Dojo Darelir, the School of Xenograg the Sorcerer

Tag: Greeks

The Greeks Were the Vikings of the Bronze Age

May 17, 2022

The Greeks were the Vikings of the Bronze Age. They built some of history’s first warships. Whether on large expeditions or smaller sorties, whether in the king’s call-up or on freebooting forays, whether as formal soldiers and sailors or as traders who turned into raiders at a moment’s notice, whether as mercenaries, ambassadors, or hereditary guest-friends, the Greeks fanned out across the Aegean and into the eastern and central Mediterranean, with one hand on the rudder and the other on the hilt of a sword. What the sight of a dragon’s head on the stem post of a Viking ship was to an Anglo-Saxon, the sight of a bird’s beak on the stem post of a Greek galley was to a Mediterranean islander or Anatolian mainlander. In the 1400s [B.C.E.], the Greeks conquered Crete, the southwestern Aegean islands, and the city of Miletus on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, before driving eastward into Lycia and across the sea to Cyprus. In the 1300s they stirred up rebels against the Hittite overlords of western Anatolia. In the 1200s they began muscling their way into the islands of the northeastern Aegean, which presented a big threat to Troy….

The Trojan War, pp. 2-3

Emphasis mine.

Athena Was Not Always a War Goddess

April 10, 2022

In the Minoan days of Crete an unprecedented flowering of learning and the arts was cultivated by Athena. Dynamic architecture rose to four stories, pillared and finely detailed, yet always infused with the serenity of the Goddess. Patiently Her mortals charted the heavens, devised a calendar, kept written archives. In the palaces they painted striking frescoes of Her Priestesses and sculpted Her owl and ever-renewing serpent in the shrine rooms. Goddess figures and their rituals were deftly engraved on seals and amulets. Graceful scenes were cast in relief for gold vessels and jewelry. Athena nurtured all the arts, but Her favorites were weaving and pottery.

Long before there were palaces, the Goddess had appeared to a group of women gathering plants in a field. She broke open the stems of blue-flowered flax and showed them how the threadlike fibers could be spun and then woven. The woof and warp danced in Her fingers until a length of cloth was bom before them. She told them which plants and roots would color the cloth, and then She led the mortals from the field to a pit of clay. There they watched Athena form a long serpent and coil it, much like the serpents coiled around Her arms. She formed a vessel and smoothed the sides, then deftly applied a paste made from another clay and water. When it was baked in a hollow in the earth, a spiral pattern emerged clearly. The image of circles that repeat and repeat yet move forward was kept by the women for centuries.

As the mortals moved forward, Athena guided the impulse of the arts. She knew they would never flourish in an air of strife, so She protected households from divisive forces and guarded towns against aggression. So invincible was the aura of Her protection that the Minoans lived in unfortified coastal towns. Their shipping trade prospered and they enjoyed a peace that spanned a thousand years. To Athena each family held the olive bough sacred, each worshipped Her in their home. Then quite suddenly the flowering of the Minoans was slashed. Northern barbarians, more fierce than the Aegean Goddess had ever known, invaded the island and carried Athena away to Attica. There they made her a soldier.

Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, pp. 99-101

Patriarchal Olympian Dominance

April 2, 2022

Perseus’s subsequent trials and triumphs, like those of his great-grandson Herakles, are too epic in scope, covering most of the known world, Hell included, and too teeming with exploits to go into in any detail here. Most significant, however, was the way in which the deeds of both heroes were reflections of their father’s battles against Gaia—which is to say, of the Greeks’ ongoing struggle to subsume the Pelasgians’ old, earthbound, chthonic cults into the brave new world of patriarchal Olympian dominance. Thus, Perseus’s most renowned exploit would be his beheading of that superbly demonized version of the Great Mother, Medusa, the terrible, snake-haired Gorgon who dwelled with her equally hideous sisters in a seaside cave near the opening to the Underworld.

Zeus, p. 123

The Reason for the Seasons

April 2, 2022

Demeter’s hair was yellow as the ripe corn of which she was mistress, for she was the Harvest Spirit, goddess of farmed fields and growing grain. The threshing floor was her sacred space. Women, the world’s first farmers (while men still ran off to the bloody howling of hunt and battle), were her natural worshipers, praying: “May it be our part to separate wheat from chaff in a rush of wind, digging the great winnowing fan through Demeter’s heaped-up mounds of corn while she stands among us, smiling, her brown arms heavy with sheaves, her ample breasts adorned in flowers of the field.”

