Wednesday, 19 December 2012


The story of the ascension of the Olympian Gods to mastery over the Heavens is an epic one indeed. After a cosmic struggle which endured for ten years, the Titans, the elder race of gods, were cast down into the depths of infernal Tartarus (for the story please click here). The young gods were victorious, and a new age of peace was at hand. The Earth was made, and mankind created. Heroes rose and fell, kingdoms and peoples too. Yet an ancient vengeance ever lay in the shadows, with cataclysmic forebodings...

The Giants Rise
Painting by Giulio Romano,
Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Te, Mantua
There came a time, many long ages of men after Zeus the Thunderer was crowned upon the throne of Olympus, when a poison ran through the Earth. For Gaia, matriarch of all things and Mother Earth herself, was roused to anger. Mother to the Titans, she could bear the suffering of her children no more. How could the Olympians rest sound and safe, knowing their own fathers and mothers, her sons and daughters, were cruelly bound in the depths of the Earth, far from the touch of the Sun's rays? As the Olympians rejoiced in peace and made merry on the golden plains of the Earth, Gaia's anger was building. In a fit of rage, Mother Earth gave birth once more. But it was no god or fair creature that her womb bore now. Her form bursting with her monstrous brood, at the Plains of Phlegra they at last burst forth, with a roar of thunder which caused the stars to shake. From the tear in her side they came. Towering high over all other beings on the Earth, the Gigantes breathed their first. Malevolant spirits like no other, some walked in the shapes of men, other twisted and contorted into grotesque shapes, writhing with serpents and strong beyond belief. The Giants sprang from Gaia's womb clad in the vestments of war, hate their first thought, to the skies their first gaze. A dark shadow spread across the Earth. Stars grew pale. The Great Bear fled below the Ocean, and the creatures of the Ocean frantically dived to the root of the World in fear. The Giants grew swiftly, nine inches every month, until soon their might could scarcely be supported by the vaults of matter. The Gods high on Olympus were in grave consternation. Who were these creatures, and what was their purpose? The anger of a scorned mother terrible to behold, Gaia spoke to her brood, and roused them to her fury;

           " Children, ye shall conquer Heaven: All that ye see is the prize of victory;
             win, and the Universe is yours. At last the son of Kronos shall feel the weight
             of my wrath; he shall recognise Earth's power... Why has Earth no honour?
             There hangs luckless Prometheus in yonder Scythian vale, the vulture feeding
             upon his breast; yonder, Atlas supports the weight of the starry Heavens upon
             his head, and his grey hair freezes solid with cruel cold. Arise, my avengers,
             the hour is come at last, shatter the chains of the Titans; rally to the aid of thy
             mother... Go forth and conquer; throw Heaven into disarray, tear down the towers
             of the Sky! "
                        - GAIA ROUSES THE GIGANTES TO WAR

The words of Earth are as the first trickles of a thundering waterfall, as the Giants bellow to the skies. The injustice of millennia, and endless age of hate, every injury of a lifetime is bound into the moment. In their minds, each already feels the victory. They imagine Poseidon bound in chains, dragged threw the oceans that once he ruled. Ares lies vanquished upon the mortal plain, Venus defiled and Athena conquered. With dreadful din, the Giants charge, eyes burning. The greatest among them, Alcyoneus, leads the path to war, the glory of invulnerability his, whilst favoured by the Earth - and far, far below, tremors in the Earth herald the revolution deep in Tartarus, as the Titans awake.

Chaos on Olympus
Painting by Francisco Bayeu
Watching from on high, Iris, the the herald of Olympus, frantically calls to the Gods. Soaring through the skies astride the rainbow that was her steed. Spirits far and wide answered her call, the nymphs and naiads and dryads, all rallied to Heaven's defence. Even Hades, lord of the Underworld, for whom the affairs of the Overworld were so often so trivial, readied his brazen chariot and prepared once again to stand side by side with his brothers. From the wide Oceans, Poseidon came, royal fingers gripping his shining trident. There seated in all his glory, lightning blazing before his glistening throne, was Zeus the Thunderer, Son of Kronos and King of the Gods. To his kin and faithful few, the Son of Kronos called now to steady their nerve:

          " Deathless host, whose dwelling place is, and ever must be, the sky, ye whom
            no adverse fortune can ever harm, mark ye how Earth with her new children
            conspires against our kingdom and undismayed has given birth to another brood?
            Wherefore, for all the sons she bore, let us give back to their mother as many
            dead; let her mourning last through the ages as she weeps by as many graves
            as she now has children. "
                      - ZEUS RALLIES THE GODS

The fire of hope sparked in the divine ranks, "the clouds echo the blast of Heaven's trumpets", as the might of Heaven and Earth entered the field of War. From the peak of Olympus the Gods marched forth in blinding array, from fiery Phlegra the Giants stormed upon the roots of the mountain, spirits burning with the fire of vengeance. The very surface of Mother Earth is thrown into chaos. Islands abandon the seas, mountains are thrown to the deep, the rivers thunder through the land, as Gaia's anger flares, and the sinews of her offspring  swell with radiating power. Alyconeus and Porphyrion, the mightiest of the brood, lead the charge, their wrath bent upon the highest crags of the mountain. Far behind, a giant tears up Athos the towering mountain, and hurls it upon the Olympian host, who scatter in fear. Oeta claims Pangaeus and sends it soaring through the sky. A terrible din rends the air, as the two lines clash, bloodthirsty Ares leading the Olympian charge. "Brighter than flame shines his golden shield, high towers the crest of his gleaming helm". Into the fray he hurls his mighty form, the battle rage rising in him, as he hurls his sword into the chest of the Giant Pelorus. The serpents which writhed in place of legs hissed their defiance, and in that moment a deathly silence fell. The first had fallen, and the Gigantes saw the broken body of their brother. The words of Gaia were words no more, and their rage was terrible to behold. The Giant Mimas seized the island of Lemnos and hurled it at the lord of war, meaning to shatter his divine skull. Within an inch of ruin the war god came, had not his javelin found its unfortunate mark. Chaos enveloped the world, as the cosmos erupted in all out war.

The Gigantomachia
Image taken from a 5th - 4th century Attic Amphora,
Musée du Louvre

Spurred on by their wounds, not weaker did the hideous brood of Gaia grow, but stronger still. Porphyrion, rippling with power, fell upon the gods as a tidal wave upon the broken coast. The immortal gods were thrown to the ground, and the march of the Giants was relentless. Then came the blasphemy greatest of all. Otus and Ephialtes, their stature beyond compare, fixed their gaze upon the crest of Olympus. Together, they raised Mount Ossa high into the air, and with all their might, cast it upon the summit of Pelion. The way was open now. Together the brothers stormed Olympus, the summit of their vile construction aiding their climb. As the foot of the Giants fell yonder upon the Hall of the Gods, that Artemis, the keen eyed archer saw their wicked scheme. All too well had poor Actaeon known the wrath of the huntress, that spirit now turned upon the defiling Giants. But it was with great shock that spread through the gods, for it was not enough this time. The Lady of the Hunt was relentless, but Otus and Ephialtes were greater still. The accursed Apostates moved in, victory near at hand. Far, far below, impious Tartarus shuddered as the bonds of the Titans began to weaken. It was in this moment, that Apollo, brother to Artemis, saw his sister in her plight. His mind racing, his aim with the bow was unparalleled, yet he had not time to slay them both. In desperation he sent a deer between the two. In the confusion, Artemis took flight, and the brothers, bellowing their frustration of their missed chance, hurled their spears at the deer. Yet their aim was not that of their tormentor, and in their folly each transfixed the other. With a terrific din, their vast bodies fell from Olympus, crashing to the Earth far below, and Gaia's fury grew stronger yet.

Far below, the Olympians were distraught. No foe had ever set foot on sacred Olympus, their omnipotence shattered forever it seemed. In their hour of darkness, an Oracle was heard in the vaults of Olympus, a prophecy. The arcane verse spoke of a ray of hope, and Zeus listened. The Gigantes were fearsome indeed, and no immortal hand would stay their destruction. When Gaia heard of this, she sought out a herb that would render her brood immune, sensing danger. But the Thunderer, lord of the skies, commanded Dawn, the Moon and Sun to rise upon his command only, and in the darkness Mother Earth could not find the herb. No immortal hands could harm her brood, the prophecy had said. So to the mightiest of mortals the Olympians turned, their last hope. In a dream Athena, lady of wisdom and mistress of stratagems, came to Heracles, slayer of beasts and sacker of citadels. The time had come for him to prove his rightful place as the son of Zeus, and aid his father in his darkest hour. Seizing his bow, the mighty hero heard her call, and made haste with all speed to the plain of Phlegra.

