Postscript: the Anicia Juliana (cont./3)

Concerning Rufus, Plague and Owls.

[this post began short …  but .. oh well.]

Another mosaic made in Tunis under Roman rule provides us with a first example of the owl’s being associated with instant death.  Here, the spotted owl stands as stricken birds drop from the sky in mid-flight. It carries under one wing what is evidently the itinerant’s scrip and/or despatch bag. (yerss..)

Thysdrus Own and dying birds Roman period

That mosaic depicts, fairly well, a type of owl found across north Africa and in Egypt.


but for a sense of that awe with which the owl and its image were seen in the older world, we must turn to the eastern Mediterranean, and appreciate that the very word for death, in Egypt, had the owl as its first hieroglyph; that the words for ‘death’ and for ‘mother’ were the same  [mwt] and that when the Pharaoh handed the owl-glyph to a minor official, the latter was obliged to suicide.[1]   ‘Sudden death from on high, by divine decree’ is what this bird signified.

spotted barn Owl

picture courtesy Uni of Chicago and exhibition “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt.” 2012-2013.

According the University of Chicago, the owl of the hieroglyph was a Barn owl – but the same idea in general was just as natural to the Semitic-speaking peoples influenced (as most were) by Egyptian culture. A Semitic root from which such terms as ‘king’, ‘noble’, ‘messenger’, ‘angel’ and ‘lord’ are derived.  (mlk cf. Lat. domine) sounded like the Egyptian word for any owl, and even under Roman rule, we have seen in that mosaic from Tunis the same network of ideas current. Still another  shows a ‘messenger of the winds’ in a way that evokes the idea of the Eagle owl (Bubo bubo).

eagle owl and Bardo wind-messenger

Before Roman military activity destroyed much of the southern and eastern Mediterranean, there had been a long history in common between them: a mixture of Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Semitic, with later input from Macedonians and Greeks. A common history does not necessarily imply uniform attitudes or visual language, however and one might predict that imagery on a series of coins produced in Athens might appear filled with ill-omen beyond Greece. The coins show a martial woman, an owl, and an ‘overturned’ or horizontal amphora.

Athena owl coin winged caduceus

coin Athens

One of the type (above) includes the messenger’s winged staff (“Hermes’ caduceus “)  but gives it a peculiar terminal, somewhat like a horned head, and somewhat like the Egyptian ankh which signified continuing life.  The unusual form for the caduceus may represent efforts to reassure non-Greeks who had very different first impressions of owl-imagery, of the death-bringing woman, and of the amphora’s human-like form. [2]  Hermes’ sacrifice was the ram.  In the following example – from Cyprus  of the 6thC BC –  there is a curious but pronounced  Egyptian influence reflected in the ram’s face. I won’t expand on the message implied by this statue, but it may interest some readers to know that the character shown here was already ancient when the Cyprian statue was made and that it has survived the rise and fall of empires, the loss of older languages, and the revolutions of religion. The character, as  religio-mythic icon, now has an attested history of constant reference over more than six thousand years.

Hermes head and ram Cyprus 6thC BC

Athens itself may have evoked the fear of plague for distant peoples.  When ‘owl and amphora’ coins were being produced, memory still remained of the horrific plague that decimated Athens in 430 BC –  horrific to the point that it has been identified by more than one medical writer as ebola. [3]

Another issue replaces the caduceus with the human figure of a peripatetic physician, in his traveller’s hat and with his serpent-twined staff, emphasising health and life in still more obvious ways.  Numismatists call that small figure ‘Asclepius’ though I rather think it is meant to represent real peripatetic physicians and may be again an effort to reassure the older and non-Greek peoples that the imagery brought no danger or ‘evil eye’.

coin Athens c135 BC owl Asclepius query

coin Athens c.135 BC

Athenian  coins of that ‘owl-and-amphora’ type were widely disseminated, with imitative coins attested as far as pre-Islamic Arabia, where local inscriptions highlight the different perception of these iconographic elements.[4]

Already, therefore, by the time that Rufus of Ephesus lived, an association of some antiquity existed between the owl and the strike of death – and was already widely known through the southern and the eastern Mediterranean at least. In later centuries, in Islam as in Christendom, the ‘Angel/Messenger’ who brought death was a well-known figure.

Classical Roman authors had regarded the bird as ill-omened and refer to three of their emperors’ having died after an owl alighted on the roof: the emperors were Augustus, Valentinian and Commodus Antonius.[5]

It was in the language of Latin, not of Greek that connection was particularly suggested between the strike of the owl and bubonic plague. The Greek word for an owl was tuto, but the Latin was bubo.  Thus, when Rufus wrote, in Greek, about a plague’s buboes  (βουβϖνης) he meant swellings of the groin, if we may rely on  Oribasius who preserves the text in which it says that  “the buboes that are called pestilential [are] especially fatal … chiefly in Libya, Egypt, and Syria.”[6]

Thirty years after the Empress Juliana Anicia received her illustrated herbal dedicated to the eastern Greeks and their superior medical traditions,  some new form of the sudden, un-opposable “owl-death” struck again in the Mediterranean.  Historians refer to that pandemic as the Plague of Justinian (541–542), and its extent and effects were frightful.

We have no record of eastern Greek physicians wearing masks in the 6thC AD, but someone who had lived in the early years of that century apparently knew, or believed, they had been worn by physicians of Rufus’ tradition as late as the 1stC AD.  He had been born then in Ephesus, received his education in Egypt, and in general his style of medicine is considered Hippocratic.  He is thought to have lived while  Trajan was emperor in Rome ( 98 AD – 117 AD).

