On the continuity of laughing at other people’s misfortunes

Some fun with Aristophanes

One fifth-century BC Athenian, the stereotypically uneducated and crude Strepsiades in Aristophanes’ Clouds, has a good laugh at poor Socrates when a gecko poos into his open mouth (Clouds 171-174):

Student:

While he was investigating the paths and revolutions of the moon, mouth gaping, looking up, a gecko shat on him from the roof during the night

ζητοῦντος αὐτοῦ τῆς σελήνης τὰς ὁδους
καὶ τὰς περιφοράς, εἶτ᾽ ἄνω κεχηνότος
ἀπὸ τῆς ὀροφῆς νύκτωρ γαλεώτης κατέχεσεν.

Strepsiades:

I do like a gecko shitting on Socrates
ἥσθην γαλεώτῃ καταχέσαντι Σωκράτους

We know Strepsiades finds this hilarious because he tells us he does, echoing in his response the words used by the Student, and employed a tabooed term for excrement in Greek, chezō/χέζω, ‘shit’. We can reasonably assume that at least some of Aristophanes’ audience might also have lined up with Strepsiades in having a laugh at the philosopher’s expense, whether or not they would have admitted it.

Serious Poo

Lysistrata compares the purging of the city state to combing bits of poo from wool (Aristophanes, Lysistrata 574-5), using one of the many words for different types of animal dung which are recorded – dung with which the everyday inhabitant of the ancient world was much more familiar:

First of all, like washing out a fleece, one must wash the sheep droppings (oispōtē) out of the city in a bath

πρῶτον μὲν ἐχρῆν, ὥσπερ πόκον, ἐν βαλανείῳ
ἐκπλύναντας τὴν οἰσπώτην ἐκ τῆς πόλεως

In contrast to Socrates’ encounter with the gecko, it is important to note that even though this is in Aristophanes, there is likely nothing amusing about the scene: politicians may be being tacitly compared to dried-on sheep poo, but if there is mockery intended here, it’s of Lysistrata’s feminine homespun-wisdom which she tries to apply to the affairs of democratic state.

Amy Coker has a PhD in Classics from the University of Manchester, UK. She taught and held research positions in University-land for the best part of a decade after her PhD, before jumping ship to school teaching (11-18 year olds) in 2018. She still manages to find time to think and write about Ancient Greek offensive words, pragmatics, and historical linguistics. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.

A large coprolite (fossilized feces) from South Carolina, USA.

Doctors, Don’t Gossip!

Hippocrates, On Decorum 7

“Everything that’s been said already is true: a doctor needs to have a certain appropriate manner, since austerity is offensive to the healthy and sick alike. Doctors should also watch themselves carefully and avoid revealing too much that is personal and gossiping with regular people, saying only what is needed.

Realize that gossip invites criticism of treatment. Doctors should do nothing that seems too fussy or showy. Figure out everything you need to do or use beforehand for each situation. If you don’t, something will always be missing when it is needed.”

VII. Ὄντων οὖν τοιούτων τῶν προειρημένων ἁπάντων, χρὴ τὸν ἰητρὸν ἔχειν τινὰ εὐτραπελίην παρακειμένην· τὸ γὰρ αὐστηρὸν δυσπρόσιτον καὶ τοῖσιν ὑγιαίνουσι καὶ τοῖσι νοσέουσιν. τηρεῖν δὲ χρὴ ἑωυτὸν ὅτι μάλιστα, μὴ πολλὰ φαίνοντα τῶν τοῦ σώματος μερέων, μηδὲ πολλὰ λεσχηνευόμενον τοῖσιν ἰδιώτῃσιν, ἀλλὰ τἀναγκαῖα· †νομίζει γὰρ τοῦτο βίη εἶναι ἐς πρόσκλησιν θεραπηίης.†2 ποιεῖν δὲ κάρτα μηδὲν περιέργως αὐτῶν, μηδὲ 10μετὰ φαντασίης· ἐσκέφθω δὲ ταῦτα πάντα, ὅκως ᾖ σοι προκατηρτισμένα ἐς τὴν εὐπορίην, ὡς δέοι· εἰ δὲ μή, ἐπὶ τοῦ χρέους ἀπορεῖν αἰεὶ δεῖ.

File:Illustration of medieval Arab doctor treating a patient by cauterizing a wound.jpeg
Illustration of medieval doctor treating a patient by cauterizing a wound. http://images.google.com/hosted/life/7629a77e9a19b656.html

Argo Navis & the Abolished Constellations

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Møenlight Sonata’, curated by René Block. Kunsthal 44Møen, Møen, Denmark, 2018. Courtesy Galerie Volker Diehl.

For B.Y. & A.Y., the star hunters.

Homer, Odyssey, XII, 69-72

οἴη δὴ κείνη γε παρέπλω ποντοπόρος νηῦς,
Ἀργὼ πᾶσι μέλουσα, παρ᾽ Αἰήταο πλέουσα.
καὶ νύ κε τὴν ἔνθ᾽ ὦκα βάλεν μεγάλας ποτὶ πέτρας,
ἀλλ᾽ Ἥρη παρέπεμψεν, ἐπεὶ φίλος ἦεν Ἰήσων.

Only the famous Argo sailed through there
Returning from the visit with Aeetes.
The current hurdled the ship towards the rocks,
But Hera, who loved Jason, led them safe.

