Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Great Bell of Beijing

The Mongol Empire at its greatest extent
Map created by the author

When the year 1368 came, for over one and a half centuries many of the nations of the world had been living in a state of constant fear for their very existence. With good reason. From humble origins as nomadic tribesmen on the Asian steppe, the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan and his successors had exploded across the known world. Every nation that had stood up to them lay in flames and countless armies that had been sent to desperately try and stop them had been utterly destroyed. When the hordes of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, fell upon China, the Song Dynasty and thousands of years of Chinese independence were hurled aside like a rag doll. The Mongol Khagan now ruled over the largest land empire the world has ever known, stretching from the East China Sea to the Mediterranean. It was indeed through the Mongol trade routes that the Black Death, the deadliest pandemic in history which left one in three Europeans dead, would extend the hand of Death with breath taking speed. Mongols had fought both Koreans and Hungarians, yet Koreans had never even heard of Hungarians, and were oblivious that they were fighting the same foe, so vast was the Mongol domain...

The Ming Empire
Map created by the author
In 1241, having routed the armies of Christian Europe, the Mongols were bearing down upon the gates of Vienna when news suddenly reached them of the death of the Khagan, Ogedei Khan. As was Mongol custom, all princes were required to return to the Mongol heartland to elect a successor, and the hordes at once returned to Asia. Only by a stroke of extreme good luck, therefore, was Europe saved from almost certain destruction. Over time, as the descendants of Genghis Khan grew mistrustful of each other, and drunk on their dazzling spoils of conquest, the Great Mongol Empire split into four. Each quarter was still vastly greater in size than many countries put together, but herein marked their decline. The Yuan Dynasty, or Mongol rule of China, was weakened, and after an enormous uprising, the Chinese at last threw off the Mongol yoke in 1368. The Chinese Emperor was restored to the Dragon Throne in the newly born Ming Dynasty, which would see China rise to new heights of learning and the arts. In 1403, the Yongle Emperor, third of the Ming Dynasty, decided to reassert Chinese traditions, and made a momentous decision. Leaving the Imperial Capital of Nanjing, he decided instead to make a new capital city on the ruins of Dadu, the old stronghold of Mongol rule. To this city he gave the name Beijing. Here is the story of something that happened in the new city.

The Forbidden City
Built between 1406 - 1420
The Chinese were free, but at a heavy price. Much of China was in a state of devastation, poverty and vulnerability. The Yongle Emperor, however, was a shrewd and ambitious ruler. His many edicts traversed the land in a whirlwind of speed, and soon the future looked bright for China. The farms were working once more, the army well equipped, the people fed and the treasury full. The Emperor attracted all the most learned minds in China, and soon the court, and city, of Beijing began to radiate the glory that the Mongols had all but destroyed. The most skilled poets set about writing great works of literature, the most skilled generals set forth to liberate more lands from foreign rule, and the most skilled artisans set to work on building a grand new city to house the Dragon Throne - The Forbidden City. As was tradition in Chinese cities, two towers were raised; one to house a Great Drum, to watch over the surrounding lands, and the other to house a Great Bell, to raise the alarm should any enemy march on the city. Great care and attention was lavished upon these two structures. The Mongols may have been beaten, but they still loomed as a terrifying threat on the northern borders of the Great Wall, and the newly liberated Chinese had no wish to endure the humiliation of occupation again. The Drum Tower was soon finished, and the Drum within was sounded. The booming thuds thundered across the city, loud enough such that even roosting birds on the other side of the city might be roused to flight from the trees.

As the Bell Tower was nearing completion, the Emperor decided that it should be crowned with a truly magnificent bell, worthy of the glorious home that had been made for it. Hearing of a gifted smith called Kuan Yu, the Yongle Emperor granted him a generous gift of money, and ordered the man to craft a bell which, when struck, could be heard in all parts of the city at the slightest alarm. Honoured at being chosen, Kuan Yu returned to his home, and set work on the Great Bell of Beijing. The Emperor's money paid for a vast retinue of the most skilled metal smiths to help, and the finest metals. It was some months before the mould was at last ready, and Kuan Yu announced to the Emperor that the casting could begin. In splendid array, the Emperor and his court came to the forge to witness the casting. As the exuberant parades died down, ready for the event, the bellmaker's excitement grew, eager as he was to honour his Emperor. At the signal, the channel opened, and the molten metal rushed forth into the mould. The anticipation grew as the metal cooled, and Kuan Yu stepped forward to break away the mould. Kuan Yu was craftsman, who took immense pride in the quality of his work, and when he pulled aside the mould to find the bell honeycombed with pits in many places, he was mortified. The Bell was ruined. The Emperor despaired at the time, labour and money that had been wasted on it. But he was an understanding and forgiving man at heart, and so gave to Kuan Yu another pouch of money, ordering him to try again.

