Fan or Spy?

Photo by Olivia Kalachurska.

By Sultana Raza: Virginia Woolf used to say that she could hear birds speaking to her in ancient Greek when she was having one of her depressive episodes. She used to be incarcerated from time to time, because it’s supposed she suffered from bi-polar disorder. I couldn’t help wondering if some birds at least, didn’t understand certain words from ancient Greek. One evening, I was recording my play in verse, Everlasting Liar, on Orpheus. It’s my take on his story. Funnily enough, when I was recording Scene 9, in which the Stymphalian Birds figured prominently, a seagull swooped down, and perched on my balcony. And there it remained, listening avidly to what I was saying. I couldn’t help wondering if it had heard some proper nouns from ancient Greek such as: Orpheus, Stymphalian Birds, Sirens, the Argo, the Colchian Dragon, and so on.

I couldn’t help thinking of the passage from The Lord of the Rings, where the Crebain go searching for the Fellowship. In fact, there are many birds as spies in fantasy fiction, such as the Three-Eyed Raven, the, One-eyed Crow, or Varamyr Sixskins warging into an eagle in A Song of Ice and Fire, to mention a few. In real life, it’s said that if fewer than six ravens remain in the Tower of London, then the kingdom would come under threat.

The question is: was this particular seagull a spy sent by the Stymphalian Birds to listen to what I was saying about them? Because strangely enough, the three scenes during which it remained, had Stymphalian Birds in them. Or was it a fan of Orpheus and had come to listen to this new version of the story? Whatever the case may be, other feathered friends of Orpheus, such as the Sage Cigogne, the Silver Albatross, and the Royal Nightingale all play a significant part in my mythic fantasy. Was this seagull a friend or a foe of Orpheus? In any case, it perched there, listening very patiently to what I was saying through scenes 10 and 11. It even provided background noise to my play in verse. Just in case it turned out to be a spy, I didn’t read the passages about the Trojan Mer-folk from my poem, as there was no point in alerting this spy to their existence. You can decide for yourself whether it was a fan or a spy, though it remained pretty much expressionless throughout the reading.

Whatever the case may be, I left some rice for it on the balcony the next morning. Did the same seagull come the next morning? Because if it was a spy, it would have been wary of being poisoned by the innocent-looking grains of white rice. Whatever the case may have been, some other winged creatures had cleaned up the rice by next evening.


P.S. Don’t read or play my poems from Everlasting Lyre aloud on a balcony, or outdoors by the sea in case more spies in the form of sea birds come and listen to it, and inform the Stymphalian Birds about what’s going on in my story.

The sea-gull first showed up 1:40’ in this video:

Can you make out the expressions of the sea-gull in this scene:

Can you decipher what the sea-gull said in this scene:

Here’s the beginning of the Everlasting Lyre series:

Here’re some articles on birds in Fantasy:

BIO: Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s poems have appeared in 100+ journals/anthologies, with SFF work in Entropy, Columbia Journal, Star*line, Bewildering Stories, spillwords, Unlikely Stories Mark V, The Peacock Journal, Antipodean SF, impspiredInsignia StoriesWorld of Myth, Galaxy#2, and File770.

Her fiction received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review, and has been published in Knot Magazine, Coldnoon Journal, Entropy among others. She’s read her fiction/poems in Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the USA, and at WorldCon2018, and CoNZealand 2019.

Her creative non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications including the Literary Ladies Guide, Literary Yard, Litro, and impspired. An independent scholar, she has presented papers related to Romanticism and Fantasy in international conferences.

4 thoughts on “Fan or Spy?

  1. My favorite bird story is Crowley’s Ka, but crows and I have a history so I may be partial. I suspect some birds grok any human language, not only Greek.

    Thank you for the links!

  2. I got interested in the Stymphalian Birds via a reference in Shakespear, in Antony and Cleopatra, where she refers to him as “Thou Arabian Bird.” The director had no idea what Cleopatra meant, and treated the line as a comic non-sequitur: but following up, I found that Shakespear did know what he was talking about.

    Pouring through research I discovered that the Stymphalian Birds were a species of Arabian Crane that inhabited the swampy area of Stymphalia. (No swamps left now, I know because I went and checked. Also no cranes.)

    One does not normally think of cranes as a dangerous menace: but as it happens I once worked in an amusement park (with birds) where we had a couple of those Arabian cranes. They were chained (leg irons and heavy chains) on a small island, and the keepers fed them out of a bucket on a long pole so that they did not have to get close. I would guess that they stood about five feet tall. Their beaks were very broad at the base, tapering down to the point, and the edges of the beaks were serrated, like a saw: as close to teeth as one usually sees in a bird. Everybody who worked the park was warned not to try approaching the storks as they were vicious and extremely dangerous. The keepers kept their distance and the tour guides talked about how dangerous those birds were.

    This was a while before everybody tumbled to the idea that the big bipedal dinosaurs (like T-Rex) were ancestors of the birds, not lizards. I was noting recently the actual similarity between an actual Velociraptor and a Cassowary, which most zoo people consider the most dangerous bird in the world.

    Keeping all this in mind, it is not hard to see why the cultural memory preserves the Stymphalian Birds as a worthy adversary to Herakles

  3. Hi Brown Robin,
    Thanks for your comments. I agree with you about: ‘I suspect some birds grok any human language, not only Greek.’ Am glad you found the links to be useful.
    Happy interactions with the feathered species!

  4. Hi Jon DeCles,
    Thanks for this background info on the Stymphalian Birds, which I didn’t know about. In fact, in the Greek myths, they’re supposed to be made of metal, so they aren’t real birds at all. However, it’s interesting to know about these cranes that exist in real life too.

Comments are closed.