The Gift of the Briefest of Lives

Aelian, On the Nature of Animals 2.4

“Some animals are called Ephemera and they take their name from the length of their life. For they are born in wine and when the container is opened they fly out, they see the light, and they die. Therefore, nature has granted that they come into life but it has also rescued them from the evils in life, since they neither experience any suffering of their own and they know nothing of others’ misfortunes.”

Ζῷα ἐφήμερα οὕτω κέκληται, λαβόντα τὸ ὄνομα ἐκ τοῦ μέτρου τοῦ κατὰ τὸν βίον· τίκτεται γὰρ5ἐν τῷ οἴνῳ, καὶ ἀνοιχθέντος τοῦ σκεύους τὰ δὲ ἐξέπτη καὶ εἶδε τὸ φῶς καὶ τέθνηκεν. οὐκοῦν παρελθεῖν μὲν αὐτοῖς ἐς τὸν βίον ἔδωκεν ἡ φύσις, τῶν δὲ ἐν αὐτῷ κακῶν ἐρρύσατο τὴν ταχίστην, μήτε τι τῶν ἰδίων συμφορῶν ᾐσθημένοις μήτε μήν τινος τῶν ἀλλοτρίων μάρτυσι γεγενημένοις.

Cricket in a cage

The Fat Dog and Its Collar: A Fable for Our times

Babrius, Fable 100

A super fat dog and a wolf once met
Who was asking him where he was fed
To become a dog so big and filled with grease.
“It is a rich man” he said, “who is feeding me”.
“But,” asked the wolf, “why is your neck so bare?”
“there’s an iron collar which wears my skin there,
A collar which my feeder forged and placed.”
The wolf laughed at him and said to his face:
“I say this kind of luxury can go to heck,
The kind of life where iron wears down my neck.”

Λύκῳ συνήντα πιμελὴς κύων λίην.
ὁ δ᾿ αὐτὸν ἐξήταζε, ποῦ τραφεὶς οὕτως
μέγας κύων ἐγένετο καὶ λίπους πλήρης.
“ἄνθρωπος” εἶπε “δαψιλής με σιτεύει.”
“ὁ δέ σοι τράχηλος” εἶπε “πῶς ἐλευκώθη;”
“κλοιῷ τέτριπται σάρκα τῷ σιδηρείῳ,
ὃν ὁ τροφεύς μοι περιτέθεικε χαλκεύσας.”
λύκος δ᾿ ἐπ᾿ αὐτῷ καγχάσας “ἐγὼ τοίνυν
χαίρειν κελεύω” φησί “τῇ τρυφῇ ταύτῃ,
δι᾿ ἣν σίδηρος τὸν ἐμὸν αὐχένα τρίψει.”

Aesop's Fables: The Dog and the Wolf by xCailinMurre
Image from Deviant Art, xCailinMurre

“If Wine Could Tell A Story”

Plautus, Truculentus 829-833

“This is no good. You are blaming the silent who cannot speak.
If wine could tell a story it would defend itself.
Wine doesn’t control men—men usually control wine!
Well, that’s how it is when men are fit for anything—certain fools
When they drink a little or not at all remain fools by nature.”

non placet: in mutum culpam confers quit loqui.
nam uinum si fabulari possit se defenderet.
non uinum moderari, sed uiri uino solent,
qui quidem probi sunt; uerum qui improbust si quasi Bibit
siue adeo caret temeto, tamen ab ingenio improbust.

 

Image result for Ancient Roman Drinking

A Verse Fable for the Superficial

The Fox and the Tragic Mask, Phaedrus 1.7

By chance a fox had seen a tragic mask:
What a sight, he has no brains inside!–he gasped.
To whomever fortune grants honor and glory,
It deprives of common sense, as in this story.

MaskTragedy168.jpg

Personam tragicam forte vulpes viderat:
O quanta species, inquit, cerebrum non habet!
Hoc illis dictum est, quibus honorem et gloriam
Fortuna tribuit, sensum communem abstulit.

“Feminine Fame”: Homer on Why We Disbelieve Women

After the suitor Amphimedon arrives in the underworld and tells the story of Penelope’s shroud and Odysseus’ return, Agamemnon responds:

Odyssey 24.192-202:

“Blessed child of Laertes, much-devising Odysseus,
You really secured a wife with magnificent virtue!
That’s how good the brains are for blameless Penelope,
Ikarios’ daughter, how well she remembered Odysseus,
Her wedded husband. The fame of her virtue will never perish,
And the gods will craft a pleasing song
Of mindful Penelope for mortals over the earth.
This is not the way for Tyndareos’ daughter.
She devised wicked deeds and since she killed
Her wedded husband, a hateful song
Will be hers among men, she will attract harsh rumor
To the race of women, even for those who are good.”

