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The white blackbird and the black swan are a rare avis (rara avis)

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"Rara avis", "white blackbird", "white crow", "black swan" are ancient expressions that serve to express the rarity and scarce or exceptional existence of a being, person, animal, object and even idea and thought. We can affirm the antiquity of the expression "rare avis" (rare bird, strange bird) by the antiquity of its language, Latin, but also "blackbird" and "black swan" and even "white crow" are used from the Greco-Roman antiquity to our days.

From the point of view of "Stylistics" we can speak of examples of the rhetorical figure called adýnaton or impossibile, in the plural adýnata or impossibilia, with which we refer to impossible beings or facts because they contradict the laws of Nature.

Note: ἀδυνατον (adynaton, "an impossibility"), from α- (a-, "without") + δύναμαι (dynamai, "I am powerful, I am able")

The Greeks already used as proverbial expression "to see a white crow", λευκὸν ἰδεῖν κόρακα, (leukòn ideîn kóraka) as something impossible or adýnaton; This is attested by Palatine Anthology11 (11, 417).

On an Elderly Woman annoying a Young Man-
Shake the acorns off another oak, Menesthion; for I do not accept wrinkled apples past their season, but have ever desired fruit in its prime like myself; so why try to see a white crow? 
English Translation by. W. R. Paton. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1926. 4.)

Note; i.e. it is as difficult to get hold of me as to meet with a white crow.

Note: The Palatine Anthology is a compilation of epigrams of all types (funerary, votive, amorous, etc.) by unknown author, written around 980 A. C. It receives the name from the Palatine Library of Heidelberg, where it went to stop at the end of century XVI.

We find references about "white blackbird"  already among the Greeks; We can suppose that it was already used with a proverbial sense. Aristotle (384 BC-322) was not only a philosopher, profession for which he is best identified by current readers, but a varied scientist who touched all the issues of his time and who has had a huge influence on culture Western to modern times. Among the numerous treatises of science he wrote, (many are not preserved) some are on "biology." One of these has as title "History of  animals", in its Latin version "Historia animalium". Aristotle described more than 500 living beings. Without going into considerations about  the real or not of Aristotle's authorship of some parts of this work, the truth is that in book IX, 617a (19) it is  told about the "blackbirds" and he says:

There are two kinds of owsels; the one is black, and is found everywhere, the other is quite white, about the same size as the other, and with the same pipe. This latter is found on Cyllene in Arcadia, and is found nowhere else. The laius, or blue-thrush, is like the black owsel, only a little smaller; it lives on cliffs or on tile roofings; it has not a red beak as the black owsel has. (translated by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. The University of Adelaide Library)

Note: Cyllene is the second highest mountain of the Peloponnese in Greece, border between the regions of Arcadia and Achaia, which reaches 2,374 meters of altitude.

The Pseudo-Aristotle, tells us in " On Marvellous Things Heard ", in Latin "De  Mirabilibus Auscultationibus, 15, 831b 14":

They say that in Cyllene in Arcadia the blackbirds are white, but not in any other place, and that they have harmonious voices and come out into the moonshine; and that if one were to try by day, they are very hard to catch. (On Marvellous Things Heard as published in the Loeb Classical Library Cambridge (Mass.) and London, 1936)

Note: On Marvellous Things Heard is a collection of anecdotes traditionally attributed to Aristotle. The material mainly deals with the natural world (e.g., plants, animals, minerals, weather, geography). This  work is an example of the paradoxography literary genre. Paradoxography is a genre of  literature which deals with the occurrence of abnormal or inexplicable phenomena. 

Pliny the Elder (23 AD - 79 AD), the naturalist who died during the eruption of Vesuvius, collects this peculiarity of some blackbirds in his work Natural History (Naturalis Historia) X, 87:

The blackbird is found in the vicinity of Cyllene, in Arcadia, with White plumaje; a thing that is the cause nowhere else. The ibis, in the neigbourhood of Pelusium only is black, while in all other places it is white.
(Translated by John Bostock & Henry Thomas Riley. London 1855)

merulae circa Cyllenen Arcadiae, nec usque aliubi, candidae nascuntur. ibis circa Pelusium tantum nigra est, ceteris omnibus locis candida.

Note: White blackbirds is a paradox.

