Saturday, 11 December 2010

Poe, Sir Thomas Browne, Suetonius, Tiberius

Despina, an inveterate mystery reader, mentioned that the epigraph to Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue is this line from Chapter 5 of Sir Thomas Browne's HYDRIOTAPHIA, Urne-Buriall OR, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes Lately Found in Norfolk.
What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling questions are not beyond all conjecture.
Sir Thomas appends a note that says "The puzling questions of Tiberius unto Grammarians. Marcel. Donatus in Suet."

So I went to Suetonius and found the following entertaining bits about Tiberius and exile, along with the question about the sirens:

10 At the flood-tide of success, though in the prime of life and health, he suddenly decided to go into retirement and to withdraw as far as possible from the centre of the stage; perhaps from disgust at his wife, whom he dared neither accuse nor put away, though he could no longer endure her; or perhaps, avoiding the contempt born of familiarity, to keep up his prestige by absence, or even add to it, in case his country should ever need him.... At the time he asked for leave of absence on the ground of weariness of office and a desire to rest; and he would not give way either to his mother's urgent entreaties or to the complaint which his step-father openly made in the senate, that he was being forsaken. On the contrary, when they made more strenuous efforts to detain him, he refused to take food for four days. Being at last allowed to depart, he left his wife and son in Rome and went down to Ostia in haste, without saying a single word to any of those who saw him off, and kissing only a very few when he left.

11 From Ostia he coasted along the shore of Campania, and learning of an indisposition of Augustus, he stopped for a while. But since gossip was rife that he was lingering on the chance of realising his highest hopes, although the wind was all but dead ahead, he sailed directly to Rhodes, for he had been attracted by the charm and healthfulness of that island ever since the time when he put in there on his return from Armenia. Content there with a modest house and a villa in the suburbs not much more spacious, he adopted a most unassuming manner of life, at times walking in the gymnasium without a lictor or a messenger, and exchanging courtesies with the good people of Greece with almost the air of an equal.


13 He also gave up his usual exercises with horses and arms, and laying aside the garb of his country, took to the cloak and slippers; and in this state he continued for upwards of two years, becoming daily an object of greater contempt and aversion. This went so far that the citizens of Nemausus threw down his statues and busts, and when mention was once made of him at a private dinner party, a man got up and assured Gaius that if he would say the word, he would at once take ship for Rhodes and bring back the head of "the exile," as he was commonly called. It was this act especially, which made his position no longer one of mere fear but of actual peril, that drove Tiberius to sue for his recall with most urgent prayers, in which his mother joined; and he obtained it, although partly owing to a fortunate chance. Augustus had resolved to come to no decision of the question which was not agreeable to his elder son, who, as it happened, was at the time somewhat at odds with Marcus Lollius, and accordingly ready to lend an ear to his stepfather's prayers. With his consent therefore Tiberius was recalled, but on the understanding that he should take no part or active interest in public affairs.


70 He was greatly devoted to liberal studies in both languages. In his Latin oratory he followed Messala Corvinus, to whom he had given attention in his youth, when Messala was an old man. But he so obscured his style by excessive mannerisms and pedantry, that he was thought to speak much better offhand than in a prepared address. He also composed a lyric poem, entitled "A Lament for the Death of Lucius Caesar," and made Greek verses in imitation of Euphorion, Rhianus, and Parthenius, poets of whom he was very fond, placing their busts in the public libraries among those of the eminent writers of old; and on that account many learned men vied with one another in issuing commentaries on their works and dedicating them to the emperor. 3 Yet his special aim was a knowledge of mythology, which he carried to a silly and laughable extreme; for he used to test even the grammarians, a class of men in whom, as I have said, he was especially interested, by questions something like this: "Who was Hecuba's mother?" "What was the name of Achilles among the maidens?" "What were the Sirens in the habit of singing?"

[I should mention that Sir Thomas Browne is one of my favorite guys, I wrote a piece many years ago based on The Garden of Cyrus, which oddly enough happens to be being performed tonight in NYC(!)]

Bacon on the Sirens

I think you might enjoy this in relation to Clement if you haven't found it already:

disdain a natural condition

When the Queen of Egypt arrived for an extended visit, in 46 B.C., with a large entourage, Caesar put her up at his villa in the suburbs. Compared with gorgeous, cosmopolitan Alexandria, the filthy, ramshackle city of a million people which the Queen saw from her perch in the hills "qualified as a provincial backwater," Schiff writes. "Disdain," she observes, "is a natural condition of the mind in exile," and it came naturally to Cleopatra.

Judith Thurman quoting Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra" in "The Cleopatriad", The New Yorker, 15 November 2010

Benjamin on Brecht

In one of his didactic poems on dramatic art Brecht says: "The effect of every sentence was waited for and laid bare. And the waiting lasted until the crowd had carefully weighed our sentence." In short, the play was interrupted. One can go even further and remember that interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring. It goes far beyond the sphere of art. To give only one example, it is the basis of quotation. To quote a text involves the interruption of its context. [ital. evb] It is therefore understandable that the epic theater, being based on interruption, is, in a specific sense, a quotable one. There is nothing special about the quotability of its texts. It is different with the gestures which fit into the course of the play. "Making gestures quotable" is one of the substantial achievements of the epic theater.

(Walter Benjamin: What Is Epic Theater?, p. 151 in Illuminations)

Louise Glück Parable

This was published in the NYTimes on 5 Nov 10, so I think it's okay to reprint it here:


First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated
pilgrims rather than wanderers: in our minds, the word translated as
a dream, a something-sought, so that by concentrating we might see it
glimmering among the stones, and not
pass blindly by; each
further issue we debated equally fully, the arguments going back and forth,
so that we grew, some said, less flexible and more resigned,
like soldiers in a useless war. And snow fell upon us, and wind blew,
which in time abated — where the snow had been, many flowers appeared,
and where the stars had shone, the sun rose over the tree line
so that we had shadows again; many times this happened.
Also rain, also flooding sometimes, also avalanches, in which
some of us were lost, and periodically we would seem
to have achieved an agreement; our canteens
hoisted upon our shoulders, but always that moment passed, so
(after many years) we were still at that first stage, still
preparing to begin a journey, but we were changed nevertheless;
we could see this in one another; we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth, felt it had been revealed.


misc quotes I

I'm going to add some additional texts here that may or may not be interesting or useful to the project, but I thought it'd be good for them to be available in one central place. Here's something that I thought may be useful in thinking about Clement and the embedding of ideas of exile into the Christian journey:

They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11: 13-16

Friday, 26 November 2010


Glancing at Osborn's book on google books (just to see what I'm getting!), I think it already looks promising. This is the opening:
Clement was a traveller, always moving on. He invites Greeks to desert to God's side and to enjoy the danger of change [...]. In his quest for knowledge, he left home and travelled to teachers around the eastern Mediterranean, moving from Italy to Egypt.
Of these [teachers], one, an Ionian, lived in Greece, two others who came from Coele-Syria and Egypt respectively were in Magna Graecia. Others were in the east - one was from Assyria, and the other a Hebrew from Palestine. I found the last of them where he was hiding in Egypt. Here I came to rest. He was a real Sicilian bee who drew from the flowers of the apostolic and prophetic meadow and who engendered a purity of knowledge in the soul of his hearers.
He remained in Alexandria until in 202 persecution drove him to Palestine, where he died.
So Clement himself was a traveller and an exile. I guess we should have known!


I've decided that I want to know more about Clement of Alexandria, so I've ordered Eric Osborn's 2005 book, which is published by Cambridge University Press. It's billed as a study of how Clement fused Classical and Christian culture in his theology, so it sounds the right kind of thing! When it arrives, I think I might try to post-as-I-read. I'd like to get blogging more regularly again.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

lyric meters

This is just the contents of the last email I sent you but it struck me that it might turn out to be important at more than a practical level, so I thought I'd post it on the blog in order to make sure that it was included.


