After Plutarch, Quaestiones Romanae 21


Why was it that the old Latins
Held in sacral awe
δρυοκολάπτης, piercer of trees, picus
(In rude island speech, woodpecker),
Denying their table the bird?

Rumour was that your man Picus
By transmutation of nature
And a discreet mickey finn

                         (His wife’s, said the quaesitor:
                         Cops like easy answers.
                         But timing and tradecraft
                         Left not unsuspect
                         Wrathful clit-blocked Circe
                         In her chemical weapons lab)
Became a woodpecker and delivered
Oracles and prophecies
At unbeatable prices
To the great Roman public.

But that’s deformed, incredible,
A threepenny myth.
A much kinder one
Is that exposed Romulus and Remus,
As well as suckled by the wolf,
Were victualled by a woodpecker,
Leaving ants in their tiny jaws.

For even now
In the mountains and woods
Where you find the woodpecker
There is also the wolf.

Or is it merely because
Like other birds to other gods
The woodpecker is hallowed to Mars,
Gallant and prideful,
Its beak unyielding,
Knocking a tree over
Once it has bored

Into its innermost heart?

Beau Madison Mount is the Weston Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at New College, Oxford, where he works on logic and philosophy of mathematics. His hobbies include taking naps, reading ancient history and modernist lyric, and making translations, quasi-translations, and hemidemisemitranslations.

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