The Swan and Meleagris

The supposed displacement of Sardinia to a point about 250 north of parallel 3600N was understood to have affected Liguria. It would seem that the northward curvature of the Ligurian coast was explained by a general displacement to the north of 250 along the meridian. Meridian 824E cuts the coast of Italy in Liguria, near the present town of Noli (4412N, 825E), close to Capo di Vado (4415N, 827E). This was the location of the Roman city of Vada Sabatia; in Latin vada means “fords.”1 Capo Spartivento, the southern limit of Sardinia, is 250 north of the ideal southern limit of Europe. From the extreme southern limit of Corsica at Cap Pertusato (4122N) to the point Vada Sabatia (4412N) there is a difference of 250 of latitude. Luzern (4703N) is 250 north of the coast of Liguria. All this is related to the fundamental geographical displacement along the meridian, the displacement by which the sources of the Danube which should be at latitude 4500N (or 4512N) are instead at latitude 4754N.

The issue of the displacement of the latitudes from their ideal positions along meridian 824E is reflected in the myth of Cygnus as narrated by Ovid (Metam. II, 367-380). This myth provided a convenient mnemonic formula for important latitudes. The poet relates first the myth of Phaethon who was made to fall from the chariot of the Sun at the extreme west, that is, on meridian 824E at the sources of the Eridanos, which I shall show is the river Reuss. Around the place where Phaethon fell there are the Heliades or Daughters of the Sun, who, changed into trees, weep the fate of their brother Phaethon. The Heliades represent the sources of the main rivers of Europe which cluster together in this area. After concluding the episode of Phaethon and the Heliades, Ovid continues his narrative by relating how Cygnus, king of Liguria, having witnessed the accident of Phaethon, left his kingdom to weep for him amidst the woods of which the Heliades are a part and “along the green banks of the river Eridanos.” Because of his immoderate weeping Cygnus becomes a swan, “whose favorite haunts are still pools and spreading lakes.” This means that from the sources of the Eridanos or Reuss, Cygnus followed the course of this river which moves north along meridian 824E to form the lake of the Four Cantons. The river leaves the lake at Luzern, 250 north of the latitude of Vada Sabatia. The course of the Reuss runs north from the place of the accident of Phaethon. In another part of the Metamorphoses (XII 581) Ovid follows a different version of the myth according to which it was the body of Phaethon that was turned into a swan after the catastrophe.

The story of Phaethon may also refer to the fact that today one of the sights of Luzern is the swans that fill the area around the point where the river Reuss has its outlet from the Lake of the Four Cantons. From the words of Ovid we learn that the swans were there also in ancient times. The area where the swans are is that which joins the two parts of the modern city of Luzern, an area that may have been considered a ford like its counterpart in Liguria.

Today the visitor of Luzern is instructed by the tourist guide to observe not only the swans, but also the several kinds of coots that teem in the same area. These birds may be connected with the myth of the meleagris.

The geographer Strabo, after mentioning Mount Adulas which is the source of the Reuss, shifts his attention to the related topic of the outlet of the Danube or Istros into the Adriatic Sea in the area called Istria. Since he does not understand and does not like mathematical geography, he declares (V,1,9):

One must put aside many of the mythical or false accounts such as those of Phaethon and of the Heliades changed into black poplars near the Eridanos (a river that does not exist anywhere on earth, although it is said to be near the Po), and of the Islands of Amber that lie off the Po, and of the guinea-fowl on them, because none of these exist in this area.

Later I will explain that since the line of the Reuss when extended north along meridian 824E cuts the mouth of the river Elbe and was understood to mark the western coast of the peninsula of Jutland, that is, the area from which amber was exported south through Europe, mythology told that amber originated from the resin secreted by the weeping Heliades turned into trees and was carried downstream by the Eridanos or Reuss. Strabo, since he did not understand this information correctly, searched for amber and guineafowl at the mouth of the Po. Amber was actually found at the mouth of the Elbe which was conceived as a continuation of the Reuss.

