the Elder Pliny.

Pliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books online

. (page 56 of 60)
Online Librarythe Elder PlinyPliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books → online text (page 56 of 60)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


nor came from the woods of Arabia. The instinctive qualities of the
species were not observed to direct its motions. It is the genius, we are
told, of the true Phoenix, when its course of years is finished, and the
approach of death is felt, to build a nest in its native clime, and there
deposit the principles of life, from which a new progeny arises. The
first care of the young bird, as soon as fledged, and able to trust to its
wings, is to perform the obsequies of its father. But this duty is not
undertaken rashly. He collects a great quantity of myrrh, and to try his
strength, makes frequent excursions with a load on his back. When he
has made his experiment through a long tract of air, and gains sufficient
confidence in his own vigour, he takes up the body of his father, and flies
with it to the altar of the sun, where he leaves it to be consumed in flames
of fragrance. Such is the account of this extraordinary bird. It has, no
doubt, a mixture of fable ; but that the Phoenix, from time to time,
appears in Egypt, seems to be a fact satisfactorily ascertained." MURPHY'S
"Tacitus" Annals^ Book vi. sect. 28. The concluding paragraph of this
second chapter of Pliny is the best comment on this passage of Tacitus.

The fable of the Phoenix, however, is not only found in heathen au-
thors, but is mentioned and believed by many of the Jewish Rabbinical
writers also, and even by some of the early Fathers of the Christian
Church. Nor are accounts of it wanting in modern authors, even down
to so late a period as the middle of the seventeenth century ; for Sir
Thomas Brown, in the 12th chap, of the 3d book of his "Vulgar
Errors," thinks it necessary to state, at some length, his reasons for disbe-
lieving the existence of the Phoenix. Cuvier is of opinion that the
original description of the Phoenix might have been taken from the
Phasianus pictus, a native of China; which, if it ever once flew into
Egypt, would be a sufficient foundation for the portent. See Art.
" Phoenix," in the " Penny Cyclopaedia;" also, " Habits of Birds," in the
" Library of Entertaining Knowledge." Wern. Club.



188 History of. Nature. [BooK X.

of the long Robe (Toga), who wrote of this Bird ; and he
reporteth, that no Man was ever known to see him feeding :
that in Arabia he is sacred to the Sun : that he liveth 660
Years: and when he groweth old, he builds a Nest with the
Twigs of Cassia (Cinnamon) and Frankincense Trees : and
when he hath filled it with Spices, he dieth upon it. He
saith, also, that out of his Bones and Marrow there breedeth
at first, as it were, a little Worm, from which proceeds a
young Bird ; and the first Thing this young one does, is to
perform the Funeral Rites of the former Phoenix, and then
to carry away the whole Nest to the City of the Sun, near
Panchaea, and to lay it down upon the Altar. The same
Manilius affirmeth, that the Revolution of the great Year
agreeth with the Life of this Bird ; in which Year the same
Signification of the Times and Stars return again to their
first Points : and that this should begin at Noon, that very
Day when the Sun entereth the Sign Aries. And by his
saying, the Year of that Revolution was by him showed
when P. Licinius and M . Cornelius were Consuls. Cornelius
Valerianus writeth, that while Q. Plautius and Sex. Papinius
were Consuls, the Phcenix flew into Egypt. He was con-
veyed to the City (Rome) in the Time that Claudius the
Prince was Censor, in the eight hundredth Year of the City,
and was showed openly in the Assembly of the People, as
appeareth in the Public Records ; but no Man ever made
any doubt that this was a counterfeit Phoenix.

