Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Homeric wildlife

The Homeric epics and the founding texts of European civilization, one of the wellsprings of our culture — and, it turns out, a handy field guide to prehistoric Greek wildlife.

Two Greek biologists, Eleni Voultsiadou and Apostolos Tatolas at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki have gone through the works of Homer and Hesiod, which were written down around 600-800 BC, and recorded what animals are mentioned in the texts. The results tell us both what the ancient Greeks knew about the animals around them, and also how things have changed.

In total, the epics refer to animals 2442 times, and give them 71 different names. The ancient Greeks were, naturally enough, most concerned about useful animals — the majority of references are to domestic or food species such as goat, sheep, pig, dog and honeybee. They also took notice of pests, such as ticks, flies, and the woodworm that ate Odysseus' bow.

But the Greeks also knew their wildlife: lions, wolves and bears appear, as do tortoises, peregrine falcons, swan, geese and the night heron. Sea life is not as well represented as land animals, but dolphins and monk seal appear, and even octopus, sponge and an edible sea squirt. Apart from the eel, all fish were lumped together.

Some animals appear metaphorically. The owl — Athena's bird — appears as a word meaning 'having shining eyes'. People are described as chatting like cicadas.

The epics show which animals have disappeared from Greece in the past three millennia, such as the lion. They also show what hadn't arrived at the time of writing — there are no mentions of the domestic cat or chicken, for example.

Ancient Greeks also had a reasonable knowledge of animals' habits and behaviour. They knew which animals where predators, which their prey, and which parasites, for example. Voultsiadou and Tatolas do not mention if animals were attribute with magical powers, although the myth of the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, might have their origin in Greeks finding the skulls of the elephants that once roamed their land. These would have seemed freakishly huge, and also have a large hole in the middle, for the trunk, that looks very much like a huge eye socket.

This study, published in the Journal of Biogeography, is reminiscent of a much earlier study by the Scottish scientist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Thompson, who as well as being a professor of biology was expert in ancient Greek, published two works cataloguing the animals in classical literature: A Glossary of Greek Birds (1895), and A Glossary of Greek Fishes (1947). I know this because my forthcoming book, due next year, contains a chapter on his life and work.

1 comment:

tatolas said...

Dear Mr. Whitfield,
I really need to get in contact with you. My e-mail address is
yours sincerely
Apostolos Tatolas