Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What the Desert Said

At the beginning of Book III of the Odyssey, Telemachus’ ship pulls into the harbor of sandy Pylos, city of the aging Nestor, as the morning light burnishes the sea.  Homer tells us how
The sun rose from the still, beautiful water
Into the bronze sky, to shine upon the gods
And upon men who die on the life-giving earth.
Though that sun dawns upon gods and men alike, this is how we humans are defined: as the men who die on the life-giving earth.  We are not the gods, the athanatoi, as the original Greek has it—the ones without death, and therefore beyond time.  Instead, we are bound by time.  We may once have walked in a garden with the Lord of all creation, as other traditions tell it, but we’ve been banished to a land of thorn and thistle, and the life-giving earth from which we were made now folds us back into its dust at the end of our days.  The time of timelessness is over.
The search for the sacred is the search for a return to that state of timelessness.  Sacred places mark off a space from the ravages of the time-bound world that our mortal bodies inhabit. When Yahweh calls out to Moses from the midst of the bush that burned with fire but was not consumed saying, “Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground,” He is marking off sacred space—the place where He will appoint Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and to their homeland of Canaan.   And when, centuries later, as legend has it, the Roman Empress Helena commands that a Chapel of the Burning Bush be built at the base of Mount Sinai to commemorate this moment and this miracle, she too is marking off sacred space, inside of which that miracle, when remembered by pilgrims, is forever happening, and time is therefore annulled. 
Last summer, my daughter, Ellie, and I traveled to the Chapel of the Burning Bush in the southern Sinai peninsula, now part of St Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries still in existence near one of the most sacred spaces on earth.  We were following in the footsteps a Dominican friar from Ulm, Germany, Brother Felix Fabri, who wrote an account of his pilgrimage across the Mediterranean Sea by galley, and around the Holy Land by donkey, and through the Sinai Desert by camel caravan in 1483, an account which had obsessed me for several years.  We were trying to retrace his path as closely as possible, given such minor contemporary roadblocks as the recent Egyptian Revolution, the fraught relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and the unreliability of the Greek ferry and bus systems in a country on the verge of economic collapse.  In the two months of our travels we saw many sacred sites—churches and cathedrals in Venice where paintings by the likes of Titian and Tintoretto reinterpreted the stories of the bible; small pilgrimage shrines in Croatia where the bodily relics of forgotten saints were housed in carved marble reliquaries; the first grave of Lazarus in the West Bank town of Bethany; the second grave of Lazarus in a damp and dingy catacomb on the island of Cyprus; the mosque that shelters the rock from which Mohammad ascended to heaven during his Night Journey; the spot marking the birth of Christ in Bethlehem; the spot marking his death and resurrection in Jerusalem; his empty tomb.  But week after passing week of our journey, our capacity for wonder diminished.  And, like Odysseus with his salt-rimmed eyes, by the time we reached St Catherine’s, we only longed for home.
In fact, outside the Chapel of the Burning Bush, in a courtyard formed by the protective walls of the monastery, as we tried to get a glimpse of the sacred bush, frankly, I wanted to hit someone.  The red-faced Russian Orthodox pilgrims, who had been herded to St Catherine’s on tour buses from Sharm El Sheikh near the coast of the Red Sea, were blocking our view with their headkerchiefs and floral polyester skirt-and-sweater ensembles and their plastic bags filled with painted wooden icons and charm bracelets with pictures of the saints.  Another tour group from somewhere in Latin America had just been unloaded and was pressing in fast with their rosaries held high in their hands.  Some Koreans I’d spotted earlier in the chapel wearing matching blue nylon collapsible sun hats were due out any moment.  I sent Ellie ahead of me into the fray armed with our camera, and she elbowed her way through the crowd up to the barrier, and snapped a picture of the seneh—the Hebrew word for “bush” which perhaps gave the Sinai its name.  The Russians glared.  An elderly Latina grabbed Ellie’s arm and yelled something in a Spanish spoken so fast we could not catch it.  I grabbed Ellie back and we made our escape

It had been different, though, in the desert itself.  We’d crossed into that wilderness about a week before at Taba, near the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat.  Our guide and interpreter, Mohammad, was a Cairene, fresh from the Revolution in Tahrir Square.  Our driver, Sheik Swelam, a sinewy Muzeina Bedouin in pale gray jalabiyya and white rayon-blend kufiyya held in place by a black agal rope.    

His sullen twelve-year-old son, wearing athletic shorts and flip flops, accompanied him.  For days, traveling towards St Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai, we navigated wadis, dry riverbeds which served as roads, running through the desert’s variegated landscape.  In the sheik’s jeep, its seats covered with bright, woven rugs, we climbed colossal dunes whose fine white sand is used in making glass, and stony red outcrops etched and worn, maybe by water, maybe by wind.  We passed over an endless blackened swathe of earth littered with hollow cones of iron ore.  “Aye Aye Aye!” Sheik Swelam would say as we trundled over the cobbled desert floor.  And then, with a laugh, “Good massage?” One day, we rode camels across the bottom of this once ancient ocean, past pale sandstone formations, striated, some crouched on the desert floor like sphinx, some dissolving like fallen temples.  The stone hills in the distance seemed chiseled and carved as with a frieze, but one so worn away it could no longer be read. But the sphinxes, the temples, the friezes I thought I saw—these were just metaphors.  In actuality there were no monuments here trying to stay the passage of time.  No monuments marking anything at all.  In this vast, still desert, we seemed to be the only breathing, moving things.  Everywhere, the relentless sun shining upon men who die on the life-giving earth. 

