Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Making peace with our chimeras: the incredible resilience of myths

This is a text that I posted in 2012 on the "Cassandra Legacy" blog and that I am reposting here with some minimal modifications

The Etruscan statue known as the "Chimera of Arezzo". It is an ancient representation of the creature called "Chimera" which was killed by Bellerophon, the hero. This post derives from the talk I gave at a conference on the Chimera myth in Florence in 2010. The gist of my talk was that the myth is still very relevant today for us and that we can survive the challenges we face only if we can make peace with our Chimeras. Here is a written version of the talk, where I have added headings for clarity.


Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here today and, first of all, I would like to introduce myself. I am not here as an archaeologist or an art historian, as the distinguished colleagues who spoke before me. My research is on very different matters; so I am speaking to you just as a friend of the Chimera. And if I tell you that I am a friend of the Chimera, it is because I feel something for it or, put simply, I like it. I like the story so much that I wrote an entire book on the subject. You can see it here, it is titled "The book of the Chimera."  I wrote it mainly because I couldn't find a book like it. You always write the book you would like to read.

So, after so much work, today I could tell you a lot of things about the myth of the Chimera but, as you may know, the art of boredom consists in telling everything. So, I would just like to tell you how this myth may still be relevant for us after thousands of years from its origin. Actually, it could be a lot more relevant for us than you may think. This relevance has to do with the way we communicate with our fellow human beings, how we deal with what we call the "environment," how we relate with everything which is not human on this planet. In this respect, we have been doing everything wrong: we have been destroying our environment as if we were killing one chimera after the other. That has not been a good idea - the environment is what makes us live. We need to make peace with our chimeras. But let me try to explain what I mean.

Origins of the myth of the Chimera

You surely know the story of the Chimera: there was this monster; a mix of lion, goat, and snake. It also sprouted fire from one of its mouths, or perhaps from all three of them. It seems to have been a rather nasty creature and so a hero, Bellerophon, was dispatched to get rid of it. Bellerophon did his job with the help of his flying horse, Pegasus. It can't have been such a difficult task, since the Chimera couldn't fly.

This is the myth; as you see, it can be expressed in just one paragraph and that's is the way it is described in the Iliad: just a few lines. In these terms, it doesn't look like anything special: you could, actually, condense it into a single sentence. Something like, "shiny hero kills ugly monster". But there is much more than this in the myth and let me try to explain why.

The story of the Chimera is very ancient; it is one of the most ancient myths of our civilization. With that name, "Chimera" or "Kimaira," it goes back all the way to, probably, the ninth century BC, about three thousand years ago. It is from that time that we start finding images and descriptions of this weird creature. But the core of the story is much older. With different names, the myth of the fire-breathing lion goes back to the Babylonian and Sumerian civilizations, all the way to the third millennium BC. That is, it goes back to around five thousand years ago and it is probably even older than that. It may very well go back to our Paleolithic ancestors although, of course, we'll never know what stories they were telling to each other in the evening, while sitting around the fire.

The curious thing is that such an old story is still with us, not very much changed. Over these five thousand years, empires and civilizations have appeared and disappeared, languages and writing systems were created and, also, disappeared. But we still know what a Chimera looks like and it is possible that our descendants will still know that in a far away future. Think about that: do you think that in 5000 years from now someone will care who was president of the United States today or who won the national soccer championship?

So, the myth of the Chimera, just as many other myths, has this characteristic of being highly "resilient;" impossible to destroy. It changes in name and in the details, but it persists in its basic form for long, long times. Why is that? If some concepts survive for such long times, there has to be something that makes them survive - something important. Let me try to discuss this point a little.

The Iron Goat

Now, let me tell you something that I learned from my friend and colleague, Alessandro Fornari who, unfortunately, is not any more with us. He was a "field anthropologist", someone who wouldn't just sit at a desk and write books. He would spend most of his time collecting and preserving folk tales. He had a special talent in convincing old peasant ladies to tell him stories and sing for him old songs.

One of the stories that I heard from Fornari is that of the "Capra Ferrata," the "Iron Goat," that comes from the Appennino mountains, in Tuscany. It is a simple story of a rather nasty monster, but the way Fornari would tell it, well, it became something special. You know, he had learned from his old peasant ladies plenty of trick on how to tell these stories. So, when describing how the Iron Goat appears at the door of the house, Fornari would speak in hoarse voice, as any good monster is supposed to speak. Let me try to do that as Fornari did; something like, "I am the Iron Goat, I have burning eyes and a sharp tongue" (in Italian, it rhymes, "Sono la capra ferrata, dagli occhi di fuoco e la lingua arrotata!"). Well, Fornari was much better than me at telling this story, but I did my best!

This Iron Goat, clearly, has something to do with the myth of the Chimera. I discussed this point with Fornari himself and he agreed with me. One detail is that, of course, both stories mention a goat as part of the monster. But believe me if I tell you that there is much more in terms of similarities than just the goat: the structure of the story, the settings, the role of the characters, but we'll go back to that in a moment. Right now, let me just note a point: how is it that in the 1950s, in the mountains of Tuscany, old peasants would tell a story that is at least 3000 years old? Is it possible that the story has been passed to us from Etruscan times hopping from father to son? (or, more likely, from grand-mother to grand-daughter?)

