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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Happy Birthday Harold Norse

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Harold Norse in 1972

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Leuctra when the Theban general Epaminondas led the Boeotian League to victory over the Spartans under King Cleombrotus I and smashed forever the hegemony of the Lacedaemonians in Greece.  That’s a lot of complicated words and history in one sentence.   I covered the importance of this battle in my post entitled “The death of Sparta” and spoke about the innovative use of echelon formation, so if you click on the title of this post the tags will link you to that post at the end of this one, if that’s your thing.

The reason I refer to Leuctra today is because of the Sacred Band of Thebes.  This was an elite regiment of 150 pairs of male lovers.  They were the best and bravest, the shock troops of the Theban army.

Plato said of them:  if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their beloved, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger?

Which brings me to Harold Norse, a poet of the Beat movement, a homosexual who found himself entirely adrift in an age when he was seen as “queer”.  In his poem “Island of Giglio” he dreams of the Greek tolerance of one man’s love for another.  He dreamed of a world where a man could be a man outside of the very narrow confines of 1950’s Western “Manliness”, the image of man determined by the ad agencies of Madison Avenue and Senator McCarthy’s committee on un-American Activities.

In his way Harold Norse was far more of a man than most of his male contemporaries.  He fought the fight that gave permission for men to be sensitive, loving and emotional individuals.  We all benefit from that.

In the poem below Norse lays out the ways in which the culture of America of the 1950’s steals his sex and his personality. I wonder what Harold would think about Donald Trump’s desire to “Make America Great Again”?

 

I am not a man; by Harold Norse

I am not a man. I can’t earn a living, buy new things for my family. I have acne and a small peter.

I am not a man. I don’t like football, boxing and cars. I like to express my feelings. I even like to put my arm around my friend’s shoulder.

I am not a man. I won’t play the role assigned to me – the role created by Madison Avenue, Playboy, Hollywood and Oliver Cromwell. Television does not dictate my behavior.

I am not a man. Once when I shot a squirrel I swore that I would never kill again. I gave up meat. The sight of blood makes me sick. I like flowers.

I am not a man. I went to prison for resisting the draft. I do not fight when real men beat me up and call me queer. I dislike violence

I am not a man. I have never raped a woman. I don’t hate blacks. I don’t get emotional when the flag is waved. I do not think I should love America or leave it. I think I should laugh at it.

I am not a man. I have never had the clap.

I am not a man. Playboy is not my favorite magazine.

I am not a man. I cry when I’m unhappy.

I am not a man. I do not feel superior to women.

I am not a man. I don’t wear a jockstrap.

I am not a man. I write poetry.

I am not a man. I meditate on Peace and Love.

I am not a man. I don’t want to destroy you.

 

 

 

 

Human Sacrifice

Human-Sacrifice

Yesterday morning I came across an interesting study which shows that the practice of human sacrifice is more prevalent in highly stratified societies.  Study on Human Sacrifice

In equal societies people tend to work together for the good of the commune.  Where a society develops a ruling class the position of that class is maintained by the labour of the low status individuals.  In many societies the position of the ruling class is supported by organised religion.  One facet of this religion is the act of human sacrifice.

The victims of sacrifice tend to be those from the lowest strata of society, especially slaves or captives.

There is a positive counter argument to all of this.  A highly stratified society is one that can be planned.  Specialist workers can be supported by the labour of the peasant class.  As a result you can have architects, scribes, taxation etc and build a civilization.

The greatest monuments ever constructed by mankind were the products of civilizations that were highly stratified.  Mesopotamian ziggurats, pyramids in Egypt, central America and Cambodia, Harappan step wells etc.  In one sense the subjugation of a peasant class was a pre-requisite for the creation of civilization.  Human sacrifice as a religious act is simply one mechanism for protecting the position of the ruling class.

It is interesting to look at the modern workplace and observe the stratification that exists.  Serfs, peasants and slaves have been replaced with minimum wage workers on zero hours contracts, or unpaid interns.  Partners in law and accounting firms and senior medical consultants all earn large salaries by harnessing the work of their juniors.  What are the modern equivalents of human sacrifice?  Workplace references?

*Spoiler Alert:  Walking Dead Season 6 Finale*

Last night in the Walking Dead we were finally introduced to the character called Negan, leader of the Saviours.  In his speech to Rick Negan laid out all the elements of the new world order.  And it sounds very much like Bronze Age civilization.

The Saviours are a warrior class.  Like the Spartans of ancient Greece they specialize in fighting and killing.  Like the people of the “Iron Isles” from Game of Thrones their motto could be “we do not sow”.

