Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Death and the Wishes

True heroism is not a thing which only resides on the field of war, in the face of oppression, or in the words of great speakers. It can manifest all around us, every day, in the most startling form, from the most unexpected of people. Here is the story of a woman, who through her devotion and virtue, overcame the last enemy that will be defeated, death.

Image taken from a 19th century
watercolour - artist unknown
A long time ago, in the forgotten kingdom of Madra, a land in the north western reaches of India, there lived a young princess. Savitri, as she was called, was a most unusual princess. Whilst the other girls of the court made merry in the palace, dancing and enjoying themselves, Savitri was quite the opposite. A shy, studious and intelligent girl, Savitri preferred to read and hear the stories of the great sagas of the past over song and dance. Indeed, Savitri's father, old King Ashwapati, began to grow concerned for his daughter. For she had now turned eighteen, the age when most princesses had to marry, and none had come to make a proposal. The old King cared dearly for his daughter, remembering all too well how precious a gift she was, for many years ago, the ascetic King had longed for a child. Savitr, god of the sun, was impressed by the King's ascetic lifestyle, and the many offerings he faithfully made. Coming to the King in a dream, he promised him a daughter. Nine months later, the Queen gave birth to Savitri. Lost in his memories for a moment, the King suggested to Savitri that she seek out a suitor. Savitri gently declined. She was not yet ready, she told him. First she must embark on her travels, learning from the holy men who walked the land and praying at the sacred shrines so that she may grow closer to the Righteous Spirit. The old King reminded her that she was eighteen, and that it was expected of her. With a laugh, Savitri reasoned that if she found no one on her travels, he could arrange something on her return. Satisfied, King Ashwapati agreed, and Savitri set out into the wilderness.

Casting aside all the panoply of royalty, and the luxuries of the court, Savitri wandered through the land. Hearing the teachings of the holy men, seeking only the simplest foods for sustenance, and sleeping under the stars, she was a model of temperance, and none could have guessed for a moment when looking upon her that she was a princess at all.

Image taken from an 18th century painting - artist unknown
For a year the young princess lived the ascetic life, until one day, she found herself walking in a great forest. Just then a heavy thud rent the air. Savitri turned to see the source of the disturbance, and saw before her a man chopping wood. Savitri was intrigued by the man, for though he bore an axe in one hand, and a stack of firewood in the other, there was something in his bearing, an indescribable essence of nobility. The man's clothes were threadbare, and his appearance rugged, yet Savitri could not help wondering whether this man was like herself - perhaps high born once? Consumed by curiosity, and something else, Savitri approached the woodsman, and asked him of his past. Laying aside the heavy axe, and wiping the sweat from his brow, the kindly man introduced himself as Satyavan. He told an enraptured Savitri that he had once been raised in a palace, waited on by a vast array of courtiers. His father was the King of that domain, but as he grew old in body, he had lost his sight. Seizing advantage of this disability, the courtiers had conspired and schemed and deceived. Satyavan confessed his sorrow that he himself was not old enough to protect his father, as he was overthrown and his kingdom seized. Banished and exiled, Satyavan and his father now lived in the forest, and Satyavan was cutting wood to take back to his father in the hut. Savitri was utterly enthralled by Satyavan, and hung on to every word as the unfortunate woodsman finished his tale.

Some time later, with much jubilation, Savitri returned to the palace of her father King Ashwapati. The old King was overjoyed to see her again, and even more astonished when she told him of her choice of husband. Turning to Narada, a wise and holy man whose travels had brought him to court, the King asked him of Satyavan. "Is he a good man?" the King asked. "Yes", replied the sage. "Is he strong in body, and wondrous to behold?" the King asked. "He is magnanimous like Yayati, and beautiful like the Moon", Narada replied. Ashwapati was delighted, but the old prophet had one, devastating, revelation:

     "He hath only one defect, and no other. Within a year from this day, Satyavan,
      endued with a short life will cast off his body..."
                                          - NARADA FORETELLS SATYAVAN'S DOOM

Yama - The God of Death
Image taken from a mid 17th to early 18th
century Tibetan piece - artist unknown
Dismayed, the King reluctantly requested Savitri to choose another, lest she live a life of sorrow and grief. For if there was one being on Heaven or Earth who always kept his promise, it was the god of death. Undeterred, Savitri was adamant "With a life short or long, possessed of virtues or bereft of them, I have, for once, selected my husband". The old sage was humbled by her devotion, and applauded the King for having such a noble daughter. Attempts to dissuade her will be fruitless, Narada told the King, but be thankful for the time they will have. Honoured, but uneasy, the King gave his permission, and the Savitri and Satyavan were wed. Abandoning her precious jewels and majestic silks once again, Savitri went to live with Satyavan, happily wed, in the forest with his father. Savitri never spoke of the the macabre prophecy she had heard to husband, but not a day went by when she did not remember it. After some months, their tranquillity was absolute, and Savitri prayed that Death would not come. But Death never breaks his promise.

