Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?

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A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).

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More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

PS
The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

In some posts we tried to identify the cultural traits common to the people whose ancestors were subjects of the Roman Empire. One of the themes of this blog is in fact any possible remnant of the Ancient Roman world still surviving today.

The borderline or Limes of the Roman empire meant also the separation between what was Roman and what was non Roman. Particularly interesting is the central European Limes along the Rhine and the Danube, a sort of natural frontier of the empire since 7 C.E. onwards.

Ok, Roman and non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this disjunction in today’s societies?

Well, a lot of traces are there, since for example when Christianity breaks in two during the XVI century C.E. “is it by chance – argues French historian Braudel – that the separation of the fields occurs exactly along the axis of the Rhine and the Danube, the double frontier of the Roman Empire?” Really a good point, not many doubts about it.

Protestants and Catholics Split along the Limes

Luther in 1529 by Lucas Cranach.jpg

In 1517 the Protestant Reformation began with Luther nailing his 95 theses that will split West Christianity into Protestants and Catholics. “From 1545 (Wikipedia) the Counter-Reformation began in Germany ….Central and north-eastern Germany were by this time almost wholly Protestant, whereas western and southern Germany remained predominantly Catholic”.

This has to do with the Roman Empire border: namely the descendants of the romanized Germans mostly stayed with the Roman Catholics, which is amazing, while the descendants of the non romanized ones, plus other northern folks, left. From this fracture sprouted Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Presbyterian, Calvinists, Puritans etc.

Above you can see Luther in 1529 portrayed by the German painter Lucas Cranach.

The Ultimate Roman Border.
Attachment to a Heritage

UNESCO World Heritage LIMES logo

Some land reconnaissance now. First a nice map of the Roman Empire and its provinces. Then Wikipedia infos on the German Limes (Wikipedia is always a good initial info source, but nothing more). Also this map of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior is not bad. And finally some info on the German Roman Limes, ultimate protection against the external Germanic tribes (Limes is Latin for Limit, border). A web site that now is no more was kept by those German federal states that actually were/are inside the Roman Empire. In it we did read:

“The Upper German-Raetian Limes (“Obergermanisch – Raetischer Limes” = ORL = Limes of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior: see a map) marked the ultimate Roman border line in the north of the Roman Empire. It was erected against the Germanic people who were a constant threat to the antique world. Over a length of 550 km from the river Rhine in the northwest to the river Danube in the south-east the Limes extends across the four German federal states Rheinland-Palatinate, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.”

Kastell Welzheim, near the Limes, Porta Praetoria

These people are greatly attached to this heritage and have succeeded in getting a certain number of UNESCO-world heritage recognitions, like Regensburg (Ratisbona), and even the Projekt Weltkulturerbe Limes (project for the world heritage recognition of the German Limes) seems to have been accepted.

In the web site of the Deutsche Limes-Strasse Verein (the German Alliance For the Limes Roads) we read:

“the outer Upper Germanic-Rhaetian boundary wall (“Limes”) is one of the most outstanding archaeological monuments in Central Europe and has recently been put on the world cultural heritage list of the UNESCO. Many of the installations associated with the wall were unearthed as the result of excavations recently carried out by the different Regional Offices for the Protection of Ancient Monuments and have been conserved because of their excellent state of preservation.”

“They include forts, baths and towers together with parts of the fortifications themselves such as ramparts, ditches, walls and palisades. Also taken into consideration are museum-like facilities such as protective structures covering Roman ruins which are explained by plans, photographs and finds as well as archaeological parks located in the neighbourhood of boundary wall structures with reconstructed or restored exhibitions. Many of these areas are called “archaeological reserves” ….

“The German Limes Road runs close to the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes from the Rhine to the Danube. Most of the forts were founded at the beginning or middle of the 2nd century and existed until the end of the Roman occupation 260/270 A.D.. The “Limes” runs from Rhein-brohl to Regensburg ……We hope that you will get …a better understanding of the Roman past of this country and have a relaxing holiday …on the former borders of the Roman Empire.”

The Initial Battle of the Gladiator

For Roman-movies fiends (I am one of them) the Roman fortress Castra Regina (thence Regensburg) was founded in 179 A. D. for the Third Italic Legion during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (we are in the ancient Roman province of Raetia). Marcus Aurelius fought battles along the Limes against German (and non German) tribes.