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica I, 109-114

αὐτή μιν Τριτωνὶς ἀριστήων ἐς ὅμιλον
ὦρσεν Ἀθηναίη, μετὰ δ᾽ ἤλυθεν ἐλδομένοισιν.
αὐτὴ γὰρ καὶ νῆα θοὴν κάμε: σὺν δέ οἱ Ἄργος
τεῦξεν Ἀρεστορίδης κείνης ὑποθημοσύνῃσιν.
τῶ καὶ πασάων προφερεστάτη ἔπλετο νηῶν,
ὅσσαι ὑπ᾽ εἰρεσίῃσιν ἐπειρήσαντο θαλάσσης.

Tritonian Athena herself urged him to join the band of chiefs,
And he came among them a welcome comrade.
She herself too fashioned the swift ship;
And with her Argus, son of Arestor, wrought it by her counsels.
Wherefore it proved the most excellent of all ships,
That have made trial of the sea with oars.

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

Who invented the sky? The only way to answer this question would be like this — the first person who looked up and wondered. Socrates tells us in Plato’s Theaetetus (Plat. Theaet. 155d), μάλα γὰρ φιλοσόφου τοῦτο τὸ πάθος, τὸ θαυμάζειν: οὐ γὰρ ἄλλη ἀρχὴ φιλοσοφίας ἢ αὕτη, καὶ ἔοικεν ὁ τὴν Ἶριν Θαύμαντος ἔκγονον φήσας οὐ κακῶς γενεαλογεῖν, namely: “For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy, and he who said that Iris was the child of Thaumas made a good genealogy.” Iris was a messenger of the heavens, so the sky was never too far away for those who wonder. But philosophy arrives too late, and we’re looking at an earlier world, populated with gods, heroes and stars; a world that had already eclipsed in Plato’s time. Was it perhaps at the end of the Ice Age when the brain cortex of the first modern humans began articulating symbolic orders?

An answer is impossible to come by, but the stars in the sky have lived with us for a long time, and we could never unsee them. That is, paradoxically, until the modern age, when, after thousands of years of dreams and wonders, we launched ourselves into space, in an attempt to escape from the condition of being human. Out there we realized to our despair (and our newly discovered indifference too) that there was no such a thing as the sky; this was no transcendental space or a place at all, but rather, everything that is above the surface of the earth, a combination of atmospheric layers and the infinite void. The infinite is not even an adequate concept, for the physical concept of time has no relevance for the individual person, and no use except in space physics. With the conquest of heaven, a direct consequence of the space and arms race, the sky went dimmer, if not altogether silent. Yet the void remains. 

But the history of the void, with its now missing stars and constellations, is not a history of physics, as much as a story of our puzzling earthly odyssey, as astronomer John C. Barentine tells us: “However old the constellations, it is safe to conclude that they have long journeyed with us on our path to becoming human.” Constellations are some of the oldest cultural inventions of humans, predating writing and social organization (what once was called civilization). Barentine continues: “The presumably oldest figures in existence, such as the Hunter and the Bull, refer to a time in human  history before the emergence of settled agricultural communities. It is probably no coincidence that Orion and Taurus reflect themes in the oldest extant works of art: the human form and game animals.” Already at the time of the Neolithic revolution, 12,000 years ago, understanding cues in the sky about the seasonal calendar was crucial to the survival of early humans. 

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

Our oldest accounts of constellations and stars date back to the Middle Bronze Age and the list of Sumerian names suggest they were drawn from an earlier source. In the Mesopotamian text “Prayer to the Gods of the Night” (1700 BC), we hear of the Arrow (the star Sirius), the Yoke (the star Arcturus), the Stars (the Pleiades star cluster), or the True Shepherd of Anu (Orion). Think about the long journey of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, known to Homer as the autumn star (Hom. Il. 5.1-5), and to Egyptians and Greeks as the “Dog star”. Its heliacal rise, connected with an extremely hot season at the end of summer, was known not only to Homer and Hesiod but to Aeschylus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Theognis, Eratosthenes, Nonnus and the folk tales about the star and its hot season survive as late as Anna Komnene’s Alexiad in the Byzantine period. Located in the constellation Canis Major, Sirius is still visible to the naked eye.

In the Shield of Achilles (Hom. Il. 18.478-608), provided by Hephaestus in the Iliad, and the first example of ekphrasis, Homer describes in its first layer, a number of constellations: Orion and the Bear, the star clusters of the Pleiades and the Hyades. A telling star-struck passage in the ekphrasis, ἥ τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει (Hom. Il. 18-488), “She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion”, reappears in identical form in the Odyssey in a crucial moment, when the nymph Calypso is sending Odysseus from the island of Ogygia, and instructs him to keep on the left side the constellation of the Bear (Hom. Od. 5.270-277), without specifying whether he meant the Little Bear or the Great Bear, in what is the only passage in the epic that refers to stellar navigation. For seventeen days he sailed over the sea, and then on the eighteenth day the land of the Phaeacians appeared nearest to him.

