The internet is a strange place – full of the most wondrous things and inspiration.
Today, my blog has seen a certain amount of traffic coming from a Russian webpage, which refers to an earlier blog post written by Mary Beard, then to one of mine (stating Ну, и собачки, конечно – куда ж без них, ‘well, the dog, of course … where would we be without them’), and finally says А вот сов никто не любит (‘but no one likes owls’).
I certainly did not want to give the impression that I discriminate against owls – they are just not particularly common in ancient Latin inscriptions. So, for all you owl lovers out there (and everyone else, of course), here are a few Latin inscriptions that do mention owls – you will be delighted to see that they include some pretty funky items!
1. Mosaic from Thysdrus (El Djem, Tunisia), AE 1995, 1643 = AE 2007, 1684 adn.
Invidia rumpuntur aves, neque noctua curat.
The birds are bursting with envy, and the owl does not care.
Others have written about this piece before me (see e.g. Sarah E. Bond’s great blog post about the evil eye), and there is no need to go into great detail here: the owl, front and centre, wearing a toga, is surrounded by dead songbirds.
The mosaic was discovered in a bath house complex, and it displays the insignia of the Telegenii, a group of local showmen and performers at Thysdrus, who very clearly felt proud of their status and their organisation – in fact so proud that they must have deemed themselves immune to jealousy and attacks of those who tried to outperform them in terms of spectacle.
The owl in the mosaic – a proud Roman citizen rather than any kind of migratory fowl – is not bothered, neither in its musive depiction nor according to the text itself: neque noctua curat.
2. Graffito from Pompeii, CIL IV 9131 = CLE 1936
Fullones ululamque cano | non arma virumq(ue).
Of fullers and the owl I sing … not of arms and the man.
An obvious pun on the opening line of Vergil‘s Aeneid, this graffito invites its readership to follow the writer away from the realm of learned, yet highly popular epic poetry to the mundane, yet highly important workshops of the fullers at Pompeii.
More specifically still, the piece was discovered outside the workshop of one Marcus Fabius Ululitremulus (‘Owl-Quaker’), in the context of an image that depicted Aeneas himself – allowing for a remarkably intelligent ironic interaction between text and image.
The owl was important in this context not merely as a pun on the name of the workshop’s master, however; the owl also was a visual feature in the display of the Roman goddess Minerva, patron of the fullers’ guild.
3. Graffito from Pompeii, CIL IV 4118 = CLE 1936 adn. = ILS 6441e
Discovered in another building, but belonging to the same sphere, there is a second graffito from Pompeii that links the fullers and the owl; written by one Crescens (who is notorious in that building), the graffito reads thus:
Cresce(n)s fullonibus et ululae suae sal(utem). || ulula est.
Crescens to the fullers and his owl: greetings! || It’s an owl!
This set of texts was accompanied by a drawing:
As some scholars have pointed out before: the drawing looks so inept, that one might regard the comment ulula est, it’s an owl, as a clarification in response to the drawing rather than a planned label.
4. Funerary monument from Benevento, CIL IX 1973 (cf. p. 695)
Not a mention of the owl, as such, in this final piece, a tombstone from Ravenna (on whose text see Mika Kajava’s excellent short note), but a reference to the owl-like howling sound (ululatio) that gave this species of animal one of its ancient names (ulula):
L(uci) Stenni Ann[ei] | Africani inf[an]|ti[s] dulcissimi | qui vix(it) ann(is) XI | mens(ibus) VIII dieb(us) XI | parentes infeli|cissimi amissio|ne eius perpetu|is tenebris et co|tidiana misera|bili ululatione | damnati.
Of Lucius Stennius Anneius (?) Africanus, the sweetest child, who lived 11 years, 8 months, 11 days, (set up by) the parents, most unhappy due to their loss, condemned to eternal darkness and daily, woeful lament.
As this piece took its starting point from the lament over the absence of owls, it seems only appropriate to conclude it by a reference to the sound of owl-like lament, even if otherwise owls in Latin inscriptions appear somewhere between ‘just not bothered’ and ‘pretty damn cool and down to earth (as opposed to that Aeneas guy)’ . . .