The Infantile Mind: Pliny on Where Amber Comes From

Pliny, NH 37 40-42

“[Sophocles] has described how [amber] is made on the other side of India from the tears of the birds called the “daughters of Meleager” as they weep for Meleager. Who doesn’t wonder at the fact that he believed this or expected to convince others to do so. What mind is so infantile or foolish that it could believe that there are birds who weep every year and shed such large tears or that they left Greece where Meleager perished and went to weep for him in India?

What, then? Don’t the poets offer us many tales equally fantastic? Indeed they do, but when it comes to this substance, which is imported daily and fills the market revealing the poet’s lie, this is a grave offense to human intelligence and and unendurable misuse of our ability to lie.

It is known that amber comes from islands in the Northern Oceans and that the Germans call it glaesum and, as a result of this, one of the islands which the natives called Austeravia was named Glaesariam by us when Caesar Germanicus was on campaign there with his fleet [16 CE]. Amber is created, moreover, as the pitch of a particular type of pine drips down in the same way as gum from cherry trees or resin in local pines bursts out because of an excess of liquid.”

hic ultra Indiam fieri dixit e lacrimis meleagridum avium Meleagrum deflentium. quod credidisse eum aut sperasse aliis persuaderi posse quis non miretur? quamve pueritiam tam inperitam posse reperiri, quae avium ploratus annuos credat lacrimasve tam grandes avesve, quae a Graecia, ubi Meleager periit, ploratum adierint Indos? quid ergo? non multa aeque fabulosa produnt poetae? sed hoc in ea re, quae cotidie invehatur atque abundet ac mendacium coarguat, serio quemquam dixisse summa hominum contemptio est et intoleranda mendaciorum inpunitas.

Certum est gigni in insulis septentrionalis oceani et ab Germanis appellari glaesum, itaque et ab nostris ob id unam insularum Glaesariam appellatam, Germanico Caesare res ibi gerente classibus, Austeraviam a barbaris dictam. nascitur autem defluente medulla pinei generis arboribus, ut cummis in cerasis, resina in pinis erumpit umoris abundantia.

British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 10v

Werewolf Week Goes Roman: Pliny on Avoiding Lupine Eye Contact

Here is the rather famous account of Werewolves from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 8.34) (for the full text: see Perseus). The Latin text on Perseus is incorrect, but fortunately Lacus Curtius is there to save the day.

wolfboys

Pliny, NH 8.34 80-83

“But in Italy they also believe that the gaze of a wolf is harmful—specifically that it will take the voice from any man they see first. Africa and Egypt have wolves that are slow and small, while the colder climates produce fierce and wild animals. We ought to believe with certainty that accounts of men turning into wolves and then back to themselves again are false; or we should be prepared  to believe all the tales that are fantastic from as many generations.

Nevertheless, since the tale is popular enough that it has earned the curse-term “versepellis”, I will explain its origin. Euanthes, not unknown among Greek authors, reports that the Arcadians hold that a member of a family of a certain Anthus is selected by lot, transported to a certain lake in the region, and, after he hangs his clothes on an oak tree, he crosses the lake and enters the desert where he turns into a wolf and joins with others of his kind for nine years.

If he keeps himself from humans for this period of time, he returns to the same lake and once he has crossed it regains his form, except that nine years of age have accumulated. Fabius adds to this tale that he also regains his clothing. It is amazing how far Greek gullibility will go! There is no lie so shameful that it will lack partisans.

Similarly, the author Apollas who wrote the Olympionics, claims that Demaenetus of Parrhasia, when the Arcadians were still performing human sacrifices to Jupiter Lycaeus, sampled the entrails of a child who had been sacrificed, and transformed into a wolf. That same man transformed back 10 years later, became an athlete, and returned to the Olympic games as a victor.

It is also believed that there is a thin tip of hair on the tail of this animal which acts as an aphrodisiac—when the animal is caught, it has no force unless it is plucked while the animal is still alive.”

Sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens. inertes hos parvosque Africa et Aegyptus gignunt, asperos trucesque frigidior plaga. homines in lupos verti rursusque restitui sibi falsum esse confidenter existimare debemus aut credere omnia quae fabulosa tot saeculis conperimus. unde tamen ista vulgo infixa sit fama in tantum, ut in maledictis versipelles habeat, indicabitur.

