Monday, April 29, 2013

Birds in Greek mythology

Eustace LeSueur, "Abduction of Ganymede," 1650

I've been meaning to do a post about the birds of Greek mythology for a while now, and by "a while," I mean, oh, about the past year or so. The sheer scope of the topic has been a bit daunting, to be honest. Every time I'd stop and do a little research, I'd find more, and more, and more. Those ancient Greeks had a lot of tales to tell!

But then I reminded myself, it's not a research paper. It's just something I'm slapping together for my blog just for fun. So here goes....

Probably one of the most famous stories is that of the twelve labors of Hercules. He had to perform these labors to atone for having killed his sons (although that wasn't really his fault; he was crazy at the time); for our purposes, the most relevant of these tasks was the sixth labor, killing the Stymphalian Birds.

Apparently, these birds were really bad news. Maybe you are sick of house sparrows taking over your purple martin houses or pigeons soiling your local park benches. Well, you have nothing to complain about compared to the people around Lake Stymphalia in Arcada, where the local people were terrorized by man-eating birds with toxic dung who could launch sharp, metallic feathers as a weapon. These things bred as quickly as starlings, and not only destroyed the crops, but ate the farmers, too. Luckily for the people of Arcada, Hercules soon put a stop to that.

Hercules killing the Stymphalian birds

He flushed them by shaking a rattle given to him by Athena (or maybe it was Hephaestus; I've read different versions), killing them as they flew up from the marshy edges of the lake. Those he didn't kill flew away to the island of Ares, where they were subsequently frightened off by Jason and the Argonauts. I am not sure what became of them after that. Perhaps they went extinct.

And if anyone doubts that birds can make someone's life a living hell, consider the plight of poor Prometheus, tormented for his audacity in giving the gift of fire to humanity by having an eagle feast upon his liver each day.

Prometheus being tormented by an eagle

Another curious phenomenon that is no longer much reported is that of people turning into birds. This seemed to happen frequently back in the days of the Greeks, as in the tragic example of Philomela and Procne.

As told by Ovid, a woman named Procne married a particularly loathsome character, Tereus, the King of Thrace. Not wanting to be parted from her sister, Philomela, she convinced her husband to let her join them. Unable to contain his lust for his sister-in-law, Tereus raped her and cut out her tongue. Philomela managed to tell Procne what had happened by weaving a tapestry to tell the story, and the two sisters got their revenge by killing Procne and Tereus' son Itys and cooking him up as dinner. (And I always wondered if the horror movies that are my guilty pleasure are too gruesome. Compared to this stuff, they are downright tame!)

After Tereus finished his meal, they held up Itys' decapitated head to taunt him, and he chased them in a murderous fury. The women prayed to be turned into birds to escape his rage, and thus Procne became a swallow and Philomena a nightingale. Although he did not want to be turned into a bird, Tereus became a hoopoe. (Other versions of the myth have them becoming different birds; but birds they all became.)

In a happier tale, the goddess Halcyon and her mortal lover, King Ceyx, were tragically parted when Ceyx died in a shipwreck. Halcyon threw herself into the waves in despair, whereupon the goddess Hera took pity on her sorrow and transformed both of them into kingfishers, so they could still be together.

Halcyon was also able to get Zeus to promise a spot of good weather so she could lay her eggs, which is the origin of the term "Halcyon Days."

In a tale from Homer, the hero Meleager was involved in the hunt for the Calydonian boar. His beloved, the huntress Atalanta, first wounded the boar, and Meleager gave her the hide as she had drawn the first blood. Long story short, a huge argument ensued over a woman being awarded the "prize," and Meleager himself ended up dead by the end of the tale (he ticked off someone named Althaea by killing the dudes who insulted Atalanta, and Althaea got revenge by destroying the brand that had to be protected because if it burned up, Meleager would die...yikes, it is almost impossible to simplify these tales).

After his death, his sisters were so mournful, keening and sobbing, that the goddess Artemis transformed them into guinea fowl and sent them to the island of Leros. This is why guinea fowl make pitiful sobbing noises. They just can't get over Meleager's death.

