Thinking about John Milton, Paradise Lost, and Recognition

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It is a fact of life that we are to be pushed down and opposed in all things. I do not pretend to know that fate will be any easier on anyone for trying their hardest, pushing to the limits of mental exertion, or exhausting all physical energy. I really don’t. However, there are times in which one must demand something from life, too. When dues have been paid and courses run, whether life has acknowledged that or not one should claim a reward, a destiny, a result, better than one has. In this one thing I oppose the Stoics, for they would accept life and her gifts as sufficient for their efforts. I do not. I believe Pindar. He once wrote that honors should be sought because we had put the efforts towards obtaining them. To demand glory, to do so when we have paid our dues, it is not wrong, the product of hubris, or the manipulation of an overambitious soul. We demand to be given what is ours, regardless of who or what believes we do not deserve it. It is ours by virtue of our efforts, our sacrifice, our suffering.

John Milton wrote, in Paradise Lost, of a Satan that demanded glory despite his rebellious state. As he escaped Hell to confront God directly, he faced a cyclops-like creature that had been placed there to keep him from completing the attempt. A monster that:

…black it stood as night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook  a dreadful Dart; what seem’d his head
The likness of a Kingly Crown had on.
Satan was now at hand, and from his seat
The monster moving forward came as fast,
With horrid strides, Hell trembled as he strode.
Th’ undaunted Fiend what this might be admir’d,
Admir’d, not fear’d; God and his Son except,
Created thing naught vallu’d he nor  shun’d;
And with disdainful look thus first began.

Some would argue Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost, I neither agree nor disagree. Suffice it to say that John Milton was a very religious man, more Protestant than Catholic, whose hero would not have been the rebel who started all conflict. Let us focus instead on what Milton believed the muses had told him about the infamous primordial rebel. Satan, alone, faces this gigantic monster now bent on stopping him. The monster is life. We are all Satan. We have all committed some terrible mistake at some point in our lives. We have rebelled against authority, we have done things we are not proud of or reject. We have all suffered the scorn of a life that seems to taunt us, a life placed there by some unknowable force, bent on our submission, fixated on our destruction. Such is life, such will always be life. If that is the case, if we are all satans in disguise, then his answer in this fictional work of Milton’s is all the more relevant to us:

Whence and what are though, execrable shape
That dar’st, though grim and terrible, advance
Thy miscreated Front athwart my way
To yonder Gates? through them I mean to pass,
That be assur’d, without leave askt of thee:
Retire, or taste thy folly, and learn by proof,
Hell-born, not to contend with Spirits of Heav’n.

Life is huge, and ugly, and scary. It charges at us with its mighty spear, shaking the ground beneath her, as if we were to sink into the abyss below us by its sheer weight. All shakes, all trembles, and all fall to their knees. But not us. We who have done the work, paid the price of our genius in sweat, and blood, and tears; we have a different duty. We have a different calling. We are too invested in what we have accomplished to stop now, before the dawn, and call it quits. We cannot fail, because we have done too much already. Every moment of our lives we have done the deed, and we will not be pushed aside by life; not now, not anymore. We may find, after all, that huge and scary life is nothing more than a mirage of power, set up by that huge nature, spirit, or god, in fear of what we might do. Said the beast:

Art thou that Traitor Angel, art thou hee,
Who first broke peace in Heav’n and Faith, till then
Unbrok’n, and in proud rebellious Arms
Drew after him the third part of Heav’ns Sons
Conjur’d against the highest, for which both Thou
And they outcast from God, are here condemn’d
To waste Eternal daies in woe and pain?
And reck’n’st thou thy self with Spirits of Heav’n,
Hell-doomd, and breath’st defiance here and scorn,
Where I reign King, and to enrage thee more,
Thy King and Lord

Why yes, that’s me. Recognition, even in the face of the worst of circumstances, is the reward life gives only when taken. Also, only when taken with right to be taken. Life is a monster, it is true. No matter who you speak to, and how well-going their lives sound, life is a beast no one can get rid of. We should respect it, yes, all the more, because it is our lives. But remember this, reader, as well, even the worst of us have to face it and demand from it what belongs to us. The result may be you still don’t get what you want, but within, in our souls, we will have gain the respect we are owed; a recognition of our deeds and the necessity of our reward which, soon or late, will come. Let us be not dismayed at the thought of a hard and ignominious life. Although, as well, let us not fade so deeply into the abyss that we are never seen despite our deeds. Too hard have we worked, too long have we labored, to allow life to keep us on our knees.