Most of the constellations referred to in these passages have come down to us in Ptolemy’s Almagest, and survived unchallenged for some fourteen centuries, as the cosmological model underwent certain revisions (the geocentric model is of course completely debased, but the Homeric cosmology of the earth as a flat disk surrounded by an ocean and in between two layers of stars, is surprisingly similar to the current model of the Milky Way). The birth of the contemporary sky that begins with the Copernican revolution and ends with Trevor Paglen’s “The Last Pictures” (the sky as a junkyard of dead satellites), arrived also with discoveries of new stars and constellations, adding up to the 48 Ptolemaic constellations. But constellations are not discovered, they’re imaginary bodies. Ptolemy missed an entire quarter of the sky, and this information could only be added during the colonial voyages in the 16th century.

Our current knowledge of astrophysics insists on the standardization of stars and constellations for the sake of the photographic process, but in fact, tells us that not only are constellations imaginary, but they also serve no purpose whatsoever in astronomy. Why do we insist then on the star map? Russian painter Alexandra Paperno turned to the star maps at the beginning of her career in the early 2000s, not necessarily out of an interest in the vast cosmic space and our perception of the structure of the universe, but from a vantage point that resembles more an architecture of first principles, with primary and secondary qualities: What are pictorial spaces? What is an empty space? What are spaces generally? Living as we are, in a moment largely defined by hyper-metaphors of time such as acceleration, apocalypse and the instant, our relationship to space is tawdry and unimaginative; space is a site of incarceration.

Alexandra Paperno. Argo Navis (from ‘Abolished Constellations’ series), 2016. Ink on paper, 76×56 cm

But our living spaces have little to do with the Aristotelian metaphors of place around the line and the point, or the fixed abode or point of origin in the myth: Our spaces are devoured by multiple overlapping temporalities, and are embedded in a percolation of spatiotemporal continuity, like a crumpled handkerchief, to use a metaphor of Michel Serres, out of which a viscous substance oozes out that contains the present as debris. In the Star Maps (2003-2005), Paperno captures what Petrus Schaesberg called the misty uncertainty of the sky, following two central interrelated ideas: First, the scant appearance of the starry sky in the history of representation of space in general as we have received it from Western painting, and secondly, the Kantian notion of the sublime, as an aesthetic category beyond the senses. The modern pictorial space resembles the stellar void: It’s unarticulated, ambiguous but never absent.

During Paperno’s research on star maps, the realization that different astronomical atlases and maps contained different constellations in the early modern period, and a curious art historical reference, the minor constellations Sculptor and Pictor (included in the Star Maps), discovered by French astronomer Abbé Nicholas Louis de Lacaille in the 1750s, and located in the southern hemisphere, led to an amazing revelation: As astronomical societies were being modernized throughout the Western world, in 1922, the modern map of 88 constellations was adopted (it was agreed that no more constellations would be added) and then more than 50 constellations, some dating back to antiquity, but for the most part coined by American and European astronomers mapping the southern skies, were abolished for a variety of reasons. Some of these were considered inaccurate, ambiguous, too faint, or too large. Looking at earlier star maps, the Russian painter carefully recomposed the fifty-one constellations as single wooden panels (also executed on paper in a different iteration).    

Many of these constellations are unfamiliar to us, with their Latin names, such as “Gladii Electorales Saxonici” (Crossed swords of the Electorate of Saxony, d. 1684, by Gottfried Kirch), “Machina Electrica” or “Officina Typographica” (Electricity Generator and Printshop, d. 1800 and 1801, by Johann Elert Bode), but the style of christening the stars gives us a lot of information about the ambitions of the Enlightenment era and the scientific revolutions. At the heart of Paperno’s project, however, there’s no stars as an object of contemplation but a void of knowledge and consciousness: How would it be possible to abolish something that in fact never existed? An international bureaucracy of knowledge dethroned an imaginary which, however impractical for modern science, was richly embedded in the fabric of our historicity, and the beginning of wonder, from an era when we began to search our yet unfinished destiny on earth. 

Although the sky, or rather, the void, is alive and not static (our galaxy is not necessarily too privileged a location for sighting stars, being too far away from the center of star formations, a place where life would be impossible), all the Ptolemaic constellations survived into the modern map, with the exception of one: “Argo Novis”, known since early antiquity under different names. It was considered unwieldy by science as De Lacaille explained in 1763, from his observation point in Cape Town, South Africa (there he asserted the position of nearly 10,000 stars), that there were more than a hundred and sixty stars in it, and it was initially broken into three different constellations Carina, Pupis, and Vela; Pyxis Nautica was added later. The Argo Novis was not abolished, but dismantled. Yet the history of the constellation and its accompanying myth (we are unable to ascertain which came first), dates back to the earliest era of transmissions and transformations in the Near East.  

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

A discoverer of constellations himself, Johann Elert Bode tells us in 1801: “This figure commemorates the famous ship of antiquity, which was built according to legend at the command of Minerva and Neptune in Thessaly from Argo, and it is that which the Greek hero Jason and the Argonauts used to collect the Golden Fleece from the place of the eastern shore of the Black Sea known as Colchis.” Argo Navis as a constellation appears first in a list by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the 4th century BC, and the ship was known to the author of the Odyssey. In a passage concerning the witchlike goddess Circe (Hom. Od. 12.69-72), as she is giving Odysseus instructions for his return voyage, she explains that the Sirens are located between Scylla and Charbydis, adding that there is only one seafaring ship that has ever passed through, and that is the Argo, with the intervention of Hera, who loved the argonaut Jason.