“ὄλβιε Λαέρταο πάϊ, πολυμήχαν’ ᾿Οδυσσεῦ,
ἦ ἄρα σὺν μεγάλῃ ἀρετῇ ἐκτήσω ἄκοιτιν·
ὡς ἀγαθαὶ φρένες ἦσαν ἀμύμονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
κούρῃ ᾿Ικαρίου, ὡς εὖ μέμνητ’ ᾿Οδυσῆος,
ἀνδρὸς κουριδίου. τῶ οἱ κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται
ἧς ἀρετῆς, τεύξουσι δ’ ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἀοιδὴν
ἀθάνατοι χαρίεσσαν ἐχέφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
οὐχ ὡς Τυνδαρέου κούρη κακὰ μήσατο ἔργα,
κουρίδιον κτείνασα πόσιν, στυγερὴ δέ τ’ ἀοιδὴ
ἔσσετ’ ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους, χαλεπὴν δέ τε φῆμιν ὀπάσσει
θηλυτέρῃσι γυναιξί, καὶ ἥ κ’ εὐεργὸς ἔῃσιν.”

More than half of this speech praises Penelope for being a loyal, ‘good’ wife (and that is another issue of its own). Of course, this makes Agamemnon think of Klytemnestra. There’s a lot to be said about how this passage sets up the end of the Odyssey, but Agamemnon’s words are striking because they reflect a sad reality not just about misogynistic thinking but about the operation of human thought.

Let’s start with the misogyny: Agamemnon says here, quite clearly, that because of the behavior of one woman (well, two if we hear ambiguity in the phrase “Tyndareos’ daughter” and think of Helen too) all women have bad fame, even if they are “good”? A simple response to this is to wonder whether the same applies to men (of course not…) Let’s pass over the fact that the murder of Agamemnon was probably well deserved.  I think this passage also reflects human cognition: the story of Klytemnestra is paradigmatic. We learn basic patterns about people and the world and apply these patterns (prejudices) as substitutions for deeper thought.

I am not sure whether this serves as a bit of an anticipatory apologetic on the part of epic–that the tale of Penelope cannot match up to negative messages about women. It probably stands as an acknowledgement of a “negative expectancy effect”–we are primed to hear negative tales and to believe negative things. I suspect that on Homer’s part this is probably less about women and more about anticipating the reception of this poem.

But, at the very least, this is a clear indication that Homer knows the way it goes: we live in a cultural system that discounts positive stories about women in favor of negative ones and which, accordingly, downgrades the authority of the stories they tell. In our responses to the testimonies of men and women, men have the privilege of being individuals whose lives might be ruined by rumor and false claims, while women are always already undermined. This is is an example of structural misogyny.

For discussions of this passage see: On the contrasting fame of Klytemnestra and Penelope, see Franco 2012, 60–61. For invocations of Klytemnestra as an example of how a woman can ruin a nostos, see Murnaghan 2011, chapter 4 and Nagy 1999, 36–39.

orestes
Classical myth deserves trigger warnings.

Franco, Cristina. 2012. “Women in Homer,” in Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon, eds., A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. London. 55­–65.

Marquardt, Patricia. 1989. “Love’s Labor’s Lost: Women in the Odyssey,” in Robert Sutton, ed., Daidalikon: Studies in Honor of Raymond V. Schoder, S.J. Chicago. 239-248.

Murnaghan, Sheila. 2011. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, Second Edition. Lanham.

Nagy, Gregory 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge

Homer’s Tales and The Narrative Animal

Strabo, Geography 1.2.7-8

Homer tells precisely of not merely the neighboring lands and Greece itself—as Eratosthenes has claimed—but many other places farther afield too and he tells his myths better than those who followed him. For he does not offer every tale for wonder only, but also to contribute to knowledge—especially in the wanderings of Odysseus—he allegorizes, provides warnings, and delights [his audiences]. This is something [Eratosthenes] is really wrong about when he asserts that the poet and his interpreters are fools. This is a subject worth speaking on to a much greater extent.”

The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For Humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.

The reason for this is that story/myth is a novel-kind-of-thought [to them] which helps them thing not about what they already know but about different kinds of things too. To children we are obliged to hold out such enticements, in order that in riper years, when the mind is powerful, and no longer needs such stimulants, it may be prepared to enter on the study of actual realities.

