Si un libro los aburre (If a Book Bores You)

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week:

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Si un libro los aburre, déjenlo, no lo lean porque es famoso, no lean un libro porque es moderno, no lean un libro porque es antiguo. Si un libro es tedioso para ustedes, déjenlo… ese libro no ha sido escrito para ustedes. 

(Jorge Luis Borges: Borges profesor – curso de literatura inglesa en la Universidad de Buenos Aires)

If a book bores you, leave it, don’t read it because it’s famous, don’t read a book because it’s modern, don’t read a book because it’s ancient. If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it… that book was not written for you.

(Jorge Luis Borges:Profesor Borges – A Course on English Literature)

Muchísimas gracias, profesor. 🙂

Thank you, Professor. 🙂


Felix in the Bath

The Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri

I was reading Felix Fabri in the bath the other night (and I did not dropped him into the tub), when I very appropriately I came across the passage of his visit to an Arabic bath house in the city of Gaza. Enjoy! And if you ever have the chance to visit a Turkish bath in Budapest or a Moorish bath in Spain – do not miss the experience!

For those of you who don’t remember who Felix Fabri was (or have never heard of him): He was a German monk from the city of Ulm who made two pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 1480 and 1483. He was blessed with an inquiring mind, an eye for detail, a photographic memory and the gift of the gab. He does at times bore you to tears with the many indulgences (plenary and otherwise) which he collects by kissing the various most holy places in the company of his fellow pilgrims but he can most entertaining when he goes beyond the details of the religious pilgrimage and talks about people, foreign customs, novel experiences or travel mishaps. Of which, as you can imagine, there was plenty of in the 15th century while touring an enemy land!

A Turkish bath in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr [CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0]


…this bath at Gazara is the most costly one that I have ever seen.

In front of the hot-room there is a vaulted building which encircles it like the ambulatory of a cloister, in which building there are many cells, without any beds, but floored with mats and plaited palm-leaves. Each cell is merely closed by a curtain. In these cells those who wish to bathe undress and dress themselves, and in the same cells there hang clean cloths with whcih those who wish to go into the bath cover themselves, from the navel to the knees, instead of breeches and girdles, so that one is completely covered both before and behind.

In the midst of this cloister there is a fountain which plays through many pipes out of a marble column, and all the walls and the pavement, both without and within the hot-chamber, are cased with divers kinds of polished white marble, so that he who passes over it must be careful and walk warily, lest he slip, even as one who walks upon ice.

The hot-chamber itself is like a square tower, and the dome or vault which covers it has no roof over it, but has many round holes, of about the size of a man’s head, closed with windows of glass of divers colours, through which there comes a dull light, but enough. In this hot-chamber there is no furnace, neither does one feel the heat or smoke of a fire; but in one place there is charcoal beneath the pavement, whereby the marble pavement is heated, and hot water which runs along a channel hollowed in the stone fills the whole rom with heat. On the other side cold water comes in.

The chamber, as I have said, is square, and has no light save what comes through the holes in the dome. On the first side there is extreme heat and hot water; on the second there is coolness and cold water; the third side is free and quiet; in the fourth is the door; in the middle is temperate heat.

The master of the bath himself most kindly and courteously waits upon the bathers, frequently rubbing, washing, and anointing with smegma, or other fitting ointment; for they cure weakness of the limbs in the bath. If anyone feels pain from any cause, the bathman rubs, anoints, presses, and stretches the place where the pain is felt, until he either cures it or alleviates it…

In the bath men and women never meet, but the women have their own proper baths, and the men likewise; neither do the men have women to rub them, nor do the women have men, but men wait upon men, and women upon women.

(The Wanderings of Felix Fabri by Felix Fabri)

Links:The Wanderings of Brother Felix FabriOnce to Sinai: The Further Pilgrimage of Friar Felix Fabri by H.F.M. PrescottNarrative History at its Most Enthralling: Interview with Roger CrowleyFratris Felicis Fabri Evagatorium in Terrae Sanctae, Arabiae et Egypti on Project Gutenberg


Muerte natural (Natural Death)

La cita de la semana / Quote of the Week:

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

Estás como para un acontecimiento —dijo.

—Este entierro es un acontecimiento —dijo el coronel—. Es el primer muerto de muerte natural que tenemos en muchos años.

(Gabriel García Márquez: El coronel no tiene quien le escriba)

‘You look as if you’re dressed for some special event,’ she said.

‘This burial is a special event,’ the colonel said. ‘It’s the first death from natural causes which weve had in many years.’

(Gabriel García Márquez: No One Writes to the Colonel)


Image credit: José Lara [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikipedia

The Seven Princes of Lara

In the process of writing a brief literary history of the reconquista (the reconquering of Spain from the Moors), I found myself debating whether the tragic story of the seven princes of Lara should be included or not. On the one hand, it seemed difficult to leave out such a popular ballad from the era of the reconquista altogether; on the other hand, the brief literary history is already long enough without adding in something that, strictly speaking, is not so much a story of the reconquista but a story of a family feud. Upon reflection I decided that the famous story of the seven princes of Lara deserved a post of its own. To keep you busy while I finish the brief literary history. 🙂

The Seven Princes of Lara

Let’s face it: in the Spain of the reconquista, you didn’t necessarily have to go forth into battle to get killed. Sometimes it was sufficient merely to attend your uncle’s wedding, as happened with the seven princes of Lara…

Enjoy the following gruesome tale of completely senseless pride, treachery, murder – and vengeance! 🙂

Act I: A Wild Cucumber Soaked in Blood

The circumstances of this famous family feud in Spanish history were narrated succinctly by the Jesuit scholar, Juan de Mariana, in his General History of Spain in 1592:

It was in the following year (nine hundred and eighty-six), that the seven most noble brothers, commonly called the INFANTS¹ OF LARA, were slain by the treachery of Ruy Velasquez, who was their uncle…

Now it happened that Ruy Velasquez, Lord of Villaren, celebrated his nuptials in Burgos with Donna Lambra, a lady of very high birth… The feast was splendid, and great was the concourse of principal gentry ; and among others were present the Count Garci Fernandez, and those seven brothers, with Gonzalo Gustio, their father.

From some trivial occasion, there arose a quarrel between Gonzalez, the youngest of the seven brothers, on the one hand, and a relation of Donna Lambra, by name Alvar Sanchez, on the other, without, however, any very serious consequences at the time. But Donna Lambra conceived herself to have been insulted by the quarrel, and in order to revenge herself, when the seven brothers were come as far as Barvadiello, riding in her train, the more to do her honour, she ordered one of her slaves to throw at Gonzalez a wild cucumber soaked in blood, a heavy insult and outrage, according to the then existing customs and opinions in Spain. The slave, having done as he was bid, fled for protection to his lady, Donna Lambra; but that availed him nothing, for they slew him within the very folds of her garment.

Ruy Velasquez, who did not witness these things with his own eyes, no sooner returned, than, filled with wrath on account of this slaughter, and of the insult to his bride, he began to devise how he might avenge himself of the seven brothers.

Act II: The Captivity of Gonzalo Gustio

First of all, Ruy Velasquez decided to get rid of the Gonzalo Gustio, the father of the seven princes. And just like Hamlet’s stepfather, he chose to employ somebody else to do the dirty deed for him:

With semblances of peace and friendship, he concealed his mortal hatred ; and, after a time, Gonzalo Gustio, the father, was sent by him, suspecting nothing, to Cordova. The pretence was to bring certain monies which had been promised to Ruy Velasquez by the barbarian king, but the true purpose, that he might be put to death at a distance from his own country ; for Ruy Velasquez asked the Moor to do this in letters written in the Arabic tongue, of which Gonzalo was made the bearer. The Moor, however, whether moved to have compassion on the grey hairs of so principal a gentleman, or desirous of at least making a shew of humanity, did not slay Gonzalo, but contented himself with imprisoning him. Nor was his durance of the strictest, for a certain sister of the Moorish King found ingress, and held communication with him there ; and from that conversation, it is said, sprung Mudarra Gonzalez, author and founder of that most noble Spanish lineage of the Manriques. But the fierce spirit of Ruy Velasquez was not satisfied with the tribulations of Gonzalo Gustio; he carried his rage still farther.

