Friday, October 10, 2008
For me, Toulon held echoes of the young Bonaparte as he began his ascent to power. Toulon in reality was an exciting melange of North Africa and Southern France. The open market was next to a souk where marvelous textiles and traditional Islamic clothing were displayed. Although many of the stalls in the regular market sold cheap electronics and other items of little interest, the displays of fresh fruits, vegetables and breads were gorgeous. A shop nearby sold some of the best of Provincial French textiles.
For some one who loves edged weapons, Toulon had a large selection of shops, some of them less public than others. Automatic knives as well as traditional French Opinels and Laguiole knives could be found throughout the city.
The architecture of Toulon was rather majestic and it was a city rich in public gardens and parks. I wish we could have spent a few days there.
Monday, September 29, 2008
With my laptop out of commission as far as any wireless connection was concerned, I had not been able to enjoy my photographs of the Mediterranean for a long time, nor to be able to update this site as I would have liked.
It was tonight that I finally looked at some of my Mediterranean photographs again. Like a vagabond of the ethernet, I have been taking my external drive from computer to computer, never able to call any computer home...
In any event, I rediscovered Cadiz tonight. Some of the smaller ports of the Mediterranean, like Cadiz and Valletta were exquisite jewels. I miss the ocean terribly now that I live inland, and being able to walk along the beachfronts with the wind in my face, beneath the shadow of walls and buildings hundreds of years old, was an unforgettable experience. I long to return.
Cadiz is one of the oldest cities in Iberia, and in fact is believed to be the oldest city in Western Europe that remains standing. Its official foundation date is 1104 B.C. Its original name was Gadir. As an outpost established by the Phoenicians, Gadir was a thriving port.
The Greeks believed that Hercules himself founded Gadir after he completed his 10th labour, the slaying of Geryon, a giant with three heads, three torsos and a single pair of legs. As late as the third century, a tumulus in Gadir was associated with the burial of Geryon.
One of the most famous temples in Gadir in antiquity was dedicated to the Phoenician god Melqart and some believe the columns of this temple to have been the original source of the legend of the Pillars of Hercules.
In 500 B.C., Hannibal used Gadir as a base of operations in his conquest of Iberia. Actually, 'conquest' may be misleading in this context as the Punic wars consisted of a conflict between two nations, Carthage and Rome. Cities in Iberia basically allied themselves first with one and then the other during this period.
The sands of Cadiz were threaded with tiny perfect shells. As I waded in the shallow waters close to the shore, collecting souvenirs, I thought of the ancient warriors from Carthage and Rome who conquered and reconquered this city. The contemporary atmosphere of lazy peace that pervades this quiet civilised port is undisturbed by echoes of far those brutal struggles... Yet reminders of conflict can be found in the architecture of every port in the Mediterranean. The silhouettes of magnificent forts and city walls may not resonate now with the cries of the doomed, but their purpose primarily was defence from a world that sought to control their native populations.
Thousands of years later, one can explore the history of those conflicts while retaining emotional distance from the true reality of war. Ancient war was no more romantic than contemporary warfare, and yet anything that remote from us in time achieves an undeniable mystique, transforming conflicts based in greed and exploitation to mythical heroics.
One of the most delightful encounters in Cadiz was an unexpected sight of the cats who lived at the beach. Unlike the feral cats of mainland Italia, who tend to be half-starved, these cats appeared almost pampered. Residents obviously provided them regularly with food and water. Little dishes and bowls were stashed discreetly in niches along the rocky shoreline.
The Cathedral was too large to be called 'exquisite' but it was magnificent. I wish I could spend a fortnight or so in Cadiz. One day was not sufficient by any means.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Literature about Carthage focuses mainly on the Punic Wars and Hannibal. All original sources were written by the enemies of this incredible civilisation. The actual founding of the city is the stuff of legends and when Aeneas was injected into the tale, it made the legends even more unlikely. It is difficult to find good historical fiction that deals with ordinary life in Carthage but upon my return from my brief visit to La Goulette, I was fired with the need to immerse myself in the atmosphere of that ancient civilisation.
I wrote about two good factual studies of Roman civilisation in North Africa in an earlier post. Since then, I discovered two excellent contemporary novels about Carthage. 'Fire and Bronze' by Robert Raymond is a compelling account of the founding of Carthage by Dido. 'Carthage' by Peter Huby deals with the ultimate horrific destruction of the city by the Romans. Both attempt to decipher the reality that underlies the legends and ancient political propaganda to create a plausible realistic sequence of events and both succeed admirably.
Furthermore, I was astounded by the beauty of the prose, especially in view of the fact that 'Fire and Bronze' is a first novel. The two writers are very different but both demonstrate a love of words and images and an expert ability to alternate extraordinary lyricism with graphic realism. In fact, having finished the two novels, I was hungry for more. I found Peter Huby's first novel, 'Pasiphae' and devoured that as well.
I recommend all three of these novels. I read all the 'Classics' as a child but I have to admit that there are many contemporary writers who may supercede some of the Victorian 'Masters'. If I were to teach a class in ancient History, I would be inclined to include these novels in any discussion of Carthage.
I have one negative criticsm of 'Carthage' and I am not alone in this. Many readers remarked upon the writer's use of anachronisms in this book. Some of them were more irritating than others. I found the writer's inaccurate correlation of Phoenicians with Jews to be unjustifiable and infuriating as well, essentially writing the ancestors of the Arab Nation out of the equation. The Phoenicians were NOT Jews. At the time when Qart Hadasht was founded, the Hebrews were well-known as a separate ethnic group.
Qart Hadasht or 'New Town' is the real name of Carthage. As is often the case, however, the victorious Romans ultimately triumphed in history as well as in life, leaving us with their name for the civilisation that may have been Rome's greated rival. So determined was Rome to destroy Kart Hadasht that it sowed the land with salt, preventing any crops from growing there for a hundred years.
One of the few details about ancient Carthage familiar to the general public even when nothing else is known is the practice of infant sacrifice. The entire civilisation has been demonised because of a religious tradition poorly, if at all, comprehended. 'Fire and Bronze' tackles this subject well. In a period of history when mystery religions often demanded the sacrifice of a man's genitals, the sacrifice of the first-born would be an example of true devotion and a very profound faith in the gods and in a world beyond this one.
