A thought occasioned by the anniversaries of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horror of which it is in no way designed to qualify. But there was a context, and my father happened to be part of it.
He was in Kiel, northern Germany, in the summer of 1945, having fought through Europe since D-Day. A senior officer of the regiment was visiting, and he and his fellow Royal Marines had been gathered together to be addressed by him.
“Any of you chaps know where the Sea of Okhotsk is?” he asked. My dad, the perpetual swotty schoolboy (there’s a reason I’m an academic, and he was only 24), stuck his hand up and answered the question.
The next thing that occurred to him was why the general was asking it.
The last time I gave much thought to St George, I think, was in Afghanistan. I was researching Bamiyan, and visited a valley, Darre-ye Azhdaha, a few miles to the west of Bamiyan town. At its mouth there is now a housing development for refugees returned from Iran; but if you follow the narrow, steep-sided valley further up, it’s blocked by a high volcanic ridge associated with some interesting folklore.
According to tradition, the ridge is a dragon (azhdaha) slain by Hazrat-e Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, and a figure of special importance to the predominantly Shi’i population of Bamiyan. A crevice running along the top of the ridge was made by the sweep of Ali’s sword, reddish mineral deposits around it are the dragon’s blood, the sound of subterranean water the dying creature’s groans, and the milky mineral waters that flow out from the end of the ridge its penitential tears.
This dragon, the story goes, was terrorizing Bamiyan, extorting food from the townspeople—600lb of food, two camels, and one girl per day, according to a version collected by the archaeologists Ahmad Ali Kohzad and Ria Hackin in the 1930s. Eventually salvation arrived in the form of Ali ibn Abi Talib, riding his horse Doldol and brandishing his sword Zulfiqar. Ali slew the dragon, rescued the girl, and converted the hitherto pagan people of Bamiyan to Islam, so impressed were they by his self-evidently divinely-sanctioned success.
A similar story is to be found attached to many rock formations across Afghanistan, in fact. My immediate reaction when I heard it was of course to be struck by its remarkable similarity to the tales told of St George, who also killed a dragon, rescued a girl, and converted the people, though in his case to Christianity. I wasn’t apparently the first to make the connection: British officers in the First Afghan War in 1840 were disconcerted to hear stories they associated with their national saint told of features of the landscape around Kabul.
But how do we explain more or less identical folk stories in Afghanistan and in England?
The myth of the dragon fighter is as ancient as can be, already well established in the earliest Persian and Indians texts we possess, and with parallels also in Greco-Roman myth and other ancient middle-eastern cultures. How to Kill a Dragon is the title of a book by Calvert Watkins in which he attempts to identify echoes of the poetic language of the original Indo-Europeans: it was evidently a story that was already being told, in some form, when the Indo-European ancestors were in their homeland on the steppe.
To explain the similarity of St George and Hazrat-e Ali, though, we probably don’t have to peer quite so far back in time. The dragon slayer was a particularly important image for the Sasanians, the pre-Islamic rulers of Iran. What the story of the dragon slayer has always essentially been about is the triumph of order and civilization over the forces of chaos. A key element of the story was often the securing of water, the essential commodity for agriculture, essential in turn for settled and civilized existence. In St George folklore water is often being hoarded by the dragon until released by the hero, and this is a common feature also of the story told in the East: in the Rigveda the divine hero Indra made the world when he slew the dragon and “let loose to flow the Seven Rivers,” for example, while the two ancient Iranian festivals of Nowruz and Mehragan were both associated with stories of dragon slaying that restored and maintained fertility. (Water flows through and out of the Azhdaha at Bamiyan, too.) But in pre-Islamic Iran the popularity of stories of dragon slayers, whether Garshasp or Feridun or many others, also reflected more profound doctrines of the Sasanian state religion, Zoroastrianism, which understood world history as a perpetual battle between sharply defined realms of Good and Evil: the story of hero destroying monster encapsulated that perennial duel.
(On all of this the article “Azdaha” in the wonderful online Encyclopaedia Iranica is extremely interesting.)
