A Lock of Hair Swept off to the Heavens… on an Ostrich?

Or: Some History behind Ostrich Riding, Part 5 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. The poem Berenice’s Lock was said to contain further evidence of ostriches as mounts in Ptolemaic Egypt after Arsinoe II’s death. Instead, what we seem to have is a case of poetic ambiguity translated with poetic license and taken uncritically as evidence.

Below is the long story.

In 19th-century and early 20th-century Anglophone research, the use of ostriches for riding in Mediterranean / Egyptian antiquity seems to be unquestioned. In 1869, North Pinder (38) presented a convoluted argument positing that the presence of an ostrich-riding statue in Greece allows us to assume another one like it “in the temple dedicated to Arsinoe-Aphrodite on the promontory of Zephyrium in Libya”; that ostriches were a favored animal with the Ptolemies; that this supposed statue allows us to connect two seemingly separate phrases in one particular poem and – because ostriches might be a part of a group of mythological birds called the Memnonides – to assume that an ostrich appeared as a kind of divine courier in that same poem; and, finally, that ostriches were “to Arsinoe-Aphrodite what the Caledonian boar was to Diana […] or the eagles to Jupiter” – i.e., sacred animals and/or helpers connected to the deity.

Pinder was commenting on a poem now known as Berenice’s Lock, translated into Latin by Catullus (ca. 84 to 54 BCE); the original was written in Greek by Callimachus (ca. 305 to 240 BCE). Callimachus was a poet, critic and scholar associated with the Library of Alexandria. Not only was Callimachus a contemporary of Arsinoe II, but, like his contemporary Callixenus of Rhodes (see Part 3), enjoyed the patronage of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus, her brother and third (and last) husband.

Berenice’s Lock was a part of a collection of poems named Aetia, probably written in the course of Callimachus’ life between 270s and 245 BCE. Only fragments of Callimachus’ Greek version exist, so up until recently, Catullus’ Latin version (also known as Coma Berenices or, simply, Catullus 66) was often used for analyses even though it’s known that he wasn’t always a literal translator (see e.g. Clayman 2011, Harder’s article Callimachus 98, Pinder 34).

If Pinder’s argument is right, this sounds like a fantastic source for the history of ostrich riding. Even if he were wrong, it might nevertheless prove a valuable source since the original Greek poem dates from the decades immediately after Arsinoe’s death and mentions her by name.

The poem was written for and about Queen Berenice II, whose husband was King Ptolemy III Euergetes (who actually was Ptolemy II’s son by Arsinoe I). Berenice’s biological parents were King Magas of Cyrene (Ptolemy II’s half brother) and his Seleucid wife, Apame – which makes Ptolemy III and Berenice II cousins. However, like her husband, for political reasons she was presented as daughter of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II Philadelphus; the adoption of Berenice II by Arsinoe II makes Berenice II both Arsinoe II’s step-niece and step-daughter. See e.g. Acosta-Hughes & Stephens 163; Clayman 2011. (This is where my head started to hurt. The Ptolemaic family trees aren’t messy for no reason!)

Although Berenice’s Lock is a fantastical poem, it refers to historical events: the plot is dependent on the safe return of Ptolemy III from the Third Syrian War in 245 BCE (see Clayman 2011). On Ptolemy III’s return, Berenice dedicated a lock of hair – the poem’s narrator – at the temple of Arsinoe-Aphrodite at Zephyrium. (Arsinoe II was deified, and after her death she was connected with the goddess Aphrodite and continued to be worshiped in numerous places.) The lock was taken into heaven and became a constellation.