Of course, we'll never know, but it might even be: anthropologists have discovered that stories told by word of mouth tend to survive for long times, centuries or more. That doesn't mean that the story of the Iron Goat is five thousand years old, of course, but it does show that some stories tend to be told over and over, in different versions, maintaining some core features. So, in the 1950s the story of the Chimera, or at least a story that was very similar to the one of the Chimera, was being told in Tuscany in an oral version that probably didn't derive from the literary or graphic versions recorded in books. It is a manifestation of the incredible resilience of the main features of the myth; something that we must try to explain.

Myths as viral transmission

Written stories, just as some wines, don't age well. When the story of the Chimera was written down in an age when people had become literate, in Classic Times, the myth was literally torn to pieces. So, Plato tells us of the Chimera only as a useless absurdity. For Virgil, it is a decorative accessory for his poems. There was a Roman writer named Servius Onoratus who said that the Chimera was really the description of a volcano; because it emits flames. About this, I think that if I were to meet Servius someday, in the Elysian Fields, I would tell him something like, "Come on, Servius, don't you think that your ancestors should have been able to tell a lion from a volcano?" But this is how it goes. Once written down, a myth loses much of its consistency, its logic, and also its resilience. It becomes a dead myth; maybe still full of force and fury, but without meaning.

Why is that? It has to do, I believe, with the limits of the human mind. I read not long ago that the memory available in our brain is not larger than a few hundred megabytes. I am not sure about what exactly that means, but it does make some sense: our mental capabilities are extremely limited. Look at my book on the Chimera; it is about 80,000 words. I wrote it, but I couldn't recite it to you without reading it. Think instead of Homer's Iliad. In its English translation it is about 150,000 words. But I am sure that Homer could recite the whole Iliad to you, and not just the Iliad - also the Odyssey and probably more epic poems. And Homer, most likely, couldn't read or write.

So, there is a basic point here. We all have plenty of books in our shelves at home, but most likely we don't know even a single one by heart. It was the opposite for Homer and the people of his time. Now, surely you wouldn't say that people at the time of Homer were smarter than we are. Simply, they had a different way of organizing information in their brains. Not having the kind of external support that we have in the form of books, and now as the Internet, the information that they had needed to be in forms that could be memorized.

Poems such as the Odyssey and the Iliad were made from the beginning with that idea in mind: easy to memorize. Rhyming, of course, was a device used for this purpose, but not just that. The very structure of these poems is made in such a way to be easy to assimilate. If you have had the time to read the Iliad, you'll see what I mean: the story is compact; extremely dense, it has no space for details. Compare the Iliad or the Odyssey with a modern novel and you'll see the difference. Think of Ulysses by James Joyce. Theoretically, Joyce wanted to write something like a modern version of the Odyssey but, gosh, the result is completely different, even though there are connections - maybe. And that's not just a question of Joyce - it is the structure of the modern novel in general that has changed. You could make several modern novels with a single page of the Iliad.

Now, think of the Chimera myth. It was conceived much before the existence of writing. So, it was told in a form easy to memorize and, as such, extremely compact. ; in the Iliad it is described in just a few lines. It was left to the story teller to enliven these few lines by the tone, the expression, the acting, and - possibly - adding extra details. It was just what Alessandro Fornari would do when he told the story of the Iron Goat in his unique way of doing it. He had acquired, I think, some of the capabilities of ancient storytellers!

In modern terms, we could say that a myth is a form of viral communication. It is a fashionable concept, nowadays, but it is a correct interpretation of a common phenomenon, also very ancient. It is simply that, when you transmit a message, it has to be de-codified by the receiver. So, you can send a very compact message that the receiver will "unpack" or "unzip." So, my 80,000 words book is a way to unpack the few lines of description of the Chimera given by Homer and by others. You could say that everything that I wrote in my book was already contained, albeit virtually, in the few lines that Homer wrote.

Being so compact, a real communication virus, the myth is easy transmitted; it does not require a support other than the mind of a peasant grandmother. And when it has taken root in a mind, it stays there because it is memorized as a whole. Just because of this, it is very difficult - almost impossible - to destroy it. It is transmitted generation after generation, always the same, because it is so simple and compact.  I think we could say that the myth is the "atomic unit" of communication. In a sense, we could say that a myth is a "mind sized" piece of information, to use a term invented by Seymour Papert.

The myth's struggle for survival  

Being compact, although important for a myth, can't be sufficient to ensure its survival. Like a biological virus, in order to replicate a myth needs to have the capability of adapting to its host; it needs to be able to utilize the host's reproductive system. In the case of a myth, it needs to convince the host - typically the mind of a peasant grandmother - to retell it. Not all myths succeed in the same way. Perhaps in ancient Greece there were many more myths and stories than those we know nowadays, but those who didn't have this survival ability, didn't survive. There must have been a harsh selection process over thousands of years. So, what is that makes the story of the Chimera so resilient?

You know what makes a good story: there has to be meaning. Typically, that means it is a moral or an ethical issue to be solved. There has to be some kind of conflict, a problem to be solved. That's what makes a good story live.

There are many examples of myths that embody conflicts of considerable complexity. There comes to my mind the story of Antigone, you may remember it. She was killed because she had refused to obey the law that forbade her to bury the body of her dead brother. It is the conflict of human laws and natural laws; an extremely modern myth that would be very interesting to discuss, but let's go on.

On the opposite side, some myths look rather silly. Do you remember the story of Pyramus and Thisbe? The play within the play in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream?" It is the story of a young couple who end up killing themselves by mistake. Doesn't seem to be a very deep conflict - just an invitation to be a bit more careful! But if the myth survived, there has to be a reason. Maybe it is just because it is so silly; and indeed Shakespeare seems to think of it just in these terms in his play. But, then, you may remember also that another of Shakespeare's plays, "Romeo and Juliet" is based exactly on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe! So it may not be such a silly myth, after all.