     As Felix Fabri and his pilgrim band leave Gaza behind and that last outpost of civilization recedes behind them, the pitilessness of the terrain, their own relentless thirst, the breadth of the endless waste take hold.  “In these plains we saw neither men nor beasts, neither villages, houses, trees, grass, nor bushes, but only the sandy earth, parched by the sun’s heat,” Fabri writes on the eleventh of September, 1483.  “Over this wide tract we wearily traveled for many hours, suffering from the heat of the sun.”  But in the afternoon of that day, they come into a land of swelling hills, and in a valley between them, the travelers pitch their tents.  The camel drivers go off with jars and water-skins to fetch fresh water from a cistern, while the pilgrims—clergymen, priests, counts, barons, knights, all ranks without exception—spread out in search of firewood.  They find only dry bushes, which they pull up by the roots.  Preparing to eat, the travelers take from their scrips the meat they had cooked and packed the evening before, but they discover that it has rotted in the heat.  They dine on cheese and biscuits instead.
     “This place was called in Arabic Chawatha, and here we found many proofs that once human dwellings had stood there,” Fabri recalls of this way station in the valley;
for we found above us twelve great ancient walled cisterns, round about which lay many broken bricks, broken pots, and ashes from smiths’ forges, and it seemed to us that these cisterns had not been made to hold drinking-water, but to prepare clay for making bricks and pottery.  In the cisterns we saw the dead bodies of great and terrible serpents, and of animals unknown to us.  We likewise found a heathen burying-place, and elsewhere we found many borings and trenches made by men in search of white marble, which can be dug out of the bowels of that land.
On the morning of the twelfth, they load the camels early, before daylight, saddle their asses, and depart from Chawatha together in the dark.
The Bedouin, Mohammad explained to us, set up their encampments and graze their flocks of goats, and then, when the water runs low or the season changes, they move on.  The day we rode camels through the desert, we passed through an abandoned Bedouin camp.   As the camels stopped to graze on the clumps of spiny grasses, their necks moving telescopically, periscopically, their gaze, like their chewing, ruminative, I noted the detritus of detritus left over: nylon fencing, wood scraps, scraps of rice bags, metal barrels, plastic water cans, oil drums, mangled water shoes, a single black rubber boot.

We found other proof of human existence too, as we traversed the desert.  Acacia trees tied with bits of fading fabric.  Precarious stacks of flat stones.  “Signs,” Mohammad said, by which he meant road signs, notices marking the way through the desert, because there is no fixed path.  And there were other signs, too, marks on the desert walls—camels and goats scratched into the sandstone surface, strange vertical lines over and over, as if marking time, bits of Arabic—Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the most Merciful. 
And we found humans, too, often least where we expected, although to me, anywhere in this place of red rock and sun and almost nothing green was an unexpected place to find someone of my kind.  One afternoon, we came across a wizened elderly sheik and his plump younger wife in the shadow of a rock formation, the shade like the curve of the lunula of a fingernail.  They sat between their green Toyota jeep and the stone wall, and when we pulled up, the woman covered her head and moved to a nook in the stone where she could not be seen by Mohammad, a male and a foreigner.  There, over a small fire, she made us hot tea in a tin can rinsed clean.  Her husband jammed stones beneath the rug they had both been sitting on and gave the space to Ellie and me.  The stones were for us to lean against.  The wife poured the very sweet tea into two glasses.  Later, when we finished our tea and the glasses were rinsed and refilled for Sheik Swelam and Mohammad, I realized that these were the only glasses they had.  “What are you doing here?” I asked Mohammad to ask the sheik.  I looked out on the endless floor of the former sea, lined by bisque-colored buttes and mesas, sky and sky and sky.  “They are waiting for their camels,” Mohammad told me after an exchange.  Though I could not distinguish the difference, Mohammad told me that Sheik Swelam and the couple were speaking together in an older Arabic, one that he could not understand, an Arabic brought with these desert nomads when they came, like Abraham, with their camels and goats and their wool tents and woven rugs from the Near East centuries ago. “First time in the desert?” the sheik asked us, and we nodded and smiled.  “You are welcome,” he told us, which was a reminder that this land belonged to him, to the tribe of these two sheiks, and that we were guests upon it.  “Insha’Allah you will return.” 
In the desert, time seemed to slow and stretch, or maybe condense, I’m not sure which.  It thickened like a reduction in which all excess is boiled away, a distillation.  Or perhaps that is only how it is in my mind, in my memory of it.  In my memory of it, in the mornings, Sheik Swelam, a cigarette dangling from his lips, makes milky Nescafe over a fire of a few twigs, washing out the small, clear glasses with a bit of water, elegantly swirling and rubbing with his thumb at the same time.  We sit on the rugs from the jeep in silence, eating flatbread and a soft white cheese and jam.  Then all day we drive the wadis, stopping at a Bedouin encampment for tea and cigarettes with men possessed of piercing eyes and stained teeth, or in the shade of an acacia tree or a sandstone cliff for lunch when there are no camps to be had.  After lunch and a rest, we drive on.  From time to time, Sheik Swelam veers off the wadi to a well he remembers in this vast terrain, and he fills the plastic water jugs, protected by cloth covers embroidered by the women, distant figures against the hills, young children on their hips, or surrounded by shaggy goats, black shawls covering their heads and some brilliant-colored ankle-length dress beneath—turquoise or magenta or emerald.   