Act III: The Seven Heads

Having got rid of the father (or at least so he thought), good Uncle Ruy turned his attention to the seven brothers:

Pretending to make an incursion into the Moorish country, he led into an ambuscade the seven brothers, who had as yet conceived no thought of his treacherous intentions. It is true that Nuno Sallido, their grandfather, had cautioned them with many warn-ings, for he indeed suspected the deceit ; but it was in vain, for so God willed or permitted. They had some two hundred horsemen with them, of their vassals, but these were nothing against the great host of Moors that set upon them from the ambuscade; and although when they found how it was, they acquitted themselves like good gentlemen, and slew many, they could accomplish nothing except making the victory dear to their enemies. They were resolved to avoid the shame of captivity, and were all slain, together with their grandfather Sallido. Their heads were sent to Cordova, an agreeable present to that king, but a sight of misery to their aged father, who, being brought into the place where they were, recognised them in spite of the dust and blood with which they were disfigured. It is true, nevertheless, that he derived some benefit therefrom ; for the king, out of the compassion which he felt, set him at liberty to depart to his own country.

And this now brings us to the poetry. 🙂 The emotional story of Gonzalo Gustio, invited to dine in the palace with his captor Almanzor, and then presented with the severed heads of his sons, is the subject of a ballad appropriately titled Seven Heads. 

In the presence of Almanzor, Gonzalo Gustio identifies the severed heads of his sons. Engraving by Antonio Tempesta, 1612 [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Gonzalo Gustio said:

In courteous guise, Almanzor², your messenger was sent,
And courteous was the answer with which from me he went ;
For why? I thought the word he brought of a knight and of a king, –
But false Moor henceforth never me to his feast shall bring in.

Ye bade me to your banquet, and I at your bidding came.
And accursed be the villany, and eternal be the shame
For ye have brought an old man forth, that he your sport initrht be:
Thank God I cheat you of your joy Thank God, no tear you see.

My gallant boys,” quoth Lara, ” it is a heavy sight,
These dogs have brought your father to look upon this night ;
Seven gentler boys, nor braver, were never nursed in Spain,
And blood of Moors, God rest your souls, ye shed on her like rain.

For all that he said he would not give the Moors the pleasure of seeing him with tears in his eyes, the poor old man then fell down weeping, until…

With that it chanced a Moor drew near, to lead him from the place,
Old Lara stooped him down once more, and kiss’d Gonzalez’ face ;
But ere the man observed him, or could his gesture bar,
Sudden he from his side had grasped that Moslem’s scymitar.

Oh ! swiftly from its scabbard the crooked blade he drew,
And, like some frantic creature, among them all he flew
Where, where is false Almanzor? back bastards of Mahoun !
And here, and there, in his despair, the old man hewed them down.

A hundred hands, a hundred brands, are ready in the hall,
But ere they mastered Lara, thirteen of them did fall ;
He has sent, I ween, a good thirteen of dogs that spurned his God,
To keep his children company, beneath the Moorish sod.

As you see, political correctness was not yet in vogue at the time this ballad was penned!

Act IV: The Vengeance of Mudarra

The story of the seven princes of Lara isn’t complete without another ballad, which tells the story of the vengeance taken on Uncle Ruy.

As written in Mariana’s History above, the captivity of Gonzalo Gustio was not all that onerous in itself: I particularly like the delicate way the good Jesuit padre worded how a certain Moorish princess ‘held communication’ with Gonzalo, that this ‘conversation’ resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son, Mudarra. A very eloquent man, this Gonzalo of ours. 🙂

Mudarra, the son born to Gonzalo (out of wedlock) by the sister of the Moor, when he had attained to the age of fourteen years, was prevailed on by his mother to go in search of his father ; and he it was that avenged the death of his seven brothers, by slaying with his own hand Ruy Velasquez, the author of that calamity. Donna Lambra likewise, who had been the original cause of all those evils, was stoned to death by him and burnt.

(Juan de Mariana: The General History of Spain)

Here you have the poetic version:

To the chase goes Rodrigo, with hound and with hawk ;
But what game he desires is revealed in his talk,
“O, in vain have I slaughtered the Infants of Lara :
There’s an heir in his halls, there’s the bastard Mudarra.
There’s the son of the renegade spawn of Mahoun
If I meet with Mudarra, my spear brings him down.”

While Rodrigo rides on in the heat of his wrath,
A stripling, armed cap-a-pee, crosses his path
” Good morrow, young esquire.” ” Good morrow, old knight.
“Will you ride with our party, and share our delight?”
” Speak your name, courteous stranger,” the stripling replied ;
” Speak your name and your lineage, ere with you I ride.”

” My name is Rodrigo,” thus answered the knight ;
” Of the line of old Lara, though barred from my right,
For the kinsman of Salas proclaims for the heir
Of our ancestor’s castles and forestries fair,
A bastard, a renegade’s offspring Mudarra,
Whom I’ll send, if I can, to the Infants of Lara.”-

” I behold thee, disgrace to thy lineage ! with joy
I behold thee, thou murderer ! ” answered the boy.
” The bastard you curse, you behold him in me ;
But his brothers’ avenger that bastard shall be ;
Draw ! for I am the renegade’s offspring, Mudarra ;
We shall see who inherits the life-blood of Lara ! ”

” I am armed for the forest-chase not for the fight
Let me go for my shield and my sword,” cries the knight
” Now the mercy you dealt to my brothers of old,
Be the hope of that mercy the comfort you hold ;
Die, foeman to Sancha die, traitor to- Lara !”
As he spake, there was blood on the spear of Mudarra.

(The Vengeance of Mudarra)

By killing Ruy Velasquez and revenging his half-brothers, young Mudarra earned the undying gratitude of his step-mother Doña Sancha, the mother of the seven princes. She adopted him and in due course Mudarra inherited the Lara possessions.

¹ For reasons best known to himself, Robert Southey, the translator of the text, chose to translate the Spanish word infante (prince) as infant. Although the origin of the word is indeed the Latin infans, rest assured that the story is about seven lusty young men and not seven babes in arms. (As will become apparent from the events in due course.)
² Almanzor (Abu Amir Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Abi Amir, al-Ḥajib al-Mansur - you can see while we simply call him Almanzor instead! - c. 932-1002) was the vizier and de facto ruler of the Emirate of Cordoba in the time of the Caliph Hisham II. He engaged in constant warfare against Christian kingdoms and was never defeated.

Links:Legends & Romance of Spain by Lewis SpenceSpanish Ballads, transl. by J. G. Lockhart
⇒ Tierra de Lara (The Land of Lara) - a blog post (in Spanish) about the story of the seven princes of Lara and Mudarra's vengeance accompanied by gorgeous photos of the landscape and towns where it all took place. Do visit!

The Enemy III (The Power of Life and Death)

We’ll remember the Exodus, the flight of many millions of French civilians from the advancing German army in June 1040, with another quote from Léon Werth’s book 33 Days.  (For the previous two quotes, please see the links below.)

Quote of the Week:

Léon Werth, 1878-1955

Behind this soldier is the entire might of the Reich, and the eyes of German soldiers are “full of victory,” as a peasant said to me. I’m obsessed by the idea that between this soldier and myself there is no man-to-man relationship or any relation determined by the laws and customs of a common country. There’s only the law of war, which is nothing but utility and caprice. Between him and me, it is understood that he has the power of life or death.

(Léon Werth: 33 Days)


You might also like:The EnemyThe Enemy II (The House Which They Enter Whenever They Like)

Asturias Is Spain…

…And The Rest Is Conquered Land

There’s a popular saying in Spain, principally in Asturias, a province on the Bay of Biscay in Northern Spain, which goes:

Asturias es España, y lo demás tierra conquistada.

