Saturday, February 13, 2021



If you were an ancient Greek birdwatcher, chances are that the birds you were watching, were actually people, transformed into avifauna after unfortunate encounters with the temperamental but always ornithologically inclined, gods of Olympus. 


Any given crow that takes your fancy, may quite likely have been none other than Coronis, victim of the unwanted amorous advances of Poseidon, who cried out for help to both gods and men, causing Athena to turn her into a crow, silencing her and cooling uncle’s ardour simultaneously. 

It would be also plausible that the pair of kingfishers you were admiring, sat upon a twig overlooking the River Spercheios was actually Alcyone, the daughter of King Aeolus of Aeolia and later queen of Trachis, in the company of her husband Ceyx, the son of Eosphorus, the Morning Star. According to myth, Alcyone and Ceyx were so into absorbed with one another, that all their friends were sickened by their soppiness and no longer invited them to parties. Finally, their schmaltzy mutual adoration grew too much even for the gods. Pseudo-Apollonius records that upon Zeus hearing the mawkish duo refer to each other respectively as “Zeus,” and “Hera,” he through a thunderbolt at Ceyx’s ship in exasperation. Ceyx predictably drowned and when the god of dreams Morpheus appeared in Ceyx’s form to Alcyone to tell her the news, she too through herself in the sea. Out of remorse and compassion, forgetting the couple’s transgressions against good taste, the Olympians transformed them into common kingfishers, or "halcyon birds", named after her. And that right there is the problem with the Olympians. No consistency in discipline. No wonder the demi gods were all spoiled brats. 

Aedon and Polytechnos of Colophon were also an embarrassingly soppy couple. Being of an artistic temperament, they claimed that they loved each other more than Zeus and Hera, an interesting proposition, given Zeus’ propensity for sexual harassment. Hera then sent Eris, the goddess of discord among them to break up the happy couple, which Eris did by means of a contest that Aedon won, enraging Polytechnos, who ends up raping Aedon’s sister, Chelidonis, who along with Aedon, kills Polytechnos’ son Itys and served him up to his father for dinner. Aedon then fled with Chelidonis to her father, who had Polytechnos bound, smeared with honey, and exposed to the insects. By means of family reconciliation and dispute resolution, Zeus changed Polytechnos into a pelican, Aedon’s father into a sea-eagle, Chelidonis into a swallow, and Aedon herself into a nightingale. When stumbling across such wildlife, one is best advised to keep one’s distance. Sure the family has undergone countless sessions of therapy since then, but you just never know… 

Similarly, if you chanced upon a swan in the Echedorus River, this could be a number of notable personalities, ranging from Cycnus, the bloodthirsty and cruel son of the war god Ares, who killed all of his guests at a party, challenged Heracles to a duel and was transformed into a swan by his father to avoid his imminent slaying, to Cycnus, king of Colonae who killed the Greek hero Protesilaus in the Trojan War. As the son of Poseidon, he was invulnerable to wounds by sword and spear, which is why when Achilles confronted him, he crushed and suffocated his, inspiring Poseidon to perform a post-mortem transformation of his son into a swan. There was also Cycnus, the lover of Phaethon, who perished in flames after taking his father Helios’ wheels for a joy ride. After the death of Phaethon, Cycnus was so moved that he sat by the river Eridanos and wasted away until the gods transformed him into a swan out of pity. Indicating that swans are unhappy birds indeed that should be approached with compassion, there was also Cycnus of Aetolia, the arrogant son of Apollo who made his lover Phylius complete three tasks so impossible and dangerous that Heracles had to intervene and command that Phylius no longer obey his lover. Shamed and disgraced, Cycnus threw himself into Lake Conope, only to be turned to a swan by his father Apollo. The lake was then renamed Swan Lake, a precursor of Tchaikovsky who was to come. 

Should you, during your peregrinations, have caught a glimpse of the strikingly red-headed thistle finch, then it would not be out of the realms of possibility that the particular fowl you were looking at, was actually Acanthis, who was trampled to death by her father Autonous’ hunger crazed horses, since Auotnous was too lazy to till his fields to grow enough feed for them. Granted, the gods could have intervened to prevent her prickly fate, yet they chose instead to confer a consolation prize: Acanthis was transformed into a thistle finch, while her father was transformed into a quail, he had quailed at driving off the horses.  

There is a reason why vultures are associated with death and cause revulsion. The original vulture, Aegypius the Thessalian, was engaged in an affair with the widow Timandre, causing her son Neophron, who wanted his mummy to himself jealous. Neophron seduced Aegypius mother, Boulis, took her to his house and by subtle and arcane means, arranged for Aegypius to sleep with his own mother, thinking her to be Timandre. Having completed the incestuous act and woken from her post-coital slumber, Boulis realized her son was sleeping next to her and in her horror, raised a sword she just happened to have handy to slash out his eyes. It was then that Apollo intervened, transforming Aegypius and the appalling Neophron into vultures, Boulis into a heron, which supposedly lives on the eyes of fish, and Timandre into a long-tailed tit. 

For Greeks birds are thus the Olympian’s means, before the invention of Royal Commissions, of masking their mistakes, their anger, indifference and inability to protect people or mete out decent justice. They also constitute a convenient way to silence the victims of the deities. Bird names are thus highly personal, identifying tragedy, loss of personhood and a second, albeit diminished, second chance at making amends. Bird names are first names, because the transformation that takes place pertains to a specific individual, with all the other birds of the same species representing facsimiles and reminders of the original misfortune. As if to forget the Olympians’ few bird names survive as female first names to the present: Pagona, (peacock), Peristera (dove), Glaukos (owl) being some of these. There are a few other animal first names that also still in use, Leo being the most common. 

Enter the Healesville Sanctuary which recently announced that in order to celebrate the launch of the Great Australian Wildlife Book Collection, visitors with animal surnames on one specific weekend get in free. This is an exciting and laudable gesture yet upon closer examination it presents as problematic: While the animal component of Anglo-Saxon surnames is easily discernible, how will the gatekeepers of the sanctuary designed to grant succour to the victims of Olympian insouciance determine the animal content of Greek, Italian, Indian or Chinese names, to name but a few? Will they undertake extensive linguistic and mythology sensitivity training, merely take the non-Anglo-Saxon’s word for it, or turn away non-Anglo-Saxon surnamed people at the door? 

Further, it would be interesting to discover whether any research has been undertaken by the Sanctuary into the proportionate prevalence of animal surnames in the multitude of other cultures as compared to the Anglo-Saxons, in order to consider just how equitable and non-discriminatory to all Victorians, their free admission actually is. In the case of Greek-Australians, the amount of people eligible to gain entry would be extremely small indeed, the few historical personages actually bearing animal surnames such as Constantine Hierax (the falcon), erstwhile prime minister of Siam in the seventeenth century, executed by his king, being ill omened indeed. As an aside it is unknown whether Dimitris Sirinakis, the notorious modern Greek producer of filmic smut would also qualify, given that his surname derives from a creature that was half woman, half bird, the Siren. Perhaps he could be let in at half time. 

In certain Middle Eastern cultures of course, an animal appellation applying to one's family, is considered the height of insult and thus there would be a dearth of qualifying surnames that would grant members of their communities resident in Victoria, entry. 


All Victorians must support the work of the Healesville Sanctuary, and it was in order to elucidate the answers to these weighty questions (and in the hope that some of us would get in for free), that we sent forth Ascalaphus, who, because he bore witness against Persephone, was imprisoned in Hades by Demeter under a heavy rock, to have “winged words,” as Homer rhapsodied, with the well-meaning people at Healesville, remembering that Heracles, during his visit to the Underworld, was able to roll away the stone imprisoning him, whereupon Demeter turned Ascalaphus into a short-eared owl. Ascalaphus returned informing us that he was the twenty-third caller in the queue and that the theory that the Greek surname Pontikis does not actually refer to a mouse, but rather is a corrupted version of the ancient Pontikos, meaning sea-dweller. I won’t tell the Sanctuary if you won’t. 


First published in NKEE on 13 February 2021