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Protesilaus is a figure from Greek mythology.  As one of the suitors of Helen of Troy, he was party to the binding alliance between Greek warrior-kings which pulled them all into the Trojan War when she was stolen by Paris.  Protesilaus was a king in Thessaly (long a rumored haunt of wild magic, and sorcery run amuck).  He brought forty ships full of warriors to the campaign…but there was a problem which nearly foundered the entire Greek effort before it even got started: a dark prophecy stated that the first Greek warrior to leave the boats would also be the first Greek warrior to die in the war.  When the war fleet reached the beaches of Troy, nobody wanted to set foot upon Trojan land and incur the prophesied doom.  So all the fearless warriors set quaking in their boats.

Finally, Protesilaus had enough of this pusillanimous behavior and he leaped to shore (even though he was newly married and had much to live for).  Sure enough, in accordance with binding laws of war narrative, he was killed by the Trojan hero Hector during the first foray of the war—and the prophecy was thus fulfilled (although it should be noted that Protesilaus killed four men before dying at the hands of the greatest Trojan hero—so he went down as a fighter).

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

When his widow Laodamia heard about this, she went mad with grief.  Since the two were newlyweds when the war broke out, their love was in its first flower and burned hot and wild. The Gods admired the bravery of Protesilaus and they took pity on his distraught widow.  For half an hour, the hero was allowed to return from the underworld to the mortal world to give a more thorough farewell to his wife. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) Protesilaus’ brief return from death—followed by a permanent return to the land of the dead–unhinged Laodamia completely.  She commissioned a beautiful lifelike sculpture of her dead husband and proceeded to treat it as though it were him.

Her father, baffled as to how to proceed in the face of these terrible happenings, decided to destroy the statue by casting it into a raging fire, but Laodamia could not be parted from her husband a third time and she leapt into the blaze and was burned away.  His traumatized subjects built a lavish tomb for him and nymphs planted elms upon it.  According to the poetry of antiquity, these trees grew to be the tallest in the world, yet when their tops were high enough to come into eyesight of Troy, the leaves died back and withered away (for the bitterness and sorrow of the dead hero remained even when he and his wife were gone).

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

In the business world it is considered terrible to be the first person to do something truly bold and new.  Business leaders pay lip-service to innovators, but, in truth, business schools teach that ideas should be tried out by others first.  Wang got nowhere, while the wily Steve Jobs took the best parts of his ideas and made an empire. There is a race to be second.  The world’s leaders know not to be brave, but to be sly and calculating.  This is prudent counsel (and has been so since before there were stories of the Trojan War), but I wonder if the world might not have more innovation and invention, if the first movers were not punished so brutally.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Boa people (AKA Baboa, Bwa, Ababua) live in the northern savannah region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, as in the past, the majority of Boa make a living by hunting, fishing, and subsistence farming. They speak a Bantu language which shares the same name(s) as their tribe. The Boa once had a reputation as fearsome warriors. When Azande spearmen from southern Sudan invaded Boa lands during the nineteenth century, the Boa successfully repelled the invasion. Subsequently, in 1903 the Boa rebelled against Belgian colonial occupation. Even though they were woefully underequipped and poorly armed, the warriors stood up to the industrialized Belgian forces for seven years. After the rebellion, extensive missionary proselytizing caused the tribe to convert to Christianity.

Boa Mask (carved wood, contemporary)

Boa Mask (carved wood, paint, contemporary)

The Boa are internationally famous for making exquisite wood carvings—particularly eerily beautiful masks and harps with human faces. Original carvings from the pre-Christian era are especially rare and precious. These works usually portray ferocious faces painted with black and white checkerboard patterns. Sadly, the ritual meaning of such masks is now unclear–presumably they were sacred to secret societies or used in the magical/religious ceremonies of warrior cults. Since the original religious cultural context is lost, we are forced to regard these masks solely as art objects—and what spectacular art they are! The mysterious black and white patterns, the feral mouths, and the delicately carved owl-like faces all point to a syncretism between humankind and the wider living world. The animistic masks symbolize not just the spiritual forces of the living animals and plants but also the forces of the night, the river, the weather, the ancestors, and the underworld. To put on such a mask would be to subsume oneself in a vast spiritual totality—to convene with vast forces beyond the purview of a single human life…maybe…or maybe they had an entirely different meaning to their makers. They are a beautiful dark enigma.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mask, Boa, Late 19th/early 20th c., wood, kaolin, and pigment, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

 

The Scythians, the wild horse-mounted warriors of the Steppes, sometimes ride onto these pages and off again, back into the billowing mists of Central Asian history.  Their name straddles myth and reality: the Scyths were there at the fall of the tower of Babel.  They were the children of Echidna and Hercules. They lived in a swath of land somewhere from Romania to Korea in a swath of time from 800 BC to 300AD.  They were Europeans with pale skin and blue eyes or Asians with dark slanted eyes.  They were fighters, shamans, traders, slavers, and peerless artisans. To Greeks they were the opposite of Greeks. To the Chinese they were the opposite of Chinese.