Asturias is Spain, and the rest is conquered land.

It makes reference to the Battle of Covadonga, 722 A.D. when the troops of Don Pelayo, king of Asturias, defeated the invading Moors. The battle is considered the starting point of the reconquista, the reconquest of Spain from the Moors (a long process of wars which ended with the taking of Granada in 1492). Legend would have it that Pelayo and his 300 defeated an army of 180,000 Moors. Historically speaking, it’s more likely that the Moors were not quite so numerous, nor Pelayo’s lot so few but – why spoil the legend? It’s still a famous victory for those defending their homeland.

Don Pelayo in Covadonga by Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz, 1855. Courtesy of the Museum of Prado

As a consequence of Don Pelayo’s victory, Asturias has never been conquered by the Moors which explains the above saying.


I dragged my hard-tried family to Covadonga last summer. Similarly to the time when I dragged them (screaming) to Delphi, once again they couldn’t quite grasp why I wanted to visit some godforsaken historical site, but all my sins were forgiven once we got there.

When you see the location – a gorgeous gorge – you can readily understand how a small army could defend the place. The battle site is commemorated by a church, a statue of Don Pelayo and a little chapel on the other side of the valley (dedicated to the Virgen of the Battles who aided the forces of Pelayo) set into the Santa Cueva, the Holy Cave, right on top of a waterfall on Mt Auseva. All very spectacular and well worth a visit for the beauty & atmosphere of the location alone, even if you want to ignore the historical connotations.

(Click on the gallery to enlarge the pictures.)

Al Quama entered Asturias with 187,000 men. Pelayo was with his companions on Mount Auseva and the army of Alkama [sic] came to him and pitched innumerable tents in front of the entrance of a cave. Bishop Oppas climbed a hill opposite the cave and he spoke to Pelayo thus:

“Pelayo, Pelayo, where are you?”

The man so addressed appeared at a window and replied:

“Here I am.”

Then the bishop said:

“I judge, brother and son, that it’s not hidden from you how a little while ago the whole of Spain was united under the government of the Goths and shone more than other countries for her doctrine and science, and that, nevertheless, the entire united army of the Goths could not withstand the force of the Ishmaelites; can you defend yourself on this mountain top? It seems difficult to me. Listen to my advice: return to your agreement [ie. resume paying tribute to the Moors], you will enjoy many goods and enjoy the friendship of the Chaldeans.”

Then Pelayo replied:

“Did not you read in the Holy Scriptures that the church of the Lord will become like the mustard seed and grow again by the mercy of God?”


Alqama[sic] then ordered the combat to begin, and the soldiers took up arms. They raised the slings, the catapults were prepared, the swords flashed, the lances were brandished, and arrows were launched incessantly. But at once the magnificence of the Lord was shown: the stones that came out of the slings and arrived at the house of the Virgin Santa María, who was inside the cave, turned against those who shot them and killed the Chaldeans. And since God does not need spears, but gives the palm of victory to whomever he wants, the Chaldeans began to fly …

Chronicle of Alfonso III (Cronica Rotensis)


You may also like / Quizás también te gusta:Asturias, el secreto mejor guardado de los españoles (Asturias, the best kept secret of the Spanish)
⇒ A Brief (Literary) History of the Reconquista - coming to this blog soon!
⇒ A Short Pictorial History of RibadesellaThe Chronicle of Alfonso III, Cronica Rotensis (in Latin)Ulysses Found (or our trip to Delphi)

The Enemy II (They Enter Whenever They Like)

A few weeks ago, we had a quote from Léon Werth’s book 33 Days. The author was French, and a friend of Antoine de St-Exupéry who not only dedicated The Little Prince to him, but also wrote the foreword to 33 Days.

33 Days tells the author’s experiences in the so called Exodus, the great flight of many million French civilians from the advancing German army in June 1940.

It’s a book close to my heart because Léon Werth’s description of what it was like to live under occupation tallies with what my grandmother told me about living under first German, then Russian occupation in World War II. (Although my grandmother had much more horrific stories to tell of the vulnerability of civilians – and especially that of women – than what you can read in 33 Days.)

Quote of the Week:

Léon Werth, 1878-1955

I don’t need a dictionary to describe the difference between force and authority. I’m nothing more than a member of a captive tribe.

They’re next to us, up against us and all around us. They’re outside the house and inside the house, which they enter whenever they like.

(Léon Werth: 33 Days)


Call No Man Happy

The Best Stories of Herodotus returns today – after a shamefully long gap – with a story that has nothing to do with our favourite topic, the Greek-Persian Wars. Because The Histories of Herodotus is so much more than the long-winded retelling of a few gory battles: in his effort to unearth the causes of the war, Herodotus went as far back in time as the origins of the War of Troy and ranged across the Eastern Mediterranean and across subjects in a way that modern historians would never dare. Today’s story is a great example.

Let’s introduce the three protagonists first: Solon, Croesus and Cyrus.

Solon, the Athenian Law-Giver

Solon, 630-560 B.C.

The man Athenians generally credited with creating their democracy was Solon, archon1 in 594/93 [B.C.], who was given extraordinary powers to write laws…

Peter Krentz: The Athenian Government in Herodotus,
Appendix A to The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

Solon, the Law-Giver, whom his fellow citizens asked to give them laws.

Solon writing laws for Athens. By anonymous engraver.

I yoked together might and right, and I succeeded. I finished as I promised.
I wrote laws for the Bad and the Good alike,
I gave to each and every one straight justice.


Having written the laws to which the city of Athens signed up for a minimum of ten years, Solon thought it prudent to absent himself from the city for the aforesaid ten years – lest he should be forced to revoke his laws. Excusing himself therefore that he wished to see the world, he went gallivanting around the Ancient Mediterranean.

In due course, he arrived to Sardis, to the court of the Lydian king, Croesus.

Rich as Croesus

Croesus, 595-546 B.C.

It was Croesus who gave the world its first reliable currency. The gold standard starts here. The consequence was great wealth…

Neil MacGregor: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Gold coin of Croesus, British Museum

Croesus, the king of Lydia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) from 560 to 547 B.C., is credited with minting the first gold coins. The gold came from the River Pactolus in whose waters King Midas washed his hands in order to set himself free from the curse of the ‘Midas touch’2.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great, c.590-529 B.C.

I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts.

Isaiah 45:13, King James Bible

You might find this hard to believe but this exalted one of the Lord above is a Gentile: King Cyrus the Great, Cyrus II of Persia – clearly identified by name in the preceding verses. For the more archeologically minded, this would be Cyrus of the Cyrus Cylinder3 fame, c. 600-530 B.C.

Cyrus ruled for about 30 years and the story of how he built the world’s greatest empire (as of then) is related both by Herodotus and the Bible.

And now, today’s story!

Call No Man Happy

(Or The Life and Misfortunes of King Croesus)

Solon in Sardis

On a sunny summer day4, Solon the tourist arrived at the harbour of Sardis, the capital of Lydia. The celebrity wise man of Athens was, of course, immediately invited to the palace, where King Croesus fancied himself in a little need of flattery:

…on the third or fourth day, Croesus gave orders to his servants to give Solon a tour through the treasuries and to point out all his great riches. When Solon had viewed and inspected everything long enough, Croesus said to him,

“My Athenian guest, word of your wisdom and travels has reached us even here. We hear you have wandered through much of the world in the search for knowledge, so I really can’t resist asking you now whether you have yet seen anyone who surpasses all others in happiness and prosperity?”

(Herodotus: The Histories, Book I. 30)

Croesus showing his riches to Solon. By Willem de Poorter

A leading question if we’ve ever heard one. I think none of you need to be told by Herodotus that Croesus really expected himself to be named as happiest and most prosperous of all. Rather disappointingly for him, however, Solon named Tellus the Athenian.


Who on earth is Tellus the Athenian? How could Solon consider this nonentity be happier than Croesus?!