There is sweetness in novelty and what someone does not already know, This is the very thing that also creates a love-of-learning. Whenever something amazing and ominous is present, it nurtures pleasure, which is a magic charm for learning. In the early years it is necessary to use these types of attractions, but when age increases toward the study of things as they really are, then the understanding has advanced and no longer requires flatteries.”

᾿αλλ᾽ οὐδὲ τὰ σύνεγγυς μόνον, ὥσπερ Ἐρατοσθένης εἴρηκε, καὶ τὰ ἐν τοῖς Ἕλλησιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν πόρρω πολλὰ λέγει καὶ δι᾽ ἀκριβείας Ὅμηρος καὶ μᾶλλόν γε τῶν ὕστερον μυθολογεῖται, οὐ πάντα τερατευόμενος, ἀλλὰ καὶ πρὸς ἐπιστήμην ἀλληγορῶν ἢ διασκευάζων ἢ δημαγωγῶν ἄλλα τε καὶ τὰ περὶ τὴν Ὀδυσσέως πλάνην, περὶ ἧς πολλὰ διαμαρτάνει τούς τ᾽ ἐξηγητὰς φλυάρους ἀποφαίνων καὶ αὐτὸν τὸν ποιητήν: περὶ ὧν ἄξιον εἰπεῖν διὰ πλειόνων.

καὶ πρῶτον ὅτι τοὺς μύθους ἀπεδέξαντο οὐχ οἱ ποιηταὶ μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ αἱ πόλεις πολὺ πρότερον καὶ οἱ νομοθέται τοῦ χρησίμου χάριν, βλέψαντες εἰς τὸ φυσικὸν πάθος τοῦ λογικοῦ ζῴου: φιλειδήμων γὰρ ἅνθρωπος, προοίμιον δὲ τούτου τὸ φιλόμυθον. ἐντεῦθεν οὖν ἄρχεται τὰ παιδία ἀκροᾶσθαι καὶ κοινωνεῖν λόγων ἐπὶ πλεῖον.

αἴτιον δ᾽, ὅτι καινολογία τίς ἐστιν ὁ μῦθος, οὐ τὰ καθεστηκότα φράζων ἀλλ᾽ ἕτερα παρὰ ταῦτα: ἡδὺ δὲ τὸ καινὸν καὶ ὃ μὴ πρότερον ἔγνω τις: τοῦτο δ᾽ αὐτό ἐστι καὶ τὸ ποιοῦν φιλειδήμονα. ὅταν δὲ προσῇ καὶ τὸ θαυμαστὸν καὶ τὸ τερατῶδες, ἐπιτείνει τὴν ἡδονήν, ἥπερ ἐστὶ τοῦ μανθάνειν φίλτρον. κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς μὲν οὖν ἀνάγκη τοιούτοις δελέασι χρῆσθαι, προϊούσης δὲ τῆς ἡλικίας ἐπὶ τὴν τῶν ὄντων μάθησιν ἄγειν, ἤδη τῆς διανοίας ἐρρωμένης καὶ μηκέτι δεομένης κολάκων.

Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.

123: “The most general implication is that a culture is constantly in process of being recreated as it is interpreted and renegotiated by its members. In this view, a culture is as much a forum for negotiating meaning and for explicating action as it is a set of rules or specifications for action. Indeed, every culture maintains specialized institutions or occasions for intensifying this “forum-like” feature. Storytelling, theater, science, even jurisprudence are all techniques for intensifying this function—ways of exploring possible worlds out of the context of immediate need. Education is (or should be) one of the principal forums for performing this function—though it is often timid in doing so. It is the forum aspect of a culture that gives its participants a role in constantly making and remaking the culture…”

Bern Le Hunte and Jan A. Golembiewski. “Stories Have the Power to Save Us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories.” Arts and Social Sciences Journal 5.2 (2014) 73-76.

73: “The claim that stories have the power to save us is audacious, yet it is one that can be validated by neuroscience. This article demonstrates that the brain is hard-wired to process stories in a most fundamental way, indicating the evolutionary priority that storytelling has had in human development, and the importance it has in forging a future humanity.”

Edward O. Wilson. “On Free Will and How the Brain is Like a Colony of Ants.” Harper’s September 2014, 49-52.

51: “The final reason for optimism is the human necessity for confabulation, which offers more evidence of a material basis to consciousness. Our minds consist of storytelling.”

Jonathan Gottschall. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012.

58: “The psychologist and novelist Keith Oakley calls stories the flight simulators of human social life.”

