Weird Uses of Weasels

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 39.16

“There are two kinds of weasels: one is wild and the two differ in size. The Greeks call this one ictis. The gall of both is useful against asps, but poisonous to others. The other weasel, however, wanders in our homes and, as Cicero explains, moves its young on a daily basis and changes its nest, chasing snakes. Its meat, preserved in salt is given in a weight of one denarius and mixed in three cyathi of liquid to those who have been bitten. Otherwise, its stomach is stuffed with coriander and, once dried, drunk with wine. A weasel kitten is even better for this than the weasel itself.”

XVI. Mustelarum duo genera, alterum silvestre; distant magnitudine, Graeci vocant ictidas. harum fel contra aspidas dicitur efficax, cetero venenum. haec autem quae in domibus nostris oberrat et catulos suos, ut auctor est Cicero, cottidie transfert mutatque sedem, serpentes persequitur. ex ea inveterata sale denarii pondus in cyathis tribus datur percussis aut ventriculus coriandro fartus inveteratusque et in vino potus, et catulus mustelae etiam efficacius.

Illustration from “Picture Natural History” – No 8 – The Weasel

Owls, Or Maybe Witches

Aelian, on Animals 1.29

“An owl is a clever creature who is really like witches. It captures its hunters whenever it is caught. So they carry it around like a pet, or, by Zeus, a special charm on their shoulders. At night it guards over them and uses its call like an incantation to release a complex, comforting spell. This attracts birds to come near it. During the day too it tempts birds with a different kind of bait to fool them. It changes its facial expressions as you look and the birds are enchanted and stay frozen with horror while watching, filled with fear by these changes of shape.”

    1. Αἱμύλον ζῷον καὶ ἐοικὸς ταῖς φαρμακίσιν ἡ γλαῦξ. καὶ πρώτους μὲν αἱρεῖ τοὺς ὀρνιθοθήρας ᾑρημένη. περιάγουσι γοῦν αὐτὴν ὡς παιδικὰ ἢ καὶ νὴ Δία περίαπτα ἐπὶ τῶν ὤμων. καὶ νύκτωρ μὲν αὐτοῖς ἀγρυπνεῖ καὶ τῇ φωνῇ οἱονεί τινι ἐπαοιδῇ γοητείας ὑπεσπαρμένης αἱμύλου τε καὶ θελκτικῆς τοὺς ὄρνιθας ἕλκει καὶ καθίζει πλησίον ἑαυτῆς· ἤδη δὲ καὶ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ θήρατρα ἕτερα τοῖς ὄρνισι προσείει μωκωμένη καὶ ἄλλοτε ἄλλην ἰδέαν προσώπου στρέφουσα, ὑφ᾿ ὧν κηλοῦνται5 καὶ παραμένουσιν ἐνεοὶ6 πάντες ὄρνιθες, ᾑρημένοι δέει καὶ μάλα γε ἰσχυρῷ ἐξ ὧν ἐκείνη μορφάζει.
British Library, Sloane MS 278 (Aviarium / Dicta Chrysostomi), folio 31v from

Periklean PeaCOCKS

Plutarch, Pericles 13.14

 “When the comic poets found out about the account, they dropped loads of improprieties on him, making claims about Menippus’ wife, the man who was his friend and lieutenant, and adding things about Pyrilampes and his pet birds. Pyilampes was Perikles’ friend and had been charged with using peacocks to attract the women Perikles was trying to seduce.”

δεξάμενοι δὲ τὸν λόγον οἱ κωμικοὶ πολλὴν ἀσέλγειαν αὐτοῦ κατεσκέδασαν, εἴς τε τὴν Μενίππου γυναῖκα διαβάλλοντες, ἀνδρὸς φίλου καὶ ὑποστρατηγοῦντος, εἴς τε τὰς Πυριλάμπους ὀρνιθοτροφίας, ὃς ἑταῖρος ὢν Περικλέους αἰτίαν εἶχε ταῶνας ὑφιέναι ταῖς γυναιξὶν αἷς ὁ Περικλῆς ἐπλησίαζε.

Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, folio 36r

Traps for Foxes

Alciphron, Letters of Farmers 19 [iii. 22]

“I made a trap for those damned foxes of a little meat attached to a snare. They had been waging war on the grapevines–not just chewing on the grapes themselves but even lopping off the vines from the bases altogether. I heard that my master was coming and he is a mean and cruel man who is always putting forward minor decrees and announcements to the Athenians on the Pnyx. Even before today he has used his skill in speech to send many people to their doom.

So, because I was afraid due the kind of person my master is that I might suffer something awful, I wanted to trap that fox thief. But baby Plangone, the little puppy we were raising as a pet for the lady of the house, got greedy and rushed to take the bait. And now it is stretched out on the ground, a rotting corpse two days dead.

I have fallen from one evil into another! There’s no way my master will be forgiving about this. So I am going to run to wherever my feet can take me. Farewell farm and everything that is mine. It is the right time to save myself and not to wait to suffer pain, but to take care before the pain arrives.”

Πολύαλσος Εὐσταφύλῳ

Πάγην ἔστησα ἐπὶ τὰς μιαρὰς ἀλώπεκας κρεᾴδιον τῆς σκανδάλης ἀπαρτήσας. ἐπεὶ γὰρ ἐπολέμουν τὰς σταφυλάς, καὶ οὐ μόνον τὰς ῥᾶγας7 ἔκοπτον ἀλλ᾿ ἤδη καὶ ὁλοκλήρους ἀπέτεμνον τῶν 2οἰνάρων τοὺς βότρυς, ὁ δεσπότης δὲ ἐπιστήσεσθαι κατηγγέλλετο—ἀργαλέος ἄνθρωπος καὶ δριμύς, γνωμίδια καὶ προβουλευμάτια συνεχῶς ἐπὶ τῆς Πνυκὸς Ἀθηναίοις εἰσηγούμενος, καὶ πολλοὺς ἤδη διὰ σκαιότητα τρόπου καὶ δεινότητα ῥημάτων ἐπὶ τοὺς ἕνδεκα ἀγαγών—δείσας μή τι πάθοιμι κἀγὼ καὶ ταῦτα τοιούτου τοῦ11 δεσπότου ὄντος, τὴν κλέπτιν ἀλώπεκα συλλαβὼν ἐβουλόμην παραδοῦναι. ἀλλ᾿ ἡ μὲν οὐχ ἧκε· Πλαγγὼνδὲ τὸ Μελιταῖον κυνίδιον, ὃ ἐτρέφομεν1 ἄθυρμα τῇ δεσποίνῃ προσηνές, ὑπὸ τῆς ἄγαν λιχνείας ἐπὶ τὸ κρέας ὁρμῆσαν κεῖταί σοι τρίτην ταύτην ἡμέραν ἐκτάδην νεκρὸν ἤδη μυδῆσαν. ἔλαθον οὖν ἐπὶ κακῷ κακὸν ἀναρριπίσας. καὶ τίς παρὰ τῷ σκυθρωπῷ τῶν τοιούτων συγγνώμη; φευξόμεθα ᾗ ποδῶν ἔχομεν, χαιρέτω δὲ ὁ ἀγρὸς καὶ τἀμὰ πάντα. ὥρα γὰρ σώζειν ἑαυτόν, καὶ μὴ παθεῖν ἀναμένειν ἀλλὰ πρὸ τοῦ παθεῖν φυλάξασθαι.

A fox, escaping with a farmyard goose. This illustration may be based on the Reynard the Fox stories.
Kongelige Bibliotek, GKS 1633 4° (Bestiarius – Bestiary of Ann Walsh), folio 16r from

Archilochus, fr. 201

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big one”

πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα.

