How Easy It Is to Be Wrong about Early History on the Internet

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 1 of 7

Background: I ran into two historical images from California with ostriches used as transportation. That got me wondering about the history of ostrich riding. And that lead me down quite a rabbit hole.

I’ve divided my findings into separate posts (find them with the ostrich riding tag). Warning: serious early history and language nerdery ahead in Serious Academic Voice.

TL;DR – Tracing ostrich riding to a 3rd century BCE tomb find from Egypt is rubbish, but the concept is, indeed, ancient.

Below is the long story.

A quick Google search finds several tourism-related pieces on ostrich riding that refer to ancient Egypt. Queen Arsinoe II’s tomb is said to have contained a statue depicting her riding an ostrich, which is used as evidence for stretching the history of the activity back to antiquity (for example in these two articles).

Sweeping generalizations like these make me wary, fascinating as the prospect is. There are two major issues with a claim like this: a) Did Queen Arsinoe II’s tomb, in fact, contain a statue of her riding an ostrich? b) If so, is the statue unique, or are there other sources depicting or describing ostrich riding between Queen Arsinoe II’s life and modern times?

The Met Arsinoe II Vase Fragment c3rd BCE
Fragment of a faience vase depicting Arsinoe II. From Alexandria region, Egypt, 275-250 BCE. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Queen Arsinoe II lived in 3rd century BCE (dates vary from source to source; ca. 316 to 270 / 268 BCE are often mentioned). She was the daughter of Berenice I and Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals and the founder of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE. She was involved with the continuing power struggles in the Macedonian kingdoms after Alexander through her three husbands. They were Lysimachus (another of Alexander’s generals, later a provincial governor in Thrace and King of Thrace, Asia Minor, and Macedon), Ptolemy Ceraunus (also spelled Keraunos, her half-brother, son of Ptolemy I and Eurydice, and briefly King of Macedon), and Ptolemy II Philadelphus (her brother and King of Egypt after Ptolemy I).

As Queen of Egypt, Arsinoe shared all of her brother’s titles, and towns were dedicated to and a cult created for her. In addition, she appeared on coins both alone and with him – even during their lifetimes, the pair was known as ‘sibling divinities’ (theoi adelphoi). After her death, Arsinoe was connected with the goddess Aphrodite and continued to be worshiped in numerous places.

Several popular articles mention not only a statue of Arsinoe riding an ostrich, but also the statue having been found in her tomb. Unfortunately, none of them give sources of any kind for their claim. It seems to come from the Wikipedia entry for ostrich, though, and there we have a citation: Dorothy Burr Thompson’s article “A Portrait of Arsinoe Philadelphos” in American Journal of Archaeology 59, no. 3 (published in 1955). A specific reference to a scholarly article looks very promising!

However, the Wikipedia citation turns out to be utterly wrong. While Thompson does mention a statue of Arsinoe on a large bird, the point of her article is that Arsinoe was typically depicted with features and symbols that were at the time thought to indicate her divinity and that, therefore, it would be more believable that the bird mount in question was a phoenix or one of the Memnonides. The latter are mythological birds that sprang from Memnon’s ashes, fated to appear annually and fight in a ritual ceremony in memory of Memnon (see e.g. Ovid’s Metamorphoses 13.576 or Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 10.37).

Not only that, Thompson doesn’t even mention the word tomb in her article. Further searching confirms that in the literature on Arsinoe II there is no mention of her tomb having ever been discovered to begin with (indeed, Acosta-Hughes & Stephens, p. 11, doubt that her funerary temple was completed). What a sad trombone moment!

So, what do we know about the statue of Arsinoe riding an ostrich? The description that Thompson refers to comes from Pausanias (ca. 110 to 180 CE), a Greek traveler, geographer, and writer. The statue itself is lost, but according to Pausanias’ Description of Greece (9.31.1), it was made of bronze and erected on Mount Helicon in Boeotia (central Greece):

“On Helicon there is also a statue of Arsinoe, who married Ptolemy her brother. She is being carried by a bronze ostrich. Ostriches grow wings just like other birds, but their bodies are so heavy and large that the wings cannot lift them into the air.”