OK, I've done a bit of digging on the subject of metrical analysis and it turns out that there is a commentary on the Helen by Bill Allan, who teaches Classics at the University of Oxford. This was published in 2008 and reviewed in the Bryn Mawr Review in 2009. What's really interesting is that the review identifies metrical analysis as a particularly strong feature of Allan's commentary and uses his account of the very passage you are working on as an example of how perceptive he is:
Elucidation of lyric meters, and the connection of these meters to their literary context, is also a noteworthy and positive feature of Allan's commentary. Comprehensive metrical analysis is given at the start of each choral ode or exchange with a dramatis persona, along with a discussion of the content of the passage and its relationship to the play as a whole. For example, about the choral parodos at vv. 164-252, Allan identifies the iambo-trochaic exchange between Helen and the chorus as a "form of antiphonal lament which the fifth-century audience can relate to the antiphonal dirges...of their own mourning rituals" (166). Consistently and sensitively tying meter to context proves to be a valuable contribution both for scholars of the tragedy, and for newcomers to Euripidean lyric who may be yet unaware of the power and importance of these often difficult passages.
I've just ordered a second-hand copy of this through Amazon. I did think about having it sent direct to you but I'd quite like a copy myself for when i come to write about this stuff, so I thought I'd get a copy for myself and then I can tell you want he says about the relevant sections of the text.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

benjamin and collecting

just a quick note to say I am reading an edition of Illuminations
that has an introduction by Hannah Arendt that talks about the centrality of collecting in Benjamin's work, and also specifically of collecting quotations, fragments. You probably know all about this already, but given our own eranisteon of the Sirens, and your interest in this whole subject, I thought I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it: plus I like that it connects up to jess' interests, too! xoxox

Friday, 1 October 2010


[some of you may have received this a little while ago with dead links, very sorry about that, so I'm resending with the links totally naked, visible, and lively!]

hi my friends,

I'm delighted to tell you that my new band, BRIM, is giving our first concert on October 19th at Roulette in New York. Mary Rowell, Cristian Amigo, and I will be joined by special guests including pianist Lara Downes and the trombone quartet Guidonian Hand to perform premieres and arrangements of the music I've been writing in response to my trip down the Mississippi River last year.

here's the concert information: I'd love it if you could join me for this first peek at a whole new phase of my work!

also, whether you're in or out of earshot of Roulette, you can pre-order the BRIM CD (which will be ready next summer) here: I welcome your support of the River Project at whatever level is meaningful to you! 

and you can read more about BRIM, and listen to some music here:

all the very best to you,


Only if it's not likely to
Can the believed-in happen.
James McMichael

Eve Beglarian
PO Box 1677
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10011

EveBeglarian (skype)
new project:

Friday, 6 August 2010

on collaboration

Having read Twyla Tharp's book on creativity, I thought I'd take a look at her newer one on collaboration. Most of it consists of descriptions of various collaborations she's been involved with but she also includes a number of aphorisms about collaboration, two or three per chapter. Here are a few I enjoyed:
  • Uncredited collaborators are often key to successful outcomes.
  • A willingness to try for the unknown can be a strong bond.
  • Collaboration can be internal - an act of listening to others and then having a silent, private conversation with yourself.
  • Letting an audience in on the joke creates a community of collaborators.

archive of (odyssean) exile

I'm beginning to 'get' it, I think - how our material constitutes an 'archive of exile'. The point is that the Odyssey has generated an enormous body of interpretation across time - from the Church Fathers (who see in Odysseus's journey a 'type' of the Christian life) to Lewis Hyde (for whom Odysseus is a manifestation of that disruptive consciousness that he also finds in North American and West African trickster narratives). This great corpus of response is an archive. And, actually, it has a material reality, although it isn't all gathered together in one place. What is more, it is an archive that responds to Odysseus' exile, and this is particularly interesting because it requires a certain effort of reading to make Odysseus into an exile at all. (He does, after all, arrive 'home' at the end of the poem: Clement reads that 'home' as outside this material reality and Hyde sees Odysseus' trickiness as intertwined with his mobility.)

In fact, maybe the archive doesn't constitute the body of responses to the Odyssey in the sense of the Homeric poem. Perhaps it is better to see the Odyssey itself as the first text in the archive - the first one that responds to the myth of Odysseus.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

'gustatory, sexual, and scatalogical'

Just another trickster-fragment! When you were over here last month, we talked about the fact that the allure of the sirens is to do with what they *know* rather than any sexual attraction that they might have. Reading Hyde's book, I begin to think that the two kinds of attraction might usefully be seen as mapping on to each other or being entangled in some way. This passage struck me particuarly:

Earlier I suggested that if trickster were free of all appetite he would no longer be trickster. In a sense, this is a matter of definition; the mythology we're looking at is constantly gustatory, sexual, and scatalogical. It seems to require, then, that we connected trickster's inventive cunning to the body's needs.
I don't quite know how I see this working at the moment - it needs some more thought - but it seems interesting that Odysseus has to restrain his desires physically (by having himself bound to the mast) in order to be rewarded with the knowledge that comes from hearing the sirens' song.

Odysseus and Circe

It's interesting that, after telling Alcinous that the demands of the belly take precedence even over grief, Odysseus says exactly the opposite when he recounts the story of his encounter with Circe. By following the instructions of the trickster-god, Hermes, he has evaded her spells, and she has promised that she will not do him any harm. At this point she offers him food, the language of the passage identifying it closely with other feasts, including the one in Phaeacia. But he says that he cannot eat because he is troubled by the fate of his comrades:

‘ὦ Κίρκη, τίς γάρ κεν ἀνήρ, ὃς ἐναίσιμος εἴη,
πρὶν τλαίη πάσσασθαι ἐδητύος ἠδὲ ποτῆτος,
385πρὶν λύσασθ᾽ ἑτάρους καὶ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἰδέσθαι;
ἀλλ᾽ εἰ δὴ πρόφρασσα πιεῖν φαγέμεν τε κελεύεις,
λῦσον, ἵν᾽ ὀφθαλμοῖσιν ἴδω ἐρίηρας ἑταίρους.’

‘Circe, what man that is right-minded could bring himself to taste of food or drink, ere yet he had won freedom for his comrades, and beheld them before his face? But if thou of a ready heart dost bid me eat and drink, set them free, that mine eyes may behold my trusty comrades.’

I'm not sure this is a 'trick' exactly - he doesn't have to avoid eating her food because Hermes has given him a herb which protects him against Circe's spells. (The Greek term for Hermes' herb is the same one used of Circe's own witchcraft, φάρμακον.) But it does sound very much like the kind of dynamic Hyde is talking about - the mortal who is afflicted with appetite somehow controls that appetite in order to achieve a new level of power.

οὐ γάρ τι ... κύντερον ἄλλο

I've started reading Trickster Makes This World and am about fifty pages in. I'm enjoying it but won't try to post much about it until I've got more of a sense of the overall argument. For the moment, I'll just include a quotation from the Odyssey, which Hyde introduces when he is discussing the idea of 'endless hunger' as the lot of humans. It comes from book VII, when Odysseus has arrived in Phaeacia and is desperate to eat. (I've already written about the feast in Phaeacia here.) Trying to get Alcinous to hurry the banquet along, Odysseus says:

ἀλλ᾽ ἐμὲ μὲν δορπῆσαι ἐάσατε κηδόμενόν περ:
οὐ γάρ τι στυγερῇ ἐπὶ γαστέρι κύντερον ἄλλο
ἔπλετο, ἥ τ᾽ ἐκέλευσεν ἕο μνήσασθαι ἀνάγκῃ
καὶ μάλα τειρόμενον καὶ ἐνὶ φρεσὶ πένθος ἔχοντα,
ὡς καὶ ἐγὼ πένθος μὲν ἔχω φρεσίν, ἡ δὲ μάλ᾽ αἰεὶ
220ἐσθέμεναι κέλεται καὶ πινέμεν, ἐκ δέ με πάντων
ληθάνει ὅσσ᾽ ἔπαθον, καὶ ἐνιπλησθῆναι ἀνώγει.

And Perseus offers the following English translation:

But as for me, suffer me now to eat, despite my grief; for there is nothing more shameless than a hateful belly, which bids a man perforce take thought thereof, be he never so sore distressed and laden with grief at heart, even as I, too, am laden with grief at heart, yet ever does my belly bid me eat and drink, and makes me forget all that I have suffered, and commands me to eat my fill.

Hyde quietly offers a different translation of κύντερον - 'doglike'. (It is the compartive of κύων.)

