Top: Thales of Miletus, as he may have looked.
An eclipse of the sun is an exciting adventure, or it can be a fearful event
A total eclipse of the sun is an exciting event, as the moon neatly fits over the sun like a lid, shutting out its light. On October 21, 2017 such an eclipse was visible over a large swath of the United States. Thousands gathered in remote towns in Oregon and elsewhere to wonder at the phenomenon. In my own backyard, where the eclipse was only partial, the familiar dots of dappled sunlight on the walkway became weird crescents, as gaps between the leaves formed pinhole cameras that projected the shape of the partly covered sun. This can be seen in the photo at the bottom of this article.
But to some, even today, an eclipse is a fearful portent. The National Catholic Reporter for August 11-24 tells us that Father James Kurzynski of St. Joseph Parish in Menominee, Wisconsin felt it necessary to reassure the doubtful that the eclipse was not a "harbinger of end times," but "an opportunity to reflect on humanity's relationship to creation and build stronger bonds with God while enjoying a rare astronomical event."
An eclipse of the sun stops an ancient battle
One such fateful eclipse stopped a battle between the ancient Lydians and the Medes in the sixth century B.C., an eclipse said to have been predicted by the philosopher Thales of Miletus. The story is told by Herodotus in Histories Book I, Chapter 74. In circumstances too complicated to narrate in detail, a band of Scythian nomads had taken refuge among the Medes, an ancient Iranian people. There, the Median King Cyaxares took them in as suppliants and employed them in instructing a group of young men and set them to hunting game. One day, when they returned from the hunt empty-handed, the king treated them with insults. The Scythians retaliated by killing one of their young students, cutting him up, and serving him to the king as they would normally serve freshly killed game. They then fled to Sardis, where they were taken in by the Lydian King Alyattes. Cyaxares demanded the return of the Scythians, Allyattes refused, and war began began between the Lydians and the Medes.
The war went on for five years, and as the sixth year began, a battle was underway, when "day suddenly became night." The combatants decided that this was a good time to quit. Fighting stopped, and a peace was negotiated. The best way to conclude a treaty was always to marry off a princess, so Aryenis, daughter of Alyattes was married to Astyages, son of Cyaxares. (Nobody says what the princess thought.) The treaty was further sealed by both parties making small cuts in their arms and sucking each others' blood.
Did Thales predict the eclipse?
According to Herodotus, the eclipse was predicted by Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, who lived circa 624 B.C.- circa 546 B.C. Modern scientists have placed the eclipse, and therefore the battle, on May 28, 585 B.C. based partly on the dates of king lists of the tribes involved.
Modern scholars have questioned whether Thales could have predicted the eclipse, especially since Thales' own dates are rather vague, based somewhat, in circular fashion, on the date of the eclipse itself. (The question was discussed by Alden Mosshammer in "Thales' Eclipse" in Transactions of the American Philological Association Volume 11, 1981 pp. 145-155.)
The Antikythera Mechanism and eclipse prediction
The true reason for solar eclipses was known in antiquity. The device known as the Antikythera Mechanism, discovered in 1900 by sponge divers in a shipwreck at the bottom of the Argean Sea, could, among other things, predict solar and lunar eclipses. Found as a misshapen lump of bronze and wood, it is now recognized as a type of astronomical calculator from the Hellenistic period. Modern imaging techniques show its pieces to be composed of over thirty separate gears that represent the movement of the sun, moon, and planets. The largest fragment is pictured at the top of this article and a schematic representation appears below.
Thales himself was among the first of the Pre-Socratic philosophers to make use of mathematics and geometry in the study of natural phenomena. He is said to have determined the height of the pyramids by comparing the length of shadows cast by a person and by the pyramids.
Below, in Greek and English, is Herodotus' account of the fateful darkening of the sun that ended a war.
A schematic recreation of the gears inside the Antikythera Mechanism. A number of proposals have been made as to exactly how the device worked. This schematic is one proposed by James Evans, Christian C. Carman, and Alan Thorndyke (February 2010) in "Solar anomaly and planetary displays in the Antikythera Mechanism" (PDF). Journal for the history of astronomy. xli: 1:39.
The dappled spots of sunlight take on crescent shapes as the gaps between the tree branches become pinhole cameras, projecting the shape of the partially covered sun. Photo by C.A. Sowa, August 21, 2017.
