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Sometimes I discover pictures of extremely beautiful items of immense interest on the internet, but there isn’t much information with them. That is the case for this gold diadem which was discovered in a Greek tomb at Madytos by the Hellespont. The exquisite beaten gold crown was probably made in 300-350 BC by master goldsmiths of the Hellenic era. It features the marriage of Ariadne (the princess of Crete who rescued Theseus) and Dionysus, the only Olympian deity born of a human mother. Dionysus and Ariadne each hold their own thyrsus, a cult object betokening the divinity of Dionysus (usually they are seen in art in the hands of frenzied maenads, but the royal pair are too august to be thus besotted by sacred wine).

Around the couple are exquisite floral motifs of field, farm, and forest wedded together. A pair of lyre players (one off screen to the left) serenade the apotheosized gods while doves strut at their feet. It is a beautiful crown…however since it has spent 2300 years lying in a tomb there is not much to say of its story other than what you can see for yourself writ in imperishable gold.

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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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Crucifixion

Icon of the Crucifixion (Andrea Pavias, second half of 15th century, egg tempera and gold on wood)

This blog traditionally presents a beautiful crucifixion painting for Good Friday.  This year’s selection comes from a somewhat different artistic tradition than the paintings of previous years.  This is Andreas Pavias’s Icon of the Crucifixion, a Greek icon painted in the style of Byzantine art.  The beautiful and troubling image was created at the end of the 15th century, in the years following the fall of Constantinople.  After more than a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire had finally died, yet for a while longer, in Greece and in the Slavic near east, the Byzantine artistic tradition lived on and had a final glorious flowering. This crucifixion is not about realism in the same way as works by Durer and Mantegna (who were painting at the same time).  The action takes place in an otherworldly golden space filled with stylized angels.  The Romans soldiers have been replaced by Turks.  The holy family and the saints and disciples are all dressed as Byzantine nobles.  Each group of figures enacts a drama from the passion: yet the action has the stylistic quality of an elaborate didactic illustration (or even a modern pictographic work of media—like a video game) rather than the sumptuous realism of Renaissance Italy. Yet the work is no less magnificent because of this quality.  Indeed the seething angular forms give it an alien intensity well suited to the subject.

Cast your eyes around the icon and take in the details!  The sun and moon have shrunk to little gold faces the same size as the countenances of the angels which fill the sky. Turkish executioners are breaking the legs of the two robbers to either side of Jesus—an act of “mercy” which allowed the brigands to die more swiftly. Yet Christ continues to suffer on, nailed to the monumental jet black cross dripping with blood.  On the left, little resurrected figures awaken from Golgotha to eternal life.  On the right, the profane throw dice for Jesus’ divine raiment.  Between them, a fissure opens up at the foot of the cross.  It snakes down into the black depths of hell where writhing demons wait.

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Eretria was an Ionian city-state of ancient Greece.  The Eretrians were located right across a narrow body of water from Athens and they were generally staunch allies of Athens.  They were also eager traders and merchants…and here is one of their coins.  This is a silver didrachm of Eretria featuring a very beautiful Octopus.  It dates from the early 4th century BC.

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The opposite side of the coin (I can’t quite tell which side is “heads” and which is “tails”) features a cow scratching its face with its back hoof.  I would love to tell you more about this evocative imagery but, aside from the obvious connotations of maritime and agricultural prowess, I am at a loss.  We will have to appreciate these coins as mysterious little works of silver sculpture unless a passing numismatist or classical scholar drops by in the comments and explains what is going on.  The lifelike style of the coin does give one occasion to reflect on how busy and stilted modern American coins are.  I have a feeling that two and a half millennia from now, nobody is going to be blogging about the Indiana quarter (unless they are fruitlessly wondering what the hell it is even supposed to be).

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Today we feature a special treat from the ancient world. This is the Arimaspi Calathos, a gold headdress for a priestess of Demeter, goddess of grain, agriculture, and fecundity. It was crafted in the second half of the 4th century BC by master Greek goldsmiths out of thirty sheets of fine gold plate hammered into shape and cunningly joined together (plus some enamel and other bits). The headdress is commonly known as “the fighting griffins calathos” for the magnificent eagle-headed mythical beasts on it. The central griffin is proudly uninterested in fighting, but its two companions rip into Greek women who are sinking to the ground beneath the onslaught. I can’t find any images of the remaining crown, but it looks like it is probably similarly violent and enigmatic. Greek jewelry was beautiful, dark, and interesting: you never see celebrities these days wearing anything featuring griffins killing lots of people.

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The piece was found during excavations of the Bolshaya Bliznitsa burial mound, a funerary complex for the ancient Greek city of Phanagoria. Phanagoria was the largest city of the Greek colony on the Taman Peninsula, which separates the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea. The Greeks founded a trade colony there in 543 BC in order to trade with the Scythians and the Sindi (and perhaps with people from much farther to the east as well. Judging by the hats worn by their priestesses, it was a good place to trade, although the imagery of the votive crown suggests that it was also a life of robust competition and fearsome struggle.

Gold Headdress-The Arimaspi Fighting Griffins Calathos -Greek work-Second half of the 4th century BC

Batik Iris

Batik Iris

Irises are flowers in the genus Iris.  They are named after the Greek goddess Iris [ed. So far this seems kind of circular] who traveled on rainbows which were also known as irises.  Thus the familiar beautiful garden flowers are known by the Greek word for rainbow because they were available in a whole rainbow of colors.

Other People's Beautiful German Irises

Other People’s Beautiful German Irises

This is all deeply relevant because four years ago I bought a beautiful iris and planted it in my garden. It started as a little green sprout and then, through the subsequent years grew into a magnificent thicket of sword shaped bright waxy leaves—but it never bloomed.  Time worked its indignant wiles on my memory and I forgot what exactly what variety I had bought.

"Freedom Song" Iris

“Freedom Song” Iris

This year, finally, a bud sprouted on the iris!  I have been so excited to find out the color of the mytery iris.  I scoured the internet trying to figure out what I had bought (the irises pictured above “Batik” and were some of my guesses).  There was even a dark moment when I thought about how quixotic my aesthetics can be and I feared I had bought a huge brown hypnotic werewolf iris!

"Spiced Tiger" looks pretty much like a werewolf to me

“Spiced Tiger” looks pretty much like a werewolf to me

But it turns out that the me of four years ago, made at least one good choice: here is the beautiful mystery iris as it appears now in my garden (along with my sphinx sculpture):

My Iris!  The picture doesn't do it justice at all.  It is so lovely...

My Iris! The picture doesn’t do it justice at all. It is so lovely…

It is darkest violet edging into black with furry deep purple beards!  I am pretty sure it is called “Night Ruler” which sounds like an evil cleric or a death knight!  Yes!  Sometimes my past choices come back to haunt me, but for once that guy did something really amazing and nice!  I love this iris!  Here is another picture of it which I drew.

Iris and Greek Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

Iris and Greek Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

“Night Ruler” has awakened my heart to a lust for irises—but any actions I take will require another four years to yield results and by then I will no doubt be living on a tropical beach in Greenland or fighting our robot overlords…or worse I will have again forgotten what I picked out and I will be forced to live beholden to the unfathomable whims of who I used to be.

"Night Ruler" photographed by a professional

“Night Ruler” photographed by a professional

"Palo" Diadem (Hellenic artisans ca. 3rd century BC; gold, enamel, glass beads)

“Palo” Diadem (Hellenic artisans ca. 3rd century BC; gold, enamel, glass beads)

Here is the so-called “Palo diadem” a golden diadem manufactured by Greek goldsmiths who worked in Taranto in southern Italy (in Apulia–Italy’s “bootheel”) in the 3rd century BC.  The wreath was probably discovered in one of the Lacrasta tombs—noted burial sites from Hellenic Apulia.  The piece entered the Louvre collection when it was purchased by the second emperor of the French, Napoleon III, nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte—so its modern history is every bit as interesting as its ancient creation.

This sort of diadem was worn in Hellenic society by women only, and served a purely decorative purpose.  Numerous examples have been found from across the Greek world during the time of Macedonian ascension, however this little crown is especially finely made and well-preserved.  The headdress is a masterpiece of the goldsmith’s art and consists of extremely fine gold filigree–wire twisted into the shape of intertwined vines, rosettes, and flowers like metal lace. The floral highlights are painted in blue enamel and there are little glass berries made from green, blue, and white pâte de verre.

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The goldsmiths of Taranto were the master jewelers of their time.  Their work was exported around the Hellenic world, but this diadem seems to have stayed close to home until Napoleon III purchased it.  The piece inspired a resurgence of gold filigree work among the 19th century jewelers of Italy and France.

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

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 Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

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.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

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.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

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.

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Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

Ceres (Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1717-1718, oil on canvas)

In my many posts about art and painting, I have shamefully slighted the wonderful 18th century. Here is a masterpiece by one of the greatest painters of that era, Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose career was all too brief. Watteau bridged the gap between Baroque and Rococo by bringing the naturalistic color and movement of Correggio to the rigorous classical tradition of great French masters such as Poussin and Lorrain. This beautifully painted oval composition portrays the fertility goddess Ceres shimmering among the lambent clouds in the long pink evenings of summer. Her garb of gold and shell color perfectly suits the joyous abundance of the season. Around her, youths are gathering the precious life-giving wheat while the astrological beasts of the summer sky gambol at her side.