Demeter had but one daughter, and she needed no other, for Persephone was the Spirit of Spring. The Lord of Shadows and Death, Hades himself, the Unseen One, carried her off in his jet-black chariot, driven by coal-black steeds, through a crevice in the surface of Earth, down to the realms of the dead. For nine days, Demeter wandered sorrowing over land, sea, and sky in search of her daughter, but no one dared tell her what had happened till she reached the Sun, who had seen it all. With Zeus’s help, the mother retrieved her daughter, but Persephone had already eaten a pomegranate seed, food of the dead, at Hades’s insistence, which meant she must come back to him. In the end, a sort of truce was arranged. Persephone could return to her sorrowing mother but must spend a third of each year with her dark Lord. Thus, by the four-month death each year of the goddess of springtime in her descent to the underworld, did winter enter the world. And when she returns from the dark realms she always strikes earthly beings with awe and smells somewhat of the grave.

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, p. 3

Monsters Are Both Real and Metaphorical

March 31, 2022

To modern sensibility the fact of a story’s being allegorical makes it less likely to be an accurate depiction of real events. Modern writers try to drain their texts of meaning, to flatten them out in order to make them more naturalistic.

To the ancients, who believed that every single thing that happens on earth is guided by the motions of the stars and planets, the more a narrative brought out these ‘poetic’ patterns, the truer and more realistic the text.

So, it may be tempting to view the journeys into the Underworld made by Hercules, Theseus, and Orpheus as mere metaphor. It is true that on one level their adventures represent the beginning of humanity’s coming to terms with the reality of death. But, as we try to imagine the adventures underground of Hercules, Theseus, and the others, we must not conceive of them as to be purely internal or mental journeys, such as we might contemplate today. When they battled with monsters and demons, they were confronting forces that infested their own beings, the corrupted human flesh, the dark labyrinth of the human brain. But they were also fighting real monsters of flesh and blood.

The Secret History of the World, p. 146

Observed Process of the Causality of Magic

March 7, 2022

Entropy is the engine that drives the Universe, which exists in a constant balancing act of Cause and Effect. Once you cause something to be set in motion, it inevitably slides down the slope of entropy, into the unavoidable effect of that action. Magic works more directly with Entropy and begins with the desired effect and then alters the fabric of the Universe so the proper cause sets it in motion.

— fragment from unknown ancient text found in the Vault of Alexandria

Cowardice, Sloth, and Mendacity

February 2, 2022
What a dangerous precedent! What if one day there were other heroes like him?
What if courage and imagination were to become everyday mortal qualities? What would become of us?
We would no longer be needed. But for the moment there is sufficient cowardice, sloth, and mendacity down there on Earth to last forever.

— “Clash of the Titans” (1981)

Magical Practice Required Specialist Knowledge

November 28, 2021

Magic was accepted without exception by all strata of society, but its practice required considerable specialist magical knowledge; amateur dabbling with such powers was generally disastrous. In the official rhetoric of these times magic is a powerful but ambiguous quality, sometimes practised by specialists or charismatic individuals, and also by priests and rabbis drawing on religious lore. Magic is intimately bound up with religion for the Greeks and Romans, somewhat more removed for Jews. It is by turns valued, contested, debated and deemed dangerous; it is a variable quality but still central to social and cultural forces, as well as being a good diagnostic of them. Magic is as important for the historian in the present as it was for contemporary people millennia ago, and in order to understand it we must briefly sketch out broader cultural traditions and histories, many of which also provide the foundations of the world in which we live today.

Chris Gosden, Magic: a History, p. 240

Greek Missile Tactics

June 9, 2019

Missile-type weapons played only a very small role in connection with the hoplite phalanx. With the Greeks the bow was a traditionally respected weapon; the national hero, Hercules, was an archer. In the case of the Athenians, a special archer corps is mentioned in the campaign of Plataea. But since the time the phalanx was formed of spear-carriers, the bow was pushed into the background, since the two arms, even if not mutually exclusive, can be combined only with great difficulty. One can picture the archers, sling men, and javelin-throwers in front of, beside, and behind the phalanx. Whenever they were deployed forward of the front line, they must have disappeared before the clash of the two phalanxes, and therefore would necessarily have withdrawn around the flanks. If they attempted to push back through the phalanx itself, the resulting disorder and delay would cause much more damage than the advantage from the losses that they might have inflicted on the enemy. In order to be sure of passing around the two flanks, the sharpshooters would have to begin their withdrawal while the phalanxes were still several hundred paces apart. If the enemy had no sharpshooters and we sent out marksmen against him, to fire on him continuously during the approach march, that could of course cause him serious disruption. If both sides had sharpshooters, however, these two forces would, for the most part, only shoot at each other and would have no influence at all on the decisive phalanx battle. Firing obliquely on the approaching enemy from the two flanks of the hoplite phalanx, a number of marksmen could exercise an influence on the progress of the battle. But we find no recognizable traces of this kind of action, even in the later Greek battles.