Mark Turner. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: 1996.

4-5: “narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.”

[Large Figures on the North Porch, Chartres Cathedral]
A story waiting to be told…

Half-Assing It: A Love Story

Aristokles, BNJ 831 F 3b (=Stobaios, Florides 4.20 b74)

“In the second book of his Wonders, Aristokles has this: A young man named Aristonymos, an Ephesian of a noble family, was Demostratos’ son, but in reality he was Ares’ son.

In the middle of the night, because he hated all women, he went to his father’s herd and had sex with a female donkey. She got pregnant and gave birth to the most beautiful girl, named Onoskelia, a nickname borrowed from the way she was born.”

᾽Αριστοκλέους ἐν β̄ Παραδόξων. <᾽Αριστώνυμος> ᾽Εφέσιος τῶι γένει, νεανίας τῶν ἐπισήμων, υἱὸς Δημοστράτου, ταῖς δ᾽ ἀληθείαις ῎Αρεως. οὗτος τὸ θῆλυ μισῶν γένος νυκτὸς βαθείας εἰς τοὺς πατρώιας ἔτρεχεν ἀγέλας, καὶ ὄνωι συνεγένετο θηλείαι· ἡ δὲ ἔγκυος γενομένη ἔτεκε κόρην εὐειδεστάτην ᾽Ονοσκελίαν τοὐνομα, τὴν προσηγορίαν λαβοῦσαν ἀπὸ τοῦ συμπτώματος.

Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 44r

“Feminine Fame”: Homer on Why We Disbelieve Women

After the suitor Amphimedon arrives in the underworld and tells the story of Penelope’s shroud and Odysseus’ return, Agamemnon responds:

Odyssey 24.192-202:

“Blessed child of Laertes, much-devising Odysseus,
You really secured a wife with magnificent virtue!
That’s how good the brains are for blameless Penelope,
Ikarios’ daughter, how well she remembered Odysseus,
Her wedded husband. The fame of her virtue will never perish,
And the gods will craft a pleasing song
Of mindful Penelope for mortals over the earth.
This is not the way for Tyndareos’ daughter.
She devised wicked deeds and since she killed
Her wedded husband, a hateful song
Will be hers among men, she will attract harsh rumor
To the race of women, even for those who are good.”

“ὄλβιε Λαέρταο πάϊ, πολυμήχαν’ ᾿Οδυσσεῦ,
ἦ ἄρα σὺν μεγάλῃ ἀρετῇ ἐκτήσω ἄκοιτιν·
ὡς ἀγαθαὶ φρένες ἦσαν ἀμύμονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
κούρῃ ᾿Ικαρίου, ὡς εὖ μέμνητ’ ᾿Οδυσῆος,
ἀνδρὸς κουριδίου. τῶ οἱ κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται
ἧς ἀρετῆς, τεύξουσι δ’ ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἀοιδὴν
ἀθάνατοι χαρίεσσαν ἐχέφρονι Πηνελοπείῃ,
οὐχ ὡς Τυνδαρέου κούρη κακὰ μήσατο ἔργα,
κουρίδιον κτείνασα πόσιν, στυγερὴ δέ τ’ ἀοιδὴ
ἔσσετ’ ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους, χαλεπὴν δέ τε φῆμιν ὀπάσσει
θηλυτέρῃσι γυναιξί, καὶ ἥ κ’ εὐεργὸς ἔῃσιν.”

More than half of this speech praises Penelope for being a loyal, ‘good’ wife (and that is another issue of its own). Of course, this makes Agamemnon think of Klytemnestra. There’s a lot to be said about how this passage sets up the end of the Odyssey, but Agamemnon’s words are striking because they reflect a sad reality not just about misogynistic thinking but about the operation of human thought.

Let’s start with the misogyny: Agamemnon says here, quite clearly, that because of the behavior of one woman (well, two if we hear ambiguity in the phrase “Tyndareos’ daughter” and think of Helen too) all women have bad fame, even if they are “good”? A simple response to this is to wonder whether the same applies to men (of course not…) Let’s pass over the fact that the murder of Agamemnon was probably well deserved.  I think this passage also reflects human cognition: the story of Klytemnestra is paradigmatic. We learn basic patterns about people and the world and apply these patterns (prejudices) as substitutions for deeper thought.

I am not sure whether this serves as a bit of an anticipatory apologetic on the part of epic–that the tale of Penelope cannot match up to negative messages about women. It probably stands as an acknowledgement of a “negative expectancy effect”–we are primed to hear negative tales and to believe negative things. I suspect that on Homer’s part this is probably less about women and more about anticipating the reception of this poem.

