Good afternoon, blog. I’m sorry I haven’t written to you lately, but your big sister needed me more. Does that make me a terrible parent?
This year, 2013, is the 500th anniversary of Niccolò Machiavelli’s book The Prince. One might think that the arguments it introduced have long since been settled, but there will never be an end to this ancient debate: What are the rules of political power?
The question has an urgency for me as I work on the next-to-last draft of my novel. What does “freedom” mean to a slave girl who has escaped from the theocratic Ottoman Empire of the 1600’s? And what does it mean for a boy whose life so far has been waged on the Protestant side of the Thirty Years War, whose family has been killed by forces of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire?
But there is also a more conventional urgency to the question, as citizens the world over survey the ongoing fallout of our modern Great Recession, and the response by our national political leaders.
Which brings me back to The Prince, the treatise that helped launched the modern absolutist state. Written in 1513 after its author was exiled, imprisoned and tortured by the Medici family, it was first published posthumously in 1532.
The world hasn’t been the same since.
Before Machiavelli, says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In a sense, it was thought that rulers did well when they did good; they earned the right to be obeyed and respected inasmuch as they showed themselves to be virtuous and morally upright.”
As St. Augustine asked in City of God, “If it does not do justice, what is the government but a great criminal enterprise?”
After Machiavelli … well, here’s where it gets interesting. Again, the Stanford Encyclopedia (emphasis mine):
For Machiavelli, there is no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. Rather, authority and power are essentially coequal: whoever has power has the right to command; but goodness does not ensure power and the good person has no more authority by virtue of being good. Thus, in direct opposition to a moralistic theory of politics, Machiavelli says that the only real concern of the political ruler is the acquisition and maintenance of power. … Only by means of the proper application of power, Machiavelli believes, can individuals be brought to obey and will the ruler be able to maintain the state in safety and security.
It should be obvious to us all that rulers before Machiavelli were rarely virtuous or moral. It was that very fact which led him to write The Prince. In today’s parlance, we call his philosophy realpolitik, “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.” Again, from the Stanford Encyclopedia:
Without exception the authority of states and their laws will never be acknowledged when they are not supported by a show of power which renders obedience inescapable. The methods for achieving obedience are varied, and depend heavily upon the foresight that the prince exercises. Hence, the successful ruler needs special training.
Now, regardless of what the modern citizen of Western Civilization thinks of these ideas — and they elicit an almost universal hatred, at least in public discourse — the author himself was not the personification of evil. He had a wife and kids, he wrote poetry; and, as a book review of Miles Unger’s biography notes:
Rather than planning to write an ageless best-selling book, Machiavelli hoped to impress the new ruler of Florence, so that he might regain a salaried government job.
If the book had stayed within Italy’s borders, history would be different. But the ideas spread, as ideas are wont to do, and the German princes took hold to disastrous effect. German historian Friedrich Meinecke, whose The Doctrine of Statism in Modern History was published in English in 1957, wrote that Machiavelli’s ideas were nothing new to Italians; he simply confirmed what already existed.
In Italy the theorists’ doctrine, that raison d’état stood above statute law, had not really said anything new, but had only confirmed an existing situation. For here Roman Law, which was saturated with the spirit of the ancient raison d’état, and which absolved the rulers from being bound by the laws, had continued to remain alive; and the early decline of the feudal system, the early appearance of violently energetic city-tyrants and rulers, had not permitted here the formation of that tough crust of law founded on custom and privilege, which in Germany obstructed the rise of the modern State. Whatever rights and customs there were seemed to someone like Machiavelli so much the reverse of dangerous, that his raison d’état was capable of recommending that they should be respected as much as possible.
As noted above, Germans had a “tough crust of law [that] obstructed the rise of the modern State.” Not to be denied — especially not during the ravages of the Thirty Years War — Teutonic princes embraced Machiavelli with a vengeance.
The Corporate State of the Ancien Régime and with it the idea of a good old inviolable type of justice, contained in provincial customs and provincial laws, had become bankrupt during the Thirty Years War, because it had left the State defenceless. In order to create the new defence of the [standing army], and to overcome any resistance to it on the part of the Estates and established privilege, the will-to-power of the ruler was now able to invoke the assistance of just this new idea of justice, of the [public welfare], and thereby justify and ennoble itself spiritually.
Meinecke identifies one idea — “the one which was most useful from a practical point of view and most efficacious historically.” Namely:
[T]hat it was perfectly permissible for the demands and necessities of the ‘public good’ to violate statute law and the laws which the State had made.
Over a couple hundred years, as the modern European state grew from infancy to adolescence, Machiavelli’s ideas — as Meinecke put it — “became a weapon which the modern State could brandish with full conviction and with a good conscience.”
