Above: "The Rape of Philomela by Tereus." Engraved by Johann Wilhelm Baur for a 1703 edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses Book 6, plate 59. Top: Eurasian hoopoe, eating an insect, photo by Artemy Voikhansky, May 9, 2014. Tereus, according to one version of the myth, was transformed into a hoopoe.
Spring is finally here
Spring is finally here in the Northern hemisphere, birds are twittering, and they and the squirrels are chasing each other around getting ready to mate and have offspring. The migratory birds are back, some preparing to stay here, others simply stopping on their way to somewhere farther north.
For our Quotation of the Month, we turn to Hesiod's Works and Days for his advice to the farmer (or backyard farmer) on spring pruning, in verses 564-570.
Hesiod bids the farmer prune his vines
Hesiod spends only a few lines on Spring, sandwiched in between frigid Winter and enervating Summer. Winter is the time when Boreas blows his chill wind, and both animals and humans seek shelter. The oxen, not needed until spring, are put on half rations (but not the human help; they need their food). In Summer, when "women are most wanton and men are feeblest," you should find a nice shady rock behind which to enjoy your lunch and wine. In Spring, however, the most important task is to prune your grape vines, ready for the growing season.
Arcturus rises and the swallows return
The coming of spring is heralded by two events, the rising of the star Arcturus, a "red giant" that is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes ("the herdsman"), and the return of the swallows.
Hesiod calls the swallow "daughter of Pandion," a reference to a myth that exists in many different versions. In the most common version, told by Ovid, Pandion, king of Athens, had two daughters, Procne and Philomela. Procne was married to Tereus, king of Thrace, but he was attracted to her sister Philomela, raped her, and cut out here tongue so that she could not tell anyone. But she wove a tapestry that told the story, and the two sisters took revenge by killing Procne's son Itys, cooking him, and serving him up to his father Tereus. (Other versions of the story reverse the roles, with Philomela married to Tereus and Procne the victim.) The gods eventually turned them all into birds, the usual telling making Procne into a swallow, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe, a bird with an extravagant and exhibistionistic crown of golden feathers (Aristophanes' version; others make him into a hawk). Sophocles told the story in his (lost) play Tereus. The nightingale is said to mourn by singing a sad song, a concept that implies that her tongue was not cut out after all, but in real life, only the male nightingale sings, to attract a mate. The story of infanticide has obvious parallels to the story of Medea, and there could be some influence of one story on the other.
Hesiod does not tell us which version of the story he knew, but he speaks only of the swallow, whether that was Procne or Philomela. The swallow, like the nightingale, is a migratory bird. Northern European species winter in Africa, those in North America winter in South America. Their return in spring is a welcome harbinger of good weather to come. Their song is anything but mournful, being a cheerful "twit twit twit twit twit TWEET!"
Below, in Greek and English, is Hesiod's characterization of the arrival of spring.
Swallows' nests photographed at the railroad station, Fort Smith, Arkansas, June 12, 2014. The beak of one bird can barely be seen peeking out from the third nest from the right. Photo by C.A. Sowa.
Above: Bust of Selene, Goddess of the Moon, from a Roman sarcophagus, early 3rd century A.D. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2006). Top left: Full moon as seen from Madison, Alabama, October 22, 2010, photographed by Gregory H. Revera. Top right: Total lunar eclipse, October 7, 2014, as seen from Lomita, California, photographed by Alfredo Garcia, Jr.
A Supermoon, when the full moon is closest to the Earth, blazes like a searchlight in the sky
When the full moon (or the new moon) coincides with the moon's perigee, the closest that it comes to earth in its elliptical orbit, it is known as a "supermoon." It appears larger and brighter than usual, and when it is at its highest point, it blazes like a searchlight in the night sky. In 2019, we have a series of three full moon supermoons in a row, January 21, February 19, and March 21. (A curmudgeon will tell you that the applellation "supermoon" isn't a scientific term, but let's use it anyway.) The January supermoon, spectacularly, was also a total eclipse, turning into a huge, blood-red ball at its height.
The Snow Moon of February
The February supermoon coincided with the Snow Moon. It is called that because February is the month of the greatest snow fall. Some Native American tribes called it the Hunger Moon, because weather made hunting difficult. February does not always even have a full moon, but this year's blinding Supermoon was the brightest of all this season's supermoons. We still have March to look forward to.
The Homeric Hymn XXXII to Selene
Our Quotation of the Month is the Homeric Hymn XXXII to Selene, Goddess of the Moon. The Homeric Hymns, approximately from the time of Homer (ca. 750 B.C.) are all anonymous, but our unknown bard may have had a supermoon in mind when he described the brilliant radiance of the moon as Selene, in her chariot drawn by a team of "arch-necked shining" steeds, courses across the sky.
Selene (Roman Luna), sister of Helios, the Sun, was often identified with Artemis, just as Helios was often identified with Apollo. Helios and Selene, however, are not so much mythological figures as personifications of Sun and Moon. Yet there are stories about Selene, one of which is included in the Hymn. As with many other maidens, willing and unwilling, Zeus had sex with Selene and she had a child by him, the beautiful Pandia ("All goddess").