Sounds like The Gladiator initial astounding battle scene doesn’t it? Well, that scene probably referred to the Marcomannic wars fought during the reign of Marcus Aurelius with battles mostly fought further north and beyond the Danube.

It doesn’t matter though since the area well corresponds to that film battle and its marvellously recreated atmosphere (see Regensburg in this map of Raetia and Germania Superior).

Pilgrimage

We are mentioning Raetia because we were there last August on a sort of pilgrimage along the Limes, and found out that Castra Regina is more or less the core of Regensburg‘s Old City or Altstadt. Thischarming city is located in north-eastern Bavaria, Oberpfalz.

Pfalz is German for Latin Palatium, which refers to the Palatine Hill in Rome (Latin Mons Palatinus). It is the hill where Rome started (according to legend and now also archaeology: first huts, then the town, on this and other hills) and where the Roman Emperors much later lived (the English palace, indicating an important building, comes from there).

From Palatinus derives Palatinate (Latin: Palatinatus), the area of the later German Holy Roman Empire, a sort of Middle Ages continuation of the Roman Empire. So it all fits together, as one can see.

The Last Italian City

Regensburg (Latin and Italian Ratisbona)

In Regensburg – right at the extreme (German) line of all this, the Limes going well beyond Germany – the population will later become Protestant, even though it has inherited this sort of Italian merry character, with people sitting in open-air cafés etc., like us in Rome.

“We are the last Italian city”, they say, which sort of angered some Munich friends of ours who said they were the real last Italians, not only because of the Catholic faith but also because of their even merrier festas with people dancing on tables in Oktober Fest.

They certainly said this to please us, but there is some truth, I believe: their elegance, their incredible love for Opera (more than us today alas) and good wine (like us) etc.

More on Regensburg arriving, which is a good observation point, and more of course on Bavaria and all, so to say, romanized Germany.

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Marcus Junkelman clad as a RomanPS. We cannot leave this topic without mentioning an incredible person:
Dr. Marcus Junkelmann from Munich (*), world-famous pioneer of experimental archaeology, living in a castle and speaking fluently Latin, we heard. Historian of Roman Legions and Army, he has reconstructed Roman weapons, infantry & cavalry techniques.

We see his picture on the left, this is his web site and Dr. Wilfried Stroh is one of his colleagues and possibly friend. People like them are getting numerous also in parts of the UK, who is also becoming very pro-Roman (also the organisation Nova Roma, “dedicated to the restoration of classical Roman religion, culture and virtues”, shows how Roman mania can be both weird and fascinating).

References. The Braudel quote is from La Mediterranée, Fernard Braudel, Flammarion 1985. Translation by Man of Roma. Fernard Braudel is one of the greatest French intellectuals. Here a few links, just to give an idea of his work:
A nice synthesis on Braudel in English, plus the Fernand Braudel Center, at Binghamton University, State University of New York (“founded in September 1976 to engage in the analysis of large-scale social change over long periods of historical time”).

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Other related posts:

Music, Politics and History
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

Fragments of Greek Beauty

The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source
The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace …

Thus Byron chanted, and such landscapes, the Mediterranean Greek islands (and mainland Greece as well), explain a bit how Hellenic beauty in arts developed and flourished: the extreme limpidity of the air, the richness of colours and smells, skies and sea of a magnificent intense blue, and a vehement sun, burning and pervasive. What perfection, what simplicity and yet profundity!

Well, one might say, where has all this Beauty gone? The landscape is still there but is it true that all that was splendid and Greek has disappeared …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …?”

(quote from here).

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Greece didn’t continue its beauty and civilization like Italy did in the centuries (see the comments section for a discussion on this point.) Some fragments though have survived.

Narrowing the focus on literature, we personally are fascinated by the works of the neo-pagan sublime poet Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933) from Alexandria, or by those of the writer, poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957) from Crete, who lost the Nobel Prize to Albert Camus in 1957 by just one vote and who was spiritually restless, seeking “relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience”(Wikipedia). And we are mentioning only those we have some knowledge of.

Crete is the largest Greek island which completes from the south the Greek archipelago (1400 islands!) and which, sung by Homer, conjures up ancient legends like Minos, the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne, the labyrinth created by Daedalus etc. (were they mere legends?). It is an island that hosted the Minoan civilization, namely the most ancient Greek (hence European) civilization (ca. 2600–1400 BC.)

