Artemisia at war

War brings out the best and the worst in people. Or maybe it just brings out the worst, in many different shapes.

Construction and destruction of Troy, by Maître d'Orose [Public domain]

Construction and destruction of Troy, by Maître d’Orose [Public domain]

In the Ilias, Hector takes his leave from Andromache and their baby. If he doesn’t survive the war, his small son will be killed and his wife will become a slave.

“So speaking glorious Hector reached out to his child.

But the baby shrank back to the breast of his well-belted nurse

crying, panicking at the sight of his own father

frightened at both the bronze and the helmet with its crest of horse-hair,

thinking it was nodding dreadfully down from the crest of his helmet.

His dear father and mother laughed aloud.

Straightaway glorious Hector removed the helmet from his head

and laid it down, all shining, on the ground.

Then he kissed his beloved son and rocked him in his arms.

He spoke, praying to Zeus and the other gods:

“Zeus and the other gods, grant that this child of mine

may become, as I am, pre-eminent among the Trojans,

this powerful in strength, and rule over Ilion in strength.

And let someone say one day, “This fellow is much better than his father

when he returns from fighting. Let him kill an enemy,

bring back the bloody armour and delight the heart of his mother.””

(Iiad, book  VI)

Later, Hector is killed by Achilles, who triumphantly drags his dead body around the walls of Troy. Hector’s father is prepared to kiss Achilles’ hand just to be allowed to bury him. This is war, some 3000 years ago.

Hector brought back to Troy, Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Hector brought back to Troy, Louvre Museum via Wikimedia Commons

But surely today, war could also mean restoring law and order by dropping a few sophisticated bombs? No, it couldn’t. Our recent experiences in Somalia and Iraq show that this type of war will not lead to stability and democracy. War hasn’t really changed since ancient times. It still means atrocities on all sides, combined with huge doses of propaganda and misinformation. War means making horrible decisions.

In 480 BCE the Persians invaded Greece for the second time in a decade. After they ravaged the Acropolis in Athens King Xerxes and the Persians with their supporters met the Greeks for a showdown in a sea battle, in the narrow straits between the island of Salamis and the western coast of mainland Greece.

Bonnie MacLachlan, “Women in Ancient Greece, A sourcebook”, Bloomsbury

Queen Artemisia of Caria was a subject ally of Xerxes. When he asked his military leaders for advice, she spoke out against it:

“I am telling you this – spare your ships and make no battle at sea! For their men are as much stronger than yours at sea as men are stronger than women. Why should you put yourself at risk on all fronts in a naval battle? Don’t you have control of Athens for the sake of which you set out this campaign? And don’t you control the rest of Greece?”

Against all expectations, Xerxes did not have Artemisia killed for being disinclined to engage in battle. But he did decide to fight at sea and Artemisia found herself commanding a ship and being pursued by the Greeks, without room to manoeuvre because her way out was blocked by a Calyndian ship, fighting for Xerxes.

Tomb of Xerxes, Iran, by Roodiparse (Own work) [Public domain]

Tomb of Xerxes, Iran, by Roodiparse (Own work) [Public domain]

Artemisia did the only thing she could do to save her life: she rammed and sunk the friendly ship. The captain of the pursuing Attic trireme supposed that Artemisia was a Persian deserter fighting on the Greek side. He turned away. There were no survivors on the Calyndian ship to accuse her and Xerxes was so proud of her sinking what he thought was an enemy ship that he said:

“My men have become women, and the woman men!” (Herodotus, Histories 8.88 14-15)

Like Xerxes, I think war can change people profoundly. Maybe it’s wrong that we’ve now got professional armies, that we can bomb the enemy from navy vessels or from the air, guided by politicians who do not expect their wives to be violated and their children killed. But we shouldn’t forget that the percentage of civilians ending up dead has risen steeply since ancient times. And that the sorrows of war will last for generations.

The stories of Andromache and Artemisia were found in “Women in Ancient Greece, A sourcebook”, by Bonnie MacLachlan.


To believe out of boredom

“People who find their daily lives too empty and monotonous easily become religious; this is understandable and excusable, only they have no right to demand religiousness from those whose daily lives do not pass in an empty and monotonous way.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 115, translated by Gary Handwerk (SUP)

I must have heard it more than ten times this year: people saying their religion saved them from a life of mindless consumerism. Do modern people embrace these anachronistic answers simply because they’re bored? And if they are, how is that possible?

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell  [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Naerøyfjorden, by Karamell [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Nietzsche’s aphorisms on religion are often cited; the most controversial ones can be found everywhere. But he did more than declare himself to be the Antichrist. According to Nietzsche, it was historically inevitable that Christianity would become obsolete. In “The religious life”, the third chapter of his book “Human, All Too Human”, he describes how, a long time ago, people regarded nature as inexplicable, lawless and extremely powerful. They reacted by inventing rules and customs for humans, hoping that these would serve to influence nature in a magical way. They were looking to make it rain at the right time, to compel the sun to rise in the morning and they had no sense of causality.

“If one rows, it is not the rowing that moves the boat, but the rowing is instead only a magical ceremony by means of which one forces a spirit to move the boat.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I) 111, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

He describes how the ancient Greeks were the first to realise that moira (fate) reigned over both humans and immortal gods.  The interaction between the Greeks and their heroes and gods was quite natural, they [did] not need to be ashamed in each other’s presence. Compared to their way of life, the Christian vision can be seen as a step back. According to that, humans are not simply a lesser nobility when compared to those that live on Mount Olympus: instead they are awaiting a gleam of divine pity from a state of complete depravity.

