Archive for December, 2021

Hammer of the Goths

December 31, 2021

“This long delay before so comparatively insignificant a fortress chaffed the Eunuch’s soul, and he began to meditate other schemes for its reduction.”

Thomas Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders

I have a soft spot for military eunuchs, I guess. Zheng He, particularly, but also Narses – an Armenian castrate and fanatical Marianist who weathered a lopsided rivalry with Belisarius in Justinian I’s 6th-century AD war of reconquest (surviving recall by the emperor – an intriguing [literally, I have no doubt] turn of events, if even a fraction of what Procopius had to say in The Secret History is true), eventually took control of Byzantium’s finances, and then, at the age of seventy-five or so, raised an army of 30,000 “barbarian” mercenaries in the Balkans, slow marched it down the Adriatic calf of the Italian peninsula, and crushed the Ostrogoths from Sena Gallica to Mons Lactarius.

Having (very temporarily) taken Italy back for Constantinople – and received the last Roman triumph of antiquity for it – he set about trying to rebuild the ruined capital of the western empire*. Justinian had sent an elderly man to do the job hoping Narses, even covered in glory, would be too tired to march all the way back for the throne. To my mind, there is something sad and beautiful about those last, Sisyphean labors of the old Exarch, trying dam a river at flood stage, nowhere yet near its crest. The river being History, of course. Only fools believe its waters are antidotal to Lethe’s**. They may taste different, but they’re both runoff from the same obliviating snowpack.

*How he paid for it probably deserves its own post. The short version: the treasure fortress of the Ostrogoths sat on an outcrop of trachyte atop the oracular complex of the Cumaean Sibyl (possibly repurposing the temple of Apollo directly above it, or the temple of Jupiter above that, as their citadel). Narses directed his sappers to undermine the walls of the fortress from the sacred caves below. It worked too well, causing the front gates of the fort to calve off into the sea and making what had been highly defensible totally impregnable. At that point, he shrugged and settled in for some good, old-fashioned poliorcetics. In the end, he is supposed to have gotten the Ostrogoths to surrender with a theatrical ruse that involved bogus public executions of female hostages: lopping off fake heads, that sort of thing. Anyhow, they cleared out. And he let them go, focusing his attention on his primary duty to the empire: counting loot.

**Narses was no fool. Nor was he inclined to suffer them. There is a story – almost certainly apocryphal – that Justinian’s successor Justin, who disapproved of the then-nonagenarian press-ganging Romans into reconstruction projects, relieved Narses of his authority and allowed him to retire to Naples. Justin’s wife Sophia sent Narses a golden distaff there and informed him he’d always be welcome back to Constantinople to supervise the women spinning. To which Narses replied that he’d spin a thread the empire would never see the end of. Whereupon he told the Lombards they were welcome to the north of Italy – giving the wheel of flame another turn.

As I said, the story is probably untrue, and it’s certainly unkind, but Narses not only did enable an Italian invasion by Lombards, he led it. His own army of “barbarians” was basically Lombardish. The Goths and Franks they defeated were natural enemies of the Lombards every bit as much as they were of the Greek Romans. And in the vacuum that nature doesn’t so much abhor as find perplexing, Lombardy rushed in. Within a few years, it was they who ruled Italy, setting in motion the political machinations that ultimately resulted in Naples freeing itself from the Roman yoke: the sort of weird offspring you might expect from a senescent eunuch obsessed – to the point of genocide, on occasion – with a holy virgin.

Nothing Is True

December 29, 2021

A Moment’s Halt—a momentary taste 

Of BEING from the Well amid the Waste— 

And Lo!—the phantom Caravan has reach’d 

The NOTHING it set out from—Oh, make haste! 

In the fullness of time, there are many things I would like to write about Hassan-i Sabbah, whom Marco Polo called ALOADIN and the Old Man of the Mountain, but today I move from the Inland Empire into the unknown, so I will content myself with the following observations:

The founding myth of the Nizari Isma’ili state and that of Carthage bear some striking similarities (e.g., the flight from a brother-ruler toward the sea, &c.), but there is one in particular that intrigues me. 

Evading the forces of Nizam al-Mulk (vizier to, and de facto ruler of, the Seljuks; and – according to Fitzgerald – Hassan’s schoolmate, despite being a generation younger than the Old Man) where the Alborz nears the Caspian, Hassan-i Sabbah and his followers came upon a mountain fortress named Alamut. Whether the correct etymology is “Eagle’s nest” or, via “Aluh Amukht”, “Eagle’s Teaching”, there are echoes of the supposedly impregnable Sogdian Rock fortress near Samarkand that Alexander seized by means of “men with wings” (i.e., military free climbers) in 327 BC. But I digress.  

Among the medieval legends of how Hassan-i Sabbah took control of Alamut in 1090 AD and became the Old Man of the Mountain, one stands out. He is supposed to have offered a quantity of gold to the man who owned it for as much land as would fit inside a buffalo hide. Those terms having been agreed to, Hassan proceeded to cut the hide into very fine strips he linked together around the entire perimeter of the fortress, and took possession of it. 

This is, of course, a crib of how Dido founded Carthage – negotiating with a Berber king for whatever land on the Tunisian coast she could encompass with an oxhide. The hill she initially surrounded with thin strips of animal flesh and built her city upon was called Byrsa (i.e., βύρσα: Greek, conspicuously, not Punic, for “oxhide”) and is called so still. 

Mathematicians today regard this story as a special case of the isoperimetric problem in the calculus of variations. Who knows how it came to be associated with the Imam of a fanatical sect of Ismaili assassins at the time of the first and second Crusades, in the heart of a prideful Seljuk empire a century before it shattered under Mongol pressure waves. 

As David Tibet once said in an interview, “There are often several explanations for things. I always choose the most beautiful.” Unlikely as it might be, I prefer to think it actually happened. The Old Man of the Mountain was a learned dude. It would be pretty funny if he had read Virgil and thought, “I’ve got to try that.”

Coda: Time of the Wolf

December 28, 2021

Early in the plague, during my Zoom-based 47th birthday party, an Icelander who works on the TV show Vikings read aloud from the Völuspá in Old Norse:

Bræðr munu berjask ok at bönum verðask,
munu systrungar sifjum spilla;
hart er í heimi, hórdómr mikill,
skeggöld, skalmöld, skildir ro klofnir,
vindöld, vargöld, áðr veröld steypisk;
mun engi maðr öðrum þyrma.

Brothers shall fight | and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons | shall kinship stain;
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, | shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, | ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men | each other spare.

In the Workshop of Hephaestus

December 23, 2021

In the eighteenth book of the Iliad – Hector having despoiled the armor Achilles loaned his ill-fated bff Patroclus – Thetis of the shining breasts ascends through the thin atmospheres above Olympus to the bronze spacelab of Hephaestus (whom, in prehistory, she had fostered secretly for nine years after his moms kicked him off the holy mountain) to ask the strong-armed god to forge suitable replacements so that her son can finally reenter the fight. Hephaestus obliges, producing exquisite greaves, a helmet, a blindingly bright breastplate, and a shield worthy of its own poems

I’m a clinical digressive, but will resist the urge to blab here about ekphrasis or cosmological mapping or whatever – although it is worth pointing out that among the five zoom layers the ornamental design of the shield included, there was, in miniature, a whole cosmological framework represented extending from the astronomical down to geographical, mythic-ritual, legal, and even practical-quotidian considerations; including scenes of two cities that at first seem like models of, or perhaps choices between, idea complexes of peace/order/law & conflict/courage/chaos, but which must actually be a superposition of both, and about which we should ask: insofar as these images were wrought on the blow-side of the shield, was this cosmology intended to depict the world of the combatant the shield defended, to reflect that of the one who struck at it, or to unite the two, as a humankind, in the vibrations of blocked spear thrust and sword fall, in waveforms oscillating between celebration and siege, exergy and entropy, hope and horror?

Anyway, what I really wanted to point out was the peculiar detail of the Kourai Khryseai – the golden handmaidens attending Hephaestus. These were intelligent machines, it seems, possessing divine craft knowledges and, presumably, the ability to assist with the design and implementation of various wonders associated with the god’s workshop: other automata, weapons, transportation systems, etc. Or even to carry such works out entirely by themselves. “In them is understanding in their hearts, and in them speech and strength, and they know cunning handiwork by gift of the immortal gods.” 

A passing thought about the passage of thinking: that the Kourai Khryseai were a perverse (even parodic) echo of the Muses. If Memnosyne was recollection, Hephaestus was ingenuity. Her daughters were the source of art; his, of artisanry. Her lineage = epistêmê; his = technê. True, knowledge of his knowledge comes down to us by way of poetry, but we are sharing this right now by way of machines.

