Far Better People than You Have Died (Lucretius and Homer)

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 3.1034-1053

“You may on occasion say this to yourself:
Noble Ancus* loosed the light from his eyes,
A man who was better than imperfect you in many ways.
And from there, many other kings and luminaries
Died too, men who ruled over great nations.
That very man* who once laid a great road across a vast sea
To provide a path for his armies upon the deep
And taught them to dance across the crescent salt
As he pranced with his horses and dismissed the sea’s roar—
He poured out his soul when his body died and he was robbed of the light.
Clan Scipio’s son, the bolt of war, the scourge of Carthage,
Gave his bones to the earth just as a humble servant would.
Add to these men the inventors of theories and beauty,
Add as well the friends of the Muses whose single Homer,
the sceptered lord, has been quieted in sleep like the rest.
Democritus, too, when advanced age finally warned him
That the moving memories of his mind were fading,
He freely offered his own head to his end.
Epicurus as well departed when the light of his life ran its course,
He surpassed the race of man with his genius, who overshown
The light of all men the way the sun washes out the stars—
And now you will hesitate and be angry to die?
You whose life is already nearly dead, though you live and see,
You who squander the greater part of life in sleep
And snore wide-awake, never breaking from seeing dreams,
As you carry a mind tortured by empty fear.
You can’t figure out what ails you, you poor drunk,
When you are oppressed by so many anxieties everywhere
As you wander adrift on the uncertain compulsions of your mind.”

Hoc etiam tibi tute interdum dicere possis.
‘lumina sis oculis etiam bonus Ancus reliquit,
qui melior multis quam tu fuit, improbe, rebus.
inde alii multi reges rerumque potentes
occiderunt, magnis qui gentibus imperitarunt.
ille quoque ipse, viam qui quondam per mare magnum
stravit iterque dedit legionibus ire per altum
ac pedibus salsas docuit super ire lucunas
et contempsit equis insultans murmura ponti,
lumine adempto animam moribundo corpore fudit.
Scipiadas, belli fulmen, Carthaginis horror,
ossa dedit terrae proinde ac famul infimus esset.
adde repertores doctrinarum atque leporum,
adde Heliconiadum comites; quorum unus Homerus
sceptra potitus eadem aliis sopitus quietest.
denique Democritum post quam matura vetustas
admonuit memores motus languescere mentis,
sponte sua leto caput obvius optulit ipse.
ipse Epicurus obit decurso lumine vitae,
qui genus humanum ingenio superavit et omnis
restinxit stellas exortus ut aetherius sol.
tu vero dubitabis et indignabere obire?
mortua cui vita est prope iam vivo atque videnti,
qui somno partem maiorem conteris aevi,
et viligans stertis nec somnia cernere cessas
sollicitamque geris cassa formidine mentem
nec reperire potes tibi quid sit saepe mali, cum
ebrius urgeris multis miser undique curis
atque animo incerto fluitans errore vagaris.’

This passage reminds me in part of Achilles’ famous vaunt to Lykaon (a man he had previously ransomed) in the Iliad (21.106-113)

“But you die too, friend. Really, why are you grieving thus?
Patroklos also died, and he was much better than you.
Don’t you see how handsome and large I am?
I come from a noble father and a goddess mother bore me—
But, even now, death and compelling fate await me.
The time will come at dawn, dusk, or the middle of the day
When someone rips the life even from me with Ares’ power
As he strikes with a spear or an arrow from its string.”

ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ· τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;
πατρὸς δ’ εἴμ’ ἀγαθοῖο, θεὰ δέ με γείνατο μήτηρ·
ἀλλ’ ἔπι τοι καὶ ἐμοὶ θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιή·
ἔσσεται ἢ ἠὼς ἢ δείλη ἢ μέσον ἦμαρ
ὁππότε τις καὶ ἐμεῖο ῎Αρῃ ἐκ θυμὸν ἕληται
ἢ ὅ γε δουρὶ βαλὼν ἢ ἀπὸ νευρῆφιν ὀϊστῷ.

 

*Ancus was the fourth king of Rome

*Xerxes (who built pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to bring an army into Greece c. 480 BCE)

 

Post-Script: I can’t really say that either passages offer much solace to me. It is a given that everyone dies, true, but however unimpressive I am, it still seems absurd at all to exist rather than not exist. To close the circle by ending it seems, even if appropriate, equally absurd.  I’m with Dylan Thomas, I fear, raging….

Werewolf Wednesday: Pausanias on Lykaon and Lycanthropy

In the second century CE, Pausanias composed ten books on the sights and wonders of ancient Greece. His text provides some of the only accounts of architecture, art and culture that have been lost in intervening centuries.  In his eighth book, he turns to Arcadia and starts by discussing the rituals performed in honor of Lykian Zeus.

The story, mentioned by Plato too, is one of those ‘original sin’ tales from Greek myth–like the story of Tantalos and Pelops, it hearkens back to a golden age when gods and men hung out together. Its details about werewolves are similar to those offered by Pliny (especially the 9-10 year period as a wolf).

Hendrik Goltzius' 1589 engraving of Lycaon
Hendrik Goltzius’ 1589 engraving of Lycaon

Pausanias, 8.2.3-7

“Cecrops was the first to declare Zeus the Highest god and he thought it wrong to sacrifice anything that breathed, so he burned on the altar the local cakes which the Athenians call pelanoi even today. But Lykaon brought a human infant to the altar of Lykaian Zeus, sacrificed it, spread its blood on the altar, and then, according to the tale, turned immediately from a man into a wolf.

