The Curious Case of the Ostrich Statue and Ancient Vocabulary

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 4 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.

I had hoped to find a nice, neat selection of ancient texts putting the Greek word for ‘ostrich’ in context, but even a cursory look reveals that the history of the word strouthos is complex. At best, we can say that there are no immediate red flags either in the original Greek or modern English translations for Arsinoe II’s statue or Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession.

Below is the long story.

In Part 1, we discovered that a 3rd century BCE statue, a tomb find of Queen Arsinoe II of Egypt riding an ostrich, doesn’t exist. What we do have, instead, is a 2nd century CE description from Greece of a lost statue of Arsinoe II atop a large bird, but later interpretations cast some doubt on the identification of the bird as ostrich.

To recap, according to traveler, geographer, and writer Pausanias (Description of Greece, 9.31.1), the ostrich statue was 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.”

Also, in Part 3, we found that the Grand Procession of Arsinoe II’s husband-brother Ptolemy II included teams of ostriches drawing chariots. This reference comes from Callixenus of Rhodes, but it survives through another work, Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae. An English translation of the pertinent Deipnosophistae passage (5:32) reads:

“And after them came twenty-four chariots drawn by four elephants each, and […] eight by pairs of ostriches […] And on all these animals rode boys wearing the garments of charioteers, and the broad hats called petasi;”

Both descriptions are tantalizing, but we have very little sense of their trustworthiness. Callixenus was a contemporary of Ptolemy II, but his work only survives in a text written some 400-500 years later, and about 400 years passed between Arsinoe II’s death and Pausanias’ Description of Greece. Since the time spans are quite long, these descriptions might quite conceivably be faulty; they also might not. Whatever the case, a confirmation either way would help. One way to try and tease out an answer is through linguistics.

Fortunately, both the original Greek text and English translations for both texts are available online. I’m no scholar of Ancient Greek by any stretch of the imagination, and even my Latin is a gobbled-up hodgepodge based on my modern language skills. For this section, therefore, I used the dictionaries on Perseus Digital Library Project, Google Translate, and the help of my resident ancient history professor who reads both Greek and Latin.

In the original Greek, both our excerpts use the word στρουθός (transliterated as strouthos). The basic meaning of strouthos is ‘sparrow’. However, according to the dictionaries on Perseus, the word had other meanings, including mythic birds of Lake Stymphalus, a certain kind of plant, ‘hen’, ‘flounder’ (the same word means birds and fish?), ‘lewd fellow’ (say what?), and ‘ostrich’.

The latter appears in phrases such as μέγας στρ. (megas str.) = the large bird, i.e. the ostrich, and στρουθὸς κατάγαιος (strouthos katagaios where gaios cf. goddess Gaia, mother of Earth) = i.e. the bird that runs on the ground, does not fly (see the so-called Middle Liddell dictionary for these meanings). Apparently, also phrases αἱ μεγάλαι (plural feminine form, hai megalai) or οἱ μεγάλοι (plural masculine, hoi megaloi) refer to ostriches, literally = the big [ones] (see the LSJ entry).

Pausanias’ full description in the original reads τὴν δὲ Ἀρσινόην στρουθὸς φέρει χαλκῆ τῶν ἀπτήνων (tēn de Arsinoēn strouthos pherei chalkē tōn aptēnōn). I do (sort of) recognize pherei with the help of Google Translate – it looks like the Latin verb ‘to carry’ (fero / tuli / latum / ferre) – and chalkē refers to bronze or copper. Tēn and tōn are definite articles (in different cases, which is why they look different). My resident ancient history professor got intrigued by the phrase tōn aptēnōn. It means ‘of the wingless (or featherless) ones’, which explains why Pausanias goes on to explain about ostriches and their wings. The whole phrase would, then, mean roughly ‘the Arsinoe [that we know] being borne by a bronze flightless ostrich’ (or perhaps ‘wingless [large] bird’ would be more accurate, considering that strouthos can also apparently refer to mythical birds).