Our path is the road to take, let us walk in it with pride.

Thinking on Pindar, Reflections, and the Road we Follow

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Reflections, like dreams, are a state of the mind in which we cannot find what is, but what should be. Perhaps, even, if we are to find something of the truth amongst the shadows of our own lives we must, also, become something more, or something else. I have thought of Pindar several times in the last few days, holidays and all (the US just celebrated Presidents’ Day), and the ideas that make us who we are. Going through old notebooks from classes I took years ago I found this quote by Pindar (Nemean 1, 25-26) and its subsequent translation:

τέχναι δ᾽ ἑτέρων ἕτεραι: χρὴ δ᾽ ἐν εὐθείαις ὁδοῖς στείχοντα μάρνασθαι φυᾷ.
Though skills being one or the other it must thus be that a person marching in a straight and narrow road is made to fight as a boxer by his nobility.

Once again, I have fought the classical translations; not because I did not like them, but rather because I do appreciate them. What Pindar meant here has been a bit of a conundrum to me, but one must appreciate the meaning of the original vs the translation. I love Pindar here because he uses one of my favorite words in the A. Greek, τέχναι. If teknon (child) is that which we make, technē is the skill which makes the child possible. In other words, technology is the product of our mind and our skill. Pindar is using τέχναι and ἕτεραι as comparatives for his audience, a form of the verb to be has been elided as unnecessary for context, something the Greeks loved to do. Ancient Greek students will tell you that elided verbs are the bane of their existence, yet you see it most often with the verb to be and when obvious nouns which don’t belong together seem to be used as an adjective and noun pair. Technically simple, practically hard. Thus, ‘skills [being] one of the two.’ His usage of ἑτέρων as an attributive genitive is fascinating. in other words, he is using the same word  as before, ἕτεραι, but in a different context, to say something like ‘skills [being] one of the two of the two of them.’ A very complex way to say that to each man is a different skill. It is Pindar, after all, composer of the Olympian Odes, right?

The second part of the statement is not so bad. χρὴ δ is a conjunction that introduces a statement which must take place for the previous statement to be true. Thus, what is to follow, must take place if different skills can be attributed to different men. I love χρὴ because it denotes something that must happen, but it also translates as money in χρηματα or, in other words, what one must have. Although, I am not sure if this use of money as the possession that matters most was a thing with the Dorian and Ionian Greek dialects as much as it was in the Athenian Attic. One day I will have to look at that. ἐν εὐθείαις ὁδοῖς is just a preposition+dative construction that indicates the place in which the action is taking place. We may call it a prepositional phrase, I suppose. εὐθείαις is not quite a straight road, but sort of the ‘straight and narrow’ or morally-sound road. Pindar again uses metaphor to indicate that whilst ‘in the straight and narrow road’ στείχοντα μάρνασθαι.

There is no reference to man or a transitive verb in the second part of the secondary clause. Using a participle (στείχοντα) and an passive infinitive (μάρνασθαι), the author expects you will fill in some meaning. Στείχοντα literally means ‘able to be standing;’ don’t think of it as an infinitive, but rather as a hyphenated verb. Then we have μάρνασθαι, ‘to be fought.’ Funny thing about μάρνασθαι (marnasthai), it shares roots with marathon (map-). Now, Marathon was named after the Fennel that peppered the field surrounding the city. Marnasthai relates to a conflict fight of boxers. The root proper refers to a wasting away. Could this be a reference to the ‘wasting away’ of flowers, men, and boxers? More than likely. Words like madness (a wasting away of the mind) come from this root, so the theory seems sounds. At any rate, what we lack is a conjunctive verb. So we can supply ‘to be’ for our purposes. Thus, ‘a [man] marching [is] made to fight as a boxer’ is added to the phrase.

One may think that with only a word left there is not much to be done here. Alas, Ancient Greek is a language far beyond assumptions. Remember what I said at the beginning? That thing about reflections being like dreams? Pindar has brought us on a journey of self-discovery, his rhetoric has served the purpose of a vehicle to our minds and our souls in the search for meaning in ancient words. A single step on the ladder remains, φυᾷ (phua). Physis is the nature of a person, phua is the growth of the soul based on said nature. This growth is only possible by the good things anyone person does in life, say, by walking ‘in the straight and narrow road.’ Another conundrum, Pindar places the word ‘phua’ in the dative, it is the indirect object of the sentence. However, like the Latin ablative, the dative in Greek is the Jack of All Trades. Datives take on certain characteristics, especially when you don’t see their article (τῂ) somewhere in the sentence. What is that mean? Well, the dative is acting as a Dative of Means/Manner or a Dative of Agent – there many other dative constructions but they don’t die here. The first dative form tells us by which means the action is being made or the manner in which it is made. The second, especially when a passive verb exists, tells us the agent by which an action is being done (notice the passive verb in this sentence and the agent ‘which’). Considering that marnasthai is a passive construction, we can conjecture that phua, the nature of the person, is the agent making said person struggle.

