Poetry

Hermes Comes to Odysseus’ Help

Circe offers Odysseus her magic potion - J W Waterhouse (image from atrogallery on Tumblr)

Circe offers Odysseus her magic potion – J W Waterhouse (image from atrogallery on Tumblr)

….I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades, as I came close to Kirke’s house and neared the palace of the enchantress, I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; he seemed a youth in the lovely spring of life, with the first down upon his lip. He seized my hand and spoke thus to me: `Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know? Your comrades are yonder in Kirke’s grounds; they are turned to swine, lodged and safely penned in the sites.

…..“Is your errand her to rescue them? I warn you, you will never return yourself, you will only be left with the others there. Yet no–I am ready to save you from all hazards, ready to keep you unscathed. Look. Here is a herb of magic virtue; take it and enter Kirke’s house with it; then the day of evil never will touch your head. I will tell you of all her witch’s arts. She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic herb will thwart her. I will tell you the rest, point by point.

…..“When Kirke strikes you with the long wand she has, draw the keen sword from beside your thigh, rush upon her and make as if to kill her. She will shrink, back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest. But first, make her swear the great oath of the Blessed Ones [by the river Styx] to plot no mischief to you thenceforward– if not, while you lie naked there, she may rob you of courage and of manhood.’

…..“So spoke the Radiant One…”
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What happened next? Find out at Theoi Greek Mythology. Includes a storehouse of references to Circe in ancient Greek literature.
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Alexander in Memphis

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis (Andre Castaigne 1861-1929)

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis (Andre Castaigne 1861-1929). Picture: Wikipedia.

From Heliopolis, [Alexander] crossed the river to Memphis, where, among the other gods, he offered a special sacrifice to Apis and held Games with both athletic and literary contests.
(Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander)
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Alexander was deeply impressed by Egypt, and it is generally supposed that the potential strength of the country, which was greater than he expected, induced him to divide the control of it among a number of officers, as he judged it to be unsafe to put it all into the hands of one man.
(Arrian Ibid)

Ptolemy I Soter as Pharaoh (British Museum). Photo: Livius.org

Ptolemy I Soter as pharaoh (Photo: Livius.org)

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T E Lawrence: To “S.A.”

T E Lawrence (1888 - 1935)

T E Lawrence (1888 – 1935) (Wikipedia)

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.
T. E. Lawrence Dedicatory poem to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)

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Priam’s Supplication to Achilles

Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son, Hector (MFA)

Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son, Hector (MFA)

… Priam spoke to Achilles in supplication:
‘Remember your father, Achilles. He is an old man
like me, approaching the end of his life. Perhaps
he too is being worn down by enemy troops,
with no one there to protect him from chaos and ruin.
Yet he at least, since he knows that you are alive,
feels joy in his heart and, every day, can look forward
to seeing his child, whom he loves so dearly, come home.
My fate is less happy. I fathered the bravest men
in the land of Troy, yet not one remains alive.

Most of my sons have been killed in this wretched war.
The only one I could truly count on, the one
who guarded our city and all its people – you killed him
a few days ago as he fought to defend his country:
Hector. It is for his sake that I have come,
to beg you for his release. I have brought a large ransom.
Respect the gods now. Have pity on me; remember
your father. For I am more to be pitied than he is,
since I have endured what no mortal ever endured:
I have kissed the hands of the man who slaughtered my children.’
(Homer The Iliad Book XXIV L. 475-497 tr. by Stephen Mitchell)

The above picture comes from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Drawn by an unidentified French artist in the nineteenth century it is by no means the best representation of Priam’s supplication to Achilles.
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I chose it, though, because unlike other images, it shows Hector’s body still tied to the cart that Achilles rode round Troy after killing his enemy, which brings to mind Alexander’s punishment of Betis after the siege of Gaza.

Betis was brought before the young king, who was elated with haughty satisfaction, although he generally admired courage even in an enemy. ‘You shall not have the death you wanted,’ he said. ‘Instead, you can expect to suffer whatever torment can be devised against a prisoner.’ Betis gave Alexander a look that was not just fearless, but downright defiant, and uttered not a word in reply to his threats. ‘Do you see his obstinate silence?’ said Alexander. ‘Has he knelt to me? Has he uttered one word of entreaty? But I shall overcome his silence: at the very least I shall punctuate it with groans.’ Alexander’s anger turned to fury, his recent successes already suggesting to his mind foreign modes of behaviour. Thongs were passed through Betis’ ankles while he still breathed, and he was tied to a chariot. Then Alexander’s horses dragged him around the city while the king gloated at having followed the example of his ancestor Achilles in punishing his enemy.
(Curtius The History of Alexander Book IV. 6. 26  – 29 tr. by John Yardley)

Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body and Alexander of the still living Betis represent black moments in the men’s lives – the day when their desire for vengeance got the better of their reason and honour. The episodes end very differently. Achilles – albeit at the behest of the gods – eventually gives Hector’s body back to his father, Priam. Betis was duly executed and Alexander moved on to continue his conquest of the Persian empire. Except… in his notes to de Sélincourt’s translation of Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, J R Hamilton casts doubt on whether the incident actually happened. He does not, however, give a reason for this.