[For further details on the episode of the Sirens, see my “Archipelagos of Time: On the Song of the Sirens”

The ship was thought to be a variety of galley, an oceangoing craft with a shallow draft, low profile and long narrow hull (Barentine), and according to Eratosthenes, the constellation represented the first ship to sail the ocean, long before Jason’s time. A myth of the construction of the ship was relayed by Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica, claiming that its builder was Argus, under the supervision of Athena (Apollon. 1.109-114). The Argonautica, composed in the 3rd century AD, is the only surviving epic poem of the Hellenistic era, incorporating Apollonius Rhodius’ research into geography, Homeric literature and Greek ethnography. Its most enduring innovation upon the Greek epic is the possibility of love between a hero and a heroine, exemplified in the vivacious story of Jason and Medea, but the story was well known in a much earlier period, and the myth of the Argonauts underlies the Homeric epic as a memory source. 

Jason’s father Aeson was removed from the throne by his brother Pelias, and Jason was then entrusted to the centaur Chiron. After his upbringing with the centaur, and learning of his true story, Jason set for Iolcus, and upon confronting Pelias, the king devised for him the toil of an impossibly difficult voyage, in order that he might lose his home-return among strangers or at sea, with a mission to find the Golden Fleece. Jason visited Hera at Dodona, and with her help, Athena would have the ship built from pine trees grown on Mount Pelion, and he assembled a crew with as many heroes as he could find, known as the Argonauts. At last they reached Colchis and presented their demand to King Aetes, but unwilling to part with his most prized possession, the king declared Jason would have to catch and subdue two fire-breathing bulls dedicated to Hephaestus and use the bulls to plow a stony field sacred to Ares. 

Alexandra Paperno, Pictor, (from the Star Maps Series), 2003, mixed media on canvas, 150×120 cm

But there would be more: He would have to sow the field with dragon’s teeth and then slay the army of giants that would rise. Finally, after defeating the guardian dragon, the Fleece would be his. Jason was then enchanted with the king’s daughter Medea, and agreed to marry her in exchange for her help (she’s a skilled sorceress). With the fleece in hand, Jason, Medea and the Argonauts set off from Colchis, taking Absyrtus, the king’s only son, as a hostage. A Colchian vessel set off in pursuit of the Argo and easily overtook it, and sensing that the end was near, Medea killed Absyrtus, dropping pieces of the body overboard. As expected from an epic, the Argo was led off as a punishment and a number of storms were sent by Zeus, and then Jason is told they should seek ritual purification with Circe, the famous nymph living on the island of Aeaea, whom we know well from the Odyssey. 

[The episode of Circe in the Odyssey is one of the main events in my parafiction, “The Charonion”]

In Book IV of the Argonautica, the Argonauts find Circe bathing in salt water, surrounded by wild animals. The goddess invites Jason, Medea and the Argonauts into her mansion, and without any further ado, they show her the bloody sword used to cut the body of Absyrtus, and Circe realizes quickly enough that they have come in order to be purified of murder. After the purification, Medea tells Circe of their toll in great details, but omits the murder of Absyrtus. Circe knows the truth and disapproves of their crime, but on account of her kinship with Medea, she promises to cause them no harm and orders them to depart from her island immediately. It seems as if after the visit to Aeaea, the Argonautica comes to a happy conclusion in Thessaly, but ambiguous accounts remain, telling of intrigues, murders, escapes and the rise of the ship to heaven as a constellation, or another version in which a beam from the Argo’s stern detaches and kills Jason instantly while he slept under a tree. 

The long journey of the Argo Navis in the mythography, protracted, inconclusive, and ultimately unfinishable, always reminds me of the liminal space of Paperno’s Abolished Constellations. In its first argonautic expedition, the Argo Navis alongside the other fifty abolished constellations (let us name a few more: Keeper of Harvests, Pendulum Clock, Marble Sculpture, Tigris River), were displayed in 2016, at a derelict unconsecrated 8th century church linked to the now extinct Albanian-Scythian Christian community, in a scientific village home to the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Large Altazimuth Telescope (for several years the largest single primary optical reflecting telescope in the world, but now an anachronism) in Nizhny Arkhyz, perched on the mountains of the northern Caucasus. The panels were assembled as a grid construction that resembles an altarpiece, doubling up the sense of what is meant by heavenly. A heaven that has fallen, an abolished heaven.

It was an impenetrable site… A flight from Moscow to the resort town of Mineralnye Voda, followed by long bus journeys in the mountains, and an hour-long walk inside the terrain of Lower Arkhyz, in a frosty autumn, crossing small rivulets and mud passages, in order to arrive at an altarpiece to something that doesn’t exist anymore because in fact it was never real – the gods are dead. This speaks to Paperno’s notion of the ruin as a central notion in European civilization: The ruin is fresh because it was already ruined from the outset. Later on, the abolished constellations traveled to Berlin, where they were on show in a window storefront in a gallery space where it would be the last exhibition before its eventual folding up, or on the Danish island of Møn, a biosphere reserve in the Baltic sea, loosely connected to another island, Zealand, with irregular transportation.  

Alexandra Paperno. Abolished Constellations, 2016. Installation view at the ‘Observatory’, curated by Simon Mraz. Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science and its campus at Lower Arkhyz, Russia, 2016. Photograph by Yuri Palmin.