Let us content ourselves for the moment with two assertions:

  1. All forces and fields can be, are, manipulated – whether incidentally or intentionally – and may be utilized, instrumentalized, even weaponized. Like all human knowledge, the expertise (metis) for such manipulations gets recapitulated in new epistemological frames historically. Historically, but also atemporally. As new epistemologies accrete, previous ones persist – and not just as substrate, but in tangled hierarchies of knowing. Epistemology is analogous to geology in this sense, insofar as both the earth of “ground” and the ground of, say, “earth” are inherently stratigraphic. In both cases – as viewed through a hole – a whole past is presented. 
  2. Expertise is convective.

Divine Echoplex 2

December 20, 2021

The temple of Kukulcán – the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl – at Chichén Itzá. While ‘quetzal’ supplies the god’s feathers, ‘coatl’ doesn’t just mean ‘snake’ but also its twinning. So, both plumed serpent and ‘quetzal doubled’ – i.e., mirrored, echoed. When I visited Kukulcán in 2009, a local showed me a wonderful thing. By clapping your hands at a certain distance, the pyramid produces an echo: the sound of a quetzal chirping. This paleoacoustic effect – a birdsong recorded in stone – was engineered, just as deliberately as the snake of light that slithers down the north staircase at equinoxes.

A sample.

From echoes to reflections; as above, so below: Tezcatlipoca – “Smoking Mirror”, the divine antagonist; jaguar-cloaked god of the night wind, of discord and autocracy, beauty and sacrifice, divination, temptation, sorcery – brought about the fall of Quetzalcoatl through the use of magical obsidian mirrors. And where did the dawn god fly in defeat? Into what black waters? The gulf of space? The Gulf of Mexico? Ignatius Donnelly fancifully leapt from a Mayan epithet (“Old Serpent covered with green feathers, who lies in the ocean”) to Mu – Atlantis.

Self-portrait in John Dee’s Aztec mirror

In the endnote of his “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan”, Robert Smithson suggests it might instead have meant the Sargasso Sea. A beautiful idea – the long plumage of a drowned god swaying as sargassum (especially knowing eels in the western hemisphere all begin their mysterious life cycle in the Sargasso Sea before dispersing on oceanic currents; as if the gorgon’s mane, flung into the deep, were to multiply and infect the world waters).

I want to footnote Smithson’s endnote thus: Gitmo SEALs have beer lore about a sunken city – with pyramids – somewhere in the vicinity of Cuba. In 2014, before diving 2000+ feet into the Caribbean in a homebrew sub with Karl Stanley, the guy who built it, knowing he’d begun his career as the Han Solo of submariners by prowling the seafloor around the Cuban archipelago for things to sell to the Smithsonian, I asked if he had caught sight of that diluvial city. He very pointedly refused to answer my question.

Detail of Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis)

Wereorcas; or, The Madness of Shamu

December 19, 2021

This is a 16,000-year-old orca-shaped spear tip from the Bering Strait I photographed at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville while Eva slept on a bench nearby. I tend to think of orcas in terms of mutant, cannibal dolphins.* The madness of Shamu. Richard Harris on the ice, harpoon in hand, mirrored below by the revenge-seeking mama orca – as in the cosmology of the Kwakwakaʼwakw, who believe in the transmigration of souls, and that orcas were formerly human hunters of ocean life.

An inquiry I received early in the first plague year from my friend (and Chamblissian reader) Mónica Belevan: “are there any anthropomorphic orcas in Pacific Northwest or Arctic Siberian imaginaries? I’m asking because of a new set of lines discovered near the Nazca complex which purport to be the semblance of an orca man, except: we [Peruvians] don’t have orcas”. Did she mean wereorcas, I asked. Her stage-ready reply: “[gasps] Maybe?!”**


Running along the eastern bank of the Willamette last week, large-scale graffiti influenced by Haida and other indigenous Pacific Northwest artistic traditions loomed out of the dawn-mist as I approached the big, seasonally occupied cliff dwelling under McLoughlin Boulevard near Ross Island Bridge. Hoofing back, the clouds burned off, and I paused to take a few snapshots. I will miss Portland terribly. 

*Not that I think regular dolphins occupy any elevated moral topography, mind you, given their violent sexual predilections, their extermination of harbor-porpoise babies using echolocation to specifically target internal organs for damage, and so on.

**This is where Mónica and I first met. I have described it since as “a pyramid palimpsest in the Miraflores district of Lima built before 650 CE by a matriarchy of shark worshipers”. She thinks of the site in different terms. Individuated perspectives are miraculous things.

***Episode 3 of my proposed Jackass-in-Antarctica show was meant to be a version of the old dollar bill trick. For context, orcas will beach themselves to capture baby seals, then shimmy backward into the water, where they’ll bat a seal pup back and forth like a shuttlecock until its skin loosens from its meat, then tear in. My plan was simple. I would hide inside a seal costume on the beach, attached to a cable. As the orca came for me, I’d be dragged just out of reach. The orca would try a little harder, and I’d get dragged a little farther bermward. And so on.

