Category Archives: The Owl and the Nightingale

Wasps, owls and the dangers of anthropomorphism

I came across a humorous meme on Facebook the other day. It’s an ID card for commonly seen British bees. There’s the honey bee, of course, and bumble bee. And then there’s the wasp – the ‘c**t with wings’. It’s funny. We all know the scenario: late summer, a round of drinks in the pub garden on a lazy Sunday, but the calm is ruined by the presence of dratted wasps.

Beyond the joke, though, the meme raised some more profound queries for me. Vespine malice, indeed, may not be as harmless as we think. It’s a good example of what I call the cultural persuasion of anthropomorphism: the pejorative impact that can come from attributing human qualities to nonhuman creatures. Sometimes, reputations are established for innocent nonhuman parties that can be impossible to reverse; involved in conflicts that are ultimately about human priorities or prejudices, the history of a particular species can be significantly affected and defined by our cultural representations.

Far Side 1.jpg
Gary Larson’s well-known Far Side cartoons brilliantly satirise anthropomorphism and other human treatments of the nonhuman.

It can begin harmlessly enough. Animals, of course, are very often employed in metaphors to depict human behaviours: pigs are filthy, foxes are cunning. We understand that we are actually dealing with humans who are squalid or sly, but the process of metaphor is never one way – these enduring comparisons affect the animal itself. Foxes may well show all sorts of sophisticated predator cognition (and remarkable urbane adaptability in the modern world), but we should not equate this with human concepts of deceit, as the familiar metaphor encourages us to do. Pigs suffer an even worse cultural fate, repeatedly invoked as the epitome of uncivilised (that is inhuman) behaviour: we must not eat like a pig, or live in a pigsty, or conduct ourselves with the emotional insensitivity of a pig.

In the case of the wasp, there are cultural implications too, if not quite as familiar. Some are innocuous enough, even positive: it was once fashionable to have a wasp waist; a person who is easily peeved or angered is ‘waspish’. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes made use of wasp characteristics to depict one of his most famous eponymous choruses – a busybody swarm of geriatric jurors. What we can easily overlook though, is how this generalised portrayal of wasp-ness reduces the diverse complexity of wasps’ astounding being to a singular, misrepresented aspect. The common wasp we love to hate (vespula vulgaris) is only one of hundreds of thousands of species worldwide, all playing important ecological roles (here and here). Good old vulgaris, for instance, is essential to keeping down insects that would otherwise decimate harvests on farms and in gardens, and they rid our towns and cities of organic waste.

People don’t lash out at wasps buzzing round their pint of coke because they are consciously acting in response to these processes, but it is possible that deeply embedded prejudices or persuasions do contribute to these culturally validated reactions: “What the hell do wasps do anyway? They’re just bloody pests!” The mechanisms here are no different to those operating in racism or sexism: the cultural and the biological are confused to the point where moral judgements placed upon a particular person, group or creature lead us to think that they are naturally and inherently depraved or inferior.

A group of creatures that has repeatedly been the victim of misrepresentation throughout the age of Western culture is the owl family. The remnant of this legacy in modern times is largely positive – owls are wise. But they have more often been made symbols, associates and scapegoats for a whole range of ills. The doom and gloom aspect has been around since classical times, but it was the Middle Ages that were particularly responsible for setting these associations in stone. Several owl species were identified in the popular natural history books of the period (the bestiaries), and each had its own negative significance: you will find noctua and nyticorax, night owls who fly by night and cannot see in the day; bubo, the horned owl who befouls its nest; and ulula and strix, screech owls known for their wailing calls. It’s not difficult to imagine how owls’ nocturnal habits made them ideal metaphors for sinners who shun the light of Christ.

A typical bestiary owl with a hook-nose to denote the Jew. Bibliothèque Municipale de Reims, ms. 993, Folio 153r

At best, these cultural distortions of owls were just wrong (owls can certainly see in the daylight); at worst, they could turn nastily on owls themselves, infecting the real bird and dangerously instructing the ways humans act upon nature. Take bubo (the eagle owl). From biblical sources, this species was thought to have an unclean nest – a metaphor for the sinner in the mire of his own filth. The problem is that this characteristic, like others, gets transferred across all owls in the bestiaries, so various species end up getting lumbered with the invented trait of one owl in particular through association (something similar happens in the wasp meme – disparate species are all shoved alike under the term ‘bee’). All owls shun the light, all owls are dirty. As the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale reveals, this mishmash of owl representation meant that the birds themselves were defamed as ‘loathsome and foul’: all people, the owl is told by the nightingale, think about how to kill you; they ‘pelt you and stone you, and smash your horrible bones to pieces’.

Medieval representations even managed to make the familiar practice of mobbing owls by small prey birds a justification for the innate sinfulness of owls. Because mobbing became a metaphor for approved attack on human sinners, the birds involved in this activity against owls by default show the same inclination: they attack the owl because it is wicked.

An owl being mobbed. Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 73v

The ultimate and most dangerous manifestation of this metaphorical blurring is evident in medieval obsessions with a specific type of sinner – the Jew. In Norwich, where anti-Semitic hostilities and riots were prevalent in the late Middle Ages, the cathedral still bears witness to such hatred – there are no less than six owls included in various wood carvings, some of which explicitly portray the proverbial mobbing scene: the action of mobbing owls in the real world has genuinely become an endorsement for the violence inflicted against a particular social group. Whilst there is no hard evidence to show us how this impacted on real owls, the popularity of this cultural pairing must have, to some extent, increased traditional beliefs in owls’ ‘loathsome and foul’ characters.

One of the Norwich owl carvings. An owl is clearly being mobbed by smaller birds here.

