Thisbe Nissen
Photo © Sandra L. Dyas
From the desk of....


Shelter Island, where I spent summers growing up, is an osprey refuge, so we were always going out to look at the osprey nests, especially when the species was making its way back from near-extinction. It was a rare and exciting thing to catch a glimpse of an osprey. As an opponent of pesticides in general, I was interested in DDT's role in the osprey's decline, and started delving into that a bit. That led me to discover that the osprey was misnamed and had to do with certain old myths. Then, as a lover of "artifacts" in fiction, I decided to use bits and pieces of the research as "found objects" within the text of the novel in order to get a bunch of that information (and research that was exciting to me in all of its interconnectedness!) into the novel without being overly heavy-handed (or trying not to be overly heavy-handed, at least) --Thisbe

Click on the links below to view some of the pages from osprey books that Thisbe looked at, explore websites that discuss ospreys, and find out how these birds fit into mythology.

Osprey eggs | Osprey links | Our Amazing Birds | Two bird books
The Second Book of Birds | Mythology | An osprey card


The literal translation of the osprey's genus name, "Pandion haliaetus" is "Pandion's sea eagle," but it seems that the scientist who named it thus—one Marie Jules-Cesar Lelorgne de Savigny—was somewhat confused. You see, Pandion was the king of Athens in Greek mythology. Pandion had two daughters, Philomela and Procne. Procne married Tereus. Theirs is a lengthy and bloody story, but suffice it to say that in the end Philomela, Procne and Tereus are changed—as was the convention of Greek mythology—into, respectively, a nightingale, a swallow, and a hawk. If anything, the osprey should have been named after Tereus, as he was the only raptor among them.

The osprey should, in all honesty, have been named in its genus, for King Nisus of Alcathous, whose daughter, Scylla, sacrifices him to his attacking enemy, Minos, whom Scylla loves. But Minos rebukes her, disgusted by her betrayal of her father, and he quits the land she offers him. Scylla, mad with despair, jumps into the ocean to follow Minos' retreating ship, and is followed by her father—now turned into an osprey—who plucks her from the water as such a bird of prey is wont to do. Regard:

Her father saw her as he hovered near (changed to an osprey now with tawny wings) And swooped to seize and tear her, as she clung, With his hooked beak.
--(A.D. Melville, trans., "Scylla and Minos," Ovid's Metamorphoses, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.)

Would that the early ornithologists had more closely read their Ovid.
--Dr. Edgar Hamilton, PhD, "How Our Island Was (Mis)Named," Island Times, March 4, 1987.

Tereus, Procne and Philomela:

A.D. Melville's (and my personal favorite) translation:

Dryden's rhymed translation:

Brookes More's translation:

Scylla, Minos and Nisus:

Brookes More:

Bullfinch's Age of Fable: Dryden's rhymed translation:

Melville translation:

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