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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize. The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors. To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard). This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.
Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana. He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!
The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles. The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship. If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success. On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all. Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.
But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory. He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard. “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said. The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware. They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor. Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him. By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships. The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana. Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.
Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves. The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile. Thus ended his political and military career. The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world. But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet. I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up. However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.
I apologize: I got sort of a late jump on writing my blog post today (it is already 2:00 AM tomorrow), so it is going to be predominantly visual…but that’s ok. Explaining this business wouldn’t help anyway. These are “magical” prophetic teacups. Apparently as the querant (?) drinks his or her tea (or whatever mystical brew they favor) bits are left by atop the various symbols. Gifted diviners (snicker) can use these portents to peer into the murky future.
I’m, uh, not so sure about all of that, but the cups are beautiful in their own right and I really can’t stop looking at all the magnificent little animals and daggers and what have you. Somebody should make a contemporary version…or, then again, maybe not…it would probably be little robots and carbon atoms and mushroom clouds and corporate brands. Better to stick with snakes and spinning wheels.
Here is an interesting and horrifying flower! This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.” It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity. Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind. The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!
Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids. Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations. Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant. The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane. In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well. Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.
Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses. It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times. It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era. Witches were said to use it in their potions. Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed). Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.
On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops. Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era. There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic. Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.
Even among modern folk with our science, technology and networked thinking machines, dreams possess an unearthly and overwhelming power. To state this bluntly: nightmares can be terrifying to a degree unrivaled by anything save the most terrible moments of trauma or devastating personal loss.
In nightmares I have watched our lovely world of nitrogen skies, teaming oceans, and green forests snuffed out in an instant by ghastly void. As a ghost, I have swum through oceans of plague skeletons each of which glittered with unwholesome light. Worst of all, with mine own hands I have poured oil on my chanting followers and touched the torch to them and exalted as together we burned like fat in a fire.
And it was all just dreams, of course it was. But, oh! it seemed so horribly real…
Awaking from such visions, it is difficult not to see the hand of providence writing out the dire warnings of destiny. In ancient times, when science did not exist to explain the world, people thought exactly that—that the gods communicated through dreams.
Dream augury is mentioned in the most ancient Mesopotamian texts as well as throughout ancient Egyptian writings. In both the Iliad and Odyssey, the gods communicate with mortals through dreams (in the Iliad, beautifully, false dreams fly to the world from a gate of ivory, but real ones go through the gate of horn). Even the first book of the Bible has the following story, where the reader goes into Pharaoh’s dreams with him.
And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favoured kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow. And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favoured and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river. And the ill favoured and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favoured and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke. And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good. And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them. And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream. And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof: and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.
Then spake the chief butler unto Pharaoh, saying, I do remember my faults this day: Pharaoh was wroth with his servants, and put me in ward in the captain of the guard’s house, both me and the chief baker: And we dreamed a dream in one night, I and he; we dreamed each man according to the interpretation of his dream. And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he did interpret. And it came to pass, as he interpreted to us, so it was; me he restored unto mine office, and him he hanged.
Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon: and he shaved himself, and changed his raiment, and came in unto Pharaoh.
Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as an omen of coming climate change: the seven fat cows are seven years of plentiful harvest while the seven starving cows represent a terrible drought. Only by long-term planning can the political leadership of Egypt avert humanitarian crisis (coincidentally, it is a story which makes me wonder if the most stridently religious folk have even paused to think about their favorite text).
Dreams are the most numinous experience we are likely to have. It is very hard not to be like Pharaoh and see portents of the future in the strange imagery of dreams. However for all of the time that dreams are filled with apocalyptic farm animals or oracular produce, they are just as often filled with the Flintstones, sailboards, toothpaste, the girl from algebra class, Honda hatchbacks and suchlike detritus of one’s personal experience and/or contemporary mass culture.
Sigmund Freud, the doyenne of dream interpretation in the contemporary(ish) world, believed that our dreams and nightmares revealed truths hidden by the conscious mind. In the symbolic language of dream imagery, we are able to put together patterns which are obscure (or distasteful or forbidden)—at least according to Freud.
Naturally I am an adherent of science and reason. I hold no truck with imaginary supernatural beings such as ghosts and gods. Yet dreams constitute phenomena which I have experienced—which we have all experienced-which can and do stand outside the ordinary mundane frame of reference. Even if they are not sent by Hypnos or Yahweh, it seems wise to allow dreams to influence what you create and desire…and what you are afraid of.
As the poet said, “Learn from your dreams what you lack”
An online conversation today reminded me of Plutarch, whose lively biographies provide so very much of our present knowledge of the statesmen and generals of classical antiquity. My very favorite passage of Plutarch (and possibly in the whole canon of Roman history) consists of three throw-away paragraphs from the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix commonly called Sulla (or “Sylla” by 18th century classicists). The whole biography is worth reading, for Sulla was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic, a peerless general who lived during the harrowing struggle between the optimates and populares. Sulla assumed the long moribund office of dictator by force or arms (conquering Rome in the process). He used his supreme power to make necessary constitutional reforms, and then, to universal astonishment, he resigned. The following passage is not really about him though.
The first paragraph is a sort of Roman joke where Sulla takes a little vacation and expresses amazement upon coming across some survivors from a town he had exterminated. The second paragraph–my favorite–details how his troop captured a satyr and brought it before Sulla for interrogation (something worth keeping in mind when assessing Plutarch as a source). The third paragraph details the fair auguries and good omens which Sulla viewed as he prepared for combat—a particularly auspicious liver from a sacrificed animal and a pair of magical ghost goats fighting! It then offhandedly describes a great miltary victory Sulla won. Plutarch wrote this in 75 AD and the translation is from the pen of no less a poet than John Dryden. I love the passage for its robust color, its fancifulness, and for the window it provides into the long vanished Roman soul: