Saturday, July 14, 2007

BOOK: Polydore Vergil, "On Discovery" (cont.)

Polydore Vergil: On Discovery. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 6. Harvard University Press, 2002. 0674007891. xxx + 721 pp.

[Continued from last week.]


As you can expect in a book that cites a lot of Herodotus, Pliny and the like, it's full of bizarre anthropological curiosities. See e.g. 1.4.6 on marriage-customs (“The Babylonians and Assyrians bought their wives at public auction [. . .] Others had sex with blood relatives, particularly their mothers and sisters, and even married them [. . .] Among the Nasamones and Augylans, [. . .] it was the custom that when one of them took a wife, the bride should spend the first night with each of the wedding guests as a tribute to Venus, and afterward she preserved her chastity forever.”). In 1.4.7 he mentions the ius primae noctis, saying that it used to be practiced by the Scots but “[b]ecause this practice was obviously the most disgraceful thing in Christian memory, King Malcolm III, their greatest leader, did away with it around the year 1090”.

Apparently the word ‘orgy’ has more respectable origins than I would have thought: among the Greeks, “orgia were esctatic mysteries or initiations [. . .] or worship and sacrifice in general, or even non-religious mysteries” (translator's note to 1.5.6).

In 1.6.8 Polydore mentions an Israeli king named Zorobabel — now I see where Crowley picked up his hilarious self-proclaimed title, ‘the Grand Zerubbabel’ (see my post about de Camp's Ragged Edge of Science).

On the development of the alphabet (1.6.12): “Q was added because it seemed to produce a sound fatter than C.” Yeah, what do those lardassed phonemes think they are? It's high time they got into the clutches of the dirty, money-grubbing, body-image-anxiety-inducing fingers of the dieting industry :-))

What happens when you allow pedants to wax lyrical on their masturbatory efforts: “To the young it is a necessity, to the old a delight; it is a sweet sharer of secrets, and alone of all studies more deed than show. This is what Quintilian says.” (1.7.4. “It” being the study of grammar.)

The mathematical symbol nabla (∇, for the gradient vector) is derived from the name of a lyre-like instrument, which was triangular in shape. The instrument is mentioned here in 1.15.7.

Astrological absurdities of one Julius Firmicus (1.17.1): “Whoever has a horoscope in the fourth part of Mercury will be an accountant; a horoscope in the Horse makes a charioteer”; fortunately Polydore laughs at him.

Shame: chapter 1.18, which is about geometry, doesn't mention Euclid.

On the first (Greek) physician in Rome (Archagathus, AUC 535): “He was at first a wound-specialist and eventually came to be called ‘torturer’ because of his ferocity in cutting and cauterizing.” (1.20.7. Eventually he and other Greek doctors were expelled from Italy.)

Physicians got the idea for bloodletting from, wait for this, hippos (1.21.7): “When its continual gluttony makes it catch cold, it comes out onto shore and looks about for fresh cuts in the reeds, and when it finds the sharpest plant, it presses its body down and wounds a certain vein in its leg. By shedding blood in this way it relieves its unhealthy body”. The same paragraph informs us that from the ibis they got the idea for the enema.

And here's why the day used to have twelve hours (2.5.1): “Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt had once observed that a certaain sacred animal consecrated to Serapis made urine twelve times a day and always at equal intervals; from this he concluded that the day should be divided into twelve hours.” I think I want some of the stuff that these people have been smoking :-)

From 2.9.2: “many people excelled at memory. King Cyrus of Persia produced the names of all the soldiers in his army, for example.” Reminds me of this Russian joke; and of the possibility that maybe the Persian army wasn't as large as we like to think.

The delights of the Lupercalia, when otherwise sane people were running about naked (2.14.2): “It is not much out of the way to note that Mark Antony, naked and oiled for these festivities, put a diadem on Caesar's head, according to Appian in book 2 of the Civil Wars.”