Ancient myths are often like that. They may look silly on the surface, but there is always a layer of complexity below. There must be a deep meaning in these ancient stories because they survived a process of natural selection lasting thousands of year. It is Darwin's survival of the fittest translated to mythology.

It is the same for the myth of the Chimera. At first sight, it doesn't look so complex. As I said before, we could compress it into one sentence: "shiny hero kills ugly beast". What kind of ethical conflict is involved with that? It looks like the mission statement of a pest extermination company. But things are not so simple and if that was all what was in the myth, it wouldn't have survived all these millennia. There is much, much more.

The meaning of the Chimera myth

To explain the meaning of the myth of the Chimera, we may go back to the story of the "Iron Goat." The beast, the strange creature, is an emanation of the wilderness that, in the story, knocks at the door and comes inside the house. This is the basic point of the story: the conflict of civilization and wilderness, the problem to be solved. This is what gives meaning to the story.

The problem of the relation of human spaces and wilderness is very ancient and we haven't solved it, even today. We live mostly in an urban environment and we don't expect monsters to be knocking at our door. But the idea is still there and it keeps reappearing: think of a movie such as "Avatar". It is so dense of ancient myths that you would think it was turned in Sumerian times. You see how the roles are cast: there is exactly this contrast: wilderness and civilization. In Avatar, the humans are civilization and the Pandorians are the wilderness. That is what makes the film fascinating; not the battles or the various monsters. The story has a meaning, there is a tension, a conflict to be solved.

So, you see how modern is the myth of the Chimera. At its root, there is this conflict: civilization versus wilderness. The Chimera is the trees we cut to pave the land to build a shopping center. It is the mountains we destroy to get at the coal seams below. It is the people we bomb because we think they are dangerous to us. It is everything we don't want to see, and we want to destroy, while we think we are safe inside our homes. But, in reality, we are not and we know that very well.  The environment is not really something "outside", the environment is all those things that make us live. If we destroy the environment, we destroy ourselves.

These considerations are all there, inside the myth of the Chimera, once you unpack it and you take care of some details that seem to be marginal and, instead, are fundamental. So, in the Iliad that the Chimera is explicitly referred to as "Theon", which means "divine". The Chimera is no mere monster, it is a God. And no mortal can kill a God because Gods are immortal. At most, it is possible to kill the "avatar" of a God. And killing a God - even if just its avatar -  is not something that common mortals can do lightly. It brings misfortune; not rewards. Indeed, Bellerophon ends his life blind and accursed as a punishment for what he has done. So, you see? The story of the Chimera is by no means simple; it is not black and white, not good versus evil. The story is subtle and dense and it carries a lot of meaning that we can still understand if we just spend a little time in exploring it.

Today, we don't listen any more to old stories told by grandmothers. But our minds have not changed from that age and the messages we exchange must still be "mind sized," even though we tend to think that we have somehow progressed beyond that. It may well be that, with the Internet, we are going back to a rapid and "viral" kind of communication which was typical of old story telling. Of course, the Internet, right now, is full of silly and useless stories but we saw how there exists also a natural selection for stories. Silly stories don't survive for long; important ones do. The story of the Chimera is something that may take a new life today if we learn how to tell it. Movies such as "Avatar" may be just such a way. So, there may be hope to convey today the meaning that the ancient myth has been carrying for millennia: if we destroy what we think are monsters, we destroy ourselves. Our only hope for the future is to make peace with our chimeras.

This image by Ferdnand Knhopff doesn't show Bellerophon and the Chimera but rather Oedipus and the Sphinx. But it does not matter, it is the same ancient myth and the idea that the protagonists must make peace with each other (h/t Lino Polegato)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Where have our dreams gone? The death of the Western literature

Reposted from "Cassandra's Legacy" Jan 2015

The novel by Vladimir Dudintsev "Not by bread alone" was published in 1956 (*). It was a big hit in the Soviet Union with its criticism of the stagnating and inefficient Soviet ways. Together with other Russian authors, such as Vasily Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dudintsev was part of a wave of novelists who tried to use literature to change the ways of society. That kind of approach seems to have withered out, both in the countries of the old Soviet Union and in the West.

At some moment, between the second and the third century AD, the Latin literature died out in the Roman Empire. Not that people stopped writing; on the contrary, the late Western Roman Empire saw a minor revival of Latin Literature; it was just that they didn't seem to have anything interesting to say anymore.

If we consider the high times of the Empire, around the first century BC, it is likely that most of us would be able to come up with at least some names of literates of that time: poets such as Virgil and Horace, philosophers like Seneca, historians like Tacitus. But move to the late centuries of the Western Empire and chances are that you won't be able to come up with any name unless you read Gibbon and you remember that he cites the 4th-century poet Ausonius to evidence the bad taste of those times. It seems that the Roman Empire had lost its soul much before having disappeared as a political organization.

Often, I have the impression that we are following the same path to collapse that the Roman Empire followed, but faster. Ask yourself this question: can you cite a recent (intended as less than - say - 10-20 years old) piece of literature that you think posterity will remember? (and not as an example of bad taste). Personally, I can't. And I think that it could be said that literature in the Western world declined in the 1970s or so and that today is not a vital form of art any longer.

