’Twas quite otherwise among the heathens, said Pantagruel, when they used to receive a maiden among the number of vestals; for Leo Antistius affirms that it was absolutely forbidden to admit a virgin into that order if she had any vice in her soul or defect in her body, though it were but the smallest spot on any part of it. I can hardly believe, continued Aedituus, that their dams on t’other side the water go nine months with them; for they cannot endure them nine years, nay, scarce seven sometimes, in the house, but by putting only a shirt over the other clothes of the young urchins, and lopping off I don’t well know how many hairs from their crowns, mumbling certain apostrophized and expiatory words, they visibly, openly, and plainly, by a Pythagorical metempsychosis, without the least hurt, transmogrify them into such birds as you now see; much after the fashion of the Egyptian heathens, who used to constitute their isiacs by shaving them and making them put on certain linostoles, or surplices. However, I don’t know, my good friends, but that these she-things, whether clerg-kites, monk-kites, and abbess-kites, instead of singing pleasant verses and charisteres, such as used to be sung to Oromasis by Zoroaster’s institution, may be bellowing out such catarates and scythropys (cursed lamentable and wretched imprecations) as were usually offered to the Arimanian demon; being thus in devotion for their kind friends and relations that transformed them into birds, whether when they were maids, or thornbacks, in their prime, or at their last prayers.
But the greatest numbers of our birds came out of Want-o’-bread, which, though a barren country, where the days are of a most tedious lingering length, overstocks this whole island with the lower class of birds. For hither fly the asapheis that inhabit that land, either when they are in danger of passing their time scurvily for want of belly-timber, being unable, or, what’s more likely, unwilling to take heart of grace and follow some honest lawful calling, or too proud-hearted and lazy to go to service in some sober family. The same is done by your frantic inamoradoes, who, when crossed in their wild desires, grow stark staring mad, and choose this life suggested to them by their despair, too cowardly to make them swing, like their brother Iphis of doleful memory. There is another sort, that is, your gaol-birds, who, having done some rogue’s trick or other heinous villainy, and being sought up and down to be trussed up and made to ride the two or three-legged mare that groans for them, warily scour off and come here to save their bacon; because all these sorts of birds are here provided for, and grow in an instant as fat as hogs, though they came as lean as rakes; for having the benefit of the clergy, they are as safe as thieves in a mill within this sanctuary.
But, asked Pantagruel, do these birds never return to the world where they were hatched? Some do, answered Aedituus; formerly very few, very seldom, very late, and very unwillingly; however, since some certain eclipses, by the virtue of the celestial constellations, a great crowd of them fled back to the world. Nor do we fret or vex ourselves a jot about it; for those that stay wisely sing, The fewer the better cheer; and all those that fly away, first cast off their feathers here among these nettles and briars.