Religions such as Christianity and Islam stress the principle that this life is transient. If one accepts the premise that the world beyond this is far more substantial in spiritual terms and is the only one that endures, human sacrifice will be perceived not as a cruel and barbaric act but one that sets the 'victim' above and beyond ordinary humans. The child that is sacrificed in essence becomes one with the gods, entering an existence that is free from pain and suffering.
Comprehending a ritual or tradition is not tantamount to agreement with it. Recoiling from horror from the practice of infant sacrifice prohibits any true exploration of a civilisation that was extremely sophisticated and one that based itself on a code of law that was far from barbaric. Religion in any civilisation is a tree that has deep roots in another world, with a distinct logic that is divorced from ordinary existence. If one were to view the principles of 'Holy Communion' and 'Transubstantiation' without reference to the underlying philosophy of Christianity, one might find them horrific as well. An actual need for a god to die in human form in extreme torment upon a wooden cross is the foundation of Christian religion. How one perceives the ultimate sacrifice depends upon comprehension of the system of philosophy that underlies the act rather than the act itself. Infant sacrifice is no different in this respect.
Neither novels are centred upon the religion of ancient Carthage but they touch upon it en passant. In this particular aspect, Robert Raymond's spiritual comprehension of ancient cultures was far more convincing. Peter Huby's insistence on equating the Carthaginians with the Jews severely marred his account of ancient religion. The appearance of Orthodox Jews on the streets of Kart Hadasht was bizarre, to say the least. Even though he included some of the ancient Canaanite tales in his account, his attempt to address Carthaginian beliefs was unsuccessful in my view. He did far better with 'Pasiphae'.
'Pasiphae' incidentally is a tale of ancient Crete and the central character, despite the title, is Daedalus. Sadly, although it is very high on my list of places I long to visit, I have not been to Crete yet. Peter Huby's work deals with the passion of the Queen for the Sacred Bull in the context of Daedalus' own passion to create and explore the limits of human possibilities. Although he missed the point here as well in terms of ancient mystery religions, in my opinion, it is an incredible book and his exploration of human passions is very fine.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Spending half a day in Tarquinia, half a day in Pompeii and half a day on the site of ancient Carthage inspired me to study history again. I came home and read Susan Raven's 'Rome in Africa' and Paul Lachlan's 'The North African Stones Speak'. I would recommend both even to casual readers. Paul Lachlan's cultural prejudices are exposed in a comment here and there, but on the whole, style and content are wonderful. Both books are older studies that have been brought up to date and republished.
History of Carthage
What is amazing to me is how much ancient history I do not know, despite an avid interest in the subject throughout my life. For every site I have visited, moreover, there are a hundred I have not seen. There is no substitute for actual experience, although actual experience is magnified enormously by knowledge. I wish I had read those books BEFORE I visited Carthage, but if I had, I suspect that my frustration at being allowed only a few hours in Tunisia would have overwhelmed me.
I spent almost a month in Roma once, and yet it seems as though North Africa has far more of ancient Roma to show the world now than any site in Italia. The Roman Empire, whether you hate it or admire it, was rather amazing. To think of the thousands of miles that it covered, from England to Libya! All the roads and aquaducts, amphitheatres and temples... but beyond that, the fact that they laid grids everywhere. Surveyors tirelessly working on plans, whether or not the plans ever came to fruition.
It is difficult sometimes to visualise the past. The topography of the countries have changed. What once was a port may be miles inland now. That certainly is the case where Etruscan ports are concerned.
I do not know why the distant past holds such fascination for me. I never wanted to travel to the future, but I still long to go back in time, to see the England of Charles the First, and even further back, to live among the earliest Neolithic settlers of Europe. The Roman Empire is fairly modern in terms of civilisations. It is no wonder really that we see resemblances to our own 'civilisation' in all the works of Rome.
Perhaps my longing to visit Libya is partly based on the fact that it wouldn't be thronging with tourists. The negative part of visiting Pompeii was the fact that one could not look down any path without seeing veritable hordes of 21st century tourists. Carthage wasn't much different actually. Coachloads of tourists swarming over the ruins...
And yet, who knows? Perhaps Libya would be the same. One of my greatest contacts with the ancient world occurred in the Long Barrow near Silbury Hill one rainy afternoon. Not a tourist in sight, enabling me to commune silently with the past. I went over a little gate on a path that was made for sheep rather than humans and walked up a muddy hill to Long Kennet.
West Kennet Long Barrow
I visited Avebury the same day. Avebury is very different from Stonehenge because very little remains of its original configuration. The standing stones have been moved, removed, or otherwise realigned. A major highway cuts through the original grounds. Nonetheless, something magical remains.
That was an odd experience as my own visit at twilight coincided with a professional photography shoot. I can't recall what they were shooting, but it was some sort of advertisement with the stones of Avebury in the background.
Where on earth can one go now, though, and truly expect to be 'off the beaten track'? There are shows like 'Globe Trekker', visiting every corner of the globe and televising the journey to the masses.
In my own case, however, it is not as if I would like to deprive others of the journey but merely to have a few moments by myself in these places. If only...
In that sense, Montserrat was the antithesis of a spiritual pilgrimage. It was more like queueing for a ride at an entertainment park than any religious experience. In fact, the pushing and shoving and queue-jumping was horrific and one wondered at times what spiritual benefit possibly could be gained by such behaviour. The fact that the shrine was due to shut in less than half an hour may have offered some excuse for the indecent attitudes that prevailed in certain quarters. In the same crowd, however, were others who went out of their way to help the infirm and disabled.
Perhaps part of the true nature of a spiritual pilgrimage is to test the soul. Grace is earned through patience and selflessness in these situations rather than a brief glimpse of an icon or statue. I am an animist and I do believe in the efficacy of certain objects or locations to some extent. I do think that these powers are partly dependent on the state of mind and will of the 'pilgrim' rather than independent in nature. In that sense, we do create our own gods.
Despite the negative circumstances of the visit, I did have some magical if fleeting moments at Montserrat. The mountain range rather than the statue was the source of the energy I felt. No wonder the ancients thought of mountains as the ladders to heaven! There is a sense of entering a borderland that stands between our earthly state and the realm of the gods. I expect centuries of reverence and wonder play a part in this as well. In any event, despite the fact that the buildings and pilgrims were modern, one sensed ghostly footsteps, becoming part of an endless chain of humanity that sought to touch the sky.