Top: Hesiodic plow, drawing from Leonard Whibley, A Companion to Greek Studies, 1916, p. 637. The drawing follows the description in Hesiod's Works and Days, vv. 427-436. Above, "Ploughing," from a vase by Nicosthenes, Whibley, p. 637.
In the dog days of summer, eat lunch behind a rock to avoid the girls
The Dog Days of summer begin when Sirius, the Dog Star rises. The weather is sweltering, but the wine is at its best. According to Hesiod, the Old Curmudgeon (in his Works and Days), it is also the time when women are at their most lustful and men's knees and head become weak. In the first part of our Quotation of the Month, he advises that the man take his lunch behind a shady rock, with some of that good wine, where, presumably, the girls can't find him. Then he should pour a libation to the deities of the spring.
In late summer, winnow and store your grain, and don't forget to feed the guard dog!
In the second set of quoted verses, it is late summer, and it is time to gather the grain, winnow it, and store it in the big storage jars. (We assume that he is talking about those big man-size clay pithoi, used for storing all sorts of things, found at Bronze- and Iron-Age sites.) The farmer should then let his hired man go and (with more misogyny!) hire a servant girl who is childless, because a servant nursing a child is a pain in the neck. (Note that the word for "nursing a child" is hypoportis, "(a cow) with a calf under her!") The guard dog must be fed well, so that he will keep the burglars ("the man who sleeps by day") away. Then give the slaves some rest, and unyoke the oxen, to give them some rest, too.
In the verses that follow the quoted lines, not quoted here, the farmer must go back to work again in September and October, bringing in the grape harvest and plowing the ground ready for the next crop. The construction of the plow (illustrated at the top of this item) was already described in verses 427-436.
Below, in Greek and English, are Hesiod's words of advice on summer activities.
The Vale of Tempe, in Thessaly, northern Greece. A lovely landscape that Hesiod, in scrubby Ascra, could only dream about as he drank his noontime wine. From an old postcard, collection of C.A. Sowa.
An Ethiopian slave breaks in a horse, Archaeological Museum of Athens. Description: "Funerary stele from Attica, right side of a two-panels relief. Pentelic marble, found near the Larisis railway station, date unknown (maybe 4th century BC or 1st century BC). If belonging to the later date, may have been made in honour of king Mithridates of Pontus." (-Wikipedia). Note the panther skin covering the horse like a blanket. Photographer: Marsyas (2006). Above: Epictetus as imagined in the eighteenth century (-Wikipedia).
Celebration of "Juneteenth"
On June 19, 1865, word reached the slaves of Texas that they were free. The news had traveled slowly. On April 9, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, and on June 2, General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederate army west of the Mississippi, surrendered to Union forces, bringing the final end to the American Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, had not ended slavery. But it did free those slaves in certain designated rebel states who were able to escape by running away or because the area was taken by Union troops. Many slaves, in fact, escaped to Union lines. The Proclamation did not outlaw slavery or grant citizenship to freed slaves. Slavery would not be outlawed until December 18, 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment went into effect.
On June 19, 1865, federal troops entered Galveston, Texas to take possession of the state and enforce emancipation. Union general Gordon Granger, standing on the balcony of the mansion still known as Ashton Villa, used as Union headquarters, read "General Order No. 3," which begins:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor...
African Americans in Texas have henceforth celebrated the date as "Juneteenth," and observances have spread to other states.
Slavery in antiquity
Slavery in antiquity was regarded somewhat differently than in the United States. Many of the enslaved were war captives or victims of piracy, and might be better educated than their owners. They might become tutors to their owners' children. Freedmen might achieve high professional success. The Roman playwright Terence, whose Latin name was Publius Terentius Afer ("the African") and who lived c. 195/185 - c. 159 B.C., was, with Plautus, one of the two greatest Roman comic dramatists. He was born in north Africa, possibly near Carthage, of Berber descent. He was brought as a slave to Rome by a Roman senator, who gave him an education, then freed him.