Of course, perceptions in these matters may be very different, but I can cite plenty of great novels published during the first half of the 20th century; novels that changed the way people looked at the world. Think of the great season of the American writers in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s; think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of Gertrude Stein and many others. And of how American literature continued to produce masterpieces, from John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac and others. Now, can you cite a later equivalent American writer? Think of a great writer such as JohnGardner, who wrote in the 1970s and is today mostly forgotten. Something similar seems to have taken place on the other side of the Iron Curtain; where a number of gifted Soviet writers (Dudintsev, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, and others) produced a literary corpus in the 1950s and 1960s that strongly challenged the Soviet orthodoxy and played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. But there doesn't seem to exist anything comparable anymore in Eastern European countries that could compare with those novels.

It is not just a question of written literature; visual arts seem to have gone through the same withering process: think of Picasso's Guernica (1937) as an example. Can you think of anything painted during the past few decades with an even remotely comparable impact? About movies, which ones were really original or changed our perception of the world? Maybe with movies we are doing better than with written literature; at least some movies didn't go unnoticed, even though their literary merits are questionable. Think of  "The night of the living dead", by George Romero, which goes back to1968 and has generated a tsunami of imitations. Think of "Star Wars" (1977), which shaped an entire strategic plan of the US military. But during the past decade or so, the film industry doesn't seem to have been able to do better than hurling legions of zombies and assorted monsters at the spectators.

Not that we don't have bestsellers anymore, just as we have blockbuster movies. But can we produce anything original and relevant? It seems that we have gone the way the Roman Empire went: we cannot produce a Virgil anymore, at best an equivalent of Ausonius.

And there is a reason for that. Literature, the great kind, is all about changing the reader's view of the world. A great novel, a great poem, are not just about an interesting plot or beautiful images. Good literature brings forth a dream: the dream of a different world. And that dream changes the reader, makes her different. But, in order to perform this deed, the reader must be able to dream of a change. He must live in a society where it is possible, theoretically at least, to put dreams into practice. This is not always the case.

In the Roman Empire of the 4th and 5th century AD, the dream was gone. The Romans had retreated behind their fortifications and had sacrificed everything - including their freedom - in the name of their security. Poetry had become merely praising the rulers of the day, philosophy the compilation of previous works, and history a mere chronicle. Something like that is happening to us: where have our dreams gone?

But it is also  true that man doesn't live by bread alone. We need dreams as much as we need food. And dreams are something that Art can bring to us, in the form of literature or other forms; it doesn't matter. It is the power of dreams that can never disappear. If the Roman Literature had disappeared as an original source of dreams, it could still work as a vehicle for dreams coming from outside the empire. From the Eastern Border of the Empire, the cults of Mitrha and of Christ would make deep inroads into the Roman minds. In the early 5th century, in a southern provincial town besieged by barbarians, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, completed his "The City of God", a book that we still read today and that changed forever the concept of narrative, perhaps the first novel - in the modern sense - ever written. A few centuries later, when the Empire was nothing more than a ghostly memory, an unknown poet composed the Beowulf and, later still, the Nibelungenlied appeared. During this period, tales about a warlord of Britannia started to appear and would later coalesce into the Arthurian cycle, perhaps the core of our modern vision of epic literature.

So, the dream is not dead. Somewhere, at the edges of the empire, or perhaps outside of it, someone is dreaming a beautiful dream (**). Maybe she will write it down in a remote language, or maybe she will use the Imperial Language. Maybe he will use a different medium than the written word; we cannot say. What we can say is that, one day, this new dream will change the world.

(*) A brief comment on Dutintsev's novel, which I bought and read in an English translation as a little exercise in cultural archaeology. Read more than half a century after its release, it is difficult to see it as still "sensational" as it was described at that time in the Western press, which had clearly tried to cash an easy propaganda victory against the Soviet Union. As a novel, it is slow and overdrawn, although that may be a result of the Internet-caused attention deficit which affects most of us. In any case, the novel has defects. One is the protagonist, Dmitri Lopatkin, so heavily characterized as a perfect altruist to make him totally unbelievable as a real world person. But the book is still charming in its description of a Moscow, which is no more, but which remains perfectly recognizable, even though so much changed today. To see the characters of the book in action, you can watch the movie made in 2005. I already commented a short story by Dudintsev in this post.

 (**) From a group of remote islands known as Japan, a man has been producing one masterpiece movie after another; Hayao Miyazaki. To understand the decline of the Western forms of narrative, you have just to compare two animation movies which came out together in 2014: the nearly ignored  "The wind rises" by Miyazaki and the blockbuster "Frozen" by Walt Disney Studios. It is like comparing Augustine and Ausonius and the ongoing collapse of the Western Empire is all there.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The King's Mountain: the Battle of Faesulae, 1610 years ago

This post was published on "Resource Crisis" in 2012. It is republished here in occasion of a new anniversary of the battle of Faesulae, on Aug 23, 406 AD.

The southern side of the Mugnone Valley, in Tuscany. The narrow passage that you see between the two hills in the background marks the road to the central plains of Italy, toward Rome. It is here that, in 406 A.D., the Roman Army stopped the invading Goths in a memorable battle that lasted a few days. On Aug 23 of that year, Radagaisus, King of the Goths, was captured and executed on the hill that today takes the name of MonteReggi ("Mons Regis", the King's Mountain)

If you visit the Mugnone Valley, near the city of Fiesole, in Italy, you'll see a quiet place, mainly inhabited by people who commute everyday to Florence, just a few km away. But you may also note how the hills at the southern side of the valley mark the last natural obstacle for those who follow the road that goes through the Appennino mountains and leads to the central plains of Italy. Those hills have played the role of a line of defense more than once in history. Today, August 23rd, is the anniversary of the final act of the "battle of Faesulae" that raged there for a few days in the year 406 A.D. and that saw the attempt of the Goths to reach Rome stopped by a Roman Army.