(Sidenote: Zephyrium – or Zephyrion in the original Greek – is probably a promontory near Alexandria, northeast of the city. Indeed, Clayman (2014, 18) takes this as established. In the ancient Mediterranean, there were several locations known as Zephyrium / Zephyrion, including two settlements on the southern coast of Turkey, one of which is now the city of Mersin, and a mountain on the northern coast of what is now eastern Libya, near the city of Derna (Darnis in antiquity). Pinder’s assertion about Zephyrium being in Libya isn’t necessarily erroneous, though; he might have been following the Greek practice of using the name Libya for the continent of Africa and not for the country currently known by the name. For the various locations called Zephyrion, see e.g. Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World.)

Berenice’s Lock has many challenging sections (especially if you don’t have a poetic bone in your body like me). According to M. Annette Harder’s 2012 article Callimachus (97), it’s due to the overlap of narrator-space and story-space:

“[…] Berenice’s lock, whose standpoint we are invited to share, travels through space a great deal. Lines 1-9 [of Catullus’ translation] present the lock among the stars of heaven, where it was spotted by the astronomer Conon, so that the narratee is made aware of the important new location of the lock right at the beginning. Then we are told how the lock reached this particular status. We move back to the time when Berenice promised to sacrifice the lock for the safe return of Ptolemaeus III Euergetes from the Syrian war and it was still on the queen’s head, witnessing her sadness at the separation from her husband (9-36). The moment of separation of the lock from Berenice’s head is then described at some length (37-50) and we read how Zephyrus carries the lock away from the temple where it was sacrificed and drops it into the sea, from where Aphrodite takes it up to the gods and gives it a place among the stars (51-68). Then the lock’s old location on Berenice’s head is briefly referred to again, when the lock complains once more about the separation (69-78). Finally the scene moves to heaven again, where the lock becomes the object of a cult, so that a connection between the two spaces, on earth and in heaven, is finally established (79-92). The last lines of the poem (93-94) again seem to draw the narratees’ attention to the world of the stars (perhaps indicating their envy of the lock).”

Arsinoe is mentioned in line 54; to add some context, we’ll look at lines 51-58 where the lock of hair is recounting how it was carried into heaven. The Perseus Digital Library Project includes the Latin text, taken from a 1893 edition by E.T. Merrill:

“abiunctae paulo ante comae mea fata sorores (51)
lugebant, cum se Memnonis Aethiopis
unigena impellens nutantibus aera pennis
obtulit Arsinoes elocridicos ales equus,
isque per aetherias me tollens avolat umbras (55)
et Veneris casto conlocat in gremio.
ipsa suum Zephyritis eo famulum legarat,
Graia Canopiis incola litoribus” (58)

It’s clear that Catullus didn’t use the Latin word for ostrich, struthio or stuthiocamelus. Where does Pinder’s ostrich interpretation come from, then?

Pinder’s text doesn’t deviate from the Perseus version apart from one instance: where most Catullus 66 manuscripts read obtulit Arsinoes elocridicos, his version follows an earlier emendation that makes line 54 into obtulit Arsinoes Locridos ales equus. Unfortunately, Pinder doesn’t provide a translation of his own but only reproduces the Latin text with his notes.

Latin poetry is notorious for its convoluted word order and strict metric requirements, which indeed doesn’t help here. From the earliest editions on, this Catullus passage has also been widely described as difficult to interpret. There is, understandably, a wide variety of translations as well.

Perseus has two of them. The first comes from 1894, translated by London and edited by Sir Richard Francis Burton:

“Shortly before I was shorn my sister tresses bewailèd
Lot of me, e’en as the sole brother to Memnon the Black,
Winnowing upper air wi’ feathers flashing and quiv’ring,
Chloris’ wing-borne steed, came before Arsinoë,
Whence upraising myself he flies through aëry shadows,
And in chaste Venus’ breast drops he the present he bears.
Eke Zephyritis had sent, for the purpose trusted, her bondsman,
Settler of Grecian strain on the Canopian strand.”

The second, by Leonard C. Smithers, was also published in 1894:

“Just before severance my sister locks were mourning my fate, when Ethiop Memnon’s brother, the winged steed, beating the air with fluttering wings, appeared before Locrian Arsinoe, and he bearing me up, flies through aethereal shadows and lays me in the chaste bosom of Venus. Zephyritis herself had dispatched him as her servant, a Greek settler on the Canopian shores.”

When discussing lines 52-54, Pinder (38) takes the words unigena and Memnonis from lines 53 and 52, respectively, to form one unit that refers to the Memnonides (i.e., birds that rose from Memnon’s ashes, cf. Part 1; unigena ‘only-begotten, only’ or ‘born of one parent, of one / the same family’). Furthermore, for Pinder the ales equus on line 54 refers not just to any winged horses or mythological flying entities, but the Memnonides specifically:

“In the explanation of this very difficult passage it has been generally assumed that ales equus is Zephyrus, the ‘unigena’ or ‘brother’ of Memnon, (as having a common mother in Eos or Aurora,) […] A more probable interpretation […] is derived from a passage of Pausanias, who speaks of a bronze statue of Arsinoe, wife of Ptolemy Philadelphus, riding on an ostrich, which appears to have been a favourite animal with the Ptolemies. As there was such a statue in Helicon, so it is supposed there might have been a similar representation in the temple dedicated to Arsinoe- Aphrodite on the promontory of Zephyrium in Libya […] The unigena Memnonis would then refer to the story of the birds that rose from the ashes of Memnon, when burned on the funeral pile, of which the ostrich might be one […] The favourite bird of Berenice’s adopted mother is thus very naturally represented as coming to bear the lock of her kinswoman’s hair into Venus’ bosom.”

The use of metaphors and epithets makes the ancient Greek and Roman poetry even more challenging to interpret. According to Harder (Callimachus: Aetia, 48), Callimachus used metaphors “quite frequently” and was not averse to unusual words:

“Callimachus’ vocabulary clearly shows his creative use of language and is also an important means of challenging the reader in various ways and of guiding his understanding of the Aetia.”

Even though the literal translation of ales equus is ‘winged horse’, it’s therefore technically possible that the implied referent is a (mythological) bird large enough to use as a mount, as some sort of poetic mashing-together of a metaphor and a metonymy.

I would love to see Pinder’s translation into English, for my Latin is way too rudimentary for a complex sequence like this. I cannot help but notice, however, that all of his ostrich arguments are phrased as conjecture (appears; supposed; might; would; might) with very little physical or contextual evidence. Of course, that’s the unavoidable nature of research into millenia-old materials, but there are times when the meager amount of credible, comparable sources is very frustrating.

A few Catullus 66 editions support Pinder’s interpretation, but even a cursory look reveals that most other editions or translations do not support an ostrich connection. As mentioned above, the Latin edition of Berenice’s Lock in Perseus comes from a 1893 edition by E.T. Merrill. The footnotes for that edition take the presence of ostriches in the poem as certain: there’s not only the now-familiar reference to Pausanias, but, in addition, commenting on the verb avolat on line 55, Merrill says that

“though the ostrich does not fly, yet his exceedingly swift running when aided by his wings was enough like flight to satisfy the poet.”

Also Harrington (78) in 1914 states that the phrase ales equus “probably [means] the ostrich”.

Besides ales equus, also the references to Memnon and Zephyritis are highly ambiguous. More recent Catullus translations employ several concrete, mythological, or metaphorical variants. Translations include solutions like winged horse, the Pegasus, wind(s), or Zephyrus (the god of the west wind), but there don’t seem to be widely accepted translations for any of the three. For example, for Clayman (2014, 101), Berenice’s lock was “swept away by Zephyr, whose winds were metaphorical horses”. For Acosta-Hughes (2010, 68), it’s the “winged horse(man), Zephyrus, figured as the brother of Ethiopian Memnon”. Jones provides two translations, the first (16) from the original Greek and the second (19) from Catullus’ Latin. In the translation from Greek,

“[…] the brother of Ethiopian Memnon,
delicate wind beating his dappled wings,
horse of violet-girdled Locrian Arsinoe,
snatched and seized me with his breath […]”

and in the one from Latin,

“[…] the twin brother of Ethiopian Memnon,
beating the air with his undulating wings, presented himself
as the winged horse of Locrian Arsinoe and, carrying me,
flew off […]”

Flying horses abound, but these translations don’t offer a solution to the ostrich issue.

