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Swimming - Olympics: Day 4(Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

As you have probably guessed, all of my posts this week have been about Brazil because I have been fixated on the Olympics, the worlds’ foremost sports competition.  The 2016 Brazil Summer Olympics are the 31st Olympics (or I should maybe write “XXXI” Olympics) of the modern era.  That last phrase is significant.  There were Olympics of the ancient classical past and today’s Olympics were deliberately created in homage to these Greco-Roman games.  The ancient Olympics were held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia Greece.  According to myth, the Olympics were founded by Heracles in honor of his father Zeus.  After he completed his twelve great labors and thus freed himself of the taint of murder and madness, Heracles built a beautiful stadium in honor of his father, the king of heaven. He then walked 200 heroic paces and proclaimed this distance to be a “stadion” one of the principle units of distance in Greek society.  The Panhellenic games were held every four years (a unit of time known as an “Olympiad”).  Although the origins of the games are shrouded in epic myth, the games basically lasted from 776 BC until 393 AD–when they were suppressed and ended by Theodosius I in a bout of anti-pagan Christian fundamentalism.

zeus

The ancient games featured running, jumping, discus, javelin, wrestling, pentathlon, boxing, pankration (a nightmarish no-holds barred ultimate fighting event), and equestrian events including riding and chariot races.  Art and poetry competitions were also held at the Olympics—a notable difference from these modern games!

wrestlers

The athletic events were held in the nude with a few notable exceptions (which I will get to shortly). Only freeborn Greek men were allowed to participate.  Some of the greatest athletes of the ancient games are still remembered to this day:  Varazdat, the peerless Armenian boxer; the famously handsome Melankomas; the jumper Chionis of Sparta whose distance records held until the modern Olympics; Milo, the greatest wrestler of history (who was also a poet and mathematician); and, perhaps greatest of all, Leonidas of Rhodes–champion runner of 4 Olympiads.

atletas

Leonidas of Rhodes competed in four successive Olympics games (164BC, 160BC, 156BC and 152BC). He was peerless at sprinting the stadion (which was about 200 meters).  Leonidas was also gifted at running the fast “diaulos” which was twice as long as the stadion.  Both of these races were fleet nude foot races which would be more-or-less familiar today (although modern athletes must wear little loincloths or smallclothes and sundry plastic placards branded with the name of rich patrons and sponsors).   Leonidas was the victor at the stadion and the diaulos in each of the four Olympics he attended (in the classical Olympics, the winner of an event received a crown made of laurel and there were no silvers and bronzes).  What set Leonidas apart from other great runners was that he could also win the hoplitodromos—the race in armor!

anicent-olympics-games

The hoplitodromos was a long distance race meant to approximate the rigors of classical infantry maneuvers. Participants raced in 50 pounds of bulky equipment including heavy bronze helmet, breastplate, greaves, and a wooden shield (although the exact details are lost in the mists of history).  The runners had to carry all of this kit and execute fast turns in blazing 90 degree heat.  It was thought that a light swift runner capable of winning the stadion and the diaulos could not also win the grueling hoplitodromos—but it turned out that conventional wisdom was wrong.  Leonidas won the laurel in all three events in all four Olympics he ran in.  His record of 12 individual victories—laurels in three distinct events over 16 years–has stood the test of time well.  It endured 2168 years until Michael Phelps surpassed it yesterday (August 11th 2016) in the pool.  But who can say what deeds of athletic prowess might have supplanted Leonidas’ accomplishment during the dark ages when the Olympics lay dormant? If only Theodosius and grim-mouthed Christians had not ruined the fun for everyone for 1500 years, some Lithuanian lancer or Burgundian coustillier or Scottish yeoman could have won 12 gold medals at jousting or barrel dancing or monk-hurling lo

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DC12

Back during the glorious infancy of my blog I wrote a great deal about the demi-god Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules)–the greatest classical hero, who slew so many of the children of Echidna (and even grappled with Echidna herself).  For some reason, when I was growing up, I always had a mental picture of Heracles as a meat-head who solved every problem by means of brute strength; however, as an adult my perspective on the hero has changed greatly.  The craftiness with which Heracles faced problems like the Hydra and the journey to the underworld reveals that his cunning and his political guile became greater and greater as he ground on through his quests and labors towards godhood.  A big part of absolute power involves mastering craftiness…and manners. In fact the story of Heracles is really an epic quest to please a picky mother-in-law (but more about this later). At any rate, when his plans went awry, Heracles always had brute strength, but it often rebounded on him and was the source of his greatest problems as well as his greatest victories.

