The strix (plural striges or strixes), in the mythology of classical antiquity, was a bird of ill omen, the product of metamorphosis, that fed on human flesh and blood. It also referred to witches and related malevolent folkloric beings.
The strix is described as a large-headed bird with transfixed eyes, rapacious beak, greyish white wings,[a] and hooked claws in Ovid's Fasti. This is the only thorough description of the strix in Classical literature. Elsewhere, it is described as being dark-colored.
The strīx (στρίξ,στριγός)[b] was a nocturnally crying creature which positioned its feet upwards and head below, according to a pre-300 BC Greek origin myth.[c] It is probably meant to be (and translated as) an owl, but is highly suggestive of a bat which hangs upside-down.
The strix in later folklore was a bird which squirted milk upon the lips of (human) infants. Pliny in his Natural History dismissed this as nonsense[d][e] and remarked it was impossible to establish what bird was meant by this.[f] The same habit, where the strix lactates foul-smelling milk onto an infant's lips is mentioned by Titinius, who noted the placement of garlic on the infant was the prescribed amulet to ward against it.
In the case of Ovid's striges, they threatened to do more harm than that. They were said to disembowel an infant and feed on its blood. Ovid allows the possibilities of the striges being birds of nature, or products of magic, or transformations by witches using magical incantations.
Classical tales of bloodthirstiness
Greek origin myth
According to Antoninus Liberalis's Metamorphoses, the strīx (στρίξ)[b] was a metamorphosis of Polyphonte; she and her bear-like sons Agrios and Oreios were transformed into birds as punishment for their cannibalism. Here the strix is described as (a bird) "that cries by night, without food or drink, with head below and tips of feet above, a harbinger of war and civil strife to men".
The tale only survives in the form as recorded by Antonius who flourished 100–300 AD, but it preserved an older tale from the lost Ornithologia by Boios, dated to before the end of 4th century BC.
In this Greek myth, the ill-omened strīx herself did not perpetrate harm on humans. But one paper suggests guilt by association with her sons, and seeks to reconstruct an ancient Greek belief in the man-eating strīx dating back to this age (4th century BC). In an opposing view, one study failed to find the ancient Greeks subscribing to the strīx as a "terror" to mankind, but noted a widespread belief in Italy that it was a "bloodthirsty monster in bird form." This study surmises that the Greeks later borrowed the concept of strix as witches, a concept articulated in Ovid, and one scholar estimates the Greeks adopted the strix as "child-murdering horrors" by the "last centuries BC". The modern Greek form στρίγλα may betray an influence of a Latin diminutive strigula.
Early passing reference in Latin
The first Latin allusion is in Plautus' comedy Pseudolus dated to 191 BC, in which an inferior cook's cuisine is metaphorized as the striges ("vampyre owls") devouring the diners' gastrointestinal organs while still alive, and shortening their lifespan. Commentators point to this as attestation that the striges were regarded as man-eating (anthropophagism).[g]
Ovid's account of striges attack
In Ovid's Fasti (8 AD), the striges targeted legendary king Procas in his cradle.[h] The assault was detected and interrupted but left the infant with scars on his cheeks and discoloration of his complexion. A ritual to keep the striges away from the newborn prince was subsequently performed by the nymph Cranae (or goddess Carna), who owned a wand of whitethorn, (spina) given to her by Janus, which could expel evil from all doors.[i]
Petronius's novel Satyricon (late 1st century AD) includes a tale told by the character Trimalchio, describing the striges that snatched away the body of a boy who had already died, substituting a straw doll. The striges made their presence known by their scream, and a manservant attending to the intrusion discovered a woman and ran her through with a sword so that she groaned, but his whole body turned livid and would die a few days later.
Pliny's comment that "[strix]...employed in maledictions" signified that its name invoked in "potent" magic curses according to one interpretation, but it may have only been used as curse-word, reflecting its regard as an accursed creature.
There are several examples of the strix's plumage, etc., said to be used as an ingredient in magic. Horace in his Epodes, wrote that the strix's feathers are an ingredient in a love potion, as has his contemporary Propertius. Medea's rejuvenating concoction which she boiled in a cauldron used a long list of ingredients, including the strix's wings.
