As mentioned last week, six years ago I forcefully dragged my family to Delphi; and despite themselves, they so liked the place that they gave me a Greek vase as a thank you present:
I gave you a chance in last week’s post to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on the vase, and today… well, you’re getting the answer. 🙂
Theseus kills Procrustes
We’ll hand over to Robert Graves here:
On reaching Attic Cordallus, Theseus slew Sinis’s father Polypemon, surnamed Procrustes, who lived beside the road and had two beds in his house, one small, the other large. Offering a night’s lodging to travellers, he would lay the short men on the large bed, and rack them out to fit it; but the tall men on the small bed, sawing off as much of their legs as projected beyond it. Some say, however, that he used only one bed, and lengthened or shortened his lodgers according to its measure. In either case, Theseus served him as he had served others.
(Robert Graves: Greek Myths)
The picture on my vase is, of course, only a replica. The original is this kylix (wine-drinking cup), c. 440 B.C.:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
(John Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn)
Six years ago I dragged my family to Delphi – three hours coach travel from Athens in thirty degrees heat. As it happens, my family is – mostly – interested in history but they had extreme doubts as to why they were asked to see some more Greek ruins; after all we already visited the Acropolis and the Agora of Athens, the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Knossos in Crete… But I couldn’t imagine a visit to Greece being complete without having visited Delphi, home to the Delphi Oracle, where Apollo himself dealt with the invading Persians… and well, Delphi, right?
As it happened, they were all really impressed by the ruins in Delphi (even Young Friend of the Elephants, aged 5, who had zero interest in traipsing around on hot mountain sides among ancient ruins but was more than happy to crawl into random holes in the ground) and they got me a Greek vase as a thank you present.
It took me quite a while to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on this side of the vase.
Today’s challenge is for you to work it out for yourselves. 🙂 I’m making it easier for you by turning it into a multiple choice question – please vote. I’ll give you the correct answer next week. Have fun!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Hephaestus, the ugly and ill-tempered Smith-god, was so weakly at birth that his disgusted mother, Hera, dropped him from the height of Olympus, to rid herself of the embarrassment…
Greek Myths by Robert Graves
Well, right there you can see where the Spartans might have got their notions of throwing sickly newborns off the cliffs of Taygetus. But as regards Hephaestus, god of fire and the blacksmith of the gods of Mt Olympus, in this first fall he was lucky: he fell into the sea, where he was found by the nymph Thetys, who duly took him home. A few years later, Hephaestus repaid the kindness by setting up a little undersea smithy and making for her some useful household odds and ends, not to mention some fancy jewellery which caught the eye of Hera. Owing to which not only he was allowed to return to Olympus but was given Aphrodite for his wife. All’s well that ends well, or would have, except that he then said some unwise words to Zeus, who once again hurled him off the mountain… This time he was less lucky, because he fell on hard ground and remained lame for the rest of his immortal life.
Fast forward to Roman times. As we know, the Romans were quite ingenious when it came to engineering (my personal favourite is the corvus, a bridge for boarding Carthaginian galleys, the classic solution to the conundrum of how-to-turn-a-naval-battle-at-which-we’re-****-into-a-land-battle-at-which-we’re-so-much-better), not to mention their various other achievements that clamour for attention. Despite of this, the Romans seemed sadly lacking in imagination when it came to their religion: so much so that they didn’t bother to come up with their own – they merely imported in the Ancient Greek one. And so Hephaestus the Greek became Vulcan, the citizen of Rome. Long live the gods, under one name or another.
Now it so happened that when Hephaestus returned to Hera’s favour, owing to his ability to make fancy jewellery, he abandoned his undersea workshop and set up a new smithy on Mt Olympus. Or at least so says the original myth but myths are subject to change… and Hephaestus is reputed to have forges in more than one place.
The Greeks settlers on Sicily have already noted the place, but ultimately we probably owe the location of Vulcan’s forge to the incoming Romans who have hit on just the spot: a little volcanic island off the shores of Sicily, conveniently named…
To be more truthful, the little island wasn’t ‘conveniently’ named Vulcano to begin with. It’s more likely to be exactly the other way round: that it got named after the god whose forge it was believed to hide. And of course, half of Europe then adopted the word in various spelling variations to signify volcano: Vulcano is the spot where mythology, geology and linguistics fused together among rising wisps of acrid fumes.