In these precarious, remote, vanishing, half-real sites, the witness to the constellations, is forced to reflect on the irrational infinity of space as such, and in the words of Schaesberg discussing Paperno’s star maps: “Reflective moods inevitably set in when one contemplates the constellations, but Paperno’s overall concept of this series — including single stars, star maps, and constellations, not to mention still lifes with globes — conjures up the Thracian maid’s laughter when Thales of Miletus fell into the well, the epitome of disdain for astronomy’s endeavors, and hints at today’s amazing awareness that we human beings, in a remote corner of the boundless universe, are terribly alone.” These empty and half-empty interiors of the pictorial space, fragile and tense, make us dwell in a world of wonder: It is a world without nature, abandoned, and yet filled with our own specters.

In the spring of 2020, as the abolished constellations in their single individual panels, rested alone in a studio, in the center of Moscow, after their unlikely argonautic travels, still incomplete, the world closed down on us, and we became separated not only from each other, but also from our world, perhaps indefinitely. Unsure whether the purification of Circe would be enough to bring us from Aeaea to Thessaly, for the first time in our lifetimes, we wandered in the silent dark. And perhaps then we remembered the lives of those early humans, who spent long nights under the stars, around a bonfire, telling each other the stories of Jason and Odysseus, under different names, giving new names to Sirius and the Bear, as if they had never been named before. I then interrogated one of the abolished constellations, the “Machina Electrica” (d. 1800), hanging on my walls: Will the night sky still be there if we stopped looking? An answer came from the Odyssey, a year and a half later, on the shores of Seleucia Pieria, during a clear night: ἥ τ᾽ αὐτοῦ στρέφεται καί τ᾽ Ὠρίωνα δοκεύει / She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion.

Alexandra Paperno. Grey Sun, 2003. ‘Self-Love Among the Ruins’ exhibition view, curated by Ekaterina Inozemtseva. Schusev State Museum of Architecture, Moscow, 2018. Courtesy Smart Art.

Bibliography

  • John C. Barentine, The Lost Constellations: A History of Obsolete, Extinct, or Forgotten Star Lore, Springer, Praxis Series, 2016 
  • Margalit Finkelberg, “She turns about in the same spot and watches for Orion”: Ancient Criticism and Exegesis of Od. 5.274 = Il. 18.488”, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 44 (2004), p. 231-244
  • Theodossiou, E., Manimanis, V. N., Mantarakis, P., & Dimitrijevic, M. S., “Astronomy and Constellations in the Iliad and Odyssey”, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, Vol. 14, No. 1, p. 22 – 30 (2011)
  • Alexandra Paperno & Katya Inozemtseva, “Self-Love Among the Ruins: A Conversation between Katya Inozemtseva & Alexandra Paperno”, in Alexandra Paperno. Self Love Among the Ruins, Ad Marginem Press, 2019, p. 6-23
  • Petrus Schaesberg, “Alexandra Paperno: Star Maps”, in Alexandra Paperno: Star Maps, National Center for Contemporary Arts Moscow, 2007, p. 5-14

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Istanbul. He’s also tweeting about Classics, continental philosophy, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece. He’s the co-editor of Perambulation.

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

Forget Plagues, Running Can Kill You!

Hippocrates of Cos, Epidemics 48

“A young man who had run on a rough road developed pain in his heel, especially close to the bottom. The area did not permit any draining of liquid because it was still producing moisture. On the fourth day, after his run, the whole area started turning dark right up to the joint of the ankle and below to the arch of the foot. It did not break out completely, instead he died first. He lived twenty full days after his run.”

Νεηνίσκος ὁδὸν τρηχείην τροχάσας ἤλγει τὴν πτέρνην, μάλιστα τὸ κάτω μέρος, ἀπόστασιν δὲ ὁ τόπος οὐκ ἐλάμβανεν οὐδεμίαν ὡς ξυνάγων ὑγρόν. ἀλλὰ τεταρταίῳ τε ἐόντι αὐτῷ ἐμελαίνετο πᾶς ὁ τόπος ἄχρι τοῦ ἀστραγάλου καλεομένου καὶ τοῦ κοίλου τοῦ κατὰ τὸ στῆθος τοῦ ποδός, καὶ τὸ μελανθὲν οὐ περιερράγη, ἀλλὰ πρότερον ἐτελεύτα· τὰς πάσας δὲ ἐβίου ἡμέρας εἴκοσιν ἀπὸ τοῦ δρόμου.

File:Greek vase with runners at the panathenaic games 530 bC.jpg
These men are running to their doom. A vase for the Panathenaic games

Some Useful Principles On Science and Fear

Some of Epicurus’ Maxims (taken from Diogenes Laertius‘ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers)

  1. “If fear of the skies or about death had never afflicted us—along with the ignoring of the limits of pain and desires—we never would have needed natural science”

Εἰ μηθὲν ἡμᾶς αἱ τῶν μετεώρων ὑποψίαι ἠνώχλουν καὶ αἱ περὶ θανάτου, μή ποτε πρὸς ἡμᾶς ᾖ τι, ἔτι τε τὸ μὴ κατανοεῖν τοὺς ὅρους τῶν ἀλγηδόνων καὶ τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν, οὐκ ἂν προσεδεόμεθα φυσιολογίας.