Artist's conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Artist’s conception of the Dawn spacecraft

Of course I did not just pull this choice of subjects out of some crazy 18th century hat! As I write this, the NASA spacecraft Dawn is hurtling through the asteroid belt toward the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest body in the asteroid belt. Ceres (the dwarf planet) is located in the strange region between Mars and Jupiter. It is large enough to be spherical due to its own gravity but something seems to have gone horribly wrong there. It appears to be the shattered core of a world which either never quite formed or which was destroyed during the making—a miscarriage four and a half billion years old. Scientists have speculated about what the little world is composed of and how it was created, but telescopes have only revealed so much, and no spacecraft has visited prior to Dawn. This is a time of true exploration like the 18th century! Already Dawn’s cameras have spotted bizarre ultra-bright reflections from Ceres. Are they sheets of ice or metal…something else? We will have to wait till the probe enters orbit in April to find out, but I am excited to learn more about the formation of Ceres (which is to say the formation of the solar system) and to finally solve some of the mysteries of this under-appreciated heavenly neighbor.

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

This image of Ceres was taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on Feb. 19 from a distance of nearly 46,000 kilometers (29,000 miles)

Of course I am also heartily sick of this endless disappointing winter. The sooner Ceres (the allegorical figure of abundance and warmth) brings life back to Brooklyn, the happier I will be. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for exciting news from space and for the return of life and growth here on (the north part of) Earth after a long winter. Also anybody who wishes for the return of classical beauty and allegorical subtlety in the dismal world of ill-conceived & poorly-executed contemporary art will have my heartfelt appreciation and best wishes!

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

Ancient Greek stone carving of the goddess Ceres with poppies, shafts of wheat, and snakes

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Ever since recounting the story of Orpheus, I have been thinking about the lyre. The ancient musical instrument even showed up again last week in a post about an amazing new planetary system–and the mythical harp of the gods somehow stole some of the glory from real worlds formed eleven billion years ago. Perhaps this is appropriate: for the myth of the first lyre is a story of theft.

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

Hermes stealing the cattle of Apollo (5th century Attic vase)

It is also the origin story of Hermes, who was not just the messenger of the gods, but also the god of tradesmen, herdsmen, and thieves. Hermes was the child of Maia, the daughter of a Titan. After the war between Titans and Olympians, she hid herself away in a stygian cave which twisted down beneath Mount Cyllene, but one day, Zeus spied her and they became lovers. Maia’s cave provided the dallying pair with an excellent hiding place from the jealous eyes of Hera, and in due course Hermes was born. Even as a baby, the obstreperous little god, was too clever and mischievous to be hidden away in some cave. Baby Hermes sneaked out and soon found a herd of exquisite white cattle belonging to Apollo. The tiny god picked out the finest of these splendid sky cattle and rustled them off for himself and his mother, but before leading them away, he put brooms on their tails so they would erase their tracks. He also drove them out of their pasture backwards and disguised his own footprints by wearing branches on his feet. Then he took the white cows to a secret grove and sacrificed the two most beautiful beasts, burning everything but the entrails. These gut strings he attached to a turtle shell to play soothing music—the first lyre!

When Hermes got back to his cave, his mother was frantic with worry, but he quickly beguiled her with honeyed words and a sweet lullaby. In the meantime, Apollo had noticed that his best cattle were missing, and he began to hunt the thief… but it was no easy task. First the golden god could not find any tracks, and when he discovered the footprints, they lead back to the paddock (and there was no evidence of any thief). However Apollo was the god of prophecy and hidden truth, so he drew upon his divine augury to discover who had taken his cattle. In fury he rushed into Maia’s cave to grab the culprit, but, even as an infant, Hermes was swift and he outran the angry sun god. Soon the comic chase lead up to Olympus, where a proud Zeus, made the (half) brothers cease their quarrel.

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Claude Lorrain (Mercury Returning the Cattle of Admetus to Apollo, chalk drawing)

Hermes returned the cattle, but two were still missing! Apollo demanded them back, but to no avail: they were burned up. Hermes pulled out his lyre hoping to lull Apollo as he had Maia, but the lovely music had an altogether different effect on the refined art-lover Apollo. As the god of music and beauty, Apollo was indeed beguiled, but he did not fall asleep. Instead he had to have the beautiful instrument! He begged his little brother, and cajoled, and finally offered him all the white cattle. Hermes drove a hard bargain and he also gained Apollo’s magical wand in the deal. This wand was the fabulous and disturbing caduceus—a winged golden rod wrapped by two snakes. It became the symbol of Hermes, and of commerce itself, but, according to myth it had yet deeper powers—to grant sleep, and death, and resurrection. Hermes touched the eyes of the departed with the caduceus and led them on their last journey. He used it to transcend the thresholds of the world and travel everywhere (although in the modern world it has become meddled with the staff of Asclepius).

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Mercury exchanging the lyre for the rod with Apollo

Apollo received the lyre, and it became his defining symbol (along with his golden bow). In fact Apollo’s lyre became the symbol of all art and music–a role which it still holds. It is funny that the defining objects of the two gods were originally vice-versa (though maybe knowing mothers–and knowing merchants–will not find such a swap entirely unprecedented).

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

1834 drawing of an ancient Roman painting of Apollo and Mercury from Pompei

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