The shocked bellmaker heeded the Emperor's word, and immediately set to work on a new Bell. As he once more laid out the mould, he was wracked with self-doubt and confusion. Nothing like this had ever happened before; it was not like him to fail so completely. Resolving that the mistake was as a result of an oversight on his part, Kuan Yu doubled his efforts and concentration, determined that his error be forgotten. After months of hard work, the mould was ready, and the glowing furnaces burned in readiness. Once more, the Yongle Emperor and his flamboyant court took up position to watch. At the signal, the channel opened at the radiant metal poured in. Kuan Yu, wiping the sweat from his nervous brow, approached the mould. Gently prising it away, he felt terror flood his body. For once again, the Bell was ruined. The Emperor despaired, as the gathered crowds got up to leave in disappointment. But this time, the Emperor spoke to Kuan Yu. He gave the bellmaker another pouch of money, and a warning. For to err once is understandable, twice forgivable, but three times punishable. He gave Kuan Yu one last chance, and if, on the third time it was a failure, he would pay with his life.

The Yongle Emperor
Ink parchment by anonymous artist,
Early Ming Dynasty
Kuan Yu returned home a broken man. What offense had his ancestors committed, such as to earn him such misfortune? Twice he had failed his Emperor, and he could not see how to avoid a third time. Now, if there was one thing Kuan Yu treasured more than his professional pride and honour, it was his daughter. Sixteen years of age and astonishingly beautiful, she had "almond-shaped eyes, like the autumn waves, which, sparkling and dancing in the sun, seem to leap up in joy". She was modest too, and prodigious in talent for many fine things. She was the apple of her father's eye, and the two lived together happily, though the bellmaker's wife had tragically died long ago. Ko-ai, as she was called, returned his affection, and when she saw him, distraught, she begged to know the source of his grief. When her father told her of his failures, she comforted him, resolving to offer daily prayers for his success this time. "Are we not told that out of evil cometh good?" she asked. Soothed by her words, Kuan Yu set about the hard work of forging one last bell, newly invigorated. The months passed, and soon the day for the unveiling approached. Every night, Ko-ai had prayed, but suddenly she had the idea of visiting a respected seer, in the hope that he might know the cause of both failures. "The next bell will fail", he replied. Ko-ai was mortified, but the seer continued, "unless the blood of a young girl is poured in with the metal".

The fateful day of the third casting arrived. Much of the city, it seemed, had come to witness the scene with the Emperor. There was a nervous tension in the air, for the day would end only in honour, or death for Kuan Yu. The bellmaker could hardly restrain his fear as he walked bravely up to the mould, ready to pour the molten metal in. The signal was given, and Kuan Yu reached for the lever, but just then, a shout startled the crowd. It was Ko-ai. "For my father", she called in defiance, as she hurled herself from the walkway into the boiling metal. "KO-AI!!!" the bellmaker shouted, but it was too late. One of the workmen reached out for her as she fell, but could only save her shoe. As the girl's hands touched the fiery liquid, an unearthly scream resounded from her lips, and soon Ko-ai and metal were one. Kuan Yu's sanity shattered. Many men were needed to forcibly drag him home, as he bellowed deranged words. A workman broke open the mould and, as the seer had prophesied, the bell stood proud, unblemished, unbroken, with not a trace to suggest the horror within.

Some days later, the hour had come. By order of the Yongle Emperor, the Great Bell was raised to its new home atop the tower. All Beijing had gathered for this moment, and all had heard rumours of its making. The Emperor gave the order, and the Bell was struck with a hammer. Such a boom it was! With a ringing clash as though of thunder, the sound rolled out to the very highest mountains. It seemed the Bell was in that moment Kuan Yu's truly greatest legacy. But then, as the deafening tone began to die, a low sound followed it. A sound remarkably like the shout of a woman in terrible agony, and it sent a chill down the spine of all. As the tone quietened, the word shoe was distinctly heard in the ringing. Even today, when the Great Bell is rung, passers-by flinch and remark, "There's poor Ko-ai's voice calling for her shoe..."

United Kingdom

Myths of China:
Myths and Legends of China - The Original Classic Edition
(A vast collection of stories and myths, including that of the Great Bell of Beijing, from China, translated into English)

United States

Myths of China:
Myths and Legends of China - The Original Classic Edition
(A vast collection of stories and myths, including that of the Great Bell of Beijing, from China, translated into English)

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Cyclops

After the most grueling siege in history, after ten long years Troy fell to the Greek armies. Some of the greatest heroes ever born had fought and died on both sides, Olympus was divided and the world would never be the same again. But the ordeal of many of the Greek heroes was far from over. Indeed for one man above all others, it had only just begun...

Second Century Greek Sculpture, housed
in the Villa of the Roman Emperor Tiberius
at Sperlonga
Cunning Odysseus, King of Ithaca and sacker of cities, was the man who won the Trojan War. Renowned the world over for his sagacity and brilliant mind, it had been he who had masterminded the stratagem of the Wooden Horse, a deception famous the world over even today. But now, nearly ten years after the Trojan citadel burned, a weary and despairing man sat before King Alcinous of Phaeacia. The Phaeacians had been most intrigued when a strange and ragged looking man had been washed up on their shores, but Alcinous was a kindly man, and entertained the stranger in his palace. That night, at the banquet, the court bard struck up a song, a song which rang with the deeds of those famous men at Troy so long ago now. The gathered crowd cheered as the song turned to the valiant heroism of those who fought inside Troy's walls as the city fell to its knees, most of all proud Odysseus, blessed by Athena. At the sound of the bard's song, the memories welled up afresh in the stranger's mind, and choked with emotion, tears fell from his eyes. Seeing his distress, Alcinous bade the bard fall silent, and prayed the stranger to reveal his as yet unknown name, and what force had brought him here. Realising he could remain anonymous no longer, the stranger replied "Where shall I begin, where end, my tale? For the list of woes which the gods in Heaven have sent me is a long one... I am Odysseus, Laertes' son. The whole world talks of my stratagems, and my fame has reached the Heavens...". The room fell silent. All were entranced by the hero's words, stunned and saddened at his melancholy. So, with a heavy heart, Odysseus began his mighty tale.