It seems to me that this might be important - the idea that appetite is a kind of problem for Odysseus and it certainly casts all the banqueting scenes in an interesting light.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Eumaeus and Emmaus

This is turning into a day of frenzied posting but it suddenly struck me that there is an interesting coincidence in the names Eumaeus (the swine-herd who looks after the disguised Odysseus when he first arrives back in Ithaca) and Emmaus (the village on the road to which Jesus appears after the crucifixion). In both cases, the story turns upon non-recognition and the debt of hospitality owed to a stranger.

This coincidence has been noted before and you can actually watch a conference presentation on the subject by Kasper Bro Larsen here. It's the second embedded video on the page. I haven't watched the whole of it yet but Larsen's concern seems to be to read the Emmaus story (which appears in Luke 24, 13-35) in relation to a longer tradition of recognition stories, an early example of which is the story of Eumaeus.

more on food and feasting

I'm becoming a little obsessed with the theme of food and feasting in the Odyssey. The point is that Odysseus lives in a world where there is a kind of ethical obligation to show hospitality to strangers and the poem consistently thematises the treatment of the stranger/guest, the xenos, at the hands of different hosts. Throughout the poem we find descriptions of feasts that are held under a range of different circumstances. What's more, the descriptions resemble each other quite closely with certain motifs reappearing in the different passages (rinsing the hands with water from a silver basin, for example). This is partly because oral epics make extensive use of stock material that can be repeated in different contexts but the repetition does have the effect of inviting readers to compare the different instances of feasting and meditate on the differences.

I think this is interesting because the danger of the sirens is that they will not treat you with hospitality. To land on their island is to attend a non-banquet where the food never arrives. And their lack of hospitality is not just a detail of their particular myth but is highly salient in a text where the feasting of strangers is a recurrent element of the narrative.

I think there are around seven or eight descriptions of feasting in the Odyssey and I'll briefly draw attention to some of them. (I'm going to miss out a couple of feasts that happen when Telemachus visits Menelaus in Sparta because I can't think of anything to say about them.)

Odyssey 1: The suitors who are using up Odysseus' wealth in his absence hold a feast in his house. I've already commented on this here. As I said in that earlier post, this is an interesting one for us because Athena, in disguise and commenting with assumed naivety on what is happening, explicitly says that this cannot be an ἔρανος but must be a γάμος or an εἰλαπίνη. There is an irony to this comment because she knows full well that there is no host at home to offer a γάμος or an εἰλαπίνη (except Telemachus, who is still acting as a boy at this stage).

Odyssey 7: Here, Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians, welcomes Odysseus who has been cast up on his shores after the ship wreck, and it is only when they have eaten that his wife, Arete, asks Odysseus anything about who he is. It is in this context that Odysseus describes what has happened to him since leaving Troy, so the narrative of the inhospitable sirens is, in fact, told there in the midst of Alcinous' hospitality. The Phaeacians are really the template of the ideal hosts - their treatment of Odysseus is exemplary. (Incidentally, Alcinous calls the meal he offers Odysseus a δόρπον (evening meal).)

Odyssey 10: Circe offers Odysseus food (and the image of the servant with the silver bowl appears here just as it did in the two earlier examples). But, since she has turned his men into swine by feeding them φάρμακα mixed with a strange concoction of cheese, barley, and honey, he doesn't have much appetite. There is something strange and complex about Circe's hospitality. She rivals Alcinous in her treatment of Odysseus but her treatment of his men is a kind of grotesque parody of the act of feasting the xenos. In the end, it is the fact that Odysseus won't accept her food that leads her to free his men, entertain them all, and provide advice about how to avoid the sirens. Circe actually uses the expression 'eating [your] heart' (θυμὸν ἔδων) to describe Odysseus' fretfulness and unwillingness to take her hospitality.

Odyssey 16: Now we're back in Ithaca and Odysseus has arrived home unrecognised. He stays with the swine-herd, Eumaeus, who does not know who he is. But Eumaeus understands the laws of hospitality and offers the stranger bread (σῖτος) and wine (οἶνος). And, when Odysseus thanks him, he says:

"ξεῖν᾽, οὔ μοι θέμις ἔστ᾽, οὐδ᾽ εἰ κακίων σέθεν ἔλθοι,
ξεῖνον ἀτιμῆσαι: πρὸς γὰρ Διός εἰσιν ἅπαντες
ξεῖνοί τε πτωχοί τε: δόσις δ᾽ ὀλίγη τε φίλη τε
γίγνεται ἡμετέρη [...]"

"It's wrong, my friend, to send any stranger packing -
even one who arrives in worse shape than you.
Every stranger and beggar comes from Zeus
and whatever scrap they get from the likes of us,
they'll find it welcome."

As in Phaeacia, the sharing of food leads on to the telling of stories, but here Odysseus makes up a tale so that he isn't forced to reveal his true identity too soon.

This is taking longer than I'd intended, so I'll break off and perhaps say something about the other scenes of feasting later. The main point is that the sirens' lack of hospitality is described in a text that is, in many ways, about the question of how strangers are to be treated and in which in the sharing of food is the sign of the hospitality one owes to them.

Monday, 19 July 2010

on food and eating

Since we met up earlier this month, I've been trying to avoid adding yet more siren-texts to the existing collection - in the manner so aptly satirised by Despina! - and focusing instead on the texts we have.

As I thought about them, it struck me that there is something interesting going on with food. If you give in to the lure of the sirens you end up dying of starvation, but, if you do as Odysseus did, and listen to them with restraint, then you can assemble an eranos, which is a meal to which many people contribute. Instead of becoming hypnotised by the monstrous singers who will not feed you, you can take nourishment from a wide array of voices.

I was in the Castle Market here in Sheffield over the weekend and the plenitude of old-fashioned food stalls - butchers, fishmongers, grocers, bakers, confectioners, and all - made me think of this idea of a world in which voices are food and the ideal life is one in which you pass through taking nourishment wherever you can find it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

more on the eranos

The term eranos appears in the first book of the Odyssey, when Athena appears to Odysseus' son, Telemachus, disguised as Mentes, an old friend (xenos) of the family. S/he asks him what is happening in Ithaca and, in particular, what all the suitors are doing there. And, in that context, s/he says: 'Is this an eilapinē or a gamos? It clearly isn't an eranos':

τίς δαίς, τίς δὲ ὅμιλος ὅδ᾽ ἔπλετο; τίπτε δέ σε χρεώ;
εἰλαπίνη ἠὲ γάμος; ἐπεὶ οὐκ ἔρανος τάδε γ᾽ ἐστίν:
ὥς τέ μοι ὑβρίζοντες ὑπερφιάλως δοκέουσι
δαίνυσθαι κατὰ δῶμα.

The point is that the other two types of feast are ones offered by a single host, whereas the eranos involves some kind of collectivity. Since the suitors are living at Odysseus' expense, they are not engaged in an eranos. Here are some notes on this provided by Perseus. (Click on them for the full size image.)


Right, this may seem a little pedantic, but I do have a background in linguistics and it's hard to break the habits of a lifetime :o)

I've been a bit troubled by the term eranisteon ever since we first came across it. Rahner's translation makes use of the phrase 'beggar's collection' but the thing is that eranisteon obviously isn't a noun. The noun for one of those pot-luck meals we were talking about is the related term, eranos, and it seems that there is a massive literature on the practice of the eranos both in antiquity and in the early church. The term eranisteon is the neuter of a verbal adjective derived - I think - from the verb eranidzo. Perseus offers an online edition of Hubert Weir Smyth's Greek grammar and this is how Smyth deals with verbal adjectives:

Verbal forms that share the properties of nouns are called verbal nouns. There are two kinds of verbal nouns. 1. Substantival: the infinitive [...]. 2. Adjectival (inflected like adjectives): a. Participles [...]. b. Verbal adjectives: In -tos, denoting possibility [...]. In -teos, denoting necessity, as grapteos that must be written.

So eranisteon isn't simply the name of the 'beggar's collection'. It expresses the whole idea: 'there there must be a collecting'. I think it must have the same sort of connotations as eranos but expressed in a different grammatical form.

As I say, this may be a rather rarified point and, in the end, it may not make much difference to the work. But I like it for two reasons:

1. A word that means 'there must be a collecting' seems more exciting to me than a word that just means 'a collective meal'. There is more dynamism in the word, somehow.

2. The term eranos is the name of an international discussion group which has been considering questions of religion, philosophy, and so on since the early 1930s. (See the wikipedia entry here for a bit of information - some famous names have been associated with the group and, as it happens, Rahner mentions them in the introduction to his book.) As such, I think it's just as well that we have a related but different word to work with.

As I say, there is a massive literature on the eranos and I don't propose that we plough through all of it. But, at the same time, I might post some of the more interesting odds and ends that I come across in the next week or so.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Sirens and Owls

In reading through Ovid again today, I noticed that right before we hear about the Sirens, we learn about Ascalaphus, a son of Acheron, the same river god who is also posited as the father of the Sirens. Ascalaphus is the tattle-tale who tells that Proserpina had eaten seven pomegranate seeds in the underworld. (Jupiter had said if she hadn't tasted the food of the Underworld, she could come home.) Proserpina punishes Ascalaphus by turning him into an owl:

foedaque fit volucris, venturi nuntia luctus,
ignavus bubo, dirum mortalibus omen.

I think it's a curious coincidence that this nasty owl appears right before the talk of the Sirens in Book V. Ovid doesn't tell us the Sirens are daughters of Acheron, we get that from the Argonautica (and elsewhere), but I'm wondering if the sibling relationship of sirens and owls we find in Ovid parallels the Septuagint writers' use of sirens as owl-like creatures?

Odysseus chooses a new soul

(in the Republic, Book X, in the Myth of Er, we see various people choosing their next lives, and here's what happens with Odysseus: how cool is this?!?!)

κατὰ τύχην δὲ τὴν Ὀδυσσέως λαχοῦσαν πασῶν ὑστάτην αἱρησομένην ἰέναι, μνήμῃ δὲ τῶν προτέρων πόνων φιλοτιμίας λελωφηκυῖαν ζητεῖν περιιοῦσαν χρόνον πολὺν βίον ἀνδρὸς ἰδιώτου ἀπράγμονος, καὶ μόγις εὑρεῖν κείμενόν που καὶ παρημελημένον [620δ] ὑπὸ τῶν ἄλλων, καὶ εἰπεῖν ἰδοῦσαν ὅτι τὰ αὐτὰ ἂν ἔπραξεν καὶ πρώτη λαχοῦσα, καὶ ἁσμένην ἑλέσθαι.

And it fell out that the soul of Odysseus drew the last lot of all and came to make its choice, and, from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business, and with difficulty found it lying in some corner disregarded by the others, [620d] and upon seeing it said that it would have done the same had it drawn the first lot, and chose it gladly.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

siren references

A classified list of references to the Sirens:

Monday, 21 June 2010

online texts

Here are links to online editions of relevant texts - I'll keep up-dating it.


Links to many editions and one that I've looked at.

Clement's Stromata

These appear in volume 2 and volume 3 of an edition of Clement's collected works by Reinhold Koltz.

There are plenty of English translations online, including this one. (You need to scroll down a bit to get to it.)

Sunday, 13 June 2010


Well, it's been a while since I've posted. That's partly because I've been trying to get out from under the stack of papers that needed grading, and it's partly because I've been meaning to say something about my visit to the former KZ camp at Sachsenhausen north of Berlin, and it's a difficult thing to get 'right'. Anyway, I think it's time to try...

Right from the start, I want to make it clear that, although it was our discussion of ghost towns that made me think of this, I'm definitely not conflating the concentration camps with any of the places we have been talking about, whether Rodney, Kayaköy, or elsewhere. The KZ camps are the physical relics of a very particular history and I don't in any way want to dilute that specificity.

What made me think of Sachsenhausen is only this - it is a place to which many people now go in the expectation that it will somehow put them in touch with a history that needs remembering. But my own experience of going to both Sachsenhausen and Dachau is one of running into the *gap* between the present and the past. Walking around the spaces that those camps once occupied, I found myself wondering how I 'should' be feeling, what this experience 'ought to' be communicating to me, what constitutes the 'right' way to react in a place of this kind. And, at the same time, I found myself suspicious of the emotions that did creep up on me there on the grounds that they might be 'too easy', self-indulgent rather than compassionate, not commensurate with the gravity of what had actually happened in that place. In other words, rather than experiencing some kind of powerful connection with history, the experience for me was of a kind of deep-seated uncertainty about my own emotional responses, about the possibility of every really understanding the past, and about the potential vanity of my attempt at 'remembering'.

I don't know if this is a common experience or not. I'm writing about it because it is relevant to those questions we've raised about whether a history is inscribed in a place and, if so, how. I'm not sceptical about that possibility - in fact, I'm sure there is something to it - but my own experience of going to places that are saturated with history is that I don't tune in on a kind of pure emotional wavelength but actually spend most of the time feeling conflicted, inadequate, and uncertain how to feel, think, or behave.

I'm not sure how to finish this post. I think it's right to go to these places - I'm not sceptical about making that journey at all. But I'm always puzzled when people talk about how moving they found it because, to me, the experience, while very powerful at one level, isn't what I would normally describe as 'moving'. That's a term I use for watching dance or listening to a speech at someone's leaving party. Walking round Sachsenhausen is powerfully disorienting - almost a kind of reproach - rather than 'moving' in the way I usually use that word.

Hope this makes sense. Will post more if I can work it out in my mind...

Friday, 28 May 2010

heading home

hi my friends,

I am writing to let you know that I am finally heading back to NYC after nearly a year away, first paddling/biking down the Mississippi River and then working at a really fine series of artist colonies (Montalvo, the Hermitage, and Ucross.) I'll be starting out tomorrow from northeastern Wyoming, thinking perhaps to head up through Canada a bit and down to Vermont, where I will drop off the kayak and the bike and the car, and then hop onto the Ethan Allen Express down to Penn Station on Saturday. Woo hoo!

One of the pleasures of coming home is that in the first days after getting home, there are gonna be a couple of premieres of my work: definitely an excellent way to get settled in!

On 8 June at Merkin Hall, Mary Rowell is going to premiere a brand new piece I wrote for her, called I'm Worried Now, But I Won't Be Worried Long. (The title comes from a song by Charley Patton.) We'll also be doing my James Tate setting, It Happens Like This, in a new arrangement, and the whole festival looks really wonderful, check it out here:

And on 12 June at the Invisible Dog, the happening guitar quartet, Dither, is doing the first ever live version of The Garden of Cyrus, an electronic piece from 1985. I'm really excited to hear what they do with it live, for sure!!/event.php?eid=123910360956224&ref=mf

So if you're in New York, I hope I'll be able to see you at one or both of these shows, and if not then, soon!!!



Eve Beglarian
PO Box 1677
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10011

EveBeglarian (skype)
new project:

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

pagan places

I've been thinking about the christianization of pagan places and feeling a bit frustrated by my lack of knowledge. There are some examples (like Knowlton and Rudston) where a church has been built in a place that obviously had some kind of significance already. But there are also places that are *thought* of in this way but where the history is difficult to prove and, indeed, disputed. For example, there are quite a lot of 'holy wells' in Britain which are dedicated to one or other saint. There's a commonly held belief that these were 'stolen' by early Christians and were originally pagan sites. But some historians have suggested that this is a myth propagated by different people for different purposes. This includes the neo-pagan movement, so - in an odd way - it may actually be that it is paganism that is appropriating Christian sites rather than the other way round. I gather that the historian, Ronald Hutton, has written about this kind of thing, so I'll see if I can get hold of his book on the pagan religions of Britain.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

churches and pagan sites

I enjoyed your post here! With regard to your question about churches built on pagan sites, two examples spring to mind: Knowlton Church in Dorset (which was built inside a neolithic henge) and Rudston Church in Yorkshire (which has a monlith in the graveyard). You can see pictures here and here. (In both cases, you need to scroll down a fair way to see the full range of photos.) Those are just well-known examples - I expect there are lots of others. I'm not 100% sure who to ask...


I found the post you did yesterday very useful. I have to admit that I hadn't really remembered (or perhaps ever understood) Persephone's role in the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. I had just been thinking of Persephone and Eurydice as equivalent figures - exiles in the underworld but within different myths. However, it's interesting that it was Persephone that Orpheus needed to persuade when he came down to rescue Eurydice: one exile adjudicating on the fate of another.

gates to nowhere

These two gate posts stand on the eastern bank of the Derwent Reservoir and whatever building they originally guarded is no longer there. (I think it might have been the vicarage but I'm not certain.) Steve described them as 'gates to nowhere'.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Persephone and Orpheus

Reading through your posts on Orpheus this morning, I'm getting all mushed up in Greek stories, so I'm writing this here to try to get a bit of a handle on it...

The Sirens' songs can be thought of as a call to Persephone.

Here is the relevant text from Ovid (Metamorphoses Book V):
Whence have you, daughters of Acheloüs, feathers and the feet of birds, since you have the faces of maidens? Is it because, when Proserpine was gathering the flowers of spring, you were mingled in the number of her companions? After you had sought her in vain throughout the whole world, immediately, that the waters might be sensible of your concern, you wished to be able, on the support of your wings, to hover over the waves, and you found the Gods propitious, and saw your limbs grow yellow with feathers suddenly formed. But lest the sweetness of your voice, formed for charming the ear, and so great endowments of speech, should lose the gift of a tongue, your virgin countenance and your human voice still remained.

Orpheus' songs defeated the power of the Sirens' songs when the Argonaut passed by.

Here's the section of the Argonautica that describes the encounter with the Sirens:

(Argonautica ll. 885-921) Now when dawn the light-​bringer was touching the edge of heaven, then at the coming of the swift west wind they went to their thwarts from the land; and gladly did they draw up the anchors from the deep and made the tackling ready in due order; and above spread the sail, stretching it taut with the sheets from the yard-​arm. And a fresh breeze wafted the ship on. And soon they saw a fair island, Anthemoessa, where the clear-​voiced Sirens, daughters of Achelous, used to beguile with their sweet songs whoever cast anchor there, and then destroy him. Them lovely Terpsichore, one of the Muses, bare, united with Achelous; and once they tended Demeter's noble daughter still unwed, and sang to her in chorus; and at that time they were fashioned in part like birds and in part like maidens to behold. And ever on the watch from their place of prospect with its fair haven, often from many had they taken away their sweet return, consuming them with wasting desire; and suddenly to the heroes, too, they sent forth from their lips a lily-​like voice. And they were already about to cast from the ship the hawsers to the shore, had not Thracian Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, stringing in his hands his Bistonian lyre, rung forth the hasty snatch of a rippling melody so that their ears might be filled with the sound of his twanging; and the lyre overcame the maidens' voice. And the west wind and the sounding wave rushing astern bore the ship on; and the Sirens kept uttering their ceaseless song. But even so the goodly son of Teleon alone of the comrades leapt before them all from the polished bench into the sea, even Butes, his soul melted by the clear ringing voice of the Sirens; and he swam through the dark surge to mount the beach, poor wretch. Quickly would they have robbed him of his return then and there, but the goddess that rules Eryx, Cypris, in pity snatched him away, while yet in the eddies, and graciously meeting him saved him to dwell on the Lilybean height. And the heroes, seized by anguish, left the Sirens, but other perils still worse, destructive to ships, awaited them in the meeting-​place of the seas.
And Orpheus' song convinced Persephone to allow Orpheus to take Euridice out of the underworld. It wasn't a failure of song, but a failure of trust that caused Orpheus to fail to bring Euridice back to life.

ghost thoughts #1

I've been thinking a lot about ghost towns and, in particular, trying to think about them as a category. It's definitely interesting - and important from a historical point of view - to understand each one's story. But it's also interesting to think about what these very diverse places have in common and how the trope of the abandoned community works on us. To that end, I'll try and post a few of the thoughts I've been having. They're not original (and may turn out not to be that interesting) but I'd like to put them into writing. So, here is thought #1:


Reading about Derwent and Ashopton, it struck me that - to understand the history of the communities - you also have to think about the histories of urban centres like Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, and Derby. The villages of the Derwent Valley were sacrificed to these rapidly expanding cities and the two histories are plotted into each other inextricably.

And this led me back to Minnesota because, when I think about Mallard, I often find myself thinking about Bemidji too. The beginnings of the two towns were not so different, I think, but Bemidji thrived and Mallard died - it is as if Mallard were Bemidji's ailing twin. And, with reference to voices, this reminds me of the reading I did at the Historical Society library in Bemidji, particularly Harold Hagg's book, The Mississippi Headwaters Region: Scenes from the Past (published in 1986). Hagg writes very interestingly about the role of local newspapers in the history of these communities:
Editors were more than newsmen. They were town boosters and prophets of progress. They touted their towns' prospects in the most flowery language they could command. [...] The newspapers kept Headwaters readers informed about the small doings of their neigbors and other local happenings. The syndicated pages provided recreational reading and developed new interests when books and magazines were not readily at hand. The advertisements served the business interests. The newspaper was the voice of the town, an organ of promotion and publicity and a force for developing a sense of community. (Page 100.)
This appeals to me because it brings out the sense of competition among towns and the way in which communities vied for recognition and the economic benefits that, for example, the coming of the railway could bring.

And, in Turkey, Kayaköy/Λεβισσι presumably had a relationship with the Turkish settlements that surrounded it and one wonders what the nature of that relationship was.

My point is really just this: because there is something so compelling about ghost towns, it is easy to focus on them as special places, distinct from everything around them. But - actually - their 'ghostliness' is a function of their position in a network of power. They are the weak points - the regions of low pressure - in an overall pattern of forces.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

visit to derwent

The weather today has been pretty good, so Steve and I took a trip out to the Ladybower Reservoir to visit the place where Derwent once was. This is rather a dull photo of the lake but the point of it is that, before the area was flooded, the village would have been right in the middle of this picture:

I took this photo of an information board. It provides a really good visualistion of where the buildings stood and how they relate to the present shore line:

And here is another information board, this time with a map showing the layout of the village and, again, the position of the present shore line. That photo I mentioned of the church tower rising out of the water is reproduced at the bottom right of the map:

Saturday, 15 May 2010


There is one contextual aspect of the drowning of Derwent that Bill Bevan doesn't mention in the passage I quoted yesterday - the fact that it happened in war time. In his book, Silent Valley, the local historian, Vic Hallam, quotes from the last sermon preached in the church at Derwent, and the quotation makes an interesting connection between the experience of war and the destruction of the village:

The last service held in Derwent Church was on 17th March 1943, and was attended by the Bishop of Derby and members of the Water Board. In his final address to the congregation the Bishop said, 'We build churches with the idea that they will endure for ever, but we know in our heart that our buildings will not endure, for we have seen so much destruction during the war that we no longer have the illusion of permanence of the work of human hands.'

There is something quite strange about this parallel, I think. To compare the abandonment of the village to an act of war is quite a provocative thing to do, given that the building of the dam was supposed to be a work of progress. Perhaps I'm over-interpreting...

Friday, 14 May 2010

Derwent and Ashopton

Today I went to Sheffield's local studies library to see if they had anything on the flooding of the Derwent Valley and the 'drowned' villages of Derwent and Ashopton. They had some interesting photographs, including an extraordinary one of the tower of Derwent Church rising out of the waters of the reservoir, but I can't reproduce those on the blog. Here, instead, is an excerpt from Bill Bevan's book, The Upper Derwent: 10,000 Years in a Peak District Valley, published in 2004. I think it captures the social meanings of the inundation very well.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the largest impact on the Upper Derwent landscape was about to begin and it [...] would be finished within fifty years. By the time it was complete someone born into the family occuping Bridge-End Farm in 1900 was living in a new terrace house just north of Bamford. By then their farmhouse was demolished, fields and carefully maintained dry-stone walls were lost, Derwent Hall was a pile of rubble and the dead who had been buried in Derwent churchyard since the 1870s were settling into the graveyard at Bamford. The heart of the community had moved en masse.