Huh? I know. Nuts. But here is the thing: in life we only fight ourselves and our reflection in the mirror of life. We become great at what we do, whatever that skill is, only because we struggle the most against the thing that matters the most to us. We love our families because we can’t let them go, we fight for them. We love architecture (for example) because we have put in the time and money to learn the skills necessary to make it happen. We love writing because we have struggled to understand the intricacies of the written language. Life shows us who we are now, telling us we do not deserve the future we have planned for ourselves. But we can understand who we are only because we take time to reflect, to see ourselves in that mirror of life and choose to fight ourselves by virtue of the noble road we seek to take rather than the path we are currently taking. We change, because we have the courage to see ourselves as we are, and then fight ourselves, like a boxer in the ring against an equal, to make something else happen in our lives. Fight yourself, reader, for your own sake. Let us reminisce on that one for a while.

Χαιρετε!

Plutarch on Learning Latin

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ὀψέ ποτε καὶ πόρρω τῆς ἡλικίας ἠρξάμεθα Ῥωμαϊκοῖς γράμμασιν ἐντυγχάνειν. καὶ πρᾶγμα θαυμαστὸν μέν, ἀλλ᾽ ἀληθὲς ἐπάσχομεν. οὐ γὰρ οὕτως ἐκ τῶν ὀνομάτων τὰ πράγματα συνιέναι καὶ γνωρίζειν συνέβαινεν ἡμῖν, ὡς ἐκ τῶν πραγμάτων ἁμῶς γέ πως εἴχομεν ἐμπειρίαν ἐπακολουθεῖν δι᾽ αὐτὰ1 καὶ τοῖς ὀνόμασι. κάλλους δὲ Ῥωμαϊκῆς ἀπαγγελίας καὶ τάχους αἰσθάνεσθαι καὶ μεταφορᾶς ὀνομάτων καὶ ἁρμονίας καὶ τῶν ἄλλων οἷς ὁ λόγος ἀγάλλεται, χαρίεν μέν ἡγούμεθα καὶ οὐκ ἀτερπές: ἡ δὲ πρὸς τοῦτο μελέτη καὶ ἄσκησις οὐκ εὐχερής, ἀλλ᾽ οἷστισι πλείων τε σχολὴ καὶ τὰ τῆς ὥρας ἔτι πρὸς τὰς τοιαύτας ἐπιχωρεῖ φιλοτιμίας.

It was therefore late and when I was well on in years that I began to study Roman literature. And here my experience was an astonishing thing, but true. For it was not so much that by means of words I came to a complete understanding of things, as that from things I somehow had an experience which enabled me to follow the meaning of words. But to appreciate the beauty and quickness of the Roman style, the figures of speech, the rhythm, and the other embellishments of the language, while I think it a graceful accomplishment and one not without its pleasures, still, the careful practice necessary for attaining this is not easy for one like me, but appropriate for those who have more leisure and whose remaining years still suffice for such pursuits.

(Dem. 2.2-3 – Translation by Bernadotte Perrin)

Thinking on Poetry, Catullus, Living and Loving

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A dangerous subject, poetry, since the cultural aspects of metaphor tend to be lost to time when reading it; although, perhaps, we should give it a try none the less:

Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,

Da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
Dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
Deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and also love,

Give me kisses a thousand, thereafter a hundred,
Then another thousand, next a second hundred,
thereafter yet another thousand, next a hundred.

One can almost imagine Catullus raising his hand to the sky as he speaks to the thousands, then bringing it down again, upon his face, to speak of the hundreds. The poet speaks of heaven and hell, of the best and the worst, the high and the low. The dichotomy plays on a certain idea, that even the worst is the best when Lesbia is around to kiss him. It is clear what Catullus wants, basia mille is his whole purpose, he even demands it, for Da is a Present Active Imperative verb, characterized for the dropping of the s in das, the regular Present Active Indicative. Why is Catullus so demanding? Well, it is Catullus. As far as we know, he never spoke to his Lesbia (a pseudonym for the girl he supposedly loved), or spent some time having an affair and she dumped him in the end. It is perhaps in this light that he expresses his frustration, demanding kisses he will never get again. In other parts of this particular poem, Catullus also speaks of the rumors of old men, and how Lesbia and him should just ignore them and enjoy each other. This poem is definitely a precursor to what we will see in the Medieval and Renaissance periods with poetry: lots of longing, lots of kiss-asking, and suffering, lots of suffering, for another.