On the other hand, travel to historic sites of any kind is a pilgrimage of sorts. Whether it is an ancient Bath or a Temple, the passage of time as well as the attention of the masses for hundreds or thousands of years creates a peculiar power that resides in the stones as well as their silhouettes. Places become icons. Witness the 'leaning tower of Pisa' and the 'Eiffel Tower', possibly more visited than any phallic representation of an ancient Power. These buildings are recognised by people throughout the globe, despite the fact that they actually are devoid of any significant content or historical event. Any place, object or structure can become imbued with special significance by virtue only of its long popularity.
I am including two photographs of pillars here. One is the site of a famous martyrdom. The other is nothing more than the site of an ancient bathhouse, yet both possess a special aura of power and mystery now. The blood shed on one site may make it a place of religious pilgrimage but one could argue that ancient Baths are dedicated to the elemental power of Water and when situated by the sea, have tremendous spiritual potency that overrides the simple functional nature of the place. After all, ablutions are a fundamental spiritual rite in almost every religion.
In any case, I would have liked nothing better than to have had the time to wade into the sea on the site of the Baths of Antoninus in Tunis. To watch the sun set framed by the silhouettes of ancient pillars and arches, in the midst of all that ruined splendour would have been a very spiritual experience. Instead, I was forced to adhere to a tour schedule, to be bundled back to the ship with the rest of the tourists...
I should not be ungrateful. At least I saw these places. I breathed the air. My feet trod the ancient stones. It is far, far better than nothing but, like an incipient addict, I long for more.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
When I visited Montserrat, I was rather taken aback to find a tomb dedicated to Joan of Arc. I have been unable to discover why a tomb for Joan of Arc is situated at Montserrat Monastery near Barcelona in Spain.
Some peculiar suspension of historical knowledge prevented me from questioning the fact while I was there in person. I now would like to know what this tomb signifies, if it in fact houses a relic of the Saint or if it is nothing more than a memorial... If a memorial, however, why would a tomb be erected there?
Meanwhile, I discovered more interesting speculation about the very existence of the Maid. A few years ago, Dr. Serhiy Horbenko, an orthopedic surgeon from Ukraine, was invited to France to study the remains of Louis XI in order to reconstruct his face from his skull. In the Basilica of Notre Dame in Clery, near Orleans, the doctor asked for permission to study remains in other tombs in the basilica, as they belonged to other members of the same dynastic royal family as Louis XI.
He ultimately concluded that the skeleton of a female was that of Marguerite de Valois, illegitimate daughter of Charles VI and half-sister of Charles VII, the dauphin promoted by Jeanne d'Arc.
From the remains, he deduced that the woman had worn heavy armour and had lived the life of a warrior on horseback. He then made another leap in speculation to the effect that it was she, and not a peasant from the countryside, who had played the role of saviour of France. She had not been burnt at the stake, but had been relegated to what basically amounted to household arrest for the remainder of her life, from fear that she might press her own claim to the throne of France.
Five women were burnt at the stake... one of these was publicised as the Maid of Orleans, according to the doctor, even though the true Maid of Orleans lived many decades longer in royal obscurity.
This sort of speculation did not please the French, who honour Jeanne d'Arc both as heroine and saint. The theory was promoted in 2003. It has not been proven or disproven, as far as I know.
It does not answer the question of why there is a tomb dedicated to Joan of Arc at Montserrat but it is another odd twist connected to the woman who has inspired others of her gender to dream of taking the warrior path for more than a thousand years.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
On my visit to Pompeii, I was blessed with the services of a very charming and considerate guide who combined wit and humour with considerable historical knowledge. Here is a link to his site:
The firm is family-owned and has provided tour services for more than one generation.
The firm is family-owned and has provided tour services for more than one generation.
Friday, May 23, 2008
I confess that San Gennaro was not one of the saints that I best knew as a child who enjoyed books such as Butler's 'Lives of the Saints'. Given the fact that he is the Patron Saint of Napoli, one of the most important cities of Italia, I am rather ashamed that I knew little more about him than his name.
When I lived in Manhattan, I discovered San Gennaro to be the focus of one of the most important annual celebrations in the city. The Feast of San Gennaro this year in New York will begin on 11 September and culminate on the actual official Feast Day on 19 September.
I have attended the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy more than once, but it always has been a festival that I experienced en passant, when I visited the area of Mulberry Street for some reason and found myself in the midst of the festivities.
It was only when I visited Pompeii that I became aware of the supreme importance of San Gennaro to the people of Naples. Ordinarily, I do not like to be 'guided' through any area, but the guide for Pompeii was charming, erudite and extremely thoughtful. His obvious enthusiasm for his city's Patron Saint gave me a greater understanding of the reason why his Feast is celebrated annually on another continent thousands of miles away.
The miracle of the liquefaction of San Gennaro's blood each year defies scientific reduction. It has occurred now for over a millenium not once, but twice each year, on the first Sunday in May and on 19 September. The first Sunday in May marks the date when his relics were removed from the catacombs of Naples. 19 September is the anniversary of his actual martyrdom.
San Gennaro was a bishop of Benevento who was martyred in 305 during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Originally named Januarius, he is believed to have been a patrician, a descendant of the Caudini tribe of the Samnites. His martyrdom may have been prompted by his visit to a local prison to console other Christians who were awaiting their own impending deaths. In the fashion of many martyrs of the period, the tale of San Gennaro involves multiple tortures and unsuccessful attempts to end his life by various means. He was thrown first into a furnace where the flames did not touch him. He then was sent into the Flavian Amphitheatre in Pozzuoli to be torn to pieces by wild bears. The bears refused to attack. He was beheaded ultimately at Solfatara and an old man gathered his remains, including his severed head, in a cloth. A woman of Naples named Eusebia soaked up the precious blood of the martyr with a sponge and placed it in a vial.
The relics of this martyr were moved many times and indeed, head and body resided at different locations often throughout history. In 1506, an elaborate Succorpo was completed at the order of a local Cardinal and San Gennaro's remains rest in the Cathedral of Naples.
The blood of the saint is preserved in two phials and the head of the martyr reposes in a silver reliquary. On the first Sunday in May, these are borne in procession through the streets of Napoli from the Duomo or Cathedral to the Franciscan Church of St. Clare. It is here that the miraculous liquefaction occurs.
