mirren as the Queen in the Audience on Broadway (Photo:Boneau/Bryan-Brown)
I’d hazard a guess that these apparently parochial British exports are connecting with American audiences at a level that goes far deeper than at first meets the eye.
On paper, neither show is playwriting of the highest order - Peter Morgan’s account of the weekly briefing meetings between the Queen and her Prime Ministers, is quite schematic and Curious abounds more with simple creative ingenuity than original invention. Yet in both, look beneath the surface and you find they express common cause with concerns that affect us all. Without yelling it to the rafters, they’re Zeitgest plays that speak to our post 9/11 world.
I defy anyone to sit through The Audience, in the wake of a period that has seen so much chaos flow from the Twin Towers attack, and not feel a sense of gratitude that the Queen has been a constant presence through it all – the embodiment of the stiff upper lip, a bedrock of quiet wisdom. In America, The Audience isn’t just renewing fevered curiosity about the Royals, it’s re-affirming the “Special Relationship” - and the passing presence of Winston Churchill and Tony Blair flags up that fabled 'shoulder to shoulder’ solidarity.
Likewise, I’ve watched “The Curious Incident” and marvelled at how its lead character Christopher defines a quality of confusion that’s broadly recognisable. Here’s a kid who gets overloaded by the information bombarding him from all sides, struggles to cope on his own, is memorably daunted by his first trip to London: he’s a psychological curiosity (in medical terms, perhaps on the autistic spectrum) and yet he’s also an Everyman. And his heroic survival must strike a particular chord in New York, which has only last year seen the opening of its 'Freedom Tower’ close one long, grim chapter.
American playwrights have been sending some interesting work to these shores of late – in the past year we’ve seen Other Desert Cities at the Old Vic, Mr Burns at the Almeida, Bakersfield Mist at the Duchess – but they’ve not got people animatedly talking. Plays from the States are often technically accomplished but in terms of having their finger on the pulse? Perhaps less so.
Mark Rylance as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was another very English play that struck a universal chord, this time by expressing unease at modernity’s threat to our communal history – and it was duly acknowledged the Tonys. This August, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, a play that shows powerfully and with humour, how our leaders can no longer be so aloof towards their populace, will open on Broadway and I predict acclaim for it too.
All these successes indicate that there’s something about our insecure isle that means our writers are setting the agenda. We may have lost an empire but we have a rare grasp of the new world order.
The Flying Turtle
A large drought caused the pond where turtle lived to dry up. His two swan friends told him of another pond 10 minutes away as the crow flies. Turtle told them that it would take him five months to walk that far. The swans hatched a plan to carry the turtle between them but warned turtle he must not open his mouth. Turtle would bite a branch with his strong jaw and the swans would hold the ends of the branch in their feet as they flew. Turtle had never flown before and was enjoying the ride when a boy and girl started arguing about whether the swans were carrying the turtle or the turtle was carrying the swans in the sky. The girl thought the turtle was carrying the swan and the turtle began to believe that he could actually fly. The turtle opened his mouth to shout to the children and fell down, down, down to the ground and exploded. The turtle juice sprayed all over the boy’s underarm which had been pointing to the sky. No matter how much he washed he couldn’t escape the smell of the turtle and that’s why men’s armpits stink.
A funny postscript to this: In Lao, the word for body odor is kee tao, or turtle s***.