Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?

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A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).

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More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

PS
The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.

Fragments of Greek Beauty

The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source

The Greek island of Santorini, the ancient Thera. Click for source

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace …

Thus Byron chanted, and such landscapes, the Mediterranean Greek islands (and mainland Greece as well), explain a bit how Hellenic beauty in arts developed and flourished: the extreme limpidity of the air, the richness of colours and smells, skies and sea of a magnificent intense blue, and a vehement sun, burning and pervasive. What perfection, what simplicity and yet profundity!

Well, one might say, where has all this Beauty gone? The landscape is still there but is it true that all that was splendid and Greek has disappeared …

as the flowers of the orange tree
swept away by the cold north wind …?”

(quote from here).

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Greece didn’t continue its beauty and civilization like Italy did in the centuries (see the comments section for a discussion on this point.) Some fragments though have survived.

Narrowing the focus on literature, we personally are fascinated by the works of the neo-pagan sublime poet Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933) from Alexandria, or by those of the writer, poet and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 – 1957) from Crete, who lost the Nobel Prize to Albert Camus in 1957 by just one vote and who was spiritually restless, seeking “relief in knowledge, in travelling, in contact with a diverse set of people, in every kind of experience”(Wikipedia). And we are mentioning only those we have some knowledge of.

Crete is the largest Greek island which completes from the south the Greek archipelago (1400 islands!) and which, sung by Homer, conjures up ancient legends like Minos, the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne, the labyrinth created by Daedalus etc. (were they mere legends?). It is an island that hosted the Minoan civilization, namely the most ancient Greek (hence European) civilization (ca. 2600–1400 BC.)

Admire the perfection of this Minoan Bull Head from the Heraklion Museum, Crete (click on this and all other pictures for source files and credits.)

Minoan Bull Head. CCommons, psmithson, Flickr.

Let us now listen to the words of Nikos Kazantzakis recalling some decisive moments from his childhood in Crete: his first contacts with earth, sea, woman and fire (from the starry sky.)

Earth, Sea, Woman and Fire

Kazantzakis remembers how advancing on all fours, still not able to walk, he once extended his tender head full of longing and fear in the courtyard for the very first time. Until that moment he had looked out his house windows but had seen nothing. That time though he didn’t just extend his sight, he actually saw the world for the very first time. Extraordinary revelation!

“Our little courtyard-garden seemed without limits. There was buzzing from thousands of invisible bees, an intoxicating aroma, a warm sun as thick as honey. The air flashed as though armed with swords, and, between the swords, erect, angel-like insects with colourful, motionless wings advanced straight for me. I screamed from fright, my eyes filled with tears, and the world vanished.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Earth.

(A landscape from Crete)

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He also remembers how a man with a thorny beard took him in his arms and brought him down to the port. While approaching their destination the little child started to hear like the terrible sighing and roaring of a wounded beast. He got so frightened that he tried to escape from the man’s arms, like a little trapped bird.

“Suddenly – the bitter odour of carob beans, tar, and rotten citrons. My creaking vitals opened to receive it …at a turn in the street – dark indigo, seething, all cries and smells (what a beast that was! what freshness! what boundless sigh) – the entire sea poured into me frothingly. My tender temples collapsed, and my head filled with laughter, salt, and fear.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Sea.

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He then remembers, when he was three, that a plump and pretty young woman, Anika, a neighbour with nice blond hair and large eyes, came to their little garden while he was playing around. The place smelled of summer and she, newly married and recent mother, leaning over, took him on her lap and hugged him.

“I, closing my eyes, fell against her exposed bosom and smelled her body: the warm, dense perfume, the acid scent of milk and sweat. The newly married body was steaming. I inhaled the vapour in an erotic torpor, hanging from her high bosom. Suddenly I felt overcome by dizziness and fainted. Blushing terribly, the frightened neighbour put me down, depositing me between two pots of basil.”

After that day the woman never took him on her lap again. “She just looked at me very tenderly with her large eyes and smiled.”

This was the very first time he experienced the Woman.

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One night in summer he was in his yard again.

“I remember lifting my eyes and seeing the stars for the first time. Jumping to my feet, I cried out in fear, ‘Sparks! Sparks!’ The sky seemed a vast conflagration to me; my little body was on fire.”

This was how he experienced fire (and the starry sky) for the first time in his life.

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These four terrible elements – he recognizes – imprinted on his mind to the extent that even the most abstract ideas or the most metaphysical problems, in order to be significant to him, must take on a physical form “which smells of sea, soil and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh.”

It is this special trait, this synaesthetic aptitude, among others, that makes many of Kazantzakis’s pages so vibrant and unforgettable.

References. Quotes from Nikos Kazantzakis’s autobiographical and last novel, Report to Greco, Faber and Faber 1965, translation from modern Greek by Bruno Cassirer, Oxford, 1965.

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