In regards to the name Lesbia, there are quite a few theories. One of them is that the girl – and if it is Rome and she is not married she would be no more than fourteen – or married woman he is after had relationships with other women. The reference there of course is another poet, much more ancient than Catullus, Sappho of Lesbos (Lesbos is an island in the north-eastern Aegean). Another theory is that Sappho proper, who also wrote of the beauty of women and her passion for them is the one Catullus is referencing because she was an inspiration to him – if you have ever wondered where the word ‘lesbian’ came from, now you have an answer. A third theory is that the woman was named Lesbia because in Ancient Greek women from Lesbos (Lesbians) were renowned for their fellatio skills. Any theory is as good as the next for, in the end, we just don’t know.

As for me, I think Lesbia was Claudia Metelli Celeris, and her name was encoded to avoid the public finding out about their encounters; Cicero seems to me to make some good points in regards to who Lesbia was in one of his speeches.

So vivamus atque amemus, reader. Let us live and let us love. Let us long for and seek after love, for there is something Catullus said that affects us all. Whether one kiss or a ton, it is living and loving that makes us human the most.

Salvete!

Thinking on Loss, Pain, and Aeschylus

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Pain.

How we wished it did not exist.

No matter how strong we are, or how well positioned we stand in this thing we call life, we would not last long under constant, unending pain. It has broken the greatest of us. It will yet break many more. There, however, in the horizon, a bit of hope. Aeschylus, arguably the greatest dramatist to have ever lived (sorry Shakespeare lovers), described pain and anguish for us in a way that we could understand it and relate to it. The playwright had fought and lived through the first great Greco-Persian War. In 490 BCE Cyrus, king of Persia, attacked Greece by attempting an amphibious assault upon the bay of Marathon. There, Aeschylus and his fellow Athenians waited for days; they waited for Spartan aid that never came. The Persians, feeling the advantage, sent men and horses via ships to Athens. The Athenians were desperate, their families were going to be obliterated. It is likely that it was at this moment that, by vote of the clan leaders, the Athenians charged down the sloping bay at the Persians. It was the only way they could win. There was no turning back. Honor, glory, fame, it had all faded into the nothingness of combat. They won that day, the Athenians; but Aeschylus had to look down upon a familiar face. During the battle, Cynaegirus, his brother, had too eagerly pursued the Persians to their ships and become separated from playwright and their brother Ameinias. He had died saving Athens. There was not time to bury the dead, the exhausted Athenians marched to Athens, getting there in time to make a show of force before the ships, which turned and fled. The bodies of the heroes of Athens laid in the dirt as their brothers saved their city.

I don't think very many people noticed, but that second Athenian from the right, behind Themistocles, is none other than Aeschylus, played by Hans Matheson.

I don’t think very many people noticed, but that second Athenian from the right in this shot from “300: Rise of an Empire”, behind Themistocles, is none other than Aeschylus himself, played by Hans Matheson.

Aeschylus’s pain was beyond hope. He turned to writing. First, the Persians came to him in 472 BCE, Seven Against Thebes in 467, Suppliants in 463 BCE. Then, in 458, he was inspired by the muses to write the Oresteia, a trilogy that spoke of death for the common good, of pain at the loss of a dear one, and vengeance. Agamemnon, king of the Achaeans, has sacrificed his own daughter to the gods both to redeem his men for the murder of a deer sacred to Artemis and to secure wind for safe passage to Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, could not stop the ritual killing. She was there, with her daughter, when she died; she saw her pass on with honor, as a volunteer for the cause, and yet she could not forgive her husband. She suffered for ten years in this inextinguishable pain. She wandered the halls of her palace alone, thinking of her dear daughter, of her loss. No honor could restore her sanity, no worthy death could bring back her beloved child, no more than fourteen, now gone from her side. Aeschylus wrote of the pain he felt, of the desperation at the death of his brother thirty-two years prior. When pain is too much to bear even for the reader, the following words appear, as soothing balm to the blistered soul:

Ζῆνα δέ τις προφρόνως ἐπινίκια κλάζων τεύξεται φρενῶν τὸ πᾶν: τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώσαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν. στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας μνησιπήμων πόνος: καὶ παρ᾽ ἄκοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν. δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.
A noisy shout upon the victory forward-thinking Zeus gains a purpose for himself, to make man wise. He, being mindful of mortals, to make things passable, has set up a path as law, having rule-like power: Pain lets fall, in sleep towards the heart, memories of misery; and along unwillingness comes wisdom. Thus violent seems the grace of the spirit-gods enthroned up on their high seats.