So when Nietzsche hears the church bells on a Sunday morning, he asks himself rhetorically:

“Surely in our time the Christian religion is an anachronism projecting out of the distant past … ”

HH 113, translation Gary Handwerk (SUP)

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Boats on a lake, by Hiroshige [Public domain]

Is religion a fitting answer to the ennui that stems from having it all (as long as it’s made of plastic, somewhere in China)? Nietzsche looked past Christianity and felt the threat of nihilism, a philosophy that would be hard to embrace and to eventually transcend. Those he saw around him were more confident; they trusted science to come up with all the answers and the army to bring them lasting victories. Nietzsche knew there would come a time when those answers would no longer be valid.

“Modern science has as its goal: as little pain as possible, as long a life as possible — hence, a sort of eternal bliss, admittedly a very modest one in comparison with the promises of religions.”

Human, All Too Human (I) translation Gary Handwerk

At the time he wrote Human, All Too Human he thought humanity was moving forward although it might take millennia to register any progress. I wonder how many of us are rowing our own boats today.

The truth about Pandora

According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman. She was created when Zeus was angry because Prometheus stole the fire.

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Son of Iapetos, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire — a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.”

Hesiod, Works and Days (800-700 BCE) Translation Evelyn-White

Hephaistos, the lame god of fire, mixed earth and water into a lovely maiden and all the Olympian Gods gave her a gift to make her even more attractive. For instance, Hesiod describes how Aphrodite shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. The woman was called Pandora, which means All-Gifts. Hermes brought her to Epimetheus, who looked at her and forgot that he’d been advised never to accept a present from Zeus. He brought her home, where Pandora took the lid from the jar she carried. Fate came flying out, together with Hard Toil and Sickness and Plagues. All these found a home among men, whose lives were miserable because of it. Pandora and Epimetheus eventually had a daughter, Pyrrha; the first mortal woman.

Hesiod told his story to warn us there is no way to escape Zeus, even though Prometheus managed to temporarily outwit him. In his Theogony, he describes Pandora as “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men”. He certainly gives the impression that both Pandora herself and the jar she carried were unwanted gifts.

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

If we try to imagine a world without the beauty of women or the cruel surprises of fate, without hard work and sickness, it would not inspire us, however much this blessed but uneventful life might have appealed to Hesiod. I think Prometheus’ fire, Pandora and the contents of the jar conspired to make the life of the pre-Socratic Greeks tragic.

“…since tragedy no less than beauty may be said do exist only in the eyes of the beholder, whose sensibility has been formed and cultivated by art.” Richard Schacht, Making Sense of Nietzsche, in an essay on the Birth of Tragedy

What always fascinates me, is that Hesiod’s is not the only way to tell this particular story.

Homer says in his Iliad that there were two urns, one filled with evils and one with blessings. Zeus can mingle these and bestow them at will. Theognis in his Greek Elegy (6th century BCE) describes the inverse of Hesiod: Pandora opens the jar and all the good gods come out and instantly leave for Mount Olympus: Trust, Restraint and Charitas are lost forever. Therefore, people forget about the rules of conduct and acts of piety. In this version, the people are not the innocent victims of a wrathful Zeus but they become forgetful and can no longer trust each other. This is what brings tragedy to their lives.

Maybe the beautiful maiden was innocent, too. Aesop claims Pandora’s husband had no self-control and opened the jar. (Aesop’s Fables # 526, 6th century BCE). There is one thing all these writers agree on: Hope was kept in the jar, either because Pandora closed it in time or because Zeus had designed it to happen like that.

Is that a good thing? After all, hope does nothing to protect us from the tragedies of life. However, Aeschylus is not alone in arguing that it keeps us alive instead:

Prometheus: Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.

Chorus: Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?

Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.

Chorus: A great benefit was this you gave to mortals.

Aeschylus, from the Greek Tragedy “Prometheus Bound” (5th century BCE) translation Weir Smyth

The texts cited above were found on the Greek mythology site

A feather tale

“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and it carries with it all my good intentions.”

Amy Tan, the Joy Luck Club

The feather Amy Tan describes is a swan feather, the sole reminder of a swan that was carried from China and wasn’t allowed into the United States. Her character kept the feather as a token. The paradox appealed to me. One swan feather looks exactly like another; nothing Chinese about it. Only the story remains.

Mirrored, by aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (]

Mirrored, by aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (

Here, at pipteinpteron, you might catch a falling feather. It may seem worthless, or not. At best, this blog will start you musing. The writer’s quill is powerful, but who said I was a writer?

This won’t get personal and it won’t get opinionated. I’m looking for those fragments of knowledge that spark a thought, open your eyes or make you feel like flying, if only for a moment. Just imagine how:

“What opposes, unites.” Heraclitus DK 8

I’m delighted to see the many translations of ancient texts on the internet. Many people spend their time creating these sites, making the work of philosophers like Heraclitus more accessible than ever before. So that’s all good. Or is it?

“Your invention [of writing] will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.” Plato, Phaedrus

Maybe a genuine interest in philosophy means you read closely, and read again. And then you write about it. And hopefully, someone reads you.