CHAPTER III.
Of Eagles.*

OF all the Birds we know, the Eagles excel both in
Honour and Strength. There are six Kinds of them. The

1 In his account of the Eagles, when Pliny does not follow Aristotle,
he may have been chiefly led by the authority of the books of the
Augurs; to whom the appearance of all strange birds was officially
reported, and whose office led them to study minutely their habits. The
absence of description in their writings is explained by the fact, that their
books contained coloured figures of all the species that came within their



BOOK X.] History of Nature. 1 89

first named by the Greeks Melanaetos, which is the same as
Valeria : the least in size, but the strongest, and in Colour
black : in the whole Race of Eagles, she alone feedeth her
young : for the rest (as we shall say hereafter) beat them
away : she only crieth not, nor keepeth a-grumbling ; and
she keepeth commonly on the Mountains. Of the second
Sort is Pygargus. It keepeth about Towns and Plains, and
hath a whitish Tail. The third is Morphnos, which Homer
calleth also Percnos. Some name it Plancns and Anataria: 1
the second in Bigness and Strength, loving to live about
Lakes. Phcemonne, who was said to be the Daughter of
Apollo, hath reported, that this Eagle has Teeth ; otherwise
mute, and without Tongue : also, of all others she is the
blackest, and hath the longest Tail. With this agrees
Botthius. She is subtle ; for when she hath seized on Tor-
toises, she throweth them down from aloft to break their
Shells. It was the Fortune of the Poet ^Eschylus to die by
such Means. For it is said to have been foretold by the
Fates that he should be killed on a given Day by something
falling from the Sky ; which he guarded against by trusting
to the Safety of the open Sky. Of the fourth Kind is Perc-
nopterus, the same as Oripelargus , a kind of Vulture with
very small Wings, a Body bigger than the rest ; but a very

notice. It is also probable, from Ch. xv., that the works of the ancient
naturalists were illustrated with representations of the objects referred to,
although no such copies have come down to our times.

Eagles: Malanaetos, Valeria; Falco fulims, Cuv. The common Eagle.

Gnesios: F.fufous,\n perfect plumage. The Golden Eagle.
Besides which, there is F. imperialis, Cuv., or Eagle of the Sun ; a more
powerful bird than the former, and to which Cuvier assigns the stories
concerning the Eagle to be found in the books of the ancients.

Pygargus: perhaps Falco albicilla, LINN.

Haliatos: Halicetus ossifragus^ Cuv. Fishing Eagle, or Osprey. The
Falco H. of Linneus is the Pandion H. of Cuvier.

Barbata: ossifraga: Falco barbatus, GMELIN; Gypaetos barbatus, Cuv.

Morphnos, &c., is said by Cuvier to bean undetermined species.

Percnopterus : the large and small Vultures may be Vultus cinereus,
and V. percnopterus, LINN. Wern. Club.

1 For killing of ducks and mallards.



190 History of Nature. [BooK X.

Coward, and of an inferior Race, for a Raven will buffet her.
She hath a greedy Appetite, and a continued whining Mur-
mur. Of all the Eagles she only carrieth away the dead Prey ;
whereas when the others have killed it, they settled upon
it. This Kind causeth the fifth to be called Gnesws, as being
the true, and the only one of pure descent. This Eagle is of
a middle size, of a reddish Colour, and rare to be seen.
There remaineth the Haliaetos ; which hath the sharpest
Sight of all others, poising herself on high ; and when she
spieth a Fish in the Sea, down she comes upon it with a
Rush, and dashes the Waves aside with her Breast as she
snatcheth it up. That Eagle which we have made the third,
haunteth standing Waters to prey upon Water-fowl, which
now and then dive under the Water ; but she seizeth them
as they become wearied and confounded. The Contest is
worth looking at ; while the Bird endeavours to gain the
Shore for Refuge, especially if it be well covered with thick
Reeds, and the Eagle for her Part drives her from thence
with a Blow of the Wing ; and whilst the Eagle striketh,
and in so doing falleth into the Lake, the Fowl that swim-
meth beneath the Water, seeing the Shadow of the Eagle
hovering about the Shore, riseth up again in another Place,
where her Pursuer could least have looked for her. This is
the Cause why these Wild-fowl commonly swim in Flocks ;
for when they are many together, they are not troubled,
because with dashing the Water with their Wings, they
dazzle the Sight of their Enemy. Often, also, the very
Eagles, not able to bear up the Weight they have seized, are
drawn under the Water with it. The Haliceetos only, before
her young ones are yet feathered, beats them, and thereby
forces them to look full against the Sunbeams; and if she
notices any one of them to wink, or their Eyes to water, she
throws it out of the Nest, as a bastard and inferior Sort ;
but she educates that one whose Eye-sight is strong enough
to sustain the Gaze. Haliceeti are not a separate Kind of
Eagles, but proceed from the coupling of different Sorts.
And that Kind which is produced by them is regarded as a
Sort of Ossifragus ; from which are propagated the lesser