The striges also came to mean "witches". One paper speculates that this meaning is as old as the 4th century BC, on the basis that in the origin myth of Boios, various names[j] can be connected to the Macedonia-Thrace region well known for witches. But more concrete examples occur in Ovid's Fasti (early 1st century AD) where the striges as transformations of hags is offered as one possible explanation, and Sextus Pompeius Festus (fl. late 2nd century) glossed as "women who practice witchcraft" "(maleficis mulieribus)" or "flying women" ("witches" by transference)
There are striges, vultures, and bubo owls which cry in the marshes in Hades, by the edge of Tartarus according to Seneca the Younger's tragedy Hercules Furens. Also, according to the legend of Otus and Ephialtes, they were punished in Hades by being tied to a pillar with snakes, with a strix perched on that column.
The legend of the strix survived into the Middle Ages, as recorded in Isidore's Etymologiae. In the 7th–8th century John of Damascus equated the stiriges (Greek plural: Greek: στρίγγαι, Στρῦγγαι) with the gelloudes (pl. of gelllo) in his entry Perī Stryggōn Greek: περί Στρυγγῶν). He wrote that they sometimes had corporeal bodies and wore clothing, and sometimes appeared as spirits.
Modern derived terms
The Latin term striga in both name and sense as defined by Medieval lexicographers was in use throughout central and eastern Europe.
Strega (obviously derived from Latin striga) is the Italian term for witch. This word itself gave a term sometimes also used in English, stregheria, a form of witchcraft. In Romanian, strigăt means 'scream', strigoaică is the name of the Romanian feminine vampire, and strigoi is the Romanian male vampire. Both can scream loudly, especially when they become poltergeists—a trait they have in common with the banshees. Strigăt is also the Romanian name of the barn owl and of the death's-head hawkmoth. In Albanian folklore, we can find the shtriga, and in Slavic - the strzyga/stryha.
- Latin: canities
- Greek strīx (στρίξ or ϛρίγξ), emended from styx (ϛύξ / στύξ).
- The myth is Boios's Ornithologia, preserved by Antoninus Liberalis, described below.
- Since the bat was the only winged animal with mammary glands.
- In the ancient world the bat was commonly classified as a bird; only Aristotle differed, considering it halfway between bird and land animal. See Oliphant (1913), p. 134 n. 4.
- Their name was once used as a curse being the only other piece of information Pliny gives here.
- Although this is an example of figurative use.
- Procas was a legendary king of Latium before the Roman Empire.
- The ritual involved stroking the lintel and threshold with an arbutus branch, and placating the evil with chopped entrails of pigs, etc. This constitutes an explanation for the custom of eating beans and bacon on the Kalends of June as votive offerings to Carna.
- Strymon, Thraissa and Triballos
- Frazer, James George (1933) ed., Ovid, Fasti VI. 131–, Riley (1851), p. 216, tr.
- Arnott, W. Geoffrey (2007). Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge. pp. 2032f. ISBN 9781134556250
- The Latin atra (ater) is rather vague, and may not be indicative of color. Oliphant (1913), p. 136.
- Titinius, in Ribbeck, Scaen. Rom. Poesis Fragg. II, 188, Latin passage quoted and discussed by Oliphant (1913), p. 136. And p. 145, "[Pliny] found the Titinian strix".
- Antoninus Liberalis, Μεταμορφώσεων Συναγωγή 21, translated in Celoria (1992), pp. 77–78, summarized in Oliphant (1913), pp. 133–134
- Celoria (1992), pp. 77–78.
- Oliphant (1913), pp. 134–135.
- Bostock, John; Riley, H.T., ed., tr., Pliny, The Natural History, xi.95. Naturalis Historia', xi.232.
- Tate, Peter (2011). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 9780307783974
- Verheyk (1774), p. 140
- Latin translation: "Polyphonte in Stygem [sic.] mutata est, avem noctu canentem, cibi potusque exsortem, caput deorsum, pedes imos habentem, belli et seditionis hominibus nuciam"
- Oliphant (1913), p. 134.