  • This post is a day late. Apologies!
  • The great actor Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday at the age of 81 played Priam in 2004 film TroyRequiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei: Requiescat in pace. Amen.

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Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte…

Mount Ida (Psiloritis) in Crete. Credit: sacvoyage on Tumblr)

Mount Ida (Psiloritis) in Crete. Credit: sacvoyage on Tumblr)

See Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow
And soon the heavy-laden trees their white load will not know,
When the swiftly rushing rivers with the ice have ceased to flow.
Pile, O Thaliarchus, pile the good logs on the fire!
Fetch up some crusty four-year wine in cobwebbed Sabine jar!
Thus we’ll drive away Jack Frost, with his biting cold so dire!
Care-free, all other matters among the gods we’ll keep
They when they’ve checked the battling wind upon the boiling deep
Untossed about the cypress and the old ash tree may sleep.
Seek not to know what changes to-morrow may be found
But count as gain whatever lot the change of days brings round;
Spurn not, young friend, sweet love-making, nor yet the dances round,
While withered age is distant from thy youth frequent the plain,
The throned lawns, each fashionable haunt, a crowded lane,
And at the trysting hour, e’en night-fall, softly whispered love’s refrain.
Now doth a roguish laugh our hiding girl betray
From her dark cover, where love’s token, perforce, is snatched away,
And her ill-withstanding finger but feebly bids him nay.

(Horace Ode to Thaliarchus translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor)

 I’m still heart-deep in love with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writing so to-day, instead of a work of art by a man, here is a work of art by nature. Mount Ida has been deliberately chosen. I shall let Leigh Fermor himself explain why. It is 1944. Leigh Fermor and his band of British soldiers and Cretan Resistance have successfully kidnapped the German General Heinrich Kreipe. The Nazis are in hot pursuit as the team make their escape over the Cretan mountain range…

During the lull in the pursuit, we woke up among the rocks just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida. We had been toiling over it, through snow and then rain, for the last two days. Looking across the valley at this flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte…

It was one of the ones I knew! I continued from where he had broken off:

nec jam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto,

and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end. The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

(Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts)

As the note below the photograph of Mount Ida (which today is called Psiloritis) says, the photograph comes from a Tumblr blog called Sacvoyage. I heartily recommend it to you as it includes some beautiful pictures of Greece. Also, Leigh Fermor’s translation of Horace’s Ode comes from Artemis Cooper’s biography of him (Patrick Leigh Fermor An Adventure, John Murray, 2013). Finally, here is a video of Leigh Fermor et al meeting Kreipe again many years after the war.

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Selefkos/Seleucus and Antiochus I Soter

20131130-104131.jpg

Further to last night’s post, while I have not yet found a web page that links the name Selefkos with Seleucus an internet search seems to suggest that the two are one – perhaps they are variant spellings or older and newer versions of the same name?
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It looks like a trip to the library will be in order to see if I can find a book that will confirm which it is. In the meantime, I must thank @oresteshighking who tweeted @AlexanderIII last night that the son of Selefkos referred to by Cavafy is Antiochus I Soter who married his step-mother. Goodness knows what CPC made of the later Ptolemies.
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The reason I mention the above here is that the blog posts on The Second Achilles are written under my name (or rather nom-de-plume) and not Alexander’s. For this reason he does not ordinarily comment on what is written here (especially if they are matters pertaining to his future).

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C P Cavafy “The Glory of the Ptolemies”

As I write these words it is nearly 10pm on a Friday evening. I have not left myself much time to write anything substantial. That may be a relief to you as my last couple of posts have been rather word heavy. Instead of a long post, therefore, I thought I would share with you a poem by C. P. Cavafy who lived in and loved Alexandria. In keeping with the theme of the last couple of days, the poem I have selected is dedicated to Ptolemy I Soter.

The Glory of the Ptolemies
I’m Lagides, king, absolute master
(through my power and wealth) of sensual pleasure.
There’s no Macedonian, no barbarian, equal to me
or even approaching me. The son of Selefkos
is really a joke with his cheap lechery.
But if you’re looking for other things, note this too:
my city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.