BooKX.] History of Nature. 191

Vultures ; and they again the greater, which propagate
none whatever. Some add a Kind of Eagle which they call
Barbatae, and the Tuscans Ossifragae.

But the three first and the fifth Kind of Eagles have in
their Nest a Stone named JEetites, 1 which some call Gagates ;
of extensive use as a Medicine, and suffering no Injury from
Fire. Now this Stone is also pregnant ; for if it is shaken,
another is heard to rattle within, as if it were in its Womb.
But that medical Virtue is not in these Stones if they are not
taken away out of the very Nest. They make their Nests in
Rocks and upon Trees : they lay three Eggs, but two only
are hatched : but sometimes they have been seen to have
three young ones. But one of them they turn out of the
Nest, because they will not be troubled with feeding it. And
truly Nature hath well provided that at such a Time they
shall not be able to provide Meat ; for otherwise they were
enough to destroy'all the Young of the wild Beasts. Also at
this Time their Talons are bent inward; and through Hunger
their Feathers grow white, so that they have good Cause to
hate their Young. But when they have cast them off, the
Ossifrages, which are near of Kin to them, receive them and
bring them up with their own Birds. But the parent Eagles
persecute them still when they are full grown, and drive
them a great Way off, as being their Rivals in the Prey.
And were it not so, one pair of Eagles needeth a large Ex-
tent of Country to furnish them with sufficient Food. They
have, therefore, their several Coasts for Prey, and do not
trespass on those of a neighbouring pair. When they have
seized a Prey, they do not carry it away presently, but first
lay it down, and try the Weight before they fly off with it.
They do not die for Age or Sickness, but of Famine, by rea-
son that the upper Beak of their Bill so far overgrows in-
ward, that the Crookedness does not permit them to open it. 2

1 B. xxx. ch. xiv. ; B. xxxvi. ch. xxi. ; B. xxxvii. ch. xi. Wern. Club.

2 But this remarkable growth of the hook of the beak in time exfo-
liates ; when the bird becomes capable of feeding, and again gathers
health and strength. To this reference is made, Psalm ciii. 5. Wern.
Club.



192 History of Nature. [BooK X.

Their Manner is to go to their Business and to fly after
Noon-day. For all the former Hours of the Day they sit
idle, waiting until Men are got together about their Markets
in the Towns. The Feathers of Eagles laid among those of
other Fowls will consume them. It is said that the Eagle
only is never smitten with Lightning ; and therefore it is
judged that she serveth Jupiter as his Armour-bearer.

CHAPTER IV.

When Eagles began to be the Standards of the Legions ; and
what Fowls they are that have War with Eagles.

CAIUS MARIUS,

in his second

Consulship,

ordained

that the

Roman

Legions should only have the Eagle for their

Standard. For before that Time the Eagle marched

foremost, with four others : Wolves, Minotaurs, Horses

and Boars; each one in its proper Order. Not many

Years past the Eagle alone began to be advanced in the

Battle; and the Rest were left behind in the Camp. But

Marius rejected them altogether. And since this it is

observed that scarcely is there a Camp of a Legion wintered

at any Time, without having a pair of Eagles.