Summer came, and the sun rose high in the sky, heralding a year to the day since Savitri had returned to her father. The grass was dappled with golden light, and the sky a brilliant blue. Satyavan had gone out to cut some wood for his father, and Savitri was singing merrily to him. For a while, Savitri began to wonder, perhaps the prophecy would not come true after all? The thought of it welled up inside her. Just then, Satyavan stopped, putting a hand to his head. The axe fell to the floor with a thud, and Satyavan complained of dizziness. He staggered, and, terror flooding through her, Savitri ran to him. Tears streamed from her eyes, as Satyavan fell, and his head came to rest in her lap. Looking up, she saw a cloud pass in front of the face of the sun, and the glade was plunged into shadow. Time seemed to stand still, and the land was thrown into eerie silence. Death never breaks his promise.

Savitri pleads with Death
Image taken from a 19th century
watercolour - artist unknown
Not a sound pierced the silence. No wind in the trees, no birdsong. With a start, Savitri looked back and saw a figure standing over them. Clad in robes the colour of blood, with dark skin stretched tightly over his visible bones, Death stood in deafening silence, his crimson eyes fixed on Satyavan. Savitri, ravaged with grief, saw in one withered hand that he carried a noose. Death never breaks his promise. Desperate for any chance that what had been foretold might never come to pass, Savitri, shaking with fright, asked the horrifying apparition who he was. Death turned slowly to face her, and spoke. Savitri was surprised, for Death spoke with a voice that seemed musical, both distant and close. "Oh Savitri, thou art ever devoted to thy husband, and thou art also endorsed with ascetic merit. It is for this reason that I hold converse with thee". Death continued, and told the weeping Savitri that he was indeed Yama - the god of death. Since Satyavan was a model of virtue and a wonder to behold, Death himself had come to claim him. Leaning slowly forward, his robes billowing in an ethereal wind, Death claimed Satyavan's soul and bound it in the noose. Turning, Death ambled southwards, his latest soul borne effortlessly in his skeletal hand. Just then, a crack rent the silence, as a twig snapped. Death turned, and saw Savitri following him:

  " Desist, O Savitri! Go back, and perform the funeral obsequies of thy lord!
    Thou art freed from all obligations to thy lord.
    Thou hast come as far as it is possible to come"
                        - DEATH WARNS SAVITRI NOT TO FOLLOW 

Savitri refused to leave Satyavan. Death, impressed by her devotion, and that any mortal would choose to follow the god of death, offered her one wish, provided that she not ask for the life of her husband. Savitri tearfully told Death of her father-in-law, how fortune had deprived him of his sight, and asked that Death restore his sight. "It is done", Death declared, warning her to come no further. Death continued his march through the forest, as the shadow grew darker, and the silence heavier. A rustle sounded in the bushes. Death turned and saw Savitri there once again. At once angered and warmed, Death asked if she was not weary from taking this road. "What weariness can I feel in the presence of my husband?" Savitri replied, refusing to leave his side. As much to be rid of her as to reward her admirable loyalty, Death granted her a second wish, provided that she not wish for the life of her husband. Savitri told Death of the betrayal her father-in-law had fallen afoul of, his throne usurped by cruel men. Savitri asked Death if he would restore her father-in-law to his rightful throne, and that his fortunes might be whole again. "It is done", Death commanded, impressed once more at the selflessness of Savitri, "Do thou now desist! Return! Do not take any future trouble". For the third time, Death turned South, and continued on the road to shadow. For an age he marched slowly on, as the forest grew wilder, the shadow darker and the silence louder.

The Redemption of Satyavan
Painting by Mahadev Dhurandar
Death turned once again, and found Savitri still there. Incandescent, Death offered her a third wish, provided she did not wish for the life of her husband. Savitri replied "that lord of Earth, my father, is without sons. That he may have a hundred sons begotten of his loins, so that his line may be perpetuated, is the third wish I would ask of thee". "It is done", Death commanded, and for the third time he bid her leave. But Savatri refused to abandon Satyavan. Since Savitri had wished only for others, Death offered her a fourth wish, but this time, one for her, provided she did not wish for the life of her husband. "Both of me and Satyavan's loins, begotten by both of us, let there be a century of sons possessed of strength and prowess". "It is a good wish, and it shall be done", Death commanded, turning to face her fully for the first time. Savitri steadfastly refused to depart her husband, for "The righteous are never cheerless in the company of the righteous". At last, moved by her unwavering devotion and virtue, Death joyfully spoke "Oh thou that art so devoted to thy lord, ask for some incomparable boon!". This time, Savitri smiled. For Death had promised her and Satyavan a hundred sons, yet how could this come true if was in Death's grasp? "Beyond all other wishes, I ask for this, may Satyavan be restored to life!" Savitri cried. Death smiled, and happily declared that all she had wished for would come true. Unravelling the noose, Death released Satyavan, declaring that Savitri's father-in-law sight restored, his usurper defeated, and his fortunes high once more. Her father would beget a line of a hundred sons, whose might would be known throughout the world. Her and Satyavan would live for four hundred years, and beget a noble line, spoken of far and wide. Bidding them a warm farewell, Death departed, and the cloud lifted, the sun shone and the birds sang once again. Satyavan opened his eyes, and Savitri wept with happiness...

