The Deaf of Writing

A man’s spirit lives in his ears – do you understand what I’m saying? If a man hears something good, his body is suffused with joy, whereas if he hears something bad, he loses his temper.         Xerxes speaking to Pythius of Lydia, from Herodotus’ The Histories, Book Seven (39)

That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too. Once spirit was God, then it became man and now it is even becoming mob.        Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘Of Reading and Writing’

The story goes, as I am emale reads Herodotus’ The Histories, that when Xerxes marched his army from Persia to Hellespont to invade Greece in 480 BC, his crosshairs targeted upon Athens, he stopped at many places and his army drank whole rivers dry. People were expected to feed and water the army Herodotus numbers at 1.7 million strong, composed of Indians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Ethiopians, just to nominate a few.

Phrygia

When Xerxes came to Celaenae (an ancient fortress-city in Phyrygia, present day Turkey), Pythius the son of Atyus, laid on lavish feasts for Xerxes and his men, and offerred to help finance the war effort. Xerxes was amazed at his generosity and his generals told Xerxes, Pythius was the richest man in the known world after himself. Xerxes asked Pythius directly how much wealth he possessed and he replied he was seven thousand short of a full round figure of four million gold Daric staters (72 tonnes of gold?? “But it is not absolutely clear, when Herodotus is talking about eastern staters, that he is thinking in terms of the Attic scale [a stater=4 drachma or almost 18 grams]”).  Pythius offerred all this gold to the war effort. Xerxes not only refused his offer but gave him the four thousand staters to make up the difference for a round four million.

The construction of the bridge across Hellespont was destroyed by a violent storm shortly after its first completion. Xerxes was so angry he ordered the sea be branded with hot irons fired into the waters. After rebuilding the amazing pontoon bridge across the Hellespont, a solar eclipse occurred. Xerxes summoned the Magi for the meaning of this omen. The Magi, not wanting to offer any counsel against the invasion, told Xerxes the sun represented Greece and would be blotted out, signifying a victory for the Persians.

Pythius was terrified by the omen and feared the worst. He begged Xerxes to allow his eldest of five sons to stay at home and not join the expedition so he should have at least one son to nurse him in his old age. Xerxes was furious that a slave of his, one of his own possessions, should question his right to take and appropriate what he saw fit for Persia. He was risking himself and his own sons in the war – how could his slaves expect to risk any less? Xerxes renounced his offer of four thousand staters and took the remaining sum of Pythius wealth and the life of the son he especially wanted to keep at his side. “A man’s spirit lives in his ears – do you understand what I am saying?”

As soon as Xerxes had given him this answer, he ordered those of his men who were responsible for such matters to find the eldest of Pythius’ sons and to cut him in half. Then they were to place one half on the right side of the road and the other half on the left, so that the army could pass between them. Once his orders had been carried out, the army filed through [across the Hellespont].

This was the beginning steps of the Persian army across the Hellespont beyond the boundaries of the Persian Empire, that would eventually lead to the legendary battle at the pass of Thermopylae where the famous 300 Spartans would die rather than retreat; the sea battle of “blessed Salamis,” prophesised by the oracle to be either the demise or salvation of Greece “within wooden walls”; and the battle of Platea, the place where the Greeks and the Persians (and their bought Greek allies) would meet to decide the outcome of the Persian Wars: freedom for the Greeks or new slaves for the Persians.

The outcome is, of course, well-known to us now, the “inheritors of ancient morality.” The seat of civilisation – the birthplace of democracy, philosophy and drama – has its origins in this space and time as a result of this conflict, the Persian Wars. At the time, the Greeks were not only fighting for their lives, but for their freedoms and their ideals, against the tyranny of Xerxes. He was counselled against bringing such a large army across to Greece by one of his closest advisers, citing reasons of land and sea. By land, the supply lines would quickly dry up with so many men to feed and water. At sea, the size of his fleet of ships (a Greek trireme needed 180 men to row and Xerxes’ fleet numbered at 1,207 triremes) meant there was no harbour large enough to shelter his ships. In other words, Xerxes’ massive army was excessive: the size and number and ambition of his invading army were unnatural, as unnatural as the sun being blotted out from a cloudless sky in the middle of the day.

Herodotus cites other bad omens. A horse gave birth to a hare, for example. Xerxes had a dream where “he saw himself wearing a garland made out of sprigs of an olive-tree whose branches overshadowed the whole world, but then the garland disappeared from his head” (ibid. (19)). The dream portends to the famous story of an olive tree in Athens, sacred to Pallas-Athena that the very next day after the Persians chopped it down when sacking the abandoned city, started growing back. Anyway, perhaps that was Herodotus’ intention in writing of Xerxes’ dream. “Dreams are a biologic necessity” wrote William Burroughs. Xerxes paid these signs no heed, reading the writing as he, a god upon the earth, saw fit.

The defeat of Xerxes was taken as a sign of divine retribution by Herodotus for the desecration of sacred sites and temples by the Persians. He wrote of the attempt by the Persians to take Delphi, home of the oracle, being thwarted by two giants coming to life from an earthquake, driving the Persians away. Undoubtedly exaggerations and distortions of natural phenomena (the solar eclipse alluded to above, did not actually occur) but Herodotus does give a sense of the spirituality of the Greeks – the gods as ideal spectators for the human drama – that Hegel envied so much as a union of religion and State, the universal and the societal (the church being the body and bride of Christ, society being the collective body of men on earth with the State being the head) – their attention to transcendental things, of powers immanent yet divine, not least of which, the earth and nature symbolised by Demeter and Pallas-Athena and remembered in rituals of dancing and sacrifice.

What was at bottom the ultimate meaning of Trojan Wars and other such tragic terrors? There can be no doubt whatever: they were intended as festival plays for the gods; and insofar as the poet is in these matters of a more “godlike” disposition than other men, no doubt also as festival plays for the poets.        Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, “‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like” (7)

Unlike the poets (Aeschylus being a possible exception as he wrote the only Attic drama based on recent events, The Persians, and I am emale does not mean to negate the poets who do not), in writing The Histories for free men, Herodotus paid witness after the event and demonstrated a healthy respect for the power of forgetting, as well as a wish to keep the Greek dream alive by travelling and speaking to people about the Persian Wars, recording the past so that the Greeks would no longer be determined by that history, striving for truth in freedom of thought as a pre-condition for ethics, self-determination or enkrateia – to cross arms with one’s self as a model from which to begni to mould and shape relations with others.  Ultimately, it should be a peaceful notion.  The Histories begin thus:

Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus.  The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.

A present ruined and wasted in the tyrant, Xerxes, who believed a “man’s spirit lives in his ears.”  Deaf to writing, acting out of revenge for past grievances to his and his father’s pride whispered in his ears by Mardonius, Xerxes let his self-determination – the meaning of war and conflict as the nomos of Persia – be poisoned by the will of a wanton mob as the ideal spectator.   This, at least, is how I am emale reads Herodotus’ presentation.

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