I have read five translations of this same passage, mine is coarse and literal. My favorite, that by Edith Hamilton, often quoted by JFK and RFK, is the least accurate, but the most beautiful:

“And in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, and against our very will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of god.”

Yet another translation.

Yet another translation. ‘God’ simply supplants Demons (spiritual guides) in most versions.

Edith Hamilton translates and comments, but Aeschylus does not speak of man’s unwillingness, nor of the constant remembering of pain. He speaks of his brother, of the pain he felt upon his bed when he laid there at night, with nothing else to do and the cutting memories of his death were dropped by the demons (δαιμόνων) Pain, ordered by Zeus to bring wisdom to man even upon the moment of victory (ἐπινίκια). Aeschylus felt the need for restraint upon the victory, even as the clashing (κλάζων) seemed to favor a side, and the victory song was raised; he cautioned care, for his brother had not taking it, and he had paid the price. This is how Zeus brought wisdom to man, by causing them anguish and pain so the cutting edge of memory would etch within our hearts the hard-won lessons of the past. If those lessons are not learned, they bring only destruction. Nothing had Agamemnon learned in Troy; for all his suffering he learned no mercy, for all his killing he learned not how to live. He was the same. His heart was untouched by the remorse of his daughter’s sacrifice and the death of his men.

Clytemnestra was the opposite, and yet her result was the same. For ten years she had suffered the miserable reminder of her daughter’s passing. She was reminded, time and time again, of her inability to help then. There was little else in her mind, but she had also hardened her heart. She slept little, she ate even less. She allowed no wisdom to pass into her spirit and she was driven mad; one purpose haunted her: to kill her husband. Four times Aeschylus speaks of wisdom in this passage: Zeus’ wisdom to teach men restrain even in victory comes first, then man’s lack of wisdom in this fact as the reason for the law; after, the coming of wisdom to humans through the law of Zeus, and finally the setting of wisdom through the pain of miserable memory. But a heart must be open, something that usually happens in dreams, during sleep, when mortal minds are less liable to be controlled by a sometimes-illogical brain. Aeschylus learned, I am certain, that his brother’s death was not for naught. In the telling, he also let go of some of that pain. A pain that, over time, had cut him a little less.

One more word I absolutely love in this passage is βροτοὺς, its Nominative is βροτοι, and it literally means ‘those who bloom.’ The translation is usually rendered as ‘mortals,’ of course, because we, like flowers, bloom, are beautiful but for a day, and die soon after. Pindar expressed the feeling behind the word best:

“Brief is the coming time of joy for mortals (those who bloom) and brief the flower’s bloom (hence the pun) which falls to earth shaken by grim fate. Things of a day. What are we? What are we not? Man is but the shadow of a dream.”
(Edith Hamilton’s translation – I remove the Biblical “Vanity of vanities, it is all vanity” which she added because it made the whole thing more dramatic).

Thus it is dreams, once again, that makes us liable to redemption from pain. Dreams is where we can see those we have lost, feeling the pain more often and yet a little less each time we see them. They are thus, forever, etched into our hearts. The reality of pain is eventually reduced to memory, but the memory of those gone is eventually turned into the reality of our love for them, and it becomes what we recall most.

To Cynaegirus
Χαιρετε!

Thinking on Moments, Reflections, and Days Lost

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In recognition of my extremely long post for yesterday, in Greek, I shall leave this one short and sweet. That means, of course, less than 1000 words… ok, so it won’t even be anywhere near that long.

Tacitus, arguably one of the best chroniclers and historians of Ancient Rome, took quite the pains to write, verbatim, some sayings of the Emperors. Perusing his writings, I found this by the Emperor Titus (b. 39- d.81):

Amici, diem perdidi.
Friends, I have lost the day.
Amigos, he perdido el día.

