Leda

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The latest addition to my family, my grand-niece Leda.

My first concern is that she not get too friendly with Swans.  Last time that happened a pretty little girl was born, and married Menelaus the Mycenean King of Sparta.  Helen of Sparta is not how we remember her, for Paris, son of Priam, stole her away to his home city.  And so we remember her as the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Illium.

Illium was the ancient name for the city of Troy, so Helen of Troy was daugher of Leda.  But who was the father of this child with the dreadful fate?  It was Zeus himself, who raped Leda, in the guise of a male swan.

And the brother of Menelaus?  The dread Agamemnon King of Mycenae itself, ruler of all the Achaeans as the Greeks called themselves in those days.  From this followed ten years of war.  Ajax and Achilles, Hector and Aeneas, wily Odysseus and his Trojan Horse.  Death and destruction as the Gods themselves engaged in the battle of the great Homeric Epic.

Calling a daughter Leda can come to no good I say.  But I am Cassandra and they shall not listen.

Leda and the Swan; by W.B. Yeats

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
by the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
so mastered by the brute blood of the air,
did she put on his knowledge with his power
before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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Topless towers burnt down

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Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? asked Christopher Marlowe in Dr Faustus.

Ilium, the city of Troy, canvas of heroes.  On the fields of Troy Homer introduced us to Ajax, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Priam, Hector, Paris and a cast of thousands.  Achilles the almost invincible and his lover Patroclus.  Cassandra who saw the future but was cursed never to be believed.  The wily Odysseus, AKA Ulysses and his 20 year journey home.  The seeds planted in Troy have germinated and multiplied to inspire a wealth of literature from ancient to modern times.

The Julii Caesares, who gave us Caesar and Augustus, claimed descent from the hero Aeneas who fled from burning Troy with his bride, a daughter of Priam.  Virgil made a career of that tale in the court of the First Emperor of Rome.

It was ostensibly on this day, April 24th in the year 1184 BC that Troy was sacked and burned by the Greeks.  For many that was as far as the myth went.  Then Heinrich Schliemann, a German Businessman, decided that there was no smoke without fire.  So he read Homer as a travel guide instead of as a legend.  He followed the clues and lo and behold he found the ancient city.  Burned, exactly as described.

He bedecked his wife in the jewelry he found there and put her on display for high society to see.  Then he followed more clues and found the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae.  A new form of archaeology was born and led to many discoveries all over the world.  Today the science has evolved to the point where Satellite images from earth orbit are being used to search for ancient sites.

 

No Second Troy; by William Butler Yeats

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
with misery, or that she would of late
have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
or hurled the little streets upon the great,
had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
that nobleness made simple as a fire,
with beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
that is not natural in an age like this,
being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Scuttled

Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee

Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee

On Dec 17th 1939 the first naval engagement of world war 2 ended with the scuttling of the Admiral Graf Spee after the Battle of the River Plate.  This was a triumph of British Diplomacy and deception.

The diplomats put constant pressure on the Uruguayan government to force the German Heavy Cruiser to leave the port of Montevideo where she wished to remain to effect repairs.  At the same time the British mounted a campaign of deception to convince Captain Langsdorff that the British had a fleet waiting in the estuary to destroy his ship.  He knew that the Argentinians would give him a better welcome if he could cross the Plate to Buenos Aires.

The British had a squadron en route to the Plate, but they were days away.  They had cargo vessels make smoke across the skyline to fool the Germans into believing that a large squadron was waiting for them. Langsdorff fell for the ruse and scuttled his ship.

A decent and honourable man, Hans Langsdorff adhered to the terms of the Hague Conventions and in the course of his commerce raiding campaign he killed none of the sailors on the ships he sank.  After he sank his own ship he secured the safety of his own men before committing suicide, lying on the battle flag of his command.  Symbolically he went down with his ship.

Some naval analysts criticize Langsdorff for squandering his advantage in the Battle of the Plate.  His 11 inch guns were more than a match for the 8 inch guns of the Exeter and the 6 inch guns of the Ajax and Achilles.  A more aggressive captain might have gone toe to toe with the British squadron and could have sunk all three ships.  Langsdorff clearly saw his role as a raider of commerce.  In this capacity it made sense to avoid engagements with battleships.

I think his strategy was to “run away and fight another day”.  A battle cruiser at large on the open ocean is far more potent than a single victory in battle.  While free the Graf Spee tied down 9 British forces which were assigned to hunt her down.

In the Battle of the River Plate a chance shot from the Exeter damaged the Graf Spee’s fuel cleaning system.  It was unlikely that she would be able to operate effectively without significant repairs, and due to British pressure these repairs were never going to be made in Uruguay.  His primary concern was clearly for his men and by scuttling the vessel he succeeded in getting them safely to Argentina.

O Captain! my Captain; by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

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O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

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My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.