The Island of the Snakes

The Island of the Snakes
 08/10/2017 04:06 PM

Our view is that ancient island of Leuce (also known today in Romanian as ‘Insula Alba’ or ‘Insula Serpilor’) was the island Homer had in mind when describing events on Aeaea in Book 10, 11, and 12 of the Odyssey. As the largest island in the Black Sea1, Leuce lies in the path of the Danube current, a current which, we contend, carried Odysseus’ unsupervised ship to its shores. 

 ‘ἔνθα δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἀκτῆς νηὶ κατηγαγόμεσθα σιωπῇ / ναύλοχον ἐς λιμένα …’.                         Odyssey 10.140

The island was famous for its cult of Achilles, the hero’s body having been snatched from his funeral pyre and spirited there by his mother Thetis (as related in the epic Aethiopis by Arctinus)2. In 1823 the Cyclopean walls of a very large temple nearly 30 metres long were discovered on the highest point of the island, the site of Circe’s palace. This illuminates Hesychius’ reference to Leuce as the ‘Ἀχιλλειον πλακα‘ (‘the flat top of Achilles’ Hill’). Meanwhile the ‘numerous fragments of a finely worked cornice … in white marble’ discovered by Kohler there may be evoked in Homer’s phrase ‘τετυγμένα δώματα Κίρκης / ξεστοῖσιν λάεσσι’ (‘the halls of Circe wrought from ‘hewn [architectural]’ blocks of stone’: 10.211)3. The name Leuce itself ('white') is associated with the white animals that were said to live there (Dionysos Periegetes). Yet the birds that sprinkled cleansing water over the temple by day hint at the white (and therefore easily-stained) marble facing that has been discovered in association with the large temple. These marble fragments were removed in 1815 by an Italian ship’s captain.

There are some remarkable coincidences between the descriptions of the palace contained in Odyssey 10 and material collected by Romanian antiquarians such as Densusianu and Teodorescu. The White [and often 'Holy'] Monastery, located on Leuce, with its marble threshold is a recurrent theme in Romanian carols and hymns. In these sources, the building is elegantly confused with the dawn and the rising sun (‘but it is not the risen sun but a white monastery’; ‘it is not the light of dawn, but a holy monastery’). Moreover the religious link between temple and Sun is supported by the following lines from a folk source: ‘when the highest priest saw the holy sun emerging he was very joyful’. This correlates with Homer’s description of Circe’s palace as ‘holy’ (10.555) and of Aeaea as the ‘home of the early-born dawn with its … risings of the sun’ (Od.12.4-5). In the texts, the building itself is oriented towards the sun (‘with nine altars towards the sun’; ‘with the windows to the sun’). This is borne out by the sketches of the foundations which show an uninterrupted long side facing east, complemented on the other side by three rooms facing west. The same schema is reproduced on the Tabula Peutingeriana where the 3-roomed view must be that of the perspective of a ship approaching from the west. The high-pitched roof of the temple had we suggest a series of low-fenced, open-air booths where pilgrims lying flat could study the stars (see below on 'zabrele'). In the Odyssey, when the hero's crew make a trenchant remark designed to rekindle Odysseus' desire to return to Penelope after a year spent in the arms of Circe, this roof is uppermost in their thoughts. He should give thought, they say, to returning 'to [his own] high-ceilinged roof and to [his own] fatherland'. This implies that Circe herself had her own, high-ceilinged roof.

Elpenor's death demonstrates the existence on the palace roof of booths where one could sleep overnight. The young oarsman, heavy with wine, climbs to the roof (no doubt not for the first time) to seek the cool air there, but, on waking he is forgetful of his surroundings and of the ‘long ladder’. He falls to his death. Now the Romanian texts mention that Iana, the sister of Sun, requests that her brother build her a monastery and a bridge over the Black Sea as a dowry. As an extra gift she asks for ‘an iron stair high to the sky’. This might be a coincidence were it not for the repeated mention in the literature of the monastery’s ‘zabrele’ or ‘iron grilles’, nine of which look ‘towards the holy stars’ or ‘up to the stars’. The word ‘zabrele’ must be understood as synecdoche here for ‘pens with iron grilles’. The temple building we suggest had a Mansard roof allowing the iron grilles to form a series of booths along the flat summit of the temple. This would give an attractive ‘crowning’ effect to the palace. On this reading the long ladder would continue to the ridge of the roof.