During that time, both authors and the public displayed a rabid interest in the subject of state power. Unfortunately, by the middle of the 18th century, the public’s interest in the abuses of realpolitik waned, as the public interest is wont to do, and finally “the subject went out of fashion altogether.”
The fervour slackened off when absolutism had on the whole attained its aim … It had now ceased to be modern — not because the thing itself had vanished from reality, but because it had become self-evident, and because the learned public, which took an interest in the State, had meanwhile diverted its attention to the new ideas arising out of the movement of the Enlightenment.
At least in Europe. Not so much in America, because in 1774 the First Continental Congress was established in the British colony of America, and Americans embraced an idea called “the consent of the governed.”
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…
Declaration of Independence, United States of America, 1776
Stop and consider these competing ideas for a moment:
1) Citizens of the State have no moral basis on which to judge the difference between legitimate and illegitimate uses of power. The State can violate its own laws as long as its goal is “the public good.”
2) The State is granted power by citizens, which it shall use to secure certain natural rights that belong to all human beings; and the State’s powers can be revoked by citizens who no longer consent to be governed.
Now compare these ideas to what is evident in your own personal life. Regardless of what country you live in:
Do you believe in your right to personal privacy? Good, because (in Western Democracies at least) the State has decreed that the right to privacy is paramount.
Or maybe the State will allow only certain kinds of privacy, because it routinely violates the spirit of the law with CCTV cameras on every corner, full body scanners at airports, and ultra-high-tech drones flying over your neighborhoods. Don’t like it? Get used to it.
Do you believe in the right to personal protection? Good, because (in America at least) the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear arms.
On the other hand, if you simultaneously believe the State can arbitrarily criminalize the most popular form of self-protection (the semi-automatic rifle or handgun) “for the public good” — well, then, what will prevent the State from removing that right altogether if it determines that all gun ownership violates “the public good”?
Do you believe in the pursuit of happiness? Do you simultaneously believe — if your “happiness” is a 32-ounce soda on a blistering hot New York summer day — that the government can ban you from buying a 32-ounce cup of soda with 16 ounces of ice floating on top? Some people do, including Sarah Conly, author of “Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.”
It seems to me that the very real advances in governing written down by America’s Founding Fathers — as flawed as they were in many respects — are being abandoned for the philosophy of Machiavelli.
Or at least for that of the German princes of 1666, for in that year Gustav Freytag reprinted Images from the German Past, a cutting satire on “the woes of the German people in the seventeenth century and its lifelessness and rigidity after the Thirty Years War.”
In the book, a young and promising lawyer is taken into secret chambers to view the devices of State.
Pretend that you are this young counselor. Look closely. I dare you to deny that what you see are the exact same tools of power used by the absolutists of old. (What follows is paraphrased from Meinecke.)
The cloaks of State. Beautifully trimmed on the outside but shabby on the inside, the cloaks are embroidered with names like “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law.” Such cloaks are worn when one goes to meet the representatives of the people, when one wishes to make the subjects agree to pay subsidies, or when, under the pretext of a false doctrine, one wants to drive someone out of house and home.
One completely threadbare cloak, which is in daily use, is called “good intentions.” This is worn while laying new insupportable taxes on the citizens, infuriating them with endless regulations, or inaugurating unnecessary wars.
The spectacles of State. With these, gnats can be made into elephants, or little kindnesses on the part of the Prime Minister can be made into supreme acts of mercy.
There is an iron instrument with which the President can enlarge the gullets of his advisers, so that they can swallow great pumpkins.
Finally, a ball of knotted wire, furnished with sharp needles and heated by a fire within, so that it draws tears from the eyes of the beholder, represents the Principles of Machiavelli. The ruler is keeping this in hand too, but so far he has not yet used it, for his subjects are docile and he does not wish to pollute his name publicly.
Then naturally too, the politicians themselves are using their own private ratio status for enriching themselves quite shamelessly. One of them actually proposes that the cohabitation of heterosexual couples should be taxed, in order to raise money to stop global warming.
Having looked behind the curtain, it’s clear that we’re witnessing the return of the absolutists. The question is, will we do anything about it? Or, like the citizens of Europe before 1776, tired of trying to fend off the oppression, will we yawn and divert our gaze?
A tip of the hat to a few sources of inspiration:
- Sarah Hoyt, sitting in for Instapundit
- Michael Patrick Leahy at Breitbart
- AllahPundit at HotAir
- Rick Moran and Victor Davis Hanson at PJMedia
(Edited for clarity and conclusion.)
As the process of writing my novel comes to an end, I don’t waste much time on books that lend nothing to the story. I’m making an exception for Herodotus.
