A Flora and Fauna of Symi

A personal guide to the wildlife of Symi and beyond

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Stymphalian Birds

September 18, 2014

It occured  to me after doing some research into an earlier post on tesserae  in Kos that the mosaics surrounding the main floor may well be depicting the 12 labours of Heracles. The man on horse back pursuing a large bird could be a Stymphalian bird and Heracles's sixth labour. The information board was bare. The Stymphalian birds were also known as the ornithes areos. They were a flock of arrow-shooting birds which guarded the sacred Amazonian shrine of the god Ares in the Black Sea. They were encountered by the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

This is how Apollonius Rhodius tells the story in Argonautica 2. from the 3rd centuary BC.


"[King Phineus tells the Argonauts of the obstacles they will face on their voyage across the Black Sea:] ‘When you have left these behind [the Mossynoekoi tribe on the southern shore of the Black Sea], you must beach your ship on a low-lying island, though not before you find some means of driving off the innumerable birds that haunt the lonely shore and pay no deference to man. Her the Queens of the Amazones, Otrere and Antiope, built a marble shrine for Ares when they were going to war. And here I advise you--and you know I am your friend--to stay a little while; for a godsend will come to you out of the bitter brine."

"They [the Argonauts] left these [the tribe called Mossynoekoi] behind them. And now a day of rowing (since the light wind dropped in the night) had brought them almost abreast of Ares’ Isle, when they suddenly beheld the War-God’s birds, which haunt the island, darting through the air. Flapping its wings over the moving ship it dropped a pointed feather down upon her. The plume struck the left shoulder of noble Oileus, who let his oar fall at the sudden blow, while the rest looked in amazement at the winged dart. But Eribotes, whose seat was next to his, pulled the feather out, took off the band on which his scabbard hung, and bound up the wound. Then, as though one bird had not sufficed, they saw another swooping in. but this time the lord Klytios son of Eurytos was ready with his bow bent. He let fly an arrow, struck the bird, and brought it spinning down beside the gallant ship. Whereupon Amphidamas son of Aleus [who was from Stymphalos in Arkadia] was moved to address his friends. `We are close,’ he said, `to the island of Ares. You can tell by these birds. But as I see it, arrows will not help us much when we try to disembark. If you mean to land, we must remember Phineus’ warning and think of some better plan. Why, Herakles himself, when he came to Arkadia, was unable with bow and arrow to drive away the birds that swam on the Stymphalian Lake. I saw the thing myself. What he did was to take his stand on a height and make a din by shaking a bronze rattle; and the astounded birds flew off into the distance screeching for fear. We must take our cue from him. I myself have had an idea which I should like to put to you. I suggest that you should all set your crested helmets on your heads and take it in turns, one half to row, the others to protect the ship with their polished spears and shields. Then the whole company must raise a most terrific shout, so that the birds may be scared away by a noise that will be new to them, as well as by the nodding crests and above them your uplifted spears. When we reach the island, if we make it, you can raise a tremendous racket by banging on your shields.’
His sensible suggestion pleased them all, and they put their helmets on their heads; the glinting bronze and the purple crests waving on top were enough to frighten anyone. Then half the crew rowed in turn while the others covered up the ship with their spears and shields. Locking the shields together, they roofed her over, as a man roofs his house with firmly fitted overlapping tiles, both to add to its beauty and keep out the rain. And the shout that went up from the ship was like the roar that comes from battling armies when the lines charge and meet. However, they did not see a single bird till they reached the island and banged on their shields. Then the birds in their thousands rose into the air and after fluttering about in panic, discharged a heavy shower of feathery darts at the ship as they beat a hasty retreat over the sea towards the mainland hills. But the Argonauts sat there in comfort, like people in a town on which the Son of Kronos [Zeus] has discharged a hail-storm from the clouds. They hear the hail-stones rattle on their roofs, but they do not worry."

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