Solon replied, “For one thing, he [Tellus] lived in a famous city and had good and noble children, and he saw all his children and grandchildren surviving him. Besides, he was well off, at least by our standards of living, and he ended his life in the greatest glory, for he came to the aid of the Athenians in a battle against their neighbours in Eleusis and forced them to flee before he died most nobly on the battlefield. The Athenians buried him at public expense in the very place he fell and gave him great honours.” (I.30)

Croesus had to concede that Tellus had it good but he was sure to win at least second place, therefore he questioned Solon further…

…only to be disappointed again.

…Croesus now became annoyed.

“My Athenian guest,” he said, “are you disparaging my own happiness as though it were nothing? Do you think me worth less than even a common man?”

Solon replied,

“Croesus, you asked me about human concerns, and I know that the gods are jealous of human prosperity and disruptive of our peace. Over a long period of time, a man will see and experience many things that he would rather not… human life is pure chance.

You seem to be very wealthy, and you rule over many people, but I cannot yet tell you the answer you asked for until I learn how you have ended your life.

You see a man who is very wealthy is no more happy and prosperous than the man who has only enough to live from day to day, unless good fortune stays with him and he retains his fair and noble possessions right up until he departs this life happily. For many wealthy people are unhappy, while many others who have more modest resources are fortunate. The man who has great wealth but is unhappy outdoes the fortunate man in only two ways, while the fortunate man outdoes him in many ways. The former is more capable of gratifying his passions and of sustaining himself in adversity, but the fortunate man, although he does not have the same ability to sustain himself in adversity or passion, avoids these anyway by virtue of his good fortune. Moreover, he has no injury, no sickness, no painful experiences; what he does have is good children and good looks. Now if, in addition to all these things, he ends his life well, too, then this is the man you are looking for; he alone deserves to be called happy and prosperous.” (I.32)

An open-and-shut case!

Atys and the Iron Spear

Solon did not please Croesus at all by telling him this, and Croesus dismissed him, thinking him worthless and extremely ignorant for overlooking the good things right before his eyes and telling him instead to look to the end of every matter. (I.33)

But, as attested by numerous Greek myths, the gods are jealous. It doesn’t do for a mortal to think too highly of himself or even to consider himself too fortunate. Herodotus, like all Greeks of his time, was a firm believer in hubris5 and its inevitably tragic consequences:

…after Solon left, the god took a dreadful vengeance upon Croesus, apparently because Croesus had thought himself the happiest and most prosperous of men. (I.34)

It so happened that Croesus had two sons: one a poor mute, but the other, Atys, “greatly surpassed his peers in everything”. This apple of Croesus’s eye was serving as a general in the army and enjoyed hunting and other manly pastimes. Soon after Solon left Sardis, however, Croesus had a terrible dream in which Atys was killed by an iron spear. Forewarned is forearmed, thought Croesus, and like the good father he was, he prudently removed all spears, javelins, lances, you name it, from the house6. Not only that but he forbade his son to have anything to do with war. Finally, lest the young man become restless, he even provided him with a wife!

So far, so good.

While all this was going on, another visitor turned up in Sardis:

…there arrived in Sardis a man caught up in bad luck, with blood guilt on his hands. He was a Phrygian of royal birth and came to Croesus’ household in accordance with the local custom; he needed to obtain ritual purification because of his crime. And so Croesus performed this service for him. (I.35)

Having purified the young man, Croesus wished to know more:

“Now, you, who are you? And from where in Phrygia have you come here as my suppliant? What man or woman did you murder?”

And the man answered,

“I am the son of Gordias, son of Midas; my name is Adrastos. I killed my brother unintentionally, and am here because I was banished by my father and am now deprived of everything.” (I.35)

Man of bad luck indeed, to have killed his own brother by accident. Croesus, nevertheless, decided to take him in:

“It so happens that you are descended from friends of mine; therefore you have found friends here and will lack for nothing in my home. You will do best to bear this misfortune as lightly as possible.” (I.35)

Time passed, Adrastos lived happily at Croesus’s house, Atys lived happily with his wife… etcetera. This happy state of affairs, however, was not to last.

Meanwhile a huge monster of a boar appeared on Mount Olympus in Mysia, from which it would set out to ravage the Mysians’ fields. The Mysians often went out to attack it but could do it no harm and they suffered injuries from it instead. At last, messengers from the Mysians went to Croesus… (I.36)

Yep, you’ve guessed it. They asked for the peerless Atys to come and deal with the boar for them!

Ever mindful of his disturbing dream, Croesus replied:

“About my son—do not bring up that subject again, because I would not send him with you. He has just been married, and this sort of thing is not his concern right now. I will, however, send with you a group of the best Lydians as well as my whole pack of hunting dogs, and I will order them to help you remove the beast from your land with their utmost determination.”  (I.36)

The Mysians were well satisfied with this answer; not so Atys, who overheard the lot:

“Before this, Father, I always enjoyed the best, the most noble status when I went to war or to the hunt, and I was held in high esteem. But now you exclude me from both, although I do not believe you have detected in me any cowardice or lack of bravery. How am I supposed to show my face when I visit the public square? What kind of man will the citizens think I am? And my bride? What kind of man will she think she is living with?…” (I.37)

Faced with these not unreasonable questions, Croesus explained Atys about his dream. Atys replied,

“Father, since you had such a dream, I forgive you for watching over me; but let me tell you that you missed something in the dream. You said that in your dream I appeared to die by an iron spear. Well, what kind of hands does a boar have? Or what kind of spear could it use that you are so afraid? If the dream told you that I would die by its teeth or by some other means natural to this animal, then you ought to act as you are doing, but it told of a spear. So, since I will not be in a battle against men, please do let me go.” (I.39)

Atys certainly had a point – the boar was not yet born that wielded an iron spear. Croesus therefore consented for him to go on the hunt; and as additional security, he sent Adrastos to watch his back (in case he fell in with some wicked thieves on the road). Adrastos, feeling himself in debt to Croesus, did not refuse.

“You have ordered me to protect your son; therefore you can expect him to return home safe under my protection.” (I.42)

Well, you can’t doubt his good intentions. But was the ill-fated Adrastos really the best man to try to help Atys evade his ill fate?

Off they went to Mysia: Atys, Adrastos, a group of the best young men and the dogs.

When they reached Mount Olympus, they searched for the boar, and when they found the beast, they surrounded it and cast their spears at it. But at that point, the supplicant stranger, Adrastos, the very man whom Croesus had purified of blood guilt, missed his mark while aiming his javelin at the boar and hit the son of Croesus. Thus wounded by the iron spear, Atys fulfilled the prophecy of the dream… (I.43)


Reluctantly we’ll here pass by the tragic aftermath, including Croesus’s lamentations, the funeral and Adrastos’s suicide (all of which you can read in I.44-45) because we have to move on with the main story – this is no way yet the end!

Three Phrophecies from Delphi

For two years, says Herodotus, Croesus did nothing but sat at home and moped. He was finally stirred out of his grief by arising affairs of state. News came from the east that the Persian Cyrus had destroyed the empire of the Medes.

He [Croesus] wondered if he would be able to check the Persian power before it became too strong. (I.46)

Croesus thought it prudent to consult the oracles; but which one? There were too many! In order to determine which one of the oracles7 could really foresee the future, he devised a test:

Croesus gave his sacred delegates the following instructions for testing the oracles: that they were to count the days from their departure from Sardis until the hundredth day, on which they would then consult the oracles, asking what the Lydian king, Croesus son Alyattes, happened to be doing just then. Then they were to record in writing whatever each of the oracles answered and bring that record back to him… (I.47)

We don’t know what the various oracles replied; Herodotus merely says only one of them answered correctly8. This winning candidate replied in verse:

I know the number of grains of sand and the measures of the sea,
I understand the mute and hear the speechless.
Into the depth of my senses has come the smell of hard-shelled tortoise
Boiling in bronze with the meat of lamb,
Laid upon bronze below, covered with bronze on top. (I.47)

So what was Croesus doing, exactly?