“…there are many other mountains all over the earth that are on fire, and yet we should never be done with it if we assigned to them giants and gods like Hephaestus”.
Apollonius of Tyana
Tiny Vulcano (along with the better known Stromboli) is one of the eight Aeolian islands, a group of islands about 20-30 km north of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea. There’s in fact nothing much more to Vulcano than the crater of a dormant volcano – so classically shaped that it matches the illustration volcano of my old grammar school geography textbook line by line – complete with an overpowering rotten egg smell.
First of all, the rotten egg smell is only really bad at the harbour which is next to some sulphurous mud baths (for a few paltry euros you can go and roll in the radioactive mud if you like). Once you start to climb – because you can climb up to the crater and many school trips do – the fresh sea breeze blows it away. It’s a climb worth making and it’s easy enough even for young children, elderly grandmas or convalescents. Nor do you have to join a guided tour like on Stromboli; you can arrive in a timetabled ferry and leg it yourself following your nose. On the way up you can enjoy the stupendous views of the rest of the Aeolian Islands, while once on top you’ll be rewarded with the view of the crater of a classic school book volcano, ringed with seismographic equipment. Which, by the way, are not there merely to decorate the skyline: Vulcano last erupted in the 19th century and is expected to do so again. (If you speak fluent enough Italian, you can have a chat with the scientists keeping an eye on the instruments.) You will see the sulphur deposits on the rocks and the smoke rising from the fissures, and feel the heat of the rock beneath your feet. And after you come down the hill, you can take a dip in the sea – in places the water bubbles like in a jacuzzi.
(Click to enlarge the gallery.)
Crater – 600m
On the way to the crater
View from halfway up
Smoke rising from the crater
Smoke and sulphurous rocks
The Great Crater of Vulcano
Vulcano – the place where Hephaestus forged the shield of Achilles…
This said, he left her there, and forth did to his bellows go,
Appos’d them to the fire again, commanding them to blow.
Through twenty holes made to his hearth at once blew twenty pair,
That fir’d his coals, sometimes with soft, sometimes with vehement, air,
As he will’d, and his work requir’d. Amids the flame he cast
Tin, silver, precious gold, and brass; and in a stock he plac’d
A mighty anvil; his right hand a weighty hammer held,
His left his tongs. And first he forg’d a strong and spacious shield
Adorn’d with twenty sev’ral hues; about whose verge he beat
A ring, three-fold and radiant, and on the back he set
A silver handle; five-fold were the equal lines he drew
About the whole circumference, in which his hand did shew
(Directed with a knowing mind) a rare variety;
For in it he presented Earth; in it the Sea and Sky;
In it the never-wearied Sun, the Moon exactly round,
And all those Stars with which the brows of ample heav’n are crown’d,
Orion, all the Pleiades, and those sev’n Atlas got,
The close-beam’d Hyades, the Bear, surnam’d the Chariot,
That turns about heav’n’s axle-tree, holds ope a constant eye
Upon Orion, and, of all the cressets in the sky…
…All done, he all to Thetis brought, and held all up to her.
She took them all, and like t’ the hawk, surnam’d the osspringer,
From Vulcan to her mighty son, with that so glorious show,
Stoop’d from the steep Olympian hill, hid in eternal snow.
Vulcan forges armour for Achilles,
from The Iliad by Homer
(Transl. by George Chapman)
Homer, for example, makes men better than they are; Cleophon as they are; Hegemon the Thasian, the inventor of parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the Deiliad, worse than they are.
As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same relation to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy.
So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavour to dramatise it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry.
In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made theOdyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to centre round an action that in our sense of the word is one.
When someone brought forward a plan for the freedom of the Greeks, which, while not lacking idealism, was difficult to put into practice, he [Agis son of Archidamus] said, “Your words, my friend, need the backing of power and money.”