The reason for this was the need for water in the growing cities and towns of South Yorkshire and the East Midlands. Three Acts of Parliament were passed between 1899 and 1904 enabling Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Leicester to improve their water supplies by flooding the valleys. Town planners in northern England looked to the valleys of the Pennines and other uplands as potential reservoirs. This flooding of the valleys necessitated the removal of much of the existing dispersed farming population and associated patterns of land-use while leaving the grouse moors relativly undisturbed. For a temporary period, a new society was implanted into the area comprising the navvy dam builders themselves who were housed in the purpose-built village of Birchinlee, also known as Tin Town. By the time the reservoirs were finished the valley landscape was transformed under large bodies of water which covered farms, fields, Derwent Village and Ashopton. For anyone living in the valleys at this time, the impact must have been incredible. (page 142)

I think this evokes the context well: the growth of the industrial cities creating a demand for water, the relocation of a whole rural population (including the dead from the churchyard), the untouched grouse moors (shooting being the sport of the upper classes), and the arrival of the navvies - the stigmatised population of itinerant workers who built this country's industrial infrastructure.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Clement on Orpheus

I've been looking at Elizabeth Henry's book, Orpheus with his Lute: Poetry and the Renewal of Life. She covers a wide range material relating to Orpheus but I was interested to read her discussion of Clement of Alexandria:

The bringer of [...] spiritual liberation and health must, in the early Christian age, have appeared to possess either divine grace or magical powers. The perplexity of a devout Christian is seen in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, on other Greek myths and cultic heroes as well as the Orpheus story. In his Stromata (Miscellanies) of about 200 AD Clement speaks of 'Orpheus the theologian' as one who (like Plato) 'prepared the way' for the Gospel. Such Greek teachers were at this time declared by Clement to be prophets in direct line of descent from Moses. The status of Orpheus is not the equivalence with Christ which we find many centuries later in the Morte Christi celebrata, but that of 'prefiguration', as a divinely sent forerunner who was to show the nature of the Christ to come. This position was not easily maintained, as Clement's (apparently) later Protrepticon (Exhortation to the Greeks) makes clear. This work was a reply to the attack on Christianity by the Platonist Celsus, also of Alexandria, in which he declared Orpheus more worthy of worship than Jesus Christ. The vehemence of Clement's reply is itself a witness to the continuing potency of the Orphean figura:

"A Thracian, cunning master of his art (he also is the subject of a Hellenic legend) tamed the wild beasts by the mere might of song, and transplanted trees - oaks - by music ... How, let me ask, have you believed vain fables, and supposed animals to be charmed by music, while Truth's shining face alone is looked on with credulous eyes? ... To me that Thracian Orpheus seems to have been a deceiver ... enticing men to idols ... But not such is the song of Christ, which has come to loose the bitter bond of tyrannising demons. It alone has tamed men, the most intractable of animals; the frivolous among them answer to the fowls of the air, deceivers to reptiles, the irascible to lions, the voluptuous to swine, the rapacious to wolves. The silly are stocks and stones ... Behold the might of the new song! It has made men out of stones, men out of beasts. Those that were as dead, not being partakers of the new life, have come to the true life, simply by becoming listeners to this song."

I'm interested in this image of the 'song of Christ', especially the moment where Clement says 'Behold the might of the new song!'

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

ghost towns/sirens

On the one hand, this may be obvious, and, on the other, it may not be useful, but I just thought I'd post something about the fact that there is a connection between the thread on ghost towns and the thread on sirens. That connection lies in the fact that, on a number of occasions, the Septuagint presents ruined cities and destroyed communities as the haunts of sirens. This happens in Isaiah 13, 21-22, where the city is Babylon (see here), Isaiah 34, 13, where it is Edom (see here), Jeremiah 51, 39, where the reference is to the Chaldeans, again in Babylon (see here), and Micah 1, 8, where it is to Samaria (see here). So the ghost towns and the sirens potentially form one larger complex of imagery. (I ran into Hugh in the cafe the other day and mentioned these Biblical passages to him - he had some ideas about them and we said we'd get together for a chat about it soon. We haven't done that yet, so I must remember to drop him a line...)

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

abandoned communities

I've just found a website on abandoned communities in Britain. It's really worth a look!

drowned villages

I was thinking about ghost towns and suddenly became curious as to whether there are any places in Britain that fall into that category. There aren't really any large-scale examples here but there are quite a lot of abandoned villages, among them settlements that were drowned as a result of the construction of reservoirs. As it happens, there are examples very near to Sheffield. When the Ladybower Reservoir was built in the late 30s and early 40s, the villages of Derwent and Ashopton were evacuated and flooded. (The wikipedia entry for the former is here and the latter here - they are actually quite helpful.) Apparently, the buildings of Derwent occasionally become visible when the water-level is low but Ashopton never reappears out of the water. It occurs to me that, if you were interested in doing something site-specific over here, an event at the site of the drowned village might be quite exciting. I thought I'd illustrate this post with an image of the overflow at Ladybower - it looks rather dramatic, I think.

Friday, 7 May 2010

fraudulent voices

Even the fraudulent image of the crucified Orpheus can be thought of as an utterance - a sort of iconographic and textual lie. And, because a particular collector believed the lie, the seal ended up in the archive - more specifically, the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, where it was studied by Otto Kern and transcribed in his collected edition of orphic fragments published in 1922. In fact, I'm really *very* interested in this. It foregrounds the materiality of voices - the fact that they exist in records which may be real or may be forgeries, which may survive or be destroyed, that may be transcribed and translated more or less accurately. And all of these processes are, of course, functions of the practice of archiving voices.

orpheus and odysseus

This is just a quick note to gather together some of my thoughts on this pair of Siren-heroes: Odysseus and Orpheus. What strikes me is that they fulfil different symbolic functions for Early Christian commentators. Odysseus is the *human* figure, in exile in the world, avoiding attachments that would enmesh him too closely in the texture of earthly life. Orpheus is the *Christ*, entering the underworld to bring back his bride, herself a symbolic representation of humankind, exiled in a dark place and in need of redemption. But if the patterns of identification here are different - Odysseus and humankind, Orpheus and Christ - they are not simple, because the figure of Odysseus at the mast evokes the figure of Christ on the Cross, and Orpheus, in fact, failed to bring Eurydice out of the underworld, thus manifesting as a human shadow of Christ, the divine.

I suppose this complexity shouldn't be surprising because, in Christianity, Christ is both human and God, both the same as and different from us. What is more, the interaction of Christian and pre-Christian material draws out a kind of exilic dimension in both bodies of narrative. And, as I've said before, there are voices everywhere - the voices of the Sirens, the songs of Orpheus, bodies of narrative moving back and forth across languages and interpretive traditions, narratological layers in both the classical and the Christian texts, a layering of voices that might perhaps be thought of as an archive.

Thursday, 6 May 2010


I've found a website that discusses the image of Orpheus crucified. It refers to an article which was published in Aγγελος as early as 1926 and which asserts that the seal is fake. This judgement was made on the basis of the iconography. Interestingly, one of the key points is that the 'sagging' figure (with bent arms and legs) is characteristically medieval and not attested in late antique images of the crucifixion. The page is here:


I wanted to find an image of the 'iron cylinder' with the representation of Christ as Orpheus Bacchicus. (It's mentioned in the quotation from Rahmer I posted here.) I found an online copy of a book called Orpheus - the Fisher: Comparative Studies in Orphic and Early Christian Cult Symbolism by Robert Eisler, published in London in 1921, and it includes an image answering to the description Rahmer gives. Eisler says that the object in question is a 'seal cylinder' and that it is made of hematite, that is iron oxide. This is the engraving that appears in Orpheus - The Fisher:

While this is quite an intriguing object, I've come across suggestions on the web that it is a fake and, at the moment, have no way of knowing whether that's true or not. So... not necessarily authentic but kind of interesting even if it isn't. What would like behind the faking of an artifact like this?

serpent on a pole

OK, I may be showing my ignorance here but I wasn't entirely clear about the reference to the 'brazen serpent on a pole' in the hymn I've just quoted. For the record, it's a reference to the story in Numbers 21, 8-9, where God tells Moses how to protect the people from serpents:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.
There is a reference to this passage in John 3, 13-14, where the serpent on the pole is identified with Christ on the cross. It is the sequence where Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, the Pharisee:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
So the hymn that I quoted alludes to two exilic experiences, one Jewish - the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness - and one Greek - Eurydice's exile in the underworld. This makes me think of Levinas and Derrida, but let's not go there this morning :o)

the figure of orpheus

I don't want to keep rendering the mythological theme more and more complex just for the sake of it. But, given that Orpheus is the other great mythological figure to survive the Sirens, I thought I'd look to see how he was perceived by the Early Church. And the answer is that he seems to have been very important. In a different section of Rahner's book (a chapter called 'The Mystery of the Cross') he says:

Christ crucified is "the true Orpheus" who brought home his bride, mankind, out of the depths of dark Hades; he is Orpheus Bacchicus and is so described on a well-known early Christian representation of the cross upon an iron cylinder.

[Note: Cf. Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne, XII, Paris, 1936, col. 2735-55, where also see illustration of the Orpheus cross, Fig. 9249; A. Boulanger, Orphée, Rapports de l'orphisme et du christianisme, Paris, 1925, p. 7.]

The Middle Ages still had an intimation of this and a hymn on the mystery of the cross runs as follows:

Brazen serpent on a pole—
Serpent once did make men whole,
Cured the poisoned sting.
Orpheus of the latter day
Dauntlessly his bride away
Out of Hell did bring.

[Note: Anonymous author (twelfth century) of the Easter sequence, Morte Christi Celebrata. Text in A. Mai, Nova Patrum Bibliotheca, I, 2, Rome, 1852, p. 208.]
I haven't yet seen anything to suggest that the voyage of the Argonauts was understood in terms of exile and I can't honestly see any reason why it would have been. But, on the other hand, Eurydice's time in the underworld is clearly a kind of exile and is used in this hymn to figure the unredeemed state of humankind. And that, of course, is reminiscent of the material in which Persephone/Proserpina is exiled to the underworld, a story in which, as Despina pointed out, the Sirens are involved. (I'll try to find a good version of that story and post it so that it shows up when we follow the relevant keywords.) So maybe some reasons to think of Odysseus and Orpheus as a pair...

Friday, 30 April 2010

Orpheus and the Sirens

As a change from botanical names, I spent some time last night looking at the two volumes of Robert Graves' work, The Greek Myths, to see what he says about the Sirens. Something that I'd completely forgotten is that Jason and the Argonauts also encountered the Sirens when they were returning from Colchis, having seized the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes. They too survived the danger but by different means:
Jason now needed only to double Cape Malea, and return with the fleece to Iolcus. He cruised in safety past the Islands of the Sirens, where the ravishing strains of these bird-women were countered by the even lovelier strains of Orpheus's lyre. Butes along sprang overboard in an attempt to swim ashore, but Aphrodite rescued him; she took him to Mount Eryx by way of Lilybaeum, and there made him her lover. Some say that the Sirens, who had already lost their wings as a result of an unsuccesful contest with the Muses, sponsored by Hera, committed suicide because of their failure to outcharm Orpheus; yet they were still on their island when Odyseus came by a generation later. (Graves, volume 2, page 245)
I think there's something really interesting about this alternative way of resisting the song of the Sirens and, given the focus on music and the voice, it might be worth thinking about, perhaps.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


A couple of images of Kayaköy from the air, both from Google Earth. The houses appear as white rectangles because the walls still stand while the roofs have long gone:

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

thuja again

I realise this stuff may be quite a specific obsession of mine but I'm still very intrigued by the migration of the ancient term thuja from the plant it originally designated to a genus that isn't represented in Europe or Africa at all. The Oxford English Dictionary supplies a scrap of information about when the white cedar first received the name thuja:
Camerarius, 1577, has thya from Pliny and thuia after Gaza; he applies the name to the American Arbor Vitæ, Thuya occidentalis.
I think this must be a reference to a German botanist called Joachim Camerarius the younger (1534-1598) and, since Cartier's attention was only drawn to the white cedar in the 1530s, the text mentioned here - whatever it is - is very early. However, although I've cast about a bit to see if I can locate something that Camerarius published in 1577, I've drawn a blank. So, I've written to the enquiries department at the OED to ask if they have a fuller reference. (Maybe this *is* becoming a bit obsessive!)

Monday, 26 April 2010


It seems that ameda has many variant spellings: anneda, annedda, and hanneda. I'm not sure where these appear - I've just seen them cited in the secondary literature (e.g. an article by C. Stuart Houston on 'Scurvy and Canadian Exploration'). But, thinking about capturing voices through the process of transcription, it's interesting that so many variants appear.

thuja occidentalis

As well as arbor vitae and ameda, which I talked about here, the northern white cedar is also known by its Linnaean nomenclature: thuja occidentalis. When I first saw this name (in the exhibition space at the Forest History Center) it struck me as very strange looking and I underlined it in my notebook for that reason:

Actually, thuja is a transliteration of a Greek term and it looks a lot less odd in the Greek script:

I suppose it's the j that makes the Latin version look strange. Once you realise that it's just a way of writing iota when it appears between two vowels, it doesn't seem so startling. But the Greek term itself has quite an odd history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was originally used as the name of an 'African tree' and appears with that reference in the Enquiry into Plants, by Theophrastus (c. 371- c.287 BC). And in Revelation 18.12, the passage prophesying the fall of Babylon, an adjectival form appears, referring to the same plant:

11. And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more:
12. The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble,
13. And cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men.

I think 'thyine wood' was burned for its smell and hence associated with sacrifices. (Quite a few sources connect thuia with thuein (to sacrifice)).

But, funnily enough, when the term thuja had become established in the Linnaean nomenclature to designate a particular genus, it turned out that the original thuia did not belong to that genus and the old 'African tree' is now known as tetraclinis articulata. (Well, I think that's the most recent name - at least it isn't called thuja articulata any more.) So the name has migrated away from its original reference and is now used in the names of five species, two from North America, three from East Asia, and none from North Africa.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

historic buildings

Just to keep the list growing, another historic house near Sheffield is Haddon Hall, a medieval manor house, the oldest parts of which date from the 12th century:

Haddon Hall,
Hardwick Hall,
Bolsover Castle,

northern white cedar

I've been away at a conference for a few days but am back at my desk today and thinking again about botany. I posted here about the way that plant names are entangled with human history and I mentioned some of the trees that are found in the forests of northern Minnesota. This is just a little story about the northern white cedar, which is native to the north-east of the US and the south-east of Canada with Minnesota at the western edge of its range.

This was the first North American tree to be introduced to Europe and that's largely, I think, because of its medicinal properties. When the French explorer, Jacques Cartier, came to Canada for the second time in 1536, he discovered - from Huron informants - that the foliage of the plant could be prepared and used as a cure for scurvy. (His crew were badly afflicted after the journey across the Atlantic.) As a result, he named it arbor vitae, tree of life, and took samples back to France, where it was cultivated.

In 1580, an English edition of Cartier's travels was published under the title: A shorte and briefe narration of the two nauigations and discoueries to the northwest partes called Newe Fraunce. I happen to have to access to this and took the chance to look at the narrative of the arbor vitae. It's interesting because Cartier cites a Native American name for the plant. He says: 'they told us, the vertue of that tree was, to heale any other disease: the tree is in their language called Ameda'. But it's worth looking at the orginal presentation of this passage. Below is a fasimile with the name ringed in red:

What really strikes me is the way the name, Ameda, is set off typographically. Whereas most of the text is in black-letter type, this term is in some kind of Roman font and in small caps with extra space around and between the letters. A theme I've returned to a lot throughout our discussions is that of transcription and this is, of course, a 16th-century transcription of a Native American term. The typographical difference doesn't help us to pronounce it but it does suggest another voice in the text and I've found myself trying to imagine what a voice rendered in well spaced Roman capitals might sound like! (Deep and booming? Or just subtly particular? Not what Cartier's own voice sounds like even when he tries to pronounce it correctly?) Actually, the word 'God', which appears right at the bottom of the page, is also set off typographically. But 'God' is just capitalised - it's in the same font as the rest of the text. Only the Native American term appears in a different font altogether.

So, here we have two names for the same tree but more than one voice is speaking in each of them. When Cartier names the tree arbor vitae, he is not inventing a term but drawing on a Christian name for the cross. I don't know if you've seen this site on the iconography of the cross. It's very good and it provides some references for the arbor vitae:

Peter and Linda Murray. 1998. Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture, pages 540-41.
William Wood Seymour. 1898. Cross in Tradition, History, and Art, pages 83-93.
Eva Wilson. 1994. Ornament 8000 Years: An Illustrated Handbook of Motifs, pages 135-38.

And, when we learn the Huron (?) name for the northern white cedar, we encounter it transcribed in Cartier's text, isolated from the language around it through the typographical choices made by the printer.