The tale of Savitri and Death is an ancient one. It can be found in it's entirety in a book known as the Mahābhārata. An ancient work of literature from India, the Mahābhārata is one of the two great Sanskrit epics (the other being the Rāmāyana). With a story dating to at least the ninth century BC, the Mahābhārata is one of the cornerstones of human literature, and being ten times longer than both the Homeric epics combined, it is a gargantuan mine of stories, set against one dramatic war story. The story of Savitri can be found in Book Three of the Mahābhārata, but do not let it's length intimidate. It is quite possible to dip in and out of it - there are plenty of short stories throughout it, of which you have just read one. So why not give it a go? For a work so truly titanic in scale, it is easily obtained for a very good price from Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)
(A Titan in the history of human writing, the Mahābhārata is a literary juggernaut with a vast array of stories)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)
(A Titan in the history of human writing, the Mahābhārata is a literary juggernaut with a vast array of stories)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Blacksmith's Revenge

Legend tells of a King who once lived in the far northern wastes of Sweden, a King infamous for his cruelty his greed and his savage megalomania - King Nidud. His subjects, and his servants, lived in constant fear of the King's wrath, which could be sparked by the most trivial of things, or even by his boredom. The feared King, however, would learn to rue the day he turned his ferocity toward the blacksmith Völundr.

Image in the public domain
One day, long ago, the three sons of the King of the Finns went hunting in the high mountains. Their names were Eginn, Slagfinn, and the youngest was called Völundr. Blissfully lost in the woods, the brothers came to a clearing by the side of a great lake, a place so beautiful they decided to build a house there. Their tiring work done, the brothers admired their handiwork, and slept soundly in their new abode. When the brothers awoke the next morning, they were transfixed by the sight before them. Three young women, laughing and spinning flax, were relaxing by the calm waters. Stricken by their beauty, the stunned brothers realised who they were - Valkyries (for more about them, please click here). Overjoyed at their fortune, the brothers invited the maidens to their new dwelling, and were gracious hosts to their glamorous guests. Time passed, and soon each brother had fallen for a Valkyrie. Völundr was captivated by the Valkyrie Alvit, and soon the two were bound in matrimony. For seven years they lived in joyful serenity, having a son, until one day, Völundr awoke to find her missing. Searching far and wide, he could find no trace of her, and soon discovered that the same had happened to his two brothers. The Valkyries had departed the land, for as the servants of Odin, they were bound to his will and obeyed his summons. Alvit had left her beloved Völundr with just a golden ring to remember her by. Racked with grief, Eginn and Slagfinn set off in vain search of their Valkyries, whilst Völundr remained behind, sad, yet hopeful that he may one day see Alvit again. He lived a life of quiet grace, focusing his mind on his ability to work metal in place of his sorrow. Soon, his skill was such that he became famous throughout the lands of the North for the fabulously ornate objects that emerged from his forge.

Völundr at the Forge
Image taken from the 'Franks Casket' (British Museum)
Far away, word reached the ear of King Nidud of Völundr's talent. A greedy and heartless man, Nidud resolved to make a slave of this blacksmith, so that no other might boast of riches greater than his own. Like many wicked men, he sought such riches not to admire their beauty, but simply to possess them.  The cruel King sent forth his soldiers to seize the smith and his treasures, and to bring Völundr before him. The soldiers found Völundr asleep, dreaming of the return of Alvit, when they seized his possessions, and hurled the blacksmith himself into a sack. When Völundr opened his eyes again, he found himself, hands bound, staring into the harsh face of King Nidud himself. The King eyed the smith, running his fingers over a golden ring. Völundr saw, to his anger, that it was the ring which his beloved Alvit had left him. Nidud declared that Völundr would henceforth make riches only for him, until the day he died. His anger building, Völundr cried "Never!" The King, secretly a coward, was unnerved that someone would not be afraid of him. His fear soon turning to fury, Nidud ordered his guards to take Völundr to the tiny island of Saevarstad, where the blacksmith would either comply, or die. Just then, the King's wife, who was no better a person than her husband, suggested that the sinews in the blacksmith's legs be severed, so that he may never run, or swim, and escape. Nidud's two sons howled with laughter as Völundr's screams of pain pierced the night.