Of Eagles, the first and second Kind do not prey only
upon the lesser Quadrupeds, but also maintain Battle with
Deer. She walloweth in the Dust and gathereth a great
deal of it among her Feathers, and then settling upon the
Horns she shakes it off into his Eyes, flapping it about his
Face with her Wings, until she drive him down over the
Rocks. Nor is one Enemy enough for the Eagle ; but her
Fight with the Dragon is more sharp and much more dan-
gerous, although it is in the Air. The Dragon, out of a
greedy Desire to do Mischief, watcheth to destroy the Eggs
of the Eagle ; but the Eagle again for this, wherever she



Insignia Draconarius. Montfaucon, pi. iii. torn. iv.




BOOK X.] History of Nature. 193

can see him, catcheth him up. The Dragon, with many
Folds windeth about his Wings, and so entangleth them
that they fall down both together.

CHAPTER V.
A wonderful Thing of an Eagle.

THE Glory of an Eagle is much celebrated at the City of
Sestos ; for a young Maiden having brought up a young
Eagle, the Bird requited her Kindness by first catching
Birds for her, and in process of Time brought to her the
Produce of its Hunting. At length the young Girl died ;
and when her Funeral-fire was set a-burning, the Eagle
threw itself on it, and was consumed to Ashes with her. For
which Cause the Inhabitants erected in that Place a Monu-
ment, such as they call Herou'm, denominated (the Tomb) of
Jupiter and the Virgin, because that Bird is consecrated to
the God.

CHAPTER VI.

Of Vultures.

THE black Vultures are the best of that kind of Birds.
No man ever could meet with their Nests; and therefore
some have thought (but untruly) that they fly to us out of
an opposite World. But they build in the very highest
Rocks ; and their young ones have many Times been seen,
two generally together. Umbricius, who was the most skilful
Aruspex of our Age, saith, that usually they lay three Eggs ;
of which they take one of them to purify the other Eggs and
the Nest, and soon after they cast it away : also that they
fly two or three days before to the place where there will be
dead Carcasses.

CHAPTER VII.
Of the Sangualis and Tmmussulus.

THE Roman Augurs entertain much Doubt concerning
the Sangualis and the Immussulus. Some are of opinion
that the Immussulus is the Young of the Vulture : and the
Sangualis, the Young of the Ossifraga. Massurius saith,

VOL. III. O



1 94 History of Nature. [ BOOK X .

that the Sangualis and Ossifraga are the same, and that the
Iramussulas is the Yonng of the Eagle, before it comes to
have a white Tail. Some have affirmed confidently, that
after (the Death of) Mutius the Augur, there was never any
of them seen at Rome : but I am rather of Opinion (as being-
nearest the Truth) that, through the supine Negligence of
Men in all Things, they do not know them.

CHAPTER VIII.
Of the Accipiter) or Hawk kind.

WE find sixteen Kinds of Hawks: 1 of which the Circos,
which is lame of one Leg, is held for the most prosperous
Augury in Treaties of Weddings and of Cattle. Also the
Triorches, so called from the Number of its Testicles, to
which Phemonoe hath given the principal Place in Au-
gury. The Romans called it Buteo ; and there is still a
Family surnamed from it, because it had settled upon the
Admiral's Ship, with favourable Auspices. The Greeks
name that Kind YEsalo, which alone is seen at all Times ;
whereas the rest are gone when Winter cometh. Hawks are
divided into distinct Kinds, by their Greediness : for some
never seize a Fowl but upon the Ground : others, again,
never attempt a Bird except it is flying about Trees : and
others when it is sitting on high : and some when they fly in
the open Air. Therefore the Pigeons, knowing the Danger
of these Things, so soon as they espy them, either alight
upon the Ground, or else fly low ; and thus help themselves
in a contrary Course to them. There is in the Ocean an

1 Accipiter is a general name for Hawks ; but when, as at Ch. xvii., it
is used for a certain species, it is Fulco nisus, Sparrow Hawk.

Triorches: JFalco butco, LINN. Buteo vulgaris, the Buzzard.

Circus: Falco cervginosus^ Moor Buzzard.

Buteo: Fulco, SubbuteOj Hobby; with the moderns is a different
species from the Triorches: and which Belon found to be used as food
in Crete.

JEsalo: Falco asalon, the Merlin.