Titus, according to Tacitus, said this because whilst sitting down for dinner, he realized he had done no favors for anyone through the entire day. The historian was impressed, calling Titus’ words memorabilem illam meritoque laudatam, meritorious and praiseworthy, liable to be remembered. We always speak, and at length, of seizing the day. We dwell on how the Romans saw themselves as go-getter stoics, infallible in their logic, mighty with the sword, and who knows what else. I liked this particular quotation because, even to Tacitus, it showed a different side of the Romans and their Emperors. There sat Titus, at a table, eating dinner, hanging out with his family, friends, those most close to him (and a bunch of slaves, of course), and whoever else mattered to him. As he laughed and perhaps plotted, it occurred to him he had bestowed no favors (praestitisset) to anyone; he had presented nothing to another. He would have stopped laughing, joking, or conversing and, in the moment, when all had quieted, uttered the words. I am certain it was not long before the revelry ensued, but the impression remained.

So, reader, etiam unum diem possumus non perdere, we cannot lose even a single day. Let us seek those we love; those we care about. Let us find someone in need, a moment of pensive reflection. Let us hunt for sunsets and rainbows, waterfalls and dawns. After all, the nicest thing you can do in any given day can also be for yourself. Write that poem, that story, write that letter of love’s declaration, say you are sorry, hug someone you cared about once. Let us seize the day, so that none of them are lost to the passing of time and the unrighteous forgetting of memory.

Salvete!

Thinking of Blindness, the Wrath of the Gods, and Atonement

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Not long ago, Platosparks and I spoke of ἄτη and its meaning in Greek culture, here. It is quite the interesting word, and I cannot ignore the fact that it may mean something far more than our usual understanding of it. The word is an A. Greek 1st Declension Feminine Noun. What that means is that its declension is thus:

ἄτη       ἄται
ἀτής     ἀτῶν
ἀτῃ       ἀταῖς
ἄτην     ἀτάς
ἄτη       ἄται

Singulars on the left, plurals on the right. The order from top to bottom is Nominative (subject in a sentence), Genitive (Possession and origin), Dative (everything else in a sentence, but identified as the Indirect Object), Accusative (Direct Object), and Vocative (my favorite, when one summons or calls a thing or person). Notice the genitive plural is ἀτῶν, literally meaning ‘of blindness.’ At the time I first read about this, my defense for a cognate run thus.

“I was thinking of the transliteration from the A. Greek to the English; from ἀτον to aton-e. The English Etymology Dictionary (EED) had no insight on the possible connection, stating that it was a simple contraction from ‘at one’ to ‘atone’ in order to denote an event that was meant to be done only at one time. The example of Jesus Christ’s ‘atonement,’ according to the EED, ‘meant to be done only once,’ is the best exemplar I could find for the use of the word.

However, we must consider the validity of the transliteration and its similarities, especially since there are mythological cognates as well, especially between the story of Jesus and such others as Oedipus and Hercules; that is, if atonement is, as you state, payment/punishment for a deed (the Liddell & Scott confirms this with early uses such as the one seen in the Iliad at 6.356) then how is Jesus’ atonement not a punishment for trying to bring balance to the world? That last question is a bit convoluted, I know; although, consider this; I had a friend of mine, major in Religious Studies, who once explained the existence of nemesis in comics thus:

If the hero is demonstrating his hubris by attempting to balance nature and bring peace to a particular city, then nemesis, the rise of the villain, is the response of the righteous anger of the gods.

In that sense, the hero must ἄτη for his hubris by suffering loneliness, the death of those close to him, the suffering of his friends. Hercules and Theseus, especially, are remembered for destroying the enemies of Athens and bringing balance to the world. As such, they both suffered great loss in their lives, and had to be purified for it. This idea really gives meaning to the phrase ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ Nature is what it is, and it is what it is because of the gods. To upset nature is to upset the gods, even when the hero does it to save humanity – Prometheus comes to mind here.”

In order to really bring the meaning of atone to the fore. I thought it had to have a Latin connection. Often, the Latin will borrow a nominative, accusative, or genitive from the Greek and use it as a nominative (with its own declension – I know, crazy) in the Latin. I found four words that could fit the profile.

Ater – (Adj) Deadly, terrible
Ater – (Adj) Black, dark
Ategro – (Verb) to pour out wine in sacrifices
Atechnos – (Adj) unskilled

Atechnos is actually a cognate of ἀτεχνη, literally meaning ‘unskilled.’ This suspect has an alibi, and must be eliminated from the list of possibilities. Ater, as to both meanings, is very interesting as well. Here’s the reason:

καί τέ με νεικείεσκον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ οὐκ αἴτιός εἰμι, ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς καὶ Μοῖρα καὶ ἠεροφοῖτις Ἐρινύς, οἵ τέ μοι εἰν ἀγορῇ φρεσὶν ἔμβαλον ἄγριον ἄτην, ἤματι τῷ ὅτ᾽ Ἀχιλλῆος γέρας αὐτὸς ἀπηύρων.
Even these words they used to speak to me in chiding; although I myself am not to blame, but Zeus and Fate and Erinys, that walk in darkness, seeing that in the midst of the market-place they threw within my soul a bitter blindness on that day, when of mine own arrogance I took from Achilles his prize.