The occupants of these roof-top cells will have been conducting a vigil awaiting the sunrise.  A particular Romanian poem concentrates on one such ‘zabrea’: ‘in the small zabrea / the quainter zabrea / who was sitting there?/ what was she thinking about?/ the Mother of God sits / she reads and reads / and certifies’. To be able to read in a zabrea there must be torches and indeed torchlight is a recurrent theme of the literature relating to the White Monastery. In alluding to this aspect of the ritual, the sources reveal an emphasis on nocturnal or pre-dawn rites (‘nine pillars for torches’; ‘nine tapers burning’).

Circe's pig-sties in Book 10 of Homer's Odyssey may indirectly allude to these 'zabrele'. When Hermes meets Odysseus he shows himself to be familiar with the ‘close-barred sties’ in which the human pigs are penned (10.283)[4]. And the simile of the calves pouring forth from the pens when the dams return from the pasture (10.410-414), may constitute a literary development or 'textual sequining' of the ‘iron grilles’ motif. The simile relates to the men who had not been metamorphosed by Circe. They are as happy to see Odysseus as any penned animal. Such images of pens tend to support the arrangement we have suggested for the zabrele. 

In one episode on Aeaea, Odysseus climbs to Circe’s bedroom to appeal to her during the night (10.480). The same phrase is used consistently for ‘mounting up to the bed of Circe’ (‘εὐνῆς ἡμετέρης ἐπιβείομεν … ἐπιβήμεναι εὐνῆς … ἐπιβήμεναι εὐνῆς’: 10.334, 340,342). Her bedroom is clearly on the second storey. However on the Peutinger Table there is no sign of a second storey. Instead the roof is heavily pitched suggesting Circe may have had her room within the roof space itself. Meanwhile the crew’s blunt humour at Odysseus’ expense (they encourage their leader to take thought for his high-pitched house, and his native land’) has been mentioned above.‘The implication is that both Odysseus' and Circe's palaces are remarkable for the height of their roofs. This brings us back to the ‘iron stair high to the sky’ of Romanian folklore. The ladder goes all the way to the zabrele.

The interior decoration of the monastery also deserves our attention. The folk texts repeatedly emphasise quantities of 9, such as ‘9 chairs and 9 little chairs’.  A particular chair in Circe’s palace is regularly accompanied by its footstool which might well be termed ‘a little chair’ (10.315, 367). It may even be that this silver-‘riveted’ chair of Homer’s represents the ‘big chair with 6 drops of sun’ mentioned in the carols. A drop of sun certainly conjures up a silver rivet-head. Meanwhile ‘Old Christmas’ is said to sit ‘at [a] chair of written gold’. In general chairs and the act of sitting seem to be important in both the Homeric (Od.10.233; 352-354) and Romanian texts. Tables too (and therefore meals) are prevalent in both traditions (‘there are tables laid’; Od.10.354-355). Furthermore, the internal colours in Homer’s palace are evoked by the woven stuffs produced by Circe which no doubt include the purple rugs. These correlate to the ‘inside full of banners’ that offset the ‘white marble thresholds’ in one Romanian text. More generally, in the Romanian sources, colour also derives from paint, gilding, and ‘darkened’ tiles.

Moving from sights to sounds, the fact that in the Odyssey, the floor echoes beneath Circe’s song, strongly suggests Homer is thinking of a tiled or possibly marble-clad, interior. This echoing consists in the ‘fearful resonance’ and ‘ringing’ of the interior in response to the wailing and weeping of the crew (10.398-399; 454). Meanwhile Circe’s song is counterpointed by the singing of the ‘9 old priests and 9 little deacons’ in the folk texts. The prayers we learn ‘are said for weeks’. Moreover, the feasting that continues for a year in Circe’s palace (10.467-468) is also not out of place at the monastery (‘when the sun is rising and the feast is great’)[5]. Further details enhance this picture, There is the preparation for feasting, as part of which Odysseus and his men are bathed (10.359-363; 449) and cleansed with oil (10.364; 450) just as ‘the Good God bathed and cleansed with good oil anointed’. This 'Good God' is usually equated with the ‘Deus Bonus Puer Phosphoros’ of Dacian inscriptions, namely, Apollo the Sun God. In the texts he too changes into ceremonial clothes (‘in other vestments he changed … with his vestment to the ground’) just as do Odysseus (10.542) and his men (10.451). Circe, the daughter of the Sun, takes particular care to dress for the occasion (10.543-545)[6]. 