Euanthes, inter auctores Graeciae non spretus, scribit Arcadas tradere ex gente Anthi cuiusdam sorte familiae lectum ad stagnum quoddam regionis eius duci vestituque in quercu suspenso tranare atque abire in deserta transfigurarique in lupum et cum ceteris eiusdem generis congregari per annos VIIII. quo in tempore si homine se abstinuerit, reverti ad idem stagnum et, cum tranaverit, effigiem recipere, ad pristinum habitum addito novem annorum senio. id quoque adicit, eandem recipere vestem.

mirum est quo procedat Graeca credulitas! nullum tam inpudens mendacium est, ut teste careat. item Apollas, qui Olympionicas scripsit, narrat Demaenetum Parrhasium in sacrificio, quod Arcades Iovi Lycaeo humana etiamtum hostia facebant, immolati pueri exta degustasse et in lupum se convertisse, eundem X anno restitutum athleticae se exercuisse in pugilatu victoremque Olympia reversum.

quin et caudae huius animalis creditur vulgo inesse amatorium virus exiguo in villo eumque, cum capiatur, abici nec idem pollere nisi viventi dereptum.

A Hydrophilic High: Aelian on the Effects of Medicinal Seahorse

Aelian, De Natura Animalium 14.20

“Some people who know a lot about fishing claim that the stomach of a sea-horse—if someone dissolves it in wine after boiling it and gives it to someone to drink—is an extraordinary potion combined with wine, when compared to other medicines. For, at first, the most severe retching overcomes anyone who drinks it and then a dry coughing fit takes over even though he vomits nothing at all, and then: the upper part of his stomach grows and swells; warm spells roll over his head; and, finally, snot pours from his nose and releases a fishy smell. Then his eyes turn blood-red and heated while his eye-lids swell up.

They claim that a desire to vomit overwhelms him but that he can bring nothing up. If nature wins, then he evades death and slips away into forgetfulness and insanity. But if the wine permeates his lower stomach, there is nothing to be done, and the individual dies eventually. Those who do survive, once they have wandered into insanity, are gripped by a great desire for water: they thirst to sea water and hear it splashing. And this, at least, soothes them and makes them sleep. Then they like to spend their time either by endlessly flowing rivers or near seashores or next to streams or some lakes. And even though they don’t want to drink, they love to swim, to put their feet in the water, and to wash their hands.”

  1. Λέγουσι δὲ ἄνδρες ἁλιείας ἐπιστήμονες, τὴν τοῦ ἱπποκάμπου γαστέρα εἴ τις ἐν οἴνῳ κατατήξειενἕψων καὶ τοῦτον δοίη τινὶ πιεῖν, φάρμακον εἶναι τὸν οἶνον ἄηθες ὡς πρὸς τὰ ἄλλα φάρμακα ἀντικρινόμενον· τὸν γάρ τοι πιόντα αὐτοῦ πρῶτον μὲν καταλαμβάνεσθαι λυγγὶ σφοδροτάτῃ, εἶτα βήττειν ξηρὰν βῆχα, καὶ στρεβλοῦσθαι μέν, ἀναπλεῖν δὲ αὐτῷ οὐδὲ ἕν, διογκοῦσθαι δὲ καὶ διοιδάνειν τὴν ἄνω γαστέρα, θερμά τε τῇ κεφαλῇ ἐπιπολάζειν ῥεύματα, καὶ διὰ τῆς ῥινὸς κατιέναι φλέγμα καὶ ἰχθυηρᾶς ὀσμῆς προσβάλλειν· τοὺς δὲ ὀφθαλμοὺς ὑφαίμους αὐτῷ γίνεσθαι καὶ πυρώδεις, τὰ βλέφαρα δὲ διογκοῦσθαι. ἐμέτων δὲ ἐπιθυμίαι ἐξάπτονταί φασιν, ἀναπλεῖ δὲ οὐδὲ ἕν. εἰ δὲ ἐκνικήσειεν ἡ φύσις, τὸν μὲν <τὸ> ἐς θάνατον σφαλερὸν παριέναι, ἐς λήθην δὲ ὑπολισθαίνειν καὶ παράνοιαν. ἐὰν δὲ ἐς τὴν κάτω γαστέρα διολίσθῃ, μηδὲν ἔτι εἶναι, πάντως δὲ ἀποθνήσκειν τὸν ἑαλωκότα. οἱ δὲ περιγενόμενοι ἐς παράνοια ἐξοκείλαντες ὕδατος ἱμέρῳ πολλῷ καταλαμβάνονται, καὶ ὁρᾶν διψῶσιν ὕδωρ καὶ ἀκούειν λειβομένου· καὶ τοῦτό γε αὐτοὺς καταβαυκαλᾷ καὶ κατευνάζει. καὶ διατρίβειν φιλοῦσιν ἢ παρὰ τοῖς ἀενάοις ποταμοῖς ἢ αἰγιαλῶν πλησίον ἢ παρὰ κρήναις ἢ λίμναις τισί, καὶ πιεῖν μὲν οὐ πάνυ <τι>7 γλίχονται, ἐρῶσι δὲ νήχεσθαι καὶ τέγγειν τὼ πόδε ἢ ἀπονίπτειν τὼ χεῖρε.