Pausanias was writing about 400 years after Arsinoe II’s death, which should immediately give the reader pause. In fact, earlier scholarship questioned his accuracy, but the current consensus accepts Pausanias as a generally reliable source in his descriptions, if not always in his interpretations.

What about Pausanias’ reliability on Arsinoe’s bird mount specifically? Many scholars – if they mention the statue at all – don’t doubt the identification as ostrich like Thompson does (e.g. Rice 90). There’s remarkably little critical commentary on it, however, and what there is generally follows and cites Thompson (see e.g. Griffiths 59, Masséglia 50). The contexts of sources that mention Arsinoe II and ostriches point to mythological or deifying rather than real-world circumstances. In general, art depicting Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II suggests that the Ptolemaic dynasty used both their own Hellenistic and Egyptian art conventions (Masséglia 50). This seems to have been in order to link the newcomer Macedonian dynasty to the Egyptian tradition (Salisbury 17). So, at the moment there’s nothing conclusive we can say about Pausanias or the statue either way; the history is much more complicated.

It looks like we know two things at this point:

  1. It seems there was at one time a statue of Queen Arsinoe II atop a large bird, but it wasn’t in her tomb.
  2. The one extant description of the statue dates from four centuries after Arsinoe II’s death. According to that description, the bird she rides is an ostrich, but later interpretations cast some doubt on the identification.

Several open questions remain: It seems a given that they were known in Egypt, but were ostriches merely hunted or were they also tamed or domesticated for riding or other uses? Was Pausanias right in describing Arsinoe’s bird mount as ostrich? How would he know an ostrich – were ostriches known either physically or through art in Greece at Pausanias’ time? Was Arsinoe II’s statue as unique as the surviving evidence seems to suggest, or were there others like it? I’ll return to these issues in my next posts.

Thoughts for writers

  • History is full of fascinating stuff!
  • When doing research, do not trust the first source – especially if it’s the only one! – you find on the Internet without checking.
  • Although laborious, it can be fruitful, even crucial, to track down a primary source rather than trusting a second-hand report.
  • The difference between spelling ancient names (Philadelphus and Philadelphos, Ceraunus and Keraunos, etc.) in various sources can drive you crazy! In this case, the -us ending comes from Latin, while -os retains the original Greek form. If you’re using actual historical names or names formed on the basis of historical names in your world, pick one form and stay consistent.

Selected Sources for Part 1:

Acosta-Hughes, Benjamin and Susan A. Stephens. Callimachus in Context: From Plato to the Augustan Poets. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=aXdsdo0u__gC.

Griffiths, Frederick T. Theocritus at Court. [Place of publication not identified] E.J. Brill, 1979. https://books.google.com/books?id=2zdCAAAAIAAJ.

Habicht, Christian. Pausanias’ Guide to Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. https://books.google.com/books?id=9cJYpYbScEUC.

Masséglia, Jane. Body Language in Hellenistic Art and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=20jTBgAAQBAJ.

Pallardy, Richard. “Arsinoe II, Queen of Thrace and Egypt.” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed September 05, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Arsinoe-II.

Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation. Translated by W.H.S. Jones and H.A. Ormerod. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918. http://data.perseus.org/texts/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0525.tlg001.perseus-eng1.

Rice, E.E. The Grand Procession of Ptolemy Philadelphus. London: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Salisbury, Joyce E. Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001. https://books.google.com/books?id=HF0m3spOebcC.

Thompson, Dorothy Burr. “A Portrait of Arsinoe Philadelphos.” American Journal of Archaeology 59, no. 3 (1955): 199-206, http://www.jstor.org/stable/500319.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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