When Zoroastrianism was superseded by Islam, the thinking goes, the folklore persisted, only with Ali taking the role of the Persian hero, and the dragon assuming an Islamic rather than Zoroastrian religious significance.
Meanwhile, far to the west, St George was very much a product of Middle-Eastern Christianity. Jewish and Christian imagery and doctrine had long borrowed from their Zoroastrian neighbours, but the specific story of St George’s conquest of the dragon is quite a late development, first attested in the eleventh century AD. It seems to have enjoyed a particular popularity in Georgia and the Caucasus—territories that lay on the borders of the Iranian world and were profoundly influenced by Persian traditions of art and thought (cf. Sara Kuehn in her detailed study The Dragon in East Christian and Islamic Art).
So when Hazrat-e Ali in Bamiyan reminded me of St George, killing the dragon, rescuing the girl and converting the kingdom, what I may well have been seeing was the same essentially Persian myth, an expression of the Zoroastrian conflict between Light and Dark so powerfully definitive that it survived the eclipse of Zoroastrianism, and fed into both Islamic and Christian folklore at opposite edges of the Iranian plateau.
It’s still a fair distance from the Caucasus to England. But St George’s transformation into England’s patron saint was apparently an indirect consequence of the Crusades. The warrior saint’s tomb and cult centre was at Lydda in the Holy Land, and the town, known as St George by the Crusaders, remained under Christian control for most of the following two centuries. This brought him a growing following in Western Europe, and he slowly rose to prominence in England, although it was not until Edward III established the Order of the Garter in 1348, with St George as its patron and St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle as its home, that the association of “England and St George” was fixed for good.
Back in Bamiyan, that geothermal dragon has in the past received a lot of attention from archaeologists trying to reconstruct the Buddhist history of the valley. One popular theory was that this roughly 1,000-foot long geological formation was the very same as the fabled 1,000-foot “Parinirvana” Buddha (the Buddha lying on his deathbed, at the point of achieving ultimate release) mentioned by our best witness to Bamiyan in its Buddhist period, the seventh-century Chinese monk and traveller Xuanzang. It’s a tempting idea, but also unlikely: as a rule Xuanzang is impressively accurate in his topographical detail, and he locates the 1,000-foot Buddha a couple of miles to the east of Bamiyan, not five miles to the west. As for the gigantic size of the Buddha he saw, it’s probably nothing more dramatic than a corruption that has crept into the text of Xuanzang’s account.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Azhdaha wasn’t also a cult site when Bamiyan was Buddhist. So deep were the roots of this myth that when Buddhism came to what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan even the peaceable Buddha turned into a dragon fighter. Later in his journey Xuanzang visits Udyana (Swat), and recounts how a dragon had prevented the water of the river Swat reaching the crops of the valley people until the Buddha split the mountain with his diamond mace, the Vajra, cowed the dragon, and released the waters. It’s not impossible that a similar story was once told of the Dragon Valley in Bamiyan.
So are Hazrat-e Ali and St George so similar because they’re both really Feridun? I can’t personally think of a better explanation of such a striking coincidence. And while it’s easy to be disheartened by the way the tribes and religions of our world all line up behind their separate banners and champions, it’s perhaps quite heartening to ponder that those various competing heroes may all, basically, be one and the same
annuus exactis completur mensibus orbis
the cycle of the year, with the conclusion of the months, is completed
Virgil, Aeneid 5.46: Aeneas, in Sicily, is informing his men that he will stage games in honour of his dead father Anchises, and that exactly a year has passed since his father’s death, also in Sicily. That year has been taken up by the action described in Books 1 and 4, the Trojans’ stay in Carthage, and Aeneas’s affair with the Queen of Carthage, Dido.
Some individual lines of Virgil’s 10,000-line epic are themselves tiny works of art. Here the poet sets out to embody the character of a year in the shape of his metrical line, the key idea in play being that the year is circular, a cycle, orbis. Aeneid 5.46 is a linear disposition of Latin words, a poetic line, but also, by virtue of the disposition of those words, as close as a line of verse can get to a circle.
