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The Locust Plagues of Mount Sipylus

Mount Sipylus and its surroundings as viewed from Google Maps is seen to be covered with succulent vegetation.

If I were strategic advisor to a locust plague, I would urge it to steer well clear of Mount Sipylus. And should the locusts choose to disregard my counsel, you say? In that case I would call their attention to these words of the 2nd century travel log writer Pausanias [1]:

I myself know that locusts have been destroyed three times in the past on Mount Sipylus, and not in the same way. Once a gale arose and swept them away; on another occasion violent heat came on after rain and destroyed them; the third time sudden cold caught them and they died.

The locusts, once confronted with the knowledge that their brethren had been thrice exterminated on the mountain, would no doubt go swarming off to ravage the vegetation in another territory. Having made plain the perils of Mount Sipylus, I would summarily collect my fee and get the fuck out of there on the double.

References

[1] Pausanias Description of Greece translated by William Henry Samuel Jones and Henry Ardene Ormerod (1918), Harvard University Press, Book I, Chapter 24, Section 8. Read this passage about the locust plagues near Mount Sipylus at The Perseus Project.

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The Table of the Sun

The Table of the Sun God is an article on the Frédéric Cailliaud expedition to the ancient city of Meroë that appeared a 1968 issue of the British educational magazine for children Look and Learn [11]. Image licensed for educational use (LL0362-015-00).

The Table of the Sun God is an article on the Frédéric Cailliaud expedition to the ancient city of Meroë that appeared a 1968 issue of the British educational magazine for children Look and Learn [11]. Image licensed for educational use (LL0362-015-00).

The Table of the Sun is a magical place at the border of legend and history and it was to verify the truth of that that the Persian king Cambyses dispatched a party of spies to the land of the Ethiopians as a prelude to invasion. This, at any rate, is the story as it is related by Herototus, who writes of the miraculous table [1]:

Now the Table of the Sun is said to be something of this kind: there is a meadow outside the city, filled with the boiled flesh of all four-footed things; here during the night the men of authority among the townsmen are careful to set out the meat, and all day whoever wishes comes and feasts on it. These meats, say the people of the country, are ever produced by the earth of itself. Such is the story of the Sun’s Table.

The unnamed city to which Herodotus refers is most likely Meroë, capital of a people that he calls the long-lived Ethiopians [2]. But modern readers will known them better as the Nubians of the Kingdom of Kush (see Footnote 1). When the spies returned to Egypt and reported their findings to Cambyses, who had only recently expanded his empire into that country, the great king became incensed and set out at once on an ill-considered campaign against the Ethiopians (see Footnote 2). But Cambyses’ army ran short on provisions before reaching even a fifth of the way to the land of the Ethiopians from Thebes, and he was forced to march back to Egypt after his soldiers resorted to eating first grass and then one another [6].

I turn now to the reconnaissance mission of the spies (all of which is recounted in ref. [7]), who Herodotus identifies as some men of the Fish-Eaters from the city of Elephantine in Upper Egypt. The party was sent off to Ethiopia to present the king there with a disingenuous message of friendship from Cambyses and the following assortment of gifts: a red cloak, an alabaster box of myrrh, a jar of palm-wine, and a gold necklace and bracelets. But the Ethiopian king saw through the Fish-Eaters’ pretence, and instructed them to report this anti-imperial message to Cambyses:

The King of the Ethiopians advises the King of the Persians to bring overwhelming odds to attack the long-lived Ethiopians when the Persians can draw a bow of this length as easily as I do; but until then, to thank the gods who do not incite the sons of the Ethiopians to add other land to their own.

The bow he then handed over to the Fish-Eaters with instructions to bring it back to Cambyses. This provocation is no doubt what roused Cambyses anger to such a height, at least in the imagination of Herodotus, that he summarily embarked on a reckless invasion of the land of the Ethiopians. Although it will be remembered that his original motive for taking military action against the Ethiopians was to acquire the limitless resources of meat supplied by the Table of the Sun.

The Ethiopian king next turned his attention to the gifts. Upon examining the red cloak and learning of how it was manufactured using a dye, the king declared that the garment was pretending to be what it was not, and was therefore deceitful so far as garments go. He was equally unimpressed with the myrrh once he was made to understand that it is used as a perfume. The palm-wine, on the other hand, he found to be delicious. As regards the gold jewellery, the king was much amused; for he supposed the necklace and bracelets to be shackles and boasted of how he had stronger ones in his country.

So much for the gifts.

The king then proceeded to make a token enquiry about the diet and lifespan of the Persians in an effort to direct the conversation toward the utopian character of his kingdom. This became apparent when the Fish-Eaters, in their turn, asking the same of the king about his people, were told that the Ethiopians lived to be a hundred and twenty or more on a simple diet of boiled meat, milk, and violet-scented water from a local spring. Herodotus attributes the exceptional longevity of the Ethiopians, assuming the reports were true, to the waters of this magical spring (see Footnote 3). At the conclusion of these pleasantries, the Fish-Eaters were conducted on a tour of the spring, a prison where all the men were bound with golden shackles, the Table of the Sun, and finally a curious cemetery of crystal coffins set up outside the town.

What is one to make of this fantastical account of a utopian country at the fringes of the earth?

The people live long and healthy lives in an apparently just society, possesses vast quantities of gold, and are without imperial ambitions. On top of that they have a meadow outside the city which magically generates an abundance of meats each morning. It will also be noted that Herodotus wrote of the Ethiopians that they were the tallest and most beautiful people in all the world.

A photograph of the Sun Temple ruins at Meroë taken during the John Garstang excavation of 1909-10.

A photograph of the Sun Temple ruins at Meroë taken during the John Garstang excavation of 1909-10.

Modern scholarly opinion traces the origin of these legends back to elaborations on descriptions of the Ethiopians found in Homer concocted by imaginative Greek utopian writers. Herodotus’ role in all of this was to rationalise these legends in such a way that they seemed historical to future generations [5,8]. Herodotean scholar David Asheri attributes the legend of the Table of the Sun in particular to “the hecatombs and banquets of the Ethiopians in Homer, in which the gods participate; and also the image of Ethiopia, for evident reasons, as the land of the Sun.” [5]. This to the best of my knowledge is the gist of the present day scholarly consensus.

But a contrary view that held sway during the first half of the 20th century contends that in Herodotus is contained the earliest surviving, albeit thoroughly garbled, description of Meroë. John Garstang, who led an excavation of Meroë at 1909-10, identified the Table of the Sun with a temple (the Sun Temple [8]) that was found to contain a stone block inscribed with a solar disc in what was once a fertile area nearby the city [9]. However, this identification has been largely discredited by the historian Stanley M. Burstein [10]. The most critical piece of evidence is the age of the Sun Temple, which has been dated to the 1st century of the common era, whereas Herodotus was writing of the Table of the Sun during the reign of Cambyses in the 6th century BC. We may nevertheless entertain the possibility of a connection between the Table of the Sun and the fertile area in which the Sun Temple ruins are found, but admittedly with utmost caution.

Such is the legend and the history of the Table of the Sun.

Footnotes

[1] Herodotus never explicitly locates The Table of the Sun at Meroë, although the classical geographers Pomponius Mela and Pausanias were both quick to draw this identification in summarising his work [3,4]. Modern scholars are more careful. Herodotean scholar David Asheri, for example, cautions that Herodotus may have even been thinking of the mythical land of Nysa [5].

[2] Cambyses succeeded Cyrus the Great on the Persian throne and reigned from 530 to 522 BC. He subjugated Egypt in the year 525 BC.

[3] This is the first mention of the Fountain of Youth in recorded history.

References

[1] The Histories by Herodotus; translated by A. D. Godley (1920), Harvard University Press, Book III, Chapter 18, Section 1. Read Herodotus’ passage about the Table of the Sun at The Perseus Project.

