From Asianic Elements in Greek Civilisation, The Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh, 1915-1916, by Sir William M. Ramsay, D.C.L., LL.D., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1928; pp. 60-71.

Asianic Elements in Greek Civilisation.



Chapter VI


PROFESSOR JOHN A. SCOTTS Unity of Homer I have read with deep interest and with general agreement, but there are certain points in which he too easily accepts as true to nature the Homeric picture as commonly translated. It may be asked whether the common translation should not sometimes be revised in the light of closer familiarity with the land. One example may here be given where re-translation is wanted.

Professor Scott (Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois) on his p. 127 cites as an illustration of Homer’s truth to the character of the country (i.e. of Anatolia) the description of the vultures as found in Odyssey xxii. 302.

The translation of Butcher and Lang may be quoted as representing the currently accepted interpretation:

The others set on like vultures of crooked claws and curved beak, that come forth from the mountains and dash upon smaller birds, and these scour low in the plain, stooping in terror from the clouds, while the vultures pounce on them and slay them, and there is no help nor way of flight, and men are glad at the sport.

This simile is in several respects utterly untrue to the land and its bird life.

The picture does not in any way suit the vulture, a foul, hideous bird, tearing the flesh of the dead or dying and quite helpless men or animals. The vulture circles at a great height in the air, and 61 swoops down with inconceivable rapidity from his lofty flight, sits near the corpse or the dying, approaches gradually, and when satisfied that the body is incapable of motion, and that all is safe and no resistance need be dreaded, begins to tear the corpse. In doing so the carrion-feeding bird presents the most hideous gory appearance. Meanwhile other vultures, which have in their lofty circling flight marked the descent of the first vulture, pounce down also and congregate round or on the prey. In modern times a camel or horse or donkey is the most common prey. Any man that dies by the road is buried by his friends without an hour’s delay; but beasts of burden are left to lie where they fall.

The vultures never attack or feed on small birds, and the small birds have no terror of them, but will go near them in search of their own special food. Such is the truth of the Aegean world and of Anatolia in particular.

Vultures feed wholly on carrion, and no man, not even a low-class Greek, could look at them with delight: the common modern Greeks of Anatolia find amusement in horrible things, but not in a vulture, whose look is loathsome and food appalling, as he covers himself with blood.

It must be inferred that the poet who thinks he has seen vultures rush at smaller birds has never looked at nature. Accordingly the only possible reason of this simile must be that Homer has in mind a different class of accipitres. The word “aigypios,” which Homer uses, does not mean vulture, but some other bird, which pounces on living prey, and is a terror to smaller birds. As bearing on this, it may be recalled that the ancients were not extremely accurate in their description of certain aspects of natural life. For example, in colours and the like the range of Greek words is very inadequate to the variety of nature; although “wine-coloured sea” is literally true and very characteristic of the Aegean. At sunset calm, when the north wind has died down and the south wind has not begun, the sea assumes much the appearance and colour of dark thick Samian wine.


The description of the “vulture” in the Odyssey is otherwise far from true either to the common vulture or to the smaller Egyptian vulture, which is also often seen.

Again, it is not very correct to speak of the small birds as “stooping in terror from the clouds.” Small birds do not fly high; they cannot get food there, and the life of the bird is spent in a ceaseless search for food; that is the case with most animals, except those that gorge themselves and then lie, satiated and sleepy, for a time.

In the third place, we notice that vultures do not, as a rule, “come forth from the mountains.” My son found a vulture’s nest and eggs on a ledge of a high perpendicular rock in Lycaonia; but the vultures fly among the clouds of the sky, or rather in the clear lofty sky: the champion of Homer might almost justifiably, perhaps, take “from the clouds” out of the next line, and substitute it here for the words “from the mountains,” placing the small birds on the mountain side, and the vultures in the clouds. But the vultures love the clear sky which permits wide range of vision. They cannot descry their prey if they are among or above the clouds. To be above the clouds and work down on a sea of vapour is an interesting and beautiful experience for men; but it has no charms for the vulture.

