Philobiblon: First crush your mistletoe berries ...

Monday, October 25, 2004

First crush your mistletoe berries ...

I learn from the notes on my copy of Aesop's Fables that the ancient Greeks caught birds with ixos ("birdlime"), a sticky substance usually made from crushed mistletoe berries, or sometimes from oak-gum or similar. This was spread on branches, on the theory that a bird would then land on them and be caught. (The method is still employed today in mouse and rat-trapping paper sheets they sell in shops in Britain, although the thought of dealing with the trapped rodents ... ugghh!)

But it is hard to imagine this method of bird-catching working; you could smear a lot of paste around without a bird landing anywhere near it. Presumably you'd have to lure them with some food, but surely it would be an obvious trap?

Still, it appears in several of the fables, so it must have been common enough.

eg. Fable 137 (p. 103)
The Bird-catcher and the Asp
A bird-catcher took his snare and birdlime and went out to do some hunting. He spotted a thrush on a tall tree and decided to try and catch it. So, having arranged his [sticky] twigs one on top of the other, he concentrated his attention upwards. While he was gazing thus he didn't see that he had trodden on a sleeping asp, which turned on him and bit him. ... [He dies.]

Fable 242 (p. 178)
The Ant and the Pigeon
A thirsty ant went down to a spring to drink but was caught by the flow of water coming from it and was about to be swept away. Seeing this, a pigeon broke a twig from a nearby tree and threw it into the water. The any clambered on to it and was saved.
While this was going on, a fowler came along with his limed twigs ready to catch the pigeon. The ant saw what was happening and bit the man's foot, so that the pain made him suddenly throw down the twigs, and the pigeon flew off. ... [Motto: One good turn deserves another.]

Those hunters seem to have been a clumsy lot.

From: Aesop: The Complete Fables, O. and R. Temple (trans), Penguin, 1998.
Also the subject of a previous post, here.


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