Where Alyconeus and Porphyrion marched, devastation fell in their wake. Not one among the Olympians could stand before them, so terrible was their power. It was to them that Heracles raced now. His fingers feeling for the feathers of an arrow, the son of Zeus loosed a deadly shaft at Alyconeus. With a roar the Giant fell from the Mountain, a strike fatal to all other beings. But this was not all other beings. With a deafening crash his body struck Mother Earth. From the moment his flesh touched that of Gaia, his wounds began to heal. The voice of Athena sounded in Heracles' ear - Alyconeus could not be killed whilst he fought in the land in which he was born. So mighty Heracles dragged the bellowing Giant from the plains of Pallene, there to die. The fury of the Giants reached its apex, as one among them made forward to crush Ares. Athena, spying the danger, rushed forward and raised her deadly Aegis, upon the face of which was emblazoned the face of the Gorgon. Wise Athena knew that she needed not the deadly point of any spear, the dreadful visage of her shield was enough. The Giant, seeing her, let out a cry and charged. "When, at a distance from his foe, without a wound, he found himself rooted to the ground, and felt the murderous glare turn him, little by little, to stone, he called out 'What is happening to me? What is this ice that creeps o'er my limbs? What is this numbness that holds me prisoner in these marble fetters?'". Fear flooding him for the first time, he felt the cold chill of death envelop him, as his powerful flesh became unyielding stone. Echion, nearby, sensing his brother's doom, snarled and charged the wise goddess. Valiant was his duty to his kin, but audacious his assault. His blade cut the very air as it hurtled towards her crown, and victory would have been his, had not he glimpsed the Gorgon's stare in the corner of his eye. Athena's spear pierced his side, as the other froze in rock.

The Fall of the Giants
Painting by Guiliano Romano
Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Te, Mantua
Panic swept through the Gigantes, as hope rekindled the spirits of the gods. Yet nothing would dent the fury that spurred on every inch of impious Porphyrion's gargantuan form. The roaring serpents that formed his legs bore him into the heart of the Ocean, as he grasped the island of Delos in his crushing grip. The Aegean trembled with terror, Thetis and her kin fled from the depths, the Palace of Poseidon, the pride of the deep, lay abandoned now. High on Mount Cynthus, the peaks rang to the cries of the nymphs upon it, the spirits that had once taught young Apollo to shoot the wild beasts, in cold dread now. Now they called out in desperation, the people of Delos, a plea for help. As the mighty Giant turned on Heracles and Zeus together, Cupid loosed an arrow at him, filling him with untimely desire. As his eyes saw Hera standing near, he was filled with irresistible desire. Releasing Delos, Porphryion charged after her, and the cosmos shuddered. Spirits and gods fled in fear before his warpath, none stood in his way. He laid his hand upon the daughter of Kronos, and she screamed out in fear. Seizing the weapon forged for him and him alone, Zeus the father of gods and men hurled a thunderbolt at the defiling giant. In the breast the bolt struck him, and the Apostate was thrown to the ground. Down but unvanquished, Porphyrion rose once more, and his eyes were as the pits of Tartarus, burning as glowing coals. Seizing their chance, Heracles and Apollo rushed to Zeus's aid. Taking an arrow each, they fired. The dart of Heracles struck true into the Giant's right eye, Apollo's his left, and at last the bane of Olympus fell cold to the ground. Hope spread through the gods, and they fell upon the dismayed brood. Dionysus conquered Eurytus, Hecate slew Clytius and with molten iron did Hephaestus immolate Mimas. Encelados turned to flee, but Athena crushed him beneath Mount Vesuvius, there bound forever in torment. Ever after has the mountain spat forth fire and quaked the Earth. Polybotes charged through the Ocean, and wrought terrible carnage, before Poseidon, the son of Kronos, smote him with the island of Nisyrus. Hermes, invisible to all other eyes, for he bore the helm of Hades, conquered Hippolytus, and Artemis, rejoining the fray, brought down Aigaion. The Three Fates laid low Agrios and Thoon, and Zeus the Thunderer hurled his flaming darts to and fro, the anger of the king of the gods unstoppable, the fury at the desecration of his holy places. In his wake strode his son, Heracles, saviour of the gods. The blood of the Giants soaked the Thracian lands, and ever after her people were a hostile and savage nation. The War was ended, and the greatest threat to Olympus had been cowed, as the Titans fell back to their slumber, dormant once again...

The importance the Ancient Greeks placed on the myth of the War of the Giants, or Gigantomachia, cannot be overstressed. There is scarcely a temple in the Greek world which does not bear an image of it, including the Parthenon itself, and the Great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Now at last, the peaceful rule of the Olympian Gods was assured. Ever after the titanic struggle between the gods and the Giants served as inspiration to the Greeks when under attack from foreign foes, especially one that lay just across the Ocean...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(The grand poem of the Gigantomachia, in archaic glory)

United States

Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(The grand poem of the Gigantomachia, in archaic glory)

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Wizard's Prophecy

Rome, AD 595. It is one hundred and nineteen years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Much of Europe is in turmoil, overrun by barbarian tribes. Nevertheless, life continues in the Eternal City. Market day arrives, and His Holiness Pope Gregory the Great and his entourage came to admire the array of produce as eagerly as anyone, for in these days the Pope of Rome lived simply, favouring a monastic life. Among the fine crops and exotic fruits on sale that day was the slave market, always the talk of trade. Then something caught the eye of the Pope. A group of young boys, fair haired and skinned, chained together in slavery, awaiting their fate. A strange feeling gripped Gregory, wonder fused with pity...

"Not Angles, but Angels..."
Image taken from a mosaic of Westminster Cathedral,
"From what country or nation were they brought?", he asked a companion. Upon enquiring with the slave dealer in a strange foreign tongue, he replied. "They are from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants are of such personal appearance". Pope Gregory, entranced, asked, "are those islanders Christians, or still pagans?". When he discovered that they were pagans, he voiced his anguish, "Alas! What a pity", said he, "that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances". "What is the name of that nation?", he asked, more keenly still. "They are called Angles", came the reply, for the land of Britain was at that time overrun with the tribe of the Angles. "Right", said he, "for they have an angelic face, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the Angels in Heaven. They are not Angles, but Angels". Sensing Divine Providence that day, Pope Gregory turned to a nearby Prior, Augustine was his name, and commanded him to lead a mission to this far away land, and spread the word of Christ, with half a mind to undertake the task himself. The British Isles would never be the same again. But what of the people of Britain, and the destiny of that race? The story begins almost two hundred years earlier...

As the fifth century dawned, much of the known world was plunged into turmoil. For the lives of many, and of their ancestors for many hundreds of years too, the mighty Empire of the Romans was not only the world's greatest power, but civilisation itself. So much so that millions of people who had never even seen the Eternal City, would not have been able to locate the City on a map, who had not a drop of Roman blood in their bodies, called themselves Romans. Now, Rome, which had once seemed a power that would know no end, was on its knees. Plague, Famine, War, Strife and Economic crisis have each destroyed nations. It took all of them combined to bring about the final destruction of the Roman Empire. Yet from the ashes of Rome, her former provinces would arise as new nations, one of them an island far on the boundaries of the Empire - Britannia.

On New Year's Eve AD 406, at a rupture in the frontier of the Western Roman Empire on the River Rhine, a horde of barbarian tribes poured across the border. Vandals, Alans, Alemanni, and a formidable array of tribesman swept into Roman provinces, and the struggling Western Empire desperately tried to stem the inexorable advance. City after city was burned and pillaged, and areas the size of modern countries were laid waste. It was at this time that the Roman province of Britannia was in revolution. As the Romans in Italy were reeling from another invasion of the Visigothic tribes, Northern Europe seemed defenceless, and the people of Britain feared that they would be next. Longing for order, in a world now seemingly in the brink of the Apocalypse, the Britons threw their support behind the Roman general Constantine, thinking with melancholy of the days of Constantine the Great some one hundred years earlier. Constantine moved quickly. Landing on the beaches of northern France, called Gaul in ancient times, Constantine brought with him all the garrisons of Britain. Not one Roman soldier was left behind in Britannia, it was all or nothing for Constantine now. Setting himself up as the new Western Roman Emperor Constantine III, in direct opposition to the true Emperor Honorius, Western Europe rose in all out war. Roman marched on Roman, and Roman blood flowed by the hand of other Romans, and all the while, people died in their thousands, slaughtered by vengeful barbarians. Constantine pushed back the troops loyal to Honorius at first, seizing the province of Hispania (the future Spain), being recognised as joint Emperor with Honorius. But the barbarian advance was relentless. Ravaging the entirety of Gaul, they reached the Pyrenees. At this time, the Saxons landed on the East coast of Britannia. The British people, feeling betrayed by Constantine, abandoned him to his fate, as his eldest son Constans was elevated to power. Constans, who had before taken the life of the cloth, a pious man, was ill-prepared for secular rule. Naive, his brief reign was dominated by the schemings of his chief advisor, Vortigern, who one day overthrew his master and seized the throne of Britain for his own. The surviving brothers of Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther Pendragon, fled to Brittany to escape Vortigern's wrath.