On the 19th of September, liquefaction occurs once again and the relics are displayed to the public in the Cathedral. What is undisputed fact is that the blood is a solid mass as one would imagine any blood that survived two thousand years would be, and yet somehow it is 'renewed', becoming liquid twice yearly.
The relationship between Vesuvius and San Gennaro is one of faith, as he is the Saint to which the people of the region turn for protection against all calamities, including earthquake and volcanic eruptions. For those who live beneath the shadow of a live volcano, San Gennaro's power is a source of comfort. His intervention is believed to have halted the flow of lava in the last eruption of Vesuvius in the first half of the 20th century.
St. Alphonsus Liguori wrote: 'The Neapolitans honour this saint as the principal patron of their city and nation, and the Lord himself has continued to honour him, by allowing many miracles to be wrought through his intercession, particularly when the frightful eruptions of Mount Vesuvius have threatened the city of Naples with utter destruction.
'While the relics of St. Januarius were being brought in procession towards this terrific volcano, the torrents of lava and liquid fire which it emitted have ceased, or turned their course from the city. But the most stupendous miracle, and that which is greatly celebrated in the church, is the liquefying and boiling up of this blessed martyr's blood whenever the vials are brought in sight of his head. This miracle is renewed many times in the year, in presence of all who desire to witness it; yet some heretics have endeavored to throw a doubt upon its genuineness, by frivolous and incoherent explanations; but on one can deny the effect to be miraculous, unless he be prepared to question the evidence of his senses.'
Miracles are not as popular now with the general public as they once were and yet, our culture's deliberate refusal of faith has not made people more intelligent, more learned or less gullible where deceit and chicanerie are concerned. George Bush's ability to deceive the masses into believing in non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq is proof of that. I find it rather extraordinary that people are reluctant to place their faith in the Divine and yet are quick to surrender their safety and welfare into the hands of political rogues and charlatans.
There are those who are fond of repeating Marx's axiom to the effect that 'religion is the opiate of the masses' but in the 21st century, it is the media that is the true opium of the masses. Whatever abuses have been committed through the ages in the name of different religions have nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality. People believe whatever they are told or shown on a so-called 'news' programme and yet are determined to cast doubt on the existence of 'miracles'.
Like many legends, that of San Gennaro or St. Januarius probably holds echoes of earlier tales and very ancient rites. That by no means invalidates or lessens his importance to the people of Campagna. In fact, it enhances it.
The idea of the blood that is 'reborn' twice yearly has connections in legend with the ancient seasonal death and rebirth of the King or Lord. In fact, during the Roman period, there was a rite that occurred with respect to the grape vats dedicated to Dionysius and a series of seasonal festivals that celebrated the 'rebirth' of the blood of the vine, symbolising the god himself. The first Sunday in May traditionally is the time of May processions honouring new life and fertility. The middle of September is Autumn, a time of harvest.
The motif of the 'three deaths' is one that is found in many ancient legends as well. The fact that St. Januarius first was put through the fire, then subjected to the threat of being torn to pieces by wild animals and finally was beheaded is very much part of an ancient ritual.
In the tale of Mot and Baal from ancient Canaan, the god Mot as a symbol of the grain was subjected to a number of different deaths, ultimately to be reborn. St. Gennaro is part of history but many details of his martyrdom no doubt have been borrowed and enhanced by older tales. The martyrdom of Christians (as well as Pagans) in the arenas of the Roman empire occurred regularly and all the methods described in the Saint's life were common but the motif of a god or hero who can endure more than one 'death' is an integral part of myth.
In the old Norse Eddic tales, the goddess Gullveig was put to death more than once by Odhinn and yet, she survived death by fire again and again. Fire in fact is a symbol both of death and rebirth. The phoenix actually is reborn in the flames.
The Goddess Isis held a child in the fire in order to make him immortal. Demeter did likewise. In fact, 'Achille's heel' is a term that comes from the same ritual, when Achilles as an infant was held in the flames to render him invulnerable. The only part of his body that remained vulnerable was the heel, as that was how he had been held. There are tales in the Bible that stem from the same magical tradition.
It is possible, therefore, that the inclusion of an ordeal by fire in the tale of St. Gennaro is a means by which his 'hero-status' is emphasised.
Friday, May 16, 2008
We reached Messina on Sunday. Almost everything was shut, but one could enjoy the incredible charm of the architecture, the automated clock at the Cathedral and indeed the Cathedral itself.
I ate some sandwiches in the garden of the Cathedral and spent a rather lovely half hour there. (I always made sandwiches in the morning to take with me on any excursion.) Although I had hoped to be able to see some gorgeous Sicilian ceramics, almost every shop, apart from little souvenir shops, was in fact shut.
The architecture was not classical but appeared to combine Eastern with Western elements in a very bold and ornate fashion. I loved it. Although close to Malta geographically, it was very different.
In particular, the doorways and the actual doors of the Cathedral were spectacular. One could have lost oneself for hours in the intricate stone carvings of vines and pillars and fantastical creatures. Entering the Cathedral through an archway like that, one was very conscious of the door as a portal to a sacred dimension.
In fact, these old Cathedrals are repositories of great spiritual power. It is not only the time, labour and love lavished upon every aspect of their construction, but the fact that generation after generation has gone there to worship and has recognised it as the fountain of their spiritual inspiration. Whether by gazing up to heaven to admire the painted woodwork of the ceilings or downward to the magnificent floors, created of patterned marble, one enters easily into a heightened state of consciousness.
Although the port intially appeared to be very commercial with huge Martini and Campari signs on the horizon, there were fabulous views of the Cathedral and other historical landmarks as well, and the promise embodied in that early sight of the city was realised.
Messina is one of the oldest ports in the Mediterranean. It is steeped in the various influences that resulted from its position as a trading gateway for thousands of years.
Malta and Sicily seem to have very different attitudes where the Arab influence on their culture is concerned. Malta has embraced its glorious mixed heritage, but I have a feeling that in Sicily, the Moor very much is portrayed as the Enemy in folklore and history. A mural on the wall of a local restaurant depicted a Western Knight in confrontation with a Saracen. Charming perhaps but nonetheless redolent with old emnities, especially when one notes that the Knight's sword is bloodied.
