The storks of war

A fragment from Italo Calvino’s quasi-17th century folk romance, Il visconte dimezzato/The cloven viscount, uses storks as a portent of battle. Several unconnected 2nd century Greek accounts might appear to do the same, perhaps particularly if one’s a lazy sod and doesn’t read anything but scraps of stuff on Google Books.

My excellent Italian teacher (she has vacancies: talk to me) has intimated that learning corny ballads in Neapolitan dialect will not cut the totality of the mustard where I want to go, so among my new tasks is to translate from (as well as to) standard Italian. Despite a remarkable pool of talent, for me there are few 20th century Italian-language authors worth comparing with Italo Calvino, who reaches into some pretty dark holes with extraordinary grace and lightness of touch. This is from the beginning of Il visconte dimezzato:

There was a war against the Turks. Viscount Medardo of Terralba, my uncle, was riding over the plains of Bohemia straight to the camp of the Christians. He was followed by a squire named Curzio. The storks were flying low, in white flocks, traversing the dull, still air.
“Why so many storks?” Medardo asked Curzio, “where are they flying to?”
My uncle was a newcomer, having enrolled only now in order to please some neighbouring dukes engaged in the war. He had fitted himself out with a horse and squire at the last castle in Christian hands, and was on his way to report to imperial headquarters.
“They’re flying to the battlefields,” said the squire bleakly. “We’ll accompany them the whole way.”

Warlore right up to recent times is frequently ornithological, and, as is true for many birds, human myths of storks follow their migration trails. I’m pretty sure I once read a Turkish version of Calvino’s tale, but here’s what sounds like here‘s a 2nd century precedent for the squire’s gloom:

The following extracts are from a book in my possession, entitled “The Magick of Kirani, King of Persia, and of Harpocration;” printed in the year 1685, “a work much sought for by the learned, but seen by few,” and “published from a copy found in a private hand.”

An account of the medical virtues of the stork, which is described as being “a very good bird,” contains this account of a bird-battle. “Presently, when the spring comes, they (the storks) proceed all together, like an army, and fly in divers figures, as wild geese and ducks; and all sorts of birds fly out of Egypt, Lybia, and Syria, and come into Lycia, to a river called Zanthus, and in the same place they engage in battle with ravens and crows, and magpies, and vultures, and with all carnivorous fowl; for they know the time aforehand, and all come hither. The army of storks put themselves in battalia on one side of the river; and the crows, and vultures, and all the carnivorous birds tarry on the other side of the river. And they tarry the whole sixth month for battel, for they know the days whereon they are to engage. And then a cry is heard to the very heavens, and the shedding of the blood of the wounded birds is seen in the river, and the plucking off of many feathers, of which the Lycians make feather beds. And after that the field is cleared they find the crows, and all carnivorous birds, torn in pieces; likewise storks and pelicans, and no small number of such as are of their side; for many of the birds fall down dead in the battel. And this contention among them, and victory, on whether side soever it falls, is a sign to all men. For, if the army of storks be conquerors, there will be riches, and abundance of bread-corn, and other fruits on the earth; but, if the crows get the better, there will be a multitude of sheep and oxen, and other four footed beasts. And the storks have another certain, excellent, natural quality. For when the parents are grown old, and are not able to fly, their children, on every side, carry them upon their wings from place to place, and also maintain them ; and, if they be blind, their children feed them: this retribution, and due gratitude from children to parents, is called antipelargia, i.e. stork-gratitude. And, if any one take the heart of a stork, conqueror in war, and tie it up in the skin of a hawk, or of a vulture, that is conquered, and write on the heart, ‘because I have conquered mine enemies,’ and shall tie it to his right arm, he that carries it wilt be invincible by all, and admirable in war, and in all controversies, and his victory will be irrefragable and great.”

These birds no longer inhabit the relatively restricted world of Aristophanes’, and I wonder if the place of battle has not a symbolic association with Plutarch’s, or rather Alexander’s,

spring in Lycia, near the city of the Xanthians, which, they tell us, at that time turned its course of its own accord, and, overflowing its banks, threw up a plate of brass, upon which were engraved certain ancient characters, signifying “That the Persian empire would one day come to a period and be destroyed by the Greeks.”

Maybe one of you will tell me more about this and compensate for my laziness.

The Calvino story adds a marvellous good/bad twist to the medio pollico story, which I’m working into my first travelling barrel organ show. Book a 2011 performance for your school or opium den now and get a free year’s subscription to this blog.

For me something doesn’t ring true about the magic of Kiranus, King of Persia. Maybe it’s just tinnitus kicking in.

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