HeraklesSnakes

Which brings us all the way back around to Hercules’ first great exploit—which was purely of the brute strength variety.  Heracles was the son of Zeus and the beautiful shrewd mortal woman Alcmene (who had a magical pet weasel—but more about that another day).  Naturally Hera hated this rival and she chafed at the glorious prophecies of what the child of Alcmene would one day accomplish.  Hera tried to prevent the birth of Heracles by means of her subaltern, the goddess of childbirth.  When this failed, she resorted to brute force on her own right and she sent two mighty serpents to kill the baby in his crib.  Heracles grabbed one of the poisonous serpents in his right hand and the other in his left and throttled them to death with super strength. The first glimpse we get of Heracles is a majestic picture: an infant throttling two great snakes in his bare hands.  This image was sculpted and painted again and again throughout the history of western art.  It foreshadows Heracles’ difficult life, and his triumph, and his methodology.  Here is a little gallery of baby Heracles/Hercules throttling snakes:

baby Hercules

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Philoctetes on Lemnos (Jean Germain Drouais, 1788, oil on canvas)

Philoctetes is one of the great missing heroes of the classical world. Not only was there was an entire epic poem from the Homeric era about the quest to find him Aeschylus and Euripides are both known to have written entire plays about him, and the great  Sophocles wrote two.  Only one of the plays by Sophocles now survives.

Philoctetes was a great archer and a “companion” of Heracles.  When through the treachery of Nessus, Heracles was poisoned with blood of the hydra, only Philoctetes has the courage to light his funeral pyre.  This earned him tremendous esteem from the dying hero, who presented Philoctetes with his bow and poisoned arrows.

Hercules Burning Himself on the Pyre in the Presence of His Friend Philoctetes (Ivan Akimovich Akimov, 1782)

Philoctetes unsuccessfully sought the hand of Helen of Troy which meant that he was “called up” by Menelaus to win her back from Paris after she was abducted. It would seem Philoctetes also made some powerful enemies during his time with Heracles because as he hastened to the war he was stung by a poison snake while on the Island of Chryse.  The wound suppurated and produced such a foul odor that Odysseus tricked the unhappy archer into being left behind in agony.

 

Philoctetes Being Bitten by the Snake (Gotthard Ringgli, early 17th century)

This proved to be a mistake. After years of war, an oracle (being tortured by the Greeks) revealed that the Greeks could not prevail in the Trojan War without the bow of Heracles.    Odysseus and a group of soldiers including the hero Diomedes were dispatched to find the weapon.  In doing so they found the still injured (still reeking) Philoctetes, and, only through intervention from the deified Heracles, were the angry group of men able to come to a satisfactory resolution.

Ulysses and Neoptolemus Taking Hercules’ Arrows from Philoctetes (François-Xavier Fabre, 1800 Oil on Canvas)

For some reason, Philoctetes remained a favorite subject of painters for a long time.  Something about the beautiful warrior’s agony, and the dramatic wound (to say nothing of the divinely sent snake which alternately came from Apollo, Hera, or the nymph Chryse) has kept artists from different eras returning to the story—even if the poetry, plays, and epics which truly explain the drama have vanished.

A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color.  The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna.  But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color?  A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog.  According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph.  While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct.  Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family.   Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite.  To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment.  Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used.  In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators.  By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century.  The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Tyrian Purple

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, with the sign of Cancer (by Baldassare Peruzzi, 1481-1536)

According to myth, the Lernaean hydra was a nine headed chthonic water monster which guarded the entrance to the underworld which lay beneath the waters of Lake Lerna.  The creature was so profoundly poisonous that even its footprints were toxic–to say nothing of its blood, bite, and breath.  When one of the hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would sprout in its place.  The hydra did have a weakness of sorts—only one of its heads was immortal.

Hercules’ second labor was to kill this fearsome monster.  After the trouble the Nemean Lion had given the hero, Hercules adhered more closely to the Boy Scout motto before facing the hydra: he prepared thoroughly for the confrontation by covering his face and eyes against the monster’s poison. He donned his impervious lionskin and took with him his club, a golden sickle-sword given to him by Athena, and, most importantly, an ally–his nephew (and lover), Iolaus.