It appeared to be rather a poor city in some respects, sadly. The vendors outside the cathedral were mainly Koreans, selling the shabbiest array of sunglasses and cheap toys for children that I had seen anywhere. One cannot judge a city by its souvenir shops, and I shouldn't comment on the basis of a few hours spent in Messina on Sunday, but I did feel that Sicily still may be less prosperous than its northern sisters.
Attending Mass in the Cathedral was the highlight of the day. The atmosphere was charged with true devotion and it was a challenge to try to understand the homily. Having spent a month in Roma once and memorised the Mass and many prayers in Italian, I nonetheless was surprised by the degree to which I was able to respond.
Although the priest quite sternly ordered all of the tourists out of the Cathedral before he began the Mass, he allowed me to stay. One touches the heart of a city when one participates in a sacred rite. Although the businesses and the shopping precincts and even many of the restaurants in Messina were shut, I left with a rather profound impression of the city.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
This is a topic of eternal fascination for me, and I have written about it elsewhere on many occasions, but it was in Tarquinia that I actually experienced a small measure of Inanna's descent to the Underworld.
The 'Underworld' or 'Great Below' of ancient Sumer as well as ancient Canaan was an actual place, found within the heart of a mountain.
Known as the Kur, Kurgal or Ekur, it translates as 'House Mountain', 'Great Mountain' or 'House which is like a Mountain'. The descent would have been made by means of actual stairs or a path carved into the mountain. The Mountain may have been one created by Nature, or like Silbury Hill, it could have been fashioned by human beings.
Mounds or Tumuli are houses of the dead but they are mountains as well. Rising above the ground, they lead to the 'Underworld' or land of the dead. An ancient Canaanite poem eloquently describes the ritual journey undertaken to the heart of the Mound. In fact, it was a practice in Canaan to hold funeral feasts inside the tomb or special area that served as the 'seat of power' for the dead.
The Sumerian poem of the Descent of Inanna is composed in a ritualistic rhythm that takes the reciter or reader gradually down the steps to the heart of the Underworld.
'From the 'great above', she set her mind towards the 'great below'.
The goddess, from the 'great above', she set her mind towards the 'great below'.
Inanna, from the 'great above', she set her mind towards the 'great below'.
My lady abandoned heaven, abandoned earth.
To the nether world she descended.
Inanna abandoned heaven, abandoned earth,
To the nether world she descended.
Abandoned lordship, abandoned ladyship,
To the nether world she descended.
In Erech she abandoned Eanna,
To the nether world she descended.
In Badtibira she abandoned Emushkalamma,
To the nether world she descended.
In Zabalam she abandoned Giguna,
to the nether world she descened.
In Adab she abandoned Esharra,
To the nether world she descended.
In Kish she abandoned Hursagkalamma,
To the nether world she descended.
In Agade she abandoned Eulmash,
To the nether world she descended.
Now she prepares herself by clothing herself with all the symbols of her power and authority:
'The seven divine decrees she fastened at her side,
She sought out the divine decrees, placed them at her hand.
All the decrees she set at her waiting foot,
The Shugarra, the crown of the plain, she placed on her head.
Radiance she placed upon her countenance.
The rod of lapis lazuli she gripped in her hand,
Small lapis stones she tied about her neck.
Sparkling gems she fastened to her breast,
A gold ring she gripped in her hand.
A breastplate she bound about her breast.
All the garments of her lordship she arranged,
And anointed her face with oils.
Inanna walked towards the nether world,
Her messenger Ninshubur walked at her side.
The pure Inanna says to Ninshubur:
'O thou, my constant support,
My messenger of favourable words,
My carrier of supporting words,
I now am descending to the nether world.
'When I shall have come to the Underworld,
Fill heaven with pleas for me.
In the assembly shrine cry out for me,
In the house of the gods, rush about for me,
Lower thy eye for me, lower thy mouth for me,
Like a pauper in a single garment, dress in mourning for me,
To the Ekur, the house of Enlil, direct thy step alone.
Upon entering the Ekur, the house of Enlil,
Weep before Enlil.
'Oh father Enlil, let not thy daughter be put to death in the underworld.
Let not thy good metal be ground up into the dust of the underworld.
Let not thy good lapis lazuli be broken up into the stone of the underworld.
Let not thy boxwood be chopped up into the wood of the woodcutter,
let not the maid Inanna be put to death in the Underworld.'
A series of instructions on how Ninshubur should proceed from temple to temple, exhorting all the gods follows.
When Inanna reaches the portal:
'Neti the chief gatekeeper of the Underworld asks:
'Who pray art thou?'
'I am the queen of heaven, the place where the sun rises.'
'If thou art the queen of heaven, the place where the sun rises,
Why pray hast thou come to the land of no return?
On the road whose traveler retuns not, how has thy heart led thee?'
Once permission to enter is granted, Inanna is forced to strip one of her symbols of power at each gate until at last she arrives at the throne of her sister, the Queen of the Underworld, naked and powerless.
At each gate, as the object of power is taken from her, she is told:
'In extraordinary fashion, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected.
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the Underworld!'
At last at the throne, judgement is pronounced.
The pure Ereshkigal seated herself upon her throne.
The Anunnaki, the seven judges, pronounced judgement before her.
They fastened upon her the eyes of death.
At their word, the word which tortures the spirit,
The ailing woman was turned into a corpse,
The corpse was hung from a stake.
After three days and three nights had passed,
Her messenger Ninshubur,
Her messenger of favourable words,
Her carrier of supporting words,
Fills the heaven with pleas for her.
Ultimately, in the house of death, the rite of rebirth is performed:
Upon the corpse hung from a stake,
Direct the fear of the rays of fire.
Sixty times the food of life, sixty times the water of life,
Sprinkle upon it:
Truly Inanna will arise.
Upon the corpse hung from a stake they directed the fear of the rays of fire.
Sixty times the food of life, sixty times the water of life,
They sprinkled upon it:
Inanna ascends from the Underworld:
The Anunnaki fled,
When Inanna ascends from the Underworld,
Truly the dead hasten before her...
They who preceded her,
They who precede Inanna,
Those who know not food,
Who know not water,
Who eat not sprinkled flour,
Who drink not libated wine,
Who take away the wife from the loins of the man,
Who take away the child from the breast of the nursing mother.'