In my story, an ancient unreadable manuscript finds its way from Istanbul to the Baltic. (Sorry, no spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book…) In an earlier draft, this manuscript was an ancient version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which told the tale of an even more ancient migration from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. My fevered author’s brain imagined that my book could mirror a mythic reversal of that epic journey.
Alas, my storytelling skills were not up to the challenge.
But my interest in that ancient world has not waned, and thus I bought a copy of Herodotus: The Histories for fifty cents at a garage sale.
The kidnapping of Helen brought about the Trojan War, but Herodotus tells us what brought about the kidnapping of Helen. And so, without further ado…
“Herodotus of Hallicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds — some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians — may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two people’s fought with each other.
“Learned Persians put the responsibility for the quarrel on the Phoenicians. These people came originally from the so-called Red Sea; and as soon as they had penetrated to the Mediterranean and settled in the country where they are today, they took to making long trading voyages. Loaded with Egyptian and Assyrian goods, they called at various places along the coast, including Argos, in those days the most important place in the land now called Hellas.
“Here in Argos they displayed their wares, and five or six days later when they were nearly sold out, a number of women came down to the beach to see the fair. Amongst these was the king’s daughter, whom Greek and Persian writers agree in calling Io, daughter of Inachus. These women were standing about near the vessel’s stern, buying what they fancied, when suddenly the Phoenician sailors passed the word along and made a rush at them. The greater number got away; but Io and some others were caught and bundled aboard the ship, which cleared at once and made off for Egypt.
“This, according to the Persian account (the Greeks have a different story), was how Io came to Egypt; and this was the first in a series of unjust acts.
“Later on some Greeks, whose name the Persians fail to record — they were probably Cretans — put into the Phoenician port of Tyre and carried off the king’s daughter Europa, thus giving them tit for tat.
“For the next outrage it was the Greeks again who were responsible. they sailed in an armed merchantman to Aea in Colchis on the river Phasis, and, not content with the regular business which had brought them there, they abducted the king’s daughter Medea. the king sent to Greece demanding reparations and his daughter’s return; but the only answer he got was that the Greeks had no intention of offering reparation, having received none themselves for the abduction of Io from Argos.
“The accounts go on to say that some forty or fifty years afterwards Paris, the son of Priam, was inspired by these stories to steal a wife for himself out of Greece, being confident that he would not have to pay for the venture any more than the Greeks had done. And that was how he came to carry off Helen.
“The first idea of the Greeks after the rape was to send a demand for satisfaction and for Helen’s return. the demand was met by a reference to the seizure of Medea and the injustice of expecting satisfaction from people to whom they had refused it, not to mention the fact that they had kept the girl.
“Thus far there had been nothing worse than woman-stealing on both sides; but for what happened next the Greeks, they say, were seriously to blame; for it was the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about avenging it. The only sensible thing is to take no notice; for it is obvious that no young woman allows herself to be abducted if she does not wish to be. The Asiatics, according to the Persians, took the seizure of the women lightly enough, but not so the Greeks: the Greeks, merely on account of a girl from Sparta, raised a big army, invaded Asia and destroyed the empire of Priam. From that root sprang their belief in the perpetual enmity of the Grecian world towards them — because the Persians claim Asia and the barbarian races dwelling in it as their own, Europe and the Greek states being, in their opinion, quite separate and distinct from them.
“As to Io, the Phoenicians do not accept the Persian account; they deny that they took her to Egypt by force. On the contrary, the girl while she was still in Argos went to bed with the ship’s captain, found herself pregnant, and, ashamed to face her parents, sailed away voluntarily to escape exposure.
“So much for the what Persians and Phoenicians say; and I have no intention of passing judgement on its truth or falsity. I prefer to rely on my own knowledge, and to point out who it was in actual fact that first injured the Greeks; then I will proceed with my history, telling the story as I go along of small cities of men no less than of great. For most of those which were great once are small today; and those which used to be small were great in my own time. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never abides long in the same place, I shall pay attention to both alike.”
On a ship out of Lubeck, headed downriver to the Baltic and bound for Castle Gottorp, two of the hands find time to play an ancient board game.
Valhalla is a game of both chance and strategy, in which the players overcome physical obstacles, attacks by their opponents and the whims of the Gods in order to reach a joyous afterlife in Odin’s hall – Valhalla. The game is loosely based on Senet, which originated in ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, until it may have made its way north into medieval Scandinavia.
I found the game online a couple of years ago and downloaded the instructions (which are apparently no longer available).
The game board is in the pattern of a serpent, representing the Midgard Serpent which dwelt in the deep ocean and encircled the world. Along the serpent’s back are three rows of 12 spaces each, some of which are marked with runes representing various special conditions. The first row is the home harbour, where each players pieces begin the game. The second row is the open ocean, where each side battles for position. In the middle is an island with a ship yard where players must go for repairs if their ships are damaged. The third row represents the final leg of the journey, where players may form blockades, take shelter in a safe harbour, or be washed up on the rocky shoals, sending them back to the repair yards. Once past the serpents jaws, your ships pass into Valhalla, at which point they leave the board. The first player to remove all their ships is the winner.