Since the Latin text is easily available via Perseus, my resident ancient history professor had a look and tried his hand at it. Here is Erik’s proposed translation of lines 51-58 on the basis of Catullus:

“My sisters were lamenting my fate, newly separated from the hair,
when the winged horse, brother of Ethiopian Memnon,
sweeping the air with his dipping feathers,
appeared by Arsinoe’s command
and he whisks me away through the celestial darkness
and lays me in the chaste lap of Venus.”

He explains that “[t]his is based on the speculation that the manuscript elocridicos may be a corrupted form of elogium or eloquor” (along the lines of ‘utter, express, speak out, declare’) but says his understanding of Latin meter is not good enough to say whether there is any metrically viable form that could be read in.

What about the original Greek, then? The text isn’t in Perseus, nor is it easily available either online or physically without access to a large academic library. There is a brand new edition, though, published in 2012 by M. Annette Harder called Callimachus: Aetia: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary. I’ve only had partial access to it, though; neither the Google Books preview I was able to skim nor the Look Inside feature on Amazon includes lines 51-58. However, a few years earlier Acosta-Hughes published a book on Hellenistic poetry where he discussed Berenice’s Lock and included the original Greek for lines 51-58 (2010, 63-64). (In fact, I looked at his interpretation of Zephyrus and Memnon, above.) Finally, after some whiplashing, a break!

Callimachus fr110 51-58 Acosta-Hughes 2010 p63-64
From Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Arion’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric into Hellenistic Poetry, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 63-64.

Here’s the translation by Acosta-Hughes (2010, 64):

“My sister hairs were longing for me, just now cut, and suddenly Ethiopian Memnon’s twin came rushing, circling his dappled wings, a fertile breeze, the Locrian horse of violet-girdled Arsinoe; with a breath he bore me, and carrying me through the wet ether he set me … in Aphrodite’s lap. Him for this purpose Zephyritis … who inhabits the Canopian shore…”

Again, my resident ancient history professor wanted to look at the original text. Here is Erik’s proposed translation of lines 51-58 on the basis of Callimachus:

“Even now, my sister locks were longing for me, newly cut,
and suddenly Ethiopian Memnon’s brother
hastened in a whirl of dappled wings, a fresh wind,
the horse of violet-girdled Lokrian Arsinoe,
drove me with a breath, and carried me through the damp air
to set me in the bosom of Aphrodite.
Zephyritis herself set him this task,
inhabitant of the Canopian shore…”

Apparently, violet-girdled means that she has flowers in her belt, and not a belt of purple color. On the basis of the English translations alone, I would’ve totally just assumed the color interpretation to be correct, which shows the importance of looking at originals! The word-for-word phrase to describe Aphrodite is the Cyprian one, which is one of her standard epithets. Most intriguingly, though, what became ales equus in the Latin version of Berenice’s Lock seems to have been Catullus’ phrasing: in the original Greek, “a horse (hippos) and his wings (ptera) are referred to separately. He is not called a winged horse, nor is the word strouthos here anywhere”, according to Erik.


What we seem to have is a case of poetic ambiguity (by Callimachus) translated with poetic license (by Catullus), taken uncritically as evidence (by 19th-century and early 20th-century writers like Pinder, Merrill, and Harrington).

In other words, the 19th-century and early 20th-century Anglophone research into antiquity seems to have had a fascination for ostriches that pretty much entirely obliterated source criticism – and all this completely separate from the Wikipedia claim that Queen Arsinoe II’s tomb contained a statue of her riding an ostrich, which is complete garbage. (Whoever inserted the citation to Dorothy Burr Thompson’s article into the Wikipedia entry for ostrich as evidence of ostrich riding in antiquity should be ashamed of themselves.)

To update our list of things known:

  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.
  5. Even a cursory look reveals that the history of the Greek word for ‘ostrich’, strouthos, is complex. As there are no immediate red flags in the descriptions of Arsinoe II’s statue or Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession, these two pieces of textual evidence remain in play.
  6. The poem Berenice’s Lock was said to contain further evidence of ostriches as mounts in Ptolemaic Egypt after Arsinoe II’s death. That claim is based on an erroneous reading of the Latin translation, however; the Greek original has no references to ostriches whatsoever.

Whether you accept the ostrich connection or not, Berenice’s Lock remains in the mythological realm despite its basis in historical events. The ostrich may have been a favorite bird with the Ptolemies so much so that it was incorporated into art and poetry as part of their imperial propaganda, as the 19th- to early 20th-century European literature seems to suggest, but a confirmation would take an even more detailed study of extant texts and visual sources than is possible for this post.

Finally, we still don’t seem to have any new examples that support the idea of humans riding ostriches in the real world. With regard to the history of ostrich riding, then, Berenice’s Lock is a dead end. Pausanias’ description of the statue of Arsinoe II in Helicon (9.31.1, cf. Part 1) and Callixenus’ of Ptolemy II’s Grand Procession (cf. Part 3) remain the best potential sources for the history of ostrich riding in antiquity. Again, a confirmation would require a detailed contextual analysis (cf. Part 4), for which I’m unfortunately the wrong kind of linguist.

Thoughts for writers

  • Texts are very likely to reveal the culture and politics of the time of their creation whether they intend to or not. This shows the clearer the further back in time you go.
  • Whenever there are written sources, especially spanning several centuries, there’s the potential for information loss or textual corruption due to multiple reasons. They could be artistic (literary devices or comparisons that are clear to the original audience but lost to subsequent ones) or scribal (accidental or willful changes due for example to moral, religious, or political objections), or they could be environmental (poor storage conditions, damage during transportation, insect or rodent damage) or catastrophic (fire, flood, war). Or merely due to changing political or cultural priorities and/or forgotten lore. And that makes for great potential for plot points or drama. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Tolkien included problems in the study of ancient texts into the plot: the One Ring was referred to cryptically as Isildur’s Bane (literary device) and its existence was eventually buried in old manuscripts in Gondor (forgotten lore). And thus some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.
  • Translation issues, language change, or cultural change make tracking old documents and/or information challenging. For the right kind of book, another great source for plot!

Selected Sources for Part 5:

Acosta-Hughes, Benjamin. Arion’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric into Hellenistic Poetry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. https://books.google.com/books?id=5ZGm9MhhdDgC.

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.

Clayman, Dee L. “Berenice and her Lock.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 141, no. 2 (2011): 229-246, https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/apa/summary/v141/141.2.clayman.html.

Clayman, Dee L. Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=VjTLAgAAQBAJ.

Harder, M. Annette. Callimachus: Aetia: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary. Vol. I: Introduction, Text, and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=a5YdwJJatoAC.

Harder, M. Annette. “Callimachus.” In Space in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, edited by Irene J.F. de Jong, 77-98. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2012. https://books.google.com/books?id=efoxAQAAQBAJ.

Harrington, Karl Pomeroy (ed.). The Roman Elegiac Poets. New York: American Book Company, 1914. https://books.google.com/books?id=mCwOAAAAYAAJ.

Jones, Prudence J. Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=GQZB28EegT4C.

Pinder, North. Selections from the Less Known Latin Poets. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1869. https://books.google.com/books?id=n99GAAAAIAAJ.

Talbert, Richard J.A. (ed.). Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

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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