Beware of Birds in Homeric Poetry

Heroes in Homeric poetry need to make contact with gods and goddesses. They like to be reassured by them or they fear them and beg.

In the following passage, Pallas Athena sends an encouraging message to Odysseus before he goes as a spy to the night ambush. She sends a heron and when Odysseus hears its cry, he prays. It’s a moving scene.

When the pair [=Diomedes and Odysseus] had armed, they set out, and left the other chieftains behind them. Pallas Athena [275] sent them a heron [erōdios] by the wayside upon their right hands; they could not see it for the darkness, but they heard its cry. Odysseus was glad when he heard it and prayed to Athena: “Hear me,” he cried, “daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus, you who spy out all my ways and who are with me in all my hardships [ponoi]; [280] befriend me in this my hour, and grant that we may return to the ships covered with glory after having achieved some mighty exploit that shall bring sorrow to the Trojans.

Iliad 10.274–283, adapted from Sourcebook

Heron shaped vassel
Greece, Milesian, Eastern province, 6th Century BC – Heron Aryballos

Gods like to take the shape of a bird. Sometimes they want to be seen by the mortals, sometimes by other gods.

Here Sleep halted, and before Zeus caught sight of him, he climbed a lofty pine-tree [elatē]—the tallest that reared its head towards heaven on all Ida. He hid himself behind the branches and sat there [290] in the semblance of the sweet-singing [liguros] bird [ornis] that haunts the mountains and is called Khalkis by the gods, but men call it Kymindis.

Iliad 14.286–291 from Sourcebook

In the Homeric Odyssey, Athena takes the shape of a swallow and of a bird of prey.

“ … Come on, my good man, stand by my side and see how Mentor, son of Alkinoos, shall fight your foes [235] and requite your kindnesses conferred upon him.” But she would not give him full victory as yet, for she wished still further to prove his own prowess and that of his brave son, [240] so she flew up [anaíssein] to one of the rafters in the roof of the hall and sat upon it in the form of a swallow [khelidōn].

Odyssey 22.233–240, adapted from Sourcebook

jug painted with a swallow
Pottery jug painting swallows 1700–1650 BCE

When Athena was in the presence of Nestor, she decides an eagle would be more impressive. Still in the guise of Mentor, she takes her departure from the group:

[365] “… I must return to the ship and sleep there. Moreover tomorrow I must go to the great-hearted Kaukones where I have a large sum of wealth long owed to me. As for Telemachus, now that he is your guest, send him to Lacedaemon in a chariot, and let one of your sons go with him. Be pleased also to provide him with [370] your best and fleetest horses.” When gleaming-eyed [glaukōpis] Athena had thus spoken, she flew away in the form of a sea-eagle [phēnē], and all marveled as they beheld it.

Odyssey 3.365–372, from Sourcebook

Oil Bottle with a bird possibly eagle
Oil Bottle/Alabastron from Corinth 600 BCE

There are several similes involving birds, for example in this one describing the Achaeans gathering for battle:

They were like great flocks [460] of birds [ornis], geese [khēn], or cranes [geranos], or swans [kuknos] on the plain about the waters of Cayster, that fly their way here and there [potaomai], glorying in their wings [pterux], and crying as they settle till the fen is alive with their screaming. Even thus did their tribes pour from ships and tents [465] on to the plain of the Skamandros…

Iliad 2.459–465, adapted from Sourcebook

In another, Hector is compared to an eagle:

[690] but as a dun eagle [aietos] swoops down upon a flock of winged [peteinos] birds [ornis] feeding near a river—geese [khēn], it may be, or cranes [geranos], or long-necked swans [kuknos]—even so did Hector make straight for a dark-prowed ship, rushing right towards it; [695] for Zeus with his mighty hand impelled him forward, and roused his people to follow him.

Iliad 15.690–695, adapted from Sourcebook

cup with a bird on it
Cup with birds, c 550 BCE. Thebes.

Snake and eagles: Zeus might be around!

[200] for they had seen a bird-omen [ornis] from the gods when they had essayed to cross it—a soaring [hupsipetēs] eagle [aeitos] skirting the left wing of their army of warriors, with a monstrous blood-red snake in its talons [onux] still alive and struggling to escape. The snake was still bent on revenge, wriggling and twisting itself backwards till it struck the bird that held it, [205] on the neck and breast; whereon the bird being in pain, let it fall, dropping it into the middle of the army of warriors, and then flew [petasthai] down the wind with a sharp cry. The Trojans were struck with terror when they saw the snake, portent [teras] of aegis-bearing Zeus, writhing in the midst of them.

Iliad 12.200–209, adapted from Sourcebook

Zeus with eagle
Zeus with eagle. Tondo from a black-figured Laconian cup, c 560 BCE. Louvre, Paris

When Agamemnon tries to urge the Achaeans to fight and prays to Zeus, the god shows his support by sending a clear omen; mysteriously they understand that it is from Zeus.

[245] Thus did he pray, and father Zeus pitying his tears granted that his people should live, not die; right away he sent them an eagle [aietos], most unfailingly portentous of all birds [peteinos], with a young fawn in its talons [onux]; it dropped the fawn by the altar [250] on which the Achaeans sacrificed to Zeus, the lord of omens. When, therefore, the people saw that the bird [ornis] had come from Zeus, they sprang more fiercely upon the Trojans and fought more boldly.

