Philip Womack

Flights of Imagination

Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words

By

Oxford University Press 451pp £30 order from our bookshop

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.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'One of the reasons for its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all,… ,
    • 'The characters in many of these stories are trapped in the obsessive present tense of their own thoughts; in the m… ,
    • 'Libraries, for much of their existence, have embodied in microcosm many of the characteristics of the totalitarian… ,
    • 'Moss and Cynthia buy several properties through which to launder their ill-gotten gains, take lots of drugs, have… ,
    • 'Never mind the imperial cult. This is the cult of Boris. What happened to Rome?' From the LR archive:… ,
    • Thirty-two years ago this month, we published Muriel Spark's short story, 'A Playhouse Called Remarkable' Read it… ,
    • Time travel, bicycles and white horses populate @WomackPhilip's roundup of children's books by @marcussedgwick,… ,