Adrienne Mayor on Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws

Adrienne Mayor on Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws

By Adrienne Mayor

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Adrienne Mayor is renowned for exploring the borders of history, science, archaeology, anthropology, and popular knowledge to find historical realities and scientific insights—glimmering, long-buried nuggets of truth—embedded in myth, legends, and folklore. Combing through ancient texts and obscure sources, she has spent decades prospecting for intriguing wonders and marvels, historical mysteries, diverting anecdotes, and hidden gems from ancient, medieval, and modern times. Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws is a treasury of fifty of her most amazing and amusing discoveries.

What is in store for the reader of Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws?

AM: As a historian of ancient science, I explore the borders of history, archaeology, anthropology, science, and mythology, ferreting out germs of truth embedded in legends and popular lore. These essays reflect my research over the years, combing through old texts and arcane sources for intriguing wonders and marvels, historical mysteries, diverting anecdotes, and hidden gems from antiquity, medieval, and modern times.

This cabinet of curiosities is divided into tales of Animals Fabulous, Real, and Extinct; Curious History and Science; Formidable Women; and Travelers, Tattoos, and Tyrants, and it holds answers to a host of fascinating questions. How did mirages inspire legends of castles in the sky? What were the fabled flying serpents of ancient Egypt? How did Cleopatra trick Marc Antony in a fishing contest? Why do dolphins rescue drowning sailors? How did ghost ships lead to the discovery of the Atlantic Gulf Stream? What do fragrances inspired by Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and Alexander the Great’s favorite horse actually smell like and does anyone really wear them? What were the beauty secrets of ancient Amazons? What accounts for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sea serpent and Geronimo’s dragon? Why did a pair of vultures become the mascots of a Roman army? How did both Charlemagne and Saint Cuthbert come to possess Griffin claws?

You’re known for sifting through myths and legends, like a prospector, searching for nuggets of historical truth and scientific insights. Can you give an idea of what your research is like?

AM: One of my ancient heroes and guides is Herodotus, the insatiably curious Greek historian who traveled to exotic lands, interviewing local people about their histories and strange customs; his accounts captivated the Athenians of the fifth century BC. Herodotus kept an open mind and sometimes expressed skepticism, but he could never let a good story go untold. I’ve always been drawn to the dusty corners of literature, art, and history. Whenever I come across extraordinary or inexplicable details in ancient writings I begin a file, like a cold-case detective. My files are unruly thickets of random information that might one day yield patterns.

Because so much literature and art from classical antiquity is lost and what survives is patchy, it often feels like my research landscape is shrouded in mist, with twisting paths, but sudden spells of sunlight beckon one on. Sometimes I follow footprints of previous explorers, but other times no traces or blazes point the way. This is my favorite sort of territory, best described with the medieval word march, “edge or boundary.” Marches are borderlands between realms. In these in-between lands—the marcher zones of myth, science, and history—one is free to explore, make footholds, devise one’s own maps.

I hope readers find pleasure in browsing my souvenirs from the marches, such wonderful hunting grounds for the study of human curiosity.

How did you select essays for this book?

AM: I expect readers will dip in and read the essays in any order that piques their interest. Taken together, recurrent themes emerge and I think the essays could serve as dots for tracing my thinking about the intersections of ancient and modern popular lore, nature, history, and science. Some essays are new for this book, and some expand on one-paragraph contributions to Wonders and Marvels, the history of science website. Some essays dive more deeply into topics that caught my interest when writing my earlier books. Others are revised, updated pieces written for a range of journals and magazines, from Military History Quarterly, Sea Frontiers, and Sports Afield to Archaeology and London Review of Books. I can promise readers a colorful, eclectic, even eccentric, selection of subjects.

How did you choose illustrations for such diverse topics, from flying snakes, sea monsters, and poison birds to the first foot fetishist and death by toxic honey and bull’s blood?

AM: To my delight, Chris Ferrante designed the cover with a charming medieval illustration of a Flying Snake. The drawings of Egyptian winged serpents, the precious Golden Fleece, a gnarly mammoth tooth discovered by enslaved Africans on a plantation, Scythian male and female archers and their tattoos of fantastic creatures, the Amazon of Argos, a New York culture vulture in her risqué champagne-goblet gown, the rugged profile of the giant Roman emperor Maximinus, and the Roman legion’s vulture mascots are the work of my talented sister Michele Angel, a graphic artist. When I asked Michele to draw the two vultures with bronze collars, she asked, “Which species?” I’d overlooked that logical question! By rereading Plutarch’s account and researching raptors, I finally narrowed them down to a mated pair of cinereous vultures.

Other drawings are my own: Roman soldiers buying souvenirs in Athens, the Roman tourist Pausanias in his horse cart, vintage sunglasses for a Grand Tour, a portrait of Socrates, Apollo with his lyre, a naughty girl with a turtle yo-yo, prancing Griffins, my ferret Denise, and the Ape of Pikermi.

It was fun locating other illustrations in obscure archives and museums, such as Saint Cuthbert’s magnificent Griffin Claw, a fearsome dinosaur-dragon from Wagner’s opera, old engravings of polar mirages and ghost ships, troves of phony fossils, huge footprints sunk in stone by the Magic Rhinoceros of Chinese myth, the elaborate tomb of King Midas of the Golden Touch, an ancient Greek vase shaped like a foot, and another shaped like a breast for the essay tracing the racy relationship between wine goblets and bosoms from Helen of Troy and Marie Antoinette to the present.

Adrienne Mayor’s books include The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (all Princeton). She is a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford University.