At the wells, Sheik Swelam has me and Ellie bend over while he pours the cold water down our necks, wetting our hair, keeping us cool in the intense desert heat, heat like a kiln, heat without relief.  Later in the afternoons, when Sheik Swelam sees a promising band of shrubs in the parched riverbeds, we get out of the jeep and, like the pilgrims centuries ago, we gather dried branches of the desert bushes, the seneh, to burn.  Towards evening, in a gully or in an encampment or at an oasis, Mohammad and the sheik and his wordless son pull out the sleeping bags and the food and the pots and plates and while Ellie and I try to find a hidden place to wash the desert sand out of the pores of our faces, they cook for us—chicken and vegetables, flatbread, a thick fava bean stew.  As the fire dies out, we fall asleep beneath the stars.  No voice calls out to us from the midst of the burning.

   Just before he launches into the account of his journey across the Sinai Peninsula, Felix Fabri gives a lengthy disquisition on “The State of the Desert or Wilderness”—its qualities and characteristics, its cultural history, what it has come to mean.  For Fabri and the medieval pilgrims who made this punishing journey, the desert wasteland of the Sinai was a sacred place.  It was a living symbol, the Word of God made Flesh.  As they travel this desolate terrain, they feel themselves at the mercy of this particular and brutal place on the map, and at the same time they know themselves to be crossing a spiritual landscape that exists beyond time, beyond the physical world that makes their bodies suffer.
     “Firstly, this country is called the desert because it seems to be, so to speak, deserted by God, by the heavens, and by the world,” Fabri begins.
It is deserted by God, because it is empty and void, as though God had used it to improve or adorn the rest of the universe.  The country seems also forsaken by the heavens, for it lacks the kindly influence of the stars, and seems to be viewed angrily by them, and, as it were, turned into iron, while the heaven above seems harsh, pitiless, and brazen.  In consequence of this the country is also deserted by mankind, who depart from it as from a useless thing.
Besides this forsaken quality, Fabri goes on to enumerate other associations of the desert.  It is barren and waterless, an image of death.  It is a land of serpents and scorpions, worms and dragons, fauns and satyrs and devils.  It is a site of testing and temptation.  But it is also where the laws were bestowed.  It’s where manna rained down.  It’s where divine command and comfort was given.  It is a place of retreat from the world, and of devotion and contemplation, a place where one is found.  At the same time, it is a place where one is easily lost, for through it there is no fixed path. 
I never knew where I was in the desert.  Not only were we untethered from time, we were untethered from space as well.  As we passed from wadi to wadi, I would write down their names in my notebook: Wadi Razala, Wadi Lathi, Wadi Watir.  But without a map to pin them to, the names meant nothing.

Lunch one day beneath an ancient acacia tree, the only shade to be found.  Tomatoes and cucumbers, canned tuna with chopped onions, white cheese, unleavened bread, and afterwards, grapes and tea.  The only sounds: flies, the wind.  Ellie and I lay on mats beneath the delicate leaves of the acacia and read.  Sheik Swelam and Mohammad smoked cigarettes.  The son slept in the jeep.  I asked the sheik where we were, and he drew a map of where we’d been in the dirt with a stick, one wadi branching off into another like a bare tree in winter.  Looking out across the expanse of sand and scrub, he told me he could travel this land day or night.  “Everything I have in here,” he said, tapping his head.
The evening before, we had camped in a ravine, at the point where two wadis meet, one flowing to the Suez Gulf, the other to the Gulf of Aqaba, a tipping point, a center, a hinge of the earth.  During dinner, made in the small fire pit of stones and hollowed out sand, built with those splinters of seneh we’d collected in the afternoon, Sheik Swelam pointed off to the Milky Way far south of us and said that when it is centered over the southern sky, then the dates from the date palms are most sweet.
I know that I have said no voice called out to us from the midst of the burning fire, but some time in the night, I woke up in the darkness, cold from the dry desert air.  Maybe it was only the chill that sharpened my mind, or maybe it was the divine nudging me awake, but I opened my eyes to the clarity of the stars, near and bright and abundant as the children Yahweh promises to Abraham in Genesis.  It seemed that I was not so much looking at things as looking through them to something beyond.  The turning earth had carried the Milky Way straight above us by this still, quiet hour, and I thought that I was looking at a topographical map of another world, the white, ridged cloud of the Milky Way like a chain of mountains, and the countless stars like the towns and villages and cities of a country I didn’t know.   I thought about that other world, gazing out, the desert I was in their sky and constellations, them looking up in wonder at us lying here in the sand.  I thought, too, in looking at those stars, about how much is hidden from us by the deceptive light of day, how little we actually see of what exists.
“Everything I have in here,” Sheik Swelam had said, and I remembered the ancient bards who sang from memory of gods and heroes and men who die on the life-giving earth.  How lightly the Bedouin travel, how little they carry, how few marks they make. 