- Oliphant (1913), p. 135: "As woman-bird, she is .. possessed of a craving for human flesh and blood. Boio transfers this quality to her offspring in human form, to Agrios alone in avian form [vulture]."
- Oliphant (1913), p. 135. Accepting Theodor Bergk's postulation that Plautus's Latin comedy was a reworking of a hypothetical "Greek original belonging to the Middle comedy of the fourth century."
- Lawson (1910), p. 180.
- Hutton (2017), p. 69.
- Oliphant (1913), p. 135.
- McDonough (1997), p. 319.
- Riley, Henry Thomas tr. (1912)Pseudolus, Act. 3, Scene 2. Morris, E. P., ed. (1895)T. Macci Plauti Pseudolus 820, p. 57 and note, p. 171
- Oliphant (1913), pp. 135–136.
- McDonough (1997), p. 315.
- McDonough (1997), pp. 330–331 only refers to Carna obtaining her power as compensation for Janus raping her, but the earlier passage in Ovid states a white wand was given to her. Ovid, Fasti 6.110ff. Riley, Thomas H. (1851) tr., Fasti, p. 214ff.
- Satyricon 63, quoted in Oliphant (1913), p. 144
- The same work also notes the striges would feed on the marrow or sinews (nervus) of the living.
- Oliphant (1913), p. 137, and note 10
- mălĕdīco defined "II. In partic., a curse, imprecation" and "II B. transf., a cursed thing" in Lewis & Short.
- McDonough (1997), pp. 325–326.
- Made by "the witch Canidia": Oliphant (1913), p. 137
- Propertius, iii, 6, 29. The woman Cynthia accuses her rival of using the love potion. Oliphant (1913), p. 137.
- Ovid, Metamporphosis VII, 269. More, Brookes (1922), translation. Cited by Oliphant (1913), p. 137
- Frazer, James George (1929) ed., Ovid, Fasti 4, p. 143, notes to VI. 131.
- Hutton (2017), pp. 69–70.
- The spot is by Cocytus, one of two rivers forming the moat of the residence of Dis, and the source of these rivers are the Tartaus.
- Oliphant (1913), p. 138: "Tartarean birds", etc. , 686ff; Wilson, Emily (2010) tr. , pp. 159–160. Seneca cited by
- Hyginus, Fabulae 28, cited by Oliphant (1913), p. 138.
- Oliphant (1913), p. 138, note 11
- Hyginus spells the bird styx, as in Antonius Libellus above.
- Etymologiae book 12, ch. 7.42.
- Lawson (1910), pp. 178, 181.
- John of Damascus, I, p. 473 (Greek: περί Στρυγγῶν), in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, p. 1604. Cited by Lawson (1910), p. 178
- John of Damascus, I, p. 473, in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, p. 1604. Cited by Lawson (1910), p. 144
- DEX Online
- DEX Online
- DEX Online
- Antoninus Liberalis (1992). "21. Polyphonte". In Celoria, Francis (ed.). The Metamorphoses of Antoninus Liberalis: A Translation with Commentary. pp. 77–78. ISBN 0415068967
- Antoninus Liberalis (1774). "XXI. Polyphonte". In Verheyk, Hendrik (ed.). Antōninou Liberalis Metamorphōseōn Sunagōgē. Wilhelm Xylander, Thomas Muncker. apud Sam. et Joan. Luchtmans. pp. 137–143.
- Ovid (1851). Riley, Henry T. (ed.). The Fasti, Tristia, Pontic Epistles, Ibis, and Halieuticon of Ovid. H. G. Bohn. p. 216.
- Hutton, Ronald (2017). The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to Present. Yale University Press.
- Lawson, John Cuthbert (1910). Modern Greek folklore and ancient Greek religion: a study in survivals. Cambridge University Press. pp. 176–179.
- McDonough, Christopher Michael (1997). "Carna, Proca and the Strix on the Kalends of June". Transactions of the American Philological Association. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 127: 315–344. doi:10.2307/284396. JSTOR 284396
- Oliphant, Samuel Grant (1913). "The Story of the Strix: Ancient". Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 44: 133–149. doi:10.2307/282549. JSTOR 282549.