Pausanias, the Greek traveler in Hadrian's imperial age who bequeathed us a genuine Greek tourist guide, entitled "Description of Greece", also speaks of this. I was just browsing this guide to prepare a recent trip to Greece when I came across the reference to the "white blackbirds" which suggested to me by this article.

The reference is made in Book VIII when he describes  the Arcadia, abrupt and hard landscape that has nothing to do with the idealized, topical and idyllic vision built by Virgil, a thousand times repeated later, especially in the Renaissance.

Well, Pausanias says in Description of Greece, VIII, 17,3-4:

Cyllene can show also the following marvel. On it the blackbirds are entirely white. The birds so called by the Boeotians are a somewhat different breed, which does not sing. Eagles called swan-eagles, very like to swans for whiteness, I am acquainted with, as I have seen them on Mount Sipylus round the lake called the Lake of Tantalus. White wild boars and Thracian white bears have been known to be acquired by private individuals. White hares are bred in Libya, and white deer I have seen in Rome to my great astonishment, though it never occurred to me to ask from what continent or island they had been brought. I have made these few remarks concerning the blackbirds in Cyllene that nobody may disbelieve what has been said about their color.
( English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A.,Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918. )

Claudius Aelianus or Aelian (in Greek: Κλαύδιος Αἰλιανός), Praeneste, ca. 175 - ca. 235) was a rhetorician and Roman writer who spoke Greek perfectly and wrote his works in Greek. In his "History of  Animals," V, 27, tells us:

Here are further examples of the peculiar and Peculiarities diverse natures of animals. Theopompus reports that in the country of the Bisaltae the Hares have a double liver. According to Ister the Guinea-fowls of Leros are never injured by any bird of prey. Aristotle says that among the Neuri the Oxen have their horns on their shoulders, and Agatharcides says that in Ethiopia the Swine have horns. Sostratus asserts that all Blackbirds on Cyllene are white. Alexander of Myndus says that in Pontus the Flocks grow fat upon the bitterest wormwood. He states also that Goats born on Mimas do not drink for six months ; all they do is to look towards the sea with their mouths open and to drink in the breezes from that quarter. I learn that the Goats of Illyria have a solid, not a cloven hoof. And Theophrastus has the most amazing statement that in Babylonia the fish frequently come out of the river and pasture on dry land. (Aelian On the characteristics of animals. Translated by A.F.Scholfield. Cambridge.London. William Heineman/ Cambridge Massachusets. Harvard University Press. 1948.

Note how in the information or disinformation of Aelian they are white and to all the blackbirds of Cyllene, without space or any opportunity for the black ones. This is what usually happens in the careless transmission of messages: in each transmission the initial message is modified and deformed more and more.

I never had chance to see a white "blackbird", because everyone I met has been black with the orange beak. I doubted and still doubt that there are white blackbirds. Serious science tells us that it is a bird about 25 centimeters, that the male is entirely black with the orange beak and the female is dark brown; That it is able to learn and repeat sounds. No serious reference is made to the existence of white "blackbirds", other than as a consequence of some genetic anomaly.

Cicero uses in one of his letters the expression "avis alba", with the same meaning, replacing the concrete "blackbird" with the generic "bird", “avis”. It seems a strange mixture or contamination of the Greek original expression "white blackbird" with the more Latin "rara avis" that I will comment next.

Cicero uses it in a letter of the year 45 or 46 BC, that is to say in 707 or 708 from the founding of the City (Rome), in a letter to Curius, who has decided to go to Greece to dedicate himself to business. He takes advantage once again, given his high self-esteem, to self-consider a "white bird", that is, a scarce citizen of good judgment and opinion.

Given the non-excessive length of the letter, I allow myself to reproduce it completely, taking advantage of the opportunity to read by whomever wishes one of the more than eight hundred letters that we keep from Cicero.

Cicero, Epistulade ad Familiares, VII, 28 .