Cymindis : Cuvier says, a species not determined. Wern. Club.



BOOK X.] History of Nature. '195

Island of Africa called Cerne, in which all the Hawks of
Massesylige build their Nests on the Ground : and being
accustomed to those Nations, they do not breed elsewhere.
In a Part of Thracia beyond Ainphipolis, Men and Hawks 1
catch Birds together, in a sort of Fellowship ; for the Men
drive the Birds from the Woods and Reeds, and the Hawks,
flying over their Heads, bear them to the Ground. On the
other Side the Hawkers divide the Prey with the Hawks :
and by Report they let some Birds fly again aloft into the
Air, for the Hawks to catch for themselves. When the Time
of Hawking arrives, they will by their Cry and Manner of
Flying together invite them to take the Opportunity. It is
said that Lupi (Bass) do the like, about the Lake Mceotis :
for unless they have their Part with the Fishermen, they
tear their Nets when they are stretched forth. Hawks do
not eat the Heart of any Bird. The Night-Hawk is called
Cymindis : it is seldom seen in the Woods, and by Daylight
seeth little. There is deadly War between it and the Eagle ;
and often they are both taken, by holding fast one with the
other.

CHAPTER IX.

Of the Coccyx, which usually is killed by Birds of its own

Kind.

THE Cuckoo 2 appeareth to be formed of an Hawk,
changed in its Shape at one certain Time of the Year : for
then the other Hawks are not to be seen, unless for some
very few Days. It showeth itself also only for a small Sea-

1 Falconry was little known to the Romans, but it was held as
honourable in some parts of Greece. Hence the Greeks denominated the
falconry hawks Hierax, and the falconer Hieracaros; although, perhaps,
this idea of their sacred character may have been derived from Egypt,
where the Accipiter JEgyptius was so deemed, because it preyed on serpents.
- Wem. Club.

2 The history of the Cuckoo may be seen in Mr. Yarrell's " British
Birds." The ancient opinion that this bird became changed into a Hawk,
was derived from the fact that one of the migratory Hawks appeared
about the time when the Cuckoo departed. Went. Club.



196 History of Nature. [BooK X.

son in Summer, and afterwards appeareth no more. It is
the only one of the Hawks that hath no hooked Talons, nor
is its Head like theirs, nor is it like them in anything but
Colour ; and the Gape of the Mouth more resembleth that of
the Dove. Nay, the Hawk will devour it if they appear
together ; and it is the only Bird of all others that is killed
by those of its own kind. It altereth its Voice also. In the
Spring it cometh abroad, and at the rising of the Dog-star it
hideth itself. It lays always in other Birds' Nests, and most
of all in the Stock-doves', commonly one Egg only, which
no other Bird doth besides ; and seldom two. The Reason
why they place their Young under other Birds is because
they know that all Birds hate them, for even little Birds
annoy them ; therefore, that the whole Race of them should
not be utterly destroyed, they make no Nest of their own,
being otherwise timorous in their Nature. The Nurse, there-
fore, bringeth up the substituted Chick in the adulterated
Nest. And this young Cuckoo, being Greedy by Nature,
intercepteth the Meat from the other young Birds, and so
groweth fat ; whereby it cometh into favour with the Nurse.
She rejoiceth in its Appearance, and wonders at herself that
she hath hatched such a Chick. The rest, which are her
own, she condemns in comparison with this one, as being
Strangers, and suffereth them to be devoured before her
Face; and at last the young Cuckoo, being able to fly,
seizeth also her Nurse. And by that Time no other Bird
is to be compared to the young Cuckoo for Sweetness of
Flesh.

