Herma of Aeschylus

That Heavy Dust
Extract From A Letter To A Friend

Since you mentioned an old, all but forgotten, scribbling of mine [1] in which I quoted the post-classical Latin phrase memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris [2] I recall similar expressions of the impermanence of mortal life in classical literature from Homer on. For although that Latin phrase is often regarded as deriving from the Book of Genesis in the Septuagint, dating as that book does – according to papyri texts so far discovered – to around 250 BCE, [3] the sentiment it expresses is centuries older and part of the weltanschauung of Ancient Greece.

Thus in the Iliad – Book XVI, 775–776 – there is an ancient expression similar in sentiment to the reminder that prowess and life are transient given to a Roman General centuries later during their Triumphus [4], their victory parade in Rome.

Ὃ δ’ ἐν στροφάλιγγι κονίης κεῖτο μέγας μεγαλωστί, λελασμένος ἱπποσυνάων

He of great strength lay in the swirling dust, his skill with horses taken away.

In Book VI, 146–149, there is the beautiful, poetic,

οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ᾽ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ᾽ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ᾽ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη:
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ᾽ ἀπολήγει

Just as the genesis of leaves is, so it is with mortals:
Leaves scattered upon earth and yet the trees
Burst again when the growing season returns
With one generation of mortals leaving and another brought forth.

In the Agamemnon of Aeschylus – vv. 438-442 – we have the poignant

ὁ χρυσαμοιβὸς δ᾽ Ἄρης σωμάτων
καὶ ταλαντοῦχος ἐν μάχῃ δορὸς
πυρωθὲν ἐξ Ἰλίου
φίλοισι πέμπει βαρὺ
ψῆγμα δυσδάκρυτον ἀν-
τήνορος σποδοῦ γεμί-
ζων λέβητας εὐθέτους.

And Ares – exchanging bodies for gold
And holding his scales among the combat of spears –
Has, from Ilion by his fire,
Conveyed to their loved ones a painful lament – that heavy dust
He had exchanged for their men: ashes, stuffed into easily-stowable urns.

Personally, I find the sentiments expressed in Homer, in Aeschylus, and in so many other Greek and Roman writers, far surpass those of the Old Testament, and recall many times in the choir stalls of a monastery while chanting Matins – replete as that night Office was with verses from the Old Testament – desiring instead to recite something from Homer, in Ancient Greek of course.

David Myatt
28th August, 2018

Nota Bene: For publication here I have added two footnotes – [1] and [4] – to the two appended to the letter. All translations are mine.

°°°

[1] https://davidmyatt.wordpress.com/telesmata-in-the-picatrix/

[2] “Recall, mortal, you are dust and you will revert to being dust.”

[3] As I wrote in a footnote in my Tu Es Diaboli Ianua,

“The archaeological – the physical – evidence seems to indicate that the Greek text of the Old Testament is older than the Hebrew text, with the earliest manuscript fragment being Greek Papyrus 458 currently housed in the Rylands Papyri collection – qv. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 20 (1936), pp. 219-45 – and which fragment was discovered in Egypt and has been dated as being from the second century BCE.

In contrast, the earliest fragments of the Old Testament in Hebrew date from c.150 BCE to c. 70 CE, and are part of what has come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition, the earliest known Greek – and almost complete – text of the Old Testament, Codex Vaticanus, dates from c.320 CE with the earliest complete Hebrew text of the Tanakh, the Allepo Codex, dating from centuries later, around 920 CE.

While it is and has been a common presumption that the Hebrew version of the Old Testament is older than the Greek version, my inclination is to favour the extant physical evidence over and above presumption. Were physical evidence of Hebrew texts earlier than Greek Papyrus 458 discovered, and of there existing a complete Hebrew text dating from before Codex Vaticanus, my inclination would be to revise my opinion based on a study of the new evidence.”

[4] qv. M. Beard, The Roman Triumph, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. p. 272f.


Image credit: Herma of Aeschylus. Capitoline Museum, Rome.


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