Having undergone her shamanic ordeal in the land of the dead, Inanna returns, armed with the power of the Underworld. The Underworld demands a substitute. Like the tale of Proserpine and other myths and legends that deal with a seasonal death and rebirth, she who returns from the dead must send some one in her stead.
It is Dumuzi the Shepherd King who is dragged kicking and screaming into the Underworld to serve the sentence, but Death is nothing more than a rite of passage even for him and he will be allowed to return in the season of rebirth.
In Tarquinia, murals on the walls depict banquets as well as scenes of hunting and fishing. The characteristic door divided into four quarters is something quite different, however, an actual portal that leads to the Otherworld. Did the living join the dead in funeral banquets periodically as once they did in Sumer and Canaan? Did a high priest or priestess visit the tombs for incubation rites or inspiration in shamanic rites? Did the living hold vigils on the tumuli as the Celts and Norse later?
Burial mounds are as ancient as life itself and always have been believed to hold special powers. The dead may turn to dust but most cultures have held beliefs in the immortality of the soul and the ability of the living to cross the border into Death as well as the ability of the Dead to return to the land of the living, if only in dreams or visions.
Photographs include a view of Silbury Hill, the site of paleolithic caves near Haifa in Palestine, Etruscan tumuli in Cervetari and a very imposing tumulus in Turkey linked in legend to King Midas. Alas, I have not been to Cerveteri myself, but I should love to see more Etruscan sites!
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
Walking through the ancient site of the necropolis of Tarquinia through fields filled with poppies, purple wild geraniums and other wildflowers, surrounded by tumuli and stairways that led down to Etruscan tombs, I suddenly felt very close indeed to the portal to the Underworld.
It was easy to picture the scene of the kidnap of Cere's daughter by the Lord of Death. She and her companions were collecting wildflowers innocently when his gaze fixed upon her and he determined to have her as his Queen.
Red poppies often have been associated with Proserpine. The poppies in the fields of Tarquinia were not the papaver somniferum that brings sleep, sister to Death but nonetheless were poppies and thus sacred to Ceres or Demeter, Earth Mother.
In the ancient myth, the ground itself opened and the God appeared in his chariot to take her in his arms. The earth then swallowed chariot, God and maiden in the blink of an eye.
Natural powers are very much in evidence in Italia and the islands of the Mediterranean. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes feature in history, legend and archaeological evidence everywhere. It is said that Atlantis may have been an island kingdom swallowed by the sea due to a natural cataclysm. Some place it near Cadiz. Others believe it was near Santorini. Whatever the truth of it, the shape of every continent and island has been transformed again and again by Nature's hand.
April is a beautiful time to visit the Mediterranean. Throughout Italia, Spain and the islands, wildflowers proliferated. The scent of lavender was intoxicating in Toulon in the south of France. There are no intense shades of green but the tapestry of cypress, pine, plane trees and wildflowers beneath powerful dazzling sunlight has its own unique beauty.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
In the renowned Sumerian account of Innana's descent into the Underworld, the perception is that of an actual journey down flights of stairs, through tunnels, into buildings that possess portals leading to the Underworld.
Visiting the Necropolis of Tarquinia, I experienced a little of that journey, albeit brief and hampered by locked glass doors that prevent the viewer actually from completing the transition from this world to the Other.
Here is an article that deals with Etruscan Tombs:
Etruscan Necropolis of Tarquinia
The path invariably does take the visitor underground, beneath the tumulus built as a landmark above the surface of the land. The actual door to the Other Realm, however, is a painted one and thus would not be accessible to an ordinary living being, except in a trance state or after death.
Where sarcophagi once stood, now only hollowed points in the sand show their original position. No funerary goods or meals remain. All furnishings have been carted off either by grave robbers or museum curators. Many can be found in the marvelous palace converted into the best Etruscan museum in Italia, situated in modern Tarquinia.
Why do the Etruscans fascinate us so? Is it because so little 'hard' evidence remains of their civilisation and philosophy? They were very much a part of the ancient world, not isolated, and trade with other cultures and civilisations influenced their fashions and beliefs somewhat, as evidenced in their art... Even so, they remain a mystery in many respects, swallowed by the Romans, and ultimately known in history as a lesser civilisation.
Etruscan murals and frescoes depict fair-skinned blondes as well as dark-haired youths and maidens. They obviously drew upon a large gene pool as an international mercantile power. They had slaves, but slavery was a state of affairs from which an individual could be freed rather easily apparently and the slaves of the Etruscans had the reputation internationally of being a favoured class, elegantly attired and demonstrating a high level of artistic skills.
The necropolis of Tarquinia is a city of little houses, each one possessing its own unique personality. Very much unlike the majestic pyramids of ancient Egypt, Etruscan tombs possess a rather cozy atmosphere, truly a city of houses for the dead.
Friday, May 2, 2008
The extraordinary popularity of Antonio Gaudi among individuals who have little interest in the history or development of architecture in general for the most part conditioned me almost to reject his work, despite the fact that his philosophy should have been attractive to me as some one who is obsessed with caves and natural temples. Yet, like any other subject or artist who becomes too trendy, from Pachelbel's Canon to Mozart, Gaudi was damned in my eyes before I ever saw his work firsthand by too much praise.
Nonetheless, as with respect to so many natural and man-made wonders, there is no substitute for firsthand experience and actually BEING A WITNESS. Barcelona in general surprised me. Again, it is so popular with the masses, even among those with little knowledge of culture or art, that I was prepared to disregard it completely in favour of Montserrat. In the end, however, I had to come down from the lofty mountain to spend a few hours on the ground and in the streets of the city of Barcelona.
In fact, the descent from Montserrat to Barcelona was what gave me true appreciation of Gaudi's work. It was then that I realised he captured nature's handiwork in his own caves and turrets. Every one speaks of the organic quality of Gaudi, of course, but it is the 'feeling' of a mountain range or cave that he captures so completely as well as the shimmer of moonlight or sunlight on water or the ever-changing reflection of light on leaves and stones, creating a mosaic of colour. Gaudi never will be a favourite of mine because he is too modern, and indeed I always will prefer the original Cathedral in Barcelona to the Sagrada Familia simply because it is steeped in history as well as for the sake of its incredible cloisters. Nonetheless, I left Barcelona with a greater appreciation of Antonio Gaudi.