When Völundr regained consciousness, he found himself on the smallest, most miserable and lonely island one can imagine. So small he could easily see the whole coast, and the raging torrents crashing upon them, he was given a squalid hut in which to work, and if the previous day's work was satisfactory to the King,  a messenger would bring food. There would be no comforts here. Tears of rage flowed down Völundr's fair cheek, with Alvit as distant as ever, whilst Nidud besmirched the glory of his works with his cruel hand:

                                           " Shines Nidud's
                                             sword in his belt,
                                             which I whetted
                                             as I could best,
                                             and tempered,
                                             as seemed to me most cunningly;
                                             that bright blade forever
                                             is taken away from me:
                                             never shall I see it borne
                                             into Völundr's smithy... "
                                                    - THE MELANCHOLY OF VÖLUNDR

Descended from the Elves, Völundr possessed some of the cunning of that race, and thought desperately of how to escape his sorry plight. Time passed, and soon the treasuries of King Nidud overflowed with the most exquisite works of gold and silver imaginable, and the King was pleased, for he was the envy of the land. Every night, after his backbreaking work for the King's lust for riches was done, Völundr set to work, crafting for himself a set of wings, with struts of silver, and feathers of the most finely beaten brass. Slowly, over time, the wings began to take shape.

Bodvild and Völundr
Relief by Johannes Gehrts
One day, when the wings were nearing completion, a visitor came to Völundr's island - the King's daughter, Bodvild. Now Bodvild was something of a black sheep in her family. Spared the cruel nature of her father, mother and brothers, Bodvild had a warmer, gentler nature. Indeed, from the moment she saw Völundr in her father's hall and pitied him, had fallen for him. Now she came before him, and tentatively asked the lame smith if he might adjust a ring for her, too big for her own finger as it was. Turning to face her, Völundr saw that she was running her finger over a golden ring - Alvit's ring. Burning with fury, Völundr took back the ring and seized his hammer, determined to slay her then. If he could not reach the King, then she would have to do. Neither Völundr nor Boldvid could have imagined what was going through the other's mind. But then, just as Völundr advanced upon her, she declared her anger with her father for his cruelty, and confessed her feelings.  Blinded with silent rage, Völundr would not be swayed from his vengeance, yet saw now a new way to retaliate. The morning after, Völundr spurned her advance, commanding her to leave him and never seek him out again, knowing that he would condemn her to a lifetime of mournful melancholy. The princess fled in tears, distraught, and truly alone. Völundr, who had suffered such torments, now rapidly descended into the very thing he hated so much.

Back in the palace, selfish though he was, Nidud could not help noticing that Bodvild was a shadow of her former self, wandering the corridors as though a shade. But fresh disturbances began to plague him. His sons, his heirs to his kingdom, had not been seen since the day before. As the royal family sat down to their banquet that evening, messengers brought fresh gifts from Völundr to the High Table. King Nidud marvelled at his latest treasure - two goblets. The cups were rather grander in size than any normal chalice, rather similar in size, in fact, to a human skull. Gazing hungrily at the silver gilt cups, the greedy King drank deeply from them, as the heartless Queen placed her gift around her neck - a magnificent necklace, of four precious stones. Each stone was unlike any seen before, circular, and rather like the shape of a human eyeball. The Queen rather thought it reminded her of her two boys, but she could not place her finger upon exactly why. Bodvild, dejected, barely noticed her own gift, of a golden brooch, inlaid with many rows of nuggets, each rather like a human tooth in size.

Völundr's forge
Image taken from Ardre Image Stone VIII
Far away, on the lonely isle, the vengeful blacksmith had at last finished work on his shiny new wings. As a storm raged outside, Völundr took flight, heading toward Nidud's castle. As the night closed in, a flash of thunder suddenly roused the King from his slumber, and he was afraid. It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps his boys had visited Völundr, and maybe the blacksmith might know of their fate? He did not have to wait long to see him. For there, framed in his window, stood Völundr himself, dripping with rainwater, his face contorted with savage pleasure. "Where are my brave boys?" demanded King Nidud. Völundr laughed. They had both come to his smithy, demanding him to craft for them swords of gold. He had slain them both, gilt their skulls in silver and cast their bodies beside his forge. He further had wrenched their eyes from their sockets and set them too, in metal, and wove them into a necklace, which the boys' own mother now wore. He had broken their teeth and set them in a brooch of gold, which the boys' own sister now wore pinned to her chest. Völundr mocked Nidud, as now he had slain both his sons, and broken the heart of his daughter. The King wailed, as to his horror, he realised that he had drunk wine from the skulls of his own sons. The Queen, her sanity broken forever, simply laughed maniacally at the night, whilst the King, for the first time in his life, wept. Völundr, who now had truly forgotten his old self, leapt from the window, and took flight...

The saga of Völundr is at once a tragedy, a moral tale and a warning. It is common for heroes to grow in virtue as their quest develops, but Völundr is completely the opposite. As a result of his arduous life, each test served only to shake the foundations of his humanity, and is a stark reminder that cruelty so often breeds more cruelty, and that life does not always have a happy ending...

United Kingdom

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A grand collection of tales, mythology and fable from across the Norselands)

United States

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A grand collection of tales, mythology and fable from across the Norselands)

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Fall of Croesus

Today we return to the story of Croesus, King of Lydia, paragon of wealth and eager for greatness (for the first part of the story, please click here). "No man may know if he has had a happy life until it is over", came the warning from Solon, but it had fallen upon deaf ears. Croesus had it all, how could it possibly go wrong?