But really who were the Scythians? Well we don’t exactly know.  We have some partial answers to some of these questions, but “Scythian” was a word that was used in classical antiquity the same way we use “Gothic” today (indeed–the last Scythians, who played such a role in the histories written by Byzantine historians from the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD were literally Goths).  The word denoted an outlander from the steppes—an ideal of living rather than an ethnicity. Upon the Steppes, in the land the Greeks called Scythia, there were indeed pastoral tribes of equestrian herdsmen (who sometimes turned to war and plunder when circumstances were unusually bad or unusually good) but since they did not write it is difficult to untangle their history.  This society was made up of confederated tribes–which tended to specialize at different tasks (herdsmen, ploughmen, smiths, etc.). However above the other tribes were the warrior elites, the royal Scyths, who according to Herodotus, regarded the other tribes as little more than slaves.  These closely allied elites were formidable warriors. Without stirrup or saddle they rode horses to battle: even while mounted bareback they fought with composite bows laminated together from horn, hood, and sinew.

They don't really look super friendly, but maybe it's just a bad likeness.

The ruling Scythian warriors, or Royal Dahae, were inhumed in spectacular kurgans along with great hordes of treasure.  Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from these archaeological finds (and the rest mostly comes from Herodotus who was probably making a lot of it up).  A kurgan consisted of a great mound of earth over a central tomb constructed of sacred larchwood.  Animal or human sacrifices were draped over the outside of the tomb.  Inside the warrior elite lay in state with hordes of treasure.  Some of the most spectacular treasures known come from Scythian graves (which definitely deserve their own posting) and consist of golden statues depicting sacred creatures like lions, antlered reindeer, and gryphons. Kurgan tombs of the Scythian warrior elite contained weapons, armour, sumptuous clothing (woven of silk, gold, and hemp) and bowls of coriander seeds and cannabis–which was used in purification rituals and shamanistic rites.

Kurgan tombs from the Altai Mountains which stretch across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China

Although the Ancient Greeks might have looked down on the Scythians, numerous modern groups have claimed to be their direct descendants.  Among the peoples who have claimed or currently claim Scythian blood and heritage are the Ossetians, Pashtuns, Jats, Parthians, Poles, Picts, Gaels, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Scots, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and sundry Germans.  Like all such ancestral claims, many of these are disputed by scholars, nationalists, rivals and so forth (although Slavic people most certainly have Scythian ties).  Being American, I am inclined to think that anybody who wants to claim a particular ethnicity or heritage is welcome to do so, but perhaps that is my mixed Scythian blood talking!

Scythian Shield emblem (end of the 7th century B.C. Northern Caucasus from the
Kostromskaia kurgan, Gold)

One of the delightful things about the hymenoptera—the wasps, bees, ants, and termites—is that many different species remain unknown to science.  There are times when it seems frustrating to live in a world where most life forms have been categorized and collected, however the fact that some of the hymenoptera make their homes in the most isolated tropical wilderness means that vividly distinctive (and hitherto unknown) bees, wasps, and ants are found from time to time. Last week an entomologist exploring the remote rainforests of Sulawesi discovered a new species of immense predatory wasps with jaws longer than its front legs. The predatory wasp is shiny black with evil gothic barbs running along its abdomen.  Although the wasp’s habits and behavior are still unknown, its size and its formidable jaws would seem to indicate that it is a predator.

Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, discovered the wasp as part of a biodiversity expedition to the remote forests of Sulawesi.  She plans to name the wasp after the Garuda, an eagle-like divine being from Hindu legend which is associated with speed and martial prowess (and with the constellation Aquila). The Garuda is admired and known in many different myths from Southeast Asia but it is particularly associated with Indonesia—and has become something of a national symbol

The Garuda

Sulawesi, the fourth largest island of Indonesia has long been an ecological treasure trove thanks to multiple isolated peninsulas (complicated geology has given the island has an unlikely shape), impassible mountains, and huge wet forests located only a few degrees from the equator.

Sulawesi

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