Cormorant – שָׁלָךְ (shalakh); קָאַת (qaat)?
When you spot a cormorant, and especially a colony of cormorants, you know you’ve spotted something a little unusual.* This is not because they are especially rare, it is because they have a singular character about them. Their black plumage has that iridescent sheen that is associated with oil slicks, and their long necks and hooked bills can give them a rather prehistoric, reptilian feel. It is an incredible swimmer (see video below), resembling underwater more a fish than a bird. One of the great UK conservation success stories of the past few years has been the improvements to the water quality in our rivers and waterways. This has helped to attract cormorants, once again, inland – much to the anger of anglers!
Seeing them hunched up on the stark bare limbs of a tree and they strike a rather endearingly sinister pose. I love Simon Barnes’ description of them in his Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion where he refers to their “habit of hanging around looking shifty, as if they are up to something.” The fact that they seem to prefer trees without much foliage, their droppings act as defoliants, makes them particularly suited as walk/fly-on extras in a rather camp, Gothic, horror film. When they are not sitting hunched, vulture-like, they adopt a rather strange pose, by standing with wings out-stretched, for many minutes (sometimes hours) at a time. Although their plumage does contain oil, it is not enough to make their feather completely waterproof. Bright (2006:225) states that before diving, the cormorant disperses air trapped in their feathers. This gives them their incredibly sleek and seal-like swimming ability. Consequently, they have to spread out their water-logged wings in order for them to dry.
I am grateful to Mark Barkan of AviBirds for letting me know about this wonderful video featuring the Great Cormorant. Ornithologists and bird lovers might also be interested in the other excellent videos on the AviBird YouTube channel.
Linguistic detective hunt
The שָׁלָךְ (shalakh) occurs twice in the Bible. The context for both is the list of birds that are to be considered ‘unclean’ and therefore forbidden to be eaten.
13 These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey,14the buzzard, the kite of any kind; 15every raven of any kind; 16the ostrich, the nighthawk, the seagull, the hawk of any kind; 17the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18the water-hen, the desert-owl, the carrion vulture, 19the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.Leviticus 11:13-19 (NRSV) emphasis added
This is repeated in the parallel passage found in Deuteronomy (14:17).
Those following this series of blogs (well done for making it so far!) will already be familiar with this verse and the topic of kashrut. By now, you will also be familiar with the difficulties that the names used in such lists can pose to translators. This leads me to the reason why I have selected the cormorant for this post – over and above the fact that it is such a fascinating bird. The shalakh makes an ideal example of how we approach the problem of identify a species behind a word or term that is unclear.
The first, fairly obvious, task would be to see if we can find other instances of the use of the word within the biblical literature – hopefully one that provides a little more information. However, in this case, this very quickly reveals a dead-end, as the shalakh appears only in these two references (in Leviticus and Deuteronomy).
Nevertheless, we are not completely at a loss. Where the word crops up in the text can provide some helpful clues. Investigating the word within its literary context is rather like looking at an unknown bird or animal within its ecological habitat. The context in which shalakh appears clearly refers to a list of birds and that the form the word takes tells us it is being employed as a noun (rather than, say, adjective). Consequently, we can be fairly sure it relates to a bird. Not just that, but again the context informs us that it is a bird that is considered ‘unclean’ or שֶׁ֫קֶץ (sheqets), ‘detestable’. Although we must be a little cautious, this means we have a pretty good idea that we would not expect it to be one that ate grain or seed (generally pessarines), as we know that these could be eaten. Forbidden birds, were usually those that ate flesh, and particularly carrion. Therefore, we have managed to narrow it down to a bird and even a particular type bird.
The next pretty obvious thing to explore is whether the word itself gives us any clues as to its owner. In Hebrew, the name שָׁלָךְ shalakh also means ‘to throw (down or off)’ or ‘to hurl’. Although, again, we need to be a little careful, biblical scholars were bitten rather badly by the etymological fallacy in the 70s and 80s, we saw in the earlier post about the partridge, (Partridge – Day 24), that its name strongly suggested that it derived from its rather distinctive call. Therefore, it was not unknown for animals and things to be referred to by their distinguishing characteristics.
We can see this approach being taken by the United Bible Societies (1980) when they establish their claim for rendering shalakh as ‘cormorant’:
The Hebrew name originally denotes the ‘hurling down’ of the bird upon its prey, illustrating its habit of diving into deep water and sometimes practically swimming beneath the surface for fish.United Bible Societies (1980:18)
However, I am not totally convinced by this explanation. Whilst it is true that they do dive down on their prey, it is much more of a graceful than dramatic movement. I would, therefore, have to agree with Bright (2006:224) and say that, if we did have to opt for a diving bird, then the gannet or tern would be much more appropriate candidate.
Bright (ibid) is also right in noting that the inclusion of the cormorant right here is, on the surface, rather “odd” as it occurs within a list of owls. One might also reasonably expect an owl to be described as one that ‘hurls itself down’ upon its prey (if we are correct in inferring this meaning from shalack). However, once again, we need to be cautious. The translations of owls in this extract are also far from secure!
When it comes to a case like this, scholars of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament within Christian tradition) have another very useful tool in their toolbox. Between the third and second centuries (BCE) the Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek. This text is known as the Septuagint (LXX). It is really important for the study of ancient Hebrew literature as it gives us a lot of information about how the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) was used and understood within the Persian and then Graeco-Roman periods. It also offers us a really helpful way for finding out how some of the language that we are finding difficult to translate was understood at the time. Although this is not necessarily the same as the ‘original’ meaning, it can give us a few more clues.