The Summit of Mount Olympus
Photograph taken by 'Jkelly'
However, no man or woman could become too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling them. For it was always upon the tallest trees that the old gods hurled their thunderbolts. One night, soon after Solon departed, the gods sent a dream to Croesus, a dream with a dire prophecy, that his own son Atys would be slain by an iron spear. Roused, shaken, from his slumber, Croesus was afraid. Croesus had two sons, one deaf and dumb since birth, and Atys, the pride of the Kingdom. Desperate to ensure the dream would never come to pass, Croesus ordered all spears, swords, javelins and all manner of weapons removed from the men's quarters, and forbade his son to leave the Royal Palace. One day soon after, a delegation arrived from Mysia in Greece. They bowed before the King and pleaded with him to send Atys and his finest men to help them, for a monstrous boar had descended from Mount Olympus, spreading carnage wherever it went. Fearful of the dream, Croesus replied that Atys would have to remain behind, but he would send his finest warriors in his stead. The Mysians were disappointed, but gratefully accepted. Seeing the disheartened delegates, Atys implored his father, begging to be allowed with them. Seeing no way to delay so any longer, Croesus reluctantly told to his son the story of his vision, and how he could never let it come to pass. "What a dream!", Atys exclaimed. Though humble before the gods, Atys was a brave man, and he tried to console his father, explaining that the dream had referred to an iron spear, not a tusk, and he would march against boar, not man, and so he was quite safe. As the commander of the Lydian army, it was his duty to prove himself a man before it too. Delighted at this line of thought, Croesus, relented, and bade his son farewell.

Days passed, and then, a messenger appeared in Sardis, burdened and torn with grief. Atys, the man told Croesus, had been killed. "But how can this be?!" the enraged King shouted. Relating his tragic story, the man told the King that the party had tracked the boar to the very slopes of Olympus, after a long and gruelling chase. As their victory drew near, the boar made to gore the King's son, and, meaning to save him, one of the men had hurled his spear at the creature. But in the thrashing and chaos, the iron point flew far of its target, and transfixed Atys where he stood. Croesus, and Lydians far and wide mourned their heroic prince, and an ominous sense of foreboding gripped the land.

The Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great
Map created by the author
For two whole years, Croesus mourned his son, until news was borne to Sardis that events in the East were moving fast. Far away in Asia, the once great land of the Medes had been overturned in a bloody rebellion, lead by a new man, spoken of far and wide as a divine prodigy. This man's name was Cyrus, and it would not be long before he would take the title of 'the Great'. The new nation that rose in his wake would one day become one of the world's greatest powers - the Persian Empire. Jarred from his grief, Croesus awoke to this new danger. Hearing rumours of Oracles around the world which could bear word of the future, Croesus resolved to send envoys to each, and find for himself which one was truly the greatest conduit to the gods. To the Oasis of Ammon in Libya, to the Sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona, to the Abae in Phocis, to the Pythia at Delphi, and to countless others Croesus sent messengers. Deciding upon a test for each, Croesus sent his men to ask each Oracle exactly what he was doing at that moment in time. Carefully working out on which day his messengers would arrive at the Oracles, Croesus lay in wait. Soon after, the answers of the Oracles began to flood in, and Croesus was disappointed. Just then, the messenger who had been sent to Delphi burst into the Palace with the Pythia's reply:

             " I know the number of grains of sand and the extent of the sea;
               I understand the deaf-mute and hear the words of the dumb.
               My senses detect the smell of tough-shelled tortoise
               Cooked in bronze together with the flesh of lambs;
               Beneath it lies bronze, and bronze covers it "
                                  - THE ORACLE ON CROESUS

Many in the court were deeply puzzled, but Croesus was stunned. For, as a test of the gods, on the day that his messengers came before the Oracle, Croesus decided to do something no person could predict. Going to the beach, he had cut up a tortoise ad a lamb and boiled them inside a bronze pot. The eyes of the Oracle were omniscient indeed if she had seen this. Delphi was declared the greatest Oracle under Heaven, and Croesus showered the sanctuary in his riches, with countless ingots of gold towering high in the treasuries of the Oracle. Croesus sent to the Oracle one last time. Sensing the time had come to face Cyrus at last, the King asked the Oracle whether, if there be war between Lydian and Persian, he would emerge triumphant. In one of the most famous prophecies ever to come from Delphi, the Pythia replied "If you make war on the Persians, you will destroy a great empire". Overjoyed, jubilant and relishing his coming victory, Croesus immediately made preparations for the coming storm. Soon Solon would surely have to concede he was the happiest man alive?