One afternoon, under a sky white with heat, we passed through a valley framed by low red rock mesas.  On a hill beside the wadi, a cemetery, hardly distinguishable from the fields of stone over which we drove except for the rectangular plots of that same stone.   Everywhere on this trip, Ellie and I had seen monuments built by human hands to commemorate and mark and remember.  Even Fabri’s account, the one that had propelled me to follow him, was a kind of shrine of memory, all that happened encased in words.  “I shall begin with the day of my departure, and end with that of my return,” he’d written to his Dominican brethren, left behind at their convent in Ulm,
and shall faithfully set down all the places which we saw month by month and day by day, each day, adding descriptions of the holy and other places the better to explain my narrative.  For I never passed one single day while I was on my travels without writing some notes, not even when I was at sea, in storms, or in the Holy Land; and in the desert I have frequently written as I sat on an ass or a camel; or at night, while the others were asleep, I would sit and put into writing what I had seen.
I understand this impulse.  I wanted to write it all down too—sweet tea made in a tin can and the curve of shade at the base of the curve of a mesa, a Bedouin woman, glint of black against the dun-colored sand, a sky embroidered with stars.  This attempt to capture memory is like the marking out of sacred space.  Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.  It encloses the past and tries to keep it alive.  But of course this is impossible—to capture any moment and take it home as a souvenir.  Souvenir, from the French: to remember.  Time just goes, and us with it.  We fool ourselves with these trinkets.
Here in the Sinai peninsula, the only monument is the desert itself, and what’s remembered is only in the mind.  A few marks on the rock walls, a few stacks of stones, bright rags tied in trees.  The Bedouin who inhabit this precarious land seem to recognize of necessity how flimsy are the things made, how soon they will pass away.  And this recognition is, it seems to me, a kind of submission to this essential fact of human existence: our fragility.  We are the men who die on the life-giving earth.
After every meal, Sheik Swelam would scrape the plastic plates clean, and wash them with the water from the jugs we carried in the jeep, then throw what couldn’t be saved into the fire.  The scrapings he would leave on a flat stone for the desert animals.
This is what the desert said: Carry only what you need. Burn what can't be saved.  Leave the remnants as an offering.
—Kim Meyer

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Returning to the Return of the Repressed

Man playing the double aulos

With this post, I’d like to round out what I was saying in lecture on Wednesday.  Take a look at page 111 of our edition of Antigone.  I think that here more than anywhere else in the text we see the return of the feminine sensibility—or the sensibility Creon associates with the feminine—that he has suppressed in the polis.
And, indeed, suppressed in himself.  As I pointed out in lecture, “[t]he care for the dead [including wailing, keening for them] was especially the prerogative of women” (Gibbons and Segal 5).  Creon has his own mourning to do, and not just for Eteokles, whom he “will bury … [and for whom he] will perform all pure and proper rites” (ll. 219-220).  There is a loss even closer to home that Creon has not acknowledged.  The chorus drop a hint about it when they call Haimon “your / Last and youngest offspring” (ll. 672-73), but this particular repression does not break the surface of the text until very late in the play, when the Messenger names that elder dead son: “Megareus” (1390), who, it seems, has also died during the battle between the Thebans and the Argives (along with both of Antigone’s brothers).  The last thing Eurydike did before she committed suicide, the messenger reports, was mourn the loss of both her boys.

So now, with a cruel swing of fate’s pendulum, Creon has two sons to mourn.  When his sorrow breaks through, as he carries or accompanies Haimon’s body on p. 111, out comes a storm of grief.  He expresses a grief so raw that his utterances hit and cross the limits of language: “Aiee! / Aiee!” (ll. 1353-54). 

Gone are his appeals to reason and his rationalizations.  “[A]ccompanied by the aulos, the double wind instrument … that was felt by the Greeks … to be particularly emotional,” Creon sings, he keens, a song of lamentation, “a funeral dirge, the traditional task of women” (24).  He had vowed that “while I am alive, a woman will not rule,” but now, out here in the public space of the polis and not confined to the private space of the oikos  (as off-stage Eurydike was in her lamentation), his “feminine” self comes to the fore.  A line he threw earlier at Haimon—“It seems this man is fighting on the woman’s side” (ll. 800)—now rebounds upon him.  And Haimon, if you recall, had responded by saying, “If you’re the woman …” (ll. 801).

By his cultural and personal standards, Creon now is the woman.  The repressed has returned, in both the psychic and political spaces.  And so we join with the chorus in exclaiming, “See her!  She is no longer hidden deep within” (ll. 1380).

                                                                                                —Robert Cremins

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Odyssey of a Greek Doctor

As we read about the profession of medicine in the Hippocratic writings, I can't help but think of the extraordinary story of a doctor from Herodotus' History. It is a tale that reveals the remarkable social and geographical mobility achieved by masters of the healing art; but it also shows how a great healer can become captive to his own success.

Democedes was a native of the city of Croton, a Greek colony in Southern Italy, where he was tyrannized by a father he could not stand. So he ran off to Aegina, an island in the Saronic Gulf not too far from Athens. He had little equipment or connections, but did so well that after a year, the people of Aegina decided to pay him a decent salary out of public funds to practice his healing art. The Athenians got wind of his skill, and hired him away for still more money. Then in the fourth year after leaving his native city, he got the offer of a lifetime: the magnificent tyrant Polycrates lured him to the island of Samos for a princely sum of two talents a year (3.131). So this young man of the West headed East, towards lands of fabulous wealth.