Ten long years ago, Odysseus and his men departed Trojan shores, desperate to see beloved Ithaca again. The journey should have been quick and easy, but little could they have known that it would be as arduous and perilous as the War had ever been. For the gathered Greek Kings had made sacrifices to the gods on the shores of Troy, giving praise for their triumph. But the rituals were in vain. For the Greek soldiers had desecrated the holy places within Troy when they stormed the city, burning her temples and slaughtering her priests. In their rage, the gods decreed a terrible retribution upon the Greeks...

Odysseus rescues his men from the Lotus Eaters
Engraver unknown
Odysseus' ships made landfall in the land of the Cicones, a vicious and warlike tribe who despised all foreign men. The Ithacans sacked their citadels, eager for plunder to take home for their families as they were. But the Cicones struck back, and many were killed in the ensuing slaughter. Rallying his men, Odysseus sounded their retreat, as they continued South on their journey home. Zeus the Thunderer, however, gathered the storm clouds and unleashed a tempest upon the sea, and for nine days the Greek ships were blasted across the Mediterranean, coming to the strange land. Odysseus sent two men to investigate the local tribe, and determine if they were hostile. The locals, however, were not violent at all, on the contrary they gave Odysseus' men lotus fruit to eat. As soon as the sweet, luscious fruit touched their lips, however, the men lost all thought of home and the worries of the world. All they desired was to remain here and feast on the Lotus flower for ever more. With a great struggle did Odysseus drag his men back to the ships, urgently making for distant shores, lest his whole crew fall victim to the dangerous fruit.

Home seemed more distant than ever when, sometime later, the ships chanced upon a dense fog which descended upon them, shrouding the moonlight. So dark was the night that the ships ran aground upon a peculiar island, not a large land, but a bountiful one. Lush and verdant, this island was teeming with life, and the weary crew dined well on the plentiful goat population of the island. For the first time in many long months, Odysseus and his men enjoyed a peaceful sleep. When Dawn arrived, and the light hit Odysseus' eyes, he awoke to the beauty of the island. Across the strait, however, there was a land that night had veiled. A wild and mountainous sight it was too, in the shadow of a towering volcano - Mount Etna. When the ships were filled to bursting with supplies, curious Odysseus picked his best ship's crew, and together they set sail across the strait, inquisitive as to the local peoples and their ways. Odysseus ordered gifts to be brought, in the form of wine taken from the groves sacred to Apollo, a wine fit for Olympus itself, such was the floral aroma that rose from it. A fitting present for the local leader who, Odysseus hoped, might grant hospitality to his men in return. How very wrong he would be.

The Sack of Troy
Painting by Johan Georg Trautmann
Making landfall upon the beach, Odysseus noticed high up on the slopes an enormous cavern. Fighting an ominous sense of foreboding, the King and his twelve finest warriors scaled the cliff and gazed within the towering entrance. The sight that waited there so amazed them that all thoughts of doubt left their minds. Baskets of the most luxurious cheeses towered high, pails full to the brim with milk and pens laden with the finest lambs all stretched before them. His comrades begged him to let them take some and swiftly make their flight. How much better if would have been for them all if they had, Odysseus mournfully confessed to the Phaeacian King, but alas that hindsight was not theirs, as the hero continued his tale. Odysseus forbade his men to steal from the cave, and was at any rate keen to meet the owner of these splendid things.  Lighting a fire, the Greeks settled down, guessing the owner to be out tending his flocks during the day, as they wondered what gifts their host might present them with. Some hours later, the herds came into their cave, their shepherd close behind. At last, the owner had come. But it was no native tribesman or leader of men. With a titanic crash the Greeks awoke with a start, some might have thought that they had been roused to a nightmare. An enormous pile of logs and fallen to the cavern floor, and the being who had dropped them stood not far behind. A towering giant, mightier in stature than any building raised by the hands of men, stood framed by the mouth of the cave. So feeble were they aside such a vast being, the Greeks had avoided the gaze of the giant's single and enormous eye. With a ripple of terror, Odysseus and his men shrank into the shadows, making not a sound. The Cyclops rolled an enormous boulder into the cave's entrance as some crude door, before turning to drive his flock deeper into the cave. After methodically milking his ewes, the Cyclops lit his fire, and with the orange glow, Odysseus' cover was blown. "Strangers!" the giant roared, "and who are you!"