…after he had sent his sacred delegates off to the various oracles, he watched for the day he had appointed with a plan in mind that he thought would be impossible to discover and disclose: all by himself, he had chopped up a tortoise and a lamb, then boiled them together in a bronze cauldron covered by a bronze lid. (I.48)

Good for the Pythia, Apollo’s oracle in Delphi who gave the correct answer. Croesus wasn’t ungrateful:

After this he tried to please the god at Delphi with generous offerings. He sacrificed 3,000 of every kind of appropriate animal. He piled up gold- and silver-plated couches, golden libation cups, and purple garments, and then burned them on a huge pyre, hoping thereby to gain a bit more of the god’s favour. He ordered all the Lydians to sacrifice according to their means. After the sacrifice, Croesus melted down a great amount of gold and beat it into ingots, 117 in all, each measuring eighteen inches long, nine inches wide, and three inches high. Of these, four were made of refined gold, weighing two and half talents each, and the rest were made of white gold, weighing two talents each. He also had a statue of a lion made of refined gold, weighing ten talents… (I.49)

And so on. Gold and silver bowls, storage jars and other objects, statues, even some of his own wife’s jewellery. The description of what Croesus sent to Delphi and what became of it subsequently goes on for a page and a half. Of course, he wanted something more in exchange: advice regarding the Persians.

His envoys duly fetched up at Delphi with the offerings and said to the oracle:

“Croesus king of the Lydians and other peoples, in the belief that yours is the only true oracle in the whole world, gives you gifts worthy of your prophetic insight, and asks whether he should wage was against the Persians and whether he should seek to add any military force to his own as an ally.” (I.53)

The Pythia replied,

that if Croesus were to wage war against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire… and… advised him to find the most powerful Hellenes and to make them his friends and supporters. (I.53)

All was peachy between Croesus and the Pythia. Croesus loved the prophecies; the Pythia loved the presents.

Croesus… was overjoyed with the prophecies, confidently expecting that they foretold that he was going to destroy the empire of Cyrus. Then, having sent yet another mission to Delphi, and after having ascertained the size of the population of Delphi, Croesus gave each man of that city a present of two gold staters. In return, the Delphians granted to Croesus and the Lydians the privileges of priority in oracular consultation and exemption from fees, along with front-row places at their festivals. They also granted in perpetuity that any of the Lydians could become a Delphian citizen. (I.54)

As I said, all was simply peachy.

But to top it all, Croesus felt that a third prophecy was called for. Off he sent his men again to Delphi…

This time he asked whether his reign would be long-lasting. The Pythia answered him as follows:

…But whenever a mule8 becomes king of the Medes,
Then, tender-footed Lydian, flee by the pebbled River Hermus
And do not delay, nor feel shame at being a coward.

These verses, when delivered to Croesus, delighted him more than ever before. He was confident that a man would always rule the Medes—never a mule—and therefore assumed that he and his descendants would rule forever. (I.55)

Croesus now felt he knew everything he needed to know; it was time to act. Taking the oracle’s advice, first of all he looked around to make the most powerful Hellenes into his allies. He soon found that there were two candidates: the Spartans and the Athenians.

And so Croesus learned that the Athenians were being oppressed in this way at the time9. But the Spartans, he heard, had just emerged from great difficulties and were now waging war victoriously against the Tegeans… (I.65)

…so he sent messengers bearing gifts to Sparta in order to request a military alliance… (I.69)

Which the Spartans, who have heard of the Delphic prophecies given to Croesus, granted willingly. There was an exchange of gifts (although the Spartan gift never arrived to Sardis but ended up in the hands of the Samians – but this is another story).

All was prepared. It was time for Croesus to start his victorious war.

The Pyre

Meanwhile Croesus, who had misunderstood the oracle, was preparing an expectition to Cappadocia, assuming that he would depose Cyrus and defeat the Persians.

While he was preparing for war against Persia, a Lydian named Sandanis, who was considered a sage even before this, achieved greater fame among the Lydians for the advice he now gave to Croesus.

“Sire,” he said, “you are preparing for war agains the sort of men who wear leather trousers and leather for all their other garments as well. They eat not as much as they want, but as much as they have, since their land is rugged. Moreover, they have no wine but drink water instead. They have no figs for dessert, nor anything else good to eat. Now if you should conquer them, what will you take from these people who have nothing at all? And then again, if they were to conquer you, think of how much you will lose: as soona s they taste our good life, they will never give it up and you will never get rid of them…” (I.71)

Very sound advice by the old man Sandanis – there was really one side in this contest who stood to gain anything, and that wasn’t Croesus’s side!

It would take too long to describe all the gory battles here – the particularly war-minded among you should refer directly to the relevant paragraphs (I.72-73, I.76-84).

The (relatively) short version is that Croesus’s army moved into Cappadocia where he crossed the River Halys10 and fought a pitched battle against Cyrus’s army outside the city of Pteria. This battle was inconclusive; Croesus attributed this to the fact that his army was much smaller than Cyrus’s. Therefore he packed up and returned to Sardis to collect a larger army. Cyrus however figured that his best chance lay in following hot on the heels of Croesus and attacking before the Lydian king could gather potential reinforcements. In consequence, another battle was fought on the plain in front of Sardis which the Lydians lost (their horses took fright from the camels of the Persians). The Lydians retreated into the city where they were duly besieged by Cyrus. At this point Croesus sent a herald across the Aegean to ask the Spartans for help but before the Spartans had time to set sail, on the fourteenth day of the siege, the city fell.

What became of Croesus after his city fell? This is where I have to hand over entirely to Herodotus.

What happened to Croesus himself was this.

As I mentioned earlier, he had a son, who, although healthy in all other respects, was unable to speak. In the past, during peace and prosperity, Croesus had done everything for this boy and, among other things, sent a mission to Delphi asking the oracle about him. This is what the Pythia said:

Lydian of race, king of many, Croesus, you fool,
Desire not to hear at home that prayed-for sound
Of yours son’s voice. Much better for you to be far from that:
The day on which you hear it first will rob you of prosperity.

And indeed it turned out that when the wall was being taken, one of the Persians, who did not recognise Croesus, approached the king and was going to kill him; Croesus saw him coming but did nothing; in his misery he did not care that he would die by a stroke of violence. But when his mute son saw the Persian approaching, he shouted out in fear and horror,

“You there! Do not kill Croesus!”

These were the first words he ever spoke, and after this, he could speak for the rest of his life.

When the Persians took Sardis and captured Croesus, he had ruled fourteen years and had been under siege fourteen days. And as the oracle predicted, he put an end to a great empire—his own.

The Persians seized him and led him to Cyrus, and to a huge pyre that the King had them build, and they mounted Croesus bound in shackles on top of it, and with him, fourteen Lydian boys.

Cyrus did this either to consecrate them as a sacrifice of victory offerings to some god, or to fulfill a voew, or perhaps, having found out that Croesus was god-fearing, he wanted to see if some divinity would save him from being burned alive.

As Croesus stood there on the pyre, despite the horror of his predicament, he thought of Solon and how divinely inspired he had been when he stated his maxim that no living human can be called truly happy and prosperous. Until then he remained quiet, but when this occurred to him, he sighed deeply and groaned and repeated aloud “Solon” three times.

Cyrus heard this and ordered his interpreters to ask Croesus who was this man he had called by name. Croesus kept silent at first, but when they pressed him to answer, he said,

“A man to whom I would pay a fortune if only he could talk to all tyrants.”

Since his words were obscure to them, they questioned him again, asking what he meant, and they continued to pester him until he told them what had happened when Solon the Athenian had visited him; indeed he related the whole story form beginning to end, even repeating Solon’s very words, of how after the Athenian had seen all  of the king’s prosperity, he had still made light of it and refused to call Croesus a fortunate man. And now everything had turned out just as Solon had said, and indeed it was clear that his words applied no more to Croesus himself than to the whole human race, and especially to all those who consider themselves happy and prosperous. While Croesus related all this, the pyre had been lit and its edges were now burning.