  1. “It is not possible to eliminate fear about the most important things unless one understands the nature of everything—otherwise, we live fearing things we heard from myths. Therefore, it is not possible to enjoy unmixed pleasures without natural science.”

XII. Οὐκ ἦν τὸ φοβούμενον λύειν ὑπὲρ τῶν κυριωτάτων μὴ κατειδότα τίς ἡ τοῦ σύμπαντος φύσις, ἀλλ’ ὑποπτευόμενόν τι τῶν κατὰ τοὺς μύθους· ὥστε οὐκ ἦν ἄνευ φυσιολογίας ἀκεραίους τὰς ἡδονὰς ἀπολαμβάνειν.

  1. “There is no profit in making yourself secure against other people as long as you fear what happens above and below the earth or elsewhere in the endless universe.”

XIII. Οὐθὲν ὄφελος ἦν τὴν κατ’ ἀνθρώπους ἀσφάλειαν κατασκευάζεσθαι τῶν ἄνωθεν ὑπόπτων καθεστώτων καὶ τῶν ὑπὸ γῆς καὶ ἁπλῶς τῶν ἐν τῷ ἀπείρῳ.

Marble head of Epicurus, 2nd century A.D. copy of greek statue of the 1st half of the 3rd century B.C. MET Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Murofamy: More Rat Facts

Plutarch, Natural Phenomena 4 912 F

“Cargoes of salt on ships generate rats because of their frequent copulation.”

καὶ τὰ ἁληγὰ τῶν πλοίων πλείους τρέφει μῦς διὰ τὸ πολλάκις συμπλέκεσθαι.

 

Pliny, Natural History 44.116

“The smoke of a yew tree kills rodents.”

taxi arboris fumus necat mures.

 

Plutarch, Table Talk 5 685 E

“Salt-ferrying vessels produce an endless multitude of rats—as some people claim—because the female rats get pregnant without intercourse whenever they lick the salt.”

τὰ δ᾿ ἁληγὰ πλοῖα πλῆθος ἐκφύει μυῶν ἄπλετον, ὡς μὲν ἔνιοι λέγουσι, τῶν θηλειῶν καὶ Eδίχα συνουσίας κυουσῶν, ὅταν τὸν ἅλα λείχωσιν·

 

Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 17.17

“Amyntas in his work which he named Stages writes that in the Caspian land there are many herds of cattle and horses almost beyond counting. He adds this as well, that in some seasons an unconquerable plague of rats blights the land. He continues with evidence, saying that even though the rivers flow at that of year with a huge surge, the rats swim fearlessly and they even hold on to each other’s tales, biting down on one another, to form a bridge and they they cross the strait in this way.

After swimming into the farmland, he says, they grind down the roots of crops and swarm over trees and once they use their fruits for their meals they sever the branches too just because they are not able to eat them. For this reason, the Caspians—in order to ward off this invasion of rats and the ruin they bring—do not kill the predatory birds which come in turn, flying down from the clouds, and fulfill their nature by freeing the Caspians of this plague.

Caspian foxes are so numerous that they frequent both the sheepfolds in the country and they also appear in cities. By Zeus, a fox will show up in a house not to steal something or ruin it, but like some kind of pet. The Caspian foxes wag their tails just like pet dogs in our land.

The rats of the terrible plague afflicting the Caspians are almost the same in size when you look a them as the ikhneumenos of Egypt, but they are wild, and terrible, and they have teeth strong enough to cut and even eat metal. The rats in Teridon, Babylonia are like this too—and traders bring their skins to sell among the Persians. Indeed, these skins are soft and can be sewn together as a tunic to warm people. And they call them kandutanes, because it is dear to them.

Here is something amazing about these rats: if a pregnant female is caught and her fetus is removed, when the female fetus is dissected and examined, it also has a baby.”

᾽Αμύντας ἐν τοῖς ἐπιγραφομένοις οὕτως ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ Σταθμοῖς κατὰ τὴν γῆν τὴν Κασπίαν καὶ βοῶν ἀγέλας λέγει πολλὰς καὶ κρείττονας ἀριθμοῦ εἶναι καὶ ἵππων. ἐπιλέγει δὲ ἄρα καὶ ἐκεῖνο, ἐν ὡρῶν τισι περιτροπαῖς μυῶν ἐπιδημίας γίνεσθαι πλῆθος ἄμαχον· καὶ τὸ μαρτύριον ἐπάγει λέγων, τῶν ποταμῶν τῶν ἀεννάων σὺν πολλῶι τῶι ῥοίζωι φερομένων, τοὺς δὲ καὶ μάλα ἀτρέπτως ἐπινήχεσθαί τε αὐτοῖς καὶ τὰς οὐρὰς ἀλλήλων ἐνδακόντας ἕρμα τοῦτο ἴσχειν, καὶ τοῦ διαβάλλειν τὸν πόρον σύνδεσμόν σφισιν ἰσχυρότατον ἀποφαίνει τόνδε.

