The Shoot That Rises from the Fire

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.

Image result for australia fires

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.

Image result for australia fires

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.

The Shoot That Rises from the Fire: Some Herodotus and Homer for the Fires in Greece

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.

There are terrible wildfires in Attica, as many news outlets have reported (although in the US the events are incredibly under-reported). Our hearts are with our friends, colleagues, and everyone else affected by this. I will add to this post any suggestions for responsible charities to help with the suffering and the recovery. Words can do no justice to the suffering and loss in Attica this week.

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. 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 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.

For those who are able, let’s be the good neighbors the Greeks need right now. For the rest of us, let’s remember that 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.

Image taken from this site

From a Greek correspondent:

Image result for athens burning
From the Washington Post

More Human to Laugh than to Mourn?

There is just too much wrong in the world. I am not sure that Seneca helps. But here he is.

Seneca, de Tranquilitate Animi 15

“But it does no good to escape the causes of private sadness—for sometimes the hatred of humankind overwhelms us. When you consider how uncommon simplicity is, how innocence is unknown and trust is scarcely there unless it brings some advantage; or when you recognize so thick a crowd of successful crimes and the profits and losses of lust—both equally despicable—and an ambition that does not restrain itself within its own limits but even gains glory because of its wickedness—when you do this, the soul is driven into darkness and, just as if the meaning of the virtues were flipped and they can’t be hoped for nor is it advantageous to possess them, then the shadows hang over us.

At this moment, we must begin to believe that all the vices of the mob do not seem hateful but instead absurd; let us imitate Democritus rather than Heraclitus. The latter, indeed, whenever he braved the public, used to weep; but the former used to laugh. To the second, everything which we do seems miserable; to the first merely incompetent. We must, therefore, make everything lighter and carry it with an easy mind. It is more human to laugh at life than to mourn it.

Consider too that the one who laughs at humanity earns more from it than the one who laments it—for the first saves for himself some hope of good while the latter foolishly despairs that change is possible. When everything is considered, the person who does not restrain laughter seems to be of a greater spirit than the one who will not retain tears, and this is because laughter moves the slightest aspect of the mind and believes that nothing is great, nothing is severe, nor miserable either in the whole setup of life.

Let each person look directly at what the causes of happiness and sadness are personally and then let it be learned that what Bion said is true—all human business is similar to its beginning and human life is no more sacred or severe than its conception—that we return to nothing because from nothing we were born.”

Sed nihil prodest privatae tristitiae causas abiecisse; occupat enim nonnumquam odium generis humani. Cum cogitaveris, quam sit rara simplicitas et quam ignota innocentia et vix umquam, nisi cum expedit, fides, et occurrit tot scelerum felicium turbaet libidinis lucra damnaque pariter invisa et ambitio usque eo iam se suis non continens terminis, ut per turpitudinem splendeat: agitur animus in noctem et velut eversis virtutibus, quas nec sperare licet nec habere prodest, tenebrae oboriuntur. In hoc itaque flectendi sumus, ut omnia vulgi vitia non invisa nobis sed ridicula videantur et Democritum potius imitemur quam Heraclitum. Hic enim, quotiens in publicum processerat, flebat, ille ridebat; huic omnia quae agimus miseriae, illi ineptiae videbantur. Elevanda ergo omnia et facili animo ferenda; humanius est deridere vitam quam deplorare.

Adice quod de humano quoque genere melius meretur qui ridet illud quam qui luget; ille ei spei bonae aliquid relinquit, hic autem stulte deflet quae corrigi posse desperat. Et universa contemplanti maioris animi est qui risum non tenet quam qui lacrimas, quando lenissimum adfectum animi movet et nihil magnum, nihil severum, ne miserum quidem ex tanto paratu putat. Singula propter quae laeti ac tristes sumus sibi quisque proponat et sciet verum esse quod Bion dixit: omnia hominum negotia simillima initiis esse nec vitam illorum magis sanctam aut severam esse quam conceptum, in nihilum recidere denihilo natos.

Democritus by Agostino Carracci.

Madness to Grieve for One Who Cannot Grieve

Seneca, De Consolatione ad Polybium 9

“Do I grieve for myself or the one who died? If I grieve for me, this torment of emotion is useless and sorrow—excused only because it is honorable—begins to depart from duty when it aims for advantage. Nothing fits a good person less than to make grief for a brother an issue of calculation.

If I grieve on his account, then one of the following two judgments must be true. For, if the dead have no feeling at all, then my brother has escaped the misfortunes of life and has returned to that place where he was before he was born where he is free of every evil, he fears nothing, desires nothing, endures nothing. What madness this is to never stop grieving for someone who will never grieve again?”

“Utrumne meo nomine doleo an eius qui decessit? Si meo, perit indulgentiae iactatio et incipit dolor hoc uno excusatus, quod honestus est, cum ad utilitatem respicit, a pietate desciscere; nihil autem minus bono viro convenit quam in fratris luctu calculos ponere. Si illius nomine doleo, necesse est alterutrum ex his duobus esse iudicem. Nam si nullus defunctis sensus superest, evasit omnia frater meus vitae incommoda et in eum restitutus est locum, in quo fuerat antequam nasceretur, et expers omnis mali nihil timet, nihil cupit, nihil patitur. Quis iste furor est pro eo me numquam dolere desinere, qui numquam doliturus est?

 

Talking Heads, “This Must be The Place (Naive Melody)

“…There was a time before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I’ll be…”

 

Image result for Ancient Greek hero vase