In those years, Rome was entering what was to be the last century of the Western Roman Empire. The Roman society was experiencing a new phase of decline and collapse that led, among other things, to the loss of the fortifications that had protected the Empire's territory for centuries. Then, the peoples of the Eastern Regions, whom the Romans called "Barbarians," found that the road to to the Empire's territories was open for them. Entire populations moved onward and, in 406 A.D. the Goths, led by their King, Radagaisus, were marching South with the objective of conquering Rome.

The task of stopping the Goths fell on Flavius Stilicho, magister militum of the armies of the West and himself of Barbarian origin. He was acting on behalf of Emperor Honorius who, in the meantime, did nothing but hide in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city. In Gibbon's words (chapter 30 of "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire")

..... such was the feeble and exhausted state of the empire, that it was impossible to restore the fortifications of the Danube, or to prevent, by a vigorous effort, the invasion of the Germans. The hopes of the vigilant minister of Honorius were confined to the defence of Italy. He once more abandoned the provinces, recalled the troops, pressed the new levies, which were rigorously exacted, and pusillanimously eluded; employed the most efficacious means to arrest, or allure, the deserters; and offered the gift of freedom, and of two pieces of gold, to all the slaves who would enlist

We don't have many details on how exactly the battle went, but it seems that the Goths first besieged Florence, then were forced to retreat and finally were trapped in the Mugnone valley; blocked by the fortifications built around the city of Faesulae. Gibbon tells us (chapter 30) that:

Conscious that he (Stilicho) commanded the last army of the republic, his prudence would not expose it, in the open field, to the headstrong fury of the Germans. The method of surrounding the enemy with strong lines of circumvallation, which he had twice employed against the Gothic king, was repeated on a larger scale, and with more considerable effect.

Surrounded, the Goths had no escape. The Romans and their Hunnic allies had turned the valley into a killing zone. After a few days of battle, they surrendered in great numbers; so many that the slave market is said to have collapsed for a brief period. King Radagaisus himself was captured and beheaded, putting an end forever to his attempt of conquering Rome.

That was not to be the last time that the Romans could defeat an army of invading barbarians. But each victory left Rome a little weaker and closer to the final collapse. The battle of Faesulae was not an exception: it was a great victory that brought nothing but disaster to the Romans. Just two years later, in 408 A.D., almost on the same date when Radagaisus had been executed (Aug 22), Stilicho was betrayed, captured and beheaded in Ravenna at the orders of Emperor Honorius. Being a general is always a dangerous job but, apparently, being a successful general is even more dangerous if you have to deal with a suspicious and tyrannical Emperor. Without Stilicho, the Roman army melted away, leaving Italy defenseless. Two more years later, in 410 A.D., Rome was to fall to another Gothic King, Alaric. The Empire survived this event, but it was another step along the way that would lead the Western Empire to its final demise with the last decades of the 5th century A.D.

Image of Montereggi taken on Aug 22nd 2012, showing also your modest author, Ugo Bardi. More pictures of the city of Fiesole can be found at my blog "Foto di Fiesole"

Of those remote times, little more than a few lines in history books remain. But, in the Mugnone Valley, you can still find a hill that takes the name of Montereggi, from the Latin "Mons Regis", the King's Mountain. It is the place where, it is said, King Radagaisus was beheaded. We can still walk there and find a small Christian church surrounded by cypress trees. There is also a pile of stones with a sign that says "Ave crux, spes nostra" (Hail, cross, our hope). We have no reason to believe that it was the exact point where the king was beheaded, but surely it is a suggestive place.

Perhaps another echo of this ancient battle is the old legend that has that in the early times of the city of Florence, a king named "Fiorino" defended the city from the Etruscans of Faesulae and was killed in battle. It is said that the blood of king Fiorino turned red the irises flowering in the fields and that was the origin of the symbol of Florence, the red fleur de lys.

It is just a legend and surely no king with that name ever ruled Florence. But the links with the historical fate of King Radagaisus are evident and the legend might well be a garbled rendition of the ancient battle of Faesulae. After all, many of the defeated Goths must have remained in the area around the valley, either as slaves or fugitives. A little of their blood may well still be with us, today.

For more information about the tumultuous 5th century and the characters of the time, you can give a look at my article on Empress Galla Placidia "Chemistry of an Empire"

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Daenerys Targaryen: the Return of the Goddess

Daenerys Targaryen is, no doubt, one of the most interesting characters of the TV series "the Game of Thrones." An assertive, dominating queen portraited in a positive light; a character that would have been inconceivable in the fiction of just some decades ago. Something seems to be changing in the human mindscape.

The article by Gunnar Bjornson reproduced below (from "Katehon") reflects this mindscape change. It is dedicated to exploring the idea that some of the themes of "The Game of Thrones" are influenced by a return of the Goddess in the mindsphere; a creature that he identifies as "Cybele", the Graeco-Roman version. 

This article is highly questionable in several respects; not the least one that of dividing the human views of the world into three well-defined categories, inspired to Apollo, Dyonisius, and Cybele. It is a much more complex story than that and this kind of forcing the narrative into categories often has quite some problems in maintaining even a minimum contact with reality: See, for instance this sentence: 

The Logos of Cybele thus concerns materialism, the dominance of the female over male, progressivism (development from highest to lowest), linear time, and the possession of wealth as the sole purpose of life.