Iliad 8.245–254 from Sourcebook

Signs from the gods can also occur in dreams, although it is not clear whether this dream of Penelope  dream came from the gods or whether she is testing her visitor when she recounts it to the “beggar” (Odysseus in disguise):

[535] Come, respond [hupo-krinesthai] to my dream [oneiros], and hear my telling of it and interpret it [= make a hupo‑krisis of it] for me if you can. I have twenty geese [khēn] about the house that eat mash out of a trough, and of which I am exceedingly fond. I dreamed that a great eagle [aeitos] came swooping down from a mountain, and dug his curved beak [angulokheilēs] into the neck of each of them till he had killed them all. Presently he soared off [aeirein] into the sky, [540] and left them lying dead about the yard; whereon I wept in my room although it was a dream [oneiros] till all my fair-haired maids gathered round me, so piteously was I grieving because the eagle [aietos] had killed my geese [khēn]. Then he came back again, and perching on a projecting [545] rafter spoke to me with human voice, and told me to leave off crying. ‘Be of good courage,’ he said, ‘daughter of far-famed Ikarios; this is no dream [onar], but a vision of good omen that shall surely come to pass. The geese [khēn] are the suitors, and I am no longer an eagle [aietos], a bird [ornis], but your own husband, who am come back to you, [550] and who will bring these suitors to a disgraceful end.’ Then I woke, and when I looked out I saw my geese [khēn] at the trough eating their mash as usual.”

[555] “This dream, my Lady,” replied resourceful Odysseus, “can admit but of one interpretation [hupo‑krisis], for had not Odysseus himself told you how it shall be fulfilled? The death of the suitors is portended, and not one single one of them will escape.”

Odyssey 19 535–559, adapted from Sourcebook

Vase painting: woman and goose
Red-figured pelike. c 470–460 BCE © The Trustees of the British Museum

Achilles uses real pigeons for the Funeral games in a cruel game for the birds.

[850] Achilles next offered a prize of iron for archery—ten double-edged axes and ten with single eddies: he set up a ship’s mast, some way off upon the sands, and with a fine string tied a pigeon [peleia] to it by the foot; this was what they were to aim at. [855] “Whoever,” he said, “can hit the pigeon [peleia] shall have all the axes and take them away with him; he who hits the string without hitting the bird [ornis] will have taken a worse aim and shall have the single-edged axes.”

Iliad 23.850–860 from Sourcebook

There are many examples of how birds are depicted in Homeric poetry. Please visit the Forums and share your examples.

Selected vocabulary

Definitions based on those in Autenrieth and LSJ:

aeírein / aírein [ἀείρω / αἴρω] to raise up, lift; rise up, soar
aietós [αἰετός, αἰετοῦ, ὁ] eagle
anaíssein [ἀν-αίσσω] to dart up, spring up
angulokheílēs [ἀγκυλο-χείλης] with crooked/hooked beak

erōdiós [ἐρῳδιός , ὁ] heron

géranos [γέρανος, γεράνου, ἡ] crane
glaukōpis [γλαυκ-ῶπις , γλαυκώπιδος, ἡ] gleaming-eyed; (also interpreted as ‘with the looks of an owl’, from glaúx [γλαύξ])

hupsipétēs [ὑψι-πέτης] high-flying, soaring

khelidōn [χελιδών , χελιδόνος, ἡ] swallow
khēn [χήν, χηνός, ἡ] goose
kúknos [κύκνος, κύκνου, ὁ] swan

ligurós [λιγυρός, λιγυρή, λιγυρόν] adj. clear-toned, whistling, piping

ónux [ὄνυξ, ὄνυχος, ὁ] claw, talon (in Homer always plural and of an eagle]
órnis [ὄρνις , ὀρνῖθος, ὁ] bird, bird of omen

péleia [πέλεια, πελείας, ἡ] wild dove, pigeon
peteinós [πετεινός , πετεινή, πετεινόν] adj., or noun, able to fly, fully fledged, winged
pétasthai / pétesthai [πέτομαι] to fly
phēnē [φήνη, φήνας, ἡ] sea – eagle, osprey; a kind of vulture, perhaps lammergeyer
potáomai / potéomai [ποτάομαι / ποτέομαι] to flit, fly here and there
ptérux [πτέρυξ, πτέρυγος, ἡ] wing, pinion


The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook: Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English. Gregory Nagy. 2013.

Sourcebook: Homeric Iliad Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power.
Online in the Kosmos Society Text Library

Sourcebook: Homeric Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power.
Online in the Kosmos Society Text Library

Georg Autenrieth. 1891. A Homeric Dictionary for Schools and Colleges. New York. Harper and Brothers.
Online at Perseus

Liddell, Henry George, and Scott, Robert. A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie. 1940. Oxford. Clarendon Press.
Online at Perseus

Image Credits

Heron Aryballos via Wikimedia Public Domain

Pottery jug painting  swallows via Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Alabastron, Photo: David Jackson via Wikimedia  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales

Cup bird via Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Zeus with eagle  Naucratis Painter via Wikimedia Public Domain

Woman and goose, red-figured pelike, c 470–460 BCE
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Images accessed April 2023


Hélène Emeriaud, Janet M. Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott are members of Kosmos Society