            " Our hearts sank. The booming voice and the very sight
              of the monster filled us with panic..."
                                          - ODYSSEUS RECOUNTS MEETING THE CYCLOPS

Their courage faltering, the Greeks turned to their King, who boldly replied that they were Achaeans, returning from Troy, once proud subjects of King Agamemnon. Some god had lead them astray on their path home, and they were now suppliants before him. Odysseus reminded the Cyclops of his duty towards guests, for Zeus decreed the honour that bound a host to his guest. The pitiless Cyclops replied that the Cyclopes were no god fearing people, and that he cared nothing for Zeus or the Olympians, since his own strength was a match for they. Nevertheless, the giant demanded to know where Odysseus had moored his ship. Sensing danger for his men still down on the ships, cunning Odysseus replied that Poseidon had smashed up his ships and that they were stranded here. The cruel Cyclops made no reply, but triumphantly dived upon them. Seizing two of Odysseus' men, he dashed their heads against the cold, stone floor. Tearing them limb from limb, he devoured them, as the Greeks shouted in terror, weeping as they raised their hands to Heaven, begging Zeus for help. Taking a gulp of milk to wash down his ghastly meal, the Cyclops settled down into a sleep.

Odysseus blinds Polyphemus
Painting by Pellegrino Tibaldi
Odysseus's first impulse was to draw his blade and slay the giant there and then, but wisdom prevailed. No man could move the vast boulder at the cave's door, and simply kill him would seal all their fates. Stricken groans came from his men, but Odysseus soothed them with his words, as they braced for morning. Dawn came once more, as the giant awoke. After slowly milking his ewes once more, he grabbed two more brave Greeks. Odysseus looked helplessly on at their grisly fate, crying with frustration. As the Cyclops left for the day to tend his flocks, however, Odysseus noticed that he had left his staff behind. If a staff it was, for to human eyes it was more like the mast of some great ship, such was its size. Forming a plan, he drew his sword and began to whittle the staff, sharpening it to a point. Thrusting the point into the fire, so as to harden it in the flames, the men drew lots to see who would have the brave task of helping Odysseus wield it. Just then the goats returned to the cave. With seconds to spare, Odysseus hid the point under a pile of dung, of which there was a great deal in the cave. Evening fell, and after milking his ewes once more, the Cyclops snatched two more of Odysseus' comrades and gobbled them down. Steeling his nerves for not the first, or the last, time, Odysseus beckoned to his men to pass him the wine he had brought. Approaching the fierce giant, Odysseus flattered him, offering him a gift of wine in the hope of pity. The Cyclops took the wine and drank deeply from it, as the intoxicating perfumes from it rose to his nostrils. The wine gave him such joy that he immediately demanded more, and the Odysseus' name, promising him a gift in return. Three times Odysseus refilled the bowl, and three times the Cyclops drained it to the last. Seeing the wine do its work on the giant's wits, Odysseus addressed him once more, "My name is Nobody. That is what I am called by my mother and father and by all my friends". Looking hopefully for his gift, Odysseus looked the giant in his monstrous eye. The heartless being answered, "of all his company I will eat Nobody last, and the rest before him. That shall be your gift". Barely had the word "gift" been uttered, when the Cyclops keeled over into a drunken stupor, vomiting forth a stream of wine and torn human flesh from his gullet.

Odysseus' Escape
Painting by Jacob Jordaens
Seizing their chance, Odysseus and his men thrust the staff into the glowing fire, and soon the tip was burning hot. Whispering encouragements to his men, Odysseus drove the stake into the Cyclops eye, twisting it with all his might. The heat singed the giant's brow, and the blood bubbled around the wound as his eye hissed furiously. The Cyclops let out a deafening shriek of agony, a shout which rang across the mountains, as the Greeks recoiled again, their nerve buckling. Such was the din, other Cyclopes soon crowded around the sealed entrance to the cave, demanding to know the cause for this disturbance. "What on earth is wrong with you Polyphemus?" they called from the night. "O my friends, it is Nobody's treachery that is doing me to death", Polyphemus shouted back. Confused, the Cyclopes replied "well, if you are alone and nobody is assaulting you, you must be sick", and off they went. Odysseus laughed to himself at the brilliance of his plan, but they had little time to waste. Groaning in pain, Polyphemus rolled aside the boulder at the door of the cave, and groped feebly, hoping to catch Odysseus or his comrades as they fled. Thinking quickly, Odysseus ordered his men to lash together the sheep in threes, using willow twigs from Polyphemus' enormous bed. For himself, Odysseus chose the most robust ram and, clinging tightly on, swung underneath it. As soon as Dawn arrived, the flock made for the pastures on the mountainside. Their master, however, still in blinding pain, ran his fingers along to tops of their fleeces as they passed through the mouth of the cave, for it did not occur to the Cyclops that men would hang beneath. Soon only the great ram remained. As the giant's hands recognised his favourite of the flock, he moaned "Sweet ram, why are you the last of the flock to pass out og the cave like this? You have never before lagged behind the others..." Odysseus felt a sudden pang of fear. "You must be grieved for your master's eye", Polyphemus mournfully concluded, and Odysseus breathed a sigh of relief. Releasing the ram, Polyphemus sat as the flock stepped into the fresh air once more. With many backward glances, Odysseus and his crew detached themselves and sprinted for the shore.

