Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals

By Claudius Aelianus, translated and edited by Gregory McNamee

Trinity University Press, 2011, originally written in the 3rd century CE

A toad can kill just by belching, and the lust of the octopus is blamed for its short lifespan. To produce a mule, the horse owner must give the mare a bad haircut to shame her into having sex with a donkey. The hedgehog is considered a spiteful animal because it urinates on itself when caught, unlike the lynx, who hides its urine until it forms a gem stone.

Such are a few of the many nuggets of animal lore recorded in Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals, a translation of De Natura Animalium by the third century Roman writer Claudius Aelianus, better know as Aelian. Gregory McNamee translated the book from the original Latin and seems to have had a great deal of fun in the process. Aelian shares observations, myths, and rumor as he catalogs the known creatures of his day. Facts seem few and far between, but the book’s interest lies in discovering what the ancient Romans believed about the animal world, and the human emotions and proclivities they imbued them with. The avian world seems particularly rife with bile. “The pelican, I am told, does not like the quail and the feeling is mutual.” Aelian states that animals even have their own relationship with the gods. Elephants, for instance, have two hearts, one the seat of anger, the other the seat of peace, and they use the latter to converse directly with the gods, in contrast with humans who “doubt whether the gods even exist – and if they do exist, whether the gods think of us at all.”

Whatever the gods think of Aelian, he thinks highly enough of himself. In a time when authors apparently blurbed their own books, he writes, “Plenty of writers have come before me, but that should not disqualify me from praise, if it really is true that this learned book is far-ranging and well-written enough to deserve attention.” Far-ranging it is. He even gives grooming tips. Roman men were clean shaven, so Aelian instructs them to dissolve a jellyfish in vinegar to produce a good depilatory. He also suggests a few animal concoctions to keep from falling asleep, but then advises against it.  “Eating nightingale meat is a good way to stay awake, but you shouldn’t do it because sleep is ‘the lord of all gods and men,’ as Homer tells us.” Aelian assumes a great deal of common knowledge among his readership. He claims that a hunter may take as many gazelles as he wants from a certain island but must ask permission from the goddess first. If he does not, “he is punished in ways that you can read about elsewhere.” Can I? Actually, yes. There are notes in the back of the book where McNamee supports Aelian where possible. When Aelian points out that animals have their own language, McNamee references a scientific paper: “Birdsong, canine barks, and every other sound produced by mouths, including our own, is the result of neural circuitry established hundreds of millions of years ago by fish, which communicate by humming, grunting, and other vocal signs.”

For those wanting more science than can be found in these notes, I refer you to Ed Yong’s An Immense World, the Nature of Animals of our day. Yong decodes modern science into layman’s terms to explain how animals actually experience the world, which is usually dramatically different from the human experience. Aelian writes that “the wax moth delights in fire and flies right into lamps, attracted by their brilliance. Aeschylus, the tragedian talks about this: ‘I am terrified by the foolish fate of the wax moth.’” To understand the science behind the moth’s behavior, read Yong’s section on light pollution. You will never leave an outdoor light on again. 

In the epilogue, Aelian writes that he would like to be thought of as one of the “scholars who are good at puzzling out the workings of nature.” Puzzling is definitely the operative word, since he is wildly inclusive, even giving space, if not credence, to an island populated with flying pigs. “Anyone who wants to think of this as a myth is welcome to do so, “ Aelian says. “I would have been sorry not to mention any good story related to animals.” We would have been sorry too, because this, like the urine of the lynx, is a little gem of a book.

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