Marching with all haste towards the Halys River, the boundary between Lydia and Persia, Croesus sent gifts and an offer of alliance to the Spartans of Laconia, since the Oracle had advised him to march with the strongest nation in Greece. Sure that he needed no help, Croesus did not wait for assistance, but pressed on, eager for glory. One man who marched with the King, however, had a bad feeling. Speaking the words of the gods, Sandanis, as he was called, urged Croesus to turn back:

             " Their food consists of what they can get, not what they might want,
                because of the ruggedness of their land. They drink no wine, just water,
                and figs are the only good thing they have to eat. They have nothing!
                So if you win, what will you gain from them? But if you are defeated,
                think of all the good things you will lose!... "
                                      - SANDANIS URGES CROESUS TO WITHDRAW

Cyrus the Great
Image taken from a modern sculpture,
currently in Sydney
But Croesus was deaf to all warning. Bridging the Halys in haste, the Lydians and the might of Asia clashed. For a whole day the two powers fought, and thousands fell, both Lydian and Persian alike. As night fell, both sides withdrew to lick their wounds. Croesus, putting the stalemate down to lack of numbers, decided to withdraw to Sardis and await his allies there, assuming that Cyrus' losses were too great to pursue him. But the legions of Asia were without number, and the charisma of their leader was great. A spy in the Lydian camp informed the Persian Great King of Croesus' designs, and he set off in close pursuit. Before the very walls of Sardis, Croesus turned to fight once more, certain that whatever transpired, he would be victorious. The Lydian horseman charged, but were soon thrown into disarray. For as yet a Western horse had never before encountered a camel, and the sight and smell of the strange beasts struck panic into the hearts of the Lydian mounts. Scattering to and fro, the Lydians were thrown behind their walls, and the siege began.

Expecting the siege to be long and his allies to arrive soon, Croesus sat back, still confident of victory. For the great city of Sardis sat atop a dramatic plateau, surrounded by a vast wall but for the short stretch of near vertical cliff at the acropolis where the Palace stood. But, fourteen days later, Cyrus witnessed an opening. A Lydian soldier, who dropped his helmet, scrambled down the escarpment to reclaim it, and quickly climbed back up. Realising it was not as impregnable as it first seemed, Cyrus waited for nightfall, then offered a reward for the first man to reach the top. After an exhausting climb, chaos reigned, and Persian troops rampaged through the city, burning all in their path. Croesus lamented over the darkness of war, for "in peace sons bury their fathers and in war fathers bury their sons". As Persian soldiers bore down upon him within his towering, glittering and golden halls, the terrible truth was at last revealed to Croesus. The Oracle had said that he would destroy a great empire if he marched on Cyrus. She had meant his own.

Croesus on the Pyre
Image taken from a 6th century BC Attic Vase
Croesus was hurled to the floor before the Great King, and the two most powerful lords of Asia met at last. Resolving that he would leave the fate of the former Lydian King to the gods, Cyrus ordered that Croesus be bound atop a vast funeral pyre. If he was truly favoured, the gods would spare him. At the command of the Great King, torches were cast into the timbers, and the flames kindled. As the crackle of burning reached his ears, and sparks began to rise before his eyes, Croesus remembered the words of Solon. The old man had been right, fortune is fickle and only at his death does a man know that his life has been fortunate. Seeing the divine inspiration behind these words, Croesus sighed, and simply repeated the name "Solon" to the Heavens. Far below, Cyrus looked on, curious, and eager to know who it was this man called upon in his last moments. Cyrus's translators called up to him, asking him who Solon was. "Someone whom I would give a fortune to have every ruler in the world meet", Croesus solemnly replied. Stunned, Cyrus begged to know more, as the flames began to rise higher and higher. Accepting his fate, Croesus told Cyrus the story of Solon's lesson, of how he had dismissed all his wealth as meaningless, and how everything had transpired as it had been foretold. As the fire licked the soles of Croesus' feet, Cyrus took pity on him, seeing before him not a foe to be conquered, but another human being, who could just as easily be him. Desperately calling out, Cyrus ordered his men to douse the flames, but it was too late, and the conflagration roared. Embracing his end, Croesus raised his head to the skies, prepared to die. But Apollo, lord of prophecy, remembering Croesus' generosity toward his sanctuary of Delphi, took pity on him, and sent a cloud of rain to douse the fire.

Awed at the sight before him, Cyrus took the broken old man down, weeping that he had tried to destroy a man who was good at heart. "Who was it that persuaded you to invade my country, and be my enemy over my friend?" the Great King asked of him. "It was the god of the Greeks", he replied. So would be sown the first seeds of conflict between the East and the West...

United Kingdom

The Histories:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
( I can not recommend this enough. The sheer number of the most gripping stories inside is formidable)

United States

The Histories:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
(I can not recommend this enough. The sheer number of the most gripping stories inside is formidable)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Grendel and Beowulf

Sometimes the most enduring heroes are immortalised not through great wit or cunning, but by that most ancient masculine virtue - sheer strength. There is not a civilisation of mankind that has not idolised the strong and worshipped the mighty, from great Heracles of the ancient world to the thunder god Thor of the Norse lands (for the story of Heracles, click here, and for Thor, here). So, many long centuries after the fall of the ancient powers, when the bards of England sang of the deeds of a new hero, Beowulf, a fresh legend was born.