But moving further East drew him into the zone of conflict between the Greeks and Persians. The wealth of Polycrates was coveted by the Persian ruler of Sardis, Oroetes, who lured Polycrates with false hopes to the mainland of Asia Minor along with certain followers, among whom we find the court doctor Democedes. He then put Polycrates to a  horrible death, and released the Samians who had come. However, he retained the others who had waited upon Polycrates, and Democedes now found himself a captive in the court of a murderous Persian in Lydian Sardis (3.120-5).

When Darius acceded to the Persian throne, he heard of the various crimes of Oroetes, who defied the new King far off in Persia. Darius found a subtle means to have the man killed by his own bodyguard. Then all the possessions of Oroetes were packed off to the royal city of Susa, and Democedes was taken far from the Mediterranean and thrust into the heart of the Persian Empire (3.127-8). Without any advocate to sue for his release, we might well expect poor Democedes was in utter despair.

As luck would have it, the King had an accident. While out hunting, Darius had jumped down from his horse and violently twisted his ankle. It was a terrible injury—the bone was twisted right out of the socket. Now, as King of Kings, Darius had a number of Egyptian doctors at court, then reputed to be the best in the world. But they went about their work with such violence that they made the injury worse, and for seven days and nights, the King lay in sleepless agony (3.129). 

On the eighth day, someone remembered that a certain Greek doctor was among the slaves of Oroetes, and the Persians sought him out and brought him before the King. He was in rags, loaded with chains, and didn't look the part of a famous healer. Darius asked him straight out if he was a master of the medical arts, but Democedes knew the danger here: if he said yes, he would be yet again attached to a Persian master, never able to return to Greece. So he denied knowing anything about medicine. Darius, however, was no fool, and ordered the whips and goads used for torture to be brought in, and suddenly Democedes was changing his story.  He was not, he said, a proper doctor, but had indeed worked with a doctor and had some slight knowledge of the art.  So he set to work on the King with gentle, not forceful means, and the King at last was able to sleep. In time, he healed completely, after having despaired of ever walking again. (3.130)

To heal a King entitles one to kingly rewards. Darius, no doubt thinking himself witty, presented Democedes with two pairs of chains—of solid gold. Democedes ventured to play on the King's jest, and asked the King if he had intended to double his punishment because he had healed His Majesty. The King was vastly amused at this Greek, and sent him off with the eunuchs to visit the royal wives. This was a most unexpected honor—to be presented to the royal harem! The eunuchs made the rounds with him, and declared, "Here is he who restored life to our King." Each wife scooped a bowl into a chest of gold and rewarded Democedes with a shower of coins. So great was their reward, in fact, that a servant who followed him gathered up the loose coins that fell from the bowls and made a fine fortune for himself (3.130).

Now Democedes was riding high on fortune's wheel. He had a huge house in Susa, and was an intimate guest of the royal table. This gave him influence, which he used as he could. There was an Elean soothsayer among those enslaved from Polycrates' court, and he had him rescued from his low station. Darius, no longer impressed by Egyptian medicine, was about to impale those doctors who had so tortured him in his injury, but Democedes, in a generous act of professional courtesy, had them spared. He was the friend of the most powerful man on earth, and, it seems, he had everything—except for Greece and his freedom (3.132).

So much intimacy at court was bound to provide the doctor with an opportunity. So it happened that Atossa, one of the King's wives, developed a growth on her breast, and suffered long in silence. At last she was so desperate she summoned the court physician, who quickly saw his chance: he promised to heal her if she would grant him a favor.  Naturally, this was a delicate thing, so he was quick to promise her it would be nothing dishonorable. Atossa consented and at last was cured, and she kept her part of the bargain. She approached the King and subtly worked on him: it was time for him to show the Persians what kind of man ruled them by undertaking some great conquest. Darius told her, he was indeed of such a mind, and had a daring plan to build a bridge between Asia and Europe and attack the Scythians. The Scythians were well and good, and weren't going anywhere, said Atossa. He should first attack the Greeks, as it was her desire to have as her servants some of these famous girls of Sparta, Argos, Athens and Corinth. She added, he had an excellent informant at his court, a man much traveled in Greece and thoroughly knowledgeable: the same man who had cured his foot. Darius ceded to his wife thus far: he would send the doctor in the company of some Persians to spy out the land of Greece, after which, he would be in a position to invade (3.134).

So the clever doctor at last found himself at sea, coursing westward towards his homeland in the company of fifteen Persian noblemen. He knew full well they were charged with making sure he did not run off; the King would want his doctor back in time. Darius had made a good show of his generosity, hoping to secure Democedes' affection. He told the doctor to take all he had gained in wealth and to present it to his father and brothers, offering to replace all this many times over upon his return. He also said he'd send along a merchant ship to accompany him, filled with all manner of good wares. Democedes, a man of twists and turns himself, thanked His Majesty, but said he would rather leave his property where it was, so he would have it upon his return.  He would accept the merchant ship, however. (3.135)

So setting out from the Phoenician port of Sidon in two warships and a great merchant vessel, they surveyed the coastline of Greece, heading ever more westward until they came to the Greek cities of Southern Italy.  They called upon the city of Tarentum, where King Aristophilides was well disposed towards Democedes. He had the steering gear confiscated off the Perisan ships, and arrested the noblemen as spies, letting Democedes make off at long last for home: Croton. When Aristophilides was certain the doctor had gotten off safe, he released the Persians, who, knowing what fate awaited them if they returned to Susa without the doctor, immediately began to track him down. (3.136)