The Donkey Who Wanted to be A Dog

Babrius 129

“Someone once was raising a donkey and a cute little dog.
The dog loved playing by jumping rhythmically
Around his master in clever ways.
But the donkey would wear itself out working
Grinding wheat, dear Demeter’s gift, in the evening
After spending the day dragging wood from the hills
And from the field anything else they needed.
Even when standing to eat in the courtyard
At his barley, he was like a criminal in bonds.

Heart-bitten and groaning about his fate
He watched the pup in all his luxury
And just broke his ropes and ran from the feed-trough
Straight into the middle of the yard, kicking randomly.
He was trying to fawn and wanted to leap around like the dog.

He burst into the house and broke the table
And all the furniture and he went to his dining master
Trying to kiss him and he began to climb into his lap.
When the human servants saw him in the greatest dangers,
They went to save him from the donkey’s very jaws.
They attacked him from every angle with clubs,
Assailing him and beating him without pity.

And so the donkey spoke with his final breath
I have suffered what I earned in my bad luck
Why didn’t I stay to my kind with the asses
Instead of pursuing my ruin like a little pup?”

Ὄνον τις ἔτρεφε καὶ κυνίδιον ὡραῖον,
τὸ κυνίδιον δ᾿ ἔχαιρε παῖζον εὐρύθμως,
τὸν δεσπότην τε ποικίλως περισκαῖρον·
κἀκεῖνος <αὖ> κατεῖχεν αὐτὸ τοῖς κόλποις.
ὁ δ᾿ ὄνος γ᾿ ἔκαμνεν ἑσπέρης ἀλετρεύων
πυρὸν φίλης Δήμητρος, Ἡμέρης δ᾿ ὕλην
κατῆγ᾿ ἀφ᾿ ὕψους, ἐξ ἀγροῦ θ᾿ ὅσων χρείη·
καὶ μὴν ἐν αὐλῇ παρὰ φάτναισι δεσμώτης
ἔτρωγε κριθὰς χόρτον, ὥσπερ εἰώθει.
δηχθεὶς δὲ θυμῷ καὶ περισσὸν οἰμώξας,
σκύμνον θεωρῶν ἁβρότητι σὺν πάσῃ,
φάτνης ὀνείης δεσμὰ καὶ κάλους ῥήξας
ἐς μέσσον αὐλῆς ἦλθ᾿ ἄμετρα λακτίζων.
σαίνων δ᾿ ὁποῖα καὶ θέλων περισκαίρειν,
τὴν μὲν τράπεζαν ἔθλασ᾿ ἐς μέσον βάλλων
ἅπαντα δ᾿ εὐθὺς ἠλόησε τὰ σκεύη·
δειπνοῦντα δ᾿ ἰθὺς ἦλθε δεσπότην κύσσων,
νώτοις ἐπεμβάς· ἐσχάτου δὲ κινδύνου
θεράποντες ἐν μέσοισιν ὡς <τὸν ἄνδρ᾿> εἶδον,
ἐσάωσαν <αὐτὸν ἐξ ὄνου γνάθων ὄντως>·
κρανέης δὲ κορύναις ἄλλος ἄλλοθεν κρούων
ἔθεινον, ὥστε καὐτὸς ὕστατ᾿ ἐκπνείων
“ἔτλην” ἔλεξεν “οἷα χρή με, δυσδαίμων·
τί γὰρ παρ᾿ οὐρήεσσιν οὐκ ἐπωλεύμην,
βαιῷ δ᾿ ὁ μέλεος κυνιδίῳ παρισούμην;”

Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl, “Donkeys on a moorland track”, 1865

Loyal Hounds for the Charcoal Man

Aelian, History of Animals 1.8

“A certain man named Nikias once went too far in front of his hunting party without knowing it and fell into a charcoal-burner’s furnace. His hounds who witnessed this event did not abandon him but first they lingered there whining around the kiln and howling.