King Hrothgar and Queen Wealtheow
Illustration by J R Skelton
Many years ago, when the Dark Ages held their bleak grip over the Northern Lands, their sat a wise and courageous man on the throne of Denmark. Hrothgar was his name, and Danes far and wide spoke of his valour and glory in the many wars of his reign, and of the beauty of his Queen Wealtheow. The times were good, and Hrothgar celebrated this new golden age with a magnificent banqueting hall, where he could make merry with the boldest thanes in the kingdom. A splendid and awesome sight it was too, towering high, "foremost of all halls under Heaven" and shining with gold. The name of this most glorious hall was Heorot, a name which soon was as revered as its ruler. When Heorot was at last complete and stood proud and tall, many a night of joy and feasting transpired within. As the cold, dark nights drew in beyond its walls, the servants scurried busily through the hall, bearing the most marvellous roasted boars to the many tables in Heorot. The air was rent with the cries of revelry, and the notes struck by the bards of the court, as harp and song could be heard for miles around. This was a place where evil dwelled not, and no blood or wicked ways had yet stained its shining floors. Greatness, however, is always transitory.

Illustration by J R Skelton
Far were the sounds of festivity carried from Heorot's lofty heights, to a distant and stormy lake. One night, within the tormented depths of the dark waters, something stirred. Within the blackened waves, an ageless evil made its grim abode. The monstrous daemon within raised a vast eyelid, awoken by the distant song. The sound of jubilation roused a long dormant hatred in the malevolent beast, who was roused to a towering rage by the thought of it. This was a creature of a damned line. A descendant of Cain, the son of Adam who slew his own brother Abel in the Garden of Eden, and was the first to stain the name of man with murder, the monster cursed God, and was cursed by God. The name of this foul hellion was Grendel, he who held man responsible for his own wicked plight, and was the sworn enemy of man. Rising from the churning waters, Grendel made his way through the freezing night, as the blackness closed in. Though gigantic in stature, the daemon made not a sound as he closed in on Heorot, vengeance burning in his fell mind. In the hall, meanwhile, intoxicated by drink and weary with food, Hrothgar and his valiant band lay in a deep sleep, oblivious to the approaching shadow. In deathly silence, Grendel did steal into Heorot, waking not a soul from its stupor. Furious, and hungry, the monster seized thirty of the mighty thanes, savagely devouring each, before striding back into the winter night to his evil lair.

                                 " Then at dawn, as day first broke,
                                    Grendel's power was at once revealed;
                                    a great lament was lifted, after the feast
                                    an anguished cry at that daylight discovery "
                                                - DAWN AFTER GRENDEL'S FIRST ATTACK        

Hrothgar and his loyal subjects awoke to a ghastly sight. The hall, and the men, were spattered with the gore from their own friends. Shattered bones and armour twisted as though of paper lay strewn across Heorot's once spotless floor. Terror and shock descended over the Danes, as not a man had been woken in the night. Helplessness too, infected each man, for none knew what abominable being could have perpetrated such base crimes. What defence was there against a silent, creeping death? The shadow of the night, however, felt no such horror, or mercy. Twice more did Grendel go about his grisly work at Heorot, and soon ninety of Denmark's finest warriors had now known gruesome deaths. After the third night of the horror, Heorot fell silent. That great hall, which so short a time ago had been witness to such joy, was now barren and devoid of life, abandoned in terror of the murderous shadow of the night.

The original manuscript of Beowulf
The 'Nowell Codex'
Twelve long years passed, and the hairs grew grey in Hrothgar's beard, for the once majestic King of the Danes was now weakened with age, and sick with melancholy. The once mighty Danes fell into dark times, crushed under a fear of the night. Then one day a stranger appeared on the Danish coast. A great warrior from Sweden, a hero of the Geats, had heard of the terror which gripped the Danes, and had made leave of his father, Ecgtheow, for Heorot. Renowned in Sweden for his colossal strength, and for slaying many great creatures which plagued the Northern Men, Beowulf rode again, compelled onward by the hand of God. Arriving at the court of King Hrothgar, the great hero bowed, and offered to conquer the beast of the fens, to honour a pact once made between the King and Ecgtheow. It was with great joy that the aged King accepted Beowulf, for word had indeed reached his ear of Beowulf's heroic exploits. That night, Heorot looked something of its old self again, as Beowulf and the Geats made merry in Hrothgar's Hall. A proud yet honorable man, Beowulf declared that since Grendel carried no weapons, so too would he fight with bare muscle, casting aside his mighty sword, a blade that had felled many a giant.