Finally, if sharpshooters were stationed behind the phalanx, they could shoot out their volley from that position shortly before the clash. Fired in an arching trajectory, however, without real aiming, this could not be very effective, especially when, as is usually the case, our own phalanx was moving toward the enemy at the assault pace. Consequently, although we find such an employment of projectiles fairly often recommended in theory, nevertheless, from a practical viewpoint, it was used only infrequently, as, for example, in the battle that Thrasybulus fought against the thirty Tyrants in the streets of Piraeus (Xenophon). There, however, the troops of Thrasybulus stood only ten men deep, on a rise of ground, and waited for the enemy, who advanced up the street with a fifty-man depth. Under these special conditions the projectiles fired from above onto the thick mass were able to do very good service. Generally speaking, however, the marksmen formed only an auxiliary arm. The real combat force of the Greeks in the Persian Wars consisted only of hoplites.

Hans Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity, pp. 54-55

The Odyssey Is a Grand Metaphor

March 6, 2019

[The Odyssey] is not a poem about then and there, but now and here. The poem describes the inner geography of those who hear it. Every aspect of it is grand metaphor. Odysseus is not sailing on the Mediterranean but through the fears and desires of a man’s life. The gods are not distant creators but elements within us: their careless pitilessness, their flaky and transient interests, their indifference, their casual selfishness, their deceit, their earth-shaking footfalls….

Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters, p. 8

Suffering Can Only Be Told in Detail

August 18, 2018

“Beware the toils of war,” Sarpedon the Lycian hero says to Hector, “the mesh of the huge dragnet sweeping up the world.” Buried inside that terrifying image of war trawling for the lives of men, its net stretched from one horizon to the other, ushering the mortals into the cod end, is the Greek word for flax, the thread that the Fates use at the beginning of each of our lives to spin our destinies. And so the metaphor makes an assumption: war is part of destiny. It is not an aberration or a strangeness. It is, for Homer, a theater in which the structure of reality is revealed.

Simone Weil and many others have read the Iliad as an antiwar poem. But to see it as a polemic in that sense is to reduce it. Homer knows about the reality of suffering but never thinks of a world without conflict. On the shield of Achilles, the smith god Hephaestus creates dazzlingly opposed images of the good world and the bad, set against each other. But even in the good world of justice there is still murder and violence. We might long for peace, but we live in war, and the Iliad is a poem about the inescapability of it.

All of that lies behind the Iliad‘s massive oversupply of suffering. The poet’s conception that the Greeks have been on this beach for nine long, dreadful years—a historical absurdity—stands in for eternity. This is how things are. This is how things have always been. This is how things are going to continue to be. War is the air a warrior society must breathe. And alongside that everlastingness of grief, its repetitive return, is a deeply absorbed knowledge that suffering can only be told in detail. No counting of casualties will do; no strategic overview will understand the reality; only the intimate engagement with the intimacy of pain and sorrow can ever be good enough for the enlightenment that is Homer’s purpose.

Scholars have worked out that 264 people die in the course of the Iliad. It doesn’t seem enough. One atrocity in some villages on the northern borders of Syria, one nighttime drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, one week of car bombs in Baghdad—any of them can outdo it. Only the epic engagement with Atē, the blind goddess of ruin, whose name means both “wrongness” and “wickedness,” can tell what those figures conceal. People are pitiably weak in the face of ruin, pathetically hoping that their prayers for happiness might prevail….

Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters, pp. 181-82

Emphasis mine.

Poetry and War are Fame Businesses

March 11, 2017

Poetry and war are joined in this; both are fame businesses. The same epithets are attached to these fame-seeking heroes across the whole enormous continent: he was "man-slaying" in Ireland and Iran, and "of the famous spear" in Greece and India. He stood as firm and immovable in battle as a mighty tree in Homer, Russian and Welsh. Like the Greeks, Irish heroes raged like a fire. In Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Vedic and Irish, that rage could emerge as a flame flaring from the hero’s head. Proto-Indo-Europeans saw the great man as a torch. Across the whole of Eurasia his weapons longed for blood, even while this blood-seeking vengeance wreaker was to his own family and clan, wherever they might be, the "herdsman of his people" and their protective enclosure. There were no city walls in this world; the hero himself was their protection and their strength.