So one day, Democedes was happily back home, a free man in his home town, full of wild stories of the East. He was shopping in the marketplace when suddenly the Persians appeared and laid hands on him. In Persian eyes, he was a runaway slave of the King of Kings, and they were prosecuting their right to return him to his master. But this far West, the name of Darius was not so powerful to conjure with. Though some stayed back in awe of these foreign emissaries, other Crotoniates wasted no time in setting upon the Persians with their staves, beating them off their countryman. (If Steven Spielberg made this movie—or perhaps the author of the Joseph story—we could imagine his father and brothers in that crowd, flailing at the trousered barbarians.)  "Tell King Darius I am contracted to marry the daughter of Milon," Democedes said to the Persians. Milon was a famous wrestler, and Democedes had hoped by this remark to show the King he was not a slave, but a man of standing in his own country. The Persians had no choice but to leave, without the doctor to guide them and having lost the merchant vessel. They were later shipwrecked off the coast of Iapygia, and enslaved. At long last, an exiled Greek of Tarentum redeemed them and returned them to King Darius (3.138). The King had his Persian emissaries back, but had to give up on his doctor.

We must wonder how such a story was told in Herodotus' day. A tradition has it that Herodotus ended his days in an Athenian colony in Southern Italy not far from Croton, so perhaps he heard all this from a gossipy Crotoniate. Or perhaps he heard it on Samos, which isn't far from his hometown of Halicarnassus in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is quite a story, one that certainly makes us think of another western Greek: Odysseus. But Herodotus relates the story without any particular censure for the fact that Democedes, in deploying his cunning to escape from the belly of the Persian beast, brought Persian spies deep into the heart of the Greek world. Then again, in the wake of the Persian defeat, the historian could afford to be generous—particularly when such a good tale came out of it! The physicians of Croton were quite famous in Herodotus' time; no doubt they loved this story about a doctor who healed and outwitted the most powerful man in the world.
—Richard Armstrong

Monday, October 10, 2011

Myth and Memory at Marathon


In Herodotus' narrative of the Battle of Marathon, Miltiades tells the wavering polemarch Callimachus, "It lies in your hands, Callimachus, whether to enslave Athens or keep her free and thereby leave a memorial (mnêmosuna lipesthai) for all the life of mankind, such as not even Harmodius and Aristogiton left behind them" (6.109; Grene 453). In Herodotus' version, Miltiades already conjures up the image of a battle at Marathon as a monument to freedom, and puts it even above the popular Harmodius and Aristogiton, the tyrannicides who killed the Pisistratid Hipparchus and died for their attempt to strike a blow for Athenian freedom. Miltiades is referencing some heady stuff, and it works: Callimachus agrees to vote to join battle with the Persians, and the rest is, well, history. Except that Callimachus dies in the battle, leaving Miltiades as the living hero.

We always feel nervous of course when reading stirring pre-battle speeches written long after the events described (see Evans 1993; Hammond 1968). Herodotus' account of the battle itself has been long criticized, but its interest lies in that he worked from vibrant oral traditions that show us how this event was being spun a generation or two after the first victory over the Persians. For example, there is the testimony of the veteran Epizelus, who went blind during the battle after seeing a huge phantom warrior kill the man next to him. Though unwounded, Epizelus remained blind all his life (the poor fellow is sometimes cited as an early case of PTSD). Herodotus spends a great deal of time defending the aristocratic family of the Alcmaeonidae against rumors of treason (6.121-31), which shows how contemporary political gossip (in this case, against the family of the great Athenian statesmen Pericles, the historian's contemporary) is woven into this account. The heroic speech of Miltiades may be an attempt at political rehabilitation, particularly after the ignominious end the general meets (which Herodotus does indeed recount, 6.132-40). So even admitting its distortions, Herodotus' account remains fascinating for what it conveys of the emerging significance of the battle to the Athenians.

But what kind of "memorial" is Herodotus' Miltiades getting at? In a way, Marathon was very quickly a place to be seen, literally. When the Spartans arrived too late for the battle, we are told, "they were nonetheless anxious to see the Medes; and so they went to Marathon and saw." Here we find the key to the memorial: "Thereafter, praising the Athenians and their action, they went home again" (6.120; Grene 457). The Spartans came and saw, and the glory of Athens was plain for all to see. From the start, the site of Marathon became a kind of center for military pilgrimage.

By Herodotus' reckoning, it was certainly an asymmetrical victory: 6,400 died on the Persian side, versus 192 on the Athenian. For their exceptional valor, according to Thucydides, the Athenians were buried on the battlefield, and not in Athens (2.34.5). The dead of Marathon became a constant topic in Athenian political oratory, which deployed the victory more and more as the prime instance of Athenian leadership, where the noble Athenian hoplites fought alone (sic) against the Persian hordes for the sake of all Greece. (See Loraux 1986: 155-171) So Marathon was both a topographical place and a topos of political rhetoric. We get a taste of this already in Herodotus' later account of the Battle of Plataea, when the Tegeans and Athenians bicker over who gets the place of honor on the wing before the battle. The Athenians cite various ancient and mythical exploits to their own credit, but then end by saying:
...it is from what we did at Marathon that we are worthy to have this honor and others on top of that; for we are the only ones of the Greeks who have singlehanded fought the Persian, and, having attempted so great a deed, we triumphed and conquered forty-six nations. Is not this action alone en entitlement to this post in battle?  (9.27, Grene p. 624)
The Spartans shout in approval, and the Athenians get their way.