[2] The Histories by Herodotus; translated by A. D. Godley (1920), Harvard University Press, Book II, Chapter 29. Read Herodotus’ passage about the city of Meroë at The Perseus Project.

[3] Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World translated by Frank E. Romer (1998), University of Michigan Press, Book III, Chapter 85. Preview this passage on Google Books.

[4] Pausanias Description of Greece translated by William Henry Samuel Jones and Henry Ardene Ormerod (1918), Harvard University Press, Book I, Chapter 33, Section 4. Read this passage about the Table of the Sun at The Perseus Project.

[5] A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV by David Asheri et al. (2007), Oxford University Press, p. 417-9. Preview this passage on Google Books.

[6] The Histories by Herodotus; translated by A. D. Godley (1920), Harvard University Press, Book III, Chapter 25. Read Herodotus’ passage about Cambyses’ disastrous military expedition against the Ethiopians at The Perseus Project.

[7] The Histories by Herodotus; translated by A. D. Godley (1920), Harvard University Press, Book III, Chapter 20-24. Read about the reconnaissance mission of Cambyses’ spies at The Perseus Project.

[8] The Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe by The Republic of Sudan National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (2010), p. 40-1. Read this document at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre website.

[9] Meroë, the City of the Ethiopians: Being an Account of a First Season’s Excavations on the Site, 1909-1910 by John Garstang with an introduction and chapter on decipherment by Archibald Sayce and a chapter on the inscriptions from Meroë by Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1911), Oxford at the Clarendon Press. The original book has been digitised and made available for viewing and download at The Internet Archive; see Chapter VI for a description of the Sun Temple by Archibald Sayce.

[10] Herodotus and the Emergence of Meroe by Stanley M. Burstein, Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, 11 (1981) 1-5. This volume is currently out of print, but a scanned pdf file of article has been provided to me courtesy of SSEA-Benben Publications, which I have made available for download here.

[11] The Table of the Sun God by D. Charles Nicolle (1968), Look and Learn Issue no. 362. Read this article at the Look and Learn Historical Picture Library.

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The Inessential Guide to Herodotus

Marble herm of Herodotos with Greek inscription. Roman copy of the Imperial era (AD 2nd century) after a Greek bronze original of the first half of the 4th century BC. From Benha (ancient Athribis), Lower Egypt. It is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The photo was taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen and is distributed under a CC-BY 2.5 license.

Marble herm of Herodotos with Greek inscription. Roman copy of the Imperial era (AD 2nd century) after a Greek bronze original of the first half of the 4th century BC. From Benha (ancient Athribis), Lower Egypt. It is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The photo was taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen and is distributed under a CC-BY 2.5 license.

Inessential knowledge can be a source of true delight. That is what Bertrand Russell had in mind when he wrote of the acquisition of knowledge that does not contribute to professional competence as “a means of creating a broad and humane outlook on life.” Any person sharing his habit of mind will be well launched on the reading of Herodotus — for Herodotus aimed to both inform and delight his audience in writing the story of how a small and internally divided jumble of Greek city states united to repel two successive invasions by the mighty Persian Empire. This narrative, which forms the core part of his work, has always been deemed essential to any good history curriculum and in more recent times it has proliferated into popular culture via the medium of the Hollywood blockbuster film. Thus knowledge that the Greeks scored a decisive naval victory over Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis, and that this was somehow important for shaping the future of Western civilisation, is just as likely to be found among the learned as it is among couch potatoes. But in spite of these efforts on the part of our cultural guardians, consider for a moment how many among us pass through life wholly unaware that Xerxes halted the advance of his entire army on the road to Sardis just to decorate a tree. Herodotus virtually revels in pleasant anecdotal knowledge of this kind. It is this sort of inessential knowledge that is my focus in the present post. In what follows, I have arranged Herodotus’ most noteworthy digressions according to the nine books of The Histories, which are traditionally named after the nine Muses. In the fullness of time I aim to accompany each of these stories with a blog post.

Book I: Cleo

  • In Defence of King Candaules (1.81.13)

    This Candaules, then, fell in love with his own wife, so much so that he believed her to be by far the most beautiful woman in the world; and believing this, he praised her beauty beyond measure to Gyges son of Dascylus, who was his favorite among his bodyguard; for it was to Gyges that he entrusted all his most important secrets. After a little while, Candaules, doomed to misfortune, spoke to Gyges thus: “Gyges, I do not think that you believe what I say about the beauty of my wife; men trust their ears less than their eyes: so you must see her naked.”

  • Arion of Methymna and the Dolphin (1.231.24)

  • Cleobis and Biton: The World’s Second Happiest Men (1.291.33)
  • King Croesus and the Oracle of Delphi (1.53)
  • Thales Predicts the Solar Eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C. (1.74)
  • Astyages Tricks Harpagus into Eating his Son at Ghastly Feast (1.1061.130)
  • The Tomb of Nicocris (1.187)

Book II: Euterpe

  • Expedition into the Heart of Africa (2.322.33)
  • Herodotus on How to Catch a Nile Crocodile (2.70).

    They bait a hook with a chine of pork and let it float out into midstream, and at the same time, standing on the bank, take a live pig and beat it. The crocodile, hearing the squeals, makes a rush toward it, encounters the bait, gulps it down, and is hauled out of the water. The first thing the huntsman does when he has got the beast on land is to plaster its eyes with mud; this done, it is dispatched easily enough – but without this precaution it will give a lot of trouble.

  • The Treasure-House of Rhampsinitus (2.121a2.121f)
  • Philitis and the Great Pyramid (2.1242.128)

    Thus, they reckon that for a hundred and six years Egypt was in great misery and the temples so long shut were never opened. The people hate the memory of these two kings so much that they do not much wish to name them, and call the pyramids after the shepherd Philitis, who then pastured his flocks in this place.

  • The Herodotus Machine (2.125)
  • King Amasis and the Golden Washbowl (2.172)

Book III: Thalia

  • The Table of the Sun (3.173.25)

    Now the Table of the Sun is said to be something of this kind: there is a meadow outside the city, filled with the boiled flesh of all four-footed things; here during the night the men of authority among the townsmen are careful to set out the meat, and all day whoever wishes comes and feasts on it. These meats, say the people of the country, are ever produced by the earth of itself. Such is the story of the Sun’s Table.

  • The Travels of Democedes of Croton (3.125)
  • Syloson and the Flame-Coloured Cloak (3.1393.149)

Book IV: Melpomene

  • How to Make Kumis the Scythian Way (4.2)

    The Scythians insert a tube made of bone and shaped like a flute into the mare’s anus, and blow; and while one blows, another milks They make the blind men stand around in a circle, and then pour the milk into wooden casks and stir it; the part which rises to the top is skimmed off, and considered the best; what remains is not supposed to be good…

  • The Lost Poem of Aristeas (4.13)
  • The War on the South Wind (4.173)
  • The Peculiar Customs of the Ataranteans (4.184)

Book V: Terpsichore

  • The Olive Wood Statues of Epidarus (5.825.88)
  • The Coded Message of Thrasybulus to Periander (5.92f)

Book VI: Erato

  • The Ghost Story of Epizelus (6.117)
  • The Trial of the Suitors (6.1256.131)

Book VII: Polymnia

  • Pythius makes an Unreasonable Request to Xerxes (7.272.29, 7.382.40)
  • Pharnuches Tossed from his Horse (7.88)
  • The Execution of Leon by the Persians (7.180)
  • Ameinocles’ Lucky Day (7.190)
  • Aristodemus (7.2297.231)

Book VIII: Urania

  • Scyllias the Diver (8.8)
  • The Persian Royal Mail Must Go Through (8.98)
  • Hermotimus Takes Revenge against Panionius (8.106)

Book IX: Calliope

Scattered

  • The Xerxes You Didn’t Know
    • Xerxes’ Dream (7.127.20)
    • Xerxes Angered by Pythius’ Request (7.272.29, 7.382.40)
    • Xerxes Decorates a Tree on the Road to Sardis (7.31)
    • Xerxes Sentences the Hellespont to 300 Lashes (7.357.54)
    • Xerxes Hankers to Watch a Rowing Match (7.44)
    • Xerxes Reflects on the Shortness of Life (7.457.46)
    • Xerxes Presents the People of Acanthus with a Suit of Median Clothes (7.116)
  • A Trio of Mythological Animals
    • The Flying Snakes of Arabia (2.75)
    • The Gold Digging Ants (3.102)
    • The Cinnamon Birds of Arabia (3.111)
  • Various Marvels
    • The Silver Skeleton (2.78)
    • An Anomaly of the Sun (2.142)
    • Black Semen (3.101)
    • The Footprint of Heracles (4.82)
    • The Black-Buttocks’ Stone (7.216)

References

[1] The Histories by Herodotus; translated by A. D. Godley (1920), Harvard University Press. The full text of this edition is available online at The Perseus Project.

