Gateway to the Classics: Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by Mary E. Burt
Stories from Plato and Other Classic Writers by  Mary E. Burt

Why the Quarrelsome Men Were Locked Out of Bird City

There was once a beautiful city where for a long time people were good and brave and happy. They sang sweet songs, told pleasant stories, built great temples and offered sacrifices to the gods. But it came about as time passed on, that they grew selfish, each man desiring the things that belonged to some other man, and when he could not get them he went to law about it to make the other man give them up.

There were two men living in the beautiful city who grew tired of all this wrangle and made up their minds that they would go off to a pleasanter place. So each of them bought a bird; one bought a magpie and the other a jackdaw, to show them the way to a better land.

They travelled about for many days, tramping up and down, watching every motion of the birds, so that they might find the way to the happy land.

At last the birds flew straight up into the air and of course the two travellers had to follow them. When they had gone up far enough they came to a country where they found a king who had once been a man and had lived in the beautiful city. But he too had become tired of seeing people quarrel, and he had run away up to bird-land where he had changed into a hoopoe and lived in peace.


The two travellers came to the door of King Hoopoe and knocked very loudly, but no one answered them, so they cried at the tops of their voices, "Hoop! Hoop! Hoopoe!" and the king's servant came to the door.


The servant was a very large bird, but he was frightened when he saw the travellers, for he was afraid that they were a pair of birdcatchers, so he told them that they had better be off or the birds would get after them and put them to death.

This scared the travellers and they told him they were changing into birds themselves and asked him who he was. The servant replied that he was once a slave and that he lived with his master in the beautiful city. But when Hoopoe ran away from the quarreling city and came up to bird-land, he came too, and was changed into a slave-bird, in order that he might still wait upon his master.

"King Hoopoe has not forgotten that he was once a man," said the slave-bird, "and sometimes he longs to eat bread and honey or porridge. So I bake bread for him and mix porridge when he wants it."

"I wish you would call your master out so that we may talk with him," said one of the travellers.

"I do not like to do that," said the slave-bird. "He has been eating a bowl of berries, and a plate of worms, and now he is taking a little rest."

The travellers insisted, however, that King Hoopoe should be called to the door, and the slave-bird was obliged to call him, and the royal Hoopoe came out. He had a tremendous beak and crest, but few feathers and was very ridiculous in his appearance. Hoopoe received the strangers kindly and asked them why they had come to bird-land, so they told him that they had run away from the beautiful city where there were so many quarrels, and had come to bird-land, where they hoped to build a city up in the air, between heaven and earth.

"Men live on earth," said the travellers, "and the gods live up in the heavens, and if we build a city between them, we shall be masters of both. The gods live on the smoke that comes up to them from the sacrifices which men burn on their altars.

If we build our city between them we shall starve the gods, and then they will be obliged to come down and beg us to be kind to them and they will pay us taxes."

King Hoopoe forgot for a little while that he had left the beautiful city to get away from quarrels, and thought the travellers were very smart men, and that it would be a clever idea to build the city. Then he called all the birds together to tell them what the strangers had proposed, and they came running and scrambling with a great clatter, crying, "Where are the men who want to build a city in bird-land? Whee! Whaw! Where? Where? What? What? What? What?"

At first the birds looked fierce and angry. I think that they were afraid that the travellers meant to catch their king and carry him off. They formed in ranks like soldiers and acted as if they intended to tear the strangers to pieces.

The travellers seized some huge kettle-covers and held them up before their faces so that the birds should not dash at their eyes with their strong beaks. But old King Hoopoe told them to stand back and treat the men kindly since they were friends.

Then the travellers told all the birds that if they would help to build the city they should rule over the gods. "It is only right," said they, "for you are older than the gods and the older ones should rule over the younger. It is a well-known fact," continued the strangers, "that birds are older than the earth even. For the lark had no place to bury his father when he died, because the earth had not then been invented. And it is true, too, that mankind worshipped the birds once.

"But the Gods overcame the birds, and now Jupiter always appears carrying an eagle, Minerva an owl, Apollo a Hawk, and so on." The birds listened with great interest to the flattering speeches of the travellers, and asked how they should make Jupiter and his Olympian host surrender to the birds. "This is the way to do it," said the travellers. "We will build the city and put very strong walls around it and make forts to defend it. Then we will starve out the gods by keeping from them the incense which comes up from their altars on earth. They will dispatch messengers down to earth to find out why men do not send up any more incense. We will capture their messengers and keep them until the gods come down and offer to pay us tribute.

And we will send a messenger down to men and tell them that every time they offer a sacrifice to Venus they must feast the sparrows with grain; every time they offer gifts to Neptune they must feast the ducks and drakes with barley and so on until all the birds are fed.