If Georg Baresch believed, as I rather think he did, that the text in Beinecke MS 408 contained an “ancient Egyptian medicine” which might cure plague, then Rufus’ works are the sort of thing he might have been thinking about.

In the generation preceding Rufus, Pliny’s Natural History (23 AD – 79 AD) associates death and a certain horror with the eagle-owl:

The eagle-owl is thought to be a very bad omen, being as it is a funereal bird. It lives in deserts and in terrifying, empty and inaccessible places. Its cry is a scream. If it is seen in a city, or during the day, it is a direful portent.. The owl never flies directly to where it wants to go, but always travels slantwise from its course.

(Natural History, Book 10, 16-19).

Eurasian eagle-owl ears up

By the fourteenth century, in Latin Europe, those ancient associations were – in a sense – maintained, but by some peculiar twist of logic, re-inforced by the story of Moses, and a habit of regarding Jewish communities as ‘itinerant’ arose a conception of the “itinerant” physician which no longer saw him as bearer of rare medicines from afar, nor  representative of healing, nor ~ of the winds, nor ~of the king, nor  as one labouring to  assuage the plague’s effects. All that remained of the ancient forms was a plague-physician’s mask with its beak and red glass eyes.

The Latins  turned upon their most accomplished physicians  –  the Jews – and as far as I’m aware no other people did so, although the plague swept throughout central Asia, mainland Europe, the whole of the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Persia. Language as well as religious books and Europe’s own history formed part of the cause.  Latin ‘bubo’ for an owl was combined with the adopted term ‘bubo’ for a lethal swelling, while the word ‘Plague’ suggested the the ‘striker’s arrow’. Plague is from plaga, ‘to strike’ or plangere “to strike, or to strike down”.  The imagery which resulted is expressed in these few of many examples:

beast owl misericord StLawrences Ludlow

The Plague is imagined to separate the good from the evil/ the ‘doves’ attack the Owl.   St.Laurence’s, Ludlow. image courtesy of ‘Robin’.

from a French book of hours…

French hours owl crossbow-detail

French bk of hours [ref wanting]

BL Harley MS 5401 folio 46

England 1450-1500.   (detail) BL Harley MS 5401 f. 46.  “Marginal drawing of an owl (‘bubo’ in Latin), to mark a passage relating to a cancerous swelling, also known as ‘bubo’ in Latin.” – library catalogue.

Thysdrus Own and dying birds Roman periodLuttrell Pilgrim BL MS Add 42130 folio 32r c1325-1340.








1.  For the last item, I rely on Peter Tate , Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition (2007). I haven’t checked his sources yet.

2. just by the way, it is my opinion that emblemata described as ‘finger-rings’ in the Voynich manuscript are a debased form of the ankh, such debased forms seen even in Egypt by the 1stC AD.  See e.g. posts in which I’ve illustrated wall paintings from Tigrane Pasha catacomb courtesy of M. Venit. One very short reprise is in  ‘Ring/situla. Another from the, (December 8th., 2014).

3. The suggestion that it was ebola was first raised by Gayle Scarrow, “The Athenian Plague: A Possible Diagnosis”, The Ancient History Bulletin, Vol.2, No.1 (1988). Eight years later it was suggested again, in a paper by Olson, Benenson, and Genovese, who had overlooked the earlier, and who published their own without reference to it in The Journal of Infectious Diseases (1996;2:155-6). Upon realising that they had failed in their acknowledgements – even though inadvertently – those authors immediately, and very properly, sent to the same Journal a ‘Letter to the Editor’, which says in part:

Gayle D. Scarrow had published a paper entitled “The Athenian Plague: A Possible Diagnosis” in The Ancient History Bulletin 2.1 (1988). Unfortunately, this had not come to our attention in our literature search, and therefore we assumed that we were the first to recognize the possibility. Clearly, Ms. Scarrow deserves credit for suggesting this first. Her arguments are compelling, even without the support of more recently available information and the observations advanced in our publication.

and in the big outside world, dear Voynicheros, integrity of that sort is what earns respect.

4. On interpretation of this imagery in pre-Islamic Arabia see e.g. Yoel Natan, Moon-o-theism, (2006) 2 vols. Vol.1 p.348.

5. see note 1, above .

6. Oribasius’ reference to Rufus and Plague in Oribasium Collectionum, 44.14.  The swollen lymph nodes may have suggested comparison to snake or scorpion poison; I cannot otherwise explain Oribasius’ reaction when he himself contracted plague.  According to John Paris, Oribasius “applied a ligature around the leg, under the ham, immersing it in warm water and then, after beating it with reeds to make it swell, made fine incisions (scarification) with a scalpel.”    We may suppose that traditional popular and religious associations already existed between the bird and plague, but any linguistic association is better ascribed to later influence.  Rufus referred to older works, by Dionysius the Hunchback (3rdC BC) and by Poseidonius and Dioscorides (1stC AD), but his reference to buboes is generally accepted as the first to ‘bubonic’ plague.  Doubts have been raised more recently as to whether Y.pestis was involved in those pre-medieval ‘plagues’.  See  e.g. Lester K. Little, Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (OUP, 2007). For more recent investigations see summaries online e.g. (2014)  the Crossrail discoveries in England or (2016) those in Marseilles and Germany.  Online, the only source I have found where Oribasius’ quotation from Rufus is quoted in the Greek was: John Ayrton Paris, Pharmacologia: Being an Extended Inquiry Into the Operations of Medicinal Bodies, Upon which are Founded the Theory and Art of Prescribing, Harper & Brothers, (1844) p.55.




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