Admire the perfection of this Minoan Bull Head from the Heraklion Museum, Crete (click on this and all other pictures for source files and credits.)

Minoan Bull Head. CCommons, psmithson, Flickr.

Let us now listen to the words of Nikos Kazantzakis recalling some decisive moments from his childhood in Crete: his first contacts with earth, sea, woman and fire (from the starry sky.)

Earth, Sea, Woman and Fire

Kazantzakis remembers how advancing on all fours, still not able to walk, he once extended his tender head full of longing and fear in the courtyard for the very first time. Until that moment he had looked out his house windows but had seen nothing. That time though he didn’t just extend his sight, he actually saw the world for the very first time. Extraordinary revelation!

“Our little courtyard-garden seemed without limits. There was buzzing from thousands of invisible bees, an intoxicating aroma, a warm sun as thick as honey. The air flashed as though armed with swords, and, between the swords, erect, angel-like insects with colourful, motionless wings advanced straight for me. I screamed from fright, my eyes filled with tears, and the world vanished.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Earth.

(A landscape from Crete)

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He also remembers how a man with a thorny beard took him in his arms and brought him down to the port. While approaching their destination the little child started to hear like the terrible sighing and roaring of a wounded beast. He got so frightened that he tried to escape from the man’s arms, like a little trapped bird.

“Suddenly – the bitter odour of carob beans, tar, and rotten citrons. My creaking vitals opened to receive it …at a turn in the street – dark indigo, seething, all cries and smells (what a beast that was! what freshness! what boundless sigh) – the entire sea poured into me frothingly. My tender temples collapsed, and my head filled with laughter, salt, and fear.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Sea.

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He then remembers, when he was three, that a plump and pretty young woman, Anika, a neighbour with nice blond hair and large eyes, came to their little garden while he was playing around. The place smelled of summer and she, newly married and recent mother, leaning over, took him on her lap and hugged him.

“I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body: the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom. Suddenly I felt overcome by dizziness and fainted. Blushing terribly, the frightened neighbour put me down, depositing me between two pots of basil.”

After that day the woman never took him on her lap again. “She just looked at me very tenderly with her large eyes and smiled.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Woman.

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One night in summer he was in his yard again.

“I remember lifting my eyes and seeing the stars for the first time. Jumping to my feet, I cried out in fear, ‘Sparks! Sparks!’ The sky seemed a vast conflagration to me; my little body was on fire.”

This was how he experienced fire (and the starry sky) for the first time in his life.

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These four terrible elements – he recognizes – imprinted on his mind to the extent that even the most abstract ideas or the most metaphysical problems, in order to be significant to him, must take on a physical form “which smells of sea, soil and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh.”

It is this special trait, this synaesthetic aptitude, among others, that makes many of Kazantzakis’s pages so vibrant and unforgettable.

References. Quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis’s autobiographical and last novel, Report to Greco, Faber and Faber 1965, translation from modern Greek by Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1965.

Fuelling the Future

Youth with its endless energy has always been fascinating. All revolutions are made by young people, which are like gasoline, ever exploding, ever changing the world. The British industrial revolution was prepared by an agricultural revolution that greatly increased and rejuvenated the population, so one can say that this fundamental breakthrough was largely a product of young energies (which did not mean a mere extension of the workforce).

We now see a whole new generation of Indians and Chinese (together with the Brazilians etc.) fighting for a better future and rightfully enthusiastic about the progress of their respective countries. We are watching with interest this world readjustment occurring before our eyes and fuelled by the younger generations. Hundreds of thousands of these youngsters being active bloggers, it is easy to have a direct connection with them via the blogosphere. Here a list of a few Indian bloggers we have been in contact with: Ashish, Falcon, Poonam, Nita, Amyth, Ishmeet, Shefaly, Reema, Nova etc.

(Above a picture of the Lotus Temple in Delhi, India, courtesy of mais_dois)

As far as the Chinese, we’ve been in contact with a young woman blogger only, AutumnSnow, the problem with China being the language, as far as we can tell (and/or our incapability of connecting to Chinese people so far).

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Indian Amyth has been the first to comment in our blog. Recently we found this post on his weblog site:

“I am a die-hard nationalist! I LOVE going to malls on weekends and experiencing first-hand India’s spending BOOM. I LOVE watching IPL and all the cricketing world’s eyes glued to the Indian story. I LOVE Bollywood churning out movie after movie and filled-up multiplexes. I LOVE listening to analysts on CNN Money talking about “The India Story!”