Hmmm.... did I say "highly questionable?" Yes, I did. Yet, I thought that it was worth reproducing this piece in the "Chimera Myth" blog, where I have often discussed the theme of the Goddess



Gunnar Bjornson

The sixth season of the popular fantasy saga "Game of Thrones" has concluded. True fans are worrying about the events of the last 10 episodes. The series has turned out to be surprisingly successful, with a both sudden and drastic development of story lines and in terms of the actors' performances and music and special effects. But most importantly, the last season demonstrates the triumph of well-defined archetypes underlying modern Western civilization. Perhaps not a single piece of recent popular culture has revealed this so vividly as “Game of Thrones.” Thus, it is necessary to turn once again to the mythology and philosophy of this popular show.

The victory of women

One of the most important results of the storyline at the end of the sixth season is the triumph of the female characters in the saga. Cersei Lannister takes the Iron Throne of Westeros and kills all of her opponents. In the kingdom of Dorn as well, all power goes to women. Having killed ruler Prince Doran Martell and his cousin, Ellara Sand declares that the government no longer "belongs to weak men." In the North, Sansa Stark makes a decisive contribution to the victory over Ramsey Bolton. Arya Stark begins to implement her plan of revenge and stabs Walder Frey. On the Iron Islands, the lesbian Yara Greyjoy aims to become the first woman on the throne, and then joins Deyneris Targaryen, another strong woman who seeks to conquer the whole of Westeros. Both Dorn and the House of Tyrell, which is also headed by a woman, Olenna Tyrell, are ready to join Deyneris. And even Northern lords are humiliated by young Lady Mormont.

The unconditional domination of the feminine is thus the main feature of the sixth season. Male characters go by the wayside in a context of female domination. In medieval surroundings, an entirely strange picture is recreated. Of course, the European Middle Ages knew the reign of Queens. But not on this scale. The Middle Ages were foremost the era of the dominance of patriarchal relations and the male heroic type.

The rise of power-hungry women in the series is clearly consistent with the trends of real politics. Hillary Clinton, in the country where the series is produced, enjoys the sympathy of its creators. However, it is not only in this way that the series’ authors are trying to promote Clinton. Rather, there is another reason tied to the working of myths.

European society ceased to be the Christian one of the Middle Ages when it became “modern.” The modern world triumphed because it killed, crucified, and subjected directly to genocide (as in Ireland and the Vendee) the “old order,” the spirit of the old patriarchal-aristocratic and traditional Europe. Because of this, any clash between modernity in the Middle Ages is always hysterical. In this feminine hysteria, modernity reveals its true nature.


The series, like any other product of mass culture that works with images of the past, projects such on current trends. Romantic and unnatural surroundings are made more brighter and more visible than they are in real life. Gynecocracy, or women's dominance, is a feature unnatural to patriarchal Indo-European civilization, and especially for the type of thinking that dominated the historical era of the Middle Ages. This thinking was based on the celestial Apollonian philosophy of Platonism, which was adopted by Christianity. In its origins, it was based on the domination of celestial male deities over the chthonic creatures of Mother Earth (Titanomachy and Gigantomachy of ancient mythology) and the paternal principle over the mother’s one, heaven over earth and the chthonic, a priority that in religious and philosophical systems was given to the idea of the world. This was characteristic of the Indo-European worldview before the adoption of Christianity. The dominance of spirit over body, hierarchy, discipline, duty, sacrifice, honor, order, tradition, faith, and patriarchal family were the principles inherent to this particular civilization of true Europe.

On the contrary, matriarchal traits, such as the dominance of earthly sensuality and material wealth, were always associated with women in Indo-European families and cults. This, together with the legalization of every form of perversion and degeneracy, a distinctive feature of modern times in Europe, broke with traditional institutions. The famous traditionalist philosopher Julius Evola noted that the modern civilization of the West is based on the ideas which the ancient Indo-Europeans attributed to the feminine principle:

With the advent of democracy, the proclamation of 'immortal principles’, the 'rights of man and citizen’, and the subsequent development of these 'conquests' in Europe into Marxism and Communism, it is exactly the 'natural right', the leveling and anti-aristocratic law of the Mother, that the West has dug up, renouncing any ‘solar', virile Aryan value and confirming, with the omnipotence so often granted to the collectivist element, the ancient irrelevance of the individual to the 'telluric' conception.

Three Logoi

The contemporary Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, in his complex project “Noomahy", (“war of minds” in Greek) offers an interesting interpretive model in which he reviews the structure of the three fundamental paradigms of thought corresponding to the three types of philosophy, religion, mythology, ritual, symbolism, epistemology and anthropology, which correspond to three mythological figures from Greek mythology: Apollo, Dionysus and Cybele.

The Apollonian Logos is related to Platonism and the traditional Indo-European solar theme. It emphasizes eternity, heaven, the paternal, and the spiritual, as opposed to the earthly, temporal, maternal, and material. This paradigm of thought states that only the divine and celestial, for example Platonic ideas, really exist. The world, as the organized cosmos, has a hierarchical structure which is aimed at the apophatic horizon of the inaccessible One. In politics, such a logos preaches monarchy, the reign of the philosophers, the idea of an eternal empire, hierarchy and caste society.