 

Related image

This is not a suggestion for experimentation over the long weekend. Drugs, as the Odyssey warns, might make you forget your homecoming

Chameleon Tales from Pliny

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.12

 

12 Concerning the miraculous tales which Pliny the Elder ascribes most unworthily to the philosopher Democritus; and also about the image of a flying dove

 

In the twenty-eighth book of his Natural Histories, Pliny the Elder reports that there was a book by the most noble Philosopher Democritus On the Power and Nature of the Chameleon and that he had read it himself. He ascribes to it many silly and ridiculous things, allegedly written by Democritus—a few of which I remember, unwillingly, since they are so repulsive. For instance, that Democritus claimed that a hawk, the fastest of all birds, if he flies over a chameleon by chance, is suddenly dragged to the ground by a chameleon crawling below it and that after it comes down by some force offers itself willingly on the ground to be taken and torn to pieces by other birds!

Another thing that is beyond all human belief: if the head and neck of a chameleon is burned with the wood which we call oak, rain and thunder occur suddenly; the same thing, allegedly, happens if that animal is burned on the top of a house. There is still another tale which, by Hercules, I doubted that I should include since it is so absurd. But I have decided clearly that it is necessary that we speak what we think about the false incitements that come from this type of wonder—the types of things by which many sharp minds—indeed, those which are most desirous of knowledge—are often possessed and which lead them especially to ruin. But I return to Pliny. He says to roast the chameleon’s left foot with iron heated in a fire along with a herb  which bears the same name (“chameleon”), and to mix both into an ointment and to rub it into paste and place it in a wooden container. Whoever carries that, even if he is in the middle of a crowd, can be seen by no one.”

chameleon

12De portentis fabularum, quae Plinius Secundus indignissime in Democritum philosophum confert; ibidem de simulacro volucri columbae.

 

1 Librum esse Democriti, nobilissimi philosophorum, de vi et natura chamaeleontis eumque se legisse Plinius Secundus in naturalis historiae vicesimo octavo refert multaque vana atque intoleranda auribus deinde quasi a Democrito scripta tradit, ex quibus pauca haec inviti meminimus, quia pertaesum est: 2 accipitrem avium rapidissimum a chamaeleonte humi reptante, si eum forte supervolet, detrahi et cadere vi quadam in terram ceterisque avibus laniandum sponte sua obicere sese et dedere. 3 Item aliud ultra humanam fidem: caput et collum chamaeleontis si uratur ligno, quod appellatur “robur”, imbres et tonitrus fieri derepente, idque ipsum usu venire, si iecur eiusdem animalis in summis tegulis uratur. 4 Item aliud, quod hercle an ponerem dubitavi, – ita est deridiculae vanitatis – nisi idcirco plane posui, quod oportuit nos dicere, quid de istiusmodi admirationum fallaci inlecebra sentiremus, qua plerumque capiuntur et ad perniciem elabuntur ingenia maxime sollertia eaque potissimum, quae discendi cupidiora sunt. 5 Sed redeo ad Plinium. Sinistrum pedem ait chamaeleontis ferro ex igni calefacto torreri cum herba, quae appellatur eodem nomine chamaeleontis, et utrumque macerari unguento conligique in modum pastilli atque in vas mitti ligneum et eum, qui id vas ferat, etiamsi is in medio palam versetur, a nullo videri posse.

