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OK everyone, I am very sorry that I have been missing so much lately. I was working on my show and I have been working on my next big project which involves animated drawings. I PROMISE I will get back to regularly scheduled blogging tomorrow (I have some angry things to say about fisheries and the derelict state of our nation in general right now), but for tonight, here is a teaser of my next big project. This is an animation of an oracular priestess turning into a dove and a ghost. The hard part was the Roman-style mosaic flounder in the background (which you hopefully noticed). With any luck wordpress will allow GIFS, but if not, I guess you can look at each broken tile in the flounder. As always let me know what you think and thanks for your patience and kind attention.

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Here is a new flounder series picture I made called “The Lure of Tragedy.” It is meant to evoke Greco-Roman tragic theater, the heroic fish confronts a test of character to which it is inexorably drawn. the chorus sings in the background trying to contextualize the fish’s plight while the great jeweled fishhook of the summer sky indicates the portentous and universal nature of the flounder’s choices.

The work is made on ink and it is designed to fit my tragic Marsyas theater. The poor fish seems awfully familiar somehow.

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Everyone knows about the Oracle at Delphi—one of the most important sacred places of the classical world. Delphi was sacred to Apollo and it is where (in mythology) he slew the ancient giant python which vexed he and Artemis and donned the mantle of god of prophecy. However there was a much older oracle sight in the classical world. According to Herodotus it dated back to the second millennium BCE and Aristotle regarded it as the birthplace of the Hellenes (which is to say the origin point of the Greeks). It was arguably the second most important place of prophecy in the ancient Greek world. This was the great oracle at Dodona in Epirus. Archaeologists indeed date cult activity at the site back to the Mycenaean age. I found pictures of the great theater at Dodona (above) which is certainly awe-inspiring, and of the council house, where affairs of state were adjudicated, however I could not find pictures of the oracle. Perhaps it was a victim of Christian zeal, or maybe it just doesn’t photograph so well after 4000 years.
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The prophetesses of Dodona were known as peleiades (“doves) and they were priestesses of Zeus. Herodotus relates the myth of how their cult originated in the ancient depths of time:
“…two black doves [came] flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona; the latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech, declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there; the people of Dodona understood that the message was divine, and therefore established the oracular shrine. The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans (they say) to make an oracle of Ammon; this also is sacred to Zeus. Such was the story told by the Dodonaean priestesses, the eldest of whom was Promeneia and the next Timarete and the youngest Nicandra; and the rest of the servants of the temple at Dodona similarly held it true.”

Long-time readers know I am interested in dove iconography: it is one of the shared aspects of Hellenic pantheism and Judeo-Christian imagery (sharp-eyed readers will also note that a sacred oak appears into the story). I wish I could have found an ancient vase with the Dodona story on it–but maybe it just didn’t translate into pottery. At any rate we will keep featuring these prophetic stories–they are leading up to an exciting surprise at the end of summer!
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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.

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