A couple of thoughts – I think Cavafy is being a little unfair to Ptolemy I who was not known for being a hedonist. The first Ptolemy to live that kind of life was Ptolemy IV Philopator. The last three lines of the poem obviously refer to Alexandria. Cavafy is perhaps being a little anachronistic in describing her in such fine terms. The city did not reach the heights of its existence until the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

Who is Selefkos? I don’t know for sure – could it be an alternative spelling of Seleucus? Unfortunately, I do not know enough about his son(s) to be able to say for sure.
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I found The Glory of the Ptolemies on the official C. Cavafy website. There are some really lovely poems there that are very well worth reading.

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Berenike II

Berenike II

Berenike II

… Conon observed me at heaven’s threshold,
a lordly lock from Berenice’s crown
brightly relfugent, that she vowed to an assortment
of goddesses, smooth arms outstretched,
at the time when the King, strengthened by his new marriage,
was off to despoil Assyria’s borderlands,
still bearing sweet traces of the nighttime struggle
he’d waged for her virgin trophy.

In 246 BC, Antiochus II died. He was succeeded by Seleucus II Kallinikos in 245. To ensure her son’s succession, Seleucus II’s mother, Laodike had her late husband’s second wife, Berenike Syra, and her son, assassinated. Unfortunately for Laodike, Berenike’s brother, Ptolemy III Euergetes decided to go war against Seleucus in revenge for the murder of his sister. Back in Alexandria, Ptolemy’s wife, Berenike II, made a vow to cut off her hair should the gods bring her new husband safely home.
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The above quotation is an English translation by Peter Green of the Roman poet Catullus’ translation of Callimachus’ original. Unfortunately, only a third of Callimachus’ poem has survived. The narrator of the poem is the lock of Berenike’s hair that she did indeed cut off when Ptolemy III returned to Alexandria. Not long after being placed in the temple, the lock was stolen or lost.  This lead the priest Conon to tell Ptolemy that it hadn’t been taken, rather, that it had ascended to the heavens. This story lead to the naming of a constellation after the queen – the Coma Berenices (Berenike’s Braid or Hair).
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I had no knowledge of this story until I read about it on The Second AchillesTumblr feed last night. The picture you see above was posted by a user named ‘tiny-librarian’ who posts a veritable cornucopia of images from the past. If you use Tumblr I recommend them to you.

Ptolemy III Euergetes

Ptolemy III Euergetes


As for the poem itself – I am not quite sure what to infer from the fact that Ptolemy III had to struggle to deflower his wife. The overall tone of the poem, which is lighthearted, makes me think the Catullus is speaking of a playful fight rather than a violent one. As I mentioned above, Peter Green translated the version of the poem that I have quoted (in The Poems of Catullus, 2005). There are also translations on-line, though.
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Catullus c. 84 – 54 BC
Callimachus 310/05 – 240 BC

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Peleus Wrestles Thetis

Peleus wrestles Thetis (credit: daillest94.tumblr.com)

Peleus wrestles Thetis (credit: daillest94.tumblr.com)

He woke her with a kiss.
First she was astonished, then furious.
He applied all his cunning to seduce her.
He exhausted his resources. None of it worked.

As is the way of these things, it begins with a prophecy – Proteus tells Thetis that she will bear a son who will be the ‘wonder of the world’. Fearful that her son might challenge his rule, Zeus has Peleus seduce Thetis. Presumably he believes that this mere mortal could never sire a hero. Peleus’ first attempt fails as Thetis changes her shape from one animal form to another before striking him with her tiger’s paw. Determined to bring the prophecy about, Proteus tells Peleus to bind her arms and feet, and hold on until she submits. Peleus does and wins the day.

Peleus marries Thetis (credit: mythstory.tumblr.com)

Peleus’ and Thetis’ wedding (credit: mythstory.tumblr.com)

… he undid her bonds. As he massaged
The circulation into her hands and feet
His caresses included her whole body.
She was content to let them take possesion
Of her skin, her heart, and, at last, of her womb
Where now he planted Achilles.

The story of Peleus and Thetis is as disturbing as it is exciting, especially from Thetis’ point-of-view. One can only imagine (if one dares) what imagination or historical event lies behind it. The brevity of Ted Hughes’ translation foregrounds this lack of knowledge very well. It is a frustration but also a thrill for it gives us the space to imagine the story anew for ourselves, perhaps to make good the harm done in the earlier version. One more reason why story telling is so good.

Quotations from Peleus and Thetis in “Tales of Ovid” translated by Ted Hughes

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