Lovesick Monsters; Moon Magic

December 16, 2021


After Odysseus eluded her, the siren Parthenope, mad with grief, drowned herself. Her body washed ashore here, where Castel dell’Ovo now sits on a peninsula projecting into the Gulf of Naples. The site was once a small, disconnected island called Megaride. Sailors from Rhodes built a port on it in the 9th century BCE they named Parthenope, in order to trade with pre-Magna Graecian colonists who had gone native in the previous millennium. Three hundred years later, an army of Cumaens conquered the island and re-founded the city as Neapolis. 

tl;dr: Naples was born of love sick monsters and the sea.

Castel dell’Ovo

Somewhere in the foundation of this ancient fortress, Virgil (that is, his medieval folk avatar Virgilio Mago) is supposed to have secreted an egg magically tied to the city’s fate. If the egg is damaged, Naples will fall.

While Tommaso Campanella was imprisoned in the Castel dell’Ovo, his friend Giambattista della Porta (polymathic “Professor of Secrets”, author of the twenty-volume Natural Magic, and leader of a circle of Neapolitan counter-enlightenment thinkers who helped put Campanella on the path to prison in the first place) sometimes brought him writing supplies and food. Everything was searched of course. Everything but the eggs. Della Porta wrote on fresh eggs in an ink that penetrated the shell and impregnated the albumen, then hard boiled away any outer evidence, leaving messages inside for Campanella to peel open.  

Despite the egg being a perfect food, a sort of meat banana, I didn’t eat one until I was forty. Perhaps I will give them up entirely again at fifty. Before I do, though, I want to hard boil an egg with moonlight and consume it. 

Zanzotto (in my translation)

War Queen/Dispossessions

December 14, 2021

According to Quintus Smyrnaeus, the Amazon warlord Penthesilea entered the Trojan conflict on the side of Priam suicidally hoping for blood atonement after killing her sister Hippolyta (the thrice-murdered queen whose Martian war belt was the object of Herakles’ ninth labor, and who later shared a bed – well, a mat of rushes – with Theseus) in a hunting accident. From Arctinus of Miletus to Robert Graves, the story of what followed plays out in more or less the same way:

After Hector was killed, Penthesilea and her twelve bodyguards engaged the Greeks and kicked the shit out of them. Achilles became aware of the sanguineous queen and pursued her across the battlefield. The conflict between the two of them drove a tornado of carnage. Eventually, Achilles prevailed, slaying Penthesilea. And then things got weird. According to Graves, Achilles fucked the corpse. Most folks, including Pseudo-Apollodorus, figure he just fell in love with her as she died. Either way, Thersites taunted Achilles for it (and may or may have not have also gouged out her dead eyes), so Achilles killed him too. And the war continued.

Now, should you ever need a reason to try Heinrich von Kleist, let me offer you this: in the almost three thousand years that people have been telling the story of Penthesilea and Achilles, Kleist was the first to have her kill him

The poet Eugene Ostashevsky introduced me to Kleist’s work in 2004, gifting me his Penthesilea for my birthday while I was in Beth Israel with a torn lung. I found it emotionally unhinged in a good, very good, way. Imagine if Andrzej Żuławski had directed Troy instead of Wolfgang Peterson and you’re getting there. In any case, it’s potent. The play doesn’t have acts or scenes, just a string of episodes of mounting sexual fury and panic manifesting as physical and emotional violence until everybody is exhausted, and then dead. 

There are perfectly good reasons why Goethe – who declared Penthesilea “unplayable” – hated Kleist and his work; reasons that make him and his work rather more attractive to me.* I only wish I had taken the time to learn better German in my youth. 

“That was a creation which I, like the pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart.”

*One can’t help but wonder if Goethe hated Kleist’s work as he did because Kleist – even before he and Henriette Vogel followed through on their suicide pact beside the Kleiner Wannsee – reminded him of Werther. 