The Septuagint renders shalakh as καταράκτην, which, unfortunately, is not terribly helpful. The word captures the essence of ‘casting or throwing down’ that we get from the Hebrew, but doesn’t tell us much else – certainly not to a known bird. As far as I can ascertain (from an, admittedly quick, trawl of Perseus), καταράκτην does not appear anywhere else. English translations tend to resort to ‘cormorant’, but this could simply reflect the influence of earlier English translations of the Hebrew text. This ambiguity might suggest that the translators also experienced difficulty in deciding what species it actually denotes.
One further place is to look at Latin translations. These, of course, are much later, but, again, help us to measure the way in which these texts were understood. For brevity, I’ll take just one example; the Vulgate. However, here again, it is not much help. The verse in question just mentions the screech-owl (and the ibis?). Latin texts generally tend to follow the Greek, Septuagint, rather than the Hebrew versions of the text. This means that the verse following include references to water birds (swan and bittern and coot). In this case, the cormorant does not look so quite out of place here.
What we do know is that cormorants would have been fairly common at the time of the Bible. France (1986:45) and Bright (2006:224) note that there are two species of cormorant that are commonly found in the Mediterranean, Phalacrocorax carbo (common cormorant) and Phalacrocorax desmarestii (common shag). A third species, Phalacrocorax pygmceus (the pygmy cormorant, referred to below by Tristram, is less common and is a winter visitor.
Writing at the end of the 19th century, Tristram states:
The Common Cormorant is very common on the coast, and comes up the visiting also the Sea of Galilee; and is likewise abundant on the Jordan as in the Nile. Another much smaller species, the Pygmy Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmceus), we also found on the Kishon and the Litany.Tristram (1898:252-253)
With, perhaps a little overly optimistic view of our ornithological skills, he goes on to add:
The Cormorant is too well known to require description.Tristram (ibid)
We would also expect cormorants to have been included in the list(s) of food prohibited to eat.
Readers of the King James Version might be a little puzzled by the way I seem to be ignoring two more references to the cormorant.
Both texts have a common theme; they describe scenes of utter desolation.
10 It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.Isaiah 34:10-11 (King James Version) emphasis added
11 But the cormorant and the bittern shall possess it; the owl also and the raven shall dwell in it: and he shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones of emptiness.
13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness.Zephaniah 2:13-14 (King James Version) emphasis added
14 And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds; for he shall uncover the cedar work.
The word translated here as ‘cormorant’ is קָאַת (qaat). As with shalakh, the meaning is uncertain. Modern translators tend to prefer an owl or species of owl (‘owl’ or ‘desert owl’). The NRSV renders it as ‘hawk’. The preference for owls here makes sense, as the writer is presenting a picture of ruination inhabited by slightly sinister and threatening non-human figures associated with this environment. Strangely some versions have ‘pelican’ which conjures an altogether different picture in my mind. France (1986:44) makes the point that pelicans are even less likely than cormorants to be found lodging on ruined lintels!
The sinister cormorant
I noted at the beginning that the cormorant’s rather sinister aspect is often commented upon, even if it is not particularly deserved – although I understand why anglers might disagree with me. For my part, I am quite happy to read qaat as cormorant. I think cormorants fit very nicely with the scenes described by Isaiah and Zephaniah.
References to qaat are supposed to chill the blood a little. Psalm 102 uses it to good effect:
6 I am like an owl [qaat] of the wilderness,Psalm 102:6 (NRSV)
like a little owl [kos] of the waste places.
It should be noted here, that the ‘wilderness’ (מִדְבָּר – midbar) does not necessarily mean ‘desert’, just the uncultivated (read here ‘uncivilised/undomesticated’) tracts of land.
I think that France (1986:44) is right when he argues that, “We lose many sinister overtones by preferring owls [to cormorants] here.”
In Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he depicts Satan at his most threatening, plotting Adam and Eve’s downfall, not as a snake (see Adder – day 23), or even an owl, but as a cormorant.
Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,Milton, Paradise Lost 4.195
The middle Tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv’d;
The cormorant also pays a sinister appearance in another recreation of a famous biblical event: Gethsemane. Andrea Mantegna (1431-1505) populates the garden of Gethsemane with numerous human and non-human figures (including rabbits and – I think – egrets). However, Milton-like, perched above Christ, facing in opposition the angels, on a leafless branch is the sinister and hooded shape of a cormorant.
*I got rather excited when I found that the collective noun for cormorants as being ‘a gulp of cormorants’! However, I am now assured that the proper way to refer to a group of cormorants is the much less colourful ‘flight’.
Barnes, S. (2005) A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion: Or a personal introduction to Britain’s 50 most obvious birds. London: Short Books.
Bright, M. (2006) Beasts of the Field: The revealing natural history of the bible. London: Robson Books.
France, P. (1986) An Encyclopedia of Bible Animals. London: Croom Helm.
Tristram, H.B. (1898) The natural history of the Bible : being a review of the physical geography, geology, and meteorology of the Holy Land; with a description of every animal and plant mentioned in the Holy Scripture. 9th edn. London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.
United Bible Societies (1980) Fauna and Flora of the Bible. Helps for Translators. 2nd edn. London: United Bible Societies.