Attic Black Figure on White Ground from Funeral Lekythos (Attributed to the Diosphos Painter, ca 500 - 480 BC)

But for all of his physical preparations, Hercules attacked the monster with a characteristic lack of tactics.  First he fired flaming arrows into the hydra’s favorite lair, the unquenchable well of Amymone until the creature emerged. Then Hercules started lopping off heads and bashing away with his club.  Soon a veritable forest of poisonous serpentine monster heads was striking at him, and all seemed lost until Athena stole up beside Iolaus and gifted him with a flaming brand and the idea of cauterizing each neck before new heads could sprout.  With the combined efforts of Iolaus, the ever-victorious goddess Athena, brute strength, the golden sickle-sword, and good ol’ fire, Hercules gradually cut and cauterized his way through the beast.  But, the Hydra was not lacking for allies either:  Hera sent a great crab to reinforce the wounded creature.  Using superhuman strength Hercules crushed the crab with a mighty foot and at last faced only the Hydra’s immortal head.  With one mighty slice he finished decapitating the monster and he placed the still living head beneath an immense rock on the sacred roadway between Lerna and Elaius.  Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood so that they would be lethal to all mortal  things –a cruel stroke of genius which was to ultimately prove his downfall.  Hera placed her defeated hydra and crab in the night sky.

Of all of Echidna’s offspring, the hydra seems to have the most resonance with contemporary artists.  Painters, sculptors, and draftspeople are attracted to a theme which so elegantly exemplifies the hopelessness of struggling against a multi-headed entity capable of renewing itself exponentially.  The hydra is emblematic of viruses, invasive animals, crabgrass, terrorists, crooked politicians, and corporations.  Such a contest clearly presents the fundamental nature of individual striving.  Hercules’ victory thus resounds as the ultimate triumph of the individual over the many…except…well, he had Iolaus, a magic weapon, magic armor, and the goddess Athena (as well as a sanction from his omnipotent father).  In fact, his great accomplishment was deemed unacceptable as a “labor” because he utilized so much help.

I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that even great Hercules needed a support team.  In the mean time, enjoy this crazy gallery of amazing contemporary artworks depicting the hydra:

Hydra (Sculpture by Elford Bradley Cox)

A performance art troop, Fluid Movement, presents "The Dance of the Hydra"

Figure 24.3: Hydra (by Richard Oden)Hydra (Installation piece made from muslin and transistor radios by Kelley Bell, 2002)

Hydra 1 (ironwood sculpture by Cody Powell & Ben Carpenter)

A hydra drawn on a styrofoam cup with marker by Cheeming Boey aka Boy Obsolete

Hydra (painting by Travis Lampe for "Beasts 2)

The Hydra of Madison Avenue, (by Todd Schorr, 2001): a vivid nightmare of corporate mascots run amok

Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.

Allow me to backtrack…

The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.

Der gefesselte Prometheus (Jacob Jordaens, circa 1640)

Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).

Prometheus Being Rescued by Hercules (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1912)

Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.

The Constellation Aquila

Hercules Strangling the Nemean lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639, Fogg Art Museum)

Classical mythology ascribes no particular order of birth to the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.  I’m going to just jump in and start big with the Nemean Lion. This immense mythical lion possessed an invulnerable hide and claws sharp enough to cut through any substance. He seemed happiest when terrorizing the hills around Nemea, a lovely village in Corinth.

At the same time, elsewhere, the greatest of classical heroes, Heracles was living contentedly with his wife Megara and their children.  Alas, it was not to be: Hera, the ever-envious queen of the gods, afflicted Heracles with madness and, in benighted fury, the strongman dashed his wife and children to death.  Awaking from his lunacy, Heracles desperately petitioned the gods for help.  His half-brother, the god Apollo intervened and sent Heracles to perform penance by serving the weak and venal King Eurystheus of Mycenae.  Afraid for his throne and person, Eurystheus chose a task he was sure Heracles would not return from and set the hero out to kill the Nemean Lion.

Hercules and the Nemean Lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1615, private collection, Brussels)

Heracles was unable to pierce the lion’s skin with his great bow, but he trapped the beast in a cave, stunned it with his club and strangled it with brute force.  Thus did Heracles accomplish the first of his twelve labors and he wore the lion’s impenetrable hide thereafter (somewhat pathetically, he was at first unable to skin the beast with his knives or swords, and he made no headway until Athena reminded him that the lion’s claws could cut through anything). Above is my favorite painting of the fight, by Peter Paul Ruben. In addition to liking big robust figures, Rubens had a zest for hunting.  In Rubens’ painting, Heracles has apparently killed a leopard bystander in order to warm up for the great lion. 

I always rather pitied the Nemean Lion, who seemed like a victim of circumstance more than anyone else in the story (except for Megara and her children and maybe the leopard up there in the Rubens’ painting).  Apparently others have felt the same way, because the lion takes an important position in the summer sky whereas Heracles is rather hard to find.

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