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I am reading James Scully's translation of Philoktetes (also known as Philoctetes), in The Complete Plays of Sophocles, translated by Robert Bagg & James Scully. Twice it is mentioned that the titular character hunts "doves" as a food source. Here he is describing his life before the play begins:

Time passed me by. Season after season
cramped alone in my cave, I made do
myself. Had to. For something to eat
this bow knocked down fluttering doves.
The bowstring, as I released it, hummed!
        ... then
whatever I'd hit I had to go after,
step & drag,
hauling this goddam foot.
318-326

And here he is ranting after he loses his bow:

What now will befall my days?
Where will I find hope
—in my misery—of finding food?
You timid doves,
once so fearful,
fly freely in the whistling winds
I can't stop you now!
1235-1241

Is there any reason that his prey is specifically "doves"? A significance to that species, or something about doves-as-animals that makes them particularly suited to this role?

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  • I would wonder if it simply worked particularly nicely in the original Greek, meter, rhyme, or some other reason that is completely unrelated to the actual suitability of doves for hunting/consumption. I don't know Greek (ancient or modern) so can't speak to whether this is actually the case, but is certainly something I would consider. Feb 17, 2022 at 5:01
  • @SoronelHaetir I would find that more plausible if it was a singular reference, but it pops up twice.
    – bobble
    Feb 17, 2022 at 5:29

1 Answer 1

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TL;DR: Doves could have been a common bird that Philoktetes hunted and ate, given his situation in the play, making them the species that came most readily to mind in the quoted speeches.

Philoktetes has been living in a cave on the island of “Lemnos, land untrodden by men and desolate” (lines 1–2), and “for ten years never knew the delight of wine” (lines 713–714), eating only the birds and animals that he can kill with the bow of Herakles. Moreover, he has been suffering from a unhealed wound on his foot all that time, which limits how far he can travel from his cave to find food, and makes it difficult for him to collect his catch unless it falls within easy reach.

So what birds has he been eating? The most suitable birds for eating are waterfowl (duck, geese, etc.), landfowl (partridge, grouse, pheasant, etc.), and doves. (Songbirds are too small to make it worth the effort of hunting them; seabirds and hawks have an unpleasant taste.) Waterfowl are risky for Philoktetes, because his arrows are precious and he can't afford to lose them in the water, and they are difficult for him to hunt, because he lives in a cave which Neoptolemus describes as “high up” (line 29), from which it is a difficult walk to the shore. (When he finally resolves to walk down with Neoptolemus to the ship, this brings on an attack of pain at lines 730ff.) So that leaves landfowl and doves for him to hunt, and of these, doves were probably the most common on the rocky hills of Lemnos.

Which is not to say that he did not eat goats and quails too, when the opportunity presented, or even the occasional heron, as in this 1798 painting by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière, where the dead bird has fallen into a tree on a crag, making it agony for Philoktetes to climb up and fetch it down.

A bearded man crouches on a cliff ledge. He wears ragged clothes and and cloak, carried feathered arrows in a quiver on his back, holds a bow in his left hand, and clutches the cliff with his right. His left foot trails and is wrapped in dirty rags. He looks up at a tree growing from the cliff, into which a dead heron has fallen, its white neck dangling down.

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