The dead heroes of Marathon were given a heroic burial on the battlefield; but "heroic" in what sense? There is a tumulus on the site of Marathon which for centuries has been identified with the 192 Athenians, though it is a strangely archaic and unlovely mound. James Whitely (1994) argued very interestingly that this was because the Athenians wanted to give them the grandeur of epic heroes, and so heaped up a burial mound over them like the ones described in Homer (you might recall the "grand, noble tomb" for Achilles built up on a headland in Odyssey 24.87-91 Fagles). So even as the Athenians buried the dead, myth and Marathon were intertwining.

Tumulus and (Modern) Stela at Marathon

It was customary for a victorious army to raise a trophy on the site of a victory; but this was a wooden stump with a panoply of armor on it, not meant to last forever. This was a common and ritualized aspect of military life. But at some point in the fifth century BCE, the Athenians raised a marble "trophy," and turned the battlefield into an official memorial of Athenian glory (Vanderpool 1966; West 1969). Scholars argue that this is a reworking of the Marathon story to serve Athens' imperial agenda: by claiming to have once saved Greece from the Persians, they assert their right to lead their alliance and collect their tribute. And of course at Marathon, the Spartans were not a part of the fighting, a point that loomed more and more important as the Athenians and Spartans became bitter enemies during the Peloponnesian War.

The mystique of Marathon remained long after Greece had fallen victim to the Macedonian and then the Roman Empire. Many centuries after the battle, the Greek geographer Pausanias visited the site and recorded these intriguing observations: 
[1.32.3] On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes; and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters.
[1.32.4] Here is also a separate monument to one man, Miltiades, the son of Cimon, although his end came later, after he had failed to take Paros and for this reason had been brought to trial by the Athenians. At Marathon every night you can hear horses neighing and men fighting. No one who has expressly set himself to behold this vision has ever got any good from it, but the spirits are not wroth with such as in ignorance chance to be spectators. The Marathonians worship both those who died in the fighting, calling them heroes, and secondly Marathon, from whom the district derives its name, and then Heracles, saying that they were the first among the Greeks to acknowledge him as a god.
[1.32.5] They say too that there chanced to be present in the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquiries at the oracle the god merely ordered them to honor Echetlaeus (He of the Plough-tail) as a hero. A trophy too of white marble has been erected. Although the Athenians assert that they buried the Persians, because in every case the divine law applies that a corpse should be laid under the earth, yet I could find no grave. There was neither mound nor other trace to be seen, as the dead were carried to a trench and thrown in anyhow.
Here we see how effective the memorial has remained for six centuries: the fallen of Marathon are now on a par in hero cult with both the eponymous hero of the district and the great Heracles! Miltiades gets his own statue, while the Athenian soldiers' names are recorded by tribe, as indeed their contingents were organized in battle. What is even more interesting is this myth of the plowman Echetlaeus, now also a figure of hero cult, and the phantom battle at night that does neither good nor harm to anyone who witnesses it. While the marble trophy is mentioned, you'll also notice: the Persians cannot be found. 

In Athens, Pausanias was able to see the great illustrated cycle inside the Painted Porch (or Stoa Poikilê), done in the fifth century BCE, in which we see Marathon arrayed alongside the mythological battles of Theseus against the Amazons and the Greek army at Troy. Notice here how the native Athenian hero Theseus and Athena herself have joined the battle of Marathon:
[1.15.3] At the end of the painting are those who fought at Marathon; the Boeotians of Plataea and the Attic contingent are coming to blows with the foreigners. In this place neither side has the better, but the center of the fighting shows the foreigners in flight and pushing one another into the morass, while at the end of the painting are the Phoenician ships, and the Greeks killing the foreigners who are scrambling into them. Here is also a portrait of the hero Marathon, after whom the plain is named, of Theseus represented as coming up from the underworld, of Athena and of Heracles. The Marathonians, according to their own account, were the first to regard Heracles as a god. Of the fighters the most conspicuous figures in the painting are Callimachus, who had been elected commander-in-chief by the Athenians, Miltiades, one of the generals, and a hero called Echetlaeus [...]
Since the Athenians had camped in the precinct of Heracles at Marathon (Herodotus 6.108), that hero's inclusion is understandable. But now Theseus is seen rising up to assist his people in their great hour of glory. As for Athena, since the mid-fifth century BCE, a colossal bronze statue of this patron goddess had stood on the Acropolis, a work of Pheidias financed by a share of the Persian spoils at Marathon. This formidable statue was so huge the top of it was visible at sea once one rounded Cape Sounion (Pausanias 1.28.2). It loomed over Athens for a thousand years, until it was later removed to Constantinople.

Marathon in the 19th century
With so much emotional investment by the Athenians in both the Battle and site of Marathon, it is no wonder that in a later century, when the Greeks had long been subjected to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Byron should make of it a locus for musing about a possible Greek revolution:
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
(The Isles of Greece, ll. 13-18)
Of course, we assume Byron uses poetic license to talk of the Persians' grave, which, as we have seen, was nowhere to be found even in Pausanias' day! After the Greek Revolution (1821-32), the site became a popular place to visit and plunder for artifacts—the odd spearhead or arrowhead. 