[2] ‘Useless’ Knowledge by Bertrand Russell (1935).

[3] 300 directed by Zack Snyder (2006).

[4] 300: Rise of an Empire directed by Noam Murro (2014).

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Ferdowsi and the Three Celebrated Poets

The Tetrarchs porphyry sculpture at St Mark's Basilica in Venice with myself (left) and the author of today’s post Mikael Onsjö (right) depicted in an amicable embrace. The original photo by Nino Barbieri is distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license. The statue faces and background have been modified from the original.

The Tetrarchs porphyry sculpture at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice with myself (left) and the author of today’s post Mikael Onsjö (right) depicted in an amicable embrace. The original photo by Nino Barbieri is distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license. The statue faces and background have been modified from the original.

This week I am delighted to post an anecdote written by my old friend Mikael Onsjö. The anecdote is not strictly speaking from antiquity, but this is merely a quibble that is of no concern to the reader, as it is very much in keeping with the spirit of my blog. The curious reader will also enjoy this visualisation by Mikael about the familial relations in Ferdowsi’s monumental work: The Book of Kings. And now without further ado, I present:

Ferdowsi and the Three Celebrated Poets
by Mikael Onsjö

Abridged, this is story of the Persian poet Ferdowsi as told by James Atkinson Esquire of the honourable East-India Company’s Bengal Medical Service, edited by his son Reverend J. A. Atkinson, M.A., and in dedication to The Right Honourable The Earl of Munster, published 1886.

“His verse is exquisitely smooth and flowing, and never interrupted by inverted and harsh forms of construction. He is perhaps the sweetest as well as the most sublime poet of Persia.”

The author of this post especially likes the verses with which Ferdowsi tells us how the wandering King Jemshid was caught and sawed in two by the tyrant Zohak, among whose various features were that he had brain-eating serpents attached to his shoulders.

But onto the matter at hand!

Ferdowsi came from the city of Thus in Khorassan around the year 950 AD. At some point in his life he set out “unfriended and alone” on his way towards the capital Ghizni. Near the end of this trip, the story goes, he happened to pass by a garden where three celebrated poets (Unsari, Usjudi and Furroki) were sitting, chatting and drinking wine.

These three wise men contemplated chasing Ferdowsi off with hash words but decided instead to humble him in a game of erudition: One after the other they would make up connected lines of verse and whosoever was able to do it with “promptitude and effect” would be allowed to remain with the scholarly little gathering.

“The light of the moon to thy splendour is weak,” started one.

“The rose is eclipsed by the bloom of thy cheek,” proceeded the next.

“Thy eye-lashes dart through the folds of the joshun,” continued the third (“joshun” being a type of armour in medieval Persia).

But Ferdowsi, without a moment of pause, adroitly concluded the piece:

“Like the javelin of Giw in the battle with Poshun,” and with this masterful rhyme secured the endorsements of his three companions and an eminent start on his career as a poet in the capital. Some time later he was in an audience with the Sultan, Shah Mahmud, and was again required to compose poetry on his feet:

“The cradled infant, whose sweet lips are yet
Balmy with milk from its own mother’s breast,
Lisps first the name of Mahumud.”

The monarch was so impressed with these obsequious lines that he immediately commissioned Ferdowsi to write the Persian Book of Kings: the Shah Nameh. The writing of this epic saga took 30 years, time during which Ferdowsi fell out with his benefactor and even satirized him in the book.

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A New Zaleucus to Rebuke us in the Online Age

Zaleucus

Zaleucus, 16th century portrait from Guillaume Rouillé’s iconography book entitled Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum.

Is there a modern-day Zaleucus? This question, which in the online age might not seem difficult, is actually one of the most difficult that a search engine has any business being asked. Before venturing to find an answer, however, certain preliminary questions must first be addressed. Who was this Zaleucus? Why is he remembered? What makes a modern individual worthy of being associated with his name? If such an individual is ever found, would he or she rebuke us? And above all: Does the search for a modern-day Zaleucus amount to anything more than an exercise of vain curiosity? In the following post I will attempt not only to answer these questions, but also to relate what I consider to be some noteworthy findings from my own failed search for a new Zaleucus to rebuke us in the online age.

Atrophaneura zaleucus

Illustration of three Atrophaneura zaleucus butterflies by British naturalist and butterfly collector William Chapman Hewitson from his 1865 work Illustrations of new species of exotic butterflies: selected chiefly from the collections of W. Wilson Saunders and William C. Hewitson, Volume I.

A quick Googling of Zaleucus will reveal that he was a celebrated lawgiver of Epizephyrian Locri, a Greek colony in southern Italy, and is said to have devised the first written Greek law code, the Locrian Code. One is also liable to uncover that Zaleucus has a Southeast Asian butterfly named after him, the Atrophaneura zaleucus [1]. It is generally held that Zaleucus flourished sometime in the 7th century BC and that his laws were very harsh. Little else is known about him with any degree of certainty beyond the few facts that I have mentioned. But according to a text attributed to Aristotle, he was a shepherd and slave who won his freedom upon being commissioned by the Locrians to draw up a law code as a remedy for civil unrest that prevailed amongst them [2]. The circumstances surrounding the Locrians choice of Zaleucus as their lawgiver is interesting. It further says in this Aristotelian work that when the Locrians consulted the Delphic oracle on how to bring about order in their city, they were instructed to make a set of laws. Zaleucus, in a bold move, announced to the Locrians that he could furnish them with very good laws. When asked how this could be, Zaleucus answered that the patron god of the city Athena had revealed them to him in a dream. Unwilling to challenge the lowly shepherd’s divinely granted authority, the Locrians consented and named him their lawgiver. The laws instituted by Zaleucus are said to have remained unchanged for more than two centuries, because anyone who proposed a new law that was not ratified was summarily strangled [3], and the Locrians subsequently enjoyed a high reputation as upholders of the rule of law [4].

Many laws attributed to Zaleucus have been preserved in the writings of ancient authors [5-7]. All of this is quoted extensively in Richard Bentley’s monumental work: A Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris [8]. But sorting out which of these laws are traceable to Zaleucus from those that are later inventions is a matter of scholarly analysis. This is largely because a Pythagorean impostor is thought to have written a book of laws in Zaleucus’ name that was taken to be authentic by subsequent ancient authors. The book, Zaleucus’ Laws [7], most likely contained elements of the Locrian Code with significant Pythahgorean elaborations. This at any rate is the theory advocated by Bentley. Bentley further alleges that when the Locrians were confronted with this forgery, they quickly altered their laws to agree with it, although his source for this is unclear.

