Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Eyes Without a Face: St. Lucy & Friends

I've been reading up on the more bizarre or grotesque stories of Catholic saints, and thought I'd share a few of the weirder or more disgusting stories here from time to time.

St. Lucy was supposed to marry a fine young fellow, but didn't want to. He handled it like any normal person would: reported her to the authorities for being a Christian. When they tried to force her into prostitution, God made her body so heavy it wouldn't move. Then they scooped her eyes out, but they grew back. Here she is, holding her eyes on a plate. As you might expect, she's the patron saint of blindness. 

How about St. Simon the Zealot? He was one of the twelve disciples. A violent man before adopting Christianity, he was martyred in Mesopotamia - hung upside down and sawed in half longitudinally. Ouch. I think I'd rather be crucified.

St. Margaret of Antioch was jailed for being a Christian after she refused a pagan suitor. She was thrown into jail, when the devil, in the form of a dragon, tried to eat her. Apparently the cross she wore made its stomach upset and she tore her way out. The authorities tried to drown her and burn her, but she wouldn't die. Finally they cut her head off, and that seemed to work. She's the patron saint of childbirth.

St. Bartholemew was also one of the apostles. He went to India, where they flayed him alive and crucified him upside down. Lo and behold, he's the patron saint of skinners and leatherworkers.

St. Christopher had the head of a dog - either because he came from that mysterious part of the world where cynocephaluses live, or because God gave him a dog's head to ward of unwanted attention from women. He is also said to have carried a baby across a river, only to realize it was the baby Jesus, and he was so heavy because he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's the patron saint of those who travel, especially those who cross water. Christopher Columubus was named after him. One wonders how this influenced his life choices.

St. Denis converted so many pagans to Christianity that, annoyed, the pagans of Paris cut off his head. Denis promptly picked up his head and walked a few miles, preaching all the way, before he finally expired. 

There are a LOT more, of course. These were the ones that leaped out at me.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

"Xenophon, Come out and Play-yay!"

Continuing my explorations of ancient Greek history, I finally tackled a book I've wanted to read since college - Xenophon's Anabasis, also known as The Persian Expedition or The March of the Ten Thousand. It's one of the best true-life military adventure tales ever told.

Xenophon was an Athenian, but he had oligarchical views and more closely identified with Sparta. Indeed, he was later exiled from Athens and the Spartans gave him a home. After his soldiering career he settled in to write books. The Anabasis is his most famous, but he also continued Thucydides' truncated History of the Peolopponesian War in a book called Hellenica, wrote several books about the teachings of Socrates (Xenophon was a student of his as a  young man). He also wrote treatises on economy, horseback riding, and other things of interest to his contemporaries.

But the Anabasis is the only one not likely to bore a modern reader to tears. Here's a (very) brief summary:

Xenophon and ten thousand other Greeks, under the command of a Spartan general called Clearchus, agree to fight as mercenaries for Cyrus, a sibling of the King of Persia, who wanted to take the throne from his big brother. The Greeks get there and start fighting for Cyrus, but he dies. The Greeks are now deep in enemy territory, surrounded by enemies on all sides, they're a thousand miles from home, and, worse, the men haven't been paid. Xenophon gives his eyewitness account of not only battles, but more important subjects like finding supplies and food for the army, figuring out how to pay the men, and so on. There are lots of twists and turns, political intrigue, and exciting action sequences. In the end, the Ten Thousand get paid and Xenophon, at least, gets home, but the entire enterprise was ultimately disappointing to those involved, and to many in Greece, they were seen as failures. Nevertheless, it's a tale in which not only Xenophon, but many of his fellow officers, show great bravery and resourcefulness. When you've got 10,000 mercenaries in tow, even something simple like crossing a river is difficult. When your army is mostly made up of heavily armed and armored infantry (that is, hoplites), how do you create a brigade of slingers and archers on the fly? When the Persian warlord who offers to help out and pay you for your trouble refuses, in the end, to come up with the promised payment, what do you do?

None of these problems have easy solutions, but over time Xenophon emerges as the leader. Even then, the quarrelsome Greeks don't make it easy for him. Worse, when they finally reach some Spartan-controlled cities in Asia Minor, the Spartans themselves fear their power and effectively disown them.

Sometimes war isn't about winning anything - it's just about trying to get back home in one piece with a few extra drachmas in your pocket. If this story sounds familiar, it's actually the basis for the 1979 Walter Hill movie The Warriors, where the action is transferred to New York and the Greeks and Persians become street gangs. Watch it and my smart-ass title for this blog entry will make sense.

At any rate, if, as a reader of modern adventure fiction, Xenophon is surely the most accessible ancient Greek writer. If you're into military history, there are few odysseys more exciting.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Thucydides' Clusterfuck of History

A while back, I posted about finally finishing Herodotus. It seemed natural to follow up with Thucydides and his histories of the Peloponnesian Wars. Here's what I learned: if I thought the ancient Greeks were capable of pettiness, spite, jealousy, greed, and short-sightedness after reading Herodotus, I think it all the more so after reading Thucydides.

This is a historian, however, who set a standard for accuracy and (for the most part) objective reporting that later writers would think of as the proper way to write "history." Thucydides is a great source for the Peloponnesian War (a 30-year conflict between Athens and Sparta and their many allies). Why? He was actually there. Several times he refers to himself in the third person, and doesn't even try to defend his actions (well, not much, anyway) when he describes losing a battle and being ostracized (10-year banishment) for it. He knew most of the major players personally. Despite what seems today like his dry style - and I'm told it's dry compared to the flowery Herodotus, even in Greek - I felt as if I was there in the action throughout the book.