Selene and Endymion
However, Selene was not always the victim; sometimes she is depicted as the aggressor. There are many versions of the story, but the basic idea is that she fell in love with a beautiful young man named Endymion. In some versions he is a shepherd, in others a hunter, a king, or even an astronomer who liked to study the moon. At the request of Selene, Zeus made him immortal and forever young by putting him in perpetual sleep (in some versions, Endymion himself made the request). Selene visits him every night, and she is supposed to have had fifty daughters by him. (The mechanics of this arrangement are unclear!)
Below, in Greek and English, is the bard's celebration of the radiant lady of the night. Note that in the first line of the poem, the poet uses another word for "moon," Mênê. As we see in other Homeric Hymns, the final lines lead directly to another song; this practice leads scholars to believe that these short poems were intended as preludes to longer songs.
Endymion, asleep, with his dog. Here he is depicted as a hunter. Relief in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. From Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der Griechischen und Römischen Mythologie, 1884. The dog seems be trying to wake his master up!
Above: Iphigenia is sacrificed at Aulis so that the Greek fleet can sail for Troy. Based on a wall painting at Pompeii. From Oskar Seyffert, A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1899, p.323.
Extreme weather and a lopsided Polar Vortex
The weather has gone crazy. The northeastern and midwestern U.S. have been experiencing record cold, while other parts of the country have been suffering extended drought. We in New York went down to zero temperature, but Chicago hit a low of -21, bringing much of the city to a halt. The Postal Service suspended delivery in some areas, breaking their traditional promise, which itself is taken from Herodotus' description of the Persian couriers (Herodotus, Histories 8.98):
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
The Lower 48 States have been experiencing weather that properly belongs in Alaska and the Arctic, where global warming has disrupted the patterns of the upper air, the Polar Vortex and the jet stream.
There are still those that think that global warming is Fake News, and furthermore, that science itself is not to be trusted.
Lucretius on Epicurus' contributions to a scientific view
The conflict between science and long-held supersititions is as old as science itself. This month's Quotation of the Month is from the De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things") of the Roman poet Lucretius (ca. 99 B.C.- ca. 55 B.C.), where he lays out the scientific system of physics and cosmology developed by the Epicurean school of philosophy, and rails against evils perpetrated in the name of superstitious beliefs.
Epicurus (341- 270 BC), who derived much of his system from the earlier work of Democritus (ca. 460 - ca. 370 BC), developed an early version of the atomic theory, which taught that the universe is made up of tiny invisible particles which they called atoms ("indivisibles"). These particles move about and interact with each other. Epicurus introduced the idea of the "swerve," which allows atoms to deviate from their normal course, thus opening the door to free will.
Lucretius adopts Epicurus' system, but Epicurus is also his hero, freeing mankind from the bonds of what he calls religio. By this word Lucretius does not mean what we would call "religion," in fact he is as pains to explain that he should not be accused of impiety. He believes in gods, but does not believe that the gods take any active role in the lives of people. Therefore, it is common (as I have done here) to translate religio as "Superstition," connecting the word to its likely derivation, from religere, "to bind, constrain."
The sacrifice of Iphigenia, a result of Supersitition
Lucretius' most horrifying example of beliefs gone wrong is the tale of Iphigenia, daughter of King Agamemnon, who is sacrificed at Aulis to ensure a fair wind for the Greek troops to sail for Troy. Supposedly, Agamemnon had offended the goddess Artemis by killing a deer in her forest, and she demanded a human sacrifice. The story was told in the lost epic the Cypria and famously in Euripides' play Iphigenia at Aulis. Iphigenia (sometimes, as in Lucretius, called Iphianassa) is duped into coming to Aulis with the promise that she is to marry the hero Achilles.
In some versions of the story, Artemis at the last minute substitutes a deer for Iphigenia, and the girl herself is spirited away to Tauris, where she becomes a priestess of Artemis. Lucretius follows a more downbeat version, in which Iphigenia dies. The story ends with one of Lucretius' most famous lines:
Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum.
Flaming ramparts of the universe
Below, in Latin and English, are verses 62-101 of De Rerum Natura, containing Lucretius' praise of Epicurus and his telling of the story of Iphigenia.
The phrase "the flaming ramparts of the universe" (flammantia moenia mundi, v. 73) refers to the fiery belt of aether, which was believed to encircle the world. (It could be argued, in fact, that mundus should be translated as "world" rather than "universe." The Stoics frequently used mundus to mean the universe, but the Epicureans, unlike the Stoics, believed that the universe contained an infinite number of worlds.) Thomas Gray imitated the line in The Progress of Poesy 3.2 (speaking of Milton) with "He pass'd the flaming bounds of space and time."
Marble bust of Epicurus. Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original. British Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, from Wikimedia.
Copyright © Cora Angier Sowa. All rights reserved.
Send e-mail to Cora Angier Sowa.
Return to Minerva Systems home page.