Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Lost in Thrace

The inevitable negatives of research include late nights and early mornings, trying to catch up with the ‘must-read’ list. Heaven only knows what it must be like for a modern undergraduate, fresh out of school and away from watchful parents. It’s hard enough for this less-than-modern doctoral researcher pursuing night lucubrations and attempting to weather the troughs of life, the interruptions and claims on her time.  
  O, the guilt, if you’re not reading / writing / thinking (I do a lot of that last one!) I do a lot of sleeping, too. Why does research sap your physical resources, when it’s only supposed to tax your mind? However, laid low by a virus of late, I haven’t been reading much. Like the Olympics, these afflictions come around every four years, usually in autumn, and take ca. a week or so to depart. Meantime, I feel soggily sorry for myself and only want chicken soup and sympathy. 
  (You know how, when you’re feeling off-colour, your cat is supposed to cuddle you for a change, and adopt a sensitive caring attitude to the owner’s miseries? Well, I’m not sure the resident feline here has read that clause of the contract. Even while it measured its length with me on the sofa, or curled up on the duvet, normal service was expected from the Personal Chef and Groomer. ...)
  Adding insult to injury, Edinburgh city council’s parking services (based in Sheffield, apparently) sent a penalty demand notice: my Fiat’s nearside wheels strayed into an unsigned bus lane ~ £60. If you dare to appeal, it automatically increases to £90 ...  
  Can you believe such people exist? There’s a word for them, απόβρασμα, but it’s not ladylike.

I am perpetually irritated by my inability to remember brilliant thoughts and ideas
Proof! Ancient Greeks had laptops.
experienced on the edge of sleep.  I mutter and repeat something to myself, believing I will recall it in the morning when I sit down at this machine ~ but I never do. Notebooks don’t work for me, nor did keeping a voice recorder beside the bed. Neither of those aides-mémoire made any sense next day. Nothing short of climbing out of a comfortable duvet and trekking to the study to switch on the Electronic Beast will conserve that somnolent insight.  As if!  ‘Besides,’ says she, peering at the digital clock, ‘it’s the middle of the night!’
  Mebbe random thoughts are something to do with the wanderings of a semi-unconscious mind as it shuts itself down. The day’s reading / writing / research swirls around, trying to cache its items, and chance connections are made.

In the outer world, updates from the FCO regarding travel to Turkey are now almost daily.  The electronic tickets have arrived, and the flight to Izmir lands at an ungodly hour of the morning, but I’m wondering if – yet again – Troy is off the agenda. ... 
   Turkish authorities have confirmed at least 35 people died last week in violent protests in a number of cities across the country.  The demonstrations were in response to the situation in Kobane/Tal-al-Abyad (Syria).  There have been clashes between protesters and police in Istanbul, including around Taksim Square and on the waterfront area in central Izmir.  Tear gas and water cannon were used to disperse protests.
  There is a high terrorism threat in Turkey and active ideological groups throughout the country. These include domestic religious extremists, and international groups involved in the Syrian conflict.  Attacks could be indiscriminate and could affect places visited by foreigners.  Were warned to remain vigilant and avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place but, so far, nothing’s been issued by the FCO to say they advise against all travel, and its a big country.  We will be in the north most of the time.  

In the inner world, Orpheus is – and is not – progressing. Weary of re-writing / revising pieces again and again, I launched the penultimate chapter for a ‘freshen up’ exercise. The endless revisions are losing the distinctive voice, becoming anodyne and – let’s face it – rather boring. Something new was needed to placate the frustrated writer who’s always trying to break out of academic Colditz.  Writing is an art, not a science, and one of the important aspects is its impact. Anyone can string words together, but – ah! Which words, which phrases?  How best to convey, with the lightest possible touch, the complex ideas one is attempting to shape out of thin air?
  I can still see the outline of the ‘thing.’ I’m aware the numerical order and headings of my initial draft chapters will all be swapped around and re-assigned, entailing a lot of re-writing, but only once I have the whole shooting match together in one place.

According to his history-legend-myth, Orpheus was born in Thrace, north of Greece. At that time it was a wolf-haunted wilderness of local kings, warring tribes and nomads; an area of ancient fable, folklore and practices.
  The Rhodope mountain range, now part of Bulgaria, is still largely forested with pines and dark ilex woods indented with gorges. The lowlands feature stony river beds which can become raging floods in the winter rains. Winds blow hard across this landscape. Ancient Thracians would stand their herd mares with heads held downwind, in order that, as they believed, Zephyrus might put them in foal. (Zephyrus, the west wind, was said to live in a cave in Thrace.)
  As an archaeological friend puts it**, ‘it required appreciable knowledge to move through the mountains, and although local guides would have provided the means, familiarity with the landscape was necessary to traverse the countryside effectively.’ That was the Iron Age, but even today there are not that many reliable guide books. (I’m already thinking about going there ~ and especially if some generous research authority is prepared to grant academic travel funds ...)
Thracian dialects evidence earlier ancestries, ways of life buried in origins impossibly distant, before Herodotus and recorded time.  But how far distant?  Don’t quote me on this – there’s a lot of excavatory reading to be done! – but my current surmise is the Thracians of Orpheus’s reputed era stem from the margins of history – Hellenic invaders who filtered down into Greece before the Dorians wandered into the Balkans, Macedonia and Thrace, later penetrating as far as the Peloponnese. Not a few Bulgarian archaeological sites appear to confirm this.
  We don’t know what the Thracians called themselves – the label was bestowed on them by the Greeks. The immigrants were a northern people, characterised by fair hair and blue eyes, who contrasted with the olive complexions and dark hair of easterners from Asia Minor.
  What did the ancient world know of the Thracians?  Many Classical students would volunteer the thrax or thraex of Roman amphitheatre games, but there was more to archaic Thrace than gladiatorial slaves.  From its forests came trees to build Themistokles’ triremes, Athens’ ‘wooden walls’ in the war with Sparta.  
  Ancient legacies survived.  Until relatively recent times Charon was the spirit of death in northern Greece; at a funeral no one looked back over their shoulder for fear of becoming his victim – just as in the archaic era Hekate or an Erinys could lurk around a burial site.  Serpents brought luck – a milk-fed snake could be the daemon of an ancient Greek dwelling house – and, like Orpheus, Thracian shepherds in the past were reputed to understand the language of animals and birds.    
  Thrace and its peoples hailed from earlier aeons, before the relative civilisation of the Fifth century BC. The Thracians antedate the Greek poleis by several millennia.  And so does the figure of Orpheus.