Ameis tries to defend this expression by quoting Odyssey xix. 538, where Penelope relates her dream:

Twenty geese I have in the house that eat wheat out of the water-trough, and it gladdens me to look on them. Now a great eagle of crooked beak came forth from the mountain, and brake all their necks and slew them; and they lay strewn in a heap in the halls, while he was borne aloft in the bright air.

In passing we note that the water-trough would not contain wheat; and would not be “in the halls” (as in the translation): the trough would be in the courtyard, and the wheat would be scattered near it, so that the geese could have food and water near 63 each other in a courtyard open to the air, and that this was the case appears in the sequel. Penelope waked, and looked about and beheld the geese in the court devouring the wheat by the trough. The translators have rightly varied the expression, though the Greek does not exactly suit the variation. The word “megaron” was literally a covered place; but it may justifiably be taken in the wide sense of the whole palace, with covered rooms and open court: so that Penelope, when she peeped out from her chamber after wakening, saw the geese feeding in the court, as they had been doing before she slept. The court is a part of the family home, as it is at the present day; and in this sense the geese were kept “in the house.”

This description is quite true; but it applies to the eagle, not to the vulture, and does not defend the use of the phrase “vulture from the mountains.” The eagle strikes living prey.

Penelope, further, was evidently used to the sight of a mountain, one special mountain in her island home. In the general description of the vultures, which applies to a great country, they might come “from the mountains.” In Penelope’s dream, the eagle comes “from the mountain.” This may stand in some relation to the question about the geographical meaning of the name Ithaca, and the situation of the palace of Ulysses.

Instead of vultures, Homer’s simile applies exactly to such birds of prey as the falcon or hawk or sparrow-hawk. These do what the poet makes the “vultures” do.

A French scholar, Autran, who has done much for the elucidation of Anatolian words borrowed in the Greek language, offers a striking confirmation of our view. He does not refer to Homer’s simile above quoted, but his exposition proves completely the accuracy of the poet’s description of the Aigypios in Anatolia. In that country, and in Central Asia, the “aigypios” is the Vedic rjipya, the divine falcon, which sits on the tree of life, wherein are remedies for all kinds of sickness and malady. In this Vedic bird’s name, 64 -pya corresponds to -pios: r has the semi-vocalic value represented exactly by the Anatolian “r,” and thus “rji” becomes “aigy” in the Greek spelling.

As in Asia, so in Homer, this was the holy bird, a species of hawk, not a loathsome vulture, but a true swooping bird, which by its sudden pounce from the sky or from a tree terrifies and scatters the small birds which are its prey. In the lowest stratum under the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, there was found an image of the goddess, clasping to her breast two hawks or falcons in her two arms. They are her sacred birds. This image carries us back to an extremely remote period of the religious history of Asia Minor, a period before temples and personal names for the deities were known, when people spoke (as they did often throughout the Roman period) of “the god” or “the goddess” without any special name. According to Herodotus this custom of applying personal names to the gods or goddesses was derived by the Greeks from the Egyptians.

There is a remarkable passage in the Iliad, vii. 59, where the goddess Athena, seeing her own beloved Greeks being slain by Hector and Paris, descended in fierce anger and anxiety from Olympus to the plain of Troy. Apollo, who favoured the Trojans, marked her flight, and shot down as swiftly from the highest tower of Troy,

Radiant they met beneath the beechen shade,
When thus Apollo to the blue-eyed maid.

The goddess and the god agree to arrange an armistice by means of single combat between the bravest Trojan and the bravest Greek champion. The prophet and seer of Troy, Helenus, was inspired by their unspoken counsel; he knew their mind and spoke to Hector, the Trojan hero, suggesting that he should challenge the boldest of the Greeks “to mortal combat on the listed plain,” prophesying that Hector was not doomed to perish this day. Hector’s bold challenge, which does not seem to us so bold when 65 he knew that he was safe, was accepted (after some delay, and a good deal of mutual reproach, and a long lecture from old Nestor, who related a story drawn from his youthful experience) by nine volunteer champions from among the Greek heroes. The choice was made by lot, and the lot fell on Ajax. The combat was ended, undecided, by nightfall.1

With silent joy the settling posts survey:
In form of vultures, on the beech’s height
They sit concealed, and wait the future fight.

