Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Aristeas of Prokonnesus: The Disappearing Poet Returns

Aristeas of Prokonessus (poet and mystic, 7th century BC) had a fine flare for theatrics: He began by dropping down dead in a fuller shop (which is something like a laundry), then disappeared for six years; reappeared with dramatic claims of having been traveling while possessed by Apollo, then wrote an epic poem, Arimaspea, about the possession and his odyssey to the mysterious North.

VoilĂ ! Performance complete. Aristeas took his bows, then vanished once more.

Though Aristeas’ ambitious poem Arimaspea was composed in three books, just six lines of it remain. The rest disappeared more than twenty-five hundred years ago. The lines are as follows:

A marvel exceeding great is this withal to my soul—
Men dwell on the water afar from the land, where deep seas roll.
Wretches are they, for they reap but a harvest of travail and pain,
Their eyes on the stars ever dwell, while their hearts abide in the main.
Often, I ween, to the Gods are their hands upraised on high,
And with hearts in misery heavenward-lifted in prayer do they cry.*

(*Longinus, On the Sublime, tr. W. Rhys Roberts. Chapter 10.)

Obviously, this doesn't reveal much about Aristeas’ fantastic journey, however his poetic account has been referenced by later authors, historians, and playwrights. For example, Herodotus, "the Father of History" (5th century BC), having gathered the most information about Aristeas of Prokonessus, passed it down to us in his nine-volume prose history of the Western world, The History. Pausanias, author of Descriptions of Greece (c. 150 AD), provided "first hand accounts" of the entire country as well as a remarkable look at that ancient world. He seemed to reference the Arimaspea directly in this selection:

“Aristeas of Proconnesus says in his poem that these griffins fight for the gold with the Arimaspians who dwell beyond the Issedonians, and that the gold which the griffins guard is produced by the earth. He says, too, that the Arimaspians are all one-eyed men from birth, and that the griffiins are beasts like lions, but with the wings and bead of an eagle. So much for the griffins.”

(trans. Sir James George Frazer)

All in all, there is much to suggest that both the Arimaspea and its eccentric author existed. That leads to the intriguing question that sparked The Hounds of Zeus: What if the odyssey described was true?

And now, for the rest of the story: Aristeas had a dramatic encore up his sleeve.

Having finished the Arimaspea, then disappearing from the stage, the poet stayed away long enough to be presumed dead.Then according to the historian Herodotus, two hundred and forty years after this second vanishing act, Aristeas returned to take another bow. He showed up in Metapontum in southern Italy claiming that he had been traveling with Apollo in the form of a sacred raven. He commanded that a statue of himself be set up and a new altar dedicated to Apollo. Then, having made his demands, he disappeared a final time.

The flabbergasted town officials consulted with the Pythoness at Delphi and were advised to comply. So at the time of Herodotus, statues of both Aristeas and Apollo stood in the marketplace of Metapontum.

This mysterious vanishing poet plays a pivotal role in The Hounds of Zeus. We know just enough about him to be tantalized, leaving the rest up to imagination.

Come back soon. I want to tell you how I rebuilt Babylon.

P. A. Peirson

"The reputation of the old wizard of Proconnesus lingered on in nearby Byzantium until the fourteenth century; it may still linger somewhere today, connected as ever with strange things, for the ship which in 1938 fished up a living coelacanth, as it were from the Mesozoic era, was called Aristea."
(Bolton, J.D.P. Aristeas of Proconnesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962. Print.)

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