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Every year when the month of March rolls around, Ferrebeekeeper writes about Irish mythology. It is a dark cauldron to sip from, but the taste has proven to be all-too addictive. We have explained leprechauns (and returned to the subject to ruminate about what the little imps really portend). We have written about the sluagh–a haunted swarm of damned spirits in the sky. I have unflinchingly described the Leannán Sídhe, a beautiful woman who drains the blood of artists into a big red cauldron and takes their very souls (which should be scary—but the immortal nightmarish wraith who eats the hearts of artists and bathes in their blood is an amateur at tormenting creative people when compared with the title insurance office where I work during the day), and we have read the sad story of Oisín the bard, who lived for three gorgeous years in Tír na nÓg with the matchless Niamh…ah, but then…
Hey, speaking of Ireland and bards what is with that big harp which appears on everything Irish? Is it just…a harp? Well, I am glad you asked. There are some who say that the harp of Ireland is indeed just a harp, albeit a harp which represents the proud and ancient tradition of bardic lore passed down from the pre-Christian Celts. There are others though who claim it IS the harp of Oisín, which was lost somewhere in his sad story (set aside in a in a spring grove as he leapt onto the white horse behind Niamh maybe, or left across the sea in Tír na nÓg…or dropped from withering hands beside an ancient churchyard…or safely hidden forever in the hearts of the Irish people ). But there is an entirely different myth too.
Some people say the heraldic harp of Ireland was originally the Daghda’s harp. Daghda was a warrior demigod (or maybe just an outright god) famous for his prowess, his appetite, his thirst…and apparently also for his amazing music. His harp could enchant people to brave deeds in battle…or to sleep in accordance with the Daghda’s mood. But once, before the Battle of Moytura, his harp was stolen by Formorian warriors who hoped to thereby steal the magic confidence, esprit, and bravery which the harp gave to the Tuatha de Dannan.
Daghda was a different man without his harp, and so he searched long and wide to find the secret stronghold where the Formorians had it hung upon the wall. He managed to sneak into the castle, but before he could get away, he was discovered and the entire Formorian army advanced on him.
Ah, but the Daghda had his harp back. First he played a song so hilarious that the entire host of his enemies stopped advancing on him to howl with mirth, however, as soo as he stopped playing, they stopped laughing and made for him. Immediately Daghda started playing a song of terrible sadness, and the Formorians’ eyes filled with tears and they began to wail inconsolably. This held them a bit longer, but alas, when he stopped playing, they stopped crying. The great multitude almost had him, when he decided to play a lullaby–shades of Hermes and Argus! Daghda did not sing the formorian warriors to their death, as soon as they were properly asleep he stole off, but the trick of fighting with art and music instead of swords has stayed in the irish heart—to the extent that it had become the national seal.
The harp has changed in this story—and it has changed on the coat of arms too. Once, in the time of the Irish Kingdom it was a winsome bare-breasted woman-harp, but today it is a meticulous historical recreation of an ancient medieval Irish harp. I wonder what it will look like in the future?
One day, Marsyas saw the radiant god Apollo playing his lyre (which, in Greco-Roman society, was the instrument of the aristocracy). Lord Apollo was clad in the costliest raiment and equipped with the finest gold trappings. He was inhumanly beautiful…dangerously beautiful. Marsyas was overwhelmed: he was a crude goat-man, and Apollo was the god of music (and sunshine, and medicine, and prophecy). At this juncture, Marsyas made a fateful choice–he decided to challenge glorious Apollo to a musical contest. The winner would be able to “do whatever he wanted” with the loser. Marsyas, a satyr (synonymous, in the classical world, with lust) thus imagined that he would “win” or “be won” no matter which way the the competition worked out.
Apollo grew oddly enflamed by the challenge and agreed readily–with one stipulation of his own. The muses, the goddesesses of art, would judge the event. Now the muses were daughters of Apollo, both figuratively and literally. To a disinterested observer the arrangement might smack dangerously of favoritism, but Marsyas was blinded by longing and besotted by hist art.
The two musicians set up beside a river and began to play. Apollo played a complicated piece about laws and lords and kings. It sparkled like sunshine. It grew oppressively magnificent like the great gods of high Olympus. It ended like glittering starlight in the cold heavens. Next Marsyas played and his music was completely different–it spoke to the longing of the weary herdsman coming home at sundown. It was about the mist rising from furrowed farmlands, about fruit trees budding in the orchard, and about the soft places where the meadows run out into the rivers.
The muses listened closely to the music and made their choice. “These pieces are played by opposite beings on dissimilar instruments. The works have completely different subjects, but both pieces are perfect. Neither is clearly “better” than the other.” Sublime music had won the contest!