In my novel, Ulf is the educated son of a Swedish nobleman who has abdicated his birthright to become an apprentice trader. Thadeus, a giant of a man whose birthright and interests are inferior to those of his opponent, collects various games and asks Ulf to play his latest acquisition.
Ulf sat down with his back against the bulkhead, sheltered from the southwest wind that drove the fluyt forward from the rear quarter. The surface of the river rippled and the small bow wave gurgled against the hull. The canvas, not yet filled with wind, luffed and flapped, reminding him of servants at home drying the household bedsheets. Ahead, the river began a wide turn to the east, past the old island fortress of the first Lubeck settlement. Cows meandered among a few black stones, but nothing remained of the citadel that Ulf had read about in his father’s library. On both sides of the river, workers were already in the fields. On the western shore a small caravan of wagons, loaded with grain, eased their way toward a local jetty where an old bark and her crew waited.
He was tired from the early morning work of outfitting the ship for sea, but cool air and the sun in his eyes conspired to keep Ulf awake. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened, hoping no one would bother him, and pulled the collar of his fine leather coat tighter against his throat to keep out a sudden gust of wind. He pulled his cap down tight and settled himself more snugly against the bulkhead, feeling the alternating mixture of warmth and wind.
He heard heavy footsteps on the wooden deck, and opened his eyes as a pair of legs lowered themselves down next to him.
“Aaah, so there you are!”
Recognizing the voice of crewman Thadeus Schynnagel, Ulf groaned in disappointment. The man was constantly enticing him to play one game of chance or another. He had given in a few times on the condition that no money would exchange hands.
Thadeus lowered his considerable weight onto the deck and tossed a red velvet bag into Ulf’s lap. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen this game before. Want to play? Just for fun, of course.”
“I was resting before we reach the open sea and I have to stand watch. Can we play later?”
“We need a stable surface and the river is calm today.” Thad retrieved the bag and dumped its contents onto the deck. “I found this in Lubeck. It cost me all the money I had. Very nice quality, don’t you think?”
Ulf took the rectangular board in his hands and turned it over. Carved into the soft spruce, the body of a serpent formed a playing area of three rows, tail to snout, across its surface. Evenly spaced holes pierced the snake’s body, apparently for inserting the oval tokens that Thad now held.
“Do you want dark or light?”
Do I have to choose?”
“No, but that way is more complicated.”
Ulf watched the man’s thick fingers place the twelve pieces onto the board, surprised again at how deft such a big man could be.
“Throw the four rune sticks.”
Ulf picked them up, cupped his hands, shook and threw the sticks. Two of them landed face down.
“Two points,” said Thad, pointing at the runic symbols. “The sun and god runes are face up. The gift and fate runes are face down. The most points you can get are five. Now move that ship two spaces, out of the harbor.”
Ulf selected the ship at the head of the line and moved it two spaces. “How do you win the game?”
“By moving all your ships off the board, past the serpent’s maw, here.” Thad pointed to the other end of the writhing snake. “Now it’s my turn. I’ll tell you the rules as we go along.”
The runes clattered. “The serpent is Jörmungand, who dwells in the deep oceans and encircles the earth. You command the white ships, and our two fleets do battle in the open ocean, here.” He pointed to the middle row of peg holes. “I threw a three, so my ship defeats yours in battle and you must make repairs at the island shipyard. So I will move your ship there now.”
“And what happens to that ship?”
“After one turn, you can move it back into the harbor if you roll the right number. For now, throw the runes and move the next ship in line.”
Ulf picked up the runes and dropped them, differently this time, the ends perpendicular to the deck. One of them stood for a moment and then toppled. He read the names out, feeling the familiar sense of pride in his memory.
“Tiewaz and Hagalaz.”
“Zero points. No move.” Thad threw the runes. “Four tails up. Five points.” His first ship, already in the lead, landed in mid-ocean.
Ulf could see how the game would play, and allowed his mind to wander, only uttering sounds if necessary. He already, unfortunately, had Thad’s friendship. He didn’t want to encourage intimacy. He mentally put his opponent onto the ocean-island shipyard and left him there, sailing eastward to Alandia with captain Wisna, a woman he could fall in love with if she didn’t have the soul of a man. The wind whipped the hair about his eyes, obscuring the outline of the City of Sle, where the long cold days aboard ship would fade into warm beds and meade, and the hard weeks of battle would be proudly exaggerated by warriors.