Ephorus of Cyme is one of the oldest and most trustworthy sources on Zaleucus. Through Strabo we learn that Ephorus taught that Zaleucus simplified the law of contracts and codified specific punishments for different offences, as opposed to previous lawgivers who left this to the discretion of a judge [9]. The penalty for committing adultery, if Valerius Maximus is to be believed, which he is not, was the the forfeiture of sight [10]. This brings us to the story for which Zaleucus acquired the lion’s share of his fame in ancient times. Valerius writes of Zaleucus:

His son was found guilty on the charge of adultery, and in accordance with the law that Zaleucus himself established, he should have had both his eyes gouged out. All the citizens, out of respect for the father, wanted to exempt the son from the rigours of the law, but Zaleucus resisted them for a long time. Finally, he was won over by the pleas of the people, so he gouged out one of his own eyes first, and then one of his son’s, thereby leaving each of them with the ability to see.

At first glance Zaleucus’ resolution of this difficult ethical dilemma might seem puzzling. After all, the rule of law was not followed and his son did not escape punishment. For Valerius, however, Zaleucus acted with wisdom by “dividing himself between the roles of a merciful father and a strict lawmaker.” The legend, then, under this view serves to illustrate the inherent conflict between the observance of the rule of law in society and the feeling of compassion toward other individuals that is part of human nature.

What then marks out a modern individual to carry the name Zaleucus into the 21st century? It is my contention that a modern-day Zaleucus must at minimum satisfy the following three conditions: he or she must 1) be responsible for the dispensation of justice, 2) be faced with a difficult choice between compassion and the rule of law, and 3) resolve the dilemma with a novel balance of compassion and justice.

Let us now proceed with an examination of the candidates.

Candidate 1: Police Chief Richard Knoebel

Former Village of Kewaskum Police Chief Richard Knoebel, circa 2007.

Former Village of Kewaskum Police Chief Richard Knoebel, circa 2007.

Former Village of Kewaskum Police Chief Richard Knoebel issued himself a $235 ticket for passing a school bus while he was distracted by a truck stopping on the other side of the street [11]. His decision is very disappointing from our present point of view. Had he donated the amount of the fine to, say, rent a bouncy castle for the school fair, then our search for a modern-day Zaluecus would have ended in triumph. The police chief, instead, chose to apply the law in a blind and reflexive manner. This is not in keeping with the example set by Zaleucus. Even the word “chose” must be used with caution here as it is unclear whether any other alternatives to the one he actually took scarcely entered his thoughts at all. His decision to give himself a four-point penalty on his drivers license only reinforces this conclusion.

Candidate 2: Christ

Christ with Instruments of the Passion by Jacopo d'Arcangelo del Sellaio, circa 1485.

Christ with Instruments of the Passion by Jacopo d’Arcangelo del Sellaio, circa 1485.

The candidacy of Christ is controversial. According to the satisfaction theory of atonement, Christ suffered the Crucifixion as a substitute for human sin, satisfying God due to His infinite merit. Christ, then, plainly satisfies all three of the conditions laid out above. One might be tempted to dismiss His candidacy seeing that He is by no means modern, but the Bible assures us that the Son of man sits eternally at the right hand of God [12]. It will also be noted that while no butterfly is named after Christ, He is the creator of not only the Atrophaneura zaleucus, but also every other living thing that creepeth on the earth [13]. All of this is of course an elaborate fiction, far removed from the historical Jesus. And although unstated above, a basic precondition for consideration must be existence itself. This attribute cannot be said of the Son of man. It is on this ground that Christ is to be rejected.

Candidate 3: Ernest Earl Pennington

father takes rap for son

Ernest Earl Pennington takes the rap for his son. The Bryan Times – November 19, 1980. Google News Archive

Railroad worker Ernest Earl Pennington of Cheasapeake, Ohio is an interesting, but ultimately unsatisfactory candidate. In 1980, Pennington sat in detention in place of his son Dennie on the school’s “black bench” in a storage room in the library. According to Pennington, he had overslept on the morning in question and neglected to wake Dennie, resulting in the boy arriving at school an hour late [14]. The father, who we may rightly admire, falls short of Zaleucus. This is because Pennington was not himself in a position to dispense justice. On top of that he differs from Zaleucus in so far as the lawgiver was in no way responsible for his son’s offence. If, hypothetically speaking, Pennington had been the school principal, and his son had arrived late of his own accord, and as principal he decided to split the detention time equally between them, only then would he merit being called the modern-day Zaleucus.

In the end, the question of whether there is a modern-day Zaleucus remains unanswered. Would a such an individual rebuke us? This question is imponderable in the absence of specific knowledge of his or her ethical outlook. But let the haters who regards the search for a new Zaleucus to be a vain curiosity consider these sobering words of Marcus Aurelius [15]:

How many who once rose to fame are now consigned to oblivion: and how many who sang their fame are long disappeared.

Indeed, if there is a new Zaleucus out there, it would be very sad should this individual live out life without ever attaining the modest amount of fame that he or she rightly deserves. It would be sadder still for humankind, if the new Zaleucus was “consigned to oblivion” without ever having received the opportunity to share his or her reflections on Youtube about this obscure historical parallel.

As a final note, I would be remiss not to thank my longtime friend Adam Clay for bringing Zaleucus to my general attention.

References

[1] Illustrations of new species of exotic butterflies: selected chiefly from the collections of W. Wilson Saunders and William C. Hewitson, Volume I (1865). These exquisite illustrations may be perused at The Internet Archive.

[2] Early Greek Law by Michael Gagarin, University of California Press, Reprint edition (1989), Page 58.

[3] Against Timocrates by Demosthenes, translated by A. T. Murray (1939), Section 141. Read this speech at The Perseus Project.

[4] Timaeus by Plato, translated by W.R.M. Lamb (1925), Section 20a. Read this passage at The Perseus Project.

[5] Diodorus Siculus I: The Historical Library in Forty Books (Volume 1), translated by Giles Laurén (2014), Book 12, Chapter 20, Section 1. Read this passage from the Loeb Classical Library, 1946 edition at Bill Thayer’s online collection of classical texts.

[6] Histories by Polybius, translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (1886). Read Polybius’ passage about the laws of Zaleucus at The Perseus Project.

[7] The Anthology of Joannes Stobaeus. (I’m still working on this source.)

[8] The Works of Richard Bentley, Volume 1, Dissertations upon the Epistles of Phalaris, collected and edited by Alexander Dyce (1836). The original book has been digitised and made available for viewing and download at The Internet Archive

[9] Strabo’s Geography, translated by H.C. Hamilton, Esq., W. Falconer. Book 6, Chapter 1, Section 8. Read this passage at The Perseus Project

[10] Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds and Sayings: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, translated by Henry John Walker (2004).

[11] Police Chief Writes Himself Ticket, WISN 12 News – January 30, 2007.

[12] Luke 22:69

[13] Genesis 1:25

[14] Father Takes Rap for Son, The Bryan Times – November 19, 1980. Google News Archive

[15] Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translated by Martin Hammond, Penguin Classics, (2006).

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Saint Gregory the Great’s Sad Tale

Pope Gregory the Great

Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) was pope from 590 until his death. He is depicted here on the throne in full papal regalia in an illumination from a 12th century French manuscript on his works. The manuscript is presently housed at Bibliothèque Municipale de Douai.

Saint Gregory the Great is for me the most interesting character in all of early Christendom.

Gregory was born in Rome of a rich aristocratic family around the year 540 at a time of considerable upheaval in Italy. His boyhood was passed amidst a disastrous conflict between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire that saw the Eternal City sacked in 546 and besieged on a number of separate occasions. In spite of these disturbances, the young Gregory received a reasonably good education in the classical liberal arts. He mastered Classical Latin and is said to have excelled in grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, but seems never to have learned even rudimentary Greek (see footnote 1).

