Herodotus, Persian Wars Book 8.55
“I will now explain why I have told this story. There is in the Akropolis an olive tree and a little salt pond inside the shrine of the one called the Earth-born Erekhtheus. The story among the Athenians is that after Poseidon and Athena struggled for the land they put these there as commemoration.
That olive tree was burned along with the temple by the barbarians. Yet, on the day after it burned, when some of the Athenians who were ordered to go there to sacrifice arrived at the temple, they saw a new shoot about as long as a cubit already growing from the trunk. They then told this story.”
Τοῦ δὲ εἵνεκεν τούτων ἐπεμνήσθην, φράσω. ἔστι ἐν τῇ ἀκροπόλι ταύτῃ Ἐρεχθέος τοῦ γηγενέος λεγομένου εἶναι νηός, ἐν τῷ ἐλαίη τε καὶ θάλασσα ἔνι, τὰ λόγος παρὰ Ἀθηναίων Ποσειδέωνά τε καὶ Ἀθηναίην ἐρίσαντας περὶ τῆς χώρης μαρτύρια θέσθαι. ταύτην ὦν τὴν ἐλαίην ἅμα τῷ ἄλλῳ ἱρῷ κατέλαβε ἐμπρησθῆναι ὑπὸ τῶν βαρβάρων· δευτέρῃ δὲ ἡμέρῃ ἀπὸ τῆς ἐμπρήσιος Ἀθηναίων οἱ θύειν ὑπὸ βασιλέος κελευόμενοι ὡς ἀνέβησαν ἐς τὸ ἱρόν, ὥρων βλαστὸν ἐκ τοῦ στελέχεος ὅσον τε πηχυαῖον ἀναδεδραμηκότα. οὗτοι μέν νυν ταῦτα ἔφρασαν.
As few years ago I posted this passage as wildfires burned through Attica. As with most non-US and non-Trump related disasters, these fires went under-reported). The recent coverage of the conflagration that is claiming Australia right now is even worse in the US. Part of it is our own myopia and narcissism; the rest is that we are in deep denial that we have crossed some pretty terrible lines. Our hearts are with our friends, colleagues, and everyone else affected by this.
As Harper’s Magazine reports, severe fires are likely to be the rule rather than the exception thanks to our use of resources, lack of preparedness and global warming. This last year saw another season of devastation in the Western US, costing $163 million just to suppress. We can donate to help those affected, but in the long term we need to act to elect leaders who will acknowledge that we are hastening our own doom and we must hold accountable corporations that put short-term profit ahead of all else.
The passage above is from the part of Herodotus’ Histories after the Athenians have abandoned the city and retreated to Salamis to wage the war from the sea. This move is one of the most critical decisions of the Persian Wars, one that, arguably, is far more radical and important that the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. There is a simple beauty in the shoot growing from the burnt tree. But it is a beauty available only in hindsight and not to those who lost their lives before the story was told. The promise of new growth offers little solace to the dead and their bereaved families.
The promise of new life from destruction is central to one of my favorite similes from Homer as well.
Homer, Odyssey 5.488-493
“Just as when someone hides a firebrand in black ash
On the farthest edge of the wilderness where there are no neighbors
And saves the seed of fire when there is no other way to kindle it,
Just so Odysseus covered himself in leaves. Then Athena
Poured sleep over his eyes so he might immediately rest
From his exhausting toil, once she closed his dear lashes.”
ὡς δ’ ὅτε τις δαλὸν σποδιῇ ἐνέκρυψε μελαίνῃ
ἀγροῦ ἐπ’ ἐσχατιῆς, ᾧ μὴ πάρα γείτονες ἄλλοι,
σπέρμα πυρὸς σῴζων, ἵνα μή ποθεν ἄλλοθεν αὕοι,
ὣς ᾿Οδυσεὺς φύλλοισι καλύψατο. τῷ δ’ ἄρ’ ᾿Αθήνη
ὕπνον ἐπ’ ὄμμασι χεῦ’, ἵνα μιν παύσειε τάχιστα
δυσπονέος καμάτοιο, φίλα βλέφαρ’ ἀμφικαλύψας.