The bird that Strabo calls meleagris is the helmeted guinea-hen (Numida galeata) whose habitat is the grasslands and the open fields between the southern edge of the Sahara and the Gulf of Guinea, that is, the area where meridian 824E was conceived as originating. In classical times these guineafowl occurred as domestic animals in Greece where they were kept as sacred

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unravel the confusion by classifying the family of the meleagris as Numididae and the family of the turkey as Meleagrides.

Specialists of Greek linguistics agree that meleagris is a Greek rendering of a foreign name, but have not made any serious effort to trace this foreign name. The evidence impels one to search amidst African languages. The search is not difficult since the Ful word for “cock” is gori with the plural goridi. The first part of the Greek term may be explained with less certainty. I would suggest considering the Ful word metetol, “turban,” because the main characteristic of the meleagris is that by which it is known as a helmeted guinea-fowl (Numida galeata). Pliny defines the meleagrides as follows: Africae hoc est gallinarum genus gibberum, “This is a sort of chicken from Africa with a hump.”

The meleagris was considered the symbol of meridian 824E. Pliny (X,38,74) describes the meleagris as a hen from Africa and describes it as a migratory bird, which she is not. Then he compares it with some migratory birds which each year fly from Ethiopia to Troy, engaging in a cock fight both at the palace of King Memnon in Ethiopia and at his tomb at Troy. It appears that these birds symbolized meridian 2950E, which was understood to pass through Troy (the trade route corresponding to meridian 2950E did in fact pass through Troy). Meridians 824E and meridian 2950E were the two limits of the world west of Egypt, Africa and Europe, and were represented respectively by the helmeted guineafowl called meleagris and by the birds called Memnonides.

Because Troy is on the eastern meridian, Ovid presents Aurora (Dawn) as supporting the Trojans (XIII 576). Ovid continues (578-622) by relating that a son of Aurora, Memnon (whom the Greeks usually describe as a king of Egypt), was slain by Achilles at Troy. Aurora causes her son to be reborn from the ashes of the funeral pyre, as a bird. Each year, at the summer solstice, the birds called Memnonides fly to the tomb of Memnon at Troy, after having made three circles around it, they engage in a cock fight in which they die again. They fall into the ashes to be reborn again the following year. The myth indicates that these birds represent the yearly death of the Sun when it reaches its highest point at the border between Egypt and Ethiopia, where there intersect the three circles of the meridian, of the Ecliptic, and of the Tropic. This point is the counterpart of the Island of the Gorgones on meridian 824E, where there is the intersection of the Ecliptic with the Equator and the meridian.

In substance the meleagrides represent the intersection of the Ecliptic with the Equator and the meridian, whereas the Memnonides represent the intersection of the Ecliptic with the Tropic and the meridian. The cockfight around the tombstone probably expresses the idea that normally an omphalos, which is a benchmark but is often compared to a tombstone, is conceived as surmounted by two birds that represent the meridian and the parallel; but when there are three geographic lines intersecting each other there is a cockfight. I have explained how the bullfight is connected with the intersection of the Ecliptic with the basic meridian and with either the Equator or the Tropic; now, I must call to attention that the evidence suggests that the cockfight has a similar ritualistic origin. Pliny (X, 25, 50) makes reference to cockfights in this form: “At Pergamon each year there is publicly organized a show of cocks fighting like a show of gladiators.”

In Ovid the episode of the birds Memnonides provides the transition necessary to introduce (XIII 623) the lengthy account of the migration of Aeneas from Troy to Italy. Aeneas is the hero whose peregrinations link meridian 2950E with the related meridian 824E.