Merlin and Vortigern
Image taken from a 13th century Illuminated
Manuscript, now in the British Library
Great was Vortigern's fear of Ambrosius, and Uther in particular, but so too was his fear of the Picts, a fearsome tribe that lurked in the Highlands of Scotland. The fledgling Britain was ill able to repel the Picts alone, and Vortigern turned abroad for aid. Readily answering the usurper's call, a force of Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on England's eastern shores, under two brothers, Hengest and Horsa. With his new allies, Vortigern triumphed over the Picts time and again. Though elated at the throwing back of the Picts, more than a few among the Britons began to question the ambitions of these new 'allies'. The King's son, Vortimer, aghast at his father's submissiveness, urged him to restrain the Saxons before the hour grew too late. But Vortigern refused counsel on such matters. So when, one day, cunning Hengest asked the King for permission to invite over to these shores more of his countrymen, to strengthen Vortigern's position further, the naive King eagerly agreed. As Saxons landed in Britain in their thousands, the enraged Vortimer, with the support of the Britons, overthrew his father and determined to rid Britannia forever of foreign invaders. Upon the Saxons he fell, and terrible was his attack. Four times the Saxons stood, and four times they were broken, and even Horsa was slain, yet so too was Vortimer's brother, Catigern. Victory seemed near, but tragedy struck, when Vortimer was slain too. Such woe fell upon Britannia as never before, as the vengeance of the Saxons was terrible indeed. Vortigern, seizing back his throne once more, fled to Cambria, Wales of old, desperate now, for the fate of Britain, and his own, hung in the balance. It was then that his followers urged him to raise a mighty castle, so magnificent that no foe could storm it, so majestic that no eye could behold it without awe. Upon Mount Eryri the first stone was laid, as the King of the Britons summoned to him all the finest craftsman and masons in Britannia. Despair soon fell upon the Britons however, for when they awoke upon the second day, all their hard work had vanished, and the stones had sunk into the land. Once again they tried, and once again all was lost. Vortigern turned to his sages once more, and asked what may be done. The soothsayers and mages present their bade the King seek out a boy who had no father, and that his blood shouls be sprinkled upon the mortar and stones, so that the great citadel should never fall.

All through the land the messengers of the King searched for such a boy, and for an age it seemed a fruitless quest. Then one day horsemen came to the city known as Carmarthen, and saw a young lad playing at the gates. A fight broke out between the lad and another boy over some petty quarrel. "None knoweth what thou art, for never a father hadst thou!", the other boy shouted. At these words, the King's heralds were filled with hope. "What is thy name?" one asked the first boy. "Merlin", replied the lad. It transpired that indeed the boy had a father unknown by all, and his mother, a nun in St. Peter's Church, spoke of a vision she once had before she gave birth to the unfathered boy. Such a thing could only mean a supernatural prodigy of this boy, and when Vortigern heard this, he at once ordered Merlin brought before him without delay.

As he was thrown at the feet of Vortigern, young Merlin asked the King why he had been brought here. "My wizards have declared it unto me as their counsel that I should seek out one that had never a father, that when I shall have sprinkled his blood upon the foundation of the tower my work should stand firm". To which the young lad replied "Bid thy wizards come before me, and I will convict them of having devised a lie". Amazed at the boy's audacity, Vortigern summoned his mages. Merlin denounced them all, mocking their foolish ways. Turning to the King, he urged him to summon his workmen and dig below the tower, and there he would find a great pool of water, the source of such woe. So dig they did, and found the pool, they did. The mages were dumbfounded, and Vortigern impressed. But Merlin was not finished. "Command, O King, that the pool be drained by conduits, and in the bottom thereof shalt thou behold two hollow stones and therein two dragons asleep". When it was found to be thus, all around marvelled greatly at the gift of foresight this young boy had been blessed with, and even then there some who said that Merlin possessed some of the spirit of God.

The Dragon Struggle
Image taken from a 15th century Illuminated Manuscript,
now at Lambeth Palace, London
It was then, as Vortigern looked on, that the two dragons, one red and one white, clambered out of the pool, and when they met, with a terrible roar they fell upon each other. The Earth shuddered and the cavern rang, and fire spouted forth from their jaws, and it seemed the White Dragon would prevail, as the Red Dragon was cast to very shore of the lake. But then, the Scarlet Wyrm turned in defiance, and with renewed vigour threw itself upon the White, forcing him back. King Vortigern, turning to Merlin, enquired as to the meaning of this peculiar spectacle now played out before them. The power of prophecy filled the great wizard, and tears his eyes, as the awesome power of foresight was his once more:

        " Woe unto the Red Dragon, for his extermination draweth nigh; and his caverns
          shall be occupied of the White Dragon that betokeneth the Saxons
          whom thou hast invited hither. But the Red signifieth the race of Britain
          that shall be oppressed of the White. Therefore shall the mountains
          and the valleys thereof be made level plain and the streams of the valleys
          shall flow with blood. The rites of religion shall be done away and the ruin
          of the churches be made manifest. At the last, she that is oppressed shall prevail
          and resist the cruelty of them that come from without. For the Boar of Cornwall
          shall bring succour and shall trample their necks beneath his feet.
          The islands of the Ocean shall be subdued unto his power, and the forests of Gaul
          shall he possess. The house of Romulus shall dread the fierceness of his prowess
          and doubtful shall be his end. Renowned shall he be in the mouth of the peoples... "
                   - THE PROPHECY OF MERLIN

At the sound of these words, a remarkable feeling swept over all who heard it. Heads weary with despair lifted with the fire of fresh hope. The pure of heart were warmed with faith, and the impure with fear. Who was this great saviour, this Boar of Cornwall, who was coming? Word spread throughout the realms of England. Hope came in its stead. Their champion was coming. Alas that not one there knew his name, when all the world does today...

United Kingdom

The Legends of the Kings of Britain
The History of the Kings of Britain (Classics)
(A history of Britain written in the Middle Ages, including the days of King Arthur)

The Ecclesiastical History of the English
The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford World's Classics)
(The story of Saxon England, written by the Venerable Bede)

United States

The Legends of the Kings of Britain
The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classics)
(A history of Britain written in the Middle Ages, including the days of King Arthur)

The Ecclesiastical History of the English
Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Classics)
(The story of Saxon England, written by the Venerable Bede)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Arrow's Graze

Sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen
There came one day when Cupid, the god of desire and son of Venus, took up the arms of Apollo, lord of the Sun, mischief on his powerful mind. Stringing the bow of Leto's son, he loosed a bolt to and fro, merrily playing and readying his aim. But Apollo saw him, and was incensed to fury at the young spirit. "Thou lascivious boy", spake he, "are arms like these for children to employ?" The Sun god berated Cupid, denouncing him as inferior in strength of body and of mind, of aim and eye. Might had been the conquests of the Sun gods bow, mortal and monster alike, the great serpent which terrorised the Delphic vale and more beside. "What is the power of desire, beside the fatal barb of my shot?", he mocked. But wily Cupid, cunning within him beyond his size, rounded on the god. "Mine the fame shall be, of all thy conquests, when I conquer thee". Vowing vengeance upon Apollo for his curses, Cupid, flying high to the peak of Mount Parnassus, brandished his deadly gift.