In early adult life, he took an active part in civic affairs and became Prefect of Rome when he was little more than thirty years old. It must be emphasised that Gregory was stinking rich. He resided in a private villa, centrally located on the Caelian Hill with a view of the dilapidated palaces of the Roman emperors. His family, moreover, held large estates in Sicily and around Rome. But just when it seemed by all outward appearances that Gregory was poised to live out a life of worldly splendour, he resigned his office, donated his wealth to the establishment of monasteries, himself living as a monk in his villa, which he converted into a monastery dedicated to the apostle Andrew.

Gregory was reluctantly drawn out of his seclusion in 578 when the pope dispatched him to the Court of Byzantium on a diplomatic mission to secure military aid against the invading Lombards. Although Gregory’s efforts in this pressing matter were ultimately unsuccessful, his six year stay was not in vain. He triumphed over the Patriarch of Constantinople in a prolonged theological dispute concerning the palpability of resurrected bodies. The patriarch’s contention that resurrected bodies would be “more light than air” was deemed heretical and his books were burned. The dispute is said to have taken such a toll on the patriarch that he fell ill and died. Gregory too fell seriously ill from the strain of the struggle, but recovered. He was recalled to Rome in 585 and returned to his monastery-villa where he was soon made abbot. At the same time, he served as chief advisor and assistant to Pope Pelagius II until 590 when the pontiff died of a plague that was ravaging the city.

Gregory was elected against his will to succeed Pelagius as pope. He came to power at a time when anarchy prevailed across much of Europe. To make matters worse, he was in constant ill-health probably owing to years of monastic asceticism. His pontificate, which lasted fourteen years, was nevertheless more instrumental in shaping the future of the Church than that of any of his successors until arguably Gregory VII’s almost five centuries later. Gregory worked tirelessly to fill the power vacuum left by the Eastern Roman Empire. He did much to centralise Church authority in Rome, primarily by means of disseminating a bishop code of conduct and taking an authoritative tone in written correspondences that he maintained with bishops around the Roman world. He completely reformed the administration of Church territorial possessions and promoted international social cohesion by launching efforts to convert the Lombards and the English. In short: Gregory almost single-handedly laid the foundations for the institution of the medieval papacy. On top of all that he wrote a number of influential letters, books, and homilies; many of which have survived to the present day.

Dialogues [1] is the one work by Gregory with which I myself am best acquainted. It is a four volume collection of fanciful tales concerning miracles, omens, and other thaumaturgical wonders written in 593 at the behest of his monks. And one cannot read it without wondering how a consummate statesman and administrator like Gregory could have taken seriously the kinds of cockamamie superstitions that pervade its pages. Reconciling these discordant aspects of Gregory’s character disturbed me for a time, but then I remembered reading somewhere or another how Ronald Reagan believed in astrology, lucky charms, and Reaganomics. All this just goes to show that one can be credulous in intellectual matters and still be esteemed as a master of statecraft.

Be that as it may, in what follows, I would like to share a story from Dialogues that helps to illustrate the strange and gloomy mental world Gregory and his contemporaries must have inhabited. Indeed, conspicuous among the extraordinary tales of medieval Christian lore recorded by Gregory is the rather sad account of a blasphemous young boy who was carried off to the devil by a hoard of spectral blackamoors.

“Seeing mankind is subject to many and innumerable vices,” says Peter the Deacon, friend and disciple of Gregory, “I think that the greatest part of heaven is replenished with little children and infants.”

Gregory concedes that all baptised infants who die in their infancy are to be counted among the elect, but goes on to provide a grim demonstration of the fate of those children who are hindered from heaven by a parents’ lenient upbringing.

“For a certain man in this city,” recounts Gregory, “some three years since had a child, as I think five years old, which upon too much carnal affection he brought up very carelessly: in such sort that the little one […] so soon as anything went contrary to his mind, straightways used to blaspheme the name of God.”

We learn moreover that the boy was soon thereafter stricken with a mortal illness. Nearing the point of death, and in his father’s arms, the child beheld with “trembling eyes” certain wicked spirits coming toward him. He then rose up from his father’s bosom and cried out to him, “Keep them away, father, keep them away.”

“My son, what vexes you so?” said the father, no doubt somewhat taken aback that his son did not there behold the holy Apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

“O father, there be blackamoors come to carry me away.”

And with his final words, the boy once again blasphemed the name of God, because as Gregory contends, the Lord wished to make it known to the world for what sin the lad was delivered up to the hell fires by such terrible executioners.

Thus concludes our admittedly depressing glimpse into the mind of Saint Gregory the Great.

Footnotes

[1] Gregory’s ignorance of Greek has been a persistent source of surprise to modern commenters, since Gregory was dispatched to Constantinople on diplomatic service for the better part of six years. As someone who has lived in Japan for about the same amount of time, however, I can empathise with Gregory on this point, seeing as my Japanese still sucks.

References

[1] Gregory the Great (1911). The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great, translated by P. W. and reedited with an introduction and notes by Edmund Garratt Gardener with illustrations from the old masters annotated by Sir George Francis Hill. Philip Lee Warner. Book IV, Chapter XVIII (pages 199-200). Read this passage at the The Tertullian Project. The original book has been digitised and made available for viewing and download at The Internet Archive

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Herodotus on How to Catch a Nile Crocodile

First ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty Amenemhat I spearing a Nile crocodile from the prow of a boat.

First ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty Amenemhat I spearing a Nile crocodile from the prow of a boat.

The Nile crocodile was a target of religious veneration for some ancient Egyptians and a source of terror to others.

Strabo witnessed these conflicting dispositions toward the crocodile amongst the Egyptians firsthand on a journey that he took up the Nile sometime in the late 1st century BC. He writes of how the inhabitants of Crocodilopolis worshipped a tamed crocodile named Suchus. The sacred reptile was kept apart by itself in a temple pond, and fed by the priests with offerings of bread, meat, wine, and other succulent delicacies (see footnote 1) [1]. Further up the Nile at the city of Dendera, however, we learn that the crocodile was utterly despised and regarded as ‘the most odious of all animals’. And the Denderans, according to Strabo, made every effort to track down and eradicate the creatures [2].

The Denderans were not alone in abhorring the crocodile. Writings that were already ancient by the time of Strabo emphasise the crocodile’s chaotic influence on the daily lives of the Egyptians. In The Teaching of Khety, for instance, we read of a fisherman blinded with fear upon coming face-to-face with a crocodile [3]. The menacing crocodile motif was also featured in cheesy New Kingdom love songs. In the song that I have in mind, a man swims across a crocodile infested river to reach his lover who is waiting on the other shore [4]. The pharaoh is sometimes reported to have hunted predatory animals feared by the common people. In one such writing, the pharaoh Amenemhat I boasts of having tamed a lion and taken a crocodile prisoner [5]. Lastly, it will be noted that the Nile crocodile did not confine itself to devouring indigenous flesh. For Aristotle records that one of Cleomenes of Naucratis’ servants was carried off by a crocodile when he served as governor of Egypt [6].

This, however, is a digression from which we must return to our main subject.

Herodotus records that the people dwelling around Elephantine, a city further up the Nile from Dendera, hunted down crocodiles not for the purpose of eradication, but as a source of food. He writes that crocodiles are hunted in many different ways, but confined himself to describing only the following technique [7]:

They bait a hook with a chine of pork and let it float out into midstream, and at the same time, standing on the bank, take a live pig and beat it. The crocodile, hearing the squeals, makes a rush toward it, encounters the bait, gulps it down, and is hauled out of the water. The first thing the huntsman does when he has got the beast on land is to plaster its eyes with mud; this done, it is dispatched easily enough – but without this precaution it will give a lot of trouble.

It seems to me that his concluding remark goes without saying. In any case, the hunting technique is imaginative and interesting, and one can understand why Herodotus deemed it worthy to record for his Greek audiences.

