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