The Rage of Polyphemus
Painting by Annibale Carracci
Reaching the ship as fast as they could, Odysseus and his men were greeted with cries of joy, soon followed by lamentations at those lost. With urgent gestures, Odysseus beckoned them to silently load the flock on board and make their escape. As the oar blades struck the surf, Odysseus could not resist. Shouting in defiance, he taunted Polyphemus, "Cyclops! So he was not such a weakling after all, the man whose friends you meant to overpower and eat in your hollow cave! And your crimes were bound to catch up with you, you brute, who did not shrink from devouring your guests. Now Zeus and the other gods have paid you out!" Polyphemus felt a stab of rage. With a roar he tore off the pinnacle of the mountains and hurled it in the direction of Odysseus' voice. Soaring through the air, the rock struck the sea just ahead of the ship, but the resulting wave drove the Greeks back to shore. Seizing a pole, Odysseus pushed them off, frantically urging the crew to row for their lives. The will to shout more abuse took hold once again, as his men tried to restrain him. But anger and frustration was welling up in Odysseus too, frustration that home was no closer, frustration at his helplessness to save the lives of his men. His men begged him to stop, lest they all die. But Odysseus was not to be restrained, and shouted something he would later rue.

            "Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your blindness, tell him
              your eye was put out by Odysseus, sacker of cities,
              the son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca!"
                                       - ODYSSEUS TAUNTS POLYPHEMUS

Polyphemus stopped. He remembered an ancient prophecy told amongst the Cyclopes, a prophecy that foretold that he would be robbed of his sight by a man called Odysseus. In return, the Cyclops called to Odysseus, bidding him return, so that he might present him with gifts to speed him on his journey, for his father was none other than Poseidon, the god of the sea himself. Fatally disbelieving, Odysseus angrily retorted "I only wish I could make as sure of robbing you of life and breath and sending you to Hell, as I certain that not even the Earthshaker will ever heal your eye!" As this, Polyphemus kneeled in prayer. Beseeching the skies, he called to his father, laying a curse on Odysseus and his men:

        "Grant that Odysseus, sacker of cities and son of Laertes, may never reach his home
          in Ithaca. But if he is destined to see his friends again, to come once more
          to his own house and reach his native land, let him come late, in wretched plight,
          having lost all his comrades, in a foreign ship, and let him find trouble in his home"
                                        - THE CYCLOP'S CURSE

Polyphemus prayed, and Lord Poseidon heard his prayer. Rising to his feet, with all his might, Polyphemus seized a boulder, mightier by far than the first, and with a roar hurled it towards Odysseus' proud words. Falling through the sky, the rock scraped the rear of the ship, but missed, though the resulting tidal wave propelled the Greeks to foreign shores. Odysseus and his men were overjoyed. Little did they know, as Odysseus later told King Alcinous in Phaeacia, what a world of pain the Cyclops had now unleashed upon them. For in his lair they had had a giant as a foe. Now they had a long ocean voyage home, and now they had the god of the sea himself as a foe...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
(A version which keeps a dash of the original poetry, good if you like a balance between high poetry and readability)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Odyssey (Oxford World's Classics)
(An excellent choice if you want to read the Odyssey for it's story over it's poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Odyssey (Penguin Classics)
(A version which keeps a dash of the original poetry, good if you like a balance between high poetry and readability)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Odyssey (Oxford World's Classics)
(An excellent choice if you want to read the Odyssey for it's story over it's poetry)  

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Nightmare of Eve

Here it was at last. After an arduous journey across the cosmos (for the previous episode in this story, please click here), Satan looked hungrily down upon the Garden of Eden. Once the brightest of all angels, the Morning Star, thrown down from the fold of the Most High for daring to seize the Heavenly throne, Satan had resolved upon means other than open war to defy his Creator. Alone of the Fallen Angels, it had been he who first had spoken treacherous words in Heaven, and who now ventured to humble God by tearing down his most dearest Creation - Man.

Satan enters the Garden of Eden
Engraving by Gustave Doré
As he soared forth into the world of Men, and the light of the Sun touched his proud face, Satan was shaken. Not since he had served the Lord in Heaven had he felt such warmth, such invigoration, such happiness. For though treacherous, proud and deceitful, he remained an angel still, and here was a land to which he should belong:

    " O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
       That bring to my remembrance
       from what state I fell,
       how glorious once above thy sphere;
       Till pride and worse ambition
       threw me down... "
                      - SATAN'S REMORSE

Wracked with guilt and remorse, Satan dreamt in vain that he were created a lesser being, devoid of ambition and immune to temptation. There was a moment, as the Morning Star touched upon the grass, that he even wondered whether he could know redemption, whether pardon could yet be his. Should he repent, would God forgive him of his crimes? Imagining himself, on bent knee before the Lord, surrounded by the Heavenly array, in his pride Satan thought only of the humiliation of it. Intolerable! Thinking too, of the horrors of the infernal prison from whence he had come and to where he must return, inflamed with rage once more, Satan focused his mind on the fell task he had volunteered to undertake. But his moment of inner conflict had gone not unnoticed. For there behind stood Uriel still, the angel Satan had deceived by disguise. Suspicious of seeing a pained expression in a place so pure, Uriel made haste to his brethren upon the Mount.