The gods in the form of two hideous repulsive vultures! The very thought is abhorrent. On the lofty tree by the Scaean Gate, overlooking the two armies with their weapons lowered, the gods sat in form like two birds, hawks and not obscene vultures, as we conclude, pleased with men and with the prospect of peace, or rather of an armistice (not so enjoyable, either in A.D. 1919 or in 1194 B.C.)

The birds were evidently such birds as would naturally perch on a tree by the busy Scaean Gate. They were sacred birds, too; not mere sparrows or starlings. This is a picture of heavenly peace and joy: the birds are like the Vedic sacred rjipya sitting on the sacred tree of life. I have never seen a vulture in all Anatolia sitting on a tree; but hawks sit thus regularly. The opposing hosts in Homer sit on the ground quietly. Everything speaks of peace and joy. The picture is true to life and to the land and to religious belief. This is, evidently, a very ancient idea, Asian and pre-Hellenic. Then how does it find its way into the Iliad? How did Homer come to use it? Evidently, it is not historically true: the gods and their action in Homer are part of the growth of tradition and legend, during the three or four centuries that elapsed between the war of Troy and the time of Homer. Greek myth-making fancy was busily at work all the time whether in prose legendary history or in poetry. 66 Then one great poet gathered up this floating legend into his own mind, and poured it forth in two of the greatest poems of the world.

In this last case we can see the origin of the myth. It is a religious picture, which had its home in Asia. It was caught up by Homer and worked into the Iliad, so as to afford a rest and an interval during the long tale of war. If is like the knocking at the gate and the Porter’s scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a pause between horrors, calling off the spectator’s or the reader’s mind from the strain of the tragedy’s progress.

This rarity of reference to the ugly vulture is a Hellenic feature. The ugly things take place, like murders in the Drama, “off the stage.” Death is carefully hidden from view as a rule. Dogs are far oftener mentioned; but frequently in a good sense. Dogs are not ugly like the vulture, though in modern times they are dangerous, and their good qualities are much neglected; it is typical of Homer that he often shows appreciation of the dog.

Perhaps the reason of the persistent tradition that Homer was blind, is that he described events which he never saw; and this is symbolically expressed as due to his blindness. There is some analogy between this and the words which described Ulysses as invisible: “he was enveloped in a cloud.” Literally, the spectacle of a cloud making its way through the streets of the city of Alcinoös would be certain to attract universal attention; but the words are only a method of expressing that he was unseen and invisible (made so by the goddess to protect him from the people).

One of the most remarkable things about the Iliad is the rarity of references to the vulture. Heroes talk boastfully and vaguely about giving the bodies of opposing heroes to the dogs and the vultures. A feature of the long war of Troy must have been the dogs and vultures which were tearing the bodies of the dead warriors, both Greek and Trojan; then the vulture is called not Aigypios, but Gyps. When heroes were slain, doubtless their bodies were carried away and buried or cremated; but the thousands of common men 67 that perished were far too numerous to attend to. In the Iliad only five references to the Gyps are quoted. In the Odyssey, where there is far less occasion to mention the vulture, two references occur; and one of these is mythological. Tityos, who had offered insult to Leto, is seen in the world of death by Ulysses. His gigantic body is stretched on the ground and two vultures tear his flesh, “sitting one on each side, plunging their beaks in his body, and he was making no attempt to ward them off with his hands.” They were eating the flesh of a living but helpless man, otherwise dead men’s bodies are their prey.

There are probably only two vultures in the world which do not feed on carrion exclusively, and they visit a temple in Madras every forenoon to be fed. This I learn from a remarkable narrative published by a correspondent in some newspaper, probably The Times, certainly a London daily, 24th April, I think in the year 1920.2 It is a marvellous phenomenon, and it shows how far the taming of wild animals has been carried in Asia. I have often expressed the conjecture that the domestication of animals was originated in Asia, and has thence spread westwards. Even such a surly and ill-tempered animal as the camel has been trained to the use of man.