The Saviours need food to survive, but farming is hard work.  So they are outsourcing the farming to a new peasant class.  The peasants need only sufficient weapons to protect themselves from the walkers.  Negan will round up all their projectile weapons and leave them with only knives and spears.

This further cements the position of the Saviours as the warrior elite, as they become the only ones with guns.

Finally, to cement his position of absolute control, Negan practices Human Sacrifice.  It is a raw and powerful demonstration of the mechanism that underlies the academic study into sacrifice in Pacific Island societies.  We see them engage in a manhunt with fatal consequences.  At the end of the episode Negan practices a highly ritualised form of sacrifice.  He has named his weapon, a common feature of bronze age warrior societies.  The demonstration of raw power is aimed not at Rick and his group, but rather at the Saviours themselves.

Of course the question everyone is asking……who did he choose?  Season 7 bait!

Tall tales and Marathons

John Treacy (IRL) Silver in LA Olympic Marathon, 1984

John Treacy (IRL) Silver in LA Olympic Marathon, 1984

The battle of Marathon was fought between a greek army and the Persians on this day in 490 BC.

In the days leading up to the battle the Athenian and Plataean Hoplites had the Persians pinned in a holding action on the Plain of Marathon.  The lightly armed Persians did not want to go toe to toe with the Greek heavy infantry.  The outnumbered Greeks for their part had no wish to go on the offensive.  They were happy to remain in stalemate while they sent runners to seek more reinforcements.

One of their runners was Pheidippides.  His mission was to run  to Sparta, 140 miles away.  In heroic manner he completed the journey in two days.  The Spartans said they were in the middle of a “religious festival” and couldn’t come until it was over.

For some reason (perhaps concerned that reinforcements would arrive) the Persians decided to bring the Greeks to battle.  The Persian army favoured the use of ranged weapons, archery, slinging and javelins.  They prepared to engage the Greeks from a distance.  For their part the Greeks had little interest in being shot at as they marched into battle.  For the first time in history they decided to mount a charge on foot.  The Persians were taken by surprise.  Their lightly armed infantry was decimated.  The wings collapsed and the Greeks began to envelop the centre of the Persian line.  The Persian withdrawal turned into a race for the ships and quickly became a rout.

After the battle the Athenians were concerned for their city.  They had left Athens defenseless to bring as many troops as possible to battle in Marathon.  As the Persian fleet set sail for Athens the Hoplites made for home in haste.  They covered the 25 mile distance in rapid time.  When the Persian fleet saw the Athenian army arrive overland they turned away from the City.  Victory was complete for the Athenians.

Over time the stories of Pheidippides run and the forced march of the Athenian army became confused.  From the confusion was born the concept of the Marathon  race.  When the first modern Olympic games was staged in Athens in 1896 the idea of a Marathon race was proposed and accepted.  It has become one of the enduring pillars of the Olympic ideal, the ultimate distance race and a cauldron of legends.

Running ; by Raymond A. Foss

She was running this morning
early Sunday morning
while we drove by on the way to church
black top, black shorts,
once white running shoes
toned features,
purposeful face,
black bands on her biceps
hair bouncing in the breeze
It seemed she was arguing
with herself, the way her head
jerked from side to side,
her face grimaced
with the footfalls down the hill,
off the bridge, like she was debating
and losing the point
propelled on, downward
by gravity, by the flow of the sidewalk,
as she was running this morning
Whatever joy led her to the work,
catching the beauty of the morning,
freedom from other cares,
they were lost, in the puffing,
the contorting, the hurtling
down the hill by the river
Running was the only thing,
the only thing left.

The death of Sparta

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In 371 BC, on the 6th of July, the Spartan army lost the battle of Leuctra.  In the process they lost their dominance as a land army and lost the myth of the unbeatable army which had lasted since the defense to the death at Thermopylae in 480 BC and the defeat of Persia at Platea in 479 BC.

A loss in battle 100 years before was not a death knell for Sparta, so what went so wrong in 371 BC?  To answer that you must understand the economics of the Spartan system.

Spartan boys were taken from their homes as children and raised in barracks as soldiers.  Each soldier was maintained in his position as a military professional by his estate.  The estates, large farms, were worked by slaves and the Spartan system was entirely reliant upon the goodwill of slaves to function.  Initially there were a large number of small estates.  Over time estates became larger and the number of soldier citizens diminished.  At the time of the battle of Platea the Helots were said to outnumber the Spartans by 7 to 1.

At any given time Sparta could only field about 5,000 elite troops.  These ‘special forces’ relied on lesser trained allies and even slave soldiers to supply weight of numbers.  The Spartan elite were the greatest and best trained soldiers in the world in their day.  On the battlefield they were marked by their red cloaks and their silent drill.  While other armies roared and sang and shouted the Spartans advanced in a silent wall of death.