The Dionysian Logos is that of mysteries, battle and marriage, death and resurrection, the interpenetration of earth and heaven, earth’s subordination to the heavens, and the soul reigning over body, as form over matter. This is the philosophy of Aristotle, the metaphysics of the Son in Christianity, and Catholic Thomism. In politics, this is the idea of the imperial, eschatological savior king. It entails a distinctly messianic eschatology.

The Logos of Cybele, named after the Goddess of Asia Minor, is a matriarchal cult of the Great Mother, the Earth, believed to generate all. This is the idea of the material origin of things and the solely material nature of the world. This is the philosophy of Epicurus and Democritus, the ancient materialists, and the ideas of the Roman Titus Lucretius Carus of the evolution of species and the spontaneous generation of life from Mother Earth.

In fact, this logos is an extrapolation of the ancient feminine chthonic myths that have since become the axioms of modern science. These were chtonic cults where the dogmas of modern science first originated. The is the dominant Logos in modern times which manifests itself in the form of scientific thinking. At the same time, however, it is still an archaic mythology inherent to pre-Indo-European ethnic groups in Europe. The Logos of Cybele thus concerns materialism, the dominance of the female over male, progressivism (development from highest to lowest), linear time, and the possession of wealth as the sole purpose of life.

The religious centers of the matriarchal goddesses, such as the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, served as the first banking centers. The Greek philosopher and atomist Democritus was one of the first to put into practice the method of speculation and considered democracy to be the ideal political system (Plato and Aristotle considered it to be the worst). The same Democritus blinded himself in order to refrain from looking at women, a fact which resembles the ritual self-castration of the priests of Cybele in Asia Minor.

The Face of Cybele

Democracy, progressivism, evolutionism, feminism, egalitarianism and the destruction of traditional hierarchies, the revolt against the gods, gender ideology, atomism, materialism, capitalism - all of these ideas are very archaic phenomena that have become modern only because Europe chose them in the early modern period and abandoned its former identity. These are in fact integral elements of the cult of the Great Mother. And the further we are from the historical Middle Ages, the more the ancient goddess veils her face under the guise of modernity.

And in Game of Thrones, the Gestalt of Cybele is extremely open. One of the key characters of the series, Princess Daeyneris Targaryen, embodies this archetype more than any other character. Let us recall that the Great Mother (Cybele, Rhea, Ishtar) in Greek, Asia Minor’s and Semitic mythologies is surrounded by chthonic monsters. Her priests practiced ritual castration and, in addition to the court of monsters and eunuchs, there were also dwarfs. Throughout the whole story, Deyneris is accompanied by chthonic monsters, dragons, to which she refers as to her children, and she is worshipped by an army of castrated slaves. Other male characters finally come to Cybele-Deyneris having experienced the act of castration, such as the eunuch Varys and Tyrion Greyjoy, whose sister Yara is also an embodiment of the archetype of the insurgent Cybele.

Naturally, the only dwarf in the series, Tyrion Lannister, is also in the end included in the court of Daeyneris. She destroys social hierarchy in the conquered cities, eradicates slavery and introduces election management insisting on equality and multicultural democracy. The egalitarian masses proclaim her to be “Mother" (Misa). As the Mother of Dragons and mother of rebellious slaves, it is is symbolic that the Phrygian cap, the headdress of Cybele’s lover Attis, became a symbol of the rebel slaves in Rome, and then the symbol of the French Revolution.

The main centers of Cybele’s cult were located in Asia Minor. Coincidentally, in these cults was the culture and geographical design of the continent of Essos, where Daeyneris begins the invasion of Westeros, which resembles ancient Asia Minor. Thus, her war is a war of Cybele’s Logos destined to conquer Europe and suppress all the remains of old traditional order.

Of course, she is not the only embodiment of this principle. Other facets of the archetype of Cybele are revealed in the character of Cersei Lannister who creates children from sexual relations with her own twin brother, the person most biologically identical to herself. In this can be seen the myth of parthenogenesis, the birth of Mother Earth’s children by and out of herself. They are destined to fail and be killed as are many of the creatures of the earth like the numerous offspring of the goddess Gaia in the Greek myths of the Olympic gods. Everything that she likes is associated with death since her love is insatiable and proprietary and killing is the love of Cybele. It is this archetype which leads those she loves (like her lover Attis) to their death.

In modern mass culture, we see the resurgence of ancient myths earlier veiled by the hypnosis of scientific thought, rationality or “common sense.” But, as the prominent German conservative and specialist in Greek mythology, Friedrich Georg Junger, said, when the gods are gone, the titans occupy their place.

Rejecting the celestial spirituality of Christianity, the West was doomed to chthonic matriarchal cults and to the resurgence of ancient mythical figures in its imagination. Cybele’s trend in Game of the Thrones is just one example of the changing gender mythology of the West which is renouncing its masculinity in psychological self-castration. From imagination, this will turn into real politics to the point that we will soon see the deadly incarnation of the bloody goddess enthroned.


Catastrophe is the fate of the titans, the sons of Gaia, just as it is her own. The catastrophic absence of a “happy ending” is a distinct feature of Game of Thrones. The series’ credibility and success is largely due to the fact that the authors allow the myth to work. The myth of female domination and titanic power, as the above-mentioned Friedrich Georg J√ľnger noted, is inevitably linked with the prospects of disaster and catastrophe. The Greek word for catastrophe literally means to turn to the bottom, to matter and the Great Mother. The disaster awaits those who stand on the side of chthonic power, who follow their passions, and stand in the ranks of the army of titans. Their lack of the harmony given by God to the world will be punished. The disaster is always present where there is an immoderate desire for power. Another leitmotif of Game of Thrones. In the world of Game of Thrones, the Middle Ages without Christ, there is no other possible outcome than one of total destruction. The imaginary world of the West shares the fate of and projects the future of the real world.