CHAPTER X.
Of the Milvus. 1

THE Milvus is of the same Kind of Hawks, but it differs
in size. This hath been observed in them : that being a
most ravenous Bird, and ever hungry, yet they are never
known to snatch any Food from the Dishes of the Funeral
Feasts; nor from the Altar of Olympia; nor will they pluck it

1 Falco mihus, LINN.; Milvus vulgaris, YARKELL. The Kite, or
lead. Wern. Club.



BOOK X.] History of Nature. 197

out of the Hands of those that served, unless as a mournful
Portent of the Town's-people that sacrificed. These Birds
seem, by the turning of their Tails to and fro, to have taught
the Art of Steering ; Nature showing that in the Air which
is necessary in the Deep beneath ! The Milvus also, is not
seen in the Winter Months ; but they do not go away before
the Swallows. Moreover, it is said that after the Solstices
they are troubled with the Gout.

CHAPTER XI.
Arrangement of Birds into Genera.

THE first Distinction in Birds is chiefly taken from their
Feet, for they have either hooked Talons or Toes ; or else
they are in some sort broad arid flat, as Geese, and almost
all the Water-birds. Those which have hooked Talons for
the most part feed only upon Flesh.

CHAPTER XII.
Of unlucky Birds : the Comix, Corvus, and Bubo.

THE Comix 1 liveth also on other Food : for when they
meet with a hard Nut which resists their Bill, they will fly
aloft and fling it against the Rocks or Tiles many Times
together, until it is so bruised that they can easily break it.
This Bird's Chattering is inauspicious, although by some it
is praised. It is observed, that from the (going down) of the
Star Arcturus to the coining of the Swallow, it is not seen
elsewhere but in the Groves and Temples of Minerva, and
that but seldom, as at Athens. Moreover, this Bird only
feedeth her Young for a good while after they are able to
fly. She is most unlucky at the Time of Young, that is,
after the Solstice. All other Birds of the same Race drive
their young ones out of the Nest, and force them to fly; as
the Corvus also, which likewise feed not on Flesh only ; and
they likewise, when they perceive their young ones to be

1 Comix : Corvus corone, the Crow. Corvus, C. corax, the Kaven.
Wern. Club.



198 History of Nature. [BooK X.

strong, drive them away far off. Therefore about little Vil-
lages there are commonly not above two Pair of them. And
about Cranon in Thessaly, there is not above one Pair of
them : for the Parents yield the Place to the Offspring.
There are some different Properties in this Bird, and that
before-mentioned. The Corvi breed before the Solstice, and
for sixty Days they are sick, chiefly with Thirst, until the Figs
are ripe in Autumn : and from that Time the Cornix is dis-
eased. The Corvus for the most part layeth five Eggs, and
the Vulgar are of opinion that they conceive and lay Eggs at
the Bill ; and therefore if Women with Child eat a Raven's
Egg, they shall be delivered of their Children at the Mouth:
and generally they have difficult Labour if such an Egg be
brought into the House. Aristotle denieth this : no more, by
Hercules, than the Egyptian Ibis : but that the kissing which
we see them do often, is like what Pigeons also do. The
Corvi alone seem to have a Knowledge of their own
Significations in Presages; for when the Guests of Media
were all slain, they all flew away out of Peloponnesus
and the Region of Attica. The worst Signification they
afford is when they swallow their Voice as if they were
choked.

The Night-birds have also crooked Talons ; as the Noctua
Bubo and Ulula. 1 All these see but badly in the Day-time.
The Bubo betokeneth Mourning, and is most execrable,
especially in the Presages of public Affairs : it keepeth in
solitary Places ; and not desolate only, but also such as are
horrible, and hard of access. It is the Monster of the Night,
not uttering a clear Sound, but muttering a Groan; and
therefore, if seen in Cities, or otherwise abroad in the Light,
it is a dreadful Portent. I myself know, however, that it
hath perched upon many Houses of private Men, and yet
no deadly Accident followed. It never flieth directly whi-
ther it would itself go, but is carried away across. One of
them entered the very Sanctuary of the Capitol, in the Year

1 Noctua, Strix otus, LINN.; Otus vulgaris, YARRELL Eared Owl.
Bubo, strix bubo, LINN. ; see Ch. xvi. Noctua, strix flammea, LIKN.



Online Librarythe Elder PlinyPliny's Natural history. In thirty-seven books → online text (page 56 of 60)