The historian Diodorus Siculus, a contemporary of Strabo, was evidently not entirely contented with the veracity and scope of Herodotus’ writings on crocodile hunting. Diodorus agrees with Herodotus that the catching of crocodiles using hooks baited with pork is an Egyptian technique, but he argues that it was employed only in very early times. The hunting methods employed at the time of Diodorus, we are told, involved the use of either heavy nets or iron spears from boats [8].

Let us return now in closing to Amenemhat I. The pharaoh is depicted above spearing a crocodile in a manner consistent with Diodorus Siculus. This illustration is taken from a history of ancient Egypt written by the 19th century English scholar George Rawlinson [9]. I have been unable to ascertain whether the illustration was copied from an ancient Egyptian source or produced from the unknown illustrator’s own imagination. But in either case there is a blatant inconsistency. Namely: how could Amenemhat have taken the crocodile prisoner to present in triumph before his astonished subjects, if he had speared the creature to death? Rawlinson notes the inconsistency, and speculates that Herodotus may well have been right, and that it was this technique Amenemhat employed to capture his reptilian prisoner.

Footnotes

[1] Crocodilopolis was the cultic centre for the worship of the crocodile-god Sobek. The city priests kept a sacred crocodile, named Suchus, in a temple pond that was believed to be the incarnation of Sobek by the Crocodilopolians. Suchus was adorned with gold and gem pendants, and fed by the priests with food provided by visitors. When Suchus died, it was mummified and replaced by another crocodile [10, 11].

References

[1] Strabo (1854). The Geography of Strabo, translated by Hans Claude Hamilton, esq. and William Falconer. Henry G. Bohn. Book XVII, Chapter I, Section XXXVIII to XXXIX. Read this passage at the Perseus Digital Library.

[2] Strabo (1854). The Geography of Strabo, translated by Hans Claude Hamilton, esq. and William Falconer. Henry G. Bohn. Book XVII, Chapter I, Section XL. Read this passage at the Perseus Digital Library.

[3] The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC translated by Richard B. Parkinson (1999), Oxford World Classics, The Teaching of Khety. Read another version of this text at the West Semitic Research Project.

[4] Samivel (1955), The Glory of Egypt The Vanguard Press. Read this love song at the West Semitic Research Project.

[5] The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC translated by Richard B. Parkinson (1999), Oxford World Classics, The Teaching of Amenemhat. Read another version of this text at the West Semitic Research Project.

[6] Economics by Aristotle; translated by George Cyril Armstrong (1935), Loeb Classical Library, Book II, Section 1352a. Read this passage at The Perseus Project.

[7] Herodotus (2003). The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised with introduction and notes by John Marincola. Penguin Classics. Book IV, Chapter II.

[8] Library of History by Diodorus Siculus; translated by Charles Henry Oldfather (1933), Loeb Classical Library, Book I, Chapter 35. Read this passage at Bill Thayer’s website.

[9] Ancient Egypt by George Rawlinson with the collaboration of Arthur Gilman (1886), tenth edition, London T. Fisher Unwin. Read about Amenemhat I hunting a crocodile at The Gutenberg Project.

[10] Margaret R. Bunson (2002). Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition. Facts on File, Inc.. Read the entry on crocodiles at Google Books.

[11] Thomas Joseph Pettigrew (1834). A History of Egyptian Mummies: And an Account of the Worship and Embalming of the Sacred Animals by the Egyptians. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman. Read the passage on crocodiles at Google Books.

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How to Make Kumis the Scythian Way

kumis | kumiss | koumiss

A Kazakhstani stamp depicting the fermented mare’s milk drink kumis that Herodotus wrote about in The Histories.

The Scythians were regarded by ancient Greek historians as a nation of tribal nomads inhabiting the north shore region of the Black Sea. Herodotus, who wrote extensively on the Scythian people, records how they considered themselves to be the youngest of all nations and were ruled by the kings of a wealthy clan called the Royal Scyths; they worshiped a hearth goddess as their chief deity that the Greeks identified with Hestia, practiced divination by means of a willow stick oracle, fought on horseback with bows and arrows, systematically blinded and enslaved their prisoners of war, and were fond of taking ritual cannabis steam baths. On top of all that we are told that they drank undiluted wine, the blood of slain enemies, and fermented mare’s milk (see footnote 1). The making of the latter of these traditional Scythian beverages, which goes by the name of kumis nowadays, is my subject in this post.

Kumis is an ancient beverage. It is thought to date back to the Botai culture of late 5th millennium BC Kazakhstan, and has remained important to the peoples of the Central Asian steppes up to the present day. I have tried a Mongolian variety of the drink before and consider it not delicious (see footnote 2).

Herodotus took an unusual interest in kumis production among the Scythians. It is fortunate for contemporary readers that he did. I say this mainly because the method of production he describes is very odd. According to John Marincola’s revised edition of the classic de Sélincourt translation [1], the process went as follows:

“They (the Scythians) insert a tube made of bone and shaped like a flute into the mare’s anus, and blow; and while one blows, another milks […] They make the blind men (the slaves) stand around in a circle, and then pour the milk into wooden casks and stir it; the part which rises to the top is skimmed off, and considered the best; what remains is not supposed to be good.”

The attentive reader will be successively agitated by two questions: first, the purpose served by doing the ancient equivalent of taking a bicycle pump to a horses’ rear end; and second, the need for blind milk stirrers.

The Halicarnassian writes in anticipation of these queries that the Scythians stimulate the anus in the manner described to make the mare’s veins swell with air and force her udder to drop, and blind all prisoners they take as slaves out of necessity because they are nomads. But according to A. D. Godley, Herodotus meant that the slaves were blinded to prevent them from stealing the best of the milk [2].

mare milking

A mare being milked in the modern fashion in Suusamyr, Kyrgyzstan; photograph by Firespeaker, distributed under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

So much for our questions.

But let us nevertheless pursue the matter a little further. Looking to other classical sources, we find that mare’s milk consumption among the Scythians is corroborated by Homer [3], Aeschylus [4], and Strabo [5] without reference to any of the surprising procedural details relevant to our present purpose (see footnote 3). An independent account is, however, supplied by Hippocrates in his treatise On Generation [6]. The father of medicine writes that:

“They (the Scythians) pour it (mare’s milk) into wooden bowls and agitate it; when it is agitated, it becomes foamy and separates; and the fatty part, which they call butter, being light is separated and rises to the surface. The heavy and thick portion settles downwards: they separate it off and dry it, and when it is coagulated and dry, they call it mare’s-milk cheese (“hippake”). The whey of the milk remains in the middle.”

Hippocrates assumes a technical tone of the sort that one might expect from a physician. And while his account is interesting in its own right, it unfortunately offers no additional insights into either the mare milking procedure or the significance of the blind stirrers.

Curiously enough, however, in a translation of Herodotus by Godley [2] that I stumbled upon, we find that the bone tube is inserted not into the mare’s anus, but rather her genitals! Although I found that in different edition of the same translation he chose to use the more ambiguous, or possibly euphemistic, term ‘secret parts’ [7].

Professor Marincola explained to me in a private correspondence on the matter (both de Sélincourt and Godley are dead) that Herodotus employed the term ‘τά ἄρθρα’ which means ‘the parts fitted together’ and is sometimes used to mean ‘joints’. He went on to write that given the literal meaning is unlikely in the context of mare milking, translators have interpreted it to mean either the anus or the female genitals, adding that the latter interpretation is somewhat more likely. For what it’s worth, I would hazard to guess that the genitals is the more likely of the two possibilities on the ground that they are linked with the udder in the mare’s reproductive system.

This brings us to the blind slaves. Godley speculated that the entire story of the blind slaves probably arose from some Scythian name for slaves that was misunderstood by Herodotus’ Greek sources. I have yet to find any better suggestions.