That's enough for now, I think. The northern white cedar has other names too, but I'll come to them another time. To finish, here's a picture of the plant itself (borrowed from wikimedia):

Monday, 19 April 2010


Yes, it's very interesting that the idea of nostalgia has reappeared now (in the context of the wisteria). And, actually, that trait of insisting on the present as a way of disentangling oneself from nostalgia strikes a chord with me. You know, I realise that, whenever I go to places with a powerful charge of history, I always start feeling deeply suspicious of my own motives. Nostalgia is a sort of 'bogus' emotion, I think, and there are others. They all involve a sort of performance of sensitivity rather than some more authentic response and they all arise from a particular way of seeing the relationship between past and present.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

bill fontana - river sounding

On a rather different note, my colleague Jane Hodson - who you met at the first 'gathering' last year - put me on to this work by Bill Fontana:

It's a sound installation relating to the Thames as it flows through London. Do have a look at the link and let me know if you find it interesting. I *might* have a chance to get down to London at the end of next week and, if you think this is worth a look, I'll go to Somerset House and make some notes about what it's like.

memory and nature

Once again, I really enjoyed your post (and also the comments it's attracted on your blog and on facebook). I'm keen to write about it this morning but, because it's a complex subject and it's only just opening up, I don't have a worked-out argument to express. I'm just going to jot down a few thoughts...

(1) There is certainly a tension between the haecitas of nature and the fact that natural organisms can also represent traces of historical events. It's true that the wisteria is simultaneously 'a flowering vine blooming out of the ground in the spring' and the trace of a certain kind of history.

(2) In a way the distinction is between recognising the wisteria as a symbol of a particular history and rigorously refusing to make it into a symbol, thus insisting upon its haecitas in the here and now. This idea of nature-as-symbol and nature-without-symbolism is interesting to me. There might be good reasons to want to see the wisteria in both ways.

(3) I have a feeling that this is one of those things where one can move between two perceptions of the same thing, both being possible but each always excluding the other. In this, it's like a Necker Cube:

Each of the box shapes in this image can be seen as either protruding from or intruding into the page. But, although you can see them in both ways, you can't see both at the same time.

(4) The impulse simply to be in the here-and-now is an important one - part of the reason that Buddhism has achieved some purchase in the west - but the impulse to look for the traces of history also seems important to me. Isn't it rather chilling to think that the here-and-now will simply cover up the past? Weren't we quite pleased when we found that the Minnesota Historical Society had put up signs to commemorate what was done to the Ojibwe at Great Sandy Lake and so trouble the sense that the lake is just a gloriously beautiful natural vista? (Although, actually, it occurs to me that, if one is standing there enjoying the 'beauty' of the lake, one might not be able to claim that one is simply being - 'enjoying the view' is a culturally constructed activity, I think.) This is why I like the image of the Necker Cube - wisteria is both presence-in-the-world and historical trace but maybe it can't be both to us at the same time.

(5) I love the fact that you've posted about Eudora Welty in this connection and I agree that she is absolutely fascinating. But, having tried to work out what I feel about this, I'm not sure that I fully understand her sense that places somehow retain their history quite apart from the functioning of human memory. I don't think my intitial response to a place - or at least to a place that seems 'natural' - involves a kind of intuitive discovery of its history but more the kind of aesetheticised here-and-now response that I've talked about in relation to Great Sandy Lake. Moving to the other view of the Necker cube - the view of the place as somewhere where history happened - involves some kind of mental work, some kind of learning - and then, once that's achieved, it can be difficult to go back to the other way of seeing it. Actually, I'm not quite sure about that last point - it's all too easy to slip back into an aestheticised way of seeing it but very difficult to experience it in that rather more unattached way as simply 'there'. (Also, I may not have understood Welty's ideas very well...)

(6) All this leads me to think about my focus on language and voices. The names of plants are quite clearly historical clues and so my interest in language perhaps conditions me to understand nature historically. But, again, it occurs to me that there is something very powerful to be done in thinking about the distinction between the named and the un-named. Would it be possible to detach the wisteria from its name once its name is known to you? I'm really struck by your allusion to Romeo and Juliet here. I'm also thinking about the way I felt as I kayaked through the woods immediately below Vekin's Dam and realised that I couldn't attach names to any of the plants around me.

(7) This is just coincidence really, but - as it happens - the Necker Cube appears in the designs of the mosaics at Pompeii:

Both images in this post come from

Seven 'thoughts' on memory and nature :o) I don't if any of it makes much sense but that's what's in my mind right now...

Saturday, 17 April 2010

wisteria and pine trees

I love your new post and it seems to me that there is a lot to think about here. For a start, you've reminded me of conversations we had in Minnesota about the way in which nature recolonises places long after the humans are gone, but - often - a nature changed by the passage of a human population. In the case of Rodney, the agent of nature's recolonisation is an introduced species, wisteria, and in the case of northern Minnesota (including the area round Mallard) it's the secondary growth, which is actually quite different from the primary growth that was there before. (Despite all the forests, Minnesota does not look as it did before the loggers passed through.) So our sense that nature entirely erases the traces of human habitation (and trauma) isn't quite right: if you can read 'nature's book', you can see those traces still in the way nature is changed by the 'passing through' of human populations. When nature reclaims a ghost town, it is itself changed.

I'm aways interested in how language, speech, and voices are connected with experiences of this kind and I think there is a lot of potential for thinking about that here. The plant we call wisteria must have changed its name many times as it passed from Asia into Europe and on into North America. I wonder what wisteria is called in Chinese? And does it appear in Chinese poetry? [...] Actually, I've just tried to answer my last question by doing a quick online search. And this took me to the website of James Cahill, Professor Emeritus in the History of Art at Berkeley. There he has a handout relating to a seminar on 'Poetic Painting in China'. It's a bit hard to interpret - more like a series of notes than a connected text - but it includes this:

Distant Mts. 4: "Scholars Gazing At Waterfall," 1630. Couplet (p. 37): "Pines and rocks are proper to old age; / Wisteria vines do not count the years."

I think there's something rather striking about that couplet, not least in the way it mentions both pines (the flora to be found around Mallard) and wisteria (the plant that is reclaiming Rodney), connecting both with the passing of time. It seems that, in English, the plant is named after a person, although there seems to be some doubt about which person. Having searched online, I've found that a lot of people say it was Caspar Wister (1761-1818), a physician and anatomist from Philadelphia.

As I happens, I've already assembled some material on the naming of plants in Minnesota. While I was kayaking, I was chastened a little by my total inability to recognise or name the plants that surrounded me. So, when we went to the Forest History Center near Grand Rapids, I was excited to see a big board in the exhibition space with the names of lots of the trees that you find in the area. I jotted them down in my notebook and, when I came back to Sheffield, did some research on some that seemed particularly interesting to me. I won't download a lot of information about them now - I'll save it for future postings - but a few that really caught my imagination were:

Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)
American Basswood (Tilia americana)
Tamarack (Larix laricina)
Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis)

What do you think about collecting a series of 'botanical fragments' relating to the plants that surround our ghost towns? (By 'fragments' I mean fragments of text, of course.) Kayaköy is certainly being recolonised by plant life, all of which presumably has both Greek and Turkish names. Obviously Pompeii wasn't slowly reclaimed by nature - it was buried quickly in volcanic ash. But it occurs to me that the mosaics and paintings of Pompeii include images of plants and I wonder if they are just local ones or if they represent the resources of the empire? Anyway, just a thought - I'll post some more on this later.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

historic buildings

Another historic house near Sheffield is Hardwick Hall, built by Bess of Hardwich in the late 16th century:

Hardwick Hall,
Bolsover Castle,

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Benjamin on Kafka on ... Native Americans

Kafka's collection of stories, Contemplation (in German, Betrachtung) includes one called The Wish to be a Red Indian (Wunsch, Indianer zu werden). Benjamin quotes it in the essay we've been looking at. He has just been talking about a childhood photograph of Kafka in which he has '[i]mmensely sad eyes':
The ardent 'wish to become a Red Indian' may have consumed this great sadness at some point. 'If one were only an Indian, instantly alert, and on a racing horse, leaning against the wind, kept on quivering briefly over the quivering ground, until one shed one's spurs, for there were no spurs, threw away the reins, for there were no reins, and barely saw the land before one as a smoothly mown heath, with the horse's neck and head already gone.' A great deal is contained in this wish. Its fulfilment, which he finds in America, yields up its secret.