The Cornucopia - Reality to Myth?
How might a myth have originated? I was pondering this question while doing my 'unauthorized' biography of Hercules (which you can find in the 'forthcoming productions' page on this website). A good example of myth versus reality is the Cornucopia, the famous 'Horn of Plenty'.
Where did this horn come from? The name is no clue, as it just means 'horn of plenty' (cornu='horn', copia = 'abundance'). When we trace the horn's origins, we find it originally belonged to Achelaous, God of the same river, which is the largest in Greece.
Achelaous, we discover, could manifest himself in three forms – a bull, a snake or a man. It is the bull form that interests us here, because Achelaous got into a punch-up with mighty Hercules, and transformed himself into a bull during the struggle. This was not the wisest option when fighting the man who, in a previous Labour, had tamed the Bull of Crete (best known as the Minotaur's daddy). Not only was Achelaous the Bull defeated, but he lost a horn in the struggle. The local river nymphs took this lost horn and turned it into the cornucopia.
That's the myth. Interestingly, the reality might not be that different. Consider the River Achelaous in pre-antiquity as it descends from the mountain to the plain. When swollen with autumn rains, the river charges like a bull from the mountains, directly and often destructively. In summer the river is a snake – winding, sinuous, and full of bends and coils as it flows across the plain.
What if someone decided to channel the force of the autumn river to a more direct path by cutting off some of those bends? (In fact given time, the river does this itself, creating what are called 'ox-bow lakes'.) Someone who so tamed the river would certainly have achieved a Herculean feat, and just as all witty sayings these days seem to be attributed to Churchill, all Herculean feats in pre-antiquity were eventually attributed to Heracles.
Of course, the land within the ox-bow would be well-watered, and thanks to the silt from earlier floods, very fertile. A horn of plenty in fact.
There are other examples – for example Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, allegedly slew a water dragon. This puzzled ancient Greeks who knew of no large bodies of water thereabouts. However, modern research shows that about the time Thebes was founded, someone drained an ancient lake on the site.
Many myths may be a sort of shorthand for actual events.
Tools of the trade
How much should a writer know about writing? Writing, like painting or composing music, is one of those oddities. A talented individual can do it naturally without any formal training at all, and still produce stunning masterpieces. Nevertheless, generally speaking, painters are better for understanding perspective, musicians for knowing their scales, and writers for understanding grammar. A craftsman should know the tools of the trade.
Shakespeare never took a creative writing class in his life, but Shakespeare was a genius who instinctively knew the rules. He also knew when he could creatively break them. However, most writers are not Shakespeare. Just as a carpenter should know the difference between a plane and a sander, a writer should know the difference - for example - between a simile and a metaphor.
This idea comes a a shock to those who feel that writing should be a seat-of-the-pants sort of thing where all that counts is 'being yourself'. Such writers are not only disinclined to follow 'rules', but are often unaware that rules exist. (Annoyingly, these writers sometimes produce best-sellers.)
I once commented on one author's work that the prosody of his text did not work for me. He emailed back with the bemused query 'WTF is prosody?' Linguists will probably howl in pain at my simplistic definition, but prosody in writing is basically how the text would feel when read aloud. This is not whether it would sound good, which is euphonics (sorry again, linguists), but whether the style matches the context.
In action scenes, choppy, short phrases work well. Lively text with an upbeat pitch fails to capture the deep introspective grief of a funeral. Judicious highlighting of a word can turn a supposedly bland sentence into discreet sarcasm. Long, languid paragraphs go naturally with hot summer afternoons. That sort of thing is prosody.
Most writers handle this stuff without thinking how they do it, and that's great when it works. However, rather than just being uneasily aware that 'it doesn't feel right' when a text doesn’t work, it's useful to have the skills to identify exactly what's wrong.
The wild east
The 'Game of Thrones' novels and the subsequent TV pot-boiler series have had a lot of well-deserved publicity lately. Yet few of the fans have ever heard of the Seleucid kings. This is a pity, because many of them had lives worthy of the George. R.R. Martin treatment, except that the truth might not be credible enough for a novel.
Consider Demetrius II Nicanor, ruler of the Seleucid empire in 145-138 BC and again 129-126 BC. When his father died in battle the young heir to the throne had to flee for his life when his brother and mother conspired to steal the crown from him. While in exile Demetrius took an Egyptian wife, and with the help of the Pharaoh reconquered his kingdom (his brother died in the process).
However, the brutality of his mercenaries caused a rebellion in Syria where the young son of Demetrius' brother was declared king. This young son died soon after in suspicious circumstances and a rebel general took over. The neighbouring Parthians decided to take advantage of the chaos and invaded, capturing Demetrius in the process.