The number 9 seems to have some importance in Book 10 of the Odyssey. As if to set the scene, we learn at 10.19 that the leather for Odysseus’ bag of winds derives from a nine-year-old ox (‘βοὸς ἐννεώροιο’). Later Odysseus' crew are likened to nine-year-old swine in advance of being converted back to human form (10.390: ‘σιάλοισιν ἐοικότας ἐννεώροισιν’). In many ways the commentators’ unease about these readings relating to the animals’ age makes one more confident that Homer was trying to insinuate a very particular reference to the number 9.  The letter theta was the Pythagorean number 9. Theta was also the letter that represented death though in the Pythagorean world view this was rather a ‘turning-point’ than a full-stop. We know from Pliny that The White Island or Leuce was also known as the Isle of the Blessed. As such it represented the part of the Underworld from which the fortunate were reincarnated. The title 'Isle of the Blessed' also relates Leuce to the cult of the Hyperborean Apollo. Meanwhile Leuce’s role as a ‘turning-point’ or 'meta' is supported by the word ‘νυσσηιτας’, a word which means 9 and which must be closely related to ‘νυσσα’, the ‘turning-point’ or ‘meta’ of a race. In marking the half-way point of the devotee's journey in search of an oracular response, the island will have been seen as a ‘meta’. Its devotees will have begun their pilgrimage from Chilia, which we consider to have been the only Danubian port from which Leuce was reached[7]. However the importance of this ‘meta’ will have been overwhelmingly symbolic, symbolic that is of the ‘change of life direction’ offered by the oracle and healing powers of the posthumous president of the temple, Achilles himself. In this context we recall that Achilles and Patroclus were two of the Greek army's 'healers' in the Iliad. Achilles' withdrawal from active participation in the war at the start of the Iliad must have adversely impacted the Greek 'walking wounded'. Meanwhile, the adjective frequently appended by Homer to Lord Apollo, the Sun God, namely ‘ἐκαεργος’ (‘far-averting’ or ‘averting at will’), is also a word for the number 9. This brings the Sun God to the centre of Leuce’s oracular ambit. Such an adjective suggest the ‘complete warding off’ of illness and ill-fortune. As A. Dietrich says ‘Leuce … the Isles of the Blessed … belonged to the same archaic pattern of solar paradise accessible to dead heroes and to ecstatics’. The number 9 then could have been a Romanian folk memory of the ancient number’s Pythagorean significance as 'the turning-point of death'. In support of this view we note that the Greek verb 'νεαζω' has the highly Eleusinian meaning of 'I am rejuvenated' 'I blossom'. Its compound ἐννεαζω does not seem to bear this nuance of physical reincarnation where it occurs in the literature. Yet the root verb produces a compound word in which the first five letters spell out '9' in Greek. An etymologised version of the verb produces the meaning 'I am brought back to my youth on'. Such a meaning entirely harmonises with the thrust of the number 9 in Pythagoreanism. One wonders whether the number 9 in th Romanian sources is inspired by the prefix of the verb that best expresses the hopes of the devotee.

Aporopos of the Romanian sources, Denusianu seems to be correct in pointing up the influence of etymologising in the creation of the folk texts. The story of the creation of the 'bridge' as a dowry for Iana seems likely to be a development of the etymology of the compound word ‘pontifex [maximus]’ (‘high priest’).  The nexus literally means ‘the mightiest bridge builder’ (‘ponti-fex’). This is what the Sun is encouraged to prove himself to be. Furthermore the term ‘high priest’ itself occurs in the texts as we have seen. 