Here it is again with the relations between the words of the line highlighted: this being an inflected language, the words are connected by their form, not proximity.
(((annuus ((exactis (completur) mensibus)) orbis)))
The verb expressing the fulfilment of the year, completur, sits at the centre of the line, while the two words at its far extremes, annuus and orbis, are in agreement: “the yearly cycle”, “the cycle of the year.” Immediately bracketing completur are exactis and mensibus, and they too are in agreement: an ablative absolute, “with the conclusion of the months.”
The line is thus a sense unit organized into a perfectly concentric shape; like a hailstone, its components arranged around its central element. If the cycle of the year can be expressed in the form of a verse, this is it.
Faustum annum nouum!
Very, VERY busy this term, and no time to blog. But one of the things making me busy is at least a pleasure to do, and that’s a graduate seminar on a book of Ovid’s exile poetry: Epistulae ex Ponto 4. This was the last book of poetry written by Ovid from exile, and thus the last poetry issued under his name, its sixteen poems ranging in date from AD 13 to 16, shortly before the poet’s death, in Tomis, modern Constanța in Romania, far away from the Rome for which, in five books of Tristia and four books Ex Ponto, the exiled poet had since AD 8 expressed his yearning.
My colleague, once upon my time my tutor, Stephen Harrison has done almost all of the organising of this seminar, and for an hour and a half every Thursday morning a mixture of graduates and teachers ponder the last poetry of perhaps the most influential of all ancient poets. Ovid’s exile poetry has always had a bit of an image problem, encouraged by Ovid himself, who constantly insists that his talents are on the wane in exile (he’ll be a much better poet if restored to Rome!). But what we’ve found ourselves reading in the last few weeks are as sophisticated as anything Ovid wrote, or so it seems to me. And something else: Ovid’s swan songs can also be extremely moving in their evocation of the experience and psychology of a Roman exile.
This last week we were looking at Ex Ponto 4.8, a poem addressed to the husband of Ovid’s step-daughter, P. Suillius Rufus, through whom Ovid also makes an appeal to Germanicus, by now (it is shortly after the death of Augustus in AD 14) heir apparent to the imperial throne. There is a Latin text and a translation of Ex Ponto 4.8 here.
I don’t think there’s anything I enjoy more than reading Roman poems for the first time, especially when they’re good. I need to keep this short (I’m still perfecting the art of writing a blog in two hours on a Sunday morning), but here are four thoughts I had about this poem when I first read it last Wednesday night, in the hopes they’ll illustrate some of the qualities I find in Ovid’s last poems.
Fine composition in the opening
The poem opens with the information that Suillius has written to Ovid, thereby providing Ovid with the pretext to write an answer in the shape of this poem. He begins,
Littera sera quidem, studiis exculte Suilli,
huc tua peruenit, sed mihi grata tamen
(“The letter you wrote, accomplished Suillius, was late/ in reaching here, but brought me pleasure.”) The lines contain a clear note of reproach: the letter Suillius wrote is welcome, but he took his time to write it. And Ovid subtly reinforces both the lateness (sera quidem) and the welcomeness (mihi grata tamen) of his son-in-law’s letter in his word placement: tua, “your”, is delayed until the second line, and placed next to huc, “[to] here.” This is Ovid exploiting the vastly more flexible word order of an inflected language (an English translation just can’t capture it): the displacement of key words portrays the arrival of the letter (in the juxtaposition of huc and tua), but the peculiar separation of tua from the noun it qualifies, littera, also conveys what a very long time it took to get to Tomi.
A vintage piece of Ovidian wit
By the time we get to lines 35-6, Ovid has moved from addressing Suillius to addressing Germanicus: strictly speaking, he’s telling Suillius what Suillius should in turn say to Germanicus, but it very quickly turns into a direct address to Germanicus (and after a while we probably forget he’s writing to Suillius at all). Here Ovid is asking Germanicus to relieve the harsh conditions of his exile. He will repay any kindness with all he can offer in return, his poetry, but in the presence of this powerful man he is self-effacing about its comparative value:
Parua quidem fateor pro magnis munera reddi,
cum pro concessa uerba salute damus.