ἐς τὰς ἀρούρας δὲ ἀπονηξάμενοι, φησί, καὶ τὰ λήια ὑποκείρουσι καὶ διὰ τῶν δένδρων ἀνέρπουσι καὶ τὰ ὡραῖα δεῖπνον ἔχουσι καὶ τοὺς κλάδους δὲ διακόπτουσιν, οὐδὲ ἐκείνους κατατραγεῖν ἀδυνατοῦντες. οὐκοῦν ἀμυνόμενοι οἱ Κάσπιοι τὴν ἐκ τῶν μυῶν ἐπιδρομήν τε ἅμα καὶ λύμην φείδονται τῶν γαμψωνύχων, οἵπερ οὖν καὶ αὐτοὶ κατὰ νέφη πετόμενοι εἶτα αὐτοὺς ἀνασπῶσιν, καὶ ἰδίαι τινὶ φύσει τοῖς Κασπίοις ἀναστέλλουσι τὸν λιμόν. ἀλώπηκες δὲ αἱ Κάσπιαι, τὸ πλῆθος αὐτῶν τοσοῦτόν ἐστιν ὡς καὶ ἐπιφοιτᾶν οὐ μόνον τοῖς αὐλίοις τοῖς κατὰ τοὺς ἀγρούς, ἤδη γε μὴν καὶ ἐς τὰς πόλεις παριέναι. καὶ ἐν οἰκίαι ἀλώπηξ φανεῖται οὐ μὰ Δία ἐπὶ λύμηι οὐδὲ ἁρπαγῆι, ἀλλὰ οἷα τιθασός· καὶ ὑποσαίνουσί τε αἱ Κάσπιοι καὶ ὑπαικάλλουσι τῶν παρ᾽ ἡμῖν κυνιδίων <δίκην>.

οἱ δὲ μύες οἱ τοῖς Κασπίοις ἐπίδημον ὄντες κακόν, μέγεθος αὐτῶν ὅσον κατά γε τοὺς Αἰγυπτίων ἰχνεύμονας ὁρᾶσθαι, ἄγριοι δὲ καὶ δεινοὶ καὶ καρτεροὶ τοὺς ὀδόντας, καὶ διακόψαι τε καὶ διατραγεῖν οἷοί τε εἰσὶ καὶ σίδηρον. τοιοῦτοι δὲ ἄρα καὶ οἱ μύες οἱ ἐν τῆι Τερηδόνι τῆς Βαβυλωνίας (F 7) εἰσίν, ὧνπερ οὖν καὶ τὰς δορὰς οἱ τούτων κάπηλοι ἐς Πέρσας ἄγουσι φόρτον. εἰσὶ δὲ ἁπαλαί, καὶ συνερραμέναι χιτῶνές τε ἅμα γίνονται καὶ ἀλεαίνουσιν αὐτούς. καλοῦνται δὲ ἄρα οὗτοι κανδυτᾶνες, ὡς ἐκείνοις φίλον.

θαυμάσαι δὲ τῶν μυῶν τῶνδε ἄξιον ἄρα καὶ τοῦτο· ἐὰν ἁλῶι μῦς κύουσα, κἆιτα ἐξαιρεθῆι τὸ ἔμβρυον, αὐτῆς δὲ διατμηθείσης ἐκείνης εἶτα μέντοι καὶ αὐτὸ διανοιχθῆι, καὶ ἐκεῖνο ἔχει βρέφος.

Rats

Mekonion: Prepared Poppy Seeds. Or Newborn Poop

Pliny, Natural History 22 

“A poppy is boiled and consumed for insomnia. The same water is used for the face. Poppies grow best in dry conditions where it does not often rain. When the heads themselves are boiled with the leaves, the juice is called meconium and is a lot less potent than opium.”

decoquitur et bibitur contra vigilias, eademque aqua fovent ora. optimum in siccis et ubi raro pluat. cum capita ipsa et folia decocuntur, sucus meconium vocatur multum opio ignavior.

 

Aristotle, Historia Animalium 587a 31

“[Newborns] also discharge excrement right away, pretty soon, or at least within the same day. This material is greater than one might expect from the size of the infant and the women call it “poppy-juice” [mêkonion]. Its color is similar to blood but very dark and like pitch. Later on, it is milk-like once the baby immediately eats from the breast. Before it comes out, the newborn does not cry, even if the birth is difficult and the head sticks out while the whole body is inside.”

ἀφίησι δὲ καὶ περιττώματα τὰ μὲν εὐθὺς τὰ δὲ διὰ ταχέων, πάντα δ᾿ ἐν ἡμέρᾳ· καὶ τοῦτο τὸ περίττωμα πλέον ἢ τοῦ παιδὸς κατὰ μέγεθος· ὃ καλοῦσιν αἱ γυναῖκες μηκώνιον. χρῶμα δὲ τούτου αἱματῶδες καὶ σφόδρα μέλαν καὶ πιττῶδες, μετὰ δὲ τοῦτο ἤδη γαλακτῶδες· σπᾷ γὰρ εὐθὺς καὶ τὸν μαστόν. πρὶν δ᾿ ἐξελθεῖν οὐ φθέγγεται τὸ παιδίον, κἂν δυστοκούσης τὴν κεφαλὴν μὲν ὑπερέχῃ 35τὸ δ᾿ ὅλον σῶμα ἔχῃ ἐντός.

If you want more words for excrement in ancient Greek, we have you covered.