Absently, he threw the runes and moved his ships and wished for a cup of mead in his hand. The desire was almost overwhelming, and Ulf despaired that it would keep him from his rightful place when Jens was gone. More than once since taking the apprenticeship, he had neglected his duties in favor of a strong drink. He also desired the authority that Jens had promised, but not the responsibility, and in this way he was not like his father. Also unlike his father, he was unaware of the truth of his desires, and the character flaw infected even his dreams.
The dreams had been with him since childhood. Always a subordinate, never a leader, he was still clever. While his brothers excelled in war and in the administration of the family estates, Ulf excelled only in learning. He learned to read long before his brothers, spent his days in the family library, and by the time he was thirteen he had finished every book his father owned. His mother regretted allowing him to read so much, and one failed attempt at restricting it had damaged their relationship forever. Ulf was aware of the rift, but wrongly attributed it to his father’s interference.
The dream of Wisna was a constant reminder of Ulf’s second-citizen status. Watching his dream from the outside, one might think that Ulf was a trusted lieutenant or skillful advisor, and sometimes the dream started out that way. But eventually, and always, his status waned and as the day awoke he was pulling at the oars with the others as they entered the harbor. Wisna laughed at him and put a boot into his chest as she strode toward the bow, leapt over the side, and left her crew to beach the ship and unload.
“Fate,” said Thad as the runes toppled to the deck yet again. “Hagalaz, the hailstorm. Looks like you have to go back a space.”
“Stop gloating,” said Ulf. “My luck at games is terrible, but it is offset by the luck of my birth.”
“What luck? You think it lucky to be born a nobleman?” Thad chuckled deeply. “There are some who count as nothing the status given by birth, while others depend on nothing else. You seem to be of the latter sort, and yet your station in life gives you no pleasure. As for myself, I care not for my lineage and I am a happy man.”
“That’s because you have no lineage worth caring about.”
“As if you do? What did you have to do with it? Did you choose your parents? Did your father choose his? No. A true man makes his own way, highborn or not. Any man who says otherwise is a liar or a fool. Or a noble. That’s one which has escaped to Valhalla. Five to go.”
Directly below them, in the head, Ulf heard someone grunting with great effort. It took equal effort for him not to compare the activity to Thad’s ridiculous talk about nobility. He watched the other man’s huge hand move a piece off the board, out of the serpent’s reach, and wished he had the stones to call out the man’s stupidity. He took his turn instead.
Hagalaz was the only rune face up. “Fate,” said Thad.
“That’s it,” said Ulf. “I quit.” He stood up into the wind and stretched.
“You can’t quit now!” Thad said in frustration. “Who quits a game just because they are losing?”
“We’re approaching Travemunde. I’ll be needed on watch.” The Bay of Travemunde was visible and getting larger just off the starboard bow. In the distance, on the port side, the red brick of the lighthouse stood watch over the gateway to the Baltic.
“Not for another hour at least. We still need to drop off our pilot.”
Ulf let his irritation get the best of him. “I don’t care about the stupid game. I didn’t want to play it in the first place.” Before the idea of kicking the game overboard was fully formed, his foot lashed out and the pieces scattered.
Thad bellowed something unintelligible as the board disappeared over the side.
“I’m sorry!” shouted Ulf. “I didn’t mean …” But he didn’t have time to finish the sentence before Thad picked him off his feet and threw him into the river.
This entry is a departure from my regular headlong plunges into history. Many thanks to Helen’s Page and Instapundit for a nice bit of promotion, which more than tripled my readership over at WattPad.
The tagline over at Helen’s Page is “For Liberty-Minded People.” Freedom and Liberty are themes that run deep in my story. A couple years ago, I ran across a piece by Shelby Steele, and I’ve been referring to it ever since while finishing up my novel.
Speaking in 2011 at the conference “The Perils of Global Intolerance: The UN and Durban III,” Steele said that freedom is “a dicey thing to experience.”
When you come into freedom, you see yourself more accurately in the world. This is not unique to the Middle East. It was also the black American experience, when the Civil Rights bill was passed in 1964 and we came into much greater freedom. If you were a janitor in 1963 and you are still a janitor in 1965, you have all these freedoms and they are supported by the rule of law, then your actual experience of freedom is one of humiliation and one of shame. You see how far you have to go, how far behind you are, how little social capital you have with which to struggle forward. Even in freedom you see you are likely to be behind for a long time. In light of your inability to compete and your underdevelopment, freedom becomes something that you are very likely going to hate – because it carries this humiliation.
About the peoples of Asia Minor, Aristotle wrote, “They are miserable in freedom and comfortable in slavery.”
The two main characters in my novel, teenagers growing up in a violent world of theocratic empires, slavery, and war, must find their way to the truth: despite suffering real oppression, one can still learn to be free.