(“Small indeed, I confess, is the gift given in return for great kindness,/ when I give words in return for a grant of salvation.”) “I give words” (uerba damus) is already an unglamorous way to describe writing poetry (no mystical inspiration here), but the expression uerba dare has another meaning (see the image at the top, from the Oxford Latin Dictionary), to cheat or swindle. Ovid is implying that poetry can only represent a dishonest exchange for tangible kindness, and that is quite typical of how sceptical this superlative poet became about the value of poetry after his exile. Clever, then, but also rather sad.
A bold illustration
By 51-4, Ovid has warmed to his theme, and is making more confident claims to Germanicus about the capacity of poetry. While physical memorials moulder, he insists, poetry, and the praise of men it contains, persists for all time. (Which happens, in this case, to be true.)
Scripta ferunt annos: scriptis Agamemnona nosti
et quisquis contra uel simul arma tulit.
Quis Thebas septemque duces sine carmine nosset
et quicquid post haec, quicquid et ante fuit?
(“Writing endures the years: through writing you know of Agamemnon,/ and whoever bore arms against him or with him./ Who would know of Thebes and the seven leaders if not for poetry,/ and whatever went after that, and before it?”) There is clarity in the first and third lines here: we are aware of two very specific mytho-historical phenomena, Agamemnon and the Seven against Thebes, because of poetry. But the second and four lines are as nebulous as the first and third are precise, and it seems to me that Ovid is provoking his readers (Germanicus especially, he hopes) to imagine how things would be without poetry: his vague “whoever” and “whatever” might be their state of knowledge about iconic stories like the Trojan War and the events surrounding the attack of the Seven. But in fact they had the Iliad to inform them of the first, and Sophocles among others to fill in the second (in Oedipus Rex and Antigone). In other words, we read the second and fourth lines, and in discovering that we can, in fact, fill in the blanks that Ovid leaves, we realise forcefully that it’s only poetry that makes it so.
Finally, real pathos
Ovid’s reputation is as a poet very good at provoking laughter, but too irreverent to be capable of pathos. But I’ve been regularly moved reading Ex Ponto 4, and the end of this poem is an example. My colleague Gail Trimble was leading the discussion of this part of the poem on Thursday, and described the last two lines as Ovid abruptly remembering that he’s writing to Suillius, not Germanicus. That’s spot on, I think. After 30 lines addressed to Suillius, and 58 to Germanicus, it is only in the very last couplet, almost as an afterthought, that he turns back to Suillius again:
Tangat ut hoc uotum caelestia, care Suilli,
numina, pro socero paene precare tuo.
(“That this prayer may touch the heavenly powers, dear Suillius,/ pray on behalf of him who is almost your father-in-law.”) This is Ovid standing back, and capturing his own psychology. He was so carried away with his desperate appeal that he forgot he wasn’t talking directly to Germanicus, only to Suillius. At the very end, though, all the more effectively for being unexpected (we have forgotten too), he remembers, and the return to reality is poignant. So far from being anything Germanicus may ever hear, let alone respond to, all this is just what Ovid hopes Suillius will communicate to him. And even Ovid’s power to influence Suillius in placed in doubt here: through the paene that Ovid drops into the final line, he is only nearly, not really, Suillius’ father-in-law.
It’s the same tenuous thread linking Ovid to his beloved Rome that we started with, a letter that came, but came late; a source of support that may not feel as much responsibility as the poet passionately wishes he would.
I was due to deliver this on the radio but, I don’t know, something went wrong. Here it is, anyhow: a brisk five minute introduction to Roman numerals.
“If Aornos is Elam, a tale of exceptional military prowess becomes more like a story of the impact of war on civilian populations.”
Some thoughts on the nineteenth-century obsession with finding Aornos, the fortress stormed by Alexander the Great in 327/6 BC, over at The Nation…