Once upon a time … in a medium-sized town, which lingered between a very large forest and an endless prairie, a boy lived with his mother in an Urban Promise Zone. Their little rental unit was equidistant from his school and her workplace, and every weekday morning they would leave together, wave goodbye at the corner, and walk in opposite directions. The boy hated his school, the mother hated her government job, and every afternoon they would walk home and share stories of oppression over a dinner of fast food.
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.”
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!
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?
You won’t find much if you search the Web for “the crash of the sun.”
Some of what you do find is less than palatable, unless you’re into the ambient/electronica/experimental music of the Italian band SBPS2. Down at the tail end of the nine Google results, you’ll find a link to Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore.
Estonia is a curious country. Snuggled up against Russia — if one can place such a cuddly word so near to that totalitarian nightmare — with a frozen coastline on the Gulf of Finland, the country has been fought over by Poland, Germany, Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden. In the 1400’s it was part of Livonia, and despite the Christianization of the pagans the country still has its own curious identity.
In 1639, the characters from my novel travel by ship from Reval (present-day Tallinn) to Riga, and are forced to land on the island of Saaremaa to make repairs.
Ulf looked around at the crew members sleeping on the dry sand around him. Others had been sent for construction materials, food and water. From the west, borne on the soft wind, he could hear the bark of seals and the cries of birds. Master Jens turned the carcass of the dead bird over the open fire and continued the telling — the endless telling — of yet another boring story from the dying past.
“The island settlements to the east are ancient, and the place was known to the vikings as Eysysla. Eirik – a bastard son of the Norsk King Haakon Sigurdsson – invaded here 600 years ago, killing everyone he found and taking Danish ships as his own. But today it is a haven for healers. They say massive stones fall here from the sky, trailing fire and bringing magic elements. Don’t be surprised if witches appear to you out of thin air. And whatever they ask of you, don’t do it.”
Ulf wished the old man would just shut up.
As you can see, I am not Ulf. The story of the meteorite is real, and it fascinates me — as do the other stories that Master Jens tells. Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore tells what really happened.
The Kaali meteorite crash is the kind of unique and astounding event that must have become a topic of storytelling and singing for many generations afterward. As mentioned above, it evidently occurred around 2000 BC, on Saaremaa Island in the Baltic Sea. As recent scientific studies have established (Tiirmaa 1994), a meteorite of iron streaked from east to west over the Estonian mainland, broke apart as a result of atmospheric friction, and hit the island in at least 9 places, leaving craters that can be seen to this day.
Tiirmaa (1994: 63) likens the event to a small nuclear explosion (minus radioactivity). … the amount of energy needed to form the main crater was equivalent to 1-4 kilotons (1–4 million kg or 2–8 million pounds) of TNT explosive. The largest fragment hit the ground and exploded with enough energy to create a crater 110 m in diameter, 22 m deep, with a rim 4–7 m above the ground.
It is hard to imagine what went on in the minds of the humans who saw flaming chunks of the sky fall to earth, heard the sonic boom of the streaking fragments and the ear-splitting crash, felt the ground shudder beneath their feet, and were engulfed by a great cloud of dust and ash. Trees, animals, and dwellings within a radius of 2–5 km from the site would have been destroyed, a forest fire would have been ignited, and the survivors would have had to run for their lives to avoid asphyxiation from the vaporized and pulverized matter and gases. This may have been the greatest meteorite impact ever in a populated area. It was truly a fearsome and spectacular event, more than enough to alter existing world-views and to inspire new tales and songs.
The long-tailed fireball would have been brighter than the sun, visible not just on Saaremaa but as far as 700 km (450 miles) away (Meri 1984: 55; Tiirmaa 1994: 65). Included in the area of direct observability are much of southern Finland and Karelia, the Novgorod area of Russia, the Polish coast, and lower Sweden.
At the end of the dissertation comes a song. The Kaali Meteorite Song. “Each song line is to be sung first by the lead singer [storyteller], and repeated by the chorus [listeners].”
Narrator: The night was dark. The sky-god Ukko decided to shed more light on earth.
Ukko struck to make a fire,
Struck a white-hot lightning fire.
From his flaming sword he struck it,
As the sparks did fly and sputter;
Fire hit against his fingers,
Sputtered sparks from sacred fingers,
High above aloft in heaven,
On the starry plains of heaven.
Narrator: He entrusted the care of the fire to the maid of air, for her to form and shape.
Into a new moon to form it,
Into a new day to shape it.
Narrator: But this did not turn out well.
Imbi rocked the baby fire,
Back and forth the little white one.
On her hands she held the fire,
Put the spark up on her fingers:
Fire fell from butterfingers
From the fingers of the guardian.
Narrator: The catastrophe followed
Heaven torn and lacerated,
Skyvault became perforated;
Fire tore through sky like blizzard,
Sped and crashed along the cloudline,
Through nine heavens it descended,
Through six spangled vaults of heaven.
Evil deeds it then accomplished,
Cruel deeds it perpetrated:
Burning up the daughters’ bosoms,
Tearing at the breasts of maidens,
And the knees of boys destroying,
And the master’s beard consuming.
And of all its deeds most evil:
Burned the baby in his cradle.
Went on burning many uplands,
Many uplands, many boglands,
Crashed at last into the water,
In the waves of Lake Alue:
And the fire rose up flaming,
And the sparks a rose all crackling.
Three times in a night of summer,
Nine times in a night of autumn,
Roared up to the height of spruce trees,
Sprang up high against the shorebanks
With the strength of furious fire,
With the might of angry white heat.
Even threw the fish on dry land,
Heaved the perch across the beaches.
The headline of the BBC article overstates it just a tad — they’re talking about the Indo-European family of languages — but the news is still exciting.
Modern Indo-European languages – which include English – originated in Turkey about 9,000 years ago, researchers say.
Their findings differ from conventional theory that these languages originated 5,000 years ago in south-west Russia.
Reading this, I was immediately reminded of The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, which I read a couple years ago.
… readers will discover how Vinci, working from the evidence of place-names and geographical features … comes to agree with these early social scientists and to conclude that “the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans lay in the northernmost part of Scandinavia …”
Trying to write anything else here would add less than nothing to a topic that is so fascinating to me that it defies description. If you haven’t read Felice Vinci’s book, go out and buy a copy today. You won’t be disappointed.