Almost four hundred years later, it’s a lesson that many have still not learned today. As Steele said in his speech, it’s a tragedy.
The irony and the tragedy of all this is that it keeps these groups in a bubble where they never encounter or deal with the truth. This becomes a second oppression for all these groups. They have been oppressed once, now they are free and yet they create a poetic truth that then oppresses them all over again.
For the Greeks, Hell was a place called Tartarus, and its three most famous inhabitants were Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his rock up the hill, Ixion, strapped to a wheel for eternity, and Tantalus, forever unable to quench his thirst. For ancient Norsemen, the great abyss that formed the boundary of the ocean and the world, Ginnungagap, was derived from Tartarus and Chaos. Europeans whose lands bordered the mighty Ottoman Empire appropriated the word and used it to demonize their enemies, “The Monstrous Tartar.”Aeschylus, Virgil, Aristophanes, and Homer before them, wrote eloquently about hell. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus writes, “Oh if only he had hurled me below the earth, yes beneath Hades, the entertainer of the dead, into impassable Tartarus, and had ruthlessly fastened me in fetters no hand can loose, so that neither god nor any other might have gloated over this agony I feel!”
In Birds, Aristophanes says, “At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence.”
In the Iliad, Homer writes of the saffron-robed dawn, and Zeus threatening to hurl into Tartarus anyone who dares oppose him.
Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over the face of all the earth, and Zeus that hurleth the thunderbolt made a gathering of the gods upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus, and himself addressed their gathering; and all the gods gave ear: “Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, that I may speak what the heart in my breast biddeth me. Let not any goddess nor yet any god essay this thing, to thwart my word, but do ye all alike assent thereto, that with all speed I may bring these deeds to pass. Whomsoever I shall mark minded apart from the gods to go and bear aid either to Trojans or Danaans, smitten in no seemly wise shall he come back to Olympus, or I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods.”
Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of the 13th century, wrote of Tartarus in The Danish History, saying that the vanquished King Harald would “outstrip those who shared his death in their journey to Tartarus.” The king who slew him, Ring, prayed that “Pluto, the lord of Orcus, [would] grant a calm abode there for friend and foe.”
Grammaticus also told of an expedition to a land of the dead by an Icelander named Thorkillus. Somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea, this place was known as Gandvik in the Norse, derived from a word meaning “magic.”
Icelanders used to tell incredible stories of enormous riches piled up there, but the way to this place was full of dangers and almost inaccessible to mortals. According to the experts of this route, one had to cross the Ocean that surrounds the Earth, leaving Sun and stars behind, traveling to the kingdom of chaos and finally moving into places without light, shrouded in perpetual darkness.
For those Europeans who suffered the geographical misfortune of living along the warpath of Ottoman Sultans, nothing but the most extreme depiction of their enemies would do.
The image above, from the British Museum, explains that Tartars were monsters, no doubt from the pit of hell. The word was first used in this sense in the 13th century, referring to the hordes of Ghengis Khan. “… from Medieval Latin Tartarus, from Persian Tatar, first used 13c. in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan (1202-1227), said to be ultimately from Tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. Form in European languages probably influenced by Latin Tartarus ‘hell.'”
The Online Etymology Dictionary also says that a phrase from the 1660s — “to catch a Tartar” — means “get hold of what cannot be controlled.”
My own purposes for the word Tartarus are more mundane. It only appears once, in what is now Chapter 7 of my novel. Mina and her protector Sa’d, are shopping in Galata for a map of Anatolia. Naturally, they visit the map-maker.
It looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Scrolls, paper, books, twine and dust lay everywhere, on tables and shelves in the front of the store, and Mina could only imagine what might be seen behind the heavy curtain at the back.
“What do you need?” Shouted the owner. “I have it!” He scuttled out from behind the curtain, a small man covered with an apron and bearing a most delicate knife.
“A map of the empire from here to the Caspian Sea,” Sa’d replied.
“Should that include the regions toward Egypt, or the other direction toward the Tsar and his beastly hordes?”
“The beastly hordes.” To Mina, he said, grinning, “You knew there would be beastly hordes, right?”
“Yes, I suppose so, although I hadn’t considered it directly. Are they as bad as they sound?”
“Worse!” said the proprietor. “Their knives are a thousand times the size of this.” He raised the sharp little knife and slashed the air dramatically. “But I use mine to greater effect. I can slice the world in half, while they are limited to slaughtering a few hundred men a day. Where are you going? As far as Astrakhan? Up the Volga River? Even to Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?”
“Not as far as that, cartographer.” Sa’d smiled, clearly enjoying the man’s histrionics. “Just the Caspian. A merchant’s route, if you have one.”