But Apollo was not satisfied. There are two versions of the story: in one he turned his lyre upside down and played it as well as ever (Marsyas, of course, could not do the same with the aulos). In the other version, Apollo played the lyre and sang (also impossible with the aulos). “I have two arts, whereas Marsyas has only one!” he proclaimed. The muses halfheartedly assented: Apollo had officially won the contest.
This was the moment Marsyas had planned for. He was shaking with excitement as Apollo took hold of his unresisting form and shackled him to a tree. Then Apollo picked up a skinning knife and started flaying the saty’s skin off. Marsyas screamed and bleated in horror and pain, but Apollo kept cutting and peeling until he had removed the satyr’s entire hide. Then the lord of music sat and watched while Marsyas bled to death, before hanging up the horrible dripping pelt in the tree and departing. Vergil avers that the blood of Marsyas stained the river everlastingly red–indeed the waterway was thereafter named the Marsyas.
Apollo and Marsyas (Bartolomeo Manfredi, ca. 1615-1620, oil on canvas)
The artistic thing to do, would be to leave the story as it stands–to let readers mull the troubling tale on their own. However I have been thinking about it a great deal…Every artist thinks about it a great deal. Museums are filled with interpretations of the story by history’s greatest painters and sculptors. There was a version of Apollo and Marsyas painted on the ceiling of the Queen of France (in that version, the skinning is done by underlings as Apollo languidly points out how he wants things done). Since I have seen plenty of museum-goers blanch when looking at pictures of Marsyas and hastily turn away, I will provide some ready made meta-interpretations to start the conversation.
First, this story is a tale of masters and servants. The lyre is the instrument of the rich. It was expensive to own and required tutors to learn. The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, smallfolk, and slaves. The tale of exploitation is a very familiar one throughout all of history. It always goes one way: somebody gets fleeced.
Also this is self-evidently a tale of forbidden sexuality. It was immensely popular with Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian artists from the west because of the opressive mores of society. By presenting this story as a classically varsnished picture, people could represent forbidden ideas about same-gender relationships which society would literally kill them for saying or acting upon. Indeed the story’s ghastly climax represents exactly that!
In a related vein, philosophers and writers interpret the story as “reason chastening lust.” The former is more powerful than the latter: ultimately the mind subjugates the passions. Perhaps this is why the picture was above the queen’s bed–maybe the king commanded that it be painted there. Yet the reason of Apollo does not strike me as at all reasonable. If this is what rationality accomplishes, then reason is monstrous (and it often seems so in the affairs of men). I wish I could sit with Jeremy Bentham and talk about this. Utility and pragmatism oft seem as ruthless as cruel Apollo.
It is also a tale of artists and their audiences (and their art). Marsyas does not clearly lose the contest. His music is as beautiful as that of Apollo–maybe better. However the game was rigged from the start. Art is a mountain with infinite facets but the sun of fashion only shines on a few at a time. The greatest artists are not necessarily appreciated or loved. I can’t imagine a single artist who painted this story imagined themselves as Apollo. Unless you have personally rigged the game with money and power, it will not benefit you. You must prepare for operatic destruction at the hands of the world. It is a terrible part of art. The world’s inability to discern true worth is one of life’s most disappointing aspects.
Above all, it is a story of gods and mortals. For daring to step on the field with the divine, mortality is punished with the ultimate penalty–mortality. I don’t believe in gods or divinity (people who literally believe in such things strike me as dangerous lunatics). Divinity is a myth–but an important one which informs us concerning humankind’s ultimate purpose and methods. We have strayed into vasty realms. I’ll come back to this theme later but for now let’s say that the defeat of Marsyas reveals something. Would you prefer if he just gave up and groveled before Apollo? No, there would be no story, no striving, no art. There is a divine seed within his failure–a spark of the celestial fire which animates (or should animate) our lives.
Anyway, for putting up with this rather horrible week I have a Halloween treat for you tomorrow. Remember, I am not just a moral and aesthetic philosopher but a troubled toymaker (and a lost artist) as well. Happy Halloween!
Orpheus was a Thracian…and a mortal. His mother was Calliope, Muse of heroic poetry. Different versions of his story differ as to whether his father was a Thracian king or Morpheus, god of dreams. Thanks to the tutelage of his parents, or perhaps because of his own astonishing gifts, Orpheus could play music more beautifully than words can express. Wherever he went, people would fall under the spell of the golden notes flowing from his lyre and the unbridled beauty of his divine voice. Animals were transfixed by his music and even trees would lean in closer to hear his songs. Because of the power of his art, Orpheus had a pleasant life which was largely free of care. He grew up doted upon by his mother and his many gifted aunts. He met a beautiful woman, Eurydice and the two fell deeply in love. Their pastoral wedding was an event of unbridled happiness and Orpheus, beside himself with delight, played the most joyous music the world had yet known.
In merry abandon, the bride danced bare-footed in a meadow and there she stepped on a snake which reared up and stung her. Eurydice sank to the ground and the guests, not seeing what had transpired, laughed at her intoxication, but Eurydice did not rise. She was dead. Her spirit had fled away.
Then Orpheus went mad with grief. He wandered off from his home and trod the gray world as an outcast ever seeking an entrance to the land of the dead. Finally at the dim edge of the earth he found the entrance to the underworld—the realm where the spirit of his beloved wife was imprisoned. Summoning all of his passion and all of his talent, he began to sing and play his lyre as he walked into the kingdom of Hades.
The breath of life and hope was in the music of Orpheus and, for a shining moment, the denizens of the underworld forgot their pain and sorrow. Cerberus lay down on his back and frolicked. Each flickering spirit recalled the warmth and love of living. Tantalus was not tortured by his eternal thirst and the Erinyes, stunned by unknown emotions, set aside their scourges and spiked whips. The damned knew a moment of blessed respite in their endless torment as Orpheus passed. Persephone’s haunted garden of poplars and willows burst into bloom as though spring had at last come, and the queen of hell herself wept silent tears.
Even Hades, god of death and the world beyond, was moved by the music of Orpheus. After listening to the remainder of the song and hearing the musician’s desperate entreaties, the dark god agreed to let Eurydice return from death to the land of the living, but with one condition: Orpheus must not look backward until after he left the underworld. Eurydice would follow him silently. Only in the sunlight of life could they properly be reunited.
Tormented by doubt, Orpheus made his laborious way back upwards. Without his music, the underworld again became dreadful and strange. In the Stygian gloom, fear gnawed at him. He worried that the lord of the dead had tricked him and nobody walked behind him. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime of fear and darkness he spied the sunlight, and then, suddenly he could bear the overwhelming doubt no longer. As though unconsciously, he turned to see if Eurydice was behind him. For a moment he saw her ghostly beautiful face, and then she was gone, her spirit dragged back to the underworld. All that was left was her final whisper, “I love you.”
The world held no joy for Orpheus. Inconsolable he sat down beside a river in the wilderness with nothing left but his music, and that had turned impossibly sad. All he could do was play dirges of surpassing melancholy. Beasts, men, plants, insects, even stones were overcome by tears.
The heavens themselves wept at the laments he sang. Then a tribe of wild maenads came down from the hills. The inebriated women were frenzied by wine and orgies. They beat tumbrels and screamed in drunken ecstasy. Their shrieks of delight and delirium drowned out the dolorous music of Orpheus. His sadness had no place in their revels, and he likewise wanted no part of their besotted celebration. Offended by his demurral, the Bacchantes ripped him to bloody pieces and cast his head into the river. Still singing a lament, the severed head drifted out to the sea.
So goes the story of Orpheus, which everyone knows. He is one of a long list of heroes, mystics, and even gods who braved the underworld in order to attain a boon or complete a quest. Stories of the descent to the realm of death date back to the very beginning of writing (and presumably to fathomless prehistory before that). The tale of Innana’s descent to the realm of death is one of the first known written things of any sort. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Dionysus, Psyche, Hercules, Pirithous, Odin, Baldr, Lemminkäinen, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, Obatala, Arthur, Emperor Taizong of Tang, even Jesus Christ…all had to descend to death and go down questing into darkness. Only some came back again with the secrets of destiny and eternity.
It is the oldest story because it speaks most directly to us. We are all mortal. Alas, there are no magic herbs, secret songs, or forbidden elixirs (or cryogenic procedures) which can halt our inevitable death. Oblivion awaits all humans. Only imaginary folks like deities or made-up heroes can die and come back. Only art can surmount death.
I have told the story of Orpheus because Orpheus is the avatar of art. His music stands in for all human imagination and creativity. His katabasis story is sadder and deeper than the tale of simpler heroes like Hercules (who used divine strength to go down and come back) or Tammuz who was killed but came back to life because he was really a god. The myth of Orpheus is an allegory of the creative arts: it is the mythmaker’s myth about mythology. Even in the story, Orpheus was a mortal and his quest was a glorious failure. He had power over all beings only because of the verisimilitude of his music. He made it to hell and back with the emotional strength of his craft but ultimately failed to regain his love.
This is the story of art—a failure, a singing ghost which has no power to truly change anything. Art only makes us feel–it does not give us things. Look at Chardin’s peaches and bread rolls as long as you like. You will never taste them. The glowing nude goddess wrought in tempera will never embrace you. And yet, and yet, art provides us a reason to go on…an emotional catharsis which contextualizes the multi-generational struggles which make up the true tale of humankind.
There is no underworld. It is all made up. There are no deities there (or probably anywhere). Look around you at the room where you sit reading a computer screen—you are as close to the numinous as you are likely to get. But these ancient symbols of death and transcendence still hold profound meaning for us. We have the ability to imagine things–tales of what never was and never can be. Over the long generations as our skills at science and engineering grow, it is still our creativity which endows life with meaning. The imagination lends its transfigurative magic to the more concrete disciplines and drives us all forward, even though individually we might perish in the wilderness (torn apart, like Orpheus, by our own demons and tragedies).
Though all paths through the world lead to one place, do not despair. The singing lyre of Orpheus leads us again back to the light…to the pains and the hopes of life.
Happy Birthday to Sir Frederick William Herschel. who was born on November 15th 1738! Ferrebeekeeper has touched on Herschel’s scientific and musical accomplishments and we have also explored his convictions concerning extraterrestrial life, but have what have we done lately to commemorate the long deceased astronomer and his contributions to human knowledge?
That’s why we’re observing the great man’s birthday by listing a few of Herschel’s additional accomplishments (which didn’t fit in the prior, overlong post) and by making some brief comments concerning multi-disciplinary polymaths–who are rapidly disappearing in a world of myopic specialists. Perhaps this will in some way suffice to memorialize this personal hero.
Although Sir William is principally known as an astronomer, he regarded himself as a well-rounded man of science and studied many other disciplines both in and out of the sciences. Indeed one of his more remarkable discoveries–that non-visible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation exist–is really a physics discovery rather than an astronomy discovery (although the disciplines are allied). However Sir William also worked in the natural sciences, and is credited with an important biological discovery. Prior to his time, coral was regarded as a plant. Sir William got out his microscope and made some direct observations of coral cells. He concluded that since coral cells had the same thin membranes as animal cells, the organism was an animal. Such is of course the case and today’s aquarium docents patiently explain to first-graders that corals and siphonophorae are actually creatures (although they, cnidarians, lack central nervous systems and can’t even enjoy basic sensations, much less book-of-the-month). Sir William was an ideal renaissance man whose intellect and creativity allowed him insights into many different fields–which segues us to contemplating the scientific community of the present.
Contrary to what we might expect, today Sir William would probably find no place in the professional sciences (astronomy, physics, biology, or otherwise). For in the sciences, as in other realms of academia, the gownless are vehemently cast out. Someone who spent so much time practicing oboe and composing symphonies would never be able to get through the mountain of information necessary for an unfortunately named BS degree (to say nothing about attaining the doctorate so necessary to research and publish).
Of course it’s admirable that we train our scientists at such immense length in specialized accredited schools. And it’s also necessary! Any freshman scientist has his head swimming with a gigantic amount of information because science itself has grown. Each branch of science is broader and wider and deeper (and other dimensions that non-scientists have no names for) every year. Only people who have tremendous self-discipline and an advanced knowledge of where they want to go in life (no to mention substantial smarts) can travel such a path, and even these paragons can only choose one path each.
Men like Herschel traveled the frontiers of science the way that men like Jim Bowie traveled the frontiers. They are legends who opened up new realms–but we might not have any place for either one today (or more likely they would both be anonymous consultants battling the Washington beltway to their midlevel office jobs).
I mention all of this because I love and revere science but, despite trying to keep up, I am increasingly baffled. Scientists express their dismay at the laughable opinions of the layperson, but science stands in danger of becoming a mystery cult assessable only to the ridiculously highly educated. I don’t have any solutions or suggestions about this. Unlike some fields of endeavor I could name, science is not complicated because of politics or insidious Wall Street insiders. It’s complicated because it’s complicated. Only continuous studying and striving can allow scientists to push back the boundaries of human understanding (even as the rest of us connive to sell insurance and plastic junk to each other). That seemingly precludes brilliant crossovers. Strange visionary outsiders like Herschel no longer contribute their insights and talents, which is a great pity.
I’m sorry I strayed into personal opinion there. Perhaps some actual scientists can set me straight concerning interdisciplinary methodology within their fields. In the mean time have some birthday cake and join me in waiting for the next polymath to give us a brilliant discovery which opens up the universe to the rest of us.