The Cynic philosopher Diogenes (c. 412 BC - 323 B.C.) spent time as a slave. Diogenes, who was actually a serious philosopher, a rival and competitor to Plato, was famous for his silly stunts, like living in a large storage jar (often mistranslated as a "barrel") or going around with a lantern "looking for an honest man." When Alexander the Great asked what he could do for him, Diogenes replied, "You could stand out of my sunlight" (to which Alexander said, "If I were not Alexander, I would wish to be Diogenes!") The philosopher was captured by pirates and sold into slavery to a Corinthian named Xeniades, saying that he wished to be "sold to a man who needed a master." He became a tutor to Xeniades' sons.
Another version of the Diogenes/Alexander story, widely quoted and requoted, seems to be a relatively modern fabrication, appearing only in the late seventeenth century. In it, Alexander sees Diogenes looking through a pile of bones, and asks him what he is looking for. Diogenes says, "I am looking for your father's bones and those of my slave," implying that in death we are all equal. A paper for the Yale Law school by Thomas Laqueur traces this tale to conflict of Protestants and Catholics over the veneration of saints' relics.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus on slavery
In general, slavery was accepted by the classical world as a normal part of the landscape, and its morality or rationality was not questioned. The first surviving statement questioning the reasoning behind the institution comes from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 50 A.D. - 135 A.D.). Born in Phrygia, he spent his youth as a slave to the wealthy freedman Epaphroditus, secretary to the emperor Nero. The name Epiktetos in Greek simply means "acquired." We do not know what other name he had. Epictetus obtained his freedom in 68 A.D., after the death of Nero, and taught philosophy. His most famous pupil was the historian and philospher Arrian, whose transcriptions of Epictetus' discourses are our only source for Epictetus' thought, since he himself left no writings. These transcriptions take the form of eight books of the Discourses, of which four survive, and the Enchiridion, or "Handbook."
Epictetus quesioned slavery not on moral but on rational grounds. He explains that while we cannot always control external circumstances, we can always control our attitude toward them, using reason. In the Discourses Book 1 Chapter 2, he applies this principle to slavery. If, he says, you hold a chamber pot for your master because if you do not, you will be beaten and you will not be fed, this is a rational choice, as far as it goes. But if you decide that this is not an occupation worthy of you, you must take this into consideration, too. But slavery is also irrational for the slave owner, if he sees that it is intolerable to let another man hold the chamber pot for him.
Below, in Greek and English, are Epictetus' words on rational choice regarding the holding of the chamber pot.
Alleged portrait of the playwright Terence, from Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868. This is an illuminated manuscript from the 9th century of Terence's comedies, possibly copied from 3rd-century original. (Image from Wikipedia.)
Main illustration: Upper part (Figs. 17, 18) war ship and merchant ship, about 500 B.C. From a painted vase found at Vulci, in Etruria. Lower part (Fig.19) two war ships, about 500 B.C. From a painted vase by Nicosthenes found at Vulci. Illustrations from Cecil Torr, Ancient Ships, 1895. Small inset picture: the Sirens singing to Odysseus from the rigging of his ship. Illustration from Autenrieth's Homeric Dictionary, 1876. The comment is made: "The cut, from an ancient gem, represents them as bird-footed, an addition of later fable; for Homer, they are beautiful women."
A gathering of ships
Fleet Week is a chance for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard to show off their ships and stage spectacular air shows. It is celebrated in summer in ports around the U.S. In New York, it takes place the week of Memorial Day; in Portland, Oregon it is in June, in conjunction with the annual Rose Festival, and in San Francisco it will be in October. Other cities include San Diego, Port Everglades, and Seattle. Summer is also a time when coastal inhabitants' thoughts turn to enjoying the water, whether from a boat or on the beach.
For the Quotation of the Month for May we present the most famous Fleet Week of Greek epic, the Catalog of the Ships from Book 2 of the Iliad (vv. 484-759). The Greek army is drawn up before the walls of Troy. They have been there for nine years, and many of the soldiers are ready to go home. But speeches from Odysseus (inspired by Athena), Nestor, and Agamemnon restore their courage, and they prepare for a fight. There follows the great Catalog, enumerating the leaders of each contingent, with the number of ships provided by each, including numerous stories and digressions about the many heroes. The Catalog of the Ships is followed by the Catalog of the Greek horsemen and the Catalog of the Trojans and their allies.