                    " Two diff'rent shafts he from his quiver draws;
                      One to repel desire, and one to cause.
                      One shaft is pointed with refulgent gold:
                      To bribe the love, and make the lover bold:
                      One blunt, and tipped with lead, whose base allay
                      Provokes disdain, and drives desire away.
                      The blunted bolt against the nymph he drest:
                      But with the sharp transfixt Apollo's breast. "
                            - CUPID CURSES APOLLO

Taking the arrow fixed with lead, the youthful spirit took deadly aim, and loosed the barb at his target. Far below upon the plain, there danced a naiad, Daphne was her name, daughter of the river Peneus. A fair lady beyond all others, the nymph had always been plagued by the advances of weak hearted men. But, shunning the ways of ordinary maidens, Daphne preferred the hunt to the arts of grace. Faithful to Diana, the Lady of the Moon and Hunt, many a time could Daphne be found, stalking her quarry in the forests. As the goddess herself, she swore herself pure, never to be violated in body, or in mind. The title of bride she scorned, the glades of the trees, she embraced. Often did her father chide her ways, for such passions were not the ways of other ladies and nymphs. But strong willed Daphne cared not, throwing her arms around her father's neck. "Give me, my Lord", she cried, "to live, and die, a spotless mad, without the marriage tye. 'Tis but a small request; I beg no more than what Zeus the Thunderer, sire of Diana, gave before". His angered gaze softened, and he at last relented, seeing the daughter he held so dear, granting her destiny. He granted her wish, but gave her warning - her wish would one day prove her punishment. Her beauty was as a curse now. Her own face would be her doom. It was to Daphne now, that Cupid's leaden dart flew swift and true, soaring through the Heavens, over plain and field and brook, piercing the nymph's oblivious side, banishing desire from her once and for all, cursing her to despise the first being she looked upon.

Apollo and the Muses
Painting by Jan van Balen
Not a moment to delay, young Cupid seized the golden barb from his quiver, and took careful aim. Just yonder stood the Sun god himself, Apollo in his rage. Steady was his hand, and keen his eye. A flash of gold, and the arrow whipped into the Sun god's breast, bearing upon its burnished tip the sparks of desire , dooming its victim to deadly infatuation with the first being he looked upon. His eyes averted by the shock of the dart, Apollo opened his divine eye, and down upon the mortal plain he gazed. It was there that he caught sight of her. Tender arms, and flowing hair, she danced through the sylvan glade. As the parched field in the high summer, when the traveller casts his flaming brand upon the grass, that was how the god was now afire. The golden point within fuelled a fire without mercy or respite, seizing his mind, all thought and hope now bent upon the nymph. His eyes passed over her dishevelled hair, her eyes as heavenly lamps, her delicate hands, and in that moment he was doomed.

With the celerity no god could match, but a god filled with raw passion alone could know, Apollo thundered down from the heights of Mount Olympus, all thought of other things, all hopes, all fears, all duties, banished from his mind. Into the shade of the great forest the light of the Sun came, and it was in that moment that Daphne turned and saw her admirer for the first time. Hideous revulsion and disgust raw flooded her, as the leaden bolt burned bright within her. With horror at the hateful figure she saw before her, the naiad turned tail in flight. More swiftly than any spirit had moved before, Daphne fled. Anguish mingled with fear when the Sun god saw her run, would he lose her? No doubt in the mind of the god, he made hot pursuit. Both spirits of the immortal gods, both unmoved by fatigue, both raced across the world, one doomed never to reach his quarry, the other never to leave it. The huntress was now as the hunted. Through open plains, through meadows, through mountains, through rivers and through valleys god and naiad chased, no hint of sweat upon either brow, for god, no hint of capture, for naiad, no hint of evasion. "Stay Nymph", Apollo cried, "I follow not a foe... Thou shunn'st a God, and shunn'st a God that loves!". To Daphne Apollo called, begging her to stop:

                    " Abate thy speed, and I will bate of mine.
                      Yet think from whom thou dost so rashly fly;
                      Nor basely born, nor shepherd's swain am I.
                      Perhaps thou know'st not my superior state;
                      And from that ignorance proceeds thy hate.
                      Me Claros, Delphi, Tenedos obey;
                      These hands the Patareian scepter sway.
                      The King of Gods begot me: what shall be,
                      Or is, or ever was, in Fate, I see.
                      Mine is th' invention of the charming lyre;
                      Sweet notes, and heaven'ly numbers, I inspire.
                      Sure is my bow, unerring is my dart... "
                              - APOLLO CALLS TO DAPHNE

Not half of the Sun god's pleas did bold Daphne hear. Long ago had she voweda life of chastity, here was her greatest test, and she would not violate her oath now. "Fear gave her wings", and as she fled with haste anew, the wind blew her flowing hair, and Apollo, stricken by flame again, was fired anew.

The Metamorphosis of Daphne
Painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
"She urg'd by fear, her feet did swiftly move, but he more swiftly, who was urg'd by love". Now at last, the god gained pace, and the gap began to edge closer. With such fury did Apollo thunder across the plains, he spared not one spare reserve of divine effort calling to her, focused as he was on just touching her. A glance behind, and pure Daphne spied the god bearing closer down, and the naiad grew pale with terror. The labours of her long bid for freedom wore heavy upon her soft shoulders, but still she did not bow to what could have been inevitable. Desperate now, she called to her father, Peneus, lord of the river, "Oh help", she cried, "in this extremest need! If water gods are deities indeed, gape Earth, and this unhappy wretch intomb; or change my form, when all my sorrows come." With the utmost need did Daphne call, and the god heard her. Pitying her daughter, remembering how he had warned her that she would be forever cursed by her beauty, he bowed to her final wish. An incantation he spake aloud, words of power radiating from the river. Apollo reached out for her, and Daphne gasped:

                   " Scarce had she finish'd, when her feet she found
                      Benumb'd with cold, and fasten'd to the ground:
                      A filmy rind about her body grows;
                      Her hair to leaves, her arms extend to boughs:
                      The nymph is all into a laurel gone;
                      The smoothness of her skin remains alone... "
                            - THE METAMORPHOSIS OF DAPHNE

With a howl of broken hope, Apollo looked on as the very pinnacle of his heart's desire changed to tree before his eyes, cursing the god that robbed him of his prize. Round her waist he threw his arms, but round a trunk his arms fell. Some warmth he found still, a heaving heart within. But in vain did he call her name, for once where there was naiad, there was now only the fair bark of a laurel tree, the first laurel tree. Apollo, stricken with tears, embraced the trunk and fixed his lips upon it. Wiping the tears from his eyes, the Sun god declared:

                   " Because thou canst not be
                      My mistress, I espouse thee for my tree:
                      Be thou the prize of honour, and renown;
                      The deathless poet, and the poem, crown.
                      Thou shalt the Roman festivals adorn,
                      And, after poets, be by victors be worn.
                      Thou shalt returning Caesar's triumph grace;
                      When pomps shall in a long procession grace;
                       Wreath'd on the posts before his palace wait;
                       And be the sacred guardian of the Gate.
                       Secure from thunder, and unharm'd by Jupiter,
                       Unfading as th' immortal Pow'rs above...
                       So shall perpetual green thy boughs adorn... "
                                - APOLLO'S PLEDGE TO THE LAUREL

Deep within the spirit of the tree, Daphne heard his words at last, and grateful was she, and the tree bowed respectfully to the god. Ever after was the laurel tree the symbol of victory, worn as a wreath upon the crown of champions, and never again did Apollo doubt the power of desire...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)

United States

Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)  

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The White Buffalo

We turn today to a people who, like the Aboriginal people of Oceania, are not a civilisation that rose and fell in the past, but one that endures even today. They, as much as any, are testament to the serenity of a life without electricity, gas, great monuments or even writing. All that was needed was what could be found on the prairies of North America, and a belief in the spirit bound in all things. These were, are and will be the indigenous peoples of North America. The sheer diversity of the Native Americans is as varied as their culture is rich. We begin with one story from a tribe of the Great Plains.

A Sioux Village before Chimney Rock
Painting by Albert Bierstadt
The Great Sioux Nation, perhaps the most iconic of all the American Indian tribes, are a people with a dramatic history. Hailing from the Mississippi Valley, the Sioux came to populate a great swathe of the vast Great Plains. From humble origins, the Sioux peoples could be found in what are now the States of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana and Iowa of the present day United States, as well as Saskatchewan and Alberta in modern Canada. The Sioux peoples were bound by common family of language, and core of beliefs, but even the Sioux themselves were diverse. The Eastern Dakota, the Western Dakota, and the Lakota all made up the Great Sioux Nation. It is to the Lakota that we turn today, a people famous for their horse culture, their nomadic ways, and their fierce resistance to the United States of America. It is from this tribe that the famous war chiefs Sitting Bull (of the Hunkpapa subtribe), Crazy Horse and Red Cloud (both of the Oglala subtribe) all hailed. The Lakota will always be remembered for their part in the great victory over Custer at the Little Bighorn in the June of 1876, but theirs is a culture that began many centuries earlier. For a people who did not have writing, but oral tradition of stories told from father to son over long passages of time, even the same tale can have many variations, even within a tribe. Here is one story that is told, of the earliest days of the Sioux.