According to mythology the meleagrides were the sisters of Meleagros. He is a figure that embodies meridian 824E. He has some similarity with Phaethon: the latter dies put on fire by his father, whereas the former dies put on fire by his mother. The greatest enterprise of Meleagros was the killing of the Kalydonian boar. Ovid describes this killing in terms that fit the description of a modern bullfight (VIII, 341-424). In speaking of the Kalydonian boar, Ovid has so much a bull in mind that he specifies that this boar has the same size as the bulls of Epiros and is larger than the bulls of Sicily (VII, 282-283). This wavering between the image of the bull and that of the boar, is to be explained by the fact that the point where the Ecliptic intersects either with the Equator or with the tropic was conceived as placed between two horns or two tusks. The animal to which these two horns or tusks belong is described either as a bull or as a boar or as an elephant. The point delimited by these two projections was conceived as the point between the two horns of the constellation of Taurus, the point where the Ecliptic used to intersect with the Equator and the Milky Way, as the basic meridian of the sky. On Earth the corresponding point is the Island of the Gorgones on meridian 824E. When the bullfighter faces death by planting the sword between the two horns, he performs what the ancients called looking the Gorgones in the face. It is only by extension that the same geographical characteristics were ascribed to the intersection of the Ecliptic with the Tropic and the meridian at the southern limit of Egypt.

Meleagros, having killed the boar, gets the hand of Atalanta, who had been the first to plant an arrow into the boar. But, at this point Meleagros quarrels about Atalanta with the two brothers of his mother and kills them. His mother avenges her brothers by putting him on fire. As a result, Meleagros sisters, the Meleagrides, by weeping inordinately over his tomb, are changed into guineahens. This myth is connected with the fact that the Ecliptic was understood to intersect with the Tropic and the basic meridian in Egypt and to intersect with the Equator and another basic meridian in the area called Atlas or Atlantis. The myth seems to say that Meleagros by moving west (leaving the Egyptian meridian represented by his mother) and hitting the boar, got control of the meridian of Atlantis and came into contact with the Ecliptic and the Equator. Meleagros died much like Phaethon and his sisters weep inordinately over his tomb as the sisters of Phaethon weep inordinately over the tomb of Phaethon. Because of all the weeping the sisters of Phaethon were changed into trees at the sources of the Eridanos, whereas the sisters of Meleagros were changed into the bird meleagris, “guineahen,” living along the course of the Eridanos.

Since the meleagrides were a symbol of meridian 824E, they were expected to be found along this meridian. They may or may not have existed in Numidia as Roman authors indicate. Since they were expected to be found along the banks of the Eridanos, they may have been identified with waterfowl of some sort, whereas they are not waterfowl. Possibly they were identified with the coots of Luzern. The coots are waterfowl, but modern classifications place them near the meleagris.

In Pliny there is the following entry (X,67,132):

In the Hercynian Forest of Germany, as we hear, there are unusual kinds of birds whose feathers shine like fires at night; in other forests [of Germany] nothing worthy of mention occurs except that they got a reputation for extending into a far distance. The phalaris, a water bird, in Parthian Seleucia and in Asia is most celebrated; and so is the pheasant in Colchis (it can lower and lift its two hears (?) made of feathers), and the Numidian bird (Numidica) in the part of Africa called Numidia. All these birds are now found in Italy.

It is remarkable that in this aperçu of ornithological geography, Pliny puts together the meleagrides with the birds of the Hercynian Forest. Later I will explain that the term Hercynian Forest originally meant the mountain which the great rivers of Europe originate on meridian 824E. Plinys information could have been taken from a commentary on the Argonautica in which the ship Argo goes from Colchis to the Hercynian Rock, moving along parallel 4500N, displaced by 250 to the north on meridian 824E, and then descends along meridian 824E to the Gulf of Guinea. It is remarkable that together with the birds of the Hercynian Forest and the meleagrides, Pliny mentions the phalaris, which is the common coot of Europe (Fulica atra), so called by the Greeks because it has a bald white spot on the head which was compared to the metal boss, phalaris, of a helmet.


  1. Possibly the intersection point was reckoned as placed exactly 1 south of the basic latitude 4512N, the latitude of the Po-Istros. Pliny (VI,19,132), in calculating the width of northern Italy, counts the first lap from the border between Gallia and Italia, near Nice, to Vada Sabatia, and then shifts north, counting along the line of the Po river to the supposed opening of the Istros river into the Adriatic Sea. This indicates that, having moved along the coast from the border to Vada Sabatia, he followed the meridian to reach the line of the Po.