The fire in this simile–that promise of life, the seed of the future–is a domesticated fire, one controlled and contingent on human relationships. It is a symbol for human potential to create and in its dormancy suppresses the urge to destroy. The promise of life and regrowth is contingent on the conditions that give life to begin with. We have the ability to make our lives together better or worse. We will never rid ourselves of all risk and disaster, but we can make the decision not to rush headlong into it. When I posted these passages a few years back, I was hopeful, somehow, that something might arise out of them. I am unsure that Herodotus’ historic view or Homer’s heroic vision can encapsulate what we’re facing at all: an unmaking of the world as we know it. This is primordial.
Hesiod Theogony 853-867
“When Zeus filled with strength and took his weapons,
That thunder, lightning, and the shining thunderbolt,
He leapt down from Olympos and attacked. He burned
All the divine heads of the terrible beast around him.
Once Zeus overcame him, slamming him down with his fists,
He fell, bent back, and the great Earth gasped beneath him.
Flame rose up from the thunder-beaten god
On the tops of the mountain ridges in the dry places
where he was struck and the great Earth burned beneath
because of the unbearable force and it melted there—
the way tin melts when fired with skill in the well-made channels
or the way iron—which is the strongest thing of all—
contracts when overcome by bright fire on mountain ridges
only to melt in the rich earth under Hephaistos’s hands—
that’s how the Earth melts in the glare of the burning fire”
Ζεὺς δ’ ἐπεὶ οὖν κόρθυνεν ἑὸν μένος, εἵλετο δ’ ὅπλα,
βροντήν τε στεροπήν τε καὶ αἰθαλόεντα κεραυνόν,
πλῆξεν ἀπ’ Οὐλύμποιο ἐπάλμενος· ἀμφὶ δὲ πάσας
ἔπρεσε θεσπεσίας κεφαλὰς δεινοῖο πελώρου.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δή μιν δάμασε πληγῇσιν ἱμάσσας,
ἤριπε γυιωθείς, στονάχιζε δὲ γαῖα πελώρη·
φλὸξ δὲ κεραυνωθέντος ἀπέσσυτο τοῖο ἄνακτος
οὔρεος ἐν βήσσῃσιν † ἀιδνῆς παιπαλοέσσης
πληγέντος, πολλὴ δὲ πελώρη καίετο γαῖα
αὐτμῇ θεσπεσίῃ, καὶ ἐτήκετο κασσίτερος ὣς
τέχνῃ ὑπ’ αἰζηῶν ἐν ἐυτρήτοις χοάνοισι
θαλφθείς, ἠὲ σίδηρος, ὅ περ κρατερώτατός ἐστιν,
οὔρεος ἐν βήσσῃσι δαμαζόμενος πυρὶ κηλέῳ
τήκεται ἐν χθονὶ δίῃ ὑφ’ ῾Ηφαίστου παλάμῃσιν·
ὣς ἄρα τήκετο γαῖα σέλαι πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο.
Here at the end of Hesiod’s Theogony, Zeus uses his overwhelming force and intelligence to face an existential challenge: the destructive potential of the universe contained within one figure, Typhoios (an elemental threat reflecting Zeus’ own surpassing power). Zeus brings order to the kosmos by subduing Typhoios and, in part thanks to this, gets to reign as king, father of gods and men. We don’t live in a poem of the gods; we can’t hope for myths to save our future. We need to do things now.
Or, we can just throw in with the reckless plutocrats and embrace that old Freudian death drive and keep on spending and burning until we’re all dead….
Anonymous, Greek Anthology, 7.704
“When I’m dead, the earth can be fucked by fire.
It means nothing to me since I’ll be totally fine.”
Ἐμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί·
οὐδὲν μέλει μοι· τἀμὰ γὰρ καλῶς ἔχει.
This is the voice that says only the now matters, that this quarter’s profits are more important than sustainability and justice, that today’s ends justify any kinds of means. Unsurprisingly, it is attributed to the Roman Emperors Tiberius and Nero:
Suda tau 552 [cribbing Dio Cassius]
“And Tiberius uttered that ancient phrase, “when I am dead, the earth can be fucked with fire”, and he used to bless Priam because he died with his country and his palace.”
τοῦτο δὲ τὸ ἀρχαῖον ἐφθέγξατο· ἐμοῦ θανόντος γαῖα μιχθήτω πυρί. καὶ τὸν Πρίαμον ἐμακάριζεν, ὅτι μετὰ τῆς πατρίδος καὶ τῆς βασιλείας ἀπώλετο.