The Garden of Eden
Painting by Wenzel Peter
Not even the fiery heart of the Fallen One was hard to the beauty of the place he now saw. Such a verdant, sylvan scene there never was in all the cosmos! Boundless wilderness of cedar, pine and fir, towering high with the mightiest saplings groaning under the burden of their glorious fruit. The colour too! Regal golds glowing from the bounty of fruit, rich blossoms flourishing upon their boughs, bathed in the radiant glow of the high Sun. A soft breeze, a showering in the perfumed scents of the trees.  A place devoid of all sadness yet for the despair of what was to come. Not even he, that impious fiend, could hide his marvel. With a mighty leap, such as had broken the lines of Heaven in his doomed War, Satan broke through the undergrowth and penetrated to the Garden's core. His wings flared, he came to rest upon the highest tree at the very heart of the Garden, the Tree of Life, where in irony his thoughts were of nothing but death. Such a vista from that place there was no equal. The blissful fields of Paradise stretched yonder, in all their verdant glory. Nearby rose the Tree of Knowledge, from whose seed man would fall, astride a great azure river that channelled life across the Garden's plains. There, in a grove not far, laden with grapes of the deepest purple and flowers worthy only of Heaven, they lay:

                      " In naked majesty seemed lords of all,
                         And worthy seemed, for in their looks divine
                         The image of their glorious maker shone... "
                                              - ADAM AND EVE

There in regal splendour stood Adam, formed by God's own hand. Woven from Adam's own flesh, there too stood Eve, wondrous to behold. There was no flaw to be seen in the first man and woman, for they were crafted in God's own image, and here in Eden they were lord and lady to all the beasts, masters of this land in perfect innocence. Though they were unclad, there was no shame, no guilty thought of nature's wonder. Around them played all the beasts in harmony; lions, tigers, kids, bears, birds, horses all gathered in blissful serenity. Even the serpent here gave no heed of suspicion of what he would soon do. Envy and jealously raw blazed in the heart of Satan as a world in flames. Even he, the father of sin, was loath to bring such calamity upon such a scene. Pity for Adam and Eve struck him then, pity that they should suffer so much pain, when another was his foe. "Thank him who puts me to this loath revenge", he thought, "to do what else though damned I should abhor". So the proud angel justified his fell deed.

Adam and Eve
Engraving by by Gustave Doré
To learn more of this land, so that he might overturn it, Satan shifted his form once more. Now he was a lion, fierce and strong, then a tiger, stalking without sound. Approaching softly, he listened intently to the voice of Adam, noble yet oblivious. The First Man spoke in praise of the Lord, who in his benevolence had granted so much. The only sign of their obedience to God that remained was honour his command not to taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, for it would bring death, "whate'er death is, some dreadful thing no doubt". To grant them both dominion over Earth, Sea and Air for such a little price, Adam raised his hands in prayer, as Eve did too, to give praise to the Lord. Jubliant, Eve embraced Adam:

                             " Aside the Devil turned,
                               For envy, yet with jealous leer malign,                         
                               Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained.                               
                               Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two,                         
                               Imparadised in one another's arms,
                               The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill,
                               Of bliss on bliss, while I to Hell am thrust! "
                                                    - THE ENVY OF SATAN

Blind to all other gifts, Satan thought only of God's command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Seething once more, the Fallen one could reason nothing more than they too were but slaves to God. They were not to receive this Knowledge? "Why should their Lord envy them that? Can it be sin to know, Can it be death?", he thought. As night fell on the Garden of Eden, a dark night brought on by the presence of a spirit who was welcome not there, Satan saw at last how he could defy the Most High. He would turn God's own Creation against him.

The Nightmare of Eve
Engraving by Gustave Doré
Meanwhile, high overhead, as the rays of the setting Sun levelled against the sky, the Archangel Gabriel sat enthroned upon the Mount. All around him the youth of Heaven exercised in divine sport, gilded helms, shields and spears glinting in the warm glow. Soaring through the evening rays, Uriel at last arrived. Urgently pouring out his suspicions, the Archangel confessed to Gabriel that he had granted passage to this dark newcomer, his foul thoughts veiled in fair disguise. Word too, had already reached Gabriel's ear of a breakout from Hell. But who was this stranger in their midst? The Archangel immediately sent forth the swiftest angels to find the source of this new disturbance. Far below, the night closed in, and the First Man and First Woman marvelled in the beauty of the stars and gave thanks to God, before laying down to sleep on their laurel bed. As Eve lay in slumber, little could she know as the Fallen Angel crept silently up to her, careful not to rouse Adam as he moved. Lying beside her peaceful body, Satan bent low and whispered fell incantations into her ear, channelling all manner of ghastly apparitions into her mind. As the venomed words flowed on, Eve convulsed violently in her nightmare. Soon Satan was no longer able to maintain his disguise, as no form but his true one could contain the grim phantasms within. Every doubt, every suspicion, every curious thought now gripped Eve's mind such that never again would she know innocence. Satan's senses heightened, his hour of glory approached at last.