The Black Hills - sacred ground to the Sioux
Photograph taken by Jake DeGroot, in modern day
South Dakota and Wyoming, USA
Long ago, in the days of the ancestors, before the Lakota people knew of horses (surprisingly, for a people so iconically associated with their bond with horses, the Sioux were introduced to them only around 1730, by the Cheyenne), it was with great toil and sweat that the people hunted the Buffalo. One summer arrived, and there was great heat on the prairies. More than ever, Lakota hunters struggled to feed their people, as they searched far and wide for the Buffalo. Starvation threatened the people, and an ominous feeling gripped the Lakota. When morning arose one day, two young braves of the Itázipčho resolved to embark upon one last hunt, early, before the Plains grew stifling hot. The Itázipčho encampment slept, and the dogs yawned. Only the song of the Meadowlark could be heard, and the soft breeze, percussion of the great prairie that had no end. The braves were skilled in the ways of the hunt, and none heard their footfalls as they took their leave.

It seemed an age, as their journey seemed as endless as the inhospitable Plains. To the untrained eye, these new pastures were indistinguishable from any other, but these were not untrained eyes. Generations since the dawn of time of tracking the great herds across the prairie had taught the Lakota the subtleties of the Great Spirit, and the way of the land. Before long, however, a small hill had broken the horizon. The crickets chirped in the grass, swayed by the wind, and the prairie dogs scurried away into their burrows at the braves' advance. One brave looked up. The Sun grew higher in the sky, and he wiped the sweat from his brow. With great exertion, both men overcame the crest of the mound, and the vista that greeted their eyes was at once both serene and shattering. More than ever before, the Plains seemed without end, and the braves were forced to raise their arms to shield their eyes from the intense heat and brightness of the Sun.

The Sioux hunt the buffalo
Painting by George Catlin
Just then, when hope had all but vanished, through the fiery haze in the distance, their appeared a dark figure.   It was a enchanting, yet somehow familiar, silhouette, and both braves looked on in amazement. It was no bison, it was a woman, but one unlike any the Lakota had ever set eyes on before. Extraordinarily beautiful, yet somehow seeming forbidden, as she approached, the young men saw that she was clad in a gleaming white buckskin, which only enhanced her transfixing visage. As she drew closer still, they saw that it was richly decorated in sacred symbols, adorned with the brightly coloured quills of the porcupine. She bore upon her shoulders a hefty bundle, and in her fair hand a fan of sage leaves that exuded an alluring scent. Her coal black hair swayed in the breeze, save for one lock bound in the fur of a buffalo, all framing her radiant eyes, in which it seemed the very light of the Sun radiated. One of the braves, an impious youth, was seized with forbidden desire. Turning to his kin, "What a woman!" he exclaimed, as he vowed to take his chance. "You fool", spake the other, a wise man, "this woman is holy", he warned. The mysterious woman beckoned him forth, and the hot-headed and foolhardy brave, deaf to his fellow's wise counsel, immediately ran up to the stranger. The boy reached out to her. Just before their hands met, a strange feeling descended upon the Plains, and both figures were shrouded in a great cloud. In a flash, the haze lifted, and all that remained of the brave were his bones, serpents hissing and writhing within. The wise brave, a pious and wise man, saw the holy nature of this woman, and was afraid, not for his life, but out of the awe of her majesty, and bowed before her as she approached. "Behold", she spake to the honourable Lakota, "I am come to your people by word of Tatanka Oyate, land of the buffalo. Return to Chief Standing Hollow Horn and tell him all you have seen here. Tell the Itázipčho to raise a Tipi great in size that all the Itázipčho may be sheltered within it, and prepare for my coming".

The young brave tarried not a moment, and at once turned and sprinted across the prairie. Sweat poured, and his muscles ached, but the Sioux ran on under the burning Sun, the blades of the long grass whipping at his bare chest. Gasping for breath, he reached the Itázipčho encampment. Finding the Chief Standing Hollow Horn, he told him all that he had seen, of his comrade's impiety, and of his divine command. Seeing the sincerity of the brave's word, the Chief ordered at once for all the Tipis of the Itázipčho to be bound together and raised as one. After much effort, in near unbearable heat, the task was done, and the grand Tipi was mighty enough to shade all the tribe. Pleased with their work, the Itázipčho awaited the coming of the wise woman.

A Sioux Tipi
Photograph taken by John C. H. Grabill
United States Library of Congress
Three days passed, and the Lakota scouts bore now word of her approach. The fourth day dawned, and the Itázipčho spied a strange figure on the horizon. In an instant, they looked back eagerly to their kin, and to their shock, she was already amongst them in their great lodge, prowling it in the way of the Sun. The fair woman came before Chief Standing Hollow Horn, holding her arms outstretched before her. There, in her hands, was the strange bundle the brave had seen. "Look upon this", she spake, "and always love and honour it. None who is impure may ever lay hand upon this, for this contains the sacred pipe". She took the bundle and unravelled it, revealing the pipe, the Chanunpa, and a small stone. Laying the stone upon the ground, and addressed the Lakota:

" With this pipe you will walk on the Earth, which is your grandmother and your mother.
  The Earth is sacred, and so is every step that you take on her. The bowl of the pipe
   is of red stone; it is the Earth. The image carved upon it that you see is the calf
   of the Buffalo, for all things of four legs. The stem you see is of wood,
   for all things that grow on this Earth. The twelve feathers you see hail from the
   Great Spotted Eagle, for all winged creatures of this world. All these living things
   are the children of Mother Earth. You are all bound as one family,
   and you will be reminded when you smoke this pipe. Treat it, and the Earth,
   with respect, and your people will know good fortune forever... "

To seven circles upon the Chanunpa she pointed, and bade them to follow the seven rites that they heralded. The first rite would weave immortality into the soul. The remaining six, she prophesied, she would teach the Lakota, in time.The Lakota were silent in reverence before her majesty, and struck dumb at her words. The holy woman rose to her feet, and made to leave, but before she did, she turned to Chief Standing Hollow Horn one last time. "This pipe will carry you to the end. Remember that in me are four ages of this world. I go now, but I will watch over you in all the ages of this world, and one day, at the end, I will return". Treading slowly, she circled the lodge in the direction of the Sun, as all present gazed in wonder fused with awe, even the children of the Lakota were captivated by her. Into the distance of the prairie she strode, but before the horizon claimed her, she turned to look at the people one last time, and sat down. When she arose once again, the Lakota were stunned to see that she was now as a young calf of the Buffalo, with a magnificent coat of chestnut brown, flecked with red. The calf proudly strode into the beyond, before it too, lay down, and rolled over in the grass. Looking back to the Lakota, now a mighty White Buffalo, radiant on the horizon. One last time, the powerful figure touched the Earth, Mother of all, and rolled over. For the last time she rose, a Buffalo as black as the night. The beast bowed to the North, to the South, to the East and to the West, before finally the light took it, and the horizon met the Prairie pure once again.

So was born the Lakota people, and a way of life...

United Kingdom

Stories of the North American Indians
American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon Fairy Tales & Fantasies)
An impressive collection of legends gathered from over eighty tribes

United States

Stories of the North American Indians
American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)
An impressive collection of legends gathered from over eighty tribes

Wednesday, 7 November 2012


The beginning of things is always a moment enshrined in history. The greater the thing, the greater the myth, especially for those few who founded entire civilisations, for whom myth and history can be so closely intertwined as to be nigh on indistinguishable. One such hero was Cadmus.

The Rape of Europa
Painting by Titian
Far past, in the distant mists of time, there ruled over the great city of Tyre the King Agenor and his Queen Telephassa. Under their happy and benevolent rule Tyre rose to great heights, and the the Tyrians were blessed with a formidable progeny. To the royal family were born three sons; Phoenix, Cilix and Cadmus, and a daughter, Europa. Tyre rejoiced in the splendour of each of her heirs, each magnificent to behold and strong of heart. As the four grew up, the future seemed radiant for the great city. But it was not only man and woman who admired the majesty of these four, for they, as all things, could not escape the gaze of the Olympians on high. No mere nymph, dryad or spirit, but Zeus himself, King of the all gods, became enamoured of the young princess Europa. One sun drenched day, Europa danced merrily by the ocean's edge, under the Thunderer's watchful gaze. Transfixed by her beauty, Zeus came down to the Earth as a mighty white bull, of gleaming horns and glistening coat. Europa looked up, entranced at the majestic sight before her. Laying a fair hand upon the Bull's shining mane, in a bewitching trance she dared to mount its back. Gently, the Bull turned toward the surf, and sauntered into the waves. Triumphant, Zeus spirited her beyond the horizon, glorying in his prize, as the maiden held on, taken up in the thrill of adventure, as the land fell away behind her. Never again was she to be seen again on Tyrian shores.