Don’t Let a Wolf See You First! Pliny the Elder on Superstition and Lycanthropy

It seems that this week of Halloween is turning into Werewolf week for me. To be honest, while doing esoteric things like folding laundry, I have been watching the Netflix show Hemlock Grove (which has recently been described as “bad and strange”). Its werewolf has made me think back to lycanthropy in Greek and Roman myth. I started with Plato and Petronius yesterday.

Today, we have the rather famous account from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 8.34) (for the full text: see Perseus). The Latin text on Perseus is incorrect, but fortunately Lacus Curtius is there to save the day.

Pliny, NH 8.34 80-83

“But it Italy they also believe that the gaze of a wolf is harmful—specifically that it will take the voice from any man they see first. Africa and Egypt have wolves that are slow and small, while the colder climates produce fierce and wild animals. We ought to believe with certainty that accounts of men turning into wolves and then back to themselves again are false; or we should be prepared  to believe all the tales that are fantastic from as many generations.

Nevertheless, since the tale is popular enough that it has earned the curse-term “versepellis”, I will explain its origin. Euanthes, not unknown among Greek authors, reports that the Arcadians hold that a member of a family of a certain Anthus is selected by lot, transported to a certain lake in the region, and, after he hangs his clothes on an oak tree, he crosses the lake and enters the desert where he turns into a wolf and joins with others of his kind for nine years.

If he keeps himself from humans for this period of time, he returns to the same lake and once he has crossed it regains his form, except that nine years of age have accumulated. Fabius adds to this tale that he also regains his clothing. It is amazing how far Greek gullibility will go! There is no lie so shameful that it will lack partisans.

Similarly, the author Apollas who wrote the Olympionics, claims that Demaenetus of Parrhasia, when they Arcadians were still performing human sacrifices to Jupiter Lycaeus, sampled the entrails of a child who had been sacrificed, and transformed into a wolf. That same man transformed back 10 years later, became an athlete, and returned to the Olympic games as a victor.

It is also believed that there is a thin tip of hair on the tail of this animal which acts as an aphrodisiac—when the animal is caught, it has no force unless it is plucked while the animal is still alive.

Sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens. inertes hos parvosque Africa et Aegyptus gignunt, asperos trucesque frigidior plaga. homines in lupos verti rursusque restitui sibi falsum esse confidenter existimare debemus aut credere omnia quae fabulosa tot saeculis conperimus. unde tamen ista vulgo infixa sit fama in tantum, ut in maledictis versipelles habeat, indicabitur.

Euanthes, inter auctores Graeciae non spretus, scribit Arcadas tradere ex gente Anthi cuiusdam sorte familiae lectum ad stagnum quoddam regionis eius duci vestituque in quercu suspenso tranare atque abire in deserta transfigurarique in lupum et cum ceteris eiusdem generis congregari per annos VIIII. quo in tempore si homine se abstinuerit, reverti ad idem stagnum et, cum tranaverit, effigiem recipere, ad pristinum habitum addito novem annorum senio. id quoque adicit, eandem recipere vestem.

mirum est quo procedat Graeca credulitas! nullum tam inpudens mendacium est, ut teste careat. item Apollas, qui Olympionicas scripsit, narrat Demaenetum Parrhasium in sacrificio, quod Arcades Iovi Lycaeo humana etiamtum hostia facebant, immolati pueri exta degustasse et in lupum se convertisse, eundem X anno restitutum athleticae se exercuisse in pugilatu victoremque Olympia reversum.

quin et caudae huius animalis creditur vulgo inesse amatorium virus exiguo in villo eumque, cum capiatur, abici nec idem pollere nisi viventi dereptum.

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