Today, the site has been converted into an archaeological park, the tomb mound placed in a manicured setting that reflects the natural location, but does not promise any ghostly nighttime battles.  It was constructed well ahead of time for the 2500 anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, which has generated a fair amount of scholarly reflection. And historians like Peter Krentz (2010) continue to walk over the battlefield to make sense of the victory and settle questions about how the Athenian hoplites could run a mile in all their armor.

It is hard to say why one place looms so large in the historical memory over others, but Marathon has indeed achieved the status of "pivotal moment" in history. Perhaps John Stuart Mill was just another victim of Athenian rhetoric when he proclaimed:
The true ancestors of the European nations (it has been well said) are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance. The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods. (Mill 1846: 343)

—Richard Armstrong

Works Cited

Evans, J. A. S. "Herodotus and the Battle of Marathon." Historia 42.3 (1993):279-307.

Hammond, N. G. L. 1968. "The Campaign and the Battle of Marathon." Journal of Hellenic Studies 88 (1968):13-57.

Krentz, Peter. 2010. The Battle of Marathon. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Loraux, Nicole. 1986. The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Mill, John Stuart. 1843. "Grote's History of Greece. Edinburgh Review LXXXIV (Oct., 1846): 343-77. Text available online.

Vanderpool, Eugene. 1966. "A Monument to the Battle of Marathon." Hesperia 35.2 (1966):93-106.

West, William C. 1969. "The Trophies of the Persian Wars." Classical Philology 64.1 (1969):7-19.

Whitley, James. 1994. "The Monuments that stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica." American Journal of Archaeology 98.2 (1994):213-30.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Goats In A Green Truck

It’s not that I mind arriving at a hotel, unpacking my suitcase, scanning the day’s itinerary; it’s not that I mind arriving at my destination. It’s just that I prefer the moments between when I step out my door and then later, when I sit on the edge of a strange bed and listen to traffic in a city I’ve never been in before.  We’ll say a threshold, liminal space, passageway, hallway, limbo, inbetweeny place.  It’s where I feel the anticipation, excitement of travel.  Same goes for when I walk, fly or sail in my chair, at my desk with afternoon light breaking through west-facing windows, coffee next to the computer, and I’m furiously typing out words, images, narratives without a clue where I’m heading—but definitely on the way somewhere, not sure what I’ll find, but definitely no longer where I was when I first sat down to face a blank screen.

When I read Odysseus pushing out on the wine-dark sea, bound for the land of the dead, I think the lucky bastard has his real and imaginary tourism threaded to a fine, woven shroud he can slip on when he’s cold, slip off when the sun’s baking the earth.  I wonder as he stares into blue-black waves, a mesh of sea-salt tingeing his face, does he feel the pull, the urgency of something out on the horizon, does he feel the exhilaration of leaving behind where he’s from, that dizzying feeling of leaving behind the gravity of what one certainly is, of who one certainly knows, and exchanging it for one-eyed monsters, tentacle-women, immortal cattle?

Did Herodotus also nurse that moment between sitting down in an ouzeria on the island of Naxos and hearing the first words fall from a traveler’s mouth who had been beyond the sun?  Herodotus also sits high in the Hall of Fame of Cosmos-Spinning Travelers.  As with Odysseus, Herodotus feels the ground slip away, watches foreign constellations wheel into the night sky as he spirals, somersaults and spins, as he wonders where this story, this new story will take him.  I suppose we might call: it Going to Egypt But Not Really Wanting To Get There.

One of my favorite threshold moments occurred in Piraeus as I waited for a ferry to take me to Santorini.  I’d already been in Athens for a week, so I’d formed a pattern: walking streets, kicking old marble, peering close at old pottery, feta and ouzo, then coffee, more feta and ouzo.  But here at the port I was about to cast this new home off and step into a boat, waves, an island.  At that moment I was not an American, not a son, not a husband, not a father.  I was only a figure between sky and sea, already beginning to lift and float above ships. 

And then I saw it: a small green truck with a pile of skinned goats in its bed.  Bluing eyes still in sockets, mouths open like they were laughing or screaming.  Their red-white vessels and tissue gleamed in the early morning sun and I saw nothing to separate me from them, saw no difference . . . only color and shape waiting to be taken somewhere on the wine-dark sea like a tourist who has conveniently forgotten where’s he’s been, where’s he going and only tries to stay in the possibility of everything and nothing.  All tags, all names whirled away and like Heraclitus or Thales I tried to see the nature of the world as is, rather than as something always marked out by the same signs, the same letters.  The liminal hallway of going somewhere and not getting there turns anyone inside out and into a philosopher.  And that’s what it means to think, to really think, to turn inside out and upside down and for a while defy gravity.  And in this moment, at the water’s edge or about to hear a story of Heracles, it’s possible to believe in a world revealed by sight and words—the lost and found traveler removes the concealment of knowing and breathes mystery . . . here’s a few sentences, here’s a setting sun. 

The green truck pulled away, probably bound for some market, some shopper, some roasting pan, and then some mouth already wet with retsina.  I boarded the ferry.

—John Harvey