From one end of Eurasia to another, men stand like trees, but enemies are also felled like trees, in the way a carpenter or woodsmen would fell them. When death arrives, a darkness comes on the hero. Life itself for the Proto-Indo-European consciousness is inseparable from light, especially the light of the sun, and that is the energy the heroes share with the universe. For all of them, courage is not something that appears casually in everyday life. Only when battle summons them, and when the noise of battle reaches up to heaven, as it does in all these daughter traditions, does courage appear and the hero find himself "clothed in valor."

Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters, pp. 169-70

A Sword’s Sole Purpose

March 16, 2016

[Bronze Age] weapons are horrifying and beautiful, repulsive and attractive in the way the Iliad can be, for their lack of sentiment, the unadorned facts they represent, but also for the perfection with which they are made, their seamless match of purpose and material. The swords that have been found in Mycenaean graves are always exceptionally well-balanced things, the weight in the pommel counteracting the weight in the blade so that they feel functional in the hand, body-extensions, enlarging the human possibilities of dominance and destruction. The lances would have been useful in the hunt, to be thrown or to jab at cornered prey, but these swords mark a particular horizon in human history: they are the first objects to be designed with the sole purpose of killing another person. Their reach is too short for them to be any good with a wild animal thrashing in its death terror. A sword is only useful if someone else agrees to the violence it threatens; it will get to another man who is prepared to stand and fight. Some of the most beautiful decorated swords are found scarcely used, ceremonial objects to be carried in glory. But most of the rest show the marks of battle; the edges hacked and notched where another sword clashed onto them, worn where those edges were resharpened for the next time.

Adam Nicolson, Why Homer Matters, p. 121

Emphasis mine.

Snakes Carry Out Divine Demands

September 1, 2015

Early inhabitants of Crete may have believed that the kingdom of snakes enjoyed a special affinity with the gods; they seem to have known, for instance, that snakes, when called upon by the gods, carried out demands. Snakes came to people with messages; they stood as portents, executed miscreants, or indicated actions to be taken or avoided. In due time, gods were known to take the form of snakes in order to inflict good or evil upon mortals, and mortals were careful in dealing with snakes.

Lee Hall, Athena: A Biography, pp. 27-28

Less a State Than an Estate

August 29, 2015

Agamemnon’s kingdom was typical of its times; it was less a state than an estate, that is, it was essentially a big household. The royal palace had grand staterooms but most of its space was devoted to workshops, storerooms, and armories. It was a manor that produced luxury goods for the wanax [an ancient word for king used by Homer] to trade or give as gifts. Raw materials for the workshops were siphoned off the king’s subjects as taxation.

More important, from the military point of view, the palace produced bronze breastplates and arrowheads, manufactured and maintained chariots, and stabled horses. The wanax controlled a corps of charioteers and bowmen and possibly one of infantrymen, too. In any case, as powerful as he was, the wanax probably had no monopoly on the kingdom’s military force.

The royal writ was strongest on the king’s landholdings, concentrated around the palace. The rest of the territory was run by local big men or basileis, each no doubt with his own armed followers. The wanax could muster an army and navy out of his own men, but for a really big campaign he would need the support of the basileis. In short, the wanax was only as strong as his ability to dominate the basileis, be it by persuasion or force.

Barry Strauss, The Trojan War, pp. 32-33

Time Is the Most Neglected Dimension

May 31, 2014

Time is the most neglected dimension in existing battle reconstructions, focusing as they do on static diagrams of force dispositions. Our more dynamic model [discussed in the book] shows that time was just as important as force and space in shaping the battles concerned. The great majority of the engagements involved some form of ‘race against time’, be it a surprised army rushing up reinforcements before the forward troops were overwhelmed, an army in a ‘revolving door’ battle striving to break through and roll up the enemy line before its opponents did the same, or a Roman or Punic army trying to win the infantry contest before the enemy cavalry encirclement took effect. Deployment may have taken many hours, and we know that cavalry and light infantry skirmishing could continue almost indefinitely as long as the troops had a safe place of refuge where they could recover before sallying forth once again, but once both sides’ heavy forces came into action, the pace of events quickened and battles could reach a decision with remarkable speed.