I remember the time when I thought you foolish for associating with your friends over there rather than with us: for a residence in this city-while it was still a city at all-was much better suited to your culture and refinement than all the Peloponnesus put together, to say nothing of Patrae. Now, however, on the contrary you seem to me to have been long-sighted for having settled in Greece when things here were in a desperate condition, and at the present crisis not only to be wise for being abroad, but happy as well. And yet what man of any discernment can be happy at present? But what you, who could do so, have secured by the use of your feet-removal to a place "Where of the Pelopidae"  (you know the rest)-I am getting by a different method. For, after giving myself up to the reception of my friends which is more crowded than it used to be, precisely because they imagine that in a citizen of honest sentiments they see a rare bird of good omen, I bury myself in my library. Accordingly, I am completing works of an importance which you will perhaps appreciate. For in a certain talk I had with you at your house, when you were finding fault with my gloom and despair, I understood you to say, that you could not recognize the old high spirit in my books.  But, by Hercules, at that time I was mourning for the Republic—which by its services to me, and no less by mine to it, was dearer to me than my life. And even now, though not only is reason (which ought to be more powerful than anything) consoling me, but also time which cures even fools, yet I am nevertheless grieving that the general interests are in such a state of collapse, that no hope even is left of any future improvement. Not that in the present instance the fault is his, in whose power everything is—unless by any chance that very fact is not as it should be—but some things by accident and others by my own fault also have so fallen out, that complaint on my part for the past is barred. Hope for the future I see none. Therefore I return to what I said at first: you have left all this wisely, if you did so by design; luckily, if by accident. (
translated by Evelyn Shuckburgh 1900)
Cicero, Epistulade ad Familiares, VII, 28 .

Scr. Romae in. m. Sext. a. 708 (46) M. CICERO S. D. CVRIO. 7.28

memini cum mihi desipere videbare, quod cum istis potius viveres quam nobiscum. erat enim multo domicilium huius urbis, cum quidem haec urbs, aptius humanitati et suavitati tuae quam tota Peloponnesus, nedum Patrae. nunc contra et vidisse mihi multum videris, cum prope desperatis his rebus te in Graeciam contulisti, et hoc tempore non solum sapiens, qui hinc absis, sed etiam beatus. quamquam quis, qui aliquid sapiat, nunc esse beatus potest?
sed quod tu cui licebat, pedibus es consecutus ut ibi esses, 'ubi nec Pelopidarum' (nosti cetera), nos idem prope modum consequimur alia ratione. Cum enim salutationi nos dedimus amicorum, quae fit hoc etiam frequentius quam solebat, quod quasi avem albam videntur bene sentientem civem videre, abdo me in bibliothecam. itaque opera efficio tanta quanta fortasse tu senties; intellexi enim ex tuo sermone quodam, cum meam maestitiam et desperationem accusares domi tuae, discere te ex meis libris animum meum desiderare.

sed me hercule et tum rem publicam lugebam, quae non solum suis erga me sed etiam meis erga se beneficiis erat mihi vita mea carior, et hoc tempore, quamquam me non ratio solum consolatur, quae plurimum debet valere, sed etiam dies, quae stultis quoque mederi solet, tamen doleo ita rem communem esse dilapsam ut ne spes quidem melius aliquando fore relinquatur. nec vero nunc quidem culpa in eo est in cuius potestate omnia sunt (nisi forte id ipsum esse non debuit), sed alia casu, alia etiam nostra culpa sic acciderunt ut de praeteritis non sit querendum. reliquam spem nullam video. qua re ad prima redeo: sapienter haec reliquisti, si consilio, feliciter. si casu.

The expression, then, only serves to refer to a rare thing, and this from the antiquity and in several languages as also happens in French, where for example exists, with the same meaning, the expression "merle blanc". In Italian they seem to prefer "mosca bianca", white fly, perhaps related to the Ciceronian "avis alba", which I mentioned earlier. In German they use an expression similar to "white blackbird", "ein weisser Rabe", a white crow.
In English I do not know  own expression, and it has been generalized among the educated citizen the expression "rara avis", which I comment on below.

"Rara avis" is a well-known Latin expression as a proverb, which Horace (65 BC-8 BC) uses in his Satire II, 2, in which he extols the sober life and frugality that in eating comes to extravagance in the food driven by fashion and vanity. In this Satire the old peasant Ofelus, with his popular wisdom, is the one who exposes the advantages of frugality over the  senseless luxury.

Certainly, Horace does not use the phrase in the same sense that we are commenting here, but he uses the phrase "rara avis" as such.