I take the liberty of quoting from that old newspaper the following extraordinary account, being unable to ask permission through ignorance of the source.

My goal was Tirukalikunram and the temple of Vedagiriswara, on the road that leads from Chingleput to Mahabalipuram (Tamil, being an agglutinative language, can produce even longer place-names than these), where I had been assured that two mysterious birds, variously described as eagles, kites, or vultures, had been for centuries in the habit of flying down every forenoon to be fed by the temple priest, after which they mysteriously disappeared till next luncheon time.

Birds delight and miracles interest me. My companion on the journey, 68 who kindly piloted me to the temple, knew more than most Europeans about Madras and its antiquities. The car ran well, the road was generally excellent, and rather to my surprise — I had been reading about the “barbarous and repulsive” Dravidian in a somewhat dogmatic ethnological work — the non-Aryans on the roadside were more cleanly if more scantily clothed than the “Aryan” peasants whom I had seen in Bengal and the United Provinces, quite as good-looking, and much more cheerful and friendly.

I will not described the run to the polysyllabic village in detail. Enough that the hinterland of Madras City, with its groves of coco-nut palms, its rice fields, vividly green, its rows of shade trees, often bearing scarlet or golden-orange flowers, along the roadsides, and its strange, steep, isolated, red hills, has a charm and character of its own, and that the multitudes of small, humped cattle, of comically smooth and leggy goats, of long-horned buffaloes, and of greyhound pigs, herded by grinning tousle-headed Pariahs, if they gave us some anxious moments, did not come into collision with the motor car.

Tirukalikunram lives mainly on the pilgrims who visit the temple of Shiva, where the sacred birds are fed, and where, according to certain pundits, the four Vedas (the Holy Books of Hinduism) worshipped the gods. Hence the name Vedagiri (Veda Hill) given to the pinnacle whereon the temple stands. How the Sacred Books became, so to speak, personified, is not clear, but nothing daunts the Hindu theologian. But the village has other attractions. It is full of Brahmins; it has a fine temple of the usual over-decorated South Indian type, and three tanks, in the largest of which stands an island shrine.

This tank is the famous Shanku Thirtham, the green water of which is reputed to cure every sort of malady. Every twelfth year the Brahmins discover in it a conch shell turned to the right instead of to the left, as one might discover a pearl oyster in the Serpentine, a phenomenon which portends the maximum of prosperity and happiness and would seem to deserve the attention of a competent naturalist.

I did not bathe in the tank, but toiled up the steps that lead to the temple of the vultures. They are numerous and steep; beside them stand rough granite pillars; a thick scrub interspersed with boulders borders the path, and up it you climb and climb till you reach the temple dedicated to Shiva. Below the temple door are two little platforms. From the upper one we looked down upon the village, 500 ft. below, and the strange landscape, green plainland dotted with steep scattered hills on every side.

The door of the temple was still closed and few pilgrims had yet arrived at the hilltop. Among these, however, was the only ill-mannered Indian 69 whom we encountered during the day, a Hindu from the north, who wore a Gandhi cap and replied rudely or not at all to my companion’s very courteous questions. So malignant were his glances that I found myself making the sign against the evil eye when I looked at him.

Other pilgrims began to arrive, first Brahmin women, clad in red and gold, then women of lower caste carrying begging calabashes or metal bowls, a pleasant Babu from Central India, some Sannyasis dressed in loincloths, some peasants leading their children dressed in bits of string, several undistinguished individuals, and, among the last to arrive, an old fiercely moustached Mahratta gentleman accompanied by his obviously devoted wife and a Moslem servant wearing a red fez. The old man was barefoot and bareheaded for all that the sun beat fiercely on his bald crown. All talked gaily together and the beggars begged incessantly — and successfully. A holy man garlanded my companion and myself with roses and received his rupee. A musician with a bamboo flute next played to us, to the accompaniment of a bagpipe-like drone which a small boy extracted from a strange wooden instrument. There seemed nothing particularly Indian in the flautist’s strains, and presently we realised he was not playing a Dravidian hymn but a most original rendering of “Bonnie Dundee.”