Credits: sleeper, Google images; Douris painter, man with wax tablet, ca. 500BC, Berlin; FCO info.,; Thrace,; **extract, DRJC, Leics: PhD thesis 2009:108; Thracian horses, 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Mandates, muddles and myths

So, the Day of Judgement duly arrived, and Scotland’s people flocked to the polls. When I switched on the TV before breakfast on the Friday morning, it was at the instant of the declaration – the ‘No’ camp had won.
  Against all the odds, the polls, pundits and predictions, the gap was 10% ~ a bigger margin than forecast.
  The sheer shock and relief experienced had an impact. I sank onto the sofa and couldn’t see for tears. Two and a half years of stress, the depression, the misery ...
  The rest of the day was curiously quiet ~ no one about, apart from tired dog-walkers in a village as subdued as it is on New Year’s Day.
  Salmond’s resignation wasn’t a surprise.  I’m sure I blogged some time ago this would be the upshot, win or lose.  I almost feel sorry for him.  Don’t forget, 45% of the voting populace wanted independence. But Scotland will never be the same again. No doubt the bitterness will re-surface.
  One correspondent from the Scotsman blames the pensioners. She’ll be a disappointed ‘Yes’?  It wasn’t just the grey vote, y’know. The silent majority kept its counsel and duly made its crosses.
  Now it’s up to the politicians ~ not a trusty breed. Funnily enough, the re-emergence of former PM, Gordon Brown, was a real surprise.  I’ve never heard him speak so well.
  ’Nuff said. In politics, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The village returned to its autumnal diversions: a local ploughing match was held. We’re a rustic outpost which tries to keep former days alive. In our time it is tractors, although a few heavy horses were in evidence as well.  
  No doubt modern farm machinery, guided by satellites and computers, contributes to straight rigs, furrows and geometric patterns.  I don’t recall my ancestors’ efforts being anything like so tidy. 

Country living has its downsides. On 21 September a crucial joint in the kitchen pipework went ~ waste water gleefully flowing down between the units and the outside wall.  Crisis! Have you ever tried to get hold of an emergency plumber in a rural location – on a Sunday?

So, UK’s bent on helping out in the conflict against ISIS. I suspected this was on the cards some time ago.  One night, ca. 9.30pm, Tornado jets were racing alongside the hillfoots hereabouts, flying very low. #2 daughter saw their burnt fuel fire streams disappearing along the hills. The RAF executed these practice night sorties ahead of Bosnia, Afghanistan etc., so I figured something was afoot.
  There’s a ‘gap’ right across Scotland; the slit of the Forth/Clyde valley and the Great Glen. The jets can scream overhead at top speed, out to sea on the opposite coast and bank up over the Western Isles without frightening too many people.  Just a lot of sheep.
  May not be ‘boots on the ground,’ but bombs and fighters are different.  Or are they?
  I didn’t mention it here because ~ well, you don’t want to be accused of giving info to hostile forces, do you?  However anti-war you happen to be.  The Internet’s an international space.
  I trust this isn’t going to be ‘Cameron’s war,’ to follow on from ‘Thatcher’s war,’ and ‘Blair’s war’ ...

Orpheus is being awkward. It’s not the shallow self-absorbed post-modern Orpheus of literary feminism who’s proved a distraction but That Eurydike Business (pace Robert Silverberg). Because it’s anachronistic, it is necessary to be wary in deconstructing it, or allowing it to dictate. At times ancient myths are impossibly garbled. The content of Orpheus’s ‘history’ has passed through too many hands; it illustrates the risks of an uncritical or sustained but erroneous consensus. 
  At a basic level, much of what we now think we have is owed to Victorian popularisers, like Tanglewood Tales, censored ‘Greek myths retold,’ (as a child, I liked the Dulac illustrations) or the American Boston banker and Latinist, Thos. Bulfinch, and his Mythology. Of course, Bulfinch was heavily reliant on Ovid and Vergil, but these two are examples of how easy it is to hi-jack and mangle, misconstrue or misread mythical narratives, especially in translation.  And then we have all the poetic and musical adaptations.  Aaagh!
  Our inheritance is really a sum total of appropriations, interpretations more often connected with each other rather than the world they purport to depict.  Myth is not to do with real events.  In distinguishing logoi from muthoi the ancient Greeks consigned myth to a different reality – a reality where actions, reactions and language wove, and re-wove again, poetic ‘truths’ into the warp and weft of the fabric, or logoi, of existence.   

Picture credits: Two flags, © Telegraph, Scotland; ploughing and local woods, © Saline & Steelend Trust; ‘Tanglewood Tales,’ © Google images;