Satan is banished from the Garden of Eden
Engraving by Gustave Doré
Just as he was about to implant the idea of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, however, the scene was suddenly interrupted. Ithuriel and Zephon, two loyal angels of Gabriel, drawn to the dark power emanating from that grove, appeared suddenly. Both spirits stood stunned, aghast to see an accursed angel here, in Paradise so very far from Hell. Recovering quickly, they demanded him to reveal his identity. Torn abruptly from his foul deed, Satan rounded on them, with a baleful gaze that would break the soul of any man. "Know ye not me?" he scornfully mocked, "Ye knew me once...". The terrible truth dawning upon them at last, Zephon valiantly rebuked Satan for his base treachery, swearing to bind him in chains if he had to. Taken aback by the young angel's boldness, Satan's anger grew greater still, anger that this young spirit clung to a virtue he never could. No bonds would be necessary, for the Morning Star flew to confront Gabriel without restraint. Recognising at once the stature of the Prince of Hell, Gabriel ordered Satan to reveal his purpose in Eden, a dwelling "God hath planted here in bliss". Both spirits , who had once held the other in great esteem, eyed each other warily. Who would not break free of Hell if they could, the Fallen One replied, what being willingly undergoes pain and torture? He simply came to admire the beauty of the place, a thing his own quarters lacked. Certain of deceit, Gabriel grew frustrated, unable to discover Satan's true intent as he was. Relentless, however, he demanded why he had come alone, why not the rest of his foul horde? For if there was pain in Hell, why had the rest not come. "Courageous chief, the first in flight from pain", Gabriel mocked. Taken aback by this insult, Satan angrily retorted that he alone had volunteered to undertake this enterprise, and he had hoped to settle here on Earth in peace.

But the Archangel Gabriel was wise to Satan's lies. "Thou sly hypocrite, who now wouldst seem Patron of Liberty, who more than thou once fawneded, and servilely adored Heav'n's awful Monarch?" Gabriel angrily spat. For whilst Satan might claim to be seeking freedom for himself and his kin, his true purpose to seize God's throne was laid bare before all. The angelic host raised their glittering weapons in defiance, as Gabriel chastised him one final time, vowing to personally cast Satan back to Hell. With a shout of all his pent up guilt, rage and secret hopes of redemption now truly lost, Satan advanced on the loyal spirit. But just then, a flash of light, and bolt of thunder shook the cosmos. Sensing the gaze of the Lord, Satan turned his back on the Heavenly crew, as the angel of the Lord banished him from the Garden. Little could Gabriel see, however, the smile on the Morning Star's face. For his foul stratagem remained veiled to Heaven, and the seeds of discord had been sown. All he now needed was to complete what the angels had interrupted. He would not be able to break into the Garden personally again, that much was sure. Spying a nearby serpent however, Satan suddenly had an idea. Far away, meanwhile, Eve awoke with a pang of terror, distraught at the monstrous visions of her dreams...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Oxford World's Classics:
Paradise Lost (Oxford World's Classics)
(Paradise Lost is written in English, so text choice is personal preference)

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Glaucus and Scylla

One of the most timeless aspects of the myths of the ancient world is the sheer humanity of the gods they worshipped. Powerful and wise though they were, they were susceptible to very familiar faults and emotions, and envy is a potent force indeed. Here is the story of one man who discovered the terrible consequences of the envy of a goddess...

Detail of a painting
by Bartholomäus Spranger
There was once a strange cove on the eastern coast of Greece called Anthedon. It was a place men avoided, fearful of a strange power which seemed to radiate from its shores. Isolated it remained, until one day a fisherman happened upon the sheltered beach, weary from a long, exhausting day on the ocean waves. Sweating under the blazing sun, Glaucus hauled his bountiful catch ashore, dragging his nets across the springy grass of a wild meadow. Though a little untamed, and perhaps rather quiet, there was nothing to suggest that the meadow was more special than any other. Soon tired out, Glaucus came to rest in the long grass by the waves, and laid out his nets to dry, as he surveyed the day's catch. It was an impressive sight, a splendid array of the choicest specimens of the high seas. Even more impressive was what followed. For in the moment the fish touched the soft grass, they suddenly quivered. Glaucus stared. Barely a moment later, the nearest fish flopped right over. The fisherman looked on, utterly perplexed. These fish had been in his boat for hours and must have been dead for some time. Glaucus blinked. There was no denying it now, for the whole shoal of his catch was now defiantly leaping its way back to the sea, invigorated by some unseen force. Glaucus looked around for the sign of some god who might be behind this miracle. But there was no other on that isolated cove.

Sculpture by Pietro Bracci, centrepiece
of the Trevi Fountain, Rome
Glaucus looked down, wondering whether there was more to this strange grass than met the eye. Tearing a handful of blades from the swaying meadow, the fisherman chewed them, and the sap flowed into his mouth. Glaucus had barely swallowed a mouthful when a strange feeling overcame him. The burning rays of the sun suddenly seemed to sear his skin. The gentle tide nearby seemed more inviting than ever. A strange shudder within his heart, and Glaucus knew what to do. It seemed so strange to live on land, now he thought of it, especially when the cool waves appeared to almost call out to him. So, bidding a swift farewell to the Earth, Glaucus dived into the azure ocean. What a feeling it was, to glide through the water, with the freedom of a bird in the sky! Deep below the surface, Glaucus was welcomed to his new home by the Titan Oceanus and his consort Tethys, who both ruled over this domain, having escaped the wrath of Zeus by remaining neutral in the War of the Titans (for this story, please click here). Oceanus greeted Glaucus joyfully, and at the Titan's command, the former fisherman was purged of his mortality, embracing the eternal life of a sea god. Nine times the Titan chanted, and in a hundred streams Glaucus was purified. As the thundering torrents rushed over his head in a deluge, Glaucus felt his body begin to change. Where once there was an auburn beard, now there was green, as though seaweed. His shoulders, broader now than ever they had been before, were host to strong new arms, blue as the sea. Glaucus kicked his legs. But there were legs there no more, for in their place was a poweful tail, studded with fins. With a single flick of his new tail, Glaucus could soar through the depths, surrounded with fish more beautiful than any he had seen on his days as a fisherman.