Night fell once again over Heorot, and the sounds of men reached the darkened lake. As though not a year had passed in twelve, Grendel awakened. The Geats in the hall fell slowly asleep, and soon only the great warrior himself was still awake, listening intently for any sound that pierced the night outside. The great wooden door of Heorot crumpled as though paper before the towering daemon, and in an instant, as Beowulf looked on, stunned with shock, the monster seized a poor soul who had lain nearest the gate, and tore his mortal form asunder. Shaken from his trance, Beowulf hurled himself forward, as Grendel's arm, broader than the greatest oak, darted toward another man. With all his might, Beowulf seized the creature's arm in his iron grip. In that moment, a revelation dawned upon Grendel. Never before had he encountered a man with so strong an embrace. Grendel, a fiend that had never known fear, now knew terror. With a roar, Grendel tried to break free, as the warriors in the hall were roused from their sleep. Seizing their weapons, they rushed to the aid of their hero. But no! Some cruel magic reflected each blade from Grendel's flesh:

                                 " Dread numbed the North-Danes, seized all
                                    who heard the shrieking from the wall,
                                    the enemy of God's grisly lay of terror,
                                    his song of defeat, heard hell's captive... "
                                                 - GRENDEL TRIES TO BREAK FREE

Frantic, Grendel tried to break free, in fear of the strength which he had believed impossible in a human, but Beowulf hung on. The bones in Grendel's arm began to crack, and with one almighty wrench, Grendel escaped, but at a terrible price. With a shout of pain, the muscles burst open and the sinews flew apart, as Grendel's arm was torn from its socket, still grasped in the hero's hands. The Geats cheered, as Beowulf stood still clutching his morbid trophy. Broken and weeping, Grendel staggered back to his lair, blood pouring from his mortal wound. Desperate to staunch the blood which fell in torrents, he buried his shoulder in the mud, but to no avail. Grendel, the seed of Cain, died miserably in the lake, and his soul was received in Hell. As dawn arrived, Beowulf was hailed as a hero by the Danes, and Hrothgar showered glittering gifts upon the mighty man, and joy returned once again to Heorot, and the future seemed bright.

Grendel's Mother and Beowulf
Illustration by J R Skelton
But far away, in the blackened depths, a mother clutched her dead son. The mother of Grendel, an even mightier monster than he, looked on her mutilated progeny and shouted vengeance to the coming night. Blackness fell on Heorot once again, as Grendel's Mother smashed her way into Hrothgar's Hall, seizing his most favoured retainer, Æschere, and marching off into the night. Coming to the banks of her lair, she tore the great warrior's head clean from his body, burning with rage at her lost son. Dawn arose once again over Heorot, and not for the first time to the cries of fear."Will our anguish never end?" King Hrothgar despaired to Beowulf. The Danes begged Beowulf to save them once again, gifting him a sword, Hrunting, a blade that had conquered many a foe. Worried that this time he may meet a foe beyond his means, Beowulf set forth from court, determined to vanquish the shadow over the land once and for all. Coming to the edge of the rippling lake, Beowulf and his Geats found the severed head of Æschere, and their spirits were hardened by anger. Bidding his valiant warriors to stay at the surface and watch for him, Beowulf plunged into the stormy lake, resplendent in a shining breastplate and helm, Hrunting at his side. Nigh on a whole day passed before the great hero spied the bottom of the dark lake, when suddenly a grotesque hand seized him, and pulled him to the depths. Though her grip would powder the bones of a normal man, Beowulf's cuirass deflected her crushing strength this time. Dragged into a mighty, vaulted cavern, Beowulf saw her, the monstrous mother of Grendel. As she darted towards him, her hideous face contorted with rage, Beowulf swung desperately with Hrunting, but no! The great blade clanged harmlessly from her neck, failing him in his hour of need. Furious, Beowulf hurled the sword away, as it went spinning into the darkness. Diving, he seized hold of the demonic lady, but not this time would muscle prevail. Effortlessly, she cast him away, as he stumbled and fell to the dank floor. In that moment Beowulf would have met his end, had God not deflected her lethal dagger. Fear surging through him, Beowulf lunged at the cavern wall, where stood arrayed the creature's own weapons:

                                 " Then Beowulf saw among weapons an invincible sword,
                                    wrought by the giants, massive and double-edged,
                                    the joy of many warriors; that sword was matchless,
                                    well-tempered and adorned, forged in a finer age,
                                    only it was so huge that no man but Beowulf
                                    could hope to handle it in the quick of combat..."
                                                     - BEOWULF'S LAST GAMBLE

Taking up the gargantuan blade, Beowulf swung for his life, and with a terrible crack, the monster's head soared clean from her shoulders, and her broken body fell at his feet. With a shout of triumph, Beowulf rejoiced in his victory, as the storm that churned the lake at last subsided, the shadow retreated, and the sun beat down upon the land of the Danes. At long last, after twelve long years, the evil had been cleansed, and Beowulf's name was now legend...

The poem of Beowulf is arguably the cornerstone of English literature, the first great epic poem to be written in English, over one thousand years ago. Short enough to be read in a couple of nights, yet packed with the wisdom of England's oldest poets, and as cheap as a cinema ticket, Beowulf is well worth giving a go!

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Beowulf: Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which is close to the original, yet may be a bit archaic for some)

Oxford World's Classics:
Beowulf: The Fight at Finnsburh (Oxford World's Classics)
(A poetic and easy to read version)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Beowulf: A Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which is close to the original, yet may be a bit archaic for some)

Oxford World's Classics:
Beowulf (Oxford World's Classics)
(A poetic and easy to read version)