The ‘battlefield clock’ created by wide-ranging grand tactical manoeuvres gives us some idea of how long it might take for combat to be resolved. In large battles, it would obviously take longer for troops to cover the greater distances, but combat itself also seems to have lasted longer because of increased formation depth, so the two factors largely cancelled one another out. Heavy cavalry and Greek hoplite combat were usually much quicker than clashes between other troop types, and it was rare for such contests to remain undecided until other contingents intervened. Roman legionaries, by contrast, could hold out for a lot longer thanks to their stubborn resilience and their multiple line system. It was always possible for shaky or disordered troops to collapse at the first shock, but the generally longer duration of Roman infantry combat helps to explain why cavalry double envelopments became such a characteristic feature of battles during the Punic Wars.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, pp. 223-24

Standard Battle Array of Ancient Armies

May 31, 2014

Ancient armies faced a perennial tension between breadth and depth of deployment to avoid the twin perils of penetration and encirclement. However, even small armies used many more ranks than would allow the men at the back to fight directly, and depths increased greatly in larger forces. This was a key reason why raw numbers were less important than other factors, and it also meant that battle line frontages did not vary anything like as much as the size of armies themselves. There were some cases in which one or both sides were caught by surprise and deployed their forces piecemeal, but most big ancient engagements involved the prior arraying of the opposing lines in a remarkably formalized fashion. The standard battle array placed the heavy infantry in the centre, with light infantry and perhaps elephants in front, and cavalry on the flanks. Each army would usually attack with some parts of its line, while resisting enemy superiority elsewhere. Offensive elements that achieved a breakthrough might turn against the flank or rear of other enemy contingents. Defensive sections of the line might be held back in an oblique order to delay combat, or they might retire in the face of enemy pressure in order to trade space for time and perhaps draw the enemy forward into an encirclement. Greek and Hellenistic armies tended to attack on one flank and defend on the other (producing either a head-on clash or a ‘revolving door’ engagement), while Roman and Punic deployments tended to involve a more even balance between the two wings, leading to more symmetrical double envelopments by the side with cavalry superiority.

Philip Sabin, Lost Battles, p. 222

Emphasis mine.

Wine of Ancient Greece Was Thick Like Syrup

March 9, 2014

…The wine of ancient Greece did not taste anything like the wine we know today. It was thick like syrup, and was often heavily flavored with honey, thyme, aloes, and juniper berries. Most people today would find it awful. Even then they had to water it down to avoid toxic intoxication….

Jean Houston, The Hero and the Goddess, p. 109

Psyche Was Not a Thing But a Process

August 30, 2012

For the ancient Greeks, psyche was not a thing but a process, a dynamic continuum and relationship among humans, gods, and nature. The Greek notion of psyche was one of radiating but personalized fields that cross-fertilized all structures of reality, making archetypes available to men, and making intimate the universal patterns found in nature and story alike. As Charles Hampden-Turner observes about the Greeks in his splendid book Maps of the Mind:

They walked with Truth [Apollo] and Beauty [Aphrodite] at their sides. They raced with daemons of excellence, the spirits of past athletes running beside them, urging them on. They travelled with Hermes, danced and drank with Dionysius, and sailed the seas under the guardianship of Poseidon. They fought for the rights of married women, children and the home with the tenacity of Hera and harvested the crops with Demeter beside them… The concept of psyche gave the Greeks their infinite love and delight in nature and an extraordinary courage in exploring it. Into every nook and cranny of the world the spirits of gods or heroes had already ventured. Men crossed the seas in the path of Odysseus, entered labyrinths of mind or nature wherein Theseus had already slain the Minotaur…

By perceiving psyche as a resonance phenomenon, a radiant field of living energies that include gods and cosmic principles, the building blocks of mind, myth, and nature, the human being has the capacity within his or her mind and body to become an instrument through which the world can be re-created and the soul of humankind can touch the creative Source of all becoming.

Jean Houston, The Hero and the Goddess, pp. 59-60

Polycentric, Polytheistic, Polyphrenic, and Polyocular

August 24, 2012

How different indeed was the psychological world of these Greeks from our own. We in the present day persist in looking for cause and effect and remain monotheistic (having one god or supreme principle), monophrenic (having one personality), and monocular (having one way of seeing) in our epistemology. We tend to think that everything can be known in a straightforward, linear fashion. All we need do is accumulate enough facts and look at them rationally and the truth—of which there is only one—will reveal itself….

But the Homerically-inspired Greek mind, which found its finest flowering in the Athens of Pericles, was polycentric (having many centers), polytheistic (having many gods), polyphrenic (having many selves), and polyocular (having many ways of seeing), conceiving of many different causes—all of which provided a rich weave of explanation. They viewed reality as a field of unity in diversity with the One, deriving its Oneness only from the interconnecting patterns of the many.

Jean Houston, The Hero and the Goddess, pp. 55-56