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Eyes of the Goddess: The Secret of Red Catherine

It all starts with this painting: Caterina Rossa  (Red Catherine) painted by the Neapolitan master Giovanni Ricca, probably around 1630. I saw it in Naples, a few months ago, and Caterina has been lingering in my mind ever since.

Now, when something makes this effect on you, it means that there is some meaning that you can't catch exactly, but it is there. So, I set Caterina's face as the screen background of my PC and I kept looking at it every day. I knew that, at some moment, Caterina would speak to me and tell me her secret. 

And she did. In part, the dark/white dichotomy of her face immediately hinted at the Moon Goddess. But there was more, it was not just a dark/white face that was staring at me. Penetrating that secret took longer, but I think that now I have it, although maybe not completely, yet. But something went through. 

The flash came a few days ago when I was visiting a museum that exhibited some medieval Madonnas. I looked at them, and the face of Red Catherina flashed in my mind; why that? And then I had it: the elongated eyes; a typical feature of Medieval Madonnas. Look at this one by Giotto. (ca. 1320, National Gallery, Washington D.C.) 

Not all Madonnas painted by Giotto have these elongated eyes, but several do and, in general, you can often find this kind of eyes in many Medieval paintings. Note also how  that these slant eyes are typical of female figures: male figures of saints and prophets normally have round eyes. 

It may well be that Giovanni Ricca was inspired by Giotto or by some other Medieval image when he painted her wife as such a richly symbolic figure. Yet, that leaves a question open. Why those elongated eyes in Medieval Art? Well, it turns out that they are a characteristic of Byzantine art, too, the main source of inspiration for Medieval Art. Also there, not all Madonnas have elongated eyes, but several do. Here is, as an example, the Theotokos of Vladimir, the much venerated Vladimirskaya, created by a byzantine medieval painter. 

So, there is a thread from Ricca, to Giotto, to the unknown author of the Vladimirskaya. But where is the thread leading us to? I toured ancient Roman and Greek art, but I didn't really find faces with elongated eyes. But, if we go further back, to Etruscan art, well, there is something. Here is the sarcophagus of the spouses, (Villa Giulia, Rome)

Look at how the woman has elongated, nearly elvish eyes. Also, the man has somewhat elongated eyes, but much less. Did that Etruscan guy marry a girl from China? Not very likely. That's not supposed to be a realistic portrait; it is an iconographic convention that had some meaning for the ancient Etruscans, although nowadays it escapes us. And here, too, women have elongated eyes, but not men.  

If we keep going backward in time, we may get to something even more interesting: here is the Venus or Lady of Brassempouy, the Lady in the Hood, from Aquitaine, is a fragmentary figurine made from a tusk or mammoth ivory from the Upper Palaeolithic and about 25,000 years old, possibly the earliest representation of a human face we have.

Did the people of 25,000 years ago have the epicanthic fold that we often define as "slant eyes"? Perhaps. They lived during an ice age and the epicanthic fold is supposed to be an adaptation to cold wind and snow. So, could it be that when Giovanni Ricca painted Red Catherine he was influenced by an iconographic element that originated during the last ice age? Maybe; but I think there is more. Much more. 

Now, take a look at this, one of the female figurines found in Ubaid, in Mesopotamia, that go back to 7000 years ago. 

Now, these are slant eyes! And if you look at the few male figurines found in Ubaid, they have different eyes, not round, but not so elongated, either. So, the conclusion is that the Goddess has slant eyes because those are the eyes of a snake. The goddess is a snake. What that means still escapes me, but it casts the Biblical legend of Eden in a completely different light. Eve and the serpent, actually, were the same person. It was the Moon Goddess that disappeared from human consciousness for millennia, but that somehow resurfaced in the face of a Neapolitan woman named "Caterina la Rossa" who lived during the 17th century and who was so splendidly painted by her husband, Giovanni Ricca. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Tearing apart the veil of lies: Yelena Isinbayeva speaks

Yelena Isinbayeva, Russian pole vaulting champion, speaks out after having been excluded from the Olympic Games in Rio. 

We are so used to being lied at in TV that we tend to classify as "lies" anything and everything we hear and see on a screen. Several people have reacted in this way to this video of Yelena Isinbayeva, Russian Olympic champion, who was overwhelmed by emotion during her speech. "It is a piece of theater," some said in the comments. "It is just to hide her guilt." 

Allow me to think otherwise. I can't believe that this is theater; this is not lying, it cannot be. This woman is speaking the truth, she is speaking from her heart, she is genuinely showing her feelings for her team having been unjustly discriminated for political reasons. That's what you would expect from someone who is the daughter of a plumber and of a shop assistant and who surely was never trained on how to be a politician. 

And about accusing her of doping, that's the silliest thing I can imagine. Doping is a plague in sport, yes, but it is mainly done to improve endurance in sports such as swimming or cycling. But pole vaulting doesn't require brutal endurance, it requires skill, intelligence, concentration, control, and grace. And, of this last quality, this woman has plenty. Look at her, jumping toward the sky.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

God is a girl: homage to Yelena Isinbayeva

If God is really a girl, She must look a little like Yelena Isinbayeva: Russian pole vaulting champion.

And if God is a girl, hell is the place reserved for the idiots who didn't want her to participate in the Brazilian Olympics!