Monday, 25 March 2013

Shit Oracles Say

This is my favourite SMBC comic. I'm sure you've seen it before, but just in case you haven't here is is again:

If you've never seen any of the SMBC comics before, you can read all of them here. But, err, read the rest of my blog first, yeah? You'll be there a while.

Anyway, I thought there were a couple of other amusing oracle stories that were worth sharing.

Sparta and the Tegeans

Once upon a time, the Spartans weren't the supreme military force we saw in 300. Way back in the 6th century BC, they were trying to conquer Tegea in Arcadia. Despite it's idyllic name, Arcadia was actually a pretty rough place, with few natural resources to speak of. First, they went and asked the Oracle what she thought about their plans. She told them:

"Cravest thou Arcady? Bold is thy craving. I shall not content it.
Many the men that in Arcady dwell, whose food is the acorn-
They will never allow thee. It is not I that am niggard.
I will give thee to dance in Tegea, with noisy foot-fall,
And with the measuring line mete out the glorious campaign."

They figured this was a pretty promising poem. It doesn't say they can have all of Arcadia, but it does let them take Tegea. And doesn't it say they'll dance- presumably with victory? And doesn't she also tell them they should even take surveying equipment (the measuring line) so they can measure up their conquered territory?

So, feeling confident, the Spartans set off, carrying with them fetters to bind the enslaved Tegeans. Unfortunately, they were roundly defeated, and many of them captured. Using the lines and chains the Spartans themselves had brought along, they were made slaves and forced to work the Arcadian soil. This became known as the Battle of the Fetters.

They went back to the Oracle and asked: what gives? Which god did they have to appease to be able to defeat the Tegeans? She answered them:

"Level and smooth is the plain where Arcadian Tegea standeth;
There two winds are ever, by strong necessity, blowing,
Counter-stroke answers stroke, and evil lies upon evil.
There all-teeming Earth doth harbour the son of Atrides;
Bring thou him to thy city, and then be Tegea's master."

The son of Atrides was Orestes, the son of Agamemnon. As you might imagine, it took them quite a long time to find the bones of a mythical hero. After all, doesn't one skeleton look much like another?

Fortunately, they happened to find them in Tegea itself (which gives them a mythical claim to the land, as Orestes was Spartan on his mother's side. That's probably the whole reason for this story.) Convenient that. A Spartan called Lichas heard a Tegean smith talking about digging a well in the middle of his forge. Apparently he found a coffin seven cubits long (that's about 3.2m), and, since he didn't believe the stories that said heroes were much taller than other men, he opened it up. There was a body the same size. He reburied it and figured that was the end of that. Lichas persuaded him to rent the room out, took it and secretly recovered the bones and returned them to Sparta.

"From henceforth, whenever the Spartans and the Tegeans made trial of each other's skill in arms, the Spartans always had greatly the advantage; and by the time to which we are now come they were masters of most of the Peloponnese.  "- Herodotus Histories book 1.

We don't know what happened to the bones after that, but they were probably interred in a temple and made into a hero cult.

But wait: people weren't ever three metres tall! What was it that Lichas found? Paul Cartledge reckons it was a fossilised dinosaur. Just when you thought they couldn't get any cooler, turns out the Spartans were worshipping dinosaurs.

Recall your Exiles!

Theagenes of Thasos was exactly the kind of jammy bastard we all secretly hate. He was a skilled athlete, excelling at every kind of physical contest. In total, he was supposed to have 1300 victor's crowns (equivalent to gold medals in major sporting events now). When he died, the people of Thasos put up a statue of him.

But there was one (unnamed) man who let his anger out: he hated Theagenes alive, and he hated him dead. In the middle of the night he would go out and mercilessly scourge (whip) the statue. One night, the statue put and end to this by falling on him and killing him. That should have been the end of it, but the dead man's sons prosecuted the statue for murder. They were successful (statues find it quite hard to speak up for themselves), the statue was condemned to exile and thrown into the harbour.

Soon afterwards there was a famine in Thasos, and so they went to the oracle to ask her what they should do. She gave them a standard reply: to recall their exiled citizens. Duly, they did so, but still the famine did not abate (I think you can see where this is going), so they went back. You know what she said?

"But you have forgotten your great Theagenes."

So, with a great deal of difficulty they managed to recover the statue, put it in its original position, and, for good measure, began worshipping it like a god.

Burns Throughout History #3

Since we've been discussing Sparta, here's a tiny quote from King Agesilaus when he was being shown around a city (probably Athens, but I don't have the name to hand). His guides drew his attention to the solid city-walls with their exceptionally strong construction, and he replied:

"What splendid woman's quarters!"


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