Eventually, they dragged some people who were passing near to the accident by gently and bravely biting the edge of their clothes as if the dogs were summoning the people to be their master’s rescuers. One person, who witnessed what was happening, suspected the accident and followed them. He discovered Nikias burned completely in the furnace and figured out what had happened from his remains.”

Νικίας τις τῶν συγκυνηγετούντων ἀπροόπτως παραφερόμενος ἐς ἀνθρακευτῶν κάμινον κατηνέχθη, οἱ δὲ κύνες οἱ σὺν αὐτῷ τοῦτο ἰδόντες οὐκ ἀπέστησαν, ἀλλὰ τὰ μὲν πρῶτα κνυζώμενοι περὶ τὴν κάμινον καὶ ὠρυόμενοι διέτριβον, τὰ δὲ τελευταῖα μονονουχὶ τοὺς παριόντας ἠρέμα καὶ πεφεισμένως κατὰ τῶν ἱματίων δάκνοντες εἶτα εἷλκον ἐπὶ τὸ πάθος, οἷον ἐπικούρους τῷ δεσπότῃ παρακαλοῦντες τοὺς ἀνθρώπους οἱ κύνες. καὶ γοῦν εἷς ὁρῶν τὸ γινόμενον ὑπώπτευσε τὸ συμβάν, καὶ ἠκολούθησε καὶ εὗρε τὸν Νικίαν ἐν τῇ καμίνῳ καταφλεχθέντα, ἐκ τῶν λειψάνων συμβαλὼν τὸ γενόμενον.

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 18r

The Dog and His Treasure: A Fable about Priorities

Phaedrus, 1.27

“This tale has something to say to the greedy
And those who want to be  rich, though born needy.

A dog was digging up human bones when he found
A treasure and, because he offended the gods in the ground,
He was struck by a love of riches he couldn’t forget
To pay sacred religion back this debt.

And so, the dog thought not of food as he guarded his gold
And he died from hunger, and as a vulture took hold
he reportedly said, “Dog, you deserve it—
To lie there when you wanted royal wealth
After you were born in a gutter and raised on shit!”


I.27. Canis et Thesaurus

Haec res avaris esse conveniens potest,
et qui, humiles nati, dici locupletes student.
Humana effodiens ossa thesaurum canis
invenit, et, violarat quia Manes deos,
iniecta est illi divitiarum cupiditas,
poenas ut sanctae religioni penderet.
Itaque, aurum dum custodit oblitus cibi,
fame est consumptus. Quem stans vulturius super
fertur locutus “O canis, merito iaces,
qui concupisti subito regales opes,
trivio conceptus, educatus stercore”.

The Origin of the Term “Swan Song”

Aelian, History of Animals 2.32

“The Swan, which the poets and many prose authors make an attendant to Apollo, has some other relationship to music and song I do not understand. But it was believed by those before us that the swan died after he sang what was called its “swan-song”. Nature truly honors it more than noble and good men and for good reason: for while others praise and morn people, the swans take care of themselves, if you will.”

Κύκνος δέ, ὅνπερ οὖν καὶ θεράποντα Ἀπόλλωνι ἔδοσαν ποιηταὶ καὶ λόγοι μέτρων ἀφειμένοι πολλοί, τὰ μὲν ἄλλα ὅπως μούσης τε καὶ ᾠδῆς ἔχει εἰπεῖν οὐκ οἶδα· πεπίστευται δὲ ὑπὸ τῶν ἄνω τοῦ χρόνου ὅτι τὸ κύκνειον οὕτω καλούμενον ᾄσας εἶτα ἀποθνήσκει. τιμᾷ δὲ ἄρα αὐτὸν ἡ φύσις καὶ τῶν καλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν ἀνθρώπων μᾶλλον, καὶ εἰκότως· εἴ γε τούτους μὲν καὶ ἐπαινοῦσι καὶ θρηνοῦσιν ἄλλοι, ἐκεῖνοι δὲ εἴτε τοῦτο ἐθέλοις εἴτε ἐκεῖνο, ἑαυτοῖς νέμουσιν.