And if the people on the earth agree to do this we will offer to equip an army of owls to destroy the grass-hoppers that eat up their vines, and an army of thrushes to destroy the worms which spoil their figs, and so on with all the other insects which injure their crops; and we will help them further by sending the sea-mew to guide their ships over the stormy sea, and there is a bird that can point out to them where gold and silver is hidden away in the earth."

The birds were pleased with this arrangement and went to work with a right good will to build the city. There were thirty thousand cranes who brought stones from Africa in their gizzards, and the curlews worked them into shape. The mud-larks and the sand-martins mixed mortar, and the water-birds brought water to soften the mortar. The crows and pigeons helped the masons; and the geese, all barefoot, trampled down the mortar and put it into hods, while an army of ducks climbed up the ladders with the hods, and used their little feet for trowels to smooth down the plaster.


The woodpeckers were the carpenters and they made a great clatter hammering away hard at work. When the city was all finished they put the jackdaws upon the towers to watch over the city and catch any of the messengers from the gods who might be sent down to earth to demand sacrifices of men.

It was not long before a messenger appeared in sight. The beautiful Iris with her rainbow-robes came flying down, and not knowing that the birds had built a city in the air, she flew right into their midst. The birds were greatly excited. They sent an army of ten thousand hawks, and twenty thousand hobby-hawks and a great number of vultures, falcons, ospreys, eagles, and other birds to catch her.

On every side there was a rushing and whizzing sound as the birds flew hither and thither searching for her. The travellers were the first to see her and they cried out: "Halt! Stop this instant! Who are you? Where do you come from?"

"Why, I come from Mount Olympus, to be sure," said Iris, "and I am sent by father Jupiter to command mortals to sacrifice to him."

"Which of the city-gates did you enter? Did any of the bird-masters examine you and let you pass through our city? Ho, guards! take her and lead her to prison!"

When Iris heard this she was indignant and told them that she did not know there was any bird-city, so the travellers and the birds advised her to go back to Mount Olympus and tell father Jupiter that he must pay the birds a tribute of money whenever he sent a messenger to earth. And they told Iris that they would steal her beautiful rainbow-colors away from her if she ever dared to come that way again.

The unhappy goddess flew back to Mount Olympus and repeated to Jupiter all that had happened. It was a sad time for Jupiter and the rest of the Olympian gods. They waited long and patiently for the smoke of sacrifices to come to them.

At last when they began to starve they sent Hercules and Neptune down to promise the birds that they should be well paid if they would allow the smoke to come up to the gods from the altars on earth.

And they promised to give the birds water for their tanks and rainy weather, or dry weather, or any sort of weather for which they had a mind to ask. They gave another promise, too, that one of the travellers who had taught the birds to build the city should have a beautiful goddess for a wife. The birds received old Neptune and Hercules very kindly and agreed to allow the gods to have their incense, and they had a gay wedding for the traveller and the goddess, and all the birds and all the gods became good friends.


Now when the quarrelsome men down on earth saw the good fortune of the travellers they were wild with envy.

Each man wanted to build a city and become very rich and very famous all in a minute. They wanted to go up to bird-land and live in the bird-city and have the gods pay them taxes.

And they were so greedy and so conceited that they even thought they ought to have goddesses for wives, although they were so dreadfully common that they could not have told a goddess from a pig with a ring in its nose.

These quarrelsome men said to themselves, "If we can get into the bird-city we will live in the bird-palaces which are much grander than our houses, and after a while we will kill all the birds or drive them down to earth to build their nests in trees."

So the quarrelsome men sent a messenger up to the bird-city with flattering messages and this is what he said: "Oh, beautiful birds, the people on earth have sent you a gold medal to show how much they admire you. And you, oh travellers, have become the founders of this great city, you do not know how much you, too, are admired and watched. Birds and travellers are all the fashion.

The people on earth do everything just as the birds do. They rise with the lark, they scratch and scrabble, they pick and peck, and they all wish for wings to fly. They try to sing like birds and there are thousands of them who are preparing to come up to live in your bird-city, so that they can get wings and claws, marry goddesses, and collect taxes from the gods."

But King Hoopoe said to the city-guards: "Lock the gates. We do not want quarrelsome men to come up here. They will quarrel with the birds as they quarrel with each other, and rob them of their homes and kill them. They will quarrel with our friends, the gods, and keep their incense from them, and they will forget to worship them."

So the gates of the bird-city were locked and the quarrelsome men had to stay on earth. But the happy birds went singing and flying wherever they pleased. Sometimes they flew off into the blue sky among the clouds and rainbows. Sometimes they flew down to earth to destroy grass-hoppers and worms, or to eat grain from the altars of the gods.

Sometimes they flew up to Mount Olympus and gave lovely concerts, singing sweet melodies in chorus before the gods. And the gods were pleased to hear their sweet songs and told them that the heavens were more beautiful because they were there. But their happiest days were spent with their mates and young ones in their pretty homes in bird-land.

And now, I am sure, we all feel sorry for the quarrelsome men, because they are shut out of the bird-city.

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