Add Eight Ostrich Teams and Call It a Procession

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 3 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 (a statue of Arsinoe II) from Egypt doesn’t hold up. The use of various ostrich products in human material culture dates back thousands of years. A few ancient depictions involve humans handling ostriches; however, extant sources don’t tell us whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world. The most promising source seems to be a description of a magnificent parade put together by Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II. This Grand Procession included eight chariots drawn by pairs of ostriches, and the ostriches may have been ridden by boys in costumes.

Below is the long story.

Clearly ancient Egyptians had frequent contact with ostriches, and ancient Greeks were interested in ostrich products. Even further away in Italy and Spain, ostriches and ostrich products were desirable. The primary sources do not, however, tell us anything about whether ostriches were merely hunted or whether they were also tamed in the ancient world. Ancient petroglyphs and monumental art may offer some clues, though.

Prehistoric rock art at Jebel Uweinat, Libya, contain images of animals, overwhelmingly (but not entirely) of domesticated cattle. The paintings and engravings also include for example humans, dogs, goats, camels, and what we would consider wild animals. Dating the Jebel Uweinat rock art is difficult, but it seems that some earlier styles might have been made as early as 8,500 years ago, whereas other images (such as camels) might be as late as about 2,000 years ago (or less).

There is one section of Jebel Uweinat art that is of special interest. Phillipson (417-418, see figure 105 on p. 418) surmises that several figures, including two giraffes and an ostrich, “tethered and being led by halters”, indicate experiments in taming wild animals in northeastern Africa. Phillipson’s information comes from a 1978 publication Rock Art of the Jebel Uweinat by Francis L. van Noten, Hans Rhotert and Xavier Misonne, which I haven’t been able to access myself, so I can’t evaluate his conclusion. Another secondary source (Phillips 332) mentions a tantalizing “hint of ostrich domestication”, presumably some type of ostrich farms, during the New Kingdom of Egypt (ca. 1550-1070 BCE) but unfortunately no additional details are given. Perhaps the relief fragment at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from ca. 1981-1950 BCE sparked that reference?

An often-cited source for ostriches in the ancient world is Berthold Laufer’s “Ostrich Egg-shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich in Ancient and Modern Times” published by The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, in their Anthropology Leaflet series (no. 23, 1926). He reprints several drawings that look like copies of engravings and reliefs with humans in contact with ostriches (figures 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7).

Laufer 1926 Fig4 Captured Ostrich
Captured ostrich and man with ostrich feathers and eggs. From Egypt, no date given. O. Keller; image via Laufer, “Ostrich Egg-shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich in Ancient and Modern Times,” Anthropology Leaflet no. 23 (1926), p. 17.

Unfortunately, Laufer refers to the sources of these fascinating images only by giving the author’s first initial and last name, and his bibliography omits each and every one (he added “Only articles which might prove of interest to the general reader are listed here”). Laufer’s research is also partly outdated, partly possibly outdated (pending further reading), and partly circumlocutious, and doesn’t even mention the statue of Arsinoe II astride an ostrich.

What about other depictions or descriptions of ostrich riding, then? Laufer (18, fig. 5) does include a drawing of a scene of ostrich-riders from a “[p]ainting on a Greek vase” but, frustratingly, doesn’t elaborate. Arnott (230) mentions

“[a]n Attic black-figure skythos of the the sixth century BC (so predating written references by half a century at least!), now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, shows six youths riding on Ostriches…”

A search on The Museum of Fine Arts website returns exactly one result: “Drinking cup (skyphos) depicting chorus scenes” (accession number 20.18). A section of side B is included below:

Section MFA Boston Skyphos 20.18 Ostriches
Screencapped section of a black-figured skyphos. From Attica, Greece, 520-510 BCE. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Sidenote: I love the smudge over the bird’s head in the image – it makes it look like an ostrich mid-caw, with an open beak!)