The adjective for dark used by Homer is ἠεροφοῖτις (ēerophoītēs), and refers to Zeus, the Fates, and the Erinys. Who are the Erinys? Goddesses of revenge. When someone commits a wrong, the Erinys will haunt them until they atone for the wrong they have committed. It is this atonement or, as the Liddell and Scott states, temporary blindness, that they Erinys cause.

Goddesses of revenge. The Erinys were feared by all. The were, in essence, guilt personified.

Goddesses of revenge. The Erinys were feared by all. They were, in essence, guilt personified.

ἄτη, ἡ, Dor. ἄτα, Aeol. αὐάτα ( ἀϝ-), v. infr.:— A bewilderment, infatuation, caused by blindness or delusion sent by the gods, mostly as the punishment of guilty rashness, τὸν δ’ ἄτη φρένας εἷλε Il.16.805; Ζεῦ πάτερ, ἦ ῥά τιν’ ἤδη . . βασιλήων τῇδ’ ἄτῃ ἄασας 8.237; Ζεὺς καὶ Μοῖρα καὶ . . Ἐρινὺς . . φρεσὶν ἔμβαλον ἄγριον ἄτην 19.88 (so ἀλλ’ ἐπεὶ ἀασάμην καί μευ φρένας ἐξέλετο Ζεύς ib.137); ἄτην δὲ μετέστενον ἣν Ἀφροδίτη δῶχ’ ὅτε μ’ ἤγαγε κεῖσε, says Helen, Od.4.261.

Here is where the cognate takes place. Latin does not like ‘e’ sounds by themselves at the end of words. It is the same with Greeks and ‘i’ sounds. The Greeks will add ‘n,’ the Romans may add ‘r’ or ‘m’ to make things sound better for them. Thus, ‘ater’ is a direct cognate with ‘atē.’ What is also interesting, is that atē has become an adjective in Latin. A state of being, in effect. The Greek uses ἔμβαλον to show ‘threw within,’ meaning the blindness or, atonement, is a internal one, a quality, not a physical mark. That this payment to be made for a wrong is bitter (ἄγριον) also indicates its metaphysical qualities. The darkness or blindness spoken of in the Greek and translated to the Latin is therefore not physical, but spiritual. It is the temporary blinding of the soul to its own salvation, to the freedom it enjoys, to the pleasures of life. Guilt, in effect. This guilt, this blindness to the good, is the atonement one must pay for the redemption of the impurity gained by the wrong deed. The enforcers of the punishment are goddesses who dwell in darkness, who know all about it, the Erinys; Zeus is the law-giver that created the punishment, and Fate what drives it. It is a fascinating concept.

Thus, hubris brings about nemesis, and nemesis restores balance by producing, in the impure, atonement. There are two ways to cleanse oneself from this pollution, catharsis (literally ‘a down-pour’ – a sort of baptism) and purification (from πυρη – fire). Both cases are seen in Mythology. Catharsis is the form of cleansing carried out on Hercules, Theseus, and many others. Purification, as far as I know, was only carried out on Hercules, and it meant his ascension into Olympus for all time. Of course, one could say that burning on a pyre (literally a purification through πυρη) is the same thing so, in reality, are pyres simply a final purification rite to ensure the soul ascends? Probably not, since Olympus was reserved only for the gods; yet again, if a Demi-god like Achilles burned, wouldn’t he, in essence, ascend to the High-Vaulted Halls of Zeus?

Χαιρετε!

A Quote about Passing on

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Cosimo De’ Medici, when asked by his wife why he thought so much and so ponderously in his old age, replied:

“When you propose to go into the country, you trouble yourself for fifteen days in settling what you will do when you get there. Now that the time has come for me to quit this world and pass unto another, does it not occur to you that I ought to think about it?”