After oxidation, the juice of a poppy turns from white to, well, this:

Etymology of Mêkôn from Beekes (2010):

meconium

Hippocrates: Unmarried Women are Sad Because of Periods

Hippocrates of Cos, On Girls [Peri Parthenôn] 1

“Let’s talk first concerning the disease which is called sacred and paralyzed people and the many anxieties which frighten people seriously enough that they lose their minds and believe that they see evil spirits by night or even at times by die or sometimes on all hours. Many have hanged themselves before because of this kind of vision, more often women than men.

For a woman’s nature is more depressed and sorrowful. And young women, when they are at the age of marriage and without a husband, suffer terribly at the time of their menstruation, which they did not suffer earlier in life. For blood collects later in their uterus so that it may flow out. When, then, the mouth of the exit does not create an opening, the blood pools up more because of food and the body’s growth. When the blood has nowhere to flow, it rises up toward the heart and the diaphragm. When these organs are filled, the heart is desensitized and from this transformation it becomes numb. Madness overtakes women because of this numbness.”

Πρῶτον περὶ τῆς ἱερῆς νούσου καλεομένης, καὶ περὶ τῶν ἀποπληκτικῶν, καὶ περὶ τῶν δειμάτων, ὁκόσα φοβεῦνται ἰσχυρῶς ἄνθρωποι, ὥστε παραφρονέειν καὶ ὁρῆν δοκέειν δαίμονάς τινας ἐφ᾿ ἑωυτῶν δυσμενέας, ὁκότε μὲν νυκτός, ὁκότε δὲ ἡμέρης, ὁκότε δὲ ἀμφοτέρῃσι τῇσιν ὥρῃσιν. ἔπειτα ἀπὸ τῆς τοιαύτης ὄψιος πολλοὶ ἤδη ἀπηγχονίσθησαν, πλέονες δὲ γυναῖκες ἢ ἄνδρες· ἀθυμοτέρη γὰρ καὶ λυπηροτέρη ἡ φύσις ἡ γυναικείη. αἱ δὲ παρθένοι, ὁκόσῃσιν ὥρη γάμου, παρανδρούμεναι, τοῦτο μᾶλλον πάσχουσιν ἅμα τῇ καθόδῳ τῶν ἐπιμηνίων, πρότερον οὐ μάλα ταῦτα κακοπαθέουσαι. ὕστερον γὰρ τὸ αἷμα ξυλλείβεται ἐς τὰς μήτρας, ὡς ἀπορρευσόμενον· ὁκόταν οὖν τὸ στόμα τῆς ἐξόδου μὴ ᾖ ἀνεστομωμένον, τὸ δὲ αἷμα πλέον ἐπιρρέῃ διά τε σιτία καὶ τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ σώματος, τηνικαῦτα οὐκ ἔχον τὸ αἷμα ἔκρουν ἀναΐσσει ὑπὸ πλήθους ἐς τὴν καρδίην καὶ ἐς τὴν διάφραξιν. ὁκόταν οὖν ταῦτα πληρωθέωσιν, ἐμωρώθη ἡ καρδίη, εἶτ᾿ ἐκ τῆς μωρώσιος νάρκη, εἶτ᾿ ἐκ τῆς νάρκης παράνοια ἔλαβεν.

Hippocrates should have consulted a woman physician like Trotula

Why Wives Should Learn Geometry and Plato. And, an Eclipse

Plutarch, Advice to Bride and Groom (Moralia138a-146a : Conjugalia Praecepta)

“These kinds of studies, foremost, distract women from inappropriate matters. For, a wife will be ashamed to dance when she is learning geometry. And she will not receive spells of medicine if she is charmed by Platonic dialogues and the works of Xenophon. And if anyone claims she can pull down the moon, she will laugh at the ignorance and simplicity of the women who believe these things because she herself is not ignorant of astronomy and she has read about Aglaonikê. She was the daughter of Hêgêtor of Thessaly because she knew all about the periods of the moon and eclipses knew before everyone about the time when the moon would be taken by the shadow of the earth. She tricked the other women and persuaded them that she herself was causing the lunar eclipse.”

τὰ δὲ τοιαῦτα μαθήματα πρῶτον ἀφίστησι τῶν ἀτόπων τὰς γυναῖκας· αἰσχυνθήσεται γὰρ ὀρχεῖσθαι γυνὴ γεωμετρεῖν μανθάνουσα, καὶ φαρμάκων ἐπῳδὰς οὐ προσδέξεται τοῖς Πλάτωνος ἐπᾳδομένη λόγοις καὶ τοῖς Ξενοφῶντος. ἂν δέ τις ἐπαγγέλληται καθαιρεῖν τὴν σελήνην, γελάσεται τὴν ἀμαθίαν καὶ τὴν ἀβελτερίαν τῶν ταῦτα πειθομένων γυναικῶν, ἀστρολογίας μὴ ἀνηκόως ἔχουσα καὶ περὶ Ἀγλαονίκης ἀκηκουῖα τῆς Ἡγήτορος τοῦ Θετταλοῦ θυγατρὸς ὅτι τῶν ἐκλειπτικῶν ἔμπειρος οὖσα πανσελήνων καὶ προειδυῖα τὸν χρόνον, ἐν ᾧ συμβαίνει τὴν σελήνην ὑπὸ γῆς σκιᾶς ἁλίσκεσθαι, παρεκρούετο καὶ συνέπειθε τὰς γυναῖκας ὡς αὐτὴ καθαιροῦσα τὴν σελήνην.

 

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