MFA Boston has made several images and metadata of the skyphos available to the public. Here seems to be some evidence of ostrich riding at last! – until we look at the museum’s item description:

“The vase has a frieze in the later black figure style, apparently with chorus scenes from early Attic comedies.
“Side A: Six warriors riding on dolphins, to right, towards a man playing a flute.
“Side B: Six youths riding upon ostriches, to right, towards a man playing a flute. In front of him, facing the others, is a bearded Pygmy. Repaired and painted over.
“The presence of a flute-player in each scene suggests that the dolphin and ostrich-riders are chorusmen in theatrical comedies, which often featured choruses of men dressed in outlandish costumes, such as wasps or frogs. Dolphin-riders appear elsewhere in Greek art, especially on the coinage of Taras, in southern Italy.”

The phrase theatrical comedies makes the context problematic for our purpose. A group of Greek vases dating from about 560 to 480 BCE bearing depictions of costumed figures is counted as evidence of choral formation dances or choral performances, and the MFA Boston skyphos seems to belong to that tradition (Hart & Walton 19-20).

We know that ancient theatrical pieces pulled inspiration both from the real world and from myths and stories. Elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean cultural context, there is evidence of Semitic peoples having mythology with demons or jinns either appearing as or riding wolves or ostriches (see Al-Rawi; Smith 129, footnote 2). And, certainly, with the opposite side of this vessel depicting dolphin riders, there’s every reason to doubt the veracity of these ostrich riders. Foiled (fowled?) again!

(Sidenote 2: My resident ancient history professor raised the possibility that perhaps the dolphin scene is a reference to lyre player Arion of Methymna being carried by a dolphin from the island of Lesbos to Cape Tainaron at the southern tip of mainland Greece in Herodotus’ Histories, 1.23-24, or similar stories. In any case, I as far as I can tell the theatrical context for the skyphos imagery sounds plausible.)

So, where do the ostrich teams in the post title come in? Ancient Egypt again, and Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II.

Several books on Ptolemy II Philadelphus mention his Grand Procession, a magnificent parade depicting various scenes from the life of the god Dionysus to display Ptolemy’s power and wealth. Some sources mention ostriches pulling a chariot or chariots as part of the procession. This sounds promising, for having ostrich-drawn carts would’ve required preparation and, therefore, at least, taming of ostriches if not outright domestication.

The Grand Procession took place perhaps between 270 and 260 BCE (precise date is not agreed on; often-cited dates include 262 BCE and 279/278 BCE; see Marquaille 54), and was described by Callixenus of Rhodes, a contemporary of Ptolemy II. Callixenus’ description survives only through another work, Deipnosophistae, by Athenaeus of Naucratis (late 2nd to early 3rd century CE).

The Deipnosophistae consists of 15 books, and, unfortunately, its history is very complex. The text as we have it today is compiled from an incomplete manuscript and an incomplete synopsis, and two different systems of citation to the text are still used in research. This made hunting down the actual section describing the ostriches, shall we say, an interesting exercise.

The pertinent section survives in book 5, lines 196a-203b or thereabouts (after the so-called Casaubon system); ostriches are mentioned on line 200f. Rice (17-19; found via Litwa 78) translates it thus:

“After them marched twenty-four elephant quadrigae, sixty bigae of goats, twelve of saiga antilopes, seven of oryxes, fifteen of hartebeest, eight bigae of ostriches, seven of onelaphoi, four bigae of onagers, and four quadrigae of horses.”

Rice uses a Latin term, biga (plural bigae), to translate the original Greek expression for ‘a pair of’. The biga is a two-horse chariot used in ancient Rome for sport, transportation, and ceremonies. Other animals might replace horses in art and occasionally for actual ceremonies.

Rice’s translation, therefore, gives us a total of 96 elephants, 120 goats, 24 antelopes, and 16 ostriches, and that’s not even counting the other exotic species mentioned – in this (just one) part of the Grand Procession. If Athenaeus and Callixenus weren’t exaggerating, that must have required quite a bit of coordination, and certainly would’ve been an impressive sight.