Thinking on Love, Comedy, and Half-Oranges

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Ah, love. A complicated thing indeed. In Spain, we have a saying, “your loved one is your half-orange.” In English, we tend to say similar things like “your love is your other half.” An interesting expression, whether a simple half is meant or an orange does not matter much, but does say something awesome about our natures. ‘Why?’ You ask. Well, in Spanish, the expression takes on a more vivid connotation. Let me show you. Have you ever wondered where the expression came from? Well, Aristophanes, king of comedy in Ancient Greece, supposedly once told a story prevalent in his time about Zeus, humans, and love. The pun at the end of the story is written thus:

ὁ ἔρως… ἰὰσασθαι τὴν φύσιν τὴν ἀνθρωπίνην.
Love… [is] what cures humanity’s nature.
El amor… es la cura de la naturaleza humana.

The famous playwright who puts down Socrates in his comedic play Clouds, adds this at the end of his narrative to illustrate how love can cure our worst traits. It is a rare dramatic ending to an otherwise happy-go-lucky writer (I like to compare Aristophanes to Robin Williams), but that should not be overlooked. Aristophanes tells this story, as mentioned above, during his participation in the Symposium of Plato; something we should definitely consider with a grain of salt since Plato, arguably Socrates’ favorite follower, is the one reporting on what the artist had said; although there is very little evidence that Plato and Aristophanes had any personal problems, so we don’t need to be too careful. An analysis of the story may give us some insight into the overall feeling of the tale.

Let us place Clouds aside (written seven years before the Symposium). Aristophanes makes a well presented speech, albeit comedic in nature, and which speaks to the power of a united humanity. Our comedian stipulates that love is the product of the cutting-in-half of three tribes of powerful humans who dared to challenge the gods. The Immortals, seeking to avoid an upcoming human rebellion but unable to kill them because they needed their praises, are at a loss about what to do. Zeus finally decides that he will cut this powerful human beings (who at this time have four arms, four legs and two heads) in half. The three tribes are the man/man, woman/woman and man/woman (androgynous) tribes.

Here's the man/man tribe. They were reputed for being amazing fighters.

The man/man tribe. They were reputed for being amazing fighters. Interestingly, the Theban Sacred Band, officially formed only thirty years after the Symposium, is composed of a 150 male homosexual couples, actually married, because they were thought to fight at their best if their lover was with them. The Theban Sacred band defeated the Spartans, ending the city’s control over Greece, in 371 BCE.

The tribes’ power stemmed from their ability to roll over anything and everything, because they are round by nature. This rolling motion (like rolling with the punches) makes humanity practically invincible, even to the gods! Zeus realizes that by separating the three tribes from their halves, they will soon stop cooperating and become weaker, unable to roll (over things or punches) while still being subservient to him, killing two birds with one stone or, in this case, separating two birds with a kitchen knife. Well, the cuts are made and everyone is told to go about their lives divided; however, the halves want each other back badly. The longer they are separated, the more they long for each other. Halves, wandering the world, seek their actual halves desperately, something which is still going on today, according to the comedian. Aristophanes points out that the more numerous tribe is the androgynous one, hence the attraction between men and women as the most common in humanity. The less common tribes, man/man, women/women, also seek each other and are the origin, according to our dear playwright, of homosexual relationships.

Having explained the origins of sexuality and attraction thus, the playwright goes on to state the natural man (‘man’ meaning humanity) was like an animal, it just had relations with anything and everything, it did not matter what it was. The natural man was also uncivilized and unharnessed, subject to changes in mood and the powers of Nature (the goddess, who made humans uncivilized), hence the title Natural Man we see all over the place in religion and philosophy. The maxim we read above, written as a report of Aristophanes’ speech during his turn in the Symposium, was that only true love (the love of the spirit) could heal humanity’s natural wants and create relationships of standing and value which would never be corrupted. Real love keeps people honest and guides them towards the right companion, another half; it is a cure for everything we do wrong, it helps us strive for the good, seek those better than us, work harder, suffer more, complain less, be more patient, caring, understanding, seek knowledge, turn it into wisdom, and become a shining beacon for others. Love, argues Aristophanes, is the cure for everything that is wrong with humanity. I find this conclusion fascinating.

So, reader, when you think of your other half, think of oranges as well. Remember the power we used to have before Zeus divided us. Whoever you are, and whoever you love, that union should make you a better person. Rolling with the punches will be easier when you have someone to roll with, and life will be less powerful on a team than by yourself. But hey, you may be just half an orange and still be happy. Aristophanes did not say that we should first love ourselves; we definitely should. Unless you learn to love your own half, how can you love another half after all? Be a great half-orange, reader; and another half-orange will find you, eventually. If not, love and respect yourself; that is also quite alright!

Χαίρετε, Half-Oranges!