(Plutarch: Morals, Vol. III, Sayings of Spartans)
Cuando alguien proponía para la libertad de los griegos acciones no faltas de nobleza, pero difíciles de realizar, [Agis, hijo de Arquidamo] le decía: «Tus palabras, amigo, necesitan un aval de poder y dinero».
(Plutarco: Obras morales y de costumbres, III.
Máximas de espartanos)
In 491 B.C. King Darius I of Persia sent out his envoys to the various Greek city states, demanding of them earth and water – in those times, a sign of submission, the acceptance of, in this case, Persian rule. Some city states were cowed into complying while others refused; but the demand went down particularly badly in Athens and in Sparta:
…the Athenians cast these heralds, when they made their request, down into a pit, and the Spartans had thrown theirs into a well; and the heralds were told to take their earth and water to the King from there!
When an Argive said once upon a time, “There are many tombs of Spartans in our country,” a Spartan said, “But there is not a single tomb of an Argive in our country,” indicating by this that the Spartans had often set foot in Argos, but the Argives had never set foot in Sparta.
(Plutarch: Morals, Vol. III., Sayings of Spartans)
Cuando un argivo dijo en una occasión: «En nuestra tierra hay muchas tumbas de espartanos», un espartano le respondió: «Pues en la nuestra no hay ni una sola de argivos», porque ellos habían invadido muchas veces Argos, pero los argivos jamás Esparta.
(Plutarco, Obras morales y de costumbres, III., Máximas de espartanos)
It was evening when we made our way back to the cove. The sun was setting fire to the headlands west of us, and the sea had become absolutely still. Not even a cat’s-paw trailed across the purple water. The sea was truly like wine to look at. The professors who had decried Homer’s adjective and invented other meanings for it, had never been sailors.
Last month when I reposted Return from the Stars for Throwback Thursday, it went weird and hardly any of you got to see it. I sought enlightenment from support and they told me I was doing it all wrong. I'm trying their way now.
The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?
Originally published on 9 October 2015
Why Homer Doesn’t Matter
Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.
O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.
Aeschylus: The Persians
The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus
Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.
My spirit is too weak – mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time – with a billowy main –
A sun – a shadow of a magnitude.
(On Seeing the Elgin Marbles by John Keats)
I have to say it threw me a bit. Not quite as easy as “Then I felt like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken” (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer also by John Keats). In fact, after much mulling over what some of the phrases actually meant, I had to seek enlightment from Mr Anglo-Saxonist who upon reading it pronounced that it was s**t poem and there was no need to rack my brains about what it meant. (He particularly objected to the sick eagle.) Well, I wouldn’t go quite as far but I have to agree: not one of Keats’s best. Nevertheless I do like the last few lines, in particular:
… mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time…
Which is why today we’re going to talk about some Greek grandeur and the rude wasting of old time.
There is a line by Pindar, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet, in which he describes the island of Delos, one of the most barren and inhospitable of all Greek islands, as ‘the dark earth’s far-seen star’:
Hail, god-reared daughter of the sea,
earth-shoot most dear to bright-haired Leto’s children,
wide earth’s immoveable marvel,
who of mortals art called Delos,
but of the blessed gods in Olympus the dark earth’s far-seen star…
Dark earth’s far-seen star – the island as seen from above by the gods, glowing with light in the dark sea – is one of those memorable phrases that turned the famous Roman poet Horace into one of Pindar’s life-long fans. Sadly, not much else of this Procession Song survives today (you’ve just read half of what there’s left).
Hills are a natural choice as locations for some of the most beautiful structures mankind has ever erected: castles and temples, statues and palaces, lighthouses and crosses – I’m sure you all can think of many stunning examples. Today, in response to Ailsa’s weekly travel theme Hills on her blog Where’s My Backpack, I thought I’d share with you some of the hills I had the good fortune to climb in the Mediterranean. And I chose these particular hills for one reason: what people chose to build on them.
The Old Town of Toledo
The old town of Toledo was built on a hill which is almost fully encircled by the River Tajo. This view shows the Roman bridge across the river with the Alcázar of Toledo topping the crest of the hill. For this view alone, Toledo will always be one of my favourite cities.