The Greek ships that went to Troy
The magnitude of the Greek army is matched by the magnitude of the Catalog, which weighs in at 275 verses. To quote Homer, "If I had ten tongues and ten mouths, and an unbroken voice, and the heart within me were bronze," I could not include the entire Catalog here. Homer had the advantage of help from the Muses, whom he invokes as he begins his narration. All the heroes are here, including Agamemnon of Mycenae, Menelaus of Sparta, Nestor of Pylos, Odysseus of Ithaca, Idomeneus of Crete, Ajax of Salamis, along with the Athenians, the Cretans, and those from Arcadia, Argos and Tiryns, and all the rest.
I include here only the invocation to the Muses and the first two contingents, the Boeotians and Minyan Orchomenus, the latter usually regarded as part of Boeotia, but here given its own entry.
In the Iliad, the Theban wars are just a memory
The Boeotian entry is most interesting for what it does not include. Many of the town names are little known, such as Hyria, Schoenus, Peteon, Ocalea, and Medeon — who were they, anyway? A few have their own fame. Plataea became famous later as the site of the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.) in which the Greeks finally drove the Persians out of mainland Greece in the Second Persian War. Onchestus is known to us from the Homeric Hymn IV to Hermes, in which the Old Man of Onchestus tattles on the infant Hermes, whom he has seen driving the cattle of Apollo, which he has stolen, backwards to disguise their footprints.
But where is the glorious seven-gated city of Thebes? Only "Lower Thebes" (Hypothebai) is named. The city of Cadmus, of Semele and Dionysus, of Oedipus, of Antigone, of the heroes of the Seven Against Thebes — that city is but a memory. These are stories famed in epic and drama second only to the Trojan War itself (although the Argonauts and Jason and Medea are close behind). Bronze Age Thebes was destroyed by the Epigonoi, the "After-born," sons of the heroes of the first Theban War. Thebes would be reborn in historic times as one of the great cities of Classical Greece, but by the time of the Trojan War, the powerful old Theban stories were themselves history.
Below, in Greek and English, are the opening lines of the Catalog of the Ships and two contingents of Agamemnon's army and navy, as described in the Iliad, Book 2, vv.484-516.
Two war ships in action, about 550 B.C.From a painted vase by Aristonophos found at Caere in Etruria. Illustration from Cecil Torr, Ancient Ships, 1895.
Gaia Kourotrophos (Earth nourisher of children). Image from Roscher, Ausfürliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1884. The aconite, in the inset photo above, which I took in my garden, is the first flower to come out of the earth in spring, even before the crocuses. Sometimes it gets covered by a late snow, but it always bounces back. The bees love it.
How the universe began
It all begins with Chaos, Earth, and Love. Our Quotation of the Month for April is taken from Hesiod's Theogony, his epic on how the universe came to be. The Theogony (ca. 750 B.C.) can be described in shorthand form as the genealogy of the gods, but it is more than that. It is a dizzying carousel of stories of gods, goddesses, nymphs, monsters, storms, winds, and bizarre phenomena, and their descent from and battles with each other.
Hesiod took his tales from many sources — previous epics, ritual cults sacred to local features like mountains and springs, old stories — and strung them together to make a coherent narrative. The Succession Myth, of successive generations of monarchs (in this case gods: Ouranos (Heaven), Cronos, Zeus) deposing each other has parallels in other Near Eastern mythologies — Phoenician, Hurrian, Babylonian, Hittite. Sometimes, it was surmised by M.L. West in his edition of the Theogony, Hesiod (or some predecessor) simply used his own imagination to make up names to fill out his lists of nymphs and multiplicities of Muses, Cyclopes, Hours, sea goddesses, and the like. He weaves in an array of stories, like the story of the first woman, who brought nothing but trouble. He used this story again in his Works and Days, where he gives her the familiar name: Pandora.
Chaos, Earth, and Love
First came Chaos, then Earth, then Tartarus, and Eros. There is much speculation about the word "Chaos." We moderns are tempted to see in this the Big Bang and the swirling dust that coalesced into stars and planets, but we can't be sure how Hesiod conceived it. Was it simply the Yawning Gap, a great chasm, or some murky dark substance? We can't be sure. Next came Gaia, the Earth, supporter of all life and Tartarus, the nether world, hidden in the dark places of Earth. Then Eros, or Love, "most beautiful of the gods, who makes men weak-kneed and makes them lose their minds and judgment."