In the original, Athenaeus’ / Callixenus’ description lists στρουθῶν συνωρίδες ὀκτώ (strouthōn sunōrides oktō), where στρουθῶν is the word for ostrich (here in genitive plural form). The second word, συνωρίδες (sunōrides), refers to a pair, more generally of anything but more specifically of horses (here in plural; in the singular it’s συνωρίς, sunōris). The whole phrase means ‘eight pairs of ostriches’.

So far so good: there aren’t any immediate red flags either in the original Greek or the modern translations I quoted in Parts 1 and 3. However, the distance in time between us and the original texts can make an analysis of even seemingly unproblematic words or phrases very difficult. Any interpretation of old texts assumes that we can trust the accuracy of the original authors and their copiers / intermediaries / translators. For example, strictly speaking we can only ever make an educated guess how consistent the relationship between an ancient word and its referents are.

The difficulty of assigning meaning to old vocabulary is reflected well in the the case of ancient Roman hair taping. In attempting to recreate ancient Roman hairstyles, hairdresser and amateur forensic archaeologist Janet Stephens discovered that, contrary to what historians long believed, the women’s elaborately braided hair-dos weren’t wigs at all. Following experiments and a close scrutiny of Latin terminology, Stephens came to the conclusion that the usual translation ‘hairpin’ was a probable misunderstanding in the context of hairdressing, and instead chose to translate the Latin term acus as ‘needle-and-thread’. Her find enabled her to accurately recreate ancient hairstyles and reconciled vocabulary, art, and archaeological finds.

So, following the needle-and-thread logic, it might be really interesting to look into the translations or the usage and contexts of strouthos to verify the modern interpretations. There is certainly some material for it.

At a glance, the Perseus Project word frequency statistics for strouthos list 77 appearances in 24 classical sources. The three works that draw my immediate attention due to the higher word counts are Aelian’s De Natura Animalium with 15, Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (which we already met in Part 3) with 12, and Vita Apollonii by Philostratus the Athenian with 7 appearances. These three would also be very interesting as roughly contemporary works – Pausanias is the earliest, but they’re all from the late second to early third century CE. In most of the other texts strouthos only appears one or twice, and, by quickly poking at a few of the Perseus texts, it looks like for the oldest ones at least the meaning might be something else than ‘ostrich’. (For instance, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the meaning implied by the “inauspicious sparrows”, katamompha phasmata strouthōn, is ‘apparitions, visions, portents’.)

The biggest problem for me, however, is that Perseus doesn’t include an English translation for all of the strouthos texts. Just this small peek showed me that to separate the various meanings and contexts would take more time and skill than I have. I confess this is a bit of a disappointment, for I had hoped to find a less messy strouthos corpus. Then again, my academic background involves Anglo-Saxon history, which is a lot closer to our time than ancient Egypt and Greece. It makes sense that we’d have a better chance of preserving vocabulary for Old English than ancient Greek. It also shows that casually made assumptions concerning two such widely different areas / eras have a very high potential for failure.

Even had I been able to find a nice, neat selection of strouthos in context, that wouldn’t have confirmed the match between the biological entity Struthio camelus and the word strouthos in ancient Greek – it would’ve suggested a high likelihood of it, yes, but wouldn’t unequivocally have proven it (cf. the Roman hairdressing example, above). In Pausanias’ case, it’s still possible that Arsinoe was depicted on a phoenix or some other large, mythical bird like Dorothy Burr Thompson argues (see Part 1). In the case of Callixenus and Athenaeus, in order to assess their trustworthiness, we’d have to know not only that both provided an accurate account of their sources or that neither exaggerated, but also that Callixenus got the species identification right. At the moment, we simply don’t have enough data.

Thoughts for writers

  • Words and their meanings matter, as does their contexts. They matter even more in historical research and/or when translating is involved.
  • The phrase “ancient history” is a convenient shorthand, but there’s a whole lot of ancient history, all around the world. Assumptions based on one culture and era cannot be blindly applied to another.
  • Early history is difficult to research because of the distance between us and the events, and sometimes even between the extant texts themselves and the events they describe. At some point, it’s counterproductive to do more research, and your energies are better spent writing.

Selected Sources for Part 4:

Stephens, Janet. “Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (Hair)Pins and Needles.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 21 (2008): 110-132, http://www.journalofromanarch.com/samples/v21.110_adj.pdf.

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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