By Gordon Rugg
Just in case the earlier article about Caesar on the unicorn and Roosevelt on the moose left you hungry for more, here’s Herodotus demonstrating that his mastery of colourful travel writing is on a level that can only be matched by Jennifer Lawrence’s mastery of photobombing. And of tripping over at award ceremonies. And of devastating one-liners…
Anyway, here’s Herodotus, writing about Egyptian wildlife.
73. There is also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I did not myself see except in painting, for in truth he comes to them very rarely, at intervals, as the people of Heliopolis say, of five hundred years; and these say that he comes regularly when his father dies; and if he be like the painting, he is of this size and nature, that is to say, some of his feathers are of gold colour and others red, and in outline and size he is as nearly as possible like an eagle. This bird they say (but I cannot believe the story) contrives as follows:setting forth from Arabia he conveys his father, they say, to the temple of the Sun (Helios) plastered up in myrrh, and buries him in the temple of the Sun; and he conveys him thus:he forms first an egg of myrrh as large as he is able to carry, and then he makes trial of carrying it, and when he has made trial sufficiently, then he hollows out the egg and places his father within it and plasters over with other myrrh that part of the egg where he hollowed it out to put his father in, and when his father is laid in it, it proves (they say) to be of the same weight as it was; and after he has plastered it up, he conveys the whole to Egypt to the temple of the Sun. Thus they say that this bird does.
74. There are also about Thebes sacred serpents, not at all harmful to men, which are small in size and have two horns growing from the top of the head: these they bury when they die in the temple of Zeus, for to this god they say that they are sacred.
75. There is a region moreover in Arabia, situated nearly over against the city of Buto, to which place I came to inquire about the winged serpents: and when I came thither I saw bones of serpents and spines in quantity so great that it is impossible to make report of the number, and there were heaps of spines, some heaps large and others less large and others smaller still than these, and these heaps were many in number. This region in which the spines are scattered upon the ground is of the nature of an entrance from a narrow mountain pass to a great plain, which plain adjoins the plain of Egypt; and the story goes that at the beginning of spring winged serpents from Arabia fly towards Egypt, and the birds called ibises meet them at the entrance to this country and do not suffer the serpents to go by but kill them. On account of this deed it is (say the Arabians) that the ibis has come to be greatly honoured by the Egyptians, and the Egyptians also agree that it is for this reason that they honour these birds.
So what’s going on here?
Herodotus starts with the phoenix, where he makes his opinions very clear; he’s just reporting what he’s been told, even though he thinks that the story is as plausible as a front page story in The Onion.
Then he gives a very matter-of-fact description of a horned snake, treating it as no big deal. In case you’re wondering, there are indeed horned snakes; here’s a photo of the sort that’s found in the deserts of North Africa, which is almost certainly what he was describing.
He’s absolutely right about the horns and the size. He’s slightly optimistic about its harmlessness; the font of all knowledge encouragingly describes its venom as “not very toxic” and lists the not-very-toxic symptoms as “swelling, haemorrhage, necrosis, nausea, vomiting and haematuria”.
So, overall, his accuracy is looking pretty good at this point.
Which brings us to the flying snakes.
What does he actually say about them? He opens by reporting what he saw when he went to find out about winged serpents. He says that he saw “bones of serpents and spines in quantity…” He then goes on to say “and the story goes that at the beginning of spring winged serpents from Arabia fly towards Egypt”.
As with the phoenix and the horned serpents, he’s distinguishing carefully between reporting other people’s stories and reporting what he himself saw. In the case of the winged snakes, he carefully doesn’t say that he’s seen bodies of winged snakes; instead, he says that he’s seen skeletons and spines. You get the impression that he doesn’t place much faith in the story, but that seeing the piles of bones has planted a seed of doubt in his mind.
I’ll re-examine this issue of careful wording in a future article. For the moment, it’s hard to top flying snakes as subject matter, so I’ll draw this article to a close.
By way of an inspirational closing note, here’s a link to some genuine gliding snakes. They’re not from Egypt, but they’re genuinely aerodynamic – they flatten their undersides to generate lift – and they’re snakes that don’t need a plane…
I’ve used the Project Gutenberg edition of Herodotus:
Title: The History Of Herodotus. Author: Herodotus. Translator: G. C. Macaulay
(Originally published in 1890, by MacMillan and Co., London and New York)