As far as Montserrat was concerned, my interest initially was sparked by its great antiquity as a sacred site that far predated Christianity. In fact, the Black Madonna was found in a cave there and legend claims that it was created by angels. This made me believe that it could have been connected to an original earlier statue of the Great Mother, Cybele.
Meteorites always were considered to have magical powers and to have been sent to earth by the gods or some divine power. I always thought that the black stone of Cybele brought to Roma to save the land was a meteorite. Certainly there are many theories of why the Madonna of Montserrat is black, but to me, the most compelling is the ancient connection with the Great Mother.
Whether the statue was carved by human hand or that of an angel or spirit, and whether or not the colour of the Madonna is black because of the slow effect of candle-burning or because of association with Cybele is really irrelevant. 'Black Madonnas' exist throughout the Mediterranean and it is the natural surroundings, in my view, that determined the power of the place.
The Mother of a God will be perceived in different forms. There is a wonderful passage in Apuleius' 'Golden Ass' when the Goddess Isis declares that: 'My name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world, in divers manners, in variable customs, and by many names.'
Initially, every cave on this Earth was revered as the womb of the Great Mother and the birthplace of every great god from Attis to Zeus to Christ.
Be that as it may, the journey to Montserrat was undertaken as a pilgrim to try to discover whether or not it were a sacred place quite apart from its Christian significance and powers.
The actual buildings at Montserrat are fairly modern, as it served as the location for a series of battles between the French and the Spanish during the Napoleonic Wars. The Spanish tend to blame Napoleon for the damage, but it was they who first used the monastery as a military position. The French, however, did not have enough soldiers to occupy the position permanently after routing the Spaniards and thus, Monserrat was occupied, vacated and re-occupied a number of times until finally, the buildings were destroyed to prevent it from being used again for military purposes.
Nevertheless, it is not the buildings but the surrounding mountains that truly are the home of the Black Virgin. She is housed in a tiny chapel in the Church, access to which is gained through a series of side chapels and finally by mounting a number of steep, narrow, winding staircases higher and higher into the very heart of the Church. Only two or three individuals can stand in the actual chapel and therefore, as the number of pilgrims and curious tourists is enormous, one is not permitted to linger for more than a moment there. To make matters worse, the statue now is protected by a large dome of glass or acrylic as though an exhibit in a museum. In the view of the ancients, whatever sacred powers she may possess have been isolated in the capsule into which she has been imprisoned. One cannot touch her foot as so many of the faithful are wont to do when appealing to statues of saints, the Blessed Virgin or her Son in other churches and sanctuaries throughout the Mediterranean region.
Preservation of historical monuments for posterity undoubtedly is a noble aim, but there is something to be said for direct contact with any object of power or virtue. I felt somewhat cheated to be honest.
Even so, the ascent to the chapel was arduous and rather magical. My favourite stairwell was a narrow tunnel with Byzantine mosaics of all the greatest holy women in Christian history from Eve onwards depicted on either side. The fact that I cannot walk easily in the best of circumstances and even more poorly when ascending stairs or a steep incline added the element of personal sacrifice and suffering to the experience, like it or not. Burning with agony therefore, I finally reached the summit of my quest and gazed upon the ancient statue of the Blessed Mother or Great Goddess.
Her face and bearing are austere and stern. She is a very different woman from the pretty Madonnas of the Renaissance or of Lourdes and Fatima. In that sense, she did inherit the mantle of the ancient Great Goddess Cybele, who was a figure of omnipotence to be feared as well as loved. Does she exhibit compassion? No more nor less than Nature herself... She is a mother, of course, and holds the Divine Child on her lap, offering him to the world. One does sense her role as a Protective Guardian, powerful enough to counter any threat, to answer any plea or prayer, powerful enough to crush the head of the ancient Serpent beneath her heel or to cause or stay any earthquake or other natural disaster.
She has been credited with many miracles and many victories. The youth of Barcelona still make pilgrimages on foot from the city to the shrine of the Black Madonna. They depart from Barcelona in the evening and arrive at Montserrat early the next morning. The devotion of the people feeds the power of any shrine. When one considers that these mountains housed temples to other gods and goddesses from time immemorial, one does recognise a true seat of spiritual power.
At Fatima years ago, faced with a large concrete pavement in the place of the fields that once surrounded the site of the tree where the Blessed Virgin made her appearance, I was conscious of great power suffocated by a manmade structure. In the vast ancient caves near Fatima, however, the power remained undiminished. I felt as though charged with electricity as I walked along those dark paths in the very womb of Nature. There, I believe, was the true source of the power that created the apparition.
I am a deeply religious individual but I do believe that humans create most of the rules, regulations and descriptions of the Divine. Strip the Divine of all the human accretions and you find the caves near Fatima and the mountains surrounding Monserrat. The source of inspiration is there.
I have strayed far from my original intention which was to link Gaudi with Carthage via Montserrat...
The area of Tunisia where the ancient sites of Carthage can be found is extremely beautiful, if slightly arid. Trees and vegetation are everywhere, but it is the subtle green of the desert rather than the lush colours of the North.
The first site I visited was a 2nd century Roman amphitheatre, almost entirely obliterated but with a rather powerful history. Originally five floors, only the first floor above ground and one that is underground remain.
Once, there was seating for over 50,000 spectators and in fact, the amphitheatre could be flooded for naumachias (mock naval battles). Historically now it is known best for its connection with early Christian characters such as St. Perpetua and St. Augustine. The former was martyred there with a number of others by being trampled to death by wild cows.
The cow as a feature of the martyrdom cannot be coincidence. From the ancient bull dances of Crete to contemporary bullfights, the cow and bull have been agents of the gods. It is difficult to separate fact from myth where early Christian history is concerned, but it is possible that the mode of martyrdom had religious significance in ancient times, long before the life and death of Christ or St. Perpetua.
The 2nd Century amphitheatre certainly was not the most magnificent ruin I have seen but the visit was a memorable one.
First, I startled a lizard who was basking on the stones of an ancient archway. It disappeared into the ruins but not before drawing my attention to the composition of the stones themselves. They contained a mixture of materials, including small rocks, concrete and seashells. In fact, I noted what appeared to be many local contemporary offerings of snail shells as well as seashells left in crevices between huge stones or in tiny niches and scars in the rocks created by Nature through the centuries.