This tale convinces me for the following reasons: it has circulated among the Arcadians since antiquity and it also seems probable. For in those days men were guests and tablemates of the gods because of their just behavior and reverence. Those who were good received honor openly from the gods; divine rage fell upon the unjust—then, truly, gods were created from men, gods who have rites even today such as Aristaios, Britomartis the Cretan, Herakles the son of Alkmene, Amphiaros the son of Oicles and, finally, Kastor and Polydeukes.

For this reason we should entertain that Lykaon was turned into a beast and that Niobe became a stone. In our time, when wickedness has swelled to its greatest size and looms over every land and city, no god can come from men, except in the blandishment offered to rulers. Today, divine rage lies in wait for the wicked when they leave for the lower world.

In every age many ancient events—and even those that are current—end up disbelieved because of those who create lies by using the truth. Men report that since the time of Lykaon a man always transforms from a human into a wolf at the sacrifice of Lykaian Zeus, but that he doesn’t remain a wolf his whole life.  Whenever someone turns into a wolf, if he refrains from human flesh, people say he can become a man again ten years later. But if he does taste it, he will always remain a beast.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ Δία τε ὠνόμασεν ῞Υπατον πρῶτος, καὶ ὁπόσα ἔχει ψυχήν, τούτων μὲν ἠξίωσεν οὐδὲν θῦσαι, πέμματα δὲ ἐπιχώρια ἐπὶ τοῦ βωμοῦ καθήγισεν, ἃ πελάνους καλοῦσιν ἔτι καὶ ἐς  ἡμᾶς ᾿Αθηναῖοι· Λυκάων δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν βωμὸν τοῦ Λυκαίου Διὸς βρέφος ἤνεγκεν ἀνθρώπου καὶ ἔθυσε τὸ βρέφος καὶ ἔσπεισεν ἐπὶ τοῦ βωμοῦ τὸ αἷμα, καὶ αὐτὸν αὐτίκα ἐπὶ τῇ θυσίᾳ γενέσθαι λύκον φασὶν ἀντὶ ἀνθρώπου.

καὶ ἐμέ γε ὁ λόγος οὗτος πείθει, λέγεται δὲ ὑπὸ ᾿Αρκάδων ἐκ παλαιοῦ, καὶ τὸ εἰκὸς αὐτῷ πρόσεστιν. οἱ γὰρ δὴ τότε ἄνθρωποι ξένοι καὶ ὁμοτράπεζοι θεοῖς ἦσαν ὑπὸ δικαιοσύνης καὶ εὐσεβείας, καί σφισιν ἐναργῶς ἀπήντα παρὰ τῶν θεῶν τιμή τε οὖσιν ἀγαθοῖς καὶ ἀδικήσασιν ὡσαύτως ἡ ὀργή, ἐπεί τοι καὶ θεοὶ τότε ἐγίνοντο ἐξ ἀνθρώπων, οἳ γέρα καὶ ἐς τόδε ἔτι ἔχουσιν ὡς ᾿Αρισταῖος καὶ Βριτόμαρτις ἡ Κρητικὴ καὶ ῾Ηρακλῆς ὁ ᾿Αλκμήνης καὶ ᾿Αμφιάραος ὁ ᾿Οικλέους, ἐπὶ δὲ αὐτοῖς Πολυδεύκης τε καὶ Κάστωρ.

οὕτω πείθοιτο ἄν τις καὶ Λυκάονα θηρίον καὶ τὴν Ταντάλου Νιόβην γενέσθαι λίθον. ἐπ’ ἐμοῦ δὲ—κακία γὰρ δὴ ἐπὶ πλεῖστον ηὔξετο καὶ γῆν τε ἐπενέμετο πᾶσαν καὶ πόλεις πάσας—οὔτε θεὸς ἐγίνετο οὐδεὶς ἔτι ἐξ ἀνθρώπου, πλὴν ὅσον λόγῳ καὶ κολακείᾳ πρὸς τὸ ὑπερέχον, καὶ ἀδίκοις τὸ μήνιμα τὸ ἐκ τῶν θεῶν ὀψέ τε καὶ ἀπελθοῦσιν ἐνθένδε ἀπόκειται. ἐν δὲ τῷ παντὶ αἰῶνι πολλὰ μὲν πάλαι συμβάντα, <τὰ> δὲ καὶ ἔτι γινόμενα ἄπιστα εἶναι πεποιήκασιν ἐς τοὺς πολλοὺς οἱ τοῖς ἀληθέσιν ἐποικοδομοῦντες ἐψευσμένα. λέγουσι γὰρ δὴ ὡς Λυκάονος ὕστερον ἀεί τις ἐξ ἀνθρώπου λύκος γίνοιτο ἐπὶ τῇ θυσίᾳ τοῦ Λυκαίου Διός, γίνοιτο δὲ οὐκ ἐς ἅπαντα τὸν βίον· ὁπότε δὲ εἴη λύκος, εἰ μὲν κρεῶν ἀπόσχοιτο ἀνθρωπίνων, ὕστερον ἔτει δεκάτῳ  φασὶν αὐτὸν αὖθις ἄνθρωπον ἐκ λύκου γίνεσθαι, γευσάμενον δὲ ἐς ἀεὶ μένειν θηρίον.