Horace says in Satires, II, 2, 23 and ss:

Yet after all you’ll hardly deign, I, fear,
To dine on pullet when a peacock’s near;
By vain caprice or empty show cajoled;
Because forshooth the scarce bird fells for gold,
And strutting forth elate with beauty frail
Expands the gaudy glories of his tail.
But do you eat that plumage you adore?
Or is he, cook’d, as beauteous as before?

(Translate by Francis Howes, M.A. London. William Pickering. 1845)

vix tamen eripiam, posito pavone velis quin
hoc potius quam gallina tergere palatum,
corruptus vanis rerum, quia veneat auro      
rara avis et picta pandat spectacula cauda:
tamquam ad rem attineat quidquam. num vesceris ista,
quam laudas, pluma? cocto num adest honor idem?

With the sense mentioned here it is often quoted as the first Latin text written one of Juvenal, which I will immediately comment, but Juvenal was born precisely when Persius died and this one already uses in one of his satires the expression “rare bird",  "rara avis”

Perrsius (Aulus Persius Flacus, AD 34 - Rome, AD 62) is a Latin satirist poet who died very young when he was just 28 years old. Of stoical and rigid moral, he criticizes the vices of the society of Nero. He wrote six Satire; In the first he criticizes the literature of the time, for example  the contemporary poets who pretend to please the public with hollow high-sounding poetry empty of content. In this context, in a fictitious dialogue in which a poet recognizes that something worthy of consideration sometimes comes out, Persius says in Satire I, v. 43 et seq.

“Whoever you are, my imaginary opponent, I am not the man, if in writing I chance to hatch anything good –for that is a Phoenix indeed- but if I doo  hatch anything good, I am not the man to shrink from praise –no- my heartstrings are not of horn. (Translated by John Conington. Oxford, at The Clarendon Press. 1872)

Quisquis es, o modo quem ex adverso dicere feci,
Non ego cum scribo, si forte quid aptius exit,
(Quando haec rara avis est) si quid tamen aptius exit,
Laudari metuam: neque enim mihi cornea fibra est.

There we have the first written Latin testimony of the expression "rara avis", which will immediately employ the other great Latin satirist, Juvenal, in his Satire VI. This time he refers to an fellow  who intends to marry and takes the opportunity to criticize the vices of the ladies and gentlemen in relation to their marriage; He says about the chaste woman:

Juvenal (60-128 d.C.), Satires, VI, 162 y ss.:

"Do you say no worthy wife is to be found among all these crowds?" Well, let her be handsome, charming, rich and fertile; let her have ancient ancestors ranged about her halls; let her be more chaste than the dishevelled Sabine maidens who stopped the war----a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan! yet who could endure a wife that possessed all perfections? (Translated by G. G. Ramsay)

‘Nullane de tantis gregibus tibi digna videtur? ’
sit formosa decens dives fecunda, vetustos
porticibus disponat avos, intactior omni
crinibus effusis bellum dirimente Sabina,
rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno:
quis feret uxorem cui constant omnia?

The same Juvenal, in Satire VII, 189 et seq. also uses the expression "white crow", similar to the one of "white blackbird", with which I initiated this article. Will be the same bird the blackbird and the crow? Note that the ancient precision in the naming and classification of living beings, in this case birds, is far from modern scientific taxonomy. The text of Juvenal says in this passage, when speaking about fortune:

Pass by cases of rare good fortune: the lucky man  is both beautiful and brave, he is wise and noble and high-born; he sews on to his black shoe the crescent of the Senator. He is a great orator too, a good javelin-man, and if he chance to have caught a cold, he sings divinely. For it makes all the difference by what stars you are welcomed when you utter your first cry, and are still red from your mother's womb. If Fortune so choose, you will become a Consul from being a rhetor; if again she so wills, you will become a rhetor from being a Consul.

What of Ventidius  and Tullius? What made their fortunes but the stars and the wondrous potency of secret Fate? The Fates will give kingdoms to a slave, and triumphs to a captive! Nevertheless that fortunate man is rare----rarer than a white crow. (Translated by G. G. Ramsay)

Note: Ventidius, a prisoner of war with Pompey, came to  consul. Tullius is the king Servius Tullius, from  humble origin.

exempla novorum
fatorum transi: felix et pulcer et acer,
felix et sapiens et nobilis et generosus
adpositam nigrae lunam subtexit alutae;
felix orator quoque maximus et iaculator,
et si perfrixit, cantat bene. distat enim quae
sidera te excipiant modo primos incipientem
edere vagitus et adhuc a matre rubentem.
si Fortuna volet, fies11 de rhetore consul;
si volet haec eadem, fiet de consule rhetor.
Ventidius quid enim? quid Tullius? anne aliud quam
sidus et occulti miranda potentia fati?
servis regna dabunt, captivis fata triumphum.
felix ille tamen corvo quoque rarior albo.