Anthropomorphism can have its positives: it can establish connections across boundaries of difference; it can elicit empathy. It can even prompt us re-evaluate whether nonhuman creatures do in fact lack those faculties we have always assumed to be exclusively human. Charities use the tactic all the time, and the viewing figures of Springwatch must be due in part to the popularity of Spineless Si the Stickleback or Sophia la Wren. But the technique is always fraught with difficulties. Yes, these names encourage a bond, but they also recommend that we see these creatures in human terms to make them more memorable: as Chris Packham has commented, “People don’t remember the blue tits we didn’t give a name to.”

Overlooking blue tits because they are unnamed is unlikely to have terrible ramifications, but when cultural portraits become so powerful that they distort and turn destructively on the real creature, there is an urgent need to re-think how we perceive and interact with the natural world.

Gary Larson, The Far Side



‘When the woods wax green’ – nightingales in a Kentish wood

This morning we went walking in a local wood, intent on seing the fulsome signs of spring. It’s the perfect time to be out and we were content in the primrose-brilliance of it all. The undergrowth beneath the beeches was rich with white wood anemones and bluebells.

We heard it before we’d gone fifty paces. The very thing we came for surprised us from the dense bramble – a secret nightingale out its tremendous song; a cry, as the poet Ted Hughes remarks, that ‘momentarily threatened the earth’. I think of my first nightingale this year, freshly arrived on the north Crete coast only two weeks ago; Homer’s nightingale – the bird that began centuries of thinking on just how that remarkable voice raises such powerful ideas of love and suffering, of yearning for the warm days of spring and the beginning of a year’s work in the fields. It’s a bird I seek every year in May.

This morning’s nightingale, though, is back here in a small but ancient wood near a tiny village in West Kent. It’s a bird intimately associated with our own landscape in its own special way – the oak, beech and hazel woodlands of southern England. And English poets, too, have always found something inspiring, even numinous, in  that disembodied voice. Of Keat’s ode most people have some inkling, can perhaps even quote the odd snatch about ‘shadows numberless’ and ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’. The Romantic poets generally were pretty keen on the symbolic potential of the bird. But the nightingale’s legacy in English poetry goes back much further. It’s as old as English poetry itself, in fact. The bird crops up in Latin lyrics from the British Isles in the early medieval period (the 7th cen. Bishop Aldhelm, for instance, who includes the nightingale in his Enigmata), but it’s first known appearance in English itself is in ‘Riddle 8’ from the Exeter Book Riddles (see here). Well, it’s first appearance as far as most Anglo-Saxon scholars agree, that is; the problem is that this collection, most unusually, has no answers, so it’s taken a good couple of centuries of academic guesswork to produce convincing solutions, and some are still heavily contested! ‘Riddle 8’ has generated a whole range of suggestions (mostly birds). To my mind though, the phrase eald æfensceop ‘old evening-singer’ points the way – a veiled reference, using other words, to the nihtegale, the Anglo-Saxon name for the bird that stuck.

In the later medieval period (influenced by the courtly poetry of French troubadours and trouvères), the nightingale becomes such a ubiquitous feature of love lyrics, it sort of just fades into the background of the stock ‘wodes that waxen grene’ when ‘lef and gras and blosme springe’ (see here). And then it finds its way into a run of bird debate poems (that’s right, avian poetic altercations were all the rage for the literary elite in late medieval England!): ‘The Thrush and the Nightingale’ (anon.); The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ (Clanvowe); ‘The Clerk and the Nightingale’ (anon.). By far and away the best, however, and perhaps my favourite of all medieval poems is The Owl and the Nightingale (probably late 13th cen., but no one really knows). It forms a substantial part of my PhD thesis on birds in medieval poetry.

The Owl and the Nightingale. London, British Museum, M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX ff. 233-46. ll. 1-16 (Source: Wikipedia Commons; photograph by Jesse Fawn.)

What’s remarkable about this poem is how self-consciously it uses the nightingale as a character. In short, the whole thing becomes a parody of the overused bird symbol in the debate genre. With great humour that prefigures the trademark irony of Chaucer, this poet pulls the bird back off its literary high horse and back into its real scrub environment. This allows for some brilliant ornithological-based comedy through playing off the tendency to treat the bird as a symbol against neatly observed real bird behaviours. The beginning of the poem starts off in typical fashion, describing the woody scene in what’s known as a natureingang (basically a pretty nature scene). But this is no locus amoenus (‘beautiful place’ – medievalists’ speak for the natural world idyll). The nightingale sits right in the middle, unseen, in a ‘vaste þicke hegge’ / Imeind mid spire & grene segge’ (dense, thick hedge / Mixed up with reeds and green sedge’. Real, biodiverse, natural territory – just where you’d expect to find a nightingale, in fact. There’s a further description of the nightingale’s habitat to snigger at later on. Here’s the owl in full invective:

Wan ich flo niƷtes after muse,
I mai þe uinde ate rumhuse,
Among þe wode, among þe netle.
Þu sittest & singst bihinde þe setle:
Þar me mai þe ilomest finde –
Þar men worpeþ hore bihinde.

When I fly at night after mice
I can find you at the crapper
Among the weeds, among the nettles.
You sit and sing behind the toilet seat:
I will find you there most often –
Where men thrust out their behinds.

There’s more from the owl – when all is said and done, the nightingale is nothing more than ‘lutel soti clowe’ (a little sooty ball)! All of this makes me think of John Clare’s oft-quoted criticism of Keats’ fictive nightingales all those centuries later, takes issue with ‘nature as she appeared to his [Keats] fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described’. The owl doesn’t get off lightly either, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out more.

For more information on the poem, also see