Because there were so few elite Spartans, any serious loss of their numbers could have serious repercussions.  There were simply not enough estates and enough slaves to support a larger Spartan elite.  They tried to bridge this manpower gap by according a special elevated status to the sons of Spartans born to Helot mothers.  These boys could serve as middle level administrators and auxiliary soldiers.  But they could never rise to the rank of soldier citizen.

The nature of Greek warfare also helped to underscore the immortality of the Spartans.  Greek heavy infantry fought in a phalanx, a tightly packed line of spear men, ten to twelve ranks deep.  Your own shield, the great round pylon, protected your left hand side.  For protection on the right you relied on the shield of your neighbor.  The hoplites tended to lean in to the right to stay protected by their neighbors shield.  As a result there was a tendency for the phalanx to move gradually to the right.  To prevent this impetus armies would put their best trained and most veteran troops on the right flank.  This was the place of honour.  These troops would stand firm and prevent right hand drift.

In any battle with allies, the Spartan elite held the right flank.  This meant that they were facing the weak flank of their enemy.  The success of the Spartan elite was continually reinforced by facing them against weak foes.

The Theban general, Epaminondas, introduced three ground breaking innovations to the Greek way of war.  Firstly he placed his strongest troops in the left flank, directly facing the Spartans.  Secondly he arranged them in a phalanx 50 lines deep.  This provided an irresistible weight of numbers against the Spartan phalanx of only 12 deep.  Finally, he organised his remaining troops in echelon instead of phalanx.  They formed a series of blocks stepped further and further away from the Spartan line.  This denied the Spartan left flank contact with the weaker right flank of the Thebans.

At Leuctra the Spartan elite were smashed.  They lost between 1,000 and 4,000 troops.  The important thing is that most of the losses were elite Spartan troops instead of allies and slave soldiers.  These were irreplaceable Spartan Citizen soldiers, the product of 20 years of training.

Leuctra also shattered the illusion of invincibility of the Spartan troops.  The spell was broken, and the economic system was broken.  Sparta declined and became a bucolic backwater and an economic dead end.

At the same time, in the north, Philip of Macedon paid close attention to the Theban tactics.  The oblique line and the massed wedge became a trademark of the Macedonian war machine, and enabled Alexander to conquer the world.

Epitaph of Simonides at Thermopylae:

Go tell the Spartans, thou who passes by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Salamis

trireme

Sept 22nd 480 BC the allied fleet of the southern Greek city states defeated the Persian fleet at the battle of Salamis. It was an unlikely victory, and one that stopped the Persian invasion in its tracks.
Up to this point the Greeks were in full retreat. Glorious as the 300 Spartans under Leonidas were at Thermopylae the Greeks were defeated on both land and sea.

Athens lay next in the path of the enormous army under Xerxes. When the Athenians consulted the oracle at Delphi they were advised, in highly vague terms as usual, to retreat behind their wooden walls. Athenian power came from their fleet, so they believed that this meant they should abandon the marble city and sail away. The Persians sacked Athens on the 21st of Sept. Next day the two sides fought a naval engagement; the battle of Salamis.

The victory by the Greek allies (half the fleet was Athenian) severely damaged the ability of the Persians to maintain their invasion. The Persians had no fleet themselves. They relied upon the fleets of the Asian greek states under their vasselage as well as the Phonecians. The clash at Salamis did little numerical damage to the Persian fleet, but it was a tactical disaster. The ships they lost were the “fast ships”. These were the bronze beaked war triremes. They served a similar role in ancient fleets to Destroyers on convoy duty during the Atlantic war in WW2. They protected the slow moving cargo vessels from enemy attack.

Once the Greeks had eliminated the Persian triremes, the sea was open to them. Capturing Persian transports was like shooting fish in a barrel. Also, the Triremes carried the best and the brightest of the strategists, navigators, rowing crews and sailors. The Persians were unable to replace these ships and men in the time needed to complete their invasion.

It is perhaps no surprise that Xerxes took this opportunity to remove himself from the campaign, and returned to Persia leaving Mardonius in charge.

According to the history books the Greeks did not immediately attack the Persian land army, because “an eclipse of the sun” occurred and was taken as a bad omen. They bided their time over the winter. What a lot of tosh. The Greek armies had been badly mauled in their defense of Attica. The respite accorded by the victory at Salamis gave them a much needed opportunity to rest, regroup and rearm. In the meantime the Greek navy undoubtedly went to work on the Persian supply fleet. Grain ships bound for Mardonius captured and brought to Greek armies.

