Posted by: ayac | October 17, 2014

Aesop’s Fables 21: The Birdcatcher and the Snake

This fable is based on The Fowler and the Asp (Perry 115). For other Aesop’s fables see here.

At first I thought itecpa was “his flint knife”, but -tecpah at the end of the line made it clear that it should be ītēcpah. Tēcpahtli is a kind of plant, used for birdlime as well as other purposes. The word is not in Molina but it’s described in the Florentine Codex (bk. 11, ch. 7, para. 2 = vol. 3, f. 133v) and by Hernández (1615: bk.2, pt. 2, ch. XVI = f. 105v, 1651: bk. VI, ch. XV = p. 191). However nobody has actually been able to identify it, even though its name has apparently been loaned into Spanish as tepacle (Robelo 1904: 302).

The only plausible etymology for it is tēuctli ‘lord’ + pahtli ‘drug; medicinal plant’, with regular dissimilation of /kʷp/ to /kp/ (c.f. tēcpan ‘palace’, tēcpilli ‘son of a lord’). A similar phenomenon is the change of /wkʷ/ to /wk/ in cuahuitl ‘tree’ + cuezcomatl ‘granary’ > cuauhquezcomatl ‘wooden granary’. Though I don’t think there’s any evidence to work out why it would be called that in particular.

I’m not sure if the Nahuas used birdlime with reeds the same way the ancients did. For that matter I don’t know much about the ancient way of catching birds with birdlime and reeds in the first place. Googling finds it mentioned in Augustine’s De magistro (Robert P. Russell’s translation):

Suppose now that someone unfamiliar with the business of snaring birds, which is done with reeds and birdlime, should encounter a bird-catcher fitted out with all his equipment, though he is not snaring birds but simply going on his way. At the sight of him, he quickens his pace and, as is usually the case, reflects and, in amazement, asks himself the meaning of the man’s paraphernalia. Suppose, too, that the bird-catcher, aware that the other’s attention is fixed upon him, and eager to show off his prowess, releases the reeds and, with his rod and hawk, snares a little bird which he sees nearby which he comes up to and captures. Would he not, I ask you, teach that spectator of his what he was so eager to know, not by any sign, but by the reality itself?

Apparently there’s a hawk involved too?

The Wikipedia article on birdlime is pretty terrible, but in the article on bird trapping there’s a link to an article in The Avicultural Magazine from 1903, entitled “Bird-catching in India“. Even though it’s from early 20th century India and not ancient Europe (or north Africa), it sounds pretty similar to what Augustine’s talking about:

Bird-lime is used in India in two different senses, which I shall term “passive” and “active.” In the former, limed twigs are placed in convenient positions for the capture of the bird—either by its feet or by its wings—when it comes in contact with them. In the latter sense, the bird-catcher literally hunts his prey, “stabbing” it with a long rod, which is limed at its extremity. The “passive” sense … is the only one adopted in England. …

I will now pass on to describe what I consider the most interesting and sporting of all methods of bird-catching—the using of bird-lime in an “active” sense. The accompanying photo. of a bird-catcher was taken at Lucknow. In his right hand are a number of thin bamboos, all furnished with a hollow joint at one end, so that they may be fitted together upon the principle of a chimney sweep’s brush, or a fishing-rod. Each bamboo is about five feet long, and every catcher carries from four to eight of them. At the end of the topmost joint a forked, limed twig, about a foot long, is inserted. When not in use, the twig is carried in the bird-lime receptable—a thick, hollow portion of bamboo about a foot long—which is seen in the photo. stuck in the right side of the catcher’s loin cloth. The flat, circular basket at the man’s left elbow is for putting the birds in when caught. When the catcher sees a bird in a tree overhead, which he wishes to capture, he quickly lengthens his rod with as many joints as may be necessary (according to the height of the bird), gently pushing up the rod until the limed twigs are within a foot or two of the bird. Then, by a sudden push, at the same time slightly twisting the rod, a capture is generally effected. In order to decrease the possibility of the bird being frightened by the sight of the catcher, a screen of green leaves is often attached to his left arm.