The English translation available on the Perseus Project (by Henry G. Bohn from 1854) is a good indication of the convoluted history of the text – see how different these two passages are:

“And after them came twenty-four chariots drawn by four elephants each, and sixty chariots each drawn by a pair of goats, and twelve chariots by antelopes, and seven by oryxes, and fifteen by buffaloes, eight by pairs of ostriches, and seven by gnus, and four by pairs of zebras, and four chariots also drawn each by four zebras.”

The really exciting thing is that the Perseus translation continues with “[a]nd on all these animals rode boys wearing the garments of charioteers, and the broad hats called petasi” (my emphasis). I haven’t had proper access to Rice’s work, so I cannot check how his translation continues. However, my resident ancient history professor tells me that the original Greek strictly speaking translates to ‘on all these rode boys’, i.e., the word animal in the Perseus translation isn’t present in the Greek, which means the Greek is grammatically ambiguous – either all of the different kinds of animals listed above, or just the zebras at the end of the list.

There is an opposing however, however: the rest of the immediate context does make it sound like all of the animals in the beginning of the section had riders. Namely, after these “boys wearing the garments of charioteers” and other boys besides them are described, there begins another list of animals – camels and mules, the latter of which were pulling palanquins with women from India and other countries. This set of animals is clearly different from the one containing the ostriches, so it is possible, after all, that Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession did include boys on ostriches pulling chariots – but only if we assume Athenaeus was repeating Callixenus right, and that the Perseus translation is truthful.

To update our list of things known about the early history of ostrich riding:

  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.
  3. Ostriches were certainly known in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period when Arsinoe II lived and appear in both visual and textual sources.
  4. A description of a Grand Procession put together by Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II includes eight chariots drawn by pairs of ostriches, and the ostriches may have been ridden by boys in costumes.

A number of additional questions have opened: Can Athenaeus’ / Callixenus’ description of the Grand Procession be trusted? If so, is it an indication of ostrich taming or domestication in general? Or does it change our reading of the statue of Arsinoe II riding an ostrich? I’ll return to some of these issues in my next post.

Thoughts for writers

  • Academic sources are more difficult to comb through for information, sometimes much, much more so, but they can make the difference between a well-researched story and a foot planted firmly in your mouth. If confidence in having done your research well matters to you, it’s likely to be time well spent.
  • There’s a reason why serious scholarship is a full-time profession. Scholars especially of ancient or early cultures deserve all the kudos they can get, and more. If you can cultivate a respectful relationship with a professor – of any professional expert, really – it can be of enormous help.

Selected Sources for Part 3:

Al-Rawi, Ahmed. “The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture.” Cultural Analysis 8 (2009): 45+. Academic OneFile. Web. 9 Sept. 2015.

Arnott, W. Geoffrey. Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. Oxon: Routledge, 2007.

The British Museum. Jebel Uweinat. (accessed September 10, 2015).

Hart, Mary Louise and J. Michael Walton. The Art of Ancient Greek Theater. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2010.

Laufer, Berthold. “Ostrich Egg-shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich in Ancient and Modern Times.” Anthropology Leaflet no. 23 (1926), 1-50.; available for download via

Litwa, M. David. We Are Being Transformed: Deification in Paul’s Soteriology. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012.

Marquaille, Céline. “The Foreign Policy of Ptolemy II.” In Ptolemy II Philadelphus and His World, edited by Paul McKechnie and Philippe Guillaume, 39-64. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008.

Phillips, Jacke. “Ostrich Eggshells”. In Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, edited by Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw, 332-333. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Phillipson, David W. “Africa (Excluding Egypt) from the Beginnings of Food Production up to about 5,000 Years Ago.” In History of Humanity: Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, edited by Sigfried J. de Laet, 412-424. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1994.

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

Smith, William Robertson. Religion of the Semites. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002.

This post has been edited for clarity.

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