Juvenal joined in the first text here reproduced the expression “rara avis”, "rare bird", to another of similar meaning, "black swan", used from the antiquity with the same meaning.

Obviously, in Antiquity it was taken for granted that all swans were to be white and that therefore no black swans existed. It seems as if the expression were the result of the conversion in proverb of the subject that the scientist Lucretius poses in book II of his "De rerum natura", v. 817 et seq. about the colors:

Since special shapes have not a special colour,
And all formations of the primal germs
Can be of any sheen thou wilt, why, then,
Are not those objects which are of them made
Suffused, each kind with colours of every kind?
For then 'twere meet that ravens, as they fly,
Should dartle from white pinions a white sheen,
Or swans turn black from seed of black, or be
Of any single varied dye thou wilt.

(Traslated by William Ellery Leonard. E. P. Dutton. 1916.)

Praeterea quoniam non certis certa figuris
est natura coloris et omnia principioru
formamenta queunt in quovis ese nitore,
cur ea quae constant ex illis non pariter sunt
omne genus perfusa coloribus in genere omni?
conveniebat enim corvos quoque saepe volantis
ex albis álbum pinnis iactare colorem
et nigros fieri nigro de semine cycnos
aut alio quovis uno varioque colore.

Ovid in a letter addressed to Fabius Maximus, collected in Ponticae III, 3, 95 et seq. makes a reference to the black swan:

Were I to doubt your favor for these words,
Maximus, I should believe that swans are the
color of Memnon. But milk is not changed to
black pitch nor does shining ivory become terebinth. 
(Translated by Arthur Leslie Wheeler)

Si dubitem, faveas quin his, o Maxime, dictis,
  Memnonio cycnos esse colore putem.
Sed neque mutatur nigra pice lacteus humor,
  nec, quod erat candens, fit terebinthus ebur.

Note: Memnon was king of the Ethiopians and therefore of black color. The terebinth wood is dark in color, according to Pliny as black as ebony.

It is not surprising that many years later a father of the church, as misogynous as Jerome (340-420) picks up Juvenal's expression and his opinion on the chastity of women; It is certainly plausible that Jerome knew Juvenal and his famous VI Satire. Jerome uses the proverbial expression with some frequency; So he does it in De perpetua virginitate B. Mariae Liber, 20 (Adversus Helvidium) and in Dialogus adversus Pelagianos.Lib. II, 11; But it is in the reference that he makes of Theophrastus and his book De nuptiis in his Adversus Iovianum, LIb. I, 47 where he employs it in the same sense as Juvenal. He says there:

But if she herself is poorly, we must fall sick with her and never leave her bedside. Or if she be a good and agreeable wife (how rare a bird she is!), we have to share 384her groans in childbirth, and suffer torture when she is in danger. A wise man can never be alone. (Translated by W.H. Fremantle, Against Jovinianus in NPNF2, vol. 6 (New York, 1893))

Quod si ipsa languerit,coegrotandum est, et numquam ab eius lectulo recedendum. Aut si bona fuerit et suavis uxor (quae tamen rara avis est), cum parturiente gemimus, cumpericlitante torquemur. Sapiens autem numquam solus esse potest.

Since then, these proverbial expressions have not ceased to be used.

But it happened that in 1697 the English brought black swans (cygnus atratus) from Australia to England, and this fact produced a notable commotion in English and European society, accustomed to seeing only white swans, and which now had to admit the existence of "Black swans". If the phrase had hitherto been used to refer to a person or a particularly rare or impossible event, it could now serve to refer to the need for explanation of a fact whose possibility of existence was not previously contemplated because the facts did not make it predictable.

Anyway, in any case it is striking the fact that these phrases turned into proverb support very well the passage of time and even from one language to another with the necessary adaptations.


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