When word reached King Agenor's ears of his daughter's flight, he was stricken with anguish. Summoning his three sons before him, he bade each search every coast far and wide, across the world, in search of Europa, unbeknownst to him that a god's hand was at work. With ready abandon did each brother set forth in search of his sister, three directions did they depart, and in three ways did they journey, and for an endless age did they go. To the South and West did Phoenix go, after time giving his name to the land of Phoenicia. To the North did Cilix go, after time giving his name to the land of Cilicia. To the West did young Cadmus go, landing soon upon Grecian shores. Time passed and the maiden could not be found, for what mortal can pursue the Thunder god himself? Weary from ageless toil, Cadmus decided to seek out the Oracle, and know her counsel. High upon the Delphic road he thus trod, with kindred Tyrians in tow, coming to the Pythian Halls. Intoxicated by the mists of prophecy, the Oracle thus did cry:

                      " Behold among the fields a lonely cow,
                        Unworn with yokes, unbroken to the plow;
                        Mark well the place where first she lays her down,
                        There measure out thy walls, and build thy town,
                        And from thy guide Boeotia call the land,
                        In which the destin'd walls and town shall stand... "      
                             - THE ORACLE SPEAKS TO CADMUS

The Prince of Tyre was taken aback by the command of Heaven. To find his sister was to be a destiny not his, it seemed, but as the founder of a nation. No sooner had he departed the towering sanctum, pondering deep his divine mission, than he spied in the fields that sacred cow, unshackled by rope or chain, unfitted with plow. The cow raised her head and saw the Prince of Tyre. Both looked into the eyes of the other for a brief moment, before the beast turned and trod. At a distance Cadmus stalked, in silence, praying to the god whose path he followed now. Through mountain high and plain wide Prince and beast continued their strange dance, crossing the silvery rapids of the river Cephisus, when all of a sudden, the cow raised her head to on high, bellowing thrice, before turning back to gaze at he, and laying in the grass. Cadmus saw the sign, and gave thanks to on high, thanks for his destiny, thanks for the nameless place, pastures and mountains which would be the land of his progeny. Turning to his kin, he bade them seek water with all haste from living streams, so as to prepare a sacrifice to Zeus the father of men and gods. So, over the wide plain his comrades trod, for their lay in a dark vale beyond a shady wood, its boughs hanging heavy over unlit grass, pathless and thick with brambles in the scrub.

Cadmus and the Dragon
Painting by Hendrick Goltzius
Yet Death incarnate lay in the darkness of the trees. For deep in the dank forest, sacred to Ares, lord of War, a powerful dragon lay, "bloated with poison to a monstrous size; fire broke in flashes when he glanc'd his eyes: his tow'ring crest was glorious to behold, his shoulders and his sides were scal'd with gold...". The Tyrians searched wide for water in the eerie glade, and with their vessels upturned, they gathered from the stream. From side to side their urns bounded, the ripples echoing deep into the infernal pond. Upon the the wyrms's crest they crashed, rousing the beast from evil slumber. Evil stirs, and with a hiss that shrivels the skin of the very sky, the dragon rose from the stagnant pool, his many tongues flickering, his many eyes darting to and fro. The Tyrians gave a shout of fear, their urns lying, shattered, discarded, upon the soil, now their grave. The dragon, towering high into the sky, then saw trembling men in his glade, and fell upon them in a rage. To their arms some Tyrians look, but in vain, to flight from the evil glade others. But no man there would breath the fresh air again, no man live to see the destiny of their prince. Some lie broken underfoot, others devoured by the monstrous creature, their final screams masked by the roar of the wyrm's ghastly breath.

The Sun began to rise into the warm, midday sky, and Cadmus began to wonder where his comrades had got to. Impatient to commence the rites the Olympians themselves had ordained him to do, the Prince of Tyre at once set forth to search for them, casting his eyes upon the fell glade in the distance, a place where the rays of the Sun never shone. The hide of a lion he wore around his muscled form, a raised spear in his hand, but a heart of valour was his greatest arm by far. Not long did he tread in the forest's eaves before the  broken bodies of his kin his eyes did spy, the monstrous beast in their midst, feasting upon his friends, gore spattering his jaw. In a shout of rage and grief, Cadmus heaved a mighty boulder, no ten men today could lift it, weak as men are now, and hurled it at the creature. The mightiest rock flung by the mightiest engine of war never had cast so mighty a payload at a towering wall, yet harmlessly did the stone deflect from the iron scales. His slumber disturbed a second time, the dragon seared with fury, and bore down upon the Prince of Tyre with thundering haste. Undaunted, the young Prince took up his spear, taking careful aim. The strength of the greatest of men, and beyond, he put into the throw, casting the dart into creature's spine. More success this time, as the iron tip burrowed between the scales, punching into the vile flesh. A screeching hiss the serpent wailed, sending eerie chill down Cadmus' spine. The powerful body writhed and turned, and monstrous teeth closed around the shaft of wood, splintering Tyrian spear. Pain feeding his building rage, the wyrm's eyes clouded a hideous red, hate pounding in every vein, as from his mouth a putrid gale blew, spraying a lethal foam about the clearing. Plant, flower and tree all wither under its hail, but not the Prince of Tyre. Uncoiling now, the monster lunges, a torrent of power. Desperate now, Cadmus seized the ruined spear, as the serpent's jaws clamped upon the point, mixing blood and venom raw. Not a moment to spare, the Prince dived behind a tree, as the mighty trunk deflects his foe's strike. Seizing his chance, Cadmus took the shattered point and thrust it will all his might and will to live, deep into the creature's throat. Labouring hard for breath, the accursed wyrm writhed in a final agony, crashing to the dust, lifeless as stone.

Cadmus sows the Dragon's Teeth
Painting by Maxfield Parrish
Not a moment did young Cadmus have to relish his triumph before a terrible voice roared throughout the dale, the voice of a god. "Why dost thou thus with secret pleasure see, insulting man! What thou thy self shalt be?" With horror chill did the Prince of Tyre realise, the voice of Ares, god of war himself, thundered all around, in anger at the slaying of his sacred beast. It was then that Athena, lady of wisdom, soared down from the Olympian heights, favouring the innocent Prince. Quickly, she bade him act, plow the field and scatter the teeth of the dragon as though the seed of a crop, for from them shall arise the people of his new city. Confused, but piously obedient, Cadmus obeyed. Plowing the field, and readying the seed, the Prince bent low over the wyrm's lethal teeth, wrenching them from the scaly cadaver:

       " He sows the teeth at Pallas' command,
         And flings the future people from his hand.
         The clods grow warm, and crumble where he sows;
         And now the pointed spears advance in rows;
         Now nodding plumes appear, and shining crests,
         Now the broad shoulders and the rising breasts;
         O'er all the field the breathing harvest swarms,
         A growing host, a crop of men and arms "

To his utter amazement, the furrowed ground churned, and from the teeth of the dragon, fully armed and fierce men sprang. As the warlike men began to seek out their creator, Cadmus, wary of their bloodlust, cast a stone in their midst. It struck one of the men, who immediately rounded on his comrade to his rear, believing him to be the culprit, and struck him cold dead to the floor. Consternation broke out in the battalion of the Teeth, as brother turned against brother, and blood ran in torrents, the evil glad awash with gore anew.  Soon, all but five had been slain, and in that moment, Pallas Athena stayed their hands, and at her command, their arms to the ground did fall, as they embraced the way of peace. Before them now did the Prince of Tyre appear, and call each man his brother, and at last he set about the business of raising his great city. Thebes, the city would be called, and Cadmus her King, and the five men the fathers of the great noble families. Raising a high cliff in the city's heart, they named it for their founder, the Cadmeia (which you can visit today if you go to ancient Thebes), and thus began the days of Thebes, and the Royal House of Cadmus.

