Sunday, January 08, 2006


Fishing at Night

Last summer there was a series of posts at The Bourgeois Burglars about fishing at night, inspired by Plato, Sophist 220 d (in Jowett's translation, "There is one mode of striking, which is done at night, and by the light of a fire, and is by the hunters themselves called firing, or spearing by firelight."):Burglar confessed, "I remain puzzled both about what nocturnal fishing in ancient Greece was like and the placement in the Sophist of the daytime/nighttime division." This post addresses only the first question, what nocturnal fishing in ancient Greece was like.

A dedicatory epigram from the Greek Anthology (6.5, tr. W.R. Paton) refers obliquely to the practice of fishing by night, when it includes among fishing tackle a flint to light a fire:
Piso the fisherman, weighed down by long toil and his right hand already shaky, gives to Hermes these his rods with the lines hanging from their tips, his oar that swam through the sea, his curved hooks whose points bite the fishes' throats, his net fringed with lead, the float that announced where his weel lay, his two wicker creels, the flint pregnant with fire that sets the tinder alight, and his anchor, the trap that holds fast wandering ships.
In their commentary on this epigram, A.S.F. Gow and D.L. Page quote Alfred J. Butler, Sport in Classic Times (London: Benn, 1930), pp. 148-149:
[T]orch or cresset was set on the bows of the boat, which was allowed to drift or was gently propelled until fish were near enough, when a long-handled trident was used for striking. It is worth noting, however, that instead of blazing pinewood sometimes a brass lantern with sides of horn was carried on the prow of the boat, but presumably only on calm water ... The flare, however, was and still is used to decoy fish, as well as to spear them. The boat is turned round and round several times, then as the bewildered fish crowd towards the light, it is very gently moved up to a shelving beach, as close as possible without touching, and nets are swiftly flung out to encircle the prey.
Gow and Page also cite Oppian's Halieutica 5.428 ff. (unavailable to me). In the Gospels, the disciples did not have good luck fishing at night (Luke 5.5, John 21.3-5).

I suspect that ancient fishing at night with torches and spears was quite similar to modern frog gigging. This detailed description of frog gigging is not for the tender-hearted. Some frog giggers use a miner's head lamp to keep both hands free.

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