Review by Diana Bentley
Years of research as a folklorist and historian have enabled Adrienne Mayor, research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University and an acclaimed author, to discover a marvellous array of the more eclectic and arresting aspects of myth, art, nature, history, and science. These are the focus of her new book.
In this compendium of 50 essays, Mayor goes in search of the stories and truth behind her subjects, a quest that can take her from the ancient world to our own times. The stories brim with intriguing tales gathered from a wide variety of sources, and are replete with all kinds of information.
Getting off to a bracing start in her first chapter, Mayor examines the tale of the snakes with wings that Herodotus heard about during his sojourn in Egypt. What were they? Mayor’s search for likely contenders takes her through surveys of the geography of ancient Egypt, an account of flying snakes in the Book of Isaiah, the writings of Cicero and Josephus, the microbats of Arabia, and the winged cobra goddess of ancient Egypt.
While Mayor’s often exotic subjects are delightfully absorbing, her reviews of them are also truly enlightening. If you’ve wondered how people can be poisoned by honey (like the soldiers of Xenophon and Pompey), or why Roman soldiers liked vultures, or how the myth of the Golden Fleece arose, you’ll find the answers here. An essay on ghost ships will tell you how the Gulf Stream was discovered, while the chapter on the wealth of prehistoric fossils stumbled upon in Greece in the 19th century shows how palaeontologists revealed how ancient animals migrated across the globe.
Essays on social history include a review of ancient travellers. There were plenty of people on the move by the 4th century BC, travelling for work, to attend religious celebrations, or just to relax. Antony and Cleopatra cruised the Aegean, Tiberius favoured Rhodes, and Pausanias penned the first guidebook around AD 150-170. The Amazons get good coverage, and women readers might take note of their recipe for a night cream. The story of how the brave women of ancient Argos saw off an army of Spartan warriors is inspiring.
The essays are arranged into subject groups including ‘Animals: Fabulous, Real, and Extinct’ and ‘Travelers, Tattoos and Tyrants’, a format that helps readers choose which essays to savour as their mood takes them. Mayor has a vast store of knowledge and is a masterful storyteller. Her latest work is a delightful feast for curious minds.
Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws and Other Classical Myths, Historical Oddities, and Scientific Curiosities Adrienne Mayor Princeton University Press, paperback, £14.99 ISBN 978-0691211183