Reading The Sorrows of Young Werther for the first time last year, I went from being glad to know that Werther would shoot himself in the end to wishing he had done so before the novel began to wanting to kill him myself, but I can’t stop thinking about the book**. Or comparing the remembered language and behavior of the suicides I’ve known (as well as my own innermost thoughts and recurrent ideation) to those of the characters. Puzzling out from the game of perspectives just how complicit Lotte might have been in Werther’s eventual mental state. Considering an old NYRB piece that explored biographical similarities between the book and an early scandal in Goethe’s life, in which J.M. Coetzee remarked the main difference was that Goethe “had lacked the courage to do the deed” (that is, to do himself in). The constructed psychology of Romanticism. The beautifully rhythmic variation in the lengths of the letters. The use of that Ossian fragment as communication-by-other-means in a situation in which the plain facts are believed to be unsayable. All the leitmotifs that reappear downstream in other works: red leaves on Romanticism’s current. Was the almost impossibly drawn-out death intended to be ambiguously seriocomic? Did Snoopy get “It was a dark and stormy night” from the last chapters? Werther made Goethe internationally known almost immediately, then hung like an aesthetic millstone around his neck for the rest of his long life. The double edge of that celebrity is a recurring theme of his Italian Journey, and I’ve read that in his later years house calls on Goethe became de rigueur for those on the grand tour. What cracks me up is that he’d actually allow such tourists to visit, and then, as they mostly sat in uncomfortable silence, pontificate at them in German – using his guests as uncomprehending sounding boards to work out new ideas aloud on. Etc. etc. etc., as Steven Patrick Morrissey once liturgized.

**For all its faults, Werther has a few good lines (more, probably, if I could read it in German) and funny bits (not just the unintentionally funny ones), expresses some points of view with which I am in total sympathy, and has an interesting narrative form we see being used again and again afterward, unto The Blair Witch Project (i.e., not just an epistolary novel, but “found-footage” subsequently compiled, edited, and annotated throughout by an anonymous someone else). I don’t know whether Goethe invented that form, but I have a hard time believing anybody else’s book popularized it to the same extent.

More Human Than Human

December 11, 2021

Rummaging through old notes as I shut down my apartment in Oregon, and considering how best to incorporate the notion of “geomythology” into my PhD, I was reminded of a gonzo story from the Lokapannatti (an 11th-12th C text from Burma – a Pali translation of an older, lost Sanskrit text known only from its Chinese translation) that Adrienne Mayor* recounts in the penultimate chapter of her Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology.

More or less, it goes like this: Ajatashatru, a 5th-century BCE king of Magadha and inventor of weapon systems, became a devout follower of the Buddha and is supposed to have built a huge stupa over an underground chamber containing his master’s ashes and relics. To defend it, he devised a troop of robot guards that remained functional until Ashoka the Great disabled them in hand-to-hand combat nearly two centuries later.

[It’s worth noting that Ashoka distributed the relics among 84,000 stupas throughout Asia – an act of simultaneous map and world making at colossal scale, as well as an echo of the Buddha’s own miracle of politeness, when, crossing the desert afoot, a thousand thousand gods offered him their parasols and, not wanting to offend any of them, he multiplied himself unto ubiquity to receive the gift from each.]

The Lokapannatti tale has many interesting curlicues. For one thing, these robots (“Bhuta vahana yanta” – literally, “spirit movement machines”) were supposedly derived from Hellenistic technology that arrived in Magadha by way of an elaborate industrial espionage scheme. One of Ajatashatru’s subjects, a young engineer, contrived to have himself die and be reincarnated in the west (specifically, in “Romavisaya” ((the “Kingdom of Rome”, whose inhabitants were “Yavanas” (((i.e., “Greek speakers” – which by the time of the Lokapannatti probably meant Byzantium, but in Ajatashatru’s era, pre-Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος, would have meant a different, and far smaller, geographical region))). After reincarnating, waiting through puberty, etc., the engineer married the daughter of a premier roboticist (“Yantakara”), apprenticed himself to the man, stole his schematics, concealed these by sewing them beneath his own skin, and tried to flee east. Before he was brought down by a pack of robots dispatched to hunt and kill him, the engineer convinced his young son to transport his corpse back to Pataliputra in Magadha. After doing so, the boy skinned his father, retrieved the plans, and used them to build the robot army that defended the Buddha’s crypt. I shit you not.

*Having joyfully compared notes on a number of Mayor’s books with my archaeologist kid sister – who introduced me to them – as well as having many years of happy interactions with the author herself, an advisory: Should you feel compelled to chirp about perceived inconsistencies in, or shortcomings of, her scholarship, please be aware that I’m a deaf ear. 

الف ليلة و ليلة

December 10, 2021

After reading and writing about The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night for decades (including a book-length essay I co-authored in 1993 with the philologist Andrei Ustinov for a class taught by René Girard), I have – at long last – acquired a complete, pristine, 17-volume set of Burton’s unexpurgated translation.

I could lose an arm before midnight and it would still have been a good day.