Friday, December 26, 2014

Pindar, 80, Odist and Flutist, Died in the Arms of a ‘Fresh-Limbed’ Youth

Pindar, unquestionably the greatest Greek lyrical poet—quick, try to name another one—was born around 522 B. C. near Thebes in Boeotia. Raised in a cultured family, he learned to play the flute at an early age. He was sent to Athens for his education and learned the art of lyric poetry from Apollodorus, Agathocles, and Lasus; he probably also knew the great playwright Aeschylus, who was a rising star of the theatre about that time.

Pindar returned to make his home in Thebes and became known for his odes, formally structured verses celebrating military victories or great achievements by individuals. He also remained devoted to the flute and taught his children to play.

By all accounts, Pindar was a devout believer in traditional Greek religion. His works show great reverence for the gods, especially for Apollo, worship of whom conveniently involved flute-playing. Pindar was married to a woman named Megacleia, with whom he had two daughters and a son. Pindar also had an eye for young men and was an avid participant in the homoerotic activities that were accepted as part of the Greek way of life. Particularly attached to a youth named Theoxenus, he wrote an ode to him, only a fragment of which remains:

            Whoever, having seen the sparkling eyes of Theoxenus,
                        is not overcome with desire,
                        must be hard-hearted and made of iron,            
                        disdained by Aphrodite,
                        obsessed with making money,
                        or, having only womanly courage,
                        be carried down an icy-cold path. 
            But I, under the spell of the Queen of Love,
                        like melting beeswax in the hot sun,
                        am powerless to resist when I see            
                        the fresh young limbs of ripening boys.

Pindar is said to have died in the arms of his “fresh-limbed” paramour, Theoxenus, when he had a sudden seizure while attending a music festival in a theatre at Argos.  He was a ripe old eighty years of age.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Fabled Aesop, 56, Dead: Tossed Over Cliff By Irate Mob

Aesop, known for his fables that end with useful morals, may or may not have been a real person. If he was, he was born about 620 B.C. somewhere in Greece or thereabouts. Athens, Sardis, Samos, Thrace, Phrygia, and even Ethiopia have all claimed to be his birthplace. Whoever he was, there is ample biographical information about him, which just goes to show that if you become famous enough, you need not actually exist.

Over the years, people throughout Greece came to know the fables of the elusive Aesop. The playwright Aristophanes cites them in The Wasps, and Plato relates that Socrates spent his time in prison versifying some of the tales. By the fourth century B.C. many of them were collected in books, and new editions appeared from time to time for the next fifteen hundred years. The most popular of the fables, as you undoubtedly know, include “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Fox and the Crow,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “And The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.”

In one of his fables, “The Old Man and Death,” Aesop comments on the universal reluctance to accept the finality of life’s end.  As the story goes:

An old laborer, bent almost double by years of backbreaking toil, was gathering sticks in the forest. He grew so weary and despondent that he threw down his heavy bundle and cried: “I cannot bear my life any longer! I wish that Death would come and free me from my pain and sorrow!” Sure enough, Death appeared and said, “I heard you call. What do you wish of me?” The old laborer thought for just a moment and answered, “Please, sir, would you be kind enough to help me lift this bundle of sticks onto my shoulder?” Moral: Sometimes we would regret it if our wishes were granted.

Aesop had the inevitable visit from Death in 564 BC at the age of fifty-six, and unfortunately he lacked a bundle of sticks to distract the Reaper from his intended purpose. For reasons that are unclear—possibly too many sarcastic insults to people in Delphi, or maybe embezzlement of some funds intended for the Delphians, or perhaps the theft of a silver cup—Aesop incurred the wrath of an angry mob. So outraged were they by whatever he had done that they picked him up, carried him to the edge of a steep cliff, and tossed him over. Moral: It’s best if you can keep both feet on the ground.