Long did Cadmus reign in peace, and to him the gods gave a wife, Harmonia, a symbol of new concordance between men and gods. Yet there was one in their midst who reeled with spite, proud Ares, his anger great still at the desecration of his sacred beast. Upon Cadmus and his progeny he placed a terrible curse. Ever after the Royal House of Thebes was plagued by misfortune. The grandson of Cadmus, Actaeon (whose own downfall you can read about here), and many generations later, his descendant Laius (whose fate you can read of here), father of Oedipus, would feel the curse's wrath. Many long years later, Cadmus ripe with age lamented the ill omens that plagued his family, raising his head to the Heavens. If the gods troubled so over the life of a serpent, he would rather be one himself than a mortal man. Upon him pity fell, and granted was his wish. Before his very eyes his skin was as scales, his teeth as fangs, his legs a whipping tail. His beloved Harmonia upon him gazed, imploring the gods to spare her pain of separation from him. To her too the gods gave their gift, and in a flash she too slithered upon the ground, freed from the evils of man and their ways forever...

What happened to Europa, you might ask? Zeus the Thunderer spirited her away to the island of Crete, and upon those radiant shores he revealed his true form. To the stars he flung his Bull like form, and the constellation Taurus was thus born. Upon Europa's head the crown of Crete the god did place, but greater still was to be her legacy. For even today the Continent of Europe bears her name...

United Kingdom

Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)

United States

Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(The Source for many of the myths of ancient lore, written by a Roman poet)

Wednesday, 31 October 2012


After a siege gruelling beyond belief, the First Crusade had added the great city of Antioch to their list of extraordinary triumphs against the odds. The faltering cause had strength anew, as the Lance that pierced Christ's side at the Crucifixion was discovered at the last moment. The last great hurdle between the crusaders and the Holy City had been lifted, and the road to Jerusalem lay yonder...

The Angel of the Lord spurs on the Crusaders
Engraving by Gustave Doré
The euphoria from the triumph over Kerbogha took a long while to die down. As the dust cleared on the 29th June 1098, Christian's fell to their knees and gave thanks to God, for invulnerability, it seemed, was theirs now. But scarcely had that dust cleared when dissent struck the leadership of the Crusade. Scheming Bohemond, the Prince of Taranto, argued that the Emperor of Constantinople had deserted them, rendering the oaths they had all sworn before Alexius void. As the one who had ultimately prised open the formidable defences of Antioch, many argued that the city should come under his rule, many others disagreed. Most vocal was Count Raymond of Toulouse, a key leader of the Crusade, along with many others. The deeply pious Raymond scorned the hot-headed and flagrantly ambitious Bohemond, but was unable to sway a majority in the crusader noble council. For months was the crusade paralysed by infighting, and whilst it seemed the arguments were without end, supplies were not. The wretched famine that had so plagued the crusaders before Antioch fell had not abated, and now began to grow worse still. In desperation, for the already poverty stricken peasants in Syria refused to offer food, the crusaders turned their wrath upon the city of Maarrat, seizing it after a swift siege. Famine was so terrible at this point that the unthinkable was forced into horrifying reality. So weak they could barely stand, the crusaders were forced to resort to cannibalism, and the armed pilgrimage was "placed  in the cruel necessity of feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens". Vile pestilence stalked the streets of the crusader camp, retribution of the divine or of nature, who could say? Men and horses began to fall to the desert sand, never to rise again. Soon Adhemar, the papal legate of the Crusade who bore the Holy Lance, lay dead. Winter came, and cold amplified all perils, as Death followed the Crusade wherever it went. At last, their patience boiled over, the lesser knights and pilgrims of the Crusade threatened to march alone and leaderless to the Holy City if the situation were not resolved immediately. The year 1099 arrived, and the First Crusade took to the road once again, leaving Bohemond behind. So was formed one of the first of the Crusader States in the Holy Land - the Principality of Antioch, with Bohemond her first Prince. Another crusader leader, Baldwin of Boulogne, had broken off from the Crusade to form the County of Edessa, another Crusader State. The First Crusade, grand vision of Christendom, was faltering.

South the grand pilgrimage marched, passing many great cities of old. Tyre, Sidon and Acre, were all passed by with eerie peace, as all preferred to make peace than war with the Crusade, depleted though it was. Of over a hundred thousand pilgrims who took the cross, scarcely twelve thousand now survived to march on Jerusalem, and a mere twelve hundred knights. Only a handful of horses now remained. Word from those Christian peasants in those lands, who braved to make contact, told of the horrors the Turks had unleashed upon them, torture and forced conversion of their children. The Surian people, mostly Christian, advised Godfrey of Bouillon, Raymond and Tancred the nephew of Bohemond to take the path South, for the road through Damascus was not safe, for water would not be found for two days. The mountains of the Lebanon offered shelter, and good supplies of water, but the ground was too rugged for pack animals and camels. Only the coastal plain remained open, alongside Tripoli. Godfrey, the Duke of Lorraine, exhorted his fellows to action, and roused the crusader spirit once again. The crusaders gathered the relics from the churches of Antioch, and prepared for the final push.

The Crusaders lay Siege to Jerusalem
Engraving by Gustave Doré 
After an arduous journey under the burning Sun, there appeared on the horizon a sight many thought they would never see. Four years since Pope Urban II gave that momentous speech, words that shook the world,  the Holy City of Jerusalem was there on the horizon within sight at last! So many had fallen on the Great Expedition, tens of thousands who had left home in search of salvation, or a better life, now saw a place in their dreams. Many fell to their knees and wept, after so long and so much suffering. Raymond leapt off his horse in amazement at the sight, and donned the attire of a humble pilgrim. The fire of zeal rippled through the crusader ranks. Men of the West had heard of the city where Christ suffered only through the Bible, through fragmented stories of travellers, a place at the furthest ends of the Earth. Yet here it lay, in all its splendour, in physical, and visible, form at last. Back in Antioch, Peter Bartholomew had a vision in his dreams that Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of Heaven, would be theirs if they approached barefoot the walls of the Holy City, but here in the euphoria, his words of warning lay forgotten, and silent. The same could not happen here as at Antioch, to lay Jerusalem under siege until surrender was impossible. Too few crusaders were left, the countryside was harsh, scant of food, water and wood, and the danger of relief from the slowly uniting Muslim nations was terrifying. It was now or never. Without delay, the crusaders set up position around Jerusalem, preparing for the final onslaught, well aware that the outcome of this would be remembered in history for all times.

June 7th, 1099, arrived. Duke Robert of Normandy, and Count Robert of Flanders took up position to the north by the Church of the Blessed Stephen, where the martyr was stoned to death in ancient times. Duke Godfrey and Tancred set up camp to the West, and Count Raymond established base at the foot of Mount Zion, by the Church of the Blessed Mary, in the very place where legend had said that the Virgin Mary had departed the World, and where Christ had broken bread with his Disciples. On the third day, foraging parties encountered a band of Saracen troops whilst intent on plunder. After a brief struggle their foes were overcome, and thirty horses seized. Morale in the Christian camp soared. One crusader leader encountered a hermit on the Mount of Olives. "If you will attack the city tomorrow till the ninth hour, the Lord will deliver it into your hands", the wizened sage declared. "But we have not the necessary machinery for storming the walls", said the leader. "God is all powerful", said he, "If He wills, He will storm the walls even with one ladder. The Lord aids those who labor for the truth". The next day, the crusaders hurled themselves against the defenders of Jerusalem, the soldiers of the Egyptian Fatimid Caliphate, and fought with such fury that the city would have fallen that day had siege engines been ready at hand. The defenders were thrown back from the outer wall, which the Christians threw down, but held the inner walls firm. Many Christians fell, but many more of the Caliph's men. Food supplies were almost out, and for nine days the crusaders were forced to go without bread. On the tenth day, word came from the nearby port of Jaffa - ships from Genoa had been sighted, laden with supplies - aid was coming! Daylight came, and a hundred of Raymond's knights rushed to Jaffa, scarcely a day's march from Jerusalem, desperate for food. Spying many hundreds of Arabian soldiers rushing to cut them off, thirty of the most zealous Christian knights charged. Great chaos was sown, yet surrounded now were the foolhardy men. A messenger hurtled toward the main vanguard "Why do you dally here with your knights? Lo! All your comrades are in the clutches of Arabs, Turks and Saracens, perhaps even dead at this very minute. Hurry, hurry to their aid!" The man's words sparked fire in the crusaders who galloped to the aid of their brethren. So spirited was the charge that each knight conquered his foe, and the Arabs were sent reeling, and one hundred and three horses were captured. Spirits soared in the Christian camp at the news.