There's a whole chapter (2.17) about wreaths — apparently Greeks and Romans used to wear lots and lots of different kinds of wreaths, sometimes awarded for some particular deed or achievement, sometimes simply as a part of festive attire. “So the profusion of wreaths continued until at last the Greeks used them at banquets and symposia [. . .] serving them in drinking bowls for amusement.” (2.17.7. In the next paragraph he has an interesting anecdote about Cleopatra and Mark Anthony [sic — apparently he sprouted an extra ‘h’ since the previous quote], who “feared the queen's kindness and would take no food unless it had been tasted beforehand”; at some point, Cleopatra invited him to “drink the wreaths with her”, but then stopped him right in time, explaining that she had had his wreath poisoned to demonstrate how easily she could have poisoned him “could I but live without you”.)

From 2.19.1: “Asked why gold is pale, Diogenes gave a clever answer, according to Laertius: Because so many lie in wait for it, he replied.” :) Incidentally, this reminds me of a comment in a review of Lawrence James' Rise and Fall of the British Empire on amazon: “now I know why the British Empire was shown as pink on the map: it was blushing with shame.”

Amusing slanders against beer: “it increases urination, agitates the kidneys and nerves, obstructs the membranes (especially those covering the brain), brings on flatulence, creates a corrupt humor and causes elephantiasis. Whoever bathes in this sort of liquor comes out nibmle and ready for the task at hand. Dioscorides says this. But beer seems to have less of this effect on those who have used it since childhood.” (3.3.11.) But this is perhaps also a good example of Polidore's excessive reliance on classical authorities. He had lived in England for many years — surely he had had the chance to observe many regular beer-drinkers, and surely he knew damned well that none of them had elephantiasis. And yet he repeats these silly claims.

OMG: “In Greek something that cleans is called smēgma.” (3.6.3).

Chapter 3.10 is chock-full of gloriously crazy burial customs. “When parents, relatives or neighbors reached old age, they cut their throats and ate them, thinking it better that they dine on them rather than the worms. The Tibareni hung the old folks whom they loved best on gibbets” (3.10.11). “The Hyrcanians threw people half-dead to the birds and dogs. [. . .] The Assyrians preserved them with honey and covered them with wax. The Nabateans thought of corpses as dung and buried their kings in dung-pits.” (3.10.14. This last one has an eminent 20th-century immitator, namely Mao Zedong: “I'll take the lead. We should all be burnt after we die, turned into ashes and used for fertilizer.”) “The Bactrians cast old people to dogs that they had bred for this work” (3.10.15). “When great crowds of relatives had gathered, they tore the corpses to pieces with their teeth and ate them mixed with the flesh of animals, and then they wreathed their skulls with gold and used them as cups which, according to Pliny in book 4, was the final act of filial duty. [. . .] The Hyperboreans thought that the best kind of burial was this: When people felt themselves tired of life, they should dine and anoint themselves and then go to a particular cliff and throw themselves into the depths of the sea.” (3.10.16).

In 3.10.19 he describes the customs related to the Roman deification of a recently deceased emperor.

A story from Herodotus in 3.11.13: a blind king “heard an oracle from the city of Bucus that his sight would be returned to him if he washed his eyes with the urine of a woman who was happy with her husband alone and had nothing to do with other men”; after unsuccessful attempts with his wife and several other women, he eventually found one whose urine cured him: “He then burned all the women whom he had tested except the one whose urine had restored his sight when he washed with it — and her he married.” Ahem. Wasn't the oracle talking about married women only? If so, then what did he do to her husband? Anyway, Freud would be delighted with the happy end of the story: “Freed of his ailment, he set up a pair of spit-shaped stones called in the Temple of the Sun, each a hundred cubits high and eight on a side.”

Chapter 3.17 has several curious if slightly grisly prostitution-related anecdotes: the Cypriots would send “their unmarried maidens to seek dowry money by plying their trade on the seashore, making offerings to Venus in exchange for what remained of their chastity” (3.17.2). “After they had exhausted their country's wealth, it was also the custom among the Babylonians for any commoner who lacked a livelihood to compel his daughters to make a living with their bodies. Also, once in their lifetimes women were the common property of all the populace. They sat near the temple of Venus with garlands tied about their heads [. . .] she was forbidden to return home until one of the strangers tossed money in her lap and had intercourse with her. [. . .] The prettier women were quickly released, but not so the plain, who often had to wait a year or two. Such was the law whose purpose was to preserve the honor of the goddess Venus, according to Herodotus in book 1.” (3.17.3.)

