Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Aristeas of Prokonnesus: The Disappearing Poet

What better way to launch a writing career than to stage a dramatic disappearing act?

The long-lost epic poem Arimaspea (7th century BC) by Aristeas of Prokonnesus was the inspiration for Gryphon Gold. In the poem, Aristeas describes his fantastic journey to the mysterious North while possessed by the Greek god Apollo. How his journey began is nearly as strange a tale as the journey itself:
Prokonnesus in the Sea of Marmara

Aristeas, a man of the island Prokonnesus, was the son of the wealthy nobleman Caustrobios. The poet was in his prime on the day he entered a fuller’s shop and dropped down dead. Quite a shock for the fuller, as you can imagine. So, he shut tight his shop and ran to Aristeas’ kinsmen with the terrible news.

Soon the whole town had heard what happened, but a man lately arrived from the town of Artaca said the tale must be false. “I have just met Aristeas on the road that leads to Cyzicus,” he said, “and I have spoken with him.” Well, no one believed the man, and the poet’s kinsmen hurried on to the fuller’s shop, meaning to carry the body away. But when the shop was opened, the body was gone. The entire town was searched, but Aristeas—alive or dead—had vanished. Ah, but six years later (some sources say seven), the vanishing poet reappeared. His writings, of course, tell of this missing time, when he traveled to the far North, with the blessing and aid of Apollo. Curiously, upon completion of the Arimaspea, Aristeas again disappeared.


Now that’s great theater! Or was it? Perhaps it all really happened and Aristeas’ claims were true.

Unfortunately, all that remains of the three books which composed his Arimaspea are six lines of verse, quoted by Longinus in his treatise On the Sublime. Yet these six lines served as a fine representation of great writing, as Longinus saw it, in which a fine poet will pick out the most striking circumstances in the situation he is describing. In this fragment, Aristeas depicts the dangers facing men on storm-tossed seas:

"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."

The Arimaspea is also referenced by authors such as Herodotus. It must have been an extraordinary work. For many years, the poem served as the source for much of what was known or believed about the realms to the north, from Skythia to Hyperborea.

Was this the last that the ancient world saw of the disappearing poet? More about that in my next post.

By the way, I welcome your thoughts, comments, or questions.

P. A. Peirson

“But now listen to another and fearsome spectacle. Beware the sharp-beaked hounds of Zeus that do not bark, the Grypes, and the one-eyed Arimaspoi, mounted on horses, who dwell about the flood of Plouton’s stream that flows with gold. Do not approach them.”
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, C5th B.C. (trans. Weir Smyth, H.)

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