Earth herself gave birth to Ouranos (Heaven), by whom she bore many gods and a few monsters, including the one-eyed Cyclopes. Ouranos had a bad habit of stuffing all his children back into Earth, who groaned in pain. Finally her son Cronos took a sickle and cut off his father's private parts and threw them into the sea, separating Heaven and Earth. Around the severed genitalia the white foam spread. It was from this sea foam that Aphrodite, goddess of desire and fertility, was born.
The generations continue
Cronos, married to Rhea, was the father of many well-known gods, including Zeus, Hera, Demeter, Hades, and Poseidon. But Cronos, too, had a bad habit, of swallowing all his children, lest one of them depose him. So when Zeus, the youngest, was born, he was hidden in a cave, while Cronos was given a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, which Cronos swallowed. He threw up the stone, then vomited up all the children he had swallowed, and Zeus indeed became king of the gods.
Zeus' first wife (before Hera) was Mêtis ("Good Counsel"). Metis became pregnant with Athena, but Zeus was told that Metis' next child would be a son who would depose him, so he stuffed pregnant Metis into his belly, thus not only ensuring his kingship but also making sure that the wise goddess would be there to give him advice. Later (in what may have originally been a separate myth), Zeus gave birth to Athena from his head. By this time Zeus was married to Hera, who was angry at him for producing the wise Athena without her. So on her own she gave birth to the craftsman god Hephaestus.
And so on! The stories are too many to summarize here!
Below, in Greek and English, are the opening lines of Hesiod's cosmogony.
Eros, archaic figure. Image from Roscher, Ausfürliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1884.
Statue of Diana, the Roman Artemis. Located at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California. Photo by C.A. Sowa. Small picture above: grave stele of Hegeso, 5th cent. B.C., detail.
Women poets of ancient Greece
As we conclude Women's History Month, we celebrate women poets of ancient Greece. Best known, of course, is Sappho of Lesbos. Enough of her work survives for us to appreciate her great talent. Her Hymn to Aphrodite survives intact, quoted entire by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. In another poem, her description of "falling apart" at the sight of a woman she loves, talking to a man — "He seems to me equal to the gods who sits across from you listening to your sweet speech..." — anticipates Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces." The opening stanzas survive because Longinus quoted them as an example of the Sublime. We used this poem as the Quotation of the Month for February, 2008.
Sappho's sister poets
Sappho was not, however, alone. The work of her sister poets has almost entirely perished. Some are only names, but a few pieces survive. Corinna, choral poet from Tanagra in Boeotia, is traditionally said to have been a contemporary and sometimes rival of Pindar (c. 522 - c. 443 B.C.), although some scholars consider a later date. She composed the Contest between Helicon and Cithaeron, these being the two great mountains of Boeotia. (Cithaeron won, but Helicon retaliated by causing a disastrous landslide). Another woman poet, Myrtis, was said to be the teacher of both Corinna and Pindar. Hardly anything remains of the work of Praxilla of Sicyon (in the Peloponnese), a 5th century B.C. poetess, but she was sufficiently famous to be parodied by Aristophanes. Her "Hymn to Adonis" was laughed at because she makes Adonis say, when questioned in Hades about what he missed most in life, that the most beautiful things he left behind were the sun, the stars, and the moon — and cucumbers, apples and pears! Zenobius quoted the lines to explain the saying "sillier than Praxilla's Adonis," implying that produce is not on the stately level of the heavenly bodies. It seems, however, quite reasonable that a woman would realize that Adonis would miss the homely pleasures of a good meal. A pun has also been suggested on the word for "cucumbers" (sikuos) and the name of Praxilla's home town of Sikyon.
A dedication of thanks to Artemis for a successful childbirth
Our Quotation of the Month is perhaps by Sappho, or perhaps "in the style of Sappho" (hôs Sapphous, according to its heading). It comes from the Palatine Anthology, a collection of Greek poems and epigrams dating to the 10th century A.D. The selection is taken from an inscription on a statue dedicated to "Artemis Aethopia" by a grateful mother, following a successful childbirth. The words are those of the newborn girl, or perhaps of the stone itself, "wordless as I am," speaking through the inscription "laid out at my feet."