These shell offerings, coupled with the many wildflowers growing in the cracks and in archways, served to wed the ruins to Nature. Through the thousands of years they have endured, the land has embraced them, becoming a very organic structure.
The architecture was in no way similar to that of Antonio Gaudi but the organic quality of the stones reminded me of him.
More later about Carthage. Meanwhile, here is a link to quite a good site about the ancient civilisation:
I have included photographs here of the Gaudi house in Barcelona, the mountains of Montserrat, the ruins of the amphitheatre in Carthage and the Tree of Attis in the ruins of the Punic Quarter near the National Museum. Unfortunately, there was so little time at each location. I always was the last person to return to the group, and being at a port for less than a day in each case and having little money myself made it impossible really to venture forth alone to explore. Taking organised group tours is NOT my preferred way to explore any location anywhere in the world, to be quite honest. I would prefer to spend a month in one location than a week in a dozen different places.
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Malta may be the seat of the oldest civilisation in our world. Megalithic structures have been excavated that predate the pyramids of the Egyptians and demonstrate incredible sophistication. There are those who postulate an idealistic'Goddess civilisation' later eradicated by patriarchal societies. Marija Gimbutas is probably the most famous of the proponents of the ancient 'Goddess Culture'. Her theories, although attractive and persuasive, cannot be proven. They certainly created a revolution in contemporary spiritual circles, however.
Here are some amateur videos showing ruins from the early megalithic civilisations in Malta. Some are better than other, but they all give the viewer an idea of the sheer magnitude and magnificence of this ancient society.
I found this video of Malta by the same individual who made a nice video of his visit to Pompeii.
I found a video of Malta by a native Maltese accompanied by a favourite song from Lord of the Rings, oddly enough: 'May it Be' sung by Enya, from 'Fellowship of the Rings but do not have the link now.
Here is one with a musical accompaniment made popular by the film 'Barry Lyndon'. It is a bit too dramatic for the video but the photography of Malta is quite splendid.
Pompeii lives in the dreams of countless individuals throughout the world. The fascination of our species with catastrophes is a topic that could fill volumes, but Pompeii quickens the imagination for many reasons. For four centuries, tourists have visited Pompeii and marvelled at the power of Vesuvius. In fictional accounts such as Bulwer-Lytton's 'Last Days of Pompeii' and the contemporary 'Pompeii - A Novel' by Robert Harris, writers have attempted to capture both the society of ancient Pompeii and the last terrifying moments of its inhabitants. A host of non-fictional studies have been published on the subject and there are a multitude of internet sites devoted to the doomed city.
It is not one of the great ancient 'sacred sites' where people from different eras and cultures found an echo of the Divine in the very rocks, stones, soil and trees, but it does represent the overwhelming power of Nature as a wielder of Death as well as Rebirth.
Vesuvius rather than Pompeii is the true sacred site, the cauldron of the Goddess. The ruins of Pompeii are a warning to humanity never to ignore or underestimate the eternal continuing potency of Nature.
Yet, Pompeii is a mausoleum of sorts and its streets, avenues, houses, temples and forum are rather like the models of cities placed in the tombs of ancient Egypt or in tombs in other parts of the ancient world, but on a grander scale. The dead of Pompeii did not expect their city to become a mausoleum but if their concept of the afterlife contained any element of former earthly life, then the entire city could serve to remind them of their daily routines, their position in society and anything else required to make the transition from this world to the next.
Unfortunately, the museum on site has been closed temporarily and the exhibits are stacked like items in a warehouse. Even so, one is able to catch glimpses of fine objects behind the iron gates... and the famous plaster corpses can be seen both there and in other locations of the city.
The expressions of the dying were captured fully in plaster and one feels as though one commits an almost obscene act by gazing upon the agony of another human being, even one whose ordeal occurred thousands of years ago. To take a photograph of such is even more of an obscenity and yet, how many of us can resist the impulse? It is the reality of it that is so compelling. It may not be a skeleton, the actual bones and flesh of any human, but the plaster casts are more eloquent than any corpse could be. I have gazed upon a multitude of 'relics' in churches and cathedrals throughout Europe as well as the mummified remains of bodies found in bogs and so on... but nothing equals the 'reality' of death seen in the plaster casts of the dying in Pompeii. Perhaps it is precisely because the evidence is that of the act of dying... capturing a moment between life and death.
It is that moment of final transformation that is so mesmerising and horrific. It is not the soul who has passed through the portal to death and ultimately rebirth perhaps but the soul who is caught in the agony of dying. Like a struggling insect caught in a spider's web, the plaster casts of Pompeii depict the struggle against death rather than the peace of the tomb.
Tourists file past glass coffins containing plaster casts in various locations, rather like mourners paying their respect at a funeral viewing, but without the same sense of reverence or emotional connection. Their curiosity is avid for the most part, and they want MORE. As you can see from the photographs I have included, the agony on the faces of these unfortunate individuals is undeniable, raw and vivid despite the passage of centuries. They may not be flesh and bone but they are more imbued with the spirit and emotion of the individual than most actual remains.
As far as the city itself is concerned, Pompeii as previously stated was NOT a particularly sacred destination for the Romans. It was a rather ordinary prosperous mercantile town before the eruption of Vesuvius. Part of its fascination for tourists is precisely that I imagine: here is the Roman equivalent of our own ordinary towns and cities. To walk through the streets of Pompeii is to walk through the Roman equivalent of Livorno in Italia, Nice in France, Southampton in England or Philadelphia in the States. There are some fine public buildings and many elegant homes, but Pompeii is not distinguished by any powerful ancient spiritual traditions, apart from its proximity to Vesuvius.
In fact, it is the fast food stalls, bakeries and houses of prostitution or Lupinari that fascinate many ordinary visitors to Pompeii. Enormous laundries, marketplaces and bathhouses are more of interest to many than the ruins of the ancient temples. I suspect it is because the visitor can relate emotionally to these glimpses of ordinary mundane life in a city that was destroyed almost 2000 years ago.
I cannot attempt to compete with existing information on Pompeii but will include links to some sites.
Interactive Guide to Pompeii
From a BBC documentary entitled 'Pompeii, the Last Day':
An enterprising tourist created a video of scenes from Pompeii as it exists now:
The World of Caius, Pompeii for Children
The volcano of Vesuvius last erupted in 1944. Here is actual footage from the disaster.