To conclude: it would seem that certain knowledge of how to make kumis the Scythian way is not to be found in the historical record. We must therefore content ourselves with plausible speculation and the hope of future archaeological and anthropological discoveries.

Addendum (18 June 2015)

Professor Marincola has brought new information to my attention that essentially settles the matter as to whether the Scythians stimulated mare anuses or genitalia during milking. In short, there is persuasive anthropological evidence to support that Herodotus was writing of the genitals. Marincola informed me that the renown Herodotean scholar David Asheri [8] took it to mean the genitals on the ground that ‘sexual stimulation in milking is paralleled among the Kalmuk and the Jahut as well as among several African and Arab pastoral peoples, including the Dinka.’ And with that it would seem that we have gotten to the bottom things.

Footnotes

[1] King Cleomenes of Sparta is said to have gone mad after picking up the habit of drinking wine undiluted by water from the Scythians.

[2] It is probably an acquired taste.

[3] Homer writes of ‘the lordly Hippemolgi that drink the milk of mares’ that inhabited a land beyond the Thracians. Strabo explicitly identifies the Hippemolgi, or mare-milkers, with the Scythians in response to post-Homeric authors who criticised the poet for being ignorant of these people. He furthermore quotes from a lost work by Aeschylus in support of his view.

References

[1] Herodotus (2003). The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised with introduction and notes by John Marincola. Penguin Classics. Book IV, Chapter II.

[2] Herodotus (1921). The Histories, translated by Alfred Denis Godley. G. P. Putnam’s sons. Book IV, Chapter II. Read this passage at the Perseus Digital Library.

[3] Homer (1924). The Iliad, translated by Augustus Taber Murray. Loeb Classical Library. Volume II. Book XIII, Chapter IV, Section I. Read this passage at the Perseus Digital Library.

[4] Aeschylus (1926). Aeschylus II: Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides, Fragments, translated by Herbert Weir Smyth. Loeb Classical Library. Volume 146. Fragment 111. Read this fragment at Theoi Greek Mythology.

[5] Strabo (1854). The Geography of Strabo, translated by Hans Claude Hamilton, esq. and William Falconer. Henry G. Bohn. Book VII, Chapter III, Section VII. Read this passage at the Perseus Digital Library.

[6] Hippocrates (2012). Hippocrates IX: Generation, Nature of the Child, Diseases 4, Nature of Women and Barrenness, translated by Paul Potter. Loeb Classical Library. Volume 150. Diseases 4, Chapter XX.

[7] Herodotus (1921). The Persian Wars, Books III and IV, translated by Alfred Denis Godley. Loeb Classical Library. Book IV, Chapter II. Read this passage at the Digital Loeb Classical Library.

[8] David Asheri et al. (2007). A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV. Oxford University Press.

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Thamyris: The First Gay Guy According to Apollodorus

pederastic courtship scene

Pederastic courtship scene depicting a grown man fondling the genitals of a young man from an Attic black-figure neck-amphora, ca. 540 BC; photograph by Haiduc, distributed under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Apollodorus records that the first gay guy was a musical bard named Thamyris and that he loved the youth Hyakinthos [1]. Although Hyakinthos was loved by Thamyris alone among mortal men, the youth was also greatly admired by the god Apollo and by the god of the West Wind, Zephryos. Hyakinthos, for his part, was ultimately partial to the affections of Apollo. The three rivals vied over Hyakinthos in a jealous struggle that ended with both mortal men suffering tragic fates, after having partaken in the sexual exploits of the gods.

The tale begins with Thamyris, a Thracian by birth, who is credited as being the mortal discoverer of homosexual love. Whether he hit upon the notion by means of idle contemplation or he merely followed in the example set by the gods is a matter of speculation. It seems probable, however, that Thamyris would have discovered homosexual love in spite of the gods, as he is stereotypical of the sort of character one would expect a man confronted with latent homosexual compulsions to be like. He was by all accounts a temperamental man with an inherent talent in music. He excelled both in the lyre and in song. Pliny the Elder wrote of him that he invented the Dorian mode and was the first man to play upon the lyre without vocal accompaniment (see footnote 1) [2]. In ancient art he is habitually depicted wearing fine robes, and in some instances dons a laurel wreath. On top of all that he was also a vain man, who was fond of boasting that he surpassed even the Muses in musical ability.

Zephyros

Roman mosaic of Zephryos, god of the West Wind, dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD; image distributed in agreement with the Theoi Project copyright.

In whatever way it was that Thamyris came to desire the companionship of another man, he at some point fell passionately in love with the youth Hyakinthos. Hyakinthos was of aristocratic birth and a man-dazzler of the highest order. Indeed, one cannot help but to imagine him to have been a slim but muscular youth with a dainty step and a delicate utterance — an aesthetically delightful embodiment of masculinity. As it happened, he too was gay. In recognizing this, however, the lad was much indebted to the influence of Thamyris. For about the time his beard had only just begun to grow, Thamyris set about plying him with wine and beautiful music, revealing in dactylic hexameter the unsettling forces at work within him. Once he surmised that Hyakinthos was on the verge of succumbing to temptation, he cast off his garments and threw himself at the bewildered young man. Hyakinthos fended off his lusty advances for a time, but in the end Thamyris prevailed, and they proceeded to consummate their union with a bout of vigourous lovemaking.

While they began their relationship with enthusiasm, it was not long before Hyakinthos grew restless, owing largely to the fact that he had caught the attention of Apollo. Thamyris urged his beloved to refrain from flirting with the god of music and healing, who also happened to be the director of the choir of the Muses. But his efforts were to no avail. Apollo soon succeeded in stealing the lad’s heart to the great anguish of Thamyris. The pair subsequently carried on in a protracted love-affair, presumably meeting whenever Thamyris was off performing to the merriment of his audiences or was otherwise occupied composing his epic poem on the war of the Titans against the gods (see footnote 2).

Hyakinthos and Zephyros

Depiction of Zephyros and Hyakinthos copulating in midair from a drinking cup signed by the artist Douris, ca. 490 – 480 BC. The drinking cup is currently housed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

On one such occasion Zephyros chanced upon the happy lovers frolicking in a meadow. This is not surprising because we know from classical sources that Zephyros lived in a nearby cave. At any rate, the harbinger of Spring thought Hyakinthos so fine that he resolved to make the boy his own. Hyakinthos was willing to have the odd romantic encounter with Zephyros, which he on occasion did, but drew the line at commitment of any kind. Although little else about their relationship has survived in the writings of classical commentators, there is a compelling piece of evidence from the archeological record to suggest that it was believed to be marked by acts of extraordinary depravity. The artefact to which I refer is a drinking cup, painted with a scene that shows Zephyros whisking away Hyakinthos like a thing possessed, for what one can only fathom was to copulate with him in midair, while the entire Thracian populace gawked in stunned amazement.

The real trouble began, however, when Apollo resolved to dispose of Thamyris by means of a cunning appeal to his vanity. In this effort he was wholly successful. Apollo held a lavish banquet for Thamyris with singing and dancing courtesy of the Muses, ostensibly in recognition of the bard’s achievements in music. But his true motive became apparent once he informed the Muses of Thamyris’ boast of being a superior musician. To settle the matter they agreed to take part in a musical contest in which the winner was obliged choose a punishment for the loser (see footnote 3). The Muses won by the popular acclaim of the attendees; whereupon Thamyris was deprived of his musical talents, and either blinded or maimed and beaten with rods. Although it must be said that Pausaunias maintains that Thamyris lost his eyesight from disease, just as Homer had himself [4]. What is certain is that Thamyris ultimately gave up on Hyakinthos in despair.