Artemis Aethopia, goddess of childbirth
Artemis is known as the virgin goddess of the hunt and of the wild mountains. The name is known from Mycenaean sources, but is of uncertain origin, perhaps pre-Greek. She is associated with cults of wild animals, especially the bear. The deer was also sacred to her. She became associated with various other goddesses and other functions. In mythology, she was known as the twin sister of Apollo, daughter of Zeus and Leto. The Romans identified her with Diana. She became identified with Selene, the moon, and Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth. She acquired the epithet Aithopia, from aitho "to burn," "to shine brightly," perhaps from her identification with the moon. (The word does not mean "Ethiopian," although that name comes from the same word, meaning "having dark (i.e. "sunburnt") faces.") It is as a goddess of childbirth that this statue and its inscription are dedicated to her.
The text we use is that of the Loeb edition of 1934 (ed. J.M. Edmonds) which has the child herself speaking, giving the first word of the inscription as pais "child." The manuscript itself has paides "children," meaning that the words are addressed to an audience of children, and that the stone itself is speaking. This reading is followed by other critics.
Below, in Greek and English, is one reading of the inscription.
Sappho about to jump off a cliff, as drawn by the anonymous former owner of my copy of the Greek Anthology.
Memnon's departure for Troy, black-figure vase, ca. 550-525 B.C., Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels, Belgium. The Ethiopian hero prepares to aid the Trojans against the Greeks. (Image from Wikipedia.) The thumbnail drawing above shows a warrior wearing a linen cuirass, illustrating the word linothorex ("linen vest") in Autenrieth's Homeric Dictionary, 1876.
The Black Hero of the Trojan War
For February, in honor of Black History Month, we bring you the great Black hero of the Trojan War, Memnon, King of the Ethiopians. His mother was Eos, Goddess of the Dawn. The Ethiopians occupy a favored place in Homeric epic, where they are a semi-mythical people in whose company the gods enjoy lavish banquets. In Iliad 1.423-426, Zeus cannot help Thetis, mother of Achilles, because he is off visiting the Ethiopians. In Iliad 23.205-207, it is the goddess Iris who must hurry off to an Ethiopian sacrifice and banquet. In Odyssey 1.22-25, Poseidon receives sacrifices from the Ethiopians.
Memnon does not appear in the Iliad, which does not describe the last desperate period of the war, but ends with the funeral of Hector, slain by the raging Achilles in revenge for his killing of Patroclus. It is only after this that Memnon arrives with his army to support the Trojans. Memnon was, however, featured in other poems of the Epic Cycle, which were prequels and sequels that filled in stories of what happened before and after the war as told in the Iliad and Odyssey. All of these poems are lost, but summaries and excerpts survive in later authors. One poem was, in fact, called the Aithiopis, or the Ethiopian Poem, which narrates events that immediately follow the Iliad. It begins with the arrival of the Amazon Penthesilea, who comes to support the Trojans, but is killed by Achilles. Then Memnon arrives with his army, but he, too, is killed by Achilles. Achilles pursues the Trojans to the gates of Troy, where he is killed by Paris, who is also eventually killed.
The Egyptian singing statue
In Egypt, Memnon was identified with Amenhotep III (reigned ca. 1411-1375 B.C.). Two colossal statues of the pharaoh still stand near Thebes (as illustrated below). One of these gave a ringing tone when it was struck by the rising sun. While the reason may have been an accident of humidity, the sound was thought to be Memnon's greeting to his mother, Eos, or perhaps her greeting to her son.
Quintus Smyrnaeus' continuation of Homer
In the 4th century A.D., a poet known as Quintus of Smyrna undertook the writing of an epic poem called the Posthomerica, or "After Homer." In a fairly creditable imitation of the Homeric style, it provides another source for the contents of the lost Epic cycle, being based on plot elements of the sequels to the Iliad. Book I recounts the story of the Amazon Penthesilea, Book II tells the story of Memnon. Tall and black, he, like Achilles, wears armor made by the god Hephaestus.
Our Quotation of the Month describes Memnon's arrival in Troy, where the people, and especially old King Priam, are almost pathetically glad to see him, and think he will be their savior. Priam entertains him lavishly, and compares him to the gods. In the narrration that follows our excerpt, Memnon cautions Priam not to celebrate too much, and prefers to go to bed early, rather than stay up all night eating and drinking. His reservations turn out to be all too valid, as he will end up being killed. At the request of Eos, her son's body is wafted away by spirits, and his army is turned into a flock of birds, which fly away.
