On Aeschylus and tortoises

Bust of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

Many years ago I found myself teaching English in a secondary school in Bedfordshire.   I was required to teach Classical Myths (not sure why), and the story of the unfortunate death of Aeschylus (c. 525 BC – c. 456 BC) came up.  It always resonated with me that the father of Greek tragedy (most famous for his trilogy of plays about the family of Agamemnon, king of Argos, The Oresteia) was killed by a tortoise, dropped on him from a great height by a bird of prey that had mistaken his bald pate for a rock on which it intended to smash open the tortoise shell; recently I came across the story again on a great site called Interesting Literature.  I was unable for technological reasons to post a comment there, so here it is, slightly expanded.

On a website called QI Forum someone with the name ‘Flash’ posted a link to this, from Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book X, Chapter 3: ‘The Different Kinds of Eagles’; in this early encyclopaedia published c. 79 AD Pliny cites six different kinds of eagle, and has this to say about the third kind, which he calls ‘morphnos’ (which signifies ‘black’ in Greek):

The third is the morphnos, which Homer also calls the “perenos,” while others, again, call it the “plangus” and the “anataria;” it is the second in size and strength, and dwells in the vicinity of lakes… This eagle has the instinct to break the shell of the tortoise by letting it fall from aloft, a circumstance which caused the death of the poet Æschylus. An oracle, it is said, had predicted his death on that day by the fall of a house, upon which he took the precaution of trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens.

Naturalis Historia, 1669 edition, title page. The title reads: "Volume I of the Natural History of Gaius Plinius Secundus."

Naturalis Historia, 1669 edition, title page. The title reads: “Volume I of the Natural History of Gaius Plinius Secundus.”

It was always my understanding that the bird in question was a lammergeyer (or lammergeier) vulture, aka bearded or lamb vulture, Gypaetus barbatus, formerly known as ‘ossifrage’ – bonebreaker – because of its learned skill of dropping animal bones from a great height to smash them on the rocks below in order to get at the marrow.  (By the way the herb saxifrage gets its name from its alleged medicinal ability to cure kidney stones; its name signifies ‘stonebreaker’.)

Lammergeier vulture

Lammergeier vulture

Its closest living relative today is the Egyptian vulture.  Pliny’s vagueness about the families of vultures and eagles is reflected in the reference in some versions of the story of the death of Aeschylus to the bird which drops the tortoise (or turtle, when repeated by Americans) as an eagle.

Lammergeyers  live high above the tree line, over 2000 metres up, and subsist almost entirely on the marrow extracted from smashed bones of dead animals that they’ve scavenged as carrion; they tend not to eat flesh,  so unless the tortoise was already dead, it seems unlikely that this bird would have dropped a live one in order to smash its carapace with a view to eating its flesh.

The Pliny story seems to have been invented to make an ironic literary point about fate (a variation on the Oedipus legend about the futility of trying to avoid one’s destiny).

The story doesn’t reveal what happened to the tortoise…