The problem for me was the bewildering array of ancient place names. The byzantine (pun intended) relationships between this and that city-state were very difficult to keep track of, and I was obliged to look at the helpful footnotes to keep me on track.

I also lost a lot of respect for the ancient Greeks. Obviously, we owe much of our western culture to them, as transmitted to us through Rome and its institutions. Even today, our capitol buildings, museums and other important public structures harken, design-wise, to those ancient days. But the Peloponnesian Wars wasted the civilization. By the end of it, the bright light of Athenian-style democracy (that is, voting rights for land-owning adult males) was snuffed out, largely through the fickleness, jealousy, and myopic foreign policy of the people themselves. Sparta won that war because Athens lost it - that, and the treachery of Alcibiades, which you can read about here.

Essentially, the war goes like this: the Greeks fight off an attack by the Persian Empire (which is told in Herodotus). The city-state of Athens is more-or-less in the right place at the right time to claim (with some justice) the lion's share of the credit in this endeavor. Afterward, they throw their weight around and establish an empire, primarily based among the islands of Ionia between Greece and Asia Minor (Turkey). Sparta is alarmed by this. Sparta prefers government by the few (oligarchy) and abhors what they view as the mob-rule that runs Athens. They figure that if they don't put Athens down now, they might never get to. But this talk of "freedom" was just a pretext. Corinth, Argos, and other cities were jealous of Athens, fearful of them, and sought Sparta's help. For the next 10 years there's a lot of back-and-forth, meaningless deaths, wasted cities and countryside. Both sides are relieved when the Athenian general Nicias brokers a peace treaty. But Alcibiades the Athenian is irritated by this. He rocks the boat, ensures that the Spartan ambassadors look bad, and derails the peace treaty. Then he convinces Athens to launch an invasion of Sicily that turns out to be utterly catastrophic. The Athenians lose their cool and it all goes downhill from there. Eventually, with the help of the Persian fleet, Sparta puts down Athens, and that city never again attains the glory it once had. Sparta more-or-less unifies Greece, in fact if not in name, under its leadership. This makes it all too easy for Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander (the Great, that is) from conquering Greece a generation later.

The most important fact I took away from the book is just that - that the Peloponnesian Wars effectively destroyed the glory of ancient Greece. Hellenistic culture would still thrive, and Alexander would spread it far into Asia, setting the stage for later conquests by Rome. But political power in the Mediterranean never again went to Greece. It's the end of the "ancient Greece" chapter of human civilization, I guess.

Thucydides seems to realize this in a prophetic way. One of the major themes in the book is how "folks used to do stuff right, but now they don't." He points out when long-standing rules of war are broken, the effects of political corruption, and so on, insinuating that these are all relatively recent developments. He's also skeptical about the gods, if not an outright athiest (though I think he was) and isn't afraid to poo-poo the idea of divine oracles (a huge thing in ancient Greece). He even points out that the Spartans managed to successfully bribe the priestess at Delphi multiple times to deliver to the Athenians oracles of Spartan, not divine, inspiration. All of this, he seems to argue, point to that fact that the world he thinks he knows is going to pot.

My only gripe is that Thucydides seems to have died before he finished the book. His narrative cuts off toward the latter part of the war, as chaos reigns in the Aegean. Later, the exiled Athenian warrior Xenophon would continue the narrative in his Hellenica, which I have not read. Xenophon himself is a fascinating individual, and we'll get into him more later (because I've finished reading his "Anabasis" as well). 

At any rate, I don't know if this is everyone's idea of relaxing reading. But it certainly kept my attention, the way any good piece of writing should. If I lost some respect for the ancient Greeks along the way, well, so be it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Dreams Do Come True

...I've been waiting for this since 1992.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tornado Music

A tornado-producing storm blew threw my town last night. A funnel cloud touched down several blocks from my house. I'd taken shelter in the basement, but my wife and stepson were on the way home from work, so when they got there I ran out to usher them in (what a hero!).

That's when I heard it...

At first, I thought it was a continuous roll of thunder, as if a new crash would start before the previous one had died away. It soon dawned on me that what I was hearing wasn't thunder but the howling tornado itself.

I wondered if words would fail me when I sat down to describe it, and they have. I stood out there listening for as long as I dared. The roar got louder and louder as it approached (by this time it was touching down near Lee's Summit hospital). At some point the sound spiked all of the sudden and I ran inside. I spent the rest of the night thinking about that sound and how it made me feel.

The best word is "awe." It was awesome, not in the colloquial "badass" sense but in the old-school "inspiring awe" sense. Some primal part of me, in that final sound-spike, felt a fight-or-flight (mostly flight) response that filled my entire body, brain - my entire self.

Hearing the tornado, standing out near it, I felt that I was not a self-contained entity, locked up inside my flesh and clearly separated from the rest of the world. In those few moments I felt no division between myself and nature. We were all...I don't know. Just "one big thing."

That moment marks the closest connection I have ever felt to nature. It's no wonder our ancestors attributed such power to the gods. As I ran inside I realized that no one on Earth can stop that tornado. No one can prevent it. There's nothing anyone can do about that tornado - it's coming, and it will eat up whatever lies in the way.

All of these thoughts seem rather obvious, of course. But there's a difference between understanding things like tornadoes (or "science facts" in general) on an intellectual level, and feeling them on a gut level. It's a sort of understanding that, in a way, seems to trump any other. The only other event I've ever witnessed that hit me with such force was watching the birth of my son.

And that's about the best I can do to describe my feelings about that tornado.

Incidentally, there was some damage from that storm but thankfully no one was killed.