I know there are miles to go still.. and there are mountains to climb. But I know that as a nation of a billion-plus people we are striving for better lives and for a better India. We are working hard and we are getting closer.”

Touching words. Following is a video he presents in his post. Produced by India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), “in many ways … it captures the essence of India”, in Amyth’s opinion, talking of modern advances together with Karma and Dharma. Impressive, in our view.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find anything similar for China. Maybe the movie below can provide an idea of what is also happening in that country, although we being not allowed to embed it we can just follow this link here (courtesy of CutePiglet123).

Unbelievable views and pictures, in any case. Really.

Buddhism, Science and the Dalai Lama

We talked in the previous post of a decline of the Roman Empire type of situation here in the West. Omitting economical and political aspects this time, we rather concentrated on some cultural aspects of today’s Western (America + Europe) decline which resemble a bit what was happening in the minds of the inhabitants of the Ancient Roman empire: new sects and religions gaining ground, void, ethical confusion etc. with, at the end, a winning new religion, Christianity, conquering the population’s hearts (with a little help from the Emperors) and soon becoming the official religion of the Empire.

(Needless to say, it is only for the sake of analysis that people usually separate economical, political, social and cultural phenomena. Actually they are tightly interrelated and belong to the same sphere: Man)

Let’s now zoom in on one of the non Western religions that are gaining ground, Buddhism. We will consider some of the reasons why this belief, compared with the Abrahamic religions, could be more endowed to confront with modern science, which might further favour its penetration (at the top of the page, a Buddhist temple at Fréjus, France; above, the current Dalai Lama).

In some books the current 14th Dalai Lama reveals his position on science and on the relationship between scientific rationality and religious irrationality. “If scientific analysis conclusively showed that certain beliefs of Buddhism are false – argues the Dalai Lama – it would be necessary to accept those scientific discoveries and abandon those beliefs.” Wow, what a big difference, we should be honest to admit, vis-à-vis the presumptions of infallibility asserted by our Catholic religion …

Buddhism seems better equipped in its approach to science since, as the Dalai Lama says, “it grants maximum authority to experience, secondly to reason and only lastly to scriptures” while the Religions of the revealed Books (the Abrahamic religions) seem to consider these elements in a reversed order.

Additionally the encounter between Science and Buddhism seems also favoured by a fundamental disposition common to both: they do not believe in God or even in a soul, since Buddhism prefers to concentrate, among other things, on conscience. Buddhism and science “share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent Being as origin of all things.” Basically it is the denial of any metaphysics.

A Rescue Guide in Times of Crisis

In general I believe this simple thing: science provides a lot of answers but still voids are left (what is the meaning of life? How do we choose between right and wrong? Are there any absolute values? etc.) that might progressively be filled up, although so far they are not, thus leaving those who rely on science only with questions unanswered and inner tranquillity precarious. Humanities are able in fact to make up for further answers (philosophy) and for reconciling our soul through beauty (art).

(The problem is complex and it is discussed in the debate regarding the two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and regarding the so-called third culture)

As far as we are concerned, in fact, novels, poems, music, paintings, philosophy, all humanistic culture, in conclusion, can somehow fill these voids. And religion? Of course religion can fill these voids too, but, although we have a lot of respect for those who have a faith, we are not religious (agnostic, not atheist), our position being that of the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius. So we are not disposed to easily believe in revealed things or tales – hope we do not hurt anyone’s feelings – which were satisfying for men living thousands of years ago but, frankly, not as much for today’s man.

Buddhism, being a philosophy and religion without a God seems more modern (even though some aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, consider the Buddha as a God). Buddhism does not force us to believe in dreams in order to find a ubi consistam, namely a guide, a point of reference.

The truth is we are not even Buddhist. We have no parachute. But we like it this way.

References

Official Dalai Lama Web Site.

The Universe in a Single Atom
The Convergence of Science and Spirituality – by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Morgan Road Books, New York, 2005.

Mind Science
– An East – West Dialogue – by H.H. the Dalai Lama with Herbert Benson, Robert A. Thurman, Howard E. Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Wisdom Publications, USA, 1991.

See also www.mindandlife.org for reports on various confrontations between the Dalai Lama and various scientists.