* * *

The Nahuatl text:

¶ totohanqui yhuan cohuatl.

Cetotoanqui concuic ynitecpa yhuan Yacauh oya tlatecpah / huito. auh centetl huilotl quauhticpac catca ynoquittac / totoanqui : niman yeiccalahua ynitecpa acati tech , huelytzin / tlan onmihquani inquahuitl ynoncan catca tototl . auh / yniquac oquicemittac huilotl yhuan inyecahcoctiuh yacauh , / cetequani cohuatl ypancholo : niman oquichopini . auh inyeon / miqui totoanqui , oquihto . yyoyahue . onotlahueliltic, / yniquac ninotepachihuia , yehnonipa tenepactihuiliztica / nimiqui.

Iniçaçanilli quinezcayotia; ynaquique tetoniliznequi : ca / miecpa çannoye huantin ympa mocuepa ynitntetoliniliz.

Tōtō-ān-qui   ī-huān    cōā-tl.
bird-catch-er 3sgP-with snake-ABS
The birdcatcher and the snake.

Cē  tōtō-ān-qui   c-on-cui-c          in  ī-tēcpah     ī-huān    ī-āca-uh;
one bird-catch-er 3sgO-there-take-PST SUB his-birdlime 3sgP-with 3sgP-reed-POS
A birdcatcher took his birdlime and his reeds,

ō=yah;   tla-tēcpah-huī-to.
PST=went something-birdlime-use_on-went.
and went out to catch birds.

Auh cen-te-tl     huīlō-tl cuauh-ti-cpa-c   cat-ca.
and one-stone-ABS dove-ABS tree-LIG-top-LOC be-PST
And there was a dove in a tree.

In  ō=qui-hta-c      tōtō-ān-qui,
SUB PST=3sgO-see-PST bird-catch-er
When he saw it, the birdcatcher

niman ye      īc      c-alāhua   in  ī-tēcpah      āca-ti-tech.
then  already thereby 3sgO-slide SUB 3sgP-birdlime reed-LIG-to
started to slide his birdlime onto the reeds. (?)

Huel ī-tzīn-tlan    on-m-ihcuanih-Ø     in  cuahui-tl in  oncān cat-ca tōtō-tl.
well 3sgP-butt-near there-3sgR-move-PST SUB tree-ABS  SUB there be-PST bird-ABS
He came right underneath the tree where the bird was.

Auh in=ihcuāc ō=qui-cem-itta-c      huīlō-tl
and SUB=then  PST-3sgO-one-look-PST dove
And when he was staring at the dove

ī-huān    in  ye      c-ahco-c-ti-uh         ī-āca-uh,
3sgP-with SUB already 3sgO-above-take-LIG-go 3sgP-reed-POS
and raising up his reeds,

cē tēcuāni cōā-tl    ī-pan   choloh-Ø; niman ō=qui-chopīnih-Ø.
a  deadly  snake-ABS 3sgP-on jump-PST  then  PST-3sgO-prick-PST
a venomous snake jumped on him and bit him.

Auh in  ye      on-miqui  tōtō-ān-qui   ō=qui-htoh-Ø,
and SUB already there-die bird-catch-er PST=3sgO-say-PST
And as he was dying, the birdcatcher said,

"Iyoiyahue,  ō=no-tlahuēliltic!
interjection PST=1sgP-unfortunate
"Woe is me!

In=ihcuāc ni-no-tē-pachihu-ia
SUB=then  1sgS-1sgR-someone-press-APPLIC
While stalking someone else,

Yeh nō  nipa      tē-ne-pachihu-ī-liz-ti-ca               ni-miqui."
it  too elsewhere someone-REFL-press-APPLIC-action-LIG-by 1sgS-die
I die because of someone else stalking me."

(I don't really get 'yeh nō nipa'. It might be something else.)


  1. Where do you have the attestation of long e in tecpahtli?

  2. I’m just assuming based on the apparent derivation from tēuctli. If the etymology’s wrong then it could be short.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s