Michael Apostolios, Proverbs 10.18

“Singing the swan song”: [this proverb] is applied to those who are near death. For swans sing as they die and they know then the end of life is coming upon them and so, in this way, they face that arrival bravely. But human beings fear what they do not know and think that it is the greatest evil. But swans sing out at death the kind of song sung at a funeral…”

     Κύκνειον ᾆσμα: ἐπὶ τῶν ἐγγὺς θανάτου ὄντων. οἱ γὰρ κύκνοι θνήσκοντες ᾄδουσι Καὶ ἴσασιν ὁπότε τοῦ βίου τὸ τέρμα ἀφικνεῖται αὐτοῖς, καὶ μέντοι καὶ εὐθύμως φέρουσιν αὐτὸ προσιόν. ἄνθρωποι δὲ ὑπὲρ οὗ οὐκ ἴσασι δεδοίκασι καὶ ἡγοῦνται μέγιστον εἶναι κακὸν αὐτό. ἀναγηρύονται δὲ ἐπὶ τῇ τελευτῇ οἷον ἐπικήδειόν τι μέλος…

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 14 (616b)

“Chrysippos was writing about something like this again in the same work. When someone who loved to make fun of people was about to be killed by the executioner, he said that he wanted one thing, to die after singing his ‘swan-song’. After the executioner agreed, the man made fun of him.”

περὶ δὲ τοιούτου τινὸς πάλιν ὁ Χρύσιππος ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ γράφει· φιλοσκώπτης τις μέλλων ὑπὸ τοῦ δημίου σφάττεσθαι ἔτι ἕν τι ἔφη θέλειν ὥσπερ τὸ κύκνειον ᾄσας ἀποθανεῖν. ἐπιτρέψαντος δ᾿ ἐκείνου ἔσκωψεν

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1951, Folio 3r

How A Camel is Superior to Oedipus

Aelian, History of Animals 4.47

“For the sake of Zeus, allow me to interrogate the tragedians and the storytellers who came before them as to what they had in mind when they pour so great an ignorance on Laios’ son who joined that terrible journey with his mother and on Telephos who, although he did not pursue sex, also laid next to the one who bore him and would have done the same things if a serpent had not interrupted him by divine command. How can these things happen when nature even allows the mindless animals to recognize the nature of this union from simple touch—they do not need special signs or anything from the man who exposed Oedipus on Mt. Cithairon.

The camel, indeed, would certainly never have sex with its own mother. There was a herdsman, who tried to force this, and, by covering up a female as much as possible and hiding all of her except for her genitals, drove the child to its mother. The ignorant animal, thanks to its excitement for sex, did the deed and then understood it. While biting and trampling the man who was responsible for this unnatural union, it killed him terribly by kneeling on top of him. Then it threw him off a cliff.

In this, Oedipus was ignorant in failing to kill himself and just putting out is eyes: for, he did not know that it was possible to escape his troubles by getting rid of himself and not curing his home and family, and as such to try to cure evils which had passed with an incurable evil.”