The Siege of Jerusalem
Image taken from a 13th century French
Illuminated Manuscipt
Yet ills abounded of their own for the crusaders. Water had all but disappeared. So desperate were they, that knight, lord and peasant alike sewed together the skins of oxen, buffalo and goats into leather skins and lugged water for over six miles under the unbearable heat of the desert. So foul and putrid was the water than disease, bane of the Crusade, ran rampant through the camp. Only the Fountain of Siloam at the foot of Zion released clean water, but only once every three days. Water was sold at so steep a price that a man could scarcely quench his terrible thirst for a fortune in gold. But hope remained with the arrival of aid from the coast. A party of Genoese under Guglielmo Embriaco appeared on the horizon, bringing skilled engineers and much needed timber to the crusaders. Without delay they set about raising mighty Siege Towers and ladders galore, whilst the defenders matched them in equal measure, strengthening the walls where they were weak, and raising the towers. There then came one night a vision of the fallen Adhemar to Peter Desiderius. The voice of the spirit commanded:

     " You who have come from distant lands to worship God and the Lord of hosts,
        purge yourselves of your uncleanliness, and let each one turn from his evil ways.
        Then with bare feet march around Jerusalem invoking God, and you must also
        fast. If you do this and them make a great attack on the city on the ninth day,
        it will be captured. If yo do not, all the evils that you have suffered will be
        multiplied by the Lord..."
                      - THE COMMAND OF ADHEMAR

The clergy in the Christian camp were afire at this news. Recognising the great evil that had been committed by many of the crusaders, they urged all to turn to each other as brothers, and lay aside their quarrels, and humble themselves before God. Their words fell on joyful ears as they addressed the princes and paupers of Europe. On the next Friday after three days of fasting, the priests lead the way, clad in their sacred vestments, marching before the sign of the cross, with lord, knight and peasant alike in tow, all barefoot in their great procession. It was as the days of Joshua, who lead the procession alongside the walls of Jericho, in most ancient times. High on the walls of Jerusalem, the Fatimid garrison jeered, raising crosses and striking them with their blades. Unfazed,  the crusaders stopped on the Mount of Olives, at the spot men say that Christ was taken into Heaven, whereupon a great speech was made to the gathered pilgrims that now they were here in all places , "we can do nothing more to purify ourselves, let each one of us forgive his brother whom he has injured, that the Lord many forgive us". News arrived that reinforcements were on their way from Egypt to drive the crusaders from the Holy Lands once and for all. It was now or never. The First Crusade would end in with the capture of Jerusalem now, or it would end in total disaster here at the very end.

Godfrey of Bouillon
Fresco by Giacomo Jaquerio
The 13th of July came, and the final attack began. Raymond's men rolled up their siege tower, with considerable difficulty, and stormed the South wall of Jerusalem. Far away, Godfrey and Tancred hurled themselves upon the North. The defenders fought back with exemplary valour. On all sides the crusaders charged the walls, but nowhere could a gap be opened. Many machines were burned and destroyed, and for every one the crusaders built, the defenders built seven more. Raymond's attack met with fierce oppostion. Things seemed desperate. However, in the words of an eyewitness, "the hour soon approached on which our Lord Jesus Christ designed to suffer on the Cross for us", and the knowledge of this spurred the crusaders on. One knight, by the name of Lethold, in the entourage of Duke Godfrey hurled himself onto the city wall, becoming the first crusader to gaze down upon the Holy City at last. Thrown back, the defenders fled in all directions, and the Christians poured into the city. Word reached Raymond, far away, who turned to his men, "Why do you loiter? Lo, the Franks are even now within the city!". Heartened by the triumph of their brethren, they fought as men possessed, throwing the Muslim lines into anarchy. The Emir commanding the Tower of David surrendered it to Godfrey, handing over the keys to the pilgrims gate. Where once peaceful worshippers had travelled, now a bloodthirsty mob thundered through. Terrible was the carnage, as four years of frustration and suffering allied with zealous faith was unleashed upon Jerusalem. None were safe, soldier or civilian alike, as all were slaughtered without mercy. To this day, the massacre of Jerusalem lives on in the memory of history as one of the greatest crimes in all humanity. Men, women and children were butchered where they stood, heads were severed and blood ran in rivers. The fleeing garrison fled to the Temple Mount, seeking refuge upon the roof. Tancred, seeing the carnage all around, felt a ripple of fear for his immortal soul, and desperately shouted at his men to contain themselves, declaring them prisoners of war under his protection. But the momentum of raw instinct and passion is not easily turned aside. Raymond's men poured through the gate and inflicted brutal death upon them. So terrible to behold it was, people hurled themselves to their deaths from the roof of the Temple to avoid vengeful blades. To the Temple of Solomon the crusaders pursued their foe. One who was there looked on is disbelief:

        " Piles of heads, hands an feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was
          necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were
          small matters  compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon. What
          happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So let it
          suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men
          rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins... "
                     - THE MASSACRE AT THE TEMPLE

The Battle of Ascalon
Image taken from a 13th century French
Illuminated Manuscript
When the smoke cleared on the 16th July, Songs of triumph rose higher than the cries of lamentation. "This is the day the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!", rang through a city drenched in blood. Men of the First Crusade fell to their knees and kissed the ground, their Great Expedition was over at last, and the Holy City was in Christian hands. Four years since the small Council of Clermont, when a Pope had implored all to march to salvation, the end had come. But at a price so terrible that the outrages of it live on in the memories of those who even today shed blood in the Holy Lands. The more honourable among the crusaders looked on in anguish and dismay as the Crusade was for ever stained in blood. So was born another of the Crusader States - the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But who to elect as the new King of Jerusalem? Thoughts turned to Raymond, but he declined.The clergy declared, "you ought not to choose a king in the city where the Lord suffered and was crowned". But council turned upon the noble Godfrey, one of the few men present who was a truly spiritual man at heart, a mighty warrior and pious soul. To him was offered the crown of Jerusalem, yet the horrified Godfrey refused, declaring that it was blasphemous to wear a crown of gold where Christ had worn a crown of thorns. Instead, he was named the Guardian of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest of churches which now lay in Christian hands. To Raymond passed the County of Tripoli some years later, forging the last of the Crusader States. The crusading vow fulfilled, many deigned to return home, but unfinished business was yet needed. For the grand army of the vizier of Egypt bore down upon Jerusalem. But with the crusaders on such a high, and with the wise council of Godfrey, the Fatimids were decisively crushed at Ascalon on the 10th of August 1099, only a days march from the Holy City. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was safe, for now...

When news arrived in Europe, the crusaders were hailed as heroes, and all who made the return journey home were greeted as royalty. All those who had deserted the crusade were scorned as cowards beyond the grace of God. Duke Robert of the Normans returned home to find, to his dismay, that the throne of England had been usurped by his younger brother Henry, now Henry I of England. Defeated in war, the would be King Robert died in imprisonment in Wales in 1134. Raymond ruled the County of Tripoli for six years, envious of the glories of his fellow leaders. Godfrey ruled the Kingdom of Jerusalem well but briefly, dying of illness in 1100, succeeded by his brother Baldwin, crowned King of Jerusalem. Tancred, on account of his piety and competence as a leader, was named Prince of Galilee and regent of Antioch. Hot headed Bohemond ruled Antioch with eccentric adventurism, a law unto himself, until the Emperor Alexius at last brought him to heel, but only through cooperation with the Emirs of the East. Embarking upon adventures back in Europe, many a court did he enthral with his tales of heroism and his dazzling relics, even winning the hand of the daughter of the King of France in marriage. Thirsting for glory, Bohemond launched an audacious war against the Romans, determined to exact revenge upon Alexius, but alas in vain. He died in Italy in 1111, where his body remains to this day. Pope Urban II, the man whose vision the Crusade had been, died on the 29th July 1099, just days before the word reached Rome of the fall of Jerusalem. Many flooded to the Holy Lands, to begin a new life in Christian lands, in a foreboding of the colonisation of the New World six centuries later. In the wake of the Crusade, the Military Orders of the Church were first established, most famously the Knights Templar, yet also the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights, both of which are still active today. Only a fraction of those who set out from Clermont lived to see the end of the First Crusade, but its memory lived far beyond mortal lives, for its staggering success against the odds, and the terrible crimes wrought in its wake...

United Kingdom

Eyewitness accounts
The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials (Middle Ages)
(A very useful collection of eyewitness accounts of the First Crusade)

United States

Eyewitness accounts
The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials (The Middle Ages Series)
(A very useful collection of eyewitness accounts of the First Crusade)