I’ve done a fair bit of research on ancient maps, but I don’t know what kind travelers might have actually carried with them. In my mind, Mina acquires something simpler than the map of Natolia produced by Joan Blaeu in 1635, seen below, and Tartarus is (of course) not depicted.
Finally, a shameless plug. If you’d like to read the first two chapters of my novel, head over to WattPad. Criticism encouraged!
Following some advice from APE, I’ve posted the first two chapters of my novel on WattPad. The “artisanal publishing” experience gets more interesting all the time.
I picked up the Kindle version of the book a few days ago, and I’m about a third of the way through. Most of the mechanical advice is old hat — in former lives I’ve been a reporter, editor, managing editor, professional desktop publisher, photographer, corporate communicator, webmaster, and IT help-desk geek. But it’s all solid advice, and I’m especially enjoying the sections on social media and e-book publishing.
Despite my past experience, I’ve discovered that approaching these subjects as a novelist is strikingly different from consulting for other authors, or putting a newspaper to bed five nights a week — even though the required technical skills are very similar.
One huge difference is that … well, let me stop and consider.
[Stops and considers.]
When I was in college, one of my favorite books was Thomas Pynchon’s V. It was published in 1961, the year I was born. It begins like this:
Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he’d look in on the Sailor’s Grave, his old tin can’s tavern on East Main Street. … Since his discharge from the Navy Profane had been road-laboring and when there wasn’t work just traveling, up and down the east coast like a yo-yo; and this had been going on for maybe a year and a half. After that long of more named pavements than he’d care to count, Profane had grown a little leery of streets, especially streets like this. They had in fact all fused into a single abstracted Street, which come the full moon he would have nightmares about. East Main, a ghetto for Drunken Sailors nobody knew what to Do With, sprang on your nerves with all the abruptness of a normal night’s dream turning to nightmare. Dog into wolf, light into twilight, emptiness into waiting presence, here were your underage Marine barfing in the street, barmaid with a ship’s propeller tattooed on each buttock, one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window (when to scream Geronimo? before or after the glass breaks?), a drunken deck ape crying back in the alley because last time the SP’s caught him like this they put him in a strait jacket. Underfoot, now and again, came vibration in the sidewalk from an SP streetlights away, beating out a Hey Rube with his night stick; overhead, turning everybody’s face green and ugly, shone mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where it’s dark and there are no more bars.
I feel like Benny. I’ve been working the district for years, honing my technical chops, telling others how it’s done. Now I’m out of the business, so to speak, coming back to it from a different direction, and it’s all lit up with strange mercury-vapor lamps.
I’m leery of streets like this.
Which is but one reason that APE is such a good resource. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, you can’t go wrong with it. Just ignore the part about buying a MacBook Air.
So asked Jules Michelet in his 1862 book, La Sorcière. His answer: “I say unhesitatingly: from times of despair.”
In 1971, Henry Kamen, writing in The Iron Century: Social Change in Europe, 1550-1660, put Michelet’s contention into modern terms:
Sorcery, Michelet argued, took its origin in times of depression, both economic and personal. Sorcery would come in times of war, of famine, of economic and social crisis, of loss of faith, certainty and orientation. Hence the great witch hunts during the civil wars in France, during the Thirty Years War in Germany, and during the oprichnina in Russia.
My interest in the subject is mostly literary. A character in my forthcoming novel watches a young girl burn at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. I also just finished reading The Hangman’s Daughter, a fabulous novel by Oliver Potzsch about a witch scare in the Bavarian town of Schongau in the year 1659.
But today the idea took a dramatic turn as I read of the witch-burning in Papua New Guinea, which reminded me that such incidents are not mere relics of the past.
Assailants stripped, tortured and bound a woman accused of witchcraft, then burned her alive in front of hundreds of witnesses in a Papua New Guinea town, police said Friday after one of the highest profile sorcery-related murders in this South Pacific island nation.
Whence comes this witch? In 1998, Gabriele Stürzenhofecker published Times Enmeshed: Gender, Space, and History among the Duna of Papua New Guinea. “Witchcraft,” she wrote, “is conceived of as a predominantly female power, and men see it as threatening their control over women.”
The Associated Press reported that the woman killed on Friday “had been accused of sorcery by relatives of a 6-year-old boy who died in the hospital the day before.” The victim’s husband has been described as “the prime suspect.”
She was tortured with a hot iron rod, bound, doused in gasoline, then set alight on a pile of car tires and trash in the Western Highlands provincial capital of Mount Hagen, Kakas said.
Why such a heinous crime occurred is almost irrelevant. The fact that it occurred at all in the 21st century is revealing. Stürzenhofecker’s findings are academic, but interesting nonetheless. In Chapter 6, The Enemy Within: Witchcraft, Consumption and Agency, she writes:
The overall control of relations between the sexes has become characterized by a pervasive uncertainty, largely created out of the collapse of ritual sanctions that in the past men were able to impose on the actions of women. … [Men perceive] that they now have no means of effectively countering the activities of witches, still less of utilizing them for their local political purposes against their enemies.