Cyrus, after learning through the interpreters what Croesus had said, reflected that he, too, was human, and changed his mind about committing a living man to the fire, a fellow human being who had been blessed with happiness no less than he. Moreover, he began to fear retribution, and to contemplate the fact that nothing is really secure and certain for human beings. So he gave orders that the fire should be extinguished at once and that Croesus and the Lydian youths with him on the pyre be brought down. The Persians immediately tried to carry out his orders, but they were unable to get the fire under control.

Then, say the Lydians, as Croesus watched all the men attempting but failing to put out the mounting flames, he realized that Cyrus had changed his mind, and now called out to Apollo, beseeching him that if any of his gifts had ever pleased the god, to come now to his rescue and save him from the danger at hand.

And as he called on the god and began to weep, clouds suddenly converged out of the clear, calm sky, and a storm burst out, and rain poured down in floods, extinguishing the fire.

Cyrus understood from this that Croesus must be a good man and dear to the gods. He had him brought down from the pyre and asked him,

“Croesus, who on earth persuaded you to wage war against me rather than to become my friend?”

Croesus replied,

“Sire, what I did was a blessing for you, but a curse for me. The one to blame is the god of the Hellenes; it is he who encouraged me to go to war. Otherwise, no one could be so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace sons bury fathers; in war fathers bury sons.” (I.85-87)

Call No Man Happy

Croesus on the pyre. Red figure vase, 5th century B.C.

So call no man happy…

…while he still lives.

1 Archon = A chief magistrate / civilian head of state in Athens
2 Midas touch: According to legend, everything King Midas of Phrygia touched turned into gold. As this included his daughter and any food he tried to eat, he wasn't entirely happy. Depending on which version of the legend you read, he either died of starvation or liberated himself from the curse (which he did bring upon himself by the way) by washing his hands in the River Pactolus. 
3 Cyrus Cylinder = a clay cylinder, now in the British Museum, with text in cuneiform writing, which praises King Cyrus and denounces his defeated opponent, King Nabonidus of Babylon
4 This is called poetic licence - for all we know it was the middle of winter and it was pouring with rain.
5 Hubris = Excessive pride, especially towards the gods, which will result in your downfall. Think of Arachne.
6 Shades of the Grimm Brothers' Sleeping Beauty here.
7 The Hellenic oracles were Delphi, Abai in Phocis, Dodona, Amphiareion, Trophonios and the Branchidai in Miletus. The one in Lybia was the oracle of Ammon.
8 Although he does say that Amphiareion also gave a sufficiently accurate answer for Croesus to feel that there was a true oracle there as well.
9 Mule = Cyrus was half Persian, half Mede (I.91) 
10 At this time Athens was under the yoke of the tyrant Peisistratos.
11 The mathematician Thales figured out a way to get the army across the river (I.75). 

Links:Book of Isaiah, Chapter 45The Histories by Herodotus - resources on the Open University

Image credits:
Solon, Croesus & Cyrus: public domain via Wikipedia
Croesus's gold coin: Courtesy of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Solon writing laws for Athens, Croesus shows his riches to Solon, Croesus on the pyre: public domain, various sources

Intruder in the Alhambra

Quote of the Week:

Cees Nooteboom (1933-)

The pink walls of the Alcazaba are tinged with a different shade each hour, the disciplined gardens around me, the eroded brick of the fortifications which seem to bleed in places, the gates and patios I saw that day, the excruciating intricacy and refinement of the decorations in corridors and pavilions and then suddenly, in the midst of it all, rises Charles V’s Renaissance palace like an intruder clinging to the remains of that vanished Orient, a proclamation of power and conquest.

A severe statement, a massive square enclosing a magnificent circle, a courtyard the size of a town square, one of the most lovely open spaces I know, as if even air could express the advent of a new era and a new might. Columns are curiously akin to trees, the multicoloured chunks of rock that nature once pressed into these marble thunks to make a superior kind of brawn, bear witness to a new military caste deploying its forces worldwide to destroy empires and amass the gold with which armies are fed, palaces built, and inflation generated. Skulls of oxen, stone tablets commemorating battles, iron rings decorated with eagles’ heads that once served to tie up horses, winged women of great beauty reclining dreamily on the pediments, their broken wings half spread, there is no more tangible evidence of the confrontation that took place here than those two intertwined palaces: the one extroverted, out to seduce, the other haughty, self-absorved; over and above the hedonistic bloom of the sultans the imperial edifice points to the might of the other, earlier caesars who ruled Europe long before the armies of Islam came and went.

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

Palace of Charles V in Granada
Palace of Charles V / Palacio de Carlos V, Granada
You might also like:The Palace of Charles V in Granada

The View from My Window II (La vista desde mi ventana II)

Your desire to be near to window is your desire to be near to life!

(Mehmet Murat Ildan)

For the third time in the last year and a half, I had to spend several days in a certain building in Central London. At least I had a view.

Enjoy this ‘study’ of the changing skies of London, May 2019. (Click in the gallery to enlarge the photos.)

¡Tu deseo de estar cerca de la ventana es tu deseo de estar cerca de la vida!

(Mehmet Murat Ildan)

Por la tercera vez en el último año y medio, tuve que pasar unos días en un cierto edificio en el centro de Londres. Al menos, había una vista.

Que disfrutéis este ‘estudio’ de los cielos cambiantes de Londres, mayo de 2019. (Haz click para ampliar.)

You might also like / Quizás también te gusta:The View from My Window (La vista desde mi ventana)

Land of Giants

Leer esto en castellano

Or The Windmills of Don Quixote


The Lonely Planet guide about the La Mancha town of Campo de Criptana reads:

One of the most popular stops on the Don Quijote route, Campo de Criptana is crowned by 10 windmills visible from kilometres around. Revered contemporary film-maker Pedro Almodóvar¹ was born here, but left for Madrid in his teens. The town is pleasant, if unexceptional.

Actually, unexceptional doesn’t even begin to describe the town if you arrive by train (Campo de Criptana is on the mainline from Madrid to Albacete, the capital of Castile-La Mancha). Downright ugly might be a better description: as in many Spanish towns, the railway station is on the outskirts, in this case surrounded by industrial buildings of little appeal. Luckily, Campo de Criptana is a small place and fifteen minutes walk will bring you to the centre of town.

Which is unexceptional.

Statue of Cervantes, Campo de Criptana

But you don’t really want the centre of town. You’re a reader, a reader of Don Quixote at that, and what you want is the famous windmills, the giants that Don Quixote fought. Head uphill from the unexceptional Plaza Mayor with its obligatory Cervantes statue, through the Albaícin – the old Moorish quarter -, through the narrow cobblestoned alleys, between whitewashed houses edged in indigo blue… it sounds better already, doesn’t it? There. As you turn the corner, you spot your first windmill. And there are other nine to come.

A Miller and a Thief

Being a miller and a thief is one and the same.

(Castilian proverb)

In 1752, the land survey of the Marquis of Ensenada counted thirty-four windmills here; an earlier survey ordered by Philip II in 1575, the Relaciones Topográficas, simply mentions – rather more vaguely – “many windmills”.

People came here from all over the neighbourhood to have their wheat ground. For the millers, for the town, this was a source of riches. As lingering evidence of the proverbial dishonesty of millers, one of the 16th century windmills goes by the name of El Burleta, corrupted over the centuries from Burlapobres (ie. Tricking the Poor).

The Sierra de los Molinos, Windmill Hill, still boasts three original 16th century mills; the ones Cervantes saw, the ones Don Quixote took for giants. For paltry two euros you can enter one of them and a guide will explain about the machinery inside. Working machinery: on the first Sunday of every month, the mills are still armed with sails and grind wheat. The other seven windmills are more modern constructions, albeit rebuilt from the original stones. The oficina de turismo is located in one of them.