Glaucus beseeches Scylla
Painting by Painting by Laurent de la Hyre
Glaucus rejoiced in the freedom of his new life, revelling in the company of gods. One day, however, whilst powering through the waves where the shores of Sicily and Italy are all but one, Glaucus caught sight of a young maiden reclining in a small rock pool by the ocean's edge. Her name was Scylla, one of the nymphs who came to the aid of those who lose their way at sea. From the moment his eyes saw her, Glaucus was utterly transfixed. Overcome in the heat of the moment, Glaucus came to her, surfacing suddenly. Though he tried to placate her with words which he prayed would make her stay, it was to no avail. Horrified by the creature she saw, Scylla fled in terror to a high crag of rock hanging over the Strait. The nymph eyed him suspiciously, unaware if Glaucus were god or monster. Relentless, Glaucus called out to her, telling the story of how he had once been a humble fisherman, how the Titan of the Ocean had granted him immortality and new life. Glaucus was, however, still recanting his tale when Scylla fled once more. Distraught at her harsh rejection, desperate Glaucus remembered stories he had once heard of a powerful witch who called nearby her home, and set off without delay, praying that she might help him in his plight.

Painting by John William Waterhouse
Making straight for Aeaea, the island where dwelled the daughter of the Sun god, the Titan Helios, Glaucus found it impossible to cast his thoughts to anything but Scylla and her cruel retreat. Soaring through the Tyrrhenian Sea, Glaucus soon arrived on the island of Aeaea, and made his way to the halls of Circe, whose skills with magic were known the world over. Throwing himself at the witch's feet, Glaucus begged for her pity, releasing his pent up emotions:

" Oh Circe, if spells can hold any sway,
   now open those holy lips to utter a spell! "
               - GLAUCUS PRAYS TO CIRCE

Circe was startled by this impassioned plea, and could not fail to be impressed by Glaucus' devotion. The witch responded by urging Glaucus to forget Scylla, and turn to her instead. Glaucus, horrified, declared that as long as Scylla lived and until the day grass grew on the ocean floor and seaweed rested on the mountaintops, he would always be loyal to Scylla. Circe was wracked by envy that she, a goddess, would be refused, but could not bear to harm Glaucus. Instead she turned her wrath upon innocent Scylla. She assured Glaucus that she would create a potion that would cool Scylla's fire and make her fall for him. Elated, Glaucus thanked the witch and dived back into the sea, eager to see Scylla again.

Circe, however, had cold fury in her heart. She too, could think of nothing but Scylla, but with feelings all too different. Taking the most noxious herbs from the woods, Circe ground the poisons into a drug, laying upon it both curse and malice. Her dark work complete, Circe soared through the Heavens, coming to the pool where Scylla liked to bathe. The nymph herself was on her way, and Circe was swift, pouring  her fell concoction into the calm waters. Where the poison touched the glassy tide, it hissed and bubbled, but soon was tranquil, hiding its evil purpose. Her work done, Circe withdrew just as Scylla arrived on the scene. Gently lowering herself in the water, Scylla found the water pleasantly warm, and soon fell asleep, as Glaucus relentlessly approached.

The Metamorphosis of Scylla
Painting by Rubens
It was a strange, growling noise which awoke Scylla. Still drowsy, she opened one eyelid. With a pang of terror, she saw a monstrous hound snapping near her waist. Almost paralysed with fright, slowly she edged away. But the creature followed her every move. Soon snarling surrounded her, and soon the terrible truth dawned on her - they were her. Circe's magic had fused the monsters to her waist, yet the beasts knew no mind or master other than their own. Circe had transformed Scylla into a ravenous monster, who could not control the six pairs of jaws bound to her. Six pairs of jaws which had a taste for human flesh. After a frantic journey back to be at Scylla's side, the former fisherman was thrown into a pit of despair at what he saw. Realising Circe's treachery, with tears in his eyes, he hurled himself back into the waves, shouting in deranged frustration. What of Scylla? As she lay in her lair, torn with grief, she cursed Circe's name, thinking only of vengeance. Until that day, however, sailors seeking to cross the treacherous Straits of Messina did so at their own peril, for fear of finding more than rapids there...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A lyrical Roman poem which tells the stories of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla)

Oxford World's Classics:
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A more accessible version of the Roman poem, which tells the story of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A lyrical Roman poem which tells the stories of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla)

Oxford World's Classics:
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A more accessible version of the Roman poem, which tells the story of many myths, including Glaucus and Scylla)