The Cranes of Ibycus.

One of the benefits of reading nineteenth-century literature is that I keep running across cultural tropes that were then common but that have fallen into comparative desuetude since. (By “comparative desuetude,” I mean that although some of my readers are doubtless familiar with them, I myself am not.) One such is the cranes of Ibycus. About halfway through Poor Folk (which I am enjoying more and more), the aging and reclusive Makar Dedushkin thanks Varvara, the younger woman with whom he appears to be engaged in a competition as to who can most imperiously coddle whom, for the loan of a copy of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (see this post) in the following words:

Спрашиваю я теперь себя, маточка, как же это я жил до сих пор таким олухом, прости господи? Что делал? Из каких я лесов? Ведь ничего-то я не знаю, маточка, ровно ничего не знаю! совсем ничего не знаю! Я вам, Варенька, спроста скажу, — я человек неученый; читал я до сей поры мало, очень мало читал, да почти ничего: «Картину человека», умное сочинение, читал; «Мальчика, наигрывающего разные штучки па колокольчиках» читал, да «Ивиковы журавли», — вот только и всего, а больше ничего никогда не читал. Теперь я «Станционного смотрителя» здесь в вашей книжке прочел; ведь вот скажу я вам, маточка, случается же так, что живешь, а не знаешь, что под боком там у тебя книжка есть, где вся-то жизнь твоя как по пальцам разложена.

I ask you now, dear woman, how have I lived until now as such a blockhead, God forgive me? What have I done? What forest have I emerged from? You see, I don’t know anything at all, dear woman, I don’t know a single thing! I’ll tell you plainly, Varenka, I’m not a learned man; up until now I’ve read very little, hardly anything: I’ve read Picture of Man [a work of philosophy by Alexander Galich], a clever work; I’ve read The Little Chimer [Le petit carillonneur, an 1809 novel by François Guillaume Ducray-Duminil], and “The Cranes of Ibycus” — that’s all, I never read anything else. Now I’ve read “The Station Master” here in your little book; well, I’m telling you, dear woman, it can happen that you’re living your life and you don’t even realize that right next to you there’s a little book where your whole life is laid out in detail.

It’s obvious that the Pushkin story, about the mysterious fate of a young woman the narrator finds himself attracted to, is going to be relevant to the novel, but I had no idea what those cranes were doing there. It turns out the reference is to the Zhukovsky translation of Schiller’s 1797 poem “Die Kraniche des Ibykus,” which tells a story succinctly summarized by Samuel Burder in Oriental Literature Applied to the Illustration of the Sacred Scripture, Vol. 2 (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822), p. 77:

Greeks and Romans, as, for instance, Plato, Plutarch, Strabo, Cicero, Pliny, and others, say, that the poet Ibycus of Regium, (Reggio,) when he was murdered by robbers, called upon the cranes, which were fluttering about to give witness of his death. When the murderers were once at the theatre, and saw a flock of cranes, they whispered to each other, “Behold the avengers of Ibycus!” And the cranes became so in fact; for some persons who were near, and understood this whispering, gave information of it to the magistrates, who seized the murderers, and had them executed. Hence the proverb, “The cranes of Ibycus,” which is used when secret crimes come to light by a wonderful dispensation of Providence.

Rina Lapidus, on p. 176 (fn. 21) of Jewish Women Writers in the Soviet Union (Routledge, 2013), says “The cranes of Ibycus became a symbol of revealing the truth. Many twentieth century Russian poets alluded to the cranes of Ibycus.” One of those poets was Brodsky, who in “Два часа в резервуаре” (“Two Hours in a Container”), an amazing and sometimes hilarious mixture of Russian, German, and various other bits of languages, writes:

Унд ивиковы злые журавли,
из веймарского выпорхнув тумана,
ключ выхватили прямо из кармана.

Und Ibycus’s wicked/spiteful cranes,
darting out of the fog of Weimar,
snatched the key right out of the pocket.

I can’t resist mentioning one of those hilarious bits, the line “Он съел дер дог в Ибн-Сине и в Галене”: “He ate der mastiff in Avicenna and in Galen.” Here “дер дог” (with дог borrowed from French dogue [thanks, JC!]) replaces собака ‘dog’ in the very weird Russian idiom собаку съесть ‘to know (something) inside out, to be an expert in (something)’ — literally, ‘to eat the dog.’ And as the president and sole member of the North American Veltman Appreciation Society, I can’t resist pointing out that the first occurrence of the phrase in Russian literature appears to be from Veltman’s 1848 novel Саломея [Salomeya]:

Римский Лукулл был умен и учен, съел собаку в познаниях, образовался у известнейших док красноречия и философии, имел огромную библиотеку, которою пользовался Цицерон, бывши еще мальчиком; а русский Лукулл, хоть и любил собак, но не съел ни одной по части отягощающей голову, а не желудок.

The Roman Lucullus was clever and learned, knew things inside out [literally ‘ate the dog in knowledge’], studied with the most famous authorities of rhetoric and philosophy, had a huge library used by Cicero when still a boy; but the Russian Lucullus, even though he loved dogs, didn’t eat any that would burden his head rather than his stomach.

I’m not a bit surprised that Veltman, that lover of oddity, would have seized on this odd expression and done a little baring of the device, as Shklovsky would call it. (I have no idea what to do with пивши and отягощающей in that quote, and welcome all suggestions.) [Text and translation corrected; thanks, uwe and other helpful commenters!]


  1. “Пивши” is an OCR glitch for “бывши”. Checking the scans at google books confirms that (and also shows typo “Рамскій”, which made searching for “римскій лукуллъ” frustrating).

    но не съел ни одной по части отягощающей голову, а не желудок”

    Is a pun on the literal meaning of “to eat the dog”. “He didn’t eat any dogs that would burden his head rather than his stomach”.

  2. по части отягощающей голову, а не желудок
    or “of a kind which fills head as opposed to belly”. As to “Пивши”, I would have bet that it’s an OCR fault, glad I don’t have to look there now… In the XIC c. typesetting, “ы” often closely abutted the preceding letter in the manner which is difficult for OCR.

    It looks like metaphorical dog-eating is disappearing from Russian language today, if the Google results are any indication.

  3. Quick search at shows earlier occurences (including Lazhechnikov’s “Ice Palace”).

  4. I agree with uwe, the last phrase is a pun on собаку съесть with metaphorical sense played against the literal:

    Even though he loved dogs, he did not eat a single one for the benefit of his head and not his stomach.

    How does one apply to join the Veltman Appreciation Society?

  5. I was told in my youth that собаку съел had a continuation — собаку съел, хвостом подавился (ate a dog, choked on the tail). But apparently it was dropped quite a long time ago. Or was it invented recently?

    And as for eating dogs, clearly it is intended as a double pun. People who love dogs (as opposed to hot dogs, but Veltman had no way of knowing that) are not normally eating them neither literally, not metaphorically.

  6. Dahl has both versions under собака.

  7. Thanks, all! I’ve corrected the post accordingly.

  8. Is it possible that дог is French dogue ‘mastiff, bulldog’ rather than English dog? (Ultimately the French word is < English, of course.)

  9. Ah, yes, good catch—that’s exactly what дог is (it means ‘mastiff’ specifically, not ‘dog’ in general). I was so fixated on дог = собака that I forgot it was actually a Russian word, and that word is definitely from French. I’ll emend the post.

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