The Land of Giants

Tierra de gigantes / Land of giants

The hill of windmills is tiny. Hardly merits the name of hill, really. But when you reach the top and look around, you feel as if you’re on top of the world. This is the famous Spanish meseta, the Castilian meseta, with the red soil Federico García Lorca sang about and its utter emptiness under a stupendous sky.

These fields are an immense symphony of congealed blood without trees, cool respite or shelter for the brain, full of superstitious prayer, broken lances, enigmatic villages…

(Federico García Lorca: Sketches of Spain)


Las ruinas de un granero / The ruins of a grain store, Campo de Criptana, Castilla-La Mancha

There’s nowhere to hide here. You’re exposed to the elements, to the wandering eyes of your fellow humans and to your God, should you have one.

The landscape of La Mancha dotted with windmills is no more rigorously divided into heaven and earth than the Dutch polder. It is an extreme division, unmitigated by temptations, valleys, romantic corners. Most of the meseta is as hard for a man to hide in as the flatlands of the Netherland. A man is always visible between heaven and earth, silhouetted against the sky…

(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)

The weather rolls in. You can see it coming from a long way off. Two cyclists stand out as stark silhouettes against the empty sky. There are the four windmills on a distant hill, near Alcazár de San Juan. As you wander, you can find the ruins of old grain stores. You can see the odd olive grove. El Toboso, the home of Dulcinea, is about 20 km northeast. Two low flying fighter planes scream through the sky.

There is nothing really here, apart from the windmills, the sky and the red soil of the windswept, half-barren meseta. But if you walk out on the meseta far enough and look back, the windmills do look like giants. With the tiniest bit of imagination.

You are in Don Quixote country.

At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”

So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were, but made at them shouting, “Fly not, cowards and vile beings, for a single knight attacks you.”

A slight breeze at this moment sprang up, and the great sails began to move, seeing which Don Quixote exclaimed, “Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus, ye have to reckon with me.”

So saying, and commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, imploring her to support him in such a peril, with lance in rest and covered by his buckler, he charged at Rocinante’s fullest gallop and fell upon the first mill that stood in front of him; but as he drove his lance-point into the sail the wind whirled it round with such force that it shivered the lance to pieces, sweeping with it horse and rider, who went rolling over on the plain, in a sorry condition.

Sancho hastened to his assistance as fast as his ass could go, and when he came up found him unable to move, with such a shock had Rocinante fallen with him.

“God bless me!” said Sancho, “did I not tell your worship to mind what you were about, for they were only windmills? and no one could have made any mistake about it but one who had something of the same kind in his head.”

(Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote de La Mancha)

¹If one can believe Wikipedia (and why not?), Almodóvar was born in Calzada de Calatrava - only about a 100 km difference!

You might also like:Don Quixote (available for download or online reading on Project Gutenberg)
⇒ Campo de Criptana (Lonely Planet)
⇒ Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago 
⇒ Federico García Lorca: Sketches of Spain

Tierra de Gigantes

Read this in English

O los molinos de Don Quijote

Nada excepcional

El artículo de Lonely Planet sobre el pueblo manchego Campo de Criptana dice:

Una de las paradas más populares en la ruta de Don Quijote, Campo de Criptana está coronado por 10 molinos de viento visibles desde kilómetros. El respetado cineasta contemporáneo Pedro Almodóvar¹ nació aquí, pero se fue a Madrid en su adolescencia. El pueblo es agradable, aunque nada excepcional.

De hecho, la frase nada excepcional ni siquiera comienza a describir el pueblo si llegas por tren (Campo de Criptana está en la línea principal de Madrid a Albacete, la capital de Castilla-La Mancha). Feísimo podría ser una mejor descripción: como en muchas ciudades españolas, la estación de tren está en las afueras, en este caso rodeada de edificios industriales poco atractivo. Afortunadamente, Campo de Criptana es un lugar pequeño y quince minutos a pie te llevará al centro de la ciudad.

Lo que es nada excepcional.

Statue of Cervantes, Campo de Criptana

Pero la verdad es que no quieres el centro de la ciudad. Eres un lector, un lector de Don Quijote además, y lo que quieres son los famosos molinos de viento, los gigantes con los que luchó Don Quijote. Diríjase cuesta arriba desde la Plaza Mayor con su obligatoria estatua de Cervantes, a través del Albaícin, el antiguo barrio morisco, caminando por los estrechos callejones adoquinados, entre casas encaladas y bordeadas de azul añil … ya suena mejor, ¿no? Ahí. Al doblar la esquina, ves tu primer molino de viento. Y hay nueve más por venir.


Molinero y ladrón

Molinero y ladrón, dos cosas suenan y una son.

En 1752, el censo del Marqués de la Ensenada registraba treinta y cuatro molinos de viento aquí; un estudio anterior, las Relaciones Topográficas de Felipe II (1575) menciona – en forma algo más vaga – “muchos molinos”.


La gente vino aquí de todo el vecindario para tener harina. Para los molineros, para el pueblo, eso significó la riqueza. Uno de los molinos del siglo XVI se llama El Burleta, corrompido de Burlapobres, un nombre que probablemente hace alusión a la proverbial falta de honradez del molinero.

La Sierra de los Molinos aún cuenta con tres molinos originales del siglo XVI; los que vio Cervantes, los que don Quijote tomó por gigantes. Por sólo dos euros puedes entrar uno de ellos y una guía te explicará la maquinaria que se encuentra dentro. Aún es maquinaria de trabajo: el primer domingo de cada mes los molinos están equipados con aspas y muelen trigo. Los otros siete molinos de viento son construcciones más modernas, si bien es cierto que son reconstruidas de las piedras originales. La oficina de turismo se encuentra en una de ellas.

Tierra de gigantes

Tierra de gigantes

La colina de los molinos es pequeña. Apenas merece el nombre de cerro, de verdad. Pero cuando llegas a la cima y miras a tu alrededor, te sientes como si estuvieras en la cima del mundo. Esta es la famosa meseta española, la meseta castellana, con su tierra roja sobre el que cantó Federico García Lorca y su vacío absoluto bajo un cielo estupendo.

Estos campos, inmensa sinfonía en sangre reseca, sin árboles, sin matices de frescura, sin ningún descanso al cerebro, llenos de oraciones supersticiosas, de hierros quebrados, de pueblos enigmáticos…

(Federico García Lorca: Impresiones y paisajes)

Las ruinas de un granero, Campo de Criptana, Castilla-La Mancha

No hay donde esconderse aquí. Estás expuesto a los elementos, a los ojos errantes de tus semejantes y a tu Dios, si es que tienes uno.

El paisaje de La Mancha salpicado de molinos de viento no está más rigurosamente dividido en cielo y tierra que el pólder holandés. Es una división extrema, no mitigada por las tentaciones, los valles, los rincones románticos. En la mayoría de la meseta es tan difícil para un hombre ocultarse como en las llanuras de los Países Bajos. Un hombre siempre es visible entre el cielo y la tierra, recortada contra el cielo…

(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)

Las nubes negras empiezan a llegar; las puedes ver desde muy lejos. Dos ciclistas aparecen como siluetas austeras contra el cielo vacío. Hay cuatro molinos de viento en una colina distante, cerca de Alcazár de San Juan. Caminando, puedes encontrar las ruinas de los antiguos graneros. Puedes ver algunos olivares. El Toboso, el hogar de Dulcinea, está a unos 20 km al noreste. Oyes el estruendo de dos aviones de combate que vuelen sobre la tierra en una altitud muy baja.

La verdad es que no hay nada aquí, aparte de los molinos de viento, el cielo y la tierra roja de la meseta árida, azotado por el viento. Pero si caminas por la meseta lo suficiente y miras hacia atrás, los molinos de viento parecen gigantes. Con un poquito de imaginación.

Es que eres en la tierra de Don Quijote.