But, at the very least, this is a clear indication that Homer knows the way it goes: we live in a cultural system that discounts positive stories about women in favor of negative ones and which, accordingly, downgrades the authority of the stories they tell. In our responses to the testimonies of men and women, men have the privilege of being individuals whose lives might be ruined by rumor and false claims, while women are always already undermined. This is is an example of structural misogyny.

For discussions of this passage see: On the contrasting fame of Klytemnestra and Penelope, see Franco 2012, 60–61. For invocations of Klytemnestra as an example of how a woman can ruin a nostos, see Murnaghan 2011, chapter 4 and Nagy 1999, 36–39.

orestes
Classical myth deserves trigger warnings.

Franco, Cristina. 2012. “Women in Homer,” in Sharon L. James and Sheila Dillon, eds., A Companion to Women in the Ancient World. London. 55­–65.

Marquardt, Patricia. 1989. “Love’s Labor’s Lost: Women in the Odyssey,” in Robert Sutton, ed., Daidalikon: Studies in Honor of Raymond V. Schoder, S.J. Chicago. 239-248.

Murnaghan, Sheila. 2011. Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, Second Edition. Lanham.

Nagy, Gregory 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge

Half-Assing It: A Love Story

Aristokles, BNJ 831 F 3b (=Stobaios, Florides 4.20 b74)

“In the second book of his Wonders, Aristokles has this: A young man named Aristonymos, an Ephesian of a noble family, was Demostratos’ son, but in reality he was Ares’ son.

In the middle of the night, because he hated all women, he went to his father’s herd and had sex with a female donkey. She got pregnant and gave birth to the most beautiful girl, named Onoskelia, a nickname borrowed from the way she was born.”

᾽Αριστοκλέους ἐν β̄ Παραδόξων. <᾽Αριστώνυμος> ᾽Εφέσιος τῶι γένει, νεανίας τῶν ἐπισήμων, υἱὸς Δημοστράτου, ταῖς δ᾽ ἀληθείαις ῎Αρεως. οὗτος τὸ θῆλυ μισῶν γένος νυκτὸς βαθείας εἰς τοὺς πατρώιας ἔτρεχεν ἀγέλας, καὶ ὄνωι συνεγένετο θηλείαι· ἡ δὲ ἔγκυος γενομένη ἔτεκε κόρην εὐειδεστάτην ᾽Ονοσκελίαν τοὐνομα, τὴν προσηγορίαν λαβοῦσαν ἀπὸ τοῦ συμπτώματος.

Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 44r

Divine Truth and Mortal Belief

Parmenides, Fr. D4

“Greetings! No evil fate sent you to journey
By this road—for indeed it is far off from mortal paths—
But it was Law and Justice. You need to learn everything:
Both the immovable heart of persuasive Truth
And the beliefs of mortals which have no true faith.
But you should also learn these things too: how beliefs
Must be credible because they pervade all things.”

χαῖρ’, ἐπεὶ οὔτι σε μοῖρα κακὴ προὔπεμπε νέεσθαι
τήνδ’ ὁδόν (ἦ γὰρ ἀπ’ ἀνθρώπων ἐκτὸς πάτου ἐστίν),
ἀλλὰ Θέμις τε Δίκη τε. χρεὼ δέ σε πάντα πυθέσθαι
ἠμὲν Ἀληθείης εὐπειθέος ἀτρεμὲς ἦτορ
ἠδὲ βροτῶν δόξας, ταῖς οὐκ ἔνι πίστις ἀληθής.
ἀλλ’ ἔμπης καὶ ταῦτα μαθήσεαι, ὡς τὰ δοκοῦντα
χρῆν δοκίμως εἶναι διὰ παντὸς πάντα *περῶντα.

*περῶντα also appears as περ ὄντα. This variant reading might mean something like “even when they are completely true”.

This passage with its reference to the isolated path and the distinction between mortal belief and immortal truth reminds me of Hesiod:

Theogony 26-28

“Rustic shepherds, wretched reproaches, nothing but bellies,
We know how to say many lies similar to the truth
And we know how to speak the truth when we want to.”

“ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ’ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ’ εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι.”

Odyssey 19.203

“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·

Elsewhere on this blog and in forthcoming work I explore this as the difference between coherence and correspondence in memory. Here it seems clearly to be on the surface a difference between mortal and divine ways of seeing. These domains do not cancel each other out….

Busto di Parmenide.jpg
Bust of Parmenides from Wikimedia Commons