Below, in Greek and English, is the description of Priam welcoming Memnon.
Colossal statues of Amenhotep III in Egypt, identified as the famous "singing statues" of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, son of the Dawn goddess Eos. Changes in early morning humidity caused cracks in one of the sandstone statues to emit a singing sound at dawn. But you can no longer hear mother and son singing to each other. Later Roman repairs caused the singing to cease. (Illustration in W.H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1894-1897.)
Asclepius, god of healing, accompanied by a snake, his usual animal symbol. Paris, Louvre. Illustration from Seyffert, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities 1899.
The Year of the Rooster
This is the Year of the Rooster! And not just any rooster. In the Chinese Lunar calendar, there are five kinds of rooster: Wood, Fire, Earth, Gold, and Water. The year 2017, whose New Year is celebrated this January, is a Year of the Fire Rooster. Roosters are talkative and sociable, but they can be vain and boastful. The Fire Rooster, however, is trustworthy, with a strong sense of timekeeping and responsibility. The U.S. Postal Service has issued a Lunar New Year's stamp with a picture of a rooster, as seen above.
"A cock for Asclepius"
The most famous rooster in antiquity is the cock which Socrates, in his last words, told Crito he owed to the god Asclepius. The story is told by Plato at the conclusion of the Phaedo. That dialog purports to recount the last day in the life of the great Athenian philosopher, as narrated by Socrates' disciple Phaedo to his friend Echecrates. In the political upheavals following the Peloponnesian War, Socrates (469(?)-399 B.C.), a philosophical gadfly, was sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock for "corrupting the Athenian youth" and for "impiety."
In the Phaedo, Socrates' friends gather in his jail cell for one last conversation. The ensuing dialog concerns the nature of the soul, and whether it survives the body. It covers questions of reincarnation and transmigration of formerly human souls into animals, and what happens to good and evil souls. (Souls contaminated by living in the bodies of the gluttonous and violent are reincarnated in the bodies of asses and other such beasts (Phaedo 81e), the unjust pass into the bodies of wolves and hawks (82a), those who have practiced moderation pass into ants and bees (82b)).
At last an attendant brings the poison cup, and Socrates asks permission to pour a customary libation, but the attendant says the poison is carefully measured out, and none can be spared. Socrates' friends start to cry, and Socrates reminds them to act in a dignified manner, and explains (misogynistically) that that is the reason he sent his wife and other women away, because of their emotional outbursts. Socrates drinks the poison, and as his limbs progressively go cold, he reminds Crito that "We owe a cock to Asclepius, pay the debt and do not neglect it" (118a). Crito asks for further information, but Socrates dies, leaving the enigma of what he meant.
What did Socrates mean?
People from Plato's time onward have scratched their heads over Socrates' intent. Offerings were customarily made to Asclepius, god of healing, after being cured of some illness. The animal most closely associated with Asclepius was the snake, but animals, including roosters, were customarily sacrificed to him. Some writers (including Nietzsche) have thought Socrates meant that life is a disease of which he was cured. Others think he meant that his disciples were cured by his teachings of their misguided thoughts. It is also possible that there is a mundane explanation, that he really did owe an offering to Asclepius for some previous cure. Colin Wells in "The Mystery of Socrates' Last Words" in Arion 16.2 (Fall, 2008) offers another very sensible interpretation. Socrates had wanted to pour a libation (perhaps ironically) from his cup of poison, as if it were wine on some special occasion. Prevented from doing so, he still felt that some appropriate offering should be made to the gods. Hemlock was, in fact, sometimes used as a medicine in small doses, and Plato refers to the poison as a pharmakon ("drug" or medicine), so what god is more appropriate than Asclepius?
We also note that a rooster was a traditional gift exchanged by gay men; see the vase painting below.
Below, in Greek and English, are the final lines of the Phaedo.
Ganymede, boy favorite of Zeus, playing with a hoop and holding a rooster. Berlin painter, Louvre. The rooster was frequently exchanged as a gift by gay men. The other side of the vase depicts Zeus in pursuit of Ganymede. (Image from Wikipedia, photo by Bibi Saint-Pol.)
Copyright © Cora Angier Sowa. All rights reserved.
Send e-mail to Cora Angier Sowa.
Return to Minerva Systems home page.