47. Δότε μοι τοὺς τραγῳδοὺς πρὸς τοῦ πατρῴου Διὸς καὶ πρό γε ἐκείνων τοὺς μυθοποιοὺς ἐρέσθαι τί βουλόμενοι τοσαύτην ἄγνοιαν τοῦ παιδὸς τοῦ Λαΐου καταχέουσι τοῦ συνελθόντος τῇ μητρὶ τὴν δυστυχῆ σύνοδον, καὶ τοῦ Τηλέφου τοῦ μὴ πειραθέντος μὲν τῆς ὁμιλίας, συγκατακλινέντος δὲ τῇ γειναμένῃ καὶ πράξαντος ἂν τὰ αὐτά, εἰ μὴ θείᾳ πομπῇ διεῖρξεν ὁ δράκων· εἴ γε ἡ φύσις τοῖς ἀλόγοις ζῴοις τὴν τοιαύτην μίξιν καὶ ἐκ τοῦ χρωτὸς δίδωσι κατανοῆσαι, καὶ οὐ δεῖται γνωρισμάτων οὐδὲ τοῦ ἐκθέντος ἐς τὸν Κιθαιρῶνα. οὐκ ἂν γοῦν ποτε τῇ τεκούσῃ ὁμιλήσειε κάμηλος. ὁ δέ τοι νομεὺς τῆς ἀγέλης κατακαλύψας τὸν θῆλυν ὡς οἷόν τε ἦν καὶ ἀποκρύψας πάντα πλὴν τῶν ἄρθρων, τὸν παῖδα ἐπάγει τῇ μητρί, καὶ ἐκεῖνος λάθριος ὑπὸ ὁρμῆς τῆς πρὸς μίξιν ἔδρασε τὸ ἔργον καὶ συνῆκε. καὶ τὸν μὲν αἴτιον τῆς ὁμιλίας οἱ τῆς ἐκθέσμου δάκνων καὶ πατῶν καὶ τοῖς γόνασι παίων ἀπέκτεινεν ἀλγεινότατα, ἑαυτὸν δὲ κατεκρήμνισεν. ἀμαθὴς δὲ καὶ κατὰ τοῦτο Οἰδίπους, οὐκ ἀποκτείνας, ἀλλὰ πηρώσας τὴν ὄψιν, καὶ τὴν τῶν κακῶν λύσιν μὴ γνοὺς ἐξὸν ἀπηλλάχθαι καὶ μὴ τῷ οἴκῳ καὶ τῷ γένει καταρώμενον εἶτα μέντοι κακῷ ἀνηκέστῳ ἰᾶσθαι κακὰ τὰ ἤδη παρελθόντα.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B, Folio 15v

Where Do Snakes Come From? A Spine-Tingling Explanation

Past mid-October, it is about time things start to get a bit creepy…

Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 1.51

“People say that the spine of a human corpse turns into a snake as the marrow decomposes. As the beast slips out, so the most savage creature is born from the mildest. In this way the remains of men who were once fine and noble rest and they have peace as their prize just as the soul too does of these kinds of men according to what is sung and hymned by the wise.

But the spines of evil men bring forth these kinds of things after life too. Well, the truth is that the story is either completely a myth or if these things prove trustworthy, then it seems to me that the evil man’s corpse has earned this reward of becoming the serpent’s father.”

Ῥάχις ἀνθρώπου νεκροῦ φασιν ὑποσηπόμενον τὸν μυελὸν ἤδη τρέπει ἐς ὄφιν· καὶ ἐκπίπτει τὸ θηρίον, καὶ ἕρπει τὸἀγριώτατον ἐκ τοῦ ἡμερωτάτου· καὶ τῶν μὲν καλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν τὰ λείψανα ἀναπαύεται, καὶ ἔχει ἆθλον ἡσυχίαν, ὥσπερ οὖν καὶ ἡ ψυχὴ τῶν τοιούτων τὰ ᾀδόμενά τε καὶ ὑμνούμενα ἐκ τῶν σοφῶν· πονηρῶν δὲ ἀνθρώπων ῥάχεις τοιαῦτα τίκτουσι καὶ μετὰ τὸν βίον. ἢ τοίνυν τὸ πᾶν μῦθός ἐστιν, ἤ, εἰ ταῦτα οὑτωσὶπεπίστευται, πονηροῦ νεκρός, ὡς κρίνειν ἐμέ, ὄφεως γενέσθαι πατὴρ τοῦ τρόπου μισθὸν ἠνέγκατο.

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 57r