Once this grisly episode was finished, Hyakinthos consented to become Apollo’s boy-favourite, leaving Zephyros as the odd man out. Then one day, after searching high and low, Zephyros found the youth and the god playing catch with a discus in a field. Zephyros asked if he could play too, but Apollo refused and sent him scurrying away with a volley of arrows. The interloper took refuge in a nearby tree, from where he watched in secret as the lovers resumed their game. The sight of them, however, was more than Zephyros could bare. As Hyakinthos pranced with arms outstretched to catch a toss from Apollo, Zephyros, overcome by jealousy, blew on the discus, sending it careening toward the lad’s head. It struck and he was inflicted with a critical wound. A vengeful Apollo fired once again on Zephyros as he fled, but the arrow missed its mark. The god then hurried over to his beloved and treated the wound with ambrosia and nectar; however, these heavenly foods proved to be an ineffective remedy, and Hyakinthos died. Afterwards, Apollo made a flower, the hyacinth, spring from a pool of his departed lover’s blood as a token of his affection.   

Footnotes

[1] One wonders whether Oscar Wilde had the story of Thamyris and Hyakinthos in mind when he wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.

[2] This work attributed to Thamyris is mentioned in the essay De Musica that was once believed to be authored by Plutarch [3]. Sadly it has not survived to the present day.

[3] The ancient Greeks were presumably more accustomed to such a contest than are modern people.

References

[1] The Library by Apollodorus; translated by Sir James George Frazer (1921), G. P. Putnam’s sons; accessed from Perseus Digital Library on May 17, 2015.

[2] Natural History by Pliny the Elder; translated by Horace Rackham (1938), Harvard University Press, Book VII, Chapter 204; accessed from Loeb Classical Library on May 17, 2015.

[3] Plutarch’s Lives by Pseudo-Plutarch; translated by William Watson Goodwin (1874), Little, Brown & Co., Volume 1, pages 102-135; accessed from Google Books on May 17, 2015.

[4] Description of Greece by Pausanias; translated by W. H. S. Jones (1918), G. P. Putnam’s sons, Book IV, Chapter 33; accessed from Perseus Digital Library on May 17, 2015.

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Philitis and the Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid of Giza.

The Great Pyramid of Giza.

Philitis, if we are to take the Herodotean account at face value [1], is one of the most notable examples of a man who would have been astonished to find his name preserved in the annals of history.

He was a common shepherd who pastured his flocks on the Giza Plateau at the time of the building of the Great Pyramid. This Herodotus writes he was told by the Memphis priests on his travels in Egypt. According to the modern chronology, this would place Philitis squarely in the 26th century BC during the reign of the pharaoh Khufu. Herodotus records how Khufu shut down all the temples and reduced the Egyptians to a state of general misery by compelling the people to labour as slaves for thirty years on his megalomaniacal building project. We even learn that Khufu sent his own daughter to work in a brothel when he ran short on money (see footnote 1). Khufu’s son Khafra proved no better after succeeding him on the throne. Khafra continued the oppressive policies instituted by his father, although he evidently carried them out with reduced vigour, since his pyramid is smaller in size. His tendency toward moderation, however, failed to placate the disgruntled Egyptian population. For Herodotus relates how contempt for Khufu and Khafra ran so high among the people that they could hardly bring themselves to utter their names, and went so far as to call the pyramids after lowly Philitis.

This constitutes the full extent of what is known of Philitis. And one might think, as I do, that it is extremely unlikely such a man ever existed in the first place. What seems more plausible to me is that the Philitis story ties together various loosely related historical people and events that came down to the Memphis priests in a garbled form. To make matters worse, Herodotus could have easily misconstrued the story as it was recounted to him by the priests, since he would have been communicating with them through an interpreter. That is assuming he even visited Egypt at all. In any event, continuing in speculation of this sort will quickly enter us into the realm of amateurish conjecture.

Contemporary scholars are regrettably silent on the historicity of Philitis in so far as I have been able to ascertain. I was, however, delighted to find that their 19th century counterparts virtually revelled in speculation.

As far back as 1830, Augustin Calmet held that Herodotus’ passage was properly understood to mean that the pyramids were built by nomadic herders from Philistia, better known today as Palestine [2]. What is more, Calmet argued on elaborate philological grounds that Philitis was no other than the Biblical patriarch Jacob, and the nomads, Israelites. Lord Lindsay, writing shortly thereafter in 1838, expressed a contrary view that Philitis was no Israelite at all, but was instead a name for the royal shepherds of Egypt, who migrated en masse after building the pyramids and became Israelites archenemies, the Philistines [3]. This theory must have been in circulation for some time already, because it was rejected two years prior by Samuel Sharpe on the basis of a careful examination of the historical and archaeological records [4]. Although it will be noted that George Rawlinson made an admirable attempt to reconcile these two conflicting views in a note on his 1858–60 translation of Herodotus [5]. He proposed that Philitis may indeed have been a Philistine shepherd-king who was

“so powerful and domineering, it may be traditions of his oppressions in that earlier age which, mixed up afterwards in the minds of later Egyptians with the evils inflicted on their country by the subsequent shepherds of better known dynasties, lent so much force to their religious hate of Shepherd times and that name.”

The subsequent shepherds of better known dynasties to which Rawlinson refers are the Hyksos: a mixed group of Asiatic people from Western Asia who overran the eastern Nile Delta in the 17th century BC. Different scholars who were presumably less preoccupied with the confirmation of biblical narratives looked to these invaders for explanations. C. Staniland Wake, for example, writes in 1882 that one M. Büdenger identified Philitis with Salatis, the first Hyksos king [6].

Returning to Rawlinson, my cursory investigation suggests that his compromise theory prevailed among the faithful until the Astronomer Royal of Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth, boldly proposed in 1874 that Philitis was the priest-king Melchizedek from the Book of Genesis [7]. According to Smyth, Melchizedek descended into Egypt and manipulated Khufu using sorcery into building the Great Pyramid before returning to his kingdom of Salem in the Holy Land. Charles Casey was so thoroughly convinced in this theory that by 1883 he was ready positively declare that Philitis was Melchizedek [8]. When astronomer Richard Proctor dropped the occultist trappings from Smyth’s theory, he found that Philitis had not been Melchizedek after all, but rather Abraham [9]. To top it all off, the Mormon apologist George Reynolds was indifferent to the true identity of Philitis so long as it was agreed that he was acquainted with the same “grand astronomical truths” that Joseph Smith alleged the Lord revealed to Abraham in a papyrus that he purports to have translated [10].

From this point on scholarly interest in Philitis seems to have died out. As we wait for the present generation of historians and archaeologists to weigh in on his historicity, we may find a passing contentment in reflecting on Herodotus’ account of an unremarkable shepherd whose memory has survived against all odds for over 4,500 years.

Footnotes

[1] This is odd because ancient Egypt did not have a money economy in the time of Khufu.

References

[1] The Histories by Herodotus; translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised with introduction and notes by John Marincola (2003), Penguin Classics, Book II, pages 146-148.

[2] Dictionary of the Holy Bible by Augustin Calmet, Charles Taylor, and Edward Robinson (1830).

[3] Letters on Egypt, Edon, and The Holy Land by Lord Lindsay (1838).

[4] The Early History of Egypt from The Old Testament, Herodotus, and Manetho and the Heiroglyphical Inscriptions by Samuel Sharpe (1836).

[5] The History of Herodotus translated by George Rawlinson in collaboration with Sir Henry Rawlinson and Sir John Gardiner Wilkinson (1858–60).

[6] The Origin and Significance of the Great Pyramid by C. Staniland Wake (1882).

[7] Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid: Including all the most Important Discoveries up to the Present Time by Charles Piazzi Smyth (1874).

[8] Philitis by Charles Casey (1883).

[9] The Great Pyramid: observatory, tomb, and temple by Richard A. Proctor (1883).

[10] The Book of Abraham: Its Authenticity Established as a Divine and Ancient Record: With Copious References to Ancient and Modern Authorities by George Reynolds (1879).

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