Friday, September 04, 2020

he will not meddle

". . . yonder over the glen soar the birds of prey, who are to feast on his young blood.—But I will see him once more," exclaimed the miserable parent, as the huge carrion vulture floated past him on the thick air,—

We're in the Swiss Alps, c. 1472. Philipson's son, inching along a precipice, has dislodged a gigantic boulder. He has luckily escaped death, but is scared out of his wits.  

An incident, in itself trifling, added to the distress occasioned by this alienation of his powers. All living things in the neighbourhood had, as might be supposed, been startled by the tremendous fall to which his progress had given occasion. Flights of owls, bats, and other birds of darkness, compelled to betake themselves to the air, had lost no time in returning into their bowers of ivy, or the harbour afforded them by the rifts and holes of the neighbouring rocks. One of this ill-omened flight chanced to be a lammer-geier, or Alpine vulture, a bird larger and more voracious than the eagle himself, and which Arthur had not been accustomed to see, or at least to look upon closely. With the instinct of most birds of prey, it is the custom of this creature, when gorged with food, to assume some station of inaccessible security, and there remain stationary and motionless for days together, till the work of digestion has been accomplished, and activity returns with the pressure of appetite. Disturbed from such a state of repose, one of these terrific birds had risen from the ravine to which the species gives its name, and having circled unwillingly round, with a ghastly scream and a flagging wing, it had sunk down upon the pinnacle of a crag, not four yards from the tree in which Arthur held his precarious station. Although still in some degree stupefied by torpor, it seemed encouraged by the motionless state of the young man to suppose him dead, or dying, and sat there and gazed at him, without displaying any of that apprehension which the fiercest animals usually entertain from the vicinity of man.
    As Arthur, endeavouring to shake off the incapacitating effects of his panic fear, raised his eyes to look gradually and cautiously around, he encountered those of the voracious and obscene bird, whose head and neck denuded of feathers, her eyes surrounded by an iris of an orange-tawny colour, and a position more horizontal than erect, distinguished her as much from the noble carriage and graceful proportions of the eagle, as those of the lion place him in the ranks of creation above the gaunt, ravenous, grisly, yet dastard wolf. 
    As if arrested by a charm, the eyes of young Philipson remained bent on this ill-omened and ill-favoured bird, without his having the power to remove them. The apprehension of dangers, ideal as well as real, weighed upon his weakened mind, disabled as it was by the circumstances of his situation. The near approach of a creature, not more loathsome to the human race than averse to come within their reach, seemed as ominous as it was unusual. Why did it gaze on him with such glaring earnestness, projecting its disgusting form, as if presently to alight upon his person? The foul bird, was she the demon of the place to which her name referred? and did she come to exult that an intruder on her haunts seemed involved amid their perils, with little hope or chance of deliverance? Or was it a native vulture of the rocks, whose sagacity foresaw that the rash traveller was soon destined to become its victim? Could the creature, whose senses are said to be so acute, argue from circumstances the stranger's approaching death, and wait, like a raven or hooded crow by a dying sheep, for the earliest opportunity to commence her ravenous banquet? Was he doomed to feel its beak and talons before his heart's blood should cease to beat? Had he already lost the dignity of humanity, the awe which the being formed in the image of his Maker inspires into all inferior creatures?
    Apprehensions so painful served more than all that reason could suggest to renew in some degree the elasticity of the young man's mind. By waving his handkerchief, using, however, the greatest precaution in his movements, he succeeded in scaring the vulture from his vicinity. It rose from its resting-place, screaming harshly and dolefully, and sailed on its expanded pinions to seek a place of more undisturbed repose, while the adventurous traveller felt a sensible pleasure at being relieved of its disgusting presence.

(Sir Walter Scott, Anne of Geierstein (1829), Ch 2)

Scott's natural history, in this case wholly derived from his library, was none too accurate. Scott and his hero, like other northern Europeans, believed that this "disgusting" bird (the Bearded Vulture, Gypaetus barbatus) fed on fresh carrion and even attacked livestock (hence the name "Lämmergeier" -- Lamb-Vulture). 

Sa'di of Shiraz knew better: 

One of the vizirs was displaced, and withdrew into a fraternity of dervishes, whose blessed society made its impression upon him and afforded consolation to his mind. The king was again favorably disposed towards him, and offered his reinstatement in office; but he consented not, and said, “With the wise it is deemed preferable to be out of office than to remain in place. — Such as sat within the cell of retirement blunted the teeth of dogs, and shut the mouths of mankind; they destroyed their writings, and broke their writing reeds, and escaped the lash and venom of the critics.” — The king answered: “At all events I require a prudent and able man, who is capable of managing the state affairs of my kingdom.” The ex-minister said: “The criterion, O sire, of a wise and competent man is that he will not meddle with such like matters. — The homayi, or phoenix, is honored above all other birds because it feeds on bones, and injures no living creature.” 

(Sa'di, Gulistan (1258), Chapter I, section 15)

In medieval Persia the homa (Bearded Vulture) was a bird of good omen. It was bad luck to kill it, and good luck if you were crossed by its shadow. 

It specializes in processing bones (especially of large ungulates) and gains nearly all its nutrition from bone marrow. It requires vast, arid, and normally mountainous terrain. 

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

[Image source: . Photograph by Sonja Krueger.]

Valerius Maximus (fl. early 1st century CE) recounted this legend of the death of Aeschylus in Sicily, 458 BCE):

Aeschylus did not meet a willing death, but it is worth mentioning because of its novelty. As he was leaving the walls where he was staying in Italy, he stopped in a sunny spot. An eagle who was flying above him carrying a tortoise was tricked by his shining skull—for he had no hair—and it dropped it on him as if he were a stone so that it might eat the flesh from the broken shell. By that strike, the origin and font of a better type of tragedy was extinct.

(Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium, IX. 12)

Probably this story was based on observations of Bearded Vultures, who commonly drop heavy bones (and sometimes tortoises) from great heights. 

As a result of such prejudicial attitudes as Scott registers, the species was much persecuted and had become extinct in the Alps by the early twentieth century, though it still survived in the Pyrenees. (Since 1987 it has been successfully reintroduced to the Alps.)

Gypaetus barbatus is native to large parts of Asia, Africa and Europe but individuals are few and the species is increasingly under threat. In some places farmers apply poison to animal corpses in the hope of killing the predators of their stock; instead they kill the innocent vultures. 


More information in this lively article by Matt Simon:

In July 2020, a Bearded Vulture set up temporary home on a cliff edge in the Peak District:

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