En esto, descubrieron treinta o cuarenta molinos de viento que hay en aquel campo, y así como don Quijote los vio, dijo a su escudero:
—La ventura va guiando nuestras cosas mejor de lo que acertamos a desear; porque ves allí, amigo Sancho Panza, donde se descubren treinta o pocos más desaforados gigantes, con quien pienso hacer batalla y quitarles a todos las vidas, con cuyos despojos comenzaremos a enriquecer, que esta es buena guerra, y es gran servicio de Dios quitar tan mala simiente de sobre la faz de la tierra.
—¿Qué gigantes?—dijo Sancho Panza.
—Aquellos que allí ves —respondió su amo— de los brazos largos, que los suelen tener algunos de casi dos leguas.
—Mire vuestra merced —respondió Sancho— que aquellos que allí se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento, y lo que en ellos parecen brazos son las aspas, que, volteadas del viento, hacen andar la piedra del molino.
—Bien parece—respondió don Quijote—que no estás cursado en esto de las aventuras: ellos son gigantes; y si tienes miedo quítate de ahí, y ponte en oración en el espacio que you voy a entrar con ellos en fiera y desigual batalla.
Y diciendo esto, dio de espuelas a su caballo Rocinante, sin atender a las voces que su escudero Sancho le daba, advirtiéndole que sin duda alguna eran molinos de viento, y no gigantes, aquellos que iba a acometer. Pero él iba tan puesto en que eran gigantes, que ni oía las voces de su escudero Sancho, ni echaba de ver, aunque estaba ya bien cerca, lo que eran, antes iba diciendo en voces altas:
—Non fuyades, cobardes y viles criaturas, que un solo caballero es el que os acomete.
Levantose en esto un poco de viento, y las grandes aspas comenzaron a moverse, lo cual visto por don Quijote, dijo:
—Pues aunque mováis más brazos que los del gigante Briareo, me lo habéis de pagar.
Y diciendo esto, y encomendándose de todo corazón a su señora Dulcinea, pidiéndole que en tal trance le socorriese, bien cubierto de su rodela, con la lanza en el ristre, arremetió a todo el galope de Rocinante y embistió con el primero molino que estaba delante; y  dándole una lanzada en el aspa, la volvió el viento con tanta furia, que hizo la lanza pedazos, llevándose tras sí al caballo y al caballero, que fue rodando muy maltrecho por el campo.
—¡Válame Dios!—dijo Sancho—.¿No le dije yo a vuestra merced que mirase bien lo que hacía, que no eran sino molinos de viento, y no podría ignorar sino quien llevase otros tales en la cabeza?

(Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha)

¹ Si se cree Wikipedia (y ¿por qué no?), Almodóvar nació en Calzada de Calatrava. Sólo cosa de 100 kilómetros!

Quizás también te gusta:Don Quixote (en inglés en el Project Gutenberg)
⇒ Campo de Criptana (por Lonely Planet)
⇒ Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago 
⇒ Federico García Lorca: Impresiones y paisajes

The Best Government (El mejor gobierno)

Quote of the Week / La cita de la semana:

Plutarch (c. 46 AD – c. 120 AD)

When a Persian asked what kind of government he [Lysander] commended most highly, he said, “The government which duly awards what is fitting to both the brave and the cowardly.”

(Plutarch: Morals, On Talkativeness)

Al preguntarle [a Lisandro] un persa qué tipo de gobierno recomendaba especialmente, dijo: «Aquel que dé su merecido tanto a los valientes como a los cobardes.»

(Plutarco: Obras morales y de costumbres, Sobre la charlatanería)


Image credit: Odysses via Wikipedia. Cropped. [CC-BY-SA 3.0]

Messing About in Boats

It was going to be Plutarch today but life intervened in the form of a sunny Easter weekend. Sunny as in summer-like sunny. So yesterday we hired a boat and made a long day of it on the Thames; because there’s nothing better than messing about in boats…

Sometimes even Plutarch can wait.

Quote of the Week:

Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?”

“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing—”

“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

“—about in boats—or with boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”

(Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows)


Purple Evenings, Juicy As Grapes

Quote of the Week:

Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

There were purple evenings, juicy as grapes, the thin moon cutting a cloud like a knife; and dawns of quick sudden thunder when I’d wake in the dark to splashes of rain pouring from cracks of lightning, then walk on to a village to sit cold and alone, waiting for it to wake and sell me some bread, watching the grey light shifting, a man opening a table, the first girls coming to the square for water.

(Laurie Lee: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning)


The Enemy

Quote of the Week:

Léon Werth, 1878-1955

At the door of the town hall-schoolhouse, a German officer politely makes way for my wife. He hesitates, then suddenly says in passable French, “You are afraid of us, madame?”

“Afraid? No, monsieur. But as long as you wear that suit (she points at his uniform) here, you are my enemy.”

(Léon Werth: 33 Days)


Dark & Moody

Or Books for Moody Teenagers

The universal cry of Not Fair! can be heard all of over the land wherever there is a moody teenager, usually accompanied by sulky looks and followed by petulant silence. Well, we’ve all been there; contrary to what moody teens believe, it’s a familiar territory for all of us. And like us, they will come out the other end, (hopefully as civilised adults).

In the meantime, perhaps we can try to make the life of our moody teens – and our own – a bit more tolerable. Reading is fun and can be a solace (not to mention instructive and character forming). So here are a few books to add to a moody teen’s library – all suitably full of dark and gloomy landscapes, sinister occurrences, brooding heroes, monsters, misfortune, madness, ghosts and star crossed lovers… the lot. If they show a slight feminine bias, it’s because, well, I’m a female and so are my children – the younger of whom is currently in the moody teen phase. (Moody Friend of the Elephants, this is for you!)

The Moody Teen’s Library

Dracula by Bram Stoker

For all the fans of the dozens of s***ty teenage vampire series out there, this one is a must. Read it on a stormy December night while the rain is lashing against the window and the wind rattles the panes, with the room in deep shadow outside the circle of light thrown by your reading lamp. Ensuring your parents are out for the evening adds to the atmosphere!

Then donate those s***ty teenage vampire series to the charity of your choice because you’ll never waste time on them again.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

You can’t have a better teenage book than one written by a teenager. If my memory serves me well, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen, just to show to those stuck up men in her company – the poets Byron and Shelley – what she could do. Well, what she could do was to write a book that ensured that her name is at least as well known as that pair of literary giants.

You might not think of it particularly as a book for teenagers, but they will respond to the familiar theme of Nobody Loves Me! on part of Frankenstein’s monster. Besides, teens nowadays seem to be quite fond of the Gothic.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

Talking about Gothic… why not read the original Gothic story that spawned all the rest? It starts with a sinister prophecy, followed by a sinister accident, and it only gets more sinister from then onwards!

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

A gloomy story of ill fated love, revenge and general misery set on the bleak windswept moors of Northern England. Classic teenage girls’ stuff, from the 19th century.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

…Followed by a similarly classic teenage girls’ read. You have to wonder about the Bronte family, was something wrong with them that they all ended writing miserable love stories?

Title character Jane Eyre goes from unkind relatives to a grim orphanage, and from the orphanage to a strange household with sinister happenings… where she gets entangled in a somewhat ill fated love affair. (That’s the Brontes in a nutshell for you.)

The Catcher in the Rye by D. J. Salinger

A book that should be on every teenager’s bookshelf: the classic modern (as in 20th century) story of teenage angst. To say more would be spoiling the story. 🙂

The Tales and Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe

Another author who penned both poetry and short stories in a Gothic and macabre vein. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is widely regarded as the first modern detective story, featuring the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin, forerunner of Sherlock Holmes. If you want sinister, don’t miss Edgar Allan Poe.

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What happens when you let all those moody teenagers loose on a desert island without adult supervision? Well, nothing good, really.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause [public domain via Wikipedia]
Not for the fainthearted, this family saga of troubled relationships is set in the Salinas valley in California, parallelling the Bible story of Cain and Abel.

Pair it with the old 1955 film version, in which teenage icon James Dean played moody Cal before he died young in a car accident aged only 24.

Forget ‘Young Adult’ – these moody teens are well capable of reading real books!