Some interesting things were discovered later than I imagined: stirrups weren't known in ancient Rome (3.18.5, see also translator's note on p. 683: they were known in central Asia earlier but came to Europe only in the early middle ages). Saddles weren't used “until the early empire”, iron horse-shoes “were not common until the late empire” (translator's note to 2.12.2, p. 634).

I'm not sure what to make of this curious sentence from the translator's notes (p. 586): “About a third of the language of the Hebrew Bible is poetry, but its structure has not yet been explained.”

A great name for a city inhabited by philosophers: “Erastus and Coriscus were Platonic philosophers who lived in Skepsis” (translator's note to 2.6.4, p. 627).

There's an interestng translator's note on triumphs and ovations on p. 640: “The standard for earning a triumph was to have killed five thousand enemies in one battle” etc.

Translator's note to 2.19.8 (p. 645): “Anacharsis, a Scythian prince, is supposed to have visited Athens toward the end of the sixth century BCE. As an ideal type of the wise and noble savage, he was credited with various inventions, but his criticisms of technology — seafaring especially — were also legendary.” Wow, here's something I never thought I would see — a Scythian prince seen as a noble savage?! Weren't they, like, notorious for scalping their enemies, sacrificing servants and concubines at the burials of their kings, and whatever other lurid anecdotes Herodotus managed to pick up about them? But then perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised; after all, when Europeans came into contact with the American Indians, they similarly regarded them sometimes as bloodthirsty monsters and sometimes as noble savages.

On mentions of trade in Homer's works: note to 2.20.2 (p. 645) and to 3.16.1 (p. 680).


So, if you decide to read this book, bear in mind what you'll be getting yourself into, so that you aren't disappointed afterwards. You'll get plenty of interesting (and sometimes curious or even quite bizarre) little factoids about how the origin or discovery of this, that or the other thing was explained and attributed by various ancient authors. What you won't get, though, is: an awareness that the world may be older than 5000+ years; that there may be anything before the time of Abraham except biblical history (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, etc.), and that therefore many things may have been known to other nations long before the biblical Hebrews mention them for the first time; that many ‘discoveries’ weren't really the sort of thing that can be ascribed to any individual person at a specific moment in time, but are rather the result of a long and gradual process; that, for many technologies and social practices, their origin cannot be satisfactorily ascertained just by careful sifting of the writings of ancient authors; etc.

Of course, it would hardly be reasonable to expect all these things from a 15th/16th-century author such as Polydore. In his time the knowledge of ancient history beyond that reported by classical authors and the bible was sketchy or nonexistent; archaeology didn't yet exist, nor did the idea that many things in history proceed by long-term processes rather than by momentous acts of important individuals. So if you want to really learn about the origins of this or that, read some modern book; but as a cabinet of curiosities, On Discovery functions quite pleasantly. Its short chapters make it great for dipping into, you can almost open it at random and read that chapter and you'll be sure to find something interesting in it.


  • I definitely think I should eventually read Herodotus and Pliny — Polydore often mentions curious anecdotes from their works, so why not go straight to the horse's mouth?

  • As I mentioned above, this ITRL edition contains only the first three (of eight) books of On Discovery. There also exists a translation of the whole thing, by Beno Weiss and Lousi C. Pérez, published as Beginnings and Discoveries (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1997). But I'm not sure if I want to read it; if I understand correctly, books 4–8 are mostly about (Christian) religion. Besides, there's just one copy currently on ABE, and it costs €176. (Hardly surprising for these obscure Dutch publishers — I guess I should be glad that it isn't Brill, in which case it would probably cost €276 :))) Well, anyway, it's good that it's so expensive; at least I won't be tempted to buy it.

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