When the gods weren't transforming other people into birds, at least one god, Zeus, was becoming a bird himself in order to commit hanky-panky. In one instance, he transformed himself into an eagle in order to kidnap the youth Ganymede to become his "cupbearer," and at another time, he seduced a young woman named Leda in the guise of a swan. This is actually one of the more tasteful renditions of this scene.... I'm not really sure why anyone wants to think about a woman making out with a swan, but anyhoo...

"Leda and the Swan in the Palace of Fesch Ajaccio" by Paola Veronese

Finally, there are birds that became associated with a Greek deity, such as Athena and the owl. For many of my generation, this bit of mythology lives on due to the mechanical owl named Bubo in the movie Clash of the Titans.

In actual myth, the owl (symbolized by a Glaucous or Little Owl) would not have been seen as a "pet" or companion of the goddess, but as a representation or symbol of Athena. The owl symbolized wisdom and vigilance, due to its ability to see in the darkness, and the eyes that seemed to shine from within.

Regardless of how this association came to be, it was so entrenched that an Athenian coin, which was in circulation for over 300 years (430 BC -- 99 BC), featured an image of Athena on one side and an owl on the other, and were colloquially known as "owls."

Athenian coin

I love owls, but my favorite bird is the crow, and crows were associated with the god Apollo. In some stories, Apollo seems to have a grudge against crows: in one instance, he turns the crows' feathers black for telling him about the infidelity of his lover, Coronis; in another tale, he banishes the crow a constellation in the sky for eating figs instead of bringing him water as it was supposed to. In the heavens, the crow perches eternally near the water-snake, but unable to drink, which is why his caw is so raspy.

Apollo and the crow

In other tales, Apollo and the crow are on better terms; crows are considered sacred to Apollo, and in one myth, the god turned himself into a crow in order to escape the monster Typhon.

And now, I am suffering from Internet overload, a fate unknown to the ancient Greeks, I am sure. If I could turn into a bird in order to soothe my mind, I would either become a mourning dove, as I don't think they have enough brains to worry themselves, or a blue jay, as I am sure they are far too clever to get into such a state.

I hope you have enjoyed this summary of birds and the ancient Greeks; in the meantime, please let me know if there is a good bird myth that I have overlooked.


  1. This is fascinating stuff! Now, at last, I know who Ganymede is. I like the art, too, especially the kingfishers, and Leda and her Swan. That eagle about to chow down on Prometheus' liver looks downright evil. And, there are some people, sigh, who would tell you that my sweet little sun conure, Wiggy, is a direct descendent of the Stymphalian birds. Others have even more colorful ideas as to his ancestry! Really interesting post! MOM

  2. have a lot of information here. Very interesting!! It must have taken a while to put it all together! I enjoyed reading it. :-)

    1. Thanks!! It was a lot of fun to research.

  3. You could also add the myth of "Ascalaphus", who was transformed into an owl by the goddess Demeter. While another myth says that he transformed into it by the Demeter's daughter, Persephone.

  4. There are also, the Birds of Ares. Argonauts fought these birds during their journey.

  5. The myth of Alectryon is nice. God Ares transformed him into a rooster.

  6. Cygnus the Swan a musiian turned into a swan Perdix newphew to Daedalus turned in a bird the PARTRIDGE

  7. Thanks to all the people who recently commented. There are obviously many more myths and stories to research. It's an endlessly fascinating topic.

  8. Corvus was a raven or cow which served god Apollo. Apollo was about to make a sacrifice on the altar and he needs some water to perform the ritual. The god sends the raven to promptly fetch some water in his cup, but the bird gets distracted by a fig tree and spends a few days lazily resting and waiting for the figs to ripen. After feasting on the figs, the raven finally brings Apollo the cup filled with water and he also brings a water snake (Hydra) as an excuse for being so late. Apollo sees through the raven’s lies and angrily casts all three – the cup (Crater), the water snake (Hydra) and the raven (Corvus) into the sky. Apollo also casts a curse on the raven, scorching its feathers, that's why their feathers are black (they had white feathers till then), and making the bird eternally thirsty and unable to do anything about it, that's why they have such raspy voices.

  9. Cycnus, king of Liguria, was a good friend of Phaethon. When Phaethon died, he sat by the river Eridanos mourning his death. The gods turned him into a swan to relieve him of his pity. Cycnus (Κύκνος) means Swan in Greek.

  10. There is this nice list in wikipedia with people transformed into birds: