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A Very Good Meal

In response to:

A Banquet of Words from the November 23, 2017 issue

John Flaxman

To the Editors:

In reply to Peter Green [“A Banquet of Words,” NYR, November 23, 2017], Hayden Pelliccia writes that the “carcasses at Troy would have been picked over by carrion birds…not by birds of prey equipped to rend the living.” This is wildly wrong. There is no raptor sense of pride that forbids birds of prey from feeding off anything they have not killed themselves. Birds of prey far prefer a free, easy meal to the energy expenditure and risk of failure and injury involved in a hunt. Bald eagles, for example, are more than happy to avail themselves of US landfill sites—photos are easy to find online. Animals are evolved to follow the route of least resistance, regardless of what greater potential they have.

In fact, even though it forms an important part of Hayden Pelliccia’s argument, following M.M. Willcock, there is no strong natural argument against, or even for the further qualification of, Homer’s phrase “all birds” so far as it regards those that may be pecking at a corpse. It is certainly not definitively “incorrect” or “inaccurate,” especially given the leeway poetic license allows. As far as nature is concerned, a corpse represents a dense bonanza of nutrition and many animals may feed from one even if it is outside their usual behavior. (Especially when a fresh supply of corpses has been littering the landscape for years. This after all would constitute an unusual situation for unusual behavior to evolve in.) I have seen one of my own ducks swallow a dead mouse whole, and not easily; it took her five minutes or so to get it down her throat. A duck behaving like a snake is bizarre, but there was no mistaking she did it with intention. A second example: a few years ago here in the UK, the BBC’s Winter Watch filmed a robin feeding off a deer corpse. Animals know where there is nutrition to be had.

Certainly carrion birds, such as corvids and vultures, would not hesitate to feed off corpses, but neither would birds of prey, omnivorous gulls, and possibly other sea birds. It is also perfectly possible that smaller birds would latch onto them as a food source, and if not feeding on the actual corpses, they may at least appear to be doing so by feeding on the insects, flies, maggots, worms, etc. in and around them. (There would be quite an ecosystem going on around such rich pickings.) In short, there is a distinct potential of corpses attracting sufficient avian activity and variety to justify the phrase “all birds.”

The cross-pollination of disciplines might have shed some additional light on the debate, but no one seems to have consulted a naturalist, though Homer himself appears to have been a keen observer of nature.

As a footnote to this happily morbid debate, I have no problem with the use of “all” poetically, aside from it being fairly clumsy to render into English. It seems to me an emphatic “zero qualification” that highlights the complete lack of discrimination in the disposal of the corpses, thereby emphasizing the destruction of ceremony, and so the indignity, impiety, and chaos that war has brought.

Kieran Jones
Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
United Kingdom

Hayden Pelliccia replies:

Mr. Jones wants to bring the actual behavior of birds to bear on the interpretation of Iliad 1.5, and points to the bald eagle, a notoriously opportunistic feeder confined to the Western Hemisphere and completely irrelevant to Bronze Age Asia Minor. Homer, like any birding handbook, was interested in a species’s characteristic preferences rather than behavior at the extremes. A cow will eat meat if you throw it on the ground in front of her, but that does not change the classification of cows as herbivores. Since seed-eating birds like doves and sparrows are unlikely ever to eat carrion, saying “all birds” would have fed on Iliadic corpses is a stretch.

Mr. Jones shares the common sentimental view that Homer was “a keen observer of nature.” It is hard to tell if he was, since so much of his world is inaccessible to us; it is at any rate clear that his intense class-consciousness extended to the animal kingdom and was often allowed to override whatever facts about nature he knew. His human characters, for example, subsist almost entirely on meat, mostly fresh-slaughtered beef. This is not realism but status-marking: it would be beneath their dignity to show heroes eating anything less prestigious.

Homer makes few direct statements about birds, but he is consistent in representing them: when, as happens fairly often, one fighter predicts to another that birds will feed on his carcass, it is the vulture (gyps) that will do so, and this is the only activity the poet assigns the gyps. The eagle—most likely the golden eagle—is for Homer a hunter, and it is the bird of Zeus. Does the predator bird of Zeus sometimes avail itself of Mr. Jones’s “dense bonanza of nutrition” and feed on carrion? Perhaps in reality it might, like other raptors, if it’s on offer, but you wouldn’t know it from Homer.

In book 8, for example, Agamemnon exhorts his flagging soldiers, concluding with a prayer to Zeus. The battle has been intense all day and the field is strewn with corpses, but the eagle Zeus sends as a portent to encourage the Greeks is completely indifferent to these dense bonanzas: he bears in his talons a fawn, though a naturalist might not predict the precincts of a battlefield to be a doe’s first choice of shelter for her progeny. But this is how Homer conceives the eagle: as a “noble” bird that hunts—just like human noblemen.

If it is any consolation to Mr. Jones, the reading “takings for dogs and a banquet for birds” (vs. “for dogs and all birds”), though it does not actually include the bald or more relevant eagles, does not exclude them either: it’s just “birds.”