As a result Mardonius had to retreat far north to Thessaly where he was in relatively friendly territory, and could secure supply routes from Persia. The following Summer he marched south again and met the allies at Platea. Where Salamis was a battle dictated by the Athenian sailors, Platea was dictated by the Spartan Hoplites. In a world where battles were fought by men banging shields, singing paeans and roaring defiance the Spartans stood apart. They marched in silence, a disciplined phalanx of red cloaked warriors, bringing death to their foe. Platea was the high watermark of the Spartan military system.
Platea was only made possible by Salamis. So it is the Battle of Salamis that goes down in history as the battle that saved Greek Independence, Greek Civilization and hence Western Civilzation. If the Greeks had not won at Salamis the world today would be a different place.

The Battle of Salamis; by Aeschylus

The night was passing, and the Grecian host
By no means sought to issue forth unseen.
But when indeed the day with her white steeds
Held all the earth, resplendent to behold,
First from the Greeks the loud-resounding din
Of song triumphant came; and shrill at once
Echo responded from the island rock.
Then upon all barbarians terror fell,
Thus disappointed; for not as for flight
The Hellenes sang the holy pæan then,
But setting forth to battle valiantly.
The bugle with its note inflamed them all;
And straightway with the dip of plashing oars
They smote the deep sea water at command,
And quickly all were plainly to be seen.
Their right wing first in orderly array
Led on, and second all the armament
Followed them forth; and meanwhile there was heard
A mighty shout: “Come, O ye sons of Greeks,
Make free your country, make your children free,
Your wives, and fanes of your ancestral gods,
And your sires’ tombs! For all we now contend!”
And from our side the rush of Persian speech
Replied. No longer might the crisis wait.
At once ship smote on ship with brazen beak;
A vessel of the Greeks began the attack,
Crushing the stem of a Phoenician ship.
Each on a different vessel turned its prow.
At first the current of the Persian host
Withstood; but when within the strait the throng
Of ships was gathered, and they could not aid
Each other, but by their own brazen bows
Were struck, they shattered all our naval host.
The Grecian vessels not unskillfully
Were smiting round about; the hulls of ships
Were overset; the sea was hid from sight,
Covered with wreckage and the death of men;
The reefs and headlands were with corpses filled,
And in disordered flight each ship was rowed,
As many as were of the Persian host.
But they, like tunnies or some shoal of fish,
With broken oars and fragments of the wrecks
Struck us and clove us; and at once a cry
Of lamentation filled the briny sea,
Till the black darkness’ eye did rescue us.
The number of our griefs, not though ten days
I talked together, could I fully tell;
But this know well, that never in one day
Perished so great a multitude of men.

Bending the Bow

Bowgirls

The Gastraphetes, or belly bow, was an ancient Greek forerunner of the crossbow.  There is a story that the bow was invented to allow women to participate in the defence of a Greek city.  By placing your belly on the yoke at the base of the bow you could use your body weight to load the weapon.  As a result it requires far less strength and technique to fire the gastraphetes than it would to fire a standard bow.  By inventing an easily cocked bow, the city was able to double its defensive capability.

Greeks have a great tradition of associating the bow with women.  The Goddess Artemis is commonly shown wearing hunting gear and carrying a bow and a quiver full of arrows.  The Goddess of Childbirth, Virginity, protector of young girls and instrumental in female diseases.

The legendary female warrior tribe of the ancient world, the Amazons, are frequently depicted bearing bows and arrows.

During the Persian wars the light bows of the Persian troops were unable to penetrate the heavy bronze shields and armour of the Greeks.  The Phalanx armed with Pylon and Spear became the standard weaponry of Greek Hoplites.  Bows and Arrows were seen as the weapons of cowards and women.

When warned that the arrows of the Persians were so numerous they would darken the sky the Spartan general Dieneces celebrated that his soldiers would get to fight in the shade.

Roll forward a 1500 years or so and we come to the middle ages and courtly romances.  In the cycle of Robin Hood stories we have one of the strongest female heroines, the Maid Marian.  Again, strongly associated with the bow and arrow.

Indeed Archery was seen as one of the “suitable” sports for women in the Olympics, being introduced in 1904.

So we come to the Hobbit 2:  Desolation of Smaug, which introduces Tauriel, the bow wielding captain of the sylvan elf guard.  In the same year we saw the release of Catching Fire, the 2nd instalment of The Hunger Games series, featuring the bow wielding Katniss Everdeen as the heroine.  It seems the association between heroine and the bow remains as strong as ever.

On Children:  by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.