Shortly before 10 the first vulture had flown over the temple to the great content of the pilgrims. A young woman, who seemed anxious to make something out of her mythological learning, informed us that twice of late years Indra had visited the temple, doubtless to pay his respects to Shiva, in the form of a thunderbolt. The temple was struck by lightning in 1889 and 1901, which explains this picturesque tale of the visit of the Storm god.

Then the temple door was opened and the pilgrims crowded in to chant and pray to the sound of cymbals and flutes. We descended, guided by an agreeable Brahmin, to the place behind the temple where the birds are fed. It was a bare rock fronting a ruinous summer-house and a shrine containing a cistern from which a Brahmin ladled holy water for the pilgrims. It came, I was told, from a rock pool on the hillside into which a Prime Minister and his dog, who were both afflicted with leprosy, once tumbled and were instantly cured.3 Here we waited and watched and at 11.20 the first of the sacred birds appeared and perched upon the rock in front of the summer-house. It was obviously an adult Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), white, with bright yellow bill and legs and black pinions, a scavenger common in many parts of India, known in various tongues by 70 briefer and less civil names than the Latin by reason of its repulsive diet and habits. Pilgrims hurried down to watch, and the bird hopped about the rock, preened itself, and finally stood watching us with an alert and beady eye.

Presently the feeder of the birds arrived bearing a brass food carrier and several little bowls. After bidding the crowd keep back from the rock he climbed upon it, stood up with his hands joined behind his head, and then bowed down and prostrated himself, muttering a prayer, while the vulture sidled nearer. The prayer over he rose and looked at the sky. The second vulture was in sight; for a time it soared high above us, and the feeder, a stout, bald, merry-looking fellow dressed only in a loincloth, improved the occasion by a brief address, which drew pious ejaculations from the 80 or 90 pilgrims, who crowded the floor of the summer-house or sat under the trees.

And now the second vulture was flying lower. The servitor mixed the food, rice and brown sugar and ghi (cooking butter), and placed it in the brass bowls, and the first vulture, walking comically up, thrust his beak into a bowl and ate contentedly. Two minutes later its companion dropped upon the rock, a wilder bird and apparently a younger, for its wings were more heavily marked with black. Soon it, too, was feeding, while delighted pilgrims recited texts. Then suddenly the two white birds rose into the air, circled round the hilltop, and vanished in the blue.


The Brahmins aver that they are two sages whom Shiva changed into birds because of their impatience to win spiritual freedom. They bathe every morning at Benares, fly thence to worship at Rameswaram at the southern extremity of India opposite Ceylon, feed at Tirukalikunram, and are back at Benares by dawn! What is certain is that Tamil poets of the eighth century mention the feeding of these birds, that for many centuries they have appeared without apparently ever missing a day, and never more than two in number, to be fed at the hilltop shrine between 10 A.M. and midday. My explanation of this singular phenomenon is that the Egyptian vulture, like other large birds of prey, mates for life, only taking a new partner when its spouse has died, and that the survivor, having acquired the habits of being fed, persuades its new mate by example to follow it to the feeding-place. One of the two which I saw was certainly shyer and less willing to alight and approach the feeder than the first-comer, and looked like a younger girl.


There are difficulties in the way of this theory. Does the hen leave her eggs when sitting? Do the young when fledged never try to follow their parents? But inherited memory in a particular vulture family seems most improbable, and if the Brahmins have domesticated these birds and trained them to fly, two at a time, and to be fed daily for centuries, I can only say that they have kept their secret amazingly well.



 1  It had been much to Hector’s disadvantage.

 2  I have only the cutting with no date, but from events mentioned on the back 1920 is probably the date, and cablegrams dated 23rd April, at Geneva and at New York, fix the issue at 24th April.

 3  West Asian tale, told in Anatolia.