As a Parthian captive, Demetrius was treated well. He married a Parthian princess, but nevertheless attempted to escape, once with the help of a friend who conducted a solo undercover mission through Babylonia and Parthia to reach the imprisoned king.
When Demetrius was finally freed, he re-took his kingdom. However, he was not a popular monarch and ruled with brutality once he had failed to charm his subjects. He was defeated in the subsequent rebellion, and fled to the fortress of Ptolemais where he had stashed his wife, children and treasure. His wife locked him out of the fortress, and Demetrius was captured, tortured and killed by his enemies while attempting to escape by sea.
This brief synopsis of a pretty average Seleucid monarch's life demonstrates the mixture of battles, exotic locations, diplomatic double-dealing and vicious palace intrigue that has made 'Game of Thrones' so popular. The Seleucids deserve more recognition. All they lack are dragons.
A while back I had to interrupt someone giving me a list of symptoms and explain that I was not that kind of doctor. The woman was less than impressed by a doctorate in ancient history, and remarked in a disappointed tone 'So you are not a real doctor, then?'
At that point I could have explained in detail. The term 'doctor' comes from the Latin 'docere', meaning 'to teach', or 'cause to know'. There were doctors teaching in Medieval universities when medical work was being done by the people who also trimmed beards and pulled teeth. Today, French docteurs, German doktors and Italian dottores do not have to explain that they are not involved with the medical profession, because in their languages the word has not been hijacked by physicians. (Who answer to 'médecin', 'Arzt', and 'medico' respectively.)
Generally, on the rare occasions when one has to get all formal, it's easier to avoid getting confused with the pill-slingers by putting the qualification after the name rather than the initials at the front. (But not both; it's bad form to call oneself Dr X, Ph.D – that's a sort of titular double-dipping.)
However even post-name alphabetage can cause problems in my case, because I don't have a Ph.D . I have a D.Phil. This is the older title for the same degree which Oxford and some other universities still use, but the D.Phil. is almost unknown in the Americas. So at a conference in the States almost a decade ago a kindly gentleman asked if I was going to 'continue my studies' to the Ph.D level. I explained that my university was in the habit of qualifying Doctores Philosophiae in Literae Humaniores instead, and I may have explained this with unnecessary vehemence.
Like most male academics I generally get by with 'Mr' unless needing to reassure people that I know what I'm talking about in a professional capacity. Even that can cause problems. Credit card companies and their ilk insist on these things being precise, but hotels and shops tend to simply assume the 'Mr', so then there's the bother of explaining to a sceptical individual on the end of a phone line that both of me are the same person.
In time, one learns to roll with the punches. With the woman with whom I was conversing at the start of the this post, I commented that I was indeed a 'real' doctor, but the patient would have to be dead for at least 2000 years before I could be of any use.
Spring around the Earth
Ahh... spring. That's when, in exchange for longer days and great scenery, I have to double up on my chores. It's still cold enough to have to chop firewood for the nights, but now the lawn needs mowing in the day as well. Then there's getting the kinks ironed out of the final chapters of the novel, finishing off my biography of Heracles, and getting teaching material up to date. I'm also negotiating two book contracts, and have promised some work to my colleagues over at UNRV. There may not be a lot of time left for floating around mountain lakes this summer.
It does not help that I've moved from winding my way through Aristotle's 'Politics' to fighting it out with Lucan's Latin in the 'Pharsalia'. Apart from anything else, deciphering Lucan's obscure mythological references make the thing a sort of classicist's crossword. Then something in the text needs researching further, and I zoom off on a tangent.
For example, there's a profession from antiquity I recently discovered; the pacer. Ever wondered how the Romans knew where to place their milestones? They hired a pacer, a man trained to take steps of exactly the same length. To give some idea of how well this worked, consider Eratosthenes, the man who measured the circumference of the earth. He did this by measuring the angle of the midsummer sun in Alexandria, and comparing it with shadows cast further south in Syene.
The difference in the angle represented seven degrees of curvature in the earth's surface. Therefore multiply the curvature into a full circle and do the same with the exact distance between Alexandria and Syene, and you get the actual circumference of the planet. However, to get the exact distance to Syene, someone had to pace it off, and do so accurately enough that even when the distance was extrapolated to the circumference of the planet the reading remained true.
In fact, he got the circumference of the Earth wrong by somewhere between 15% and 0.5% (depending which of the many different measurements called a 'stade' Eratosthenes actually used.) That's a tribute to the genius of Eratosthenes, but also to the skill of the man who so accurately counted out the 861,840 paces between Syene and Alexandria.