She goes on to describe the deep existential fear experienced by the people she studied: that “their very selves, their individualities, may be destroyed by a witch.”
This fear is symbolized by the idea that the witch may eat one’s vital inner organs, such as the heart or the liver. It is signaled even more strongly in the notion that a witch may carry away a person’s tini, which expresses his or her individuality as well as the source of his or her life.
Such ideas are foreign and repulsive to us “enlightened” westerners.
Or are they? As I read about the poor woman burned alive half a world away, I was reminded of something that began less than a day’s drive from where I live: the Kern County child sex abuse scandal.
The National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of Michigan Law and Northwestern Law, describes the case which began in 1980.
From 1984 through 1986 at least 30 defendants were convicted of child sex abuse and related charges and sentenced to long prison terms in a series of inter-related cases in Kern County, California, and an additional 8 defendants accepted plea bargains that kept them out of prison. Over time, 20 of the defendants who were sentenced to prison were exonerated, the earliest in 1991 the latest in 2005. In most of these exonerations the children who had testified that they had been abused recanted their testimony. In all of the exonerations there was evidence that the complaining witnesses – some as young as four years old – had been coerced or persuaded by the authorities make false accusations.
The Kern County cases are the oldest and largest of several groups of prosecutions that occurred in a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept through the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some (but not all) of these cases included allegations of satanic rituals. Many focused on day care centers. Nationally, there have been dozens of exonerations in child sex abuse hysteria cases.
In 2004, the New York Times published an account of another scandal that erupted in Bakersfield in 1983.
One June afternoon, a sheriff’s deputy named Conny Ericsson, along with Velda Murillo, a social worker with the county’s Child Protective Services, came to Eddie’s house to talk to him about a possible neighborhood sex ring. … That day, Ericsson and Murillo told Mr. and Mrs. Sampley that they needed to speak to their son alone. As Karen Sampley tried to listen through a heating vent in the kitchen, the investigators asked Eddie about John Stoll. They told him that other boys said Mr. Stoll did something sexual to Eddie and that Eddie had seen Mr. Stoll do bad things to other kids, too. ”I kept telling them no, that nothing happened,” Sampley remembers. ”I didn’t understand what they were talking about.” Murillo and Ericsson described sex acts that embarrassed the 8-year-old boy, and he started crying. ”I kept telling them, ‘No, no,’ but it wasn’t working,” he now says.
From California, a wave of prosecutions swept across the country. Says the Times, “within two years the investigations of Stoll and the McMartin teachers in Manhattan Beach, Calif., were under way. The hysteria began creeping across the country, to Maplewood, N.J. (Wee Care Day Nursery), to Malden, Mass. (Fells Acres), and to Great Neck, Long Island, where the documentary ‘Capturing the Friedmans’ takes place.”
I wonder: Except for the immediacy of Friday’s gruesome death, what separates the hysteria in Papua New Guinea from the hysteria in America? Not much.
In New Guinea a woman, accused of killing a 6-year-old boy with witchcraft, died on a trash heap. In America, men and women convicted of satanic sexual abuse of children died in prison.
Whence comes the witch? Maybe there is no answer to that disturbing question, but I have no doubt that we’ll be asking it again in the future. No matter what anyone says, human nature hasn’t changed much since the dawn of history.
The Times interviewed James Wood, a psychologist at the University of Texas at El Paso “who studies interview techniques used with children.”
Still, discredited child-sex rings like McMartin actually may not be a bogeyman of the past. Some parents, therapists and child-protection professionals continue to believe ritual sex abuse took place at McMartin preschool. “In 10 to 15 years, there will be an attempt to rehabilitate the ritual abuse scare,” Wood says. “You can bet on it.”
Today is February 9, 2013, about eight and a half years since the Times ran their story.
Whence comes the witch?
By God’s wisdom, because cats in Ardabil have short lives, there are very many mice, more than in other regions. The mice chew up the people’s clothing — their woolen cloaks, for example. So this city has a royal auction for hirre, i.e. gurbe, i.e. kutta — i.e. cats. There are professional cat-brokers, much in demand, who sell cats in cages. The Divrigi cat is a particular favorite, fetching a price of up to 100 gurus; still, it does not live long here. When the brokers cry their wares, this is the patter they sing, in a loud voice, in the beyati mode:
“You who seek a feline,
A cat to hunt your mice:
To rats it makes a beeline,
but otherwise it’s nice;
An enemy to rodents,
And yet it’s not a thief;
A pet to share your grief.”