However, according to one text, the Sun, having made the bridge of wax , then melts it by the agency of his own heat. This might seem a puzzle until we consider the Greek word 'θεραπων' 'θεραποντος '('therapon, therapontos'). This means 'attendant' or 'worshipper'. It seems likely to correspond to the Latin 'pontifex' ('presiding over'). Certainly the etymology of 'θεραπων' 'θεραποντος' seems perfectly suited to inspiring the above vignette. It is the suffix this time (' - pontos)' which will inspire the 'pons pontis' ('bridge'). However the suffix has only one real candidate, and that is the verb θερω meaning 'I become hot' and even 'melt'. Thus the entire word 'θεραποντος' can be creatively etymologised as 'the melting of the bridge'. Whilst the word 'wax' is not part of the etymological matrix, the involvement of just such a soft substance will be a sine qua non of any attempt to construct an etymology-based narrative around 'the melting of a bridge'. Meanwhile the folk etymology of 'pontifex' ('bridge-maker') is supported by the title given to Achilles in the north Euxine where his cult was particularly strong. There he was known by the Greek word ‘pontarches’ or ‘ruler of Pontos’. Now to a Latin speaker, whilst the suffix '-arches' conjures up ‘arch’ or ‘building’, the prefix 'pont-' denotes ‘a bridge’. Seen in this light, ‘pontarches’ will convey the same etymological force as ‘pontifex’[8]. If it is Achilles who is the 'pontifex' (and 'pontarches') and if it is he whose task it is to greet the sun then we must assume he has become contaminated with the Sun in the bridge-building texts. In sum, our suggestion is that the chief priest of the temple was thought to be Achilles who was believed to intercede on the pilgrims' behalf with Apollo. The Sun mediated its mssage to the pilgrim through the offces of the 'bridge-maker' and 'bridge-melter'. The sense of 'bridge' as the means of communication between two parties is significant.

Similarly, the ‘argillai’ or ‘half-buried houses’ reported by Strabo (5.4.5) as a feature of  Cimmmerian  (Deltaic) culture, are absorbed into Romanian folk literature through a homonymic thread. The Romanian word for 'a sunken room' is ‘argea’. However the occupant of the room in the Romanian texts is Iana (= ‘Luna’ or ‘Diana’) who invariably is found at the loom. A simple wooden loom in Romanian is also expressed by the word ‘argea’. Here we have a narrative constructed through homonyic association. Meanwhile the mist-bound Cimmerians are, we suggest the tribe that inhabit the foggy Danube Delta where the entrance to the Underworld is located (Odyssey 11).

The Brother-Sun-Sister-Moon myth has a strong presence in the Romanian texts. Iana is imagined to be living in the delta (the ‘little green glade’) perhaps on the 'green' island of Peuce (Valerius Maximus). She is appropriately in the Danubian 'setting' West facing her brother in the Euxinic 'rising' East. Indeed the name of the Danube port of Sulina may be a derivative of the Greek ‘Selene’ (‘Moon’), which is the Greek equivalent of Iana. Iana has 9 'argele' ('sunken rooms') on her island (Peuce), the number of which echoes the importance of this number on Leuce. One of these 'argele' is either large and of marble, or alternatively glazed, panelled, and paved. This suggests the temple itself was assimilated into the traditions of village architecture in the Danube. This is the sort of detail that makes Leuce an integral part of Romanian medieval culture. In either case, whether we are in the temple on Leuce or in a Danubian sunken room, Iana is regularly at her loom. Since archaic times, the figure of the goddess Diana (Iana) had been associated with the Danube Delta. Pindar’s ode (Olympians 3) had conferred on Artemis (Diana) a firm sense of belonging in that region. According to Pindar, she had once welcomed Heracles there when he was inpursuit of the doe with the golden horns. The doe was itself sacred to Artemis and this reminds us of the stag encountered on Leuce by Odysseus in Book 10 of the Odyssey. Meanwhile the area between Tulcea and Isaccea in the Upper Delta has provided a late Roman inscription dedicated to Diana Regina. Furthermore Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica mentions a temple of Artemis on a delta island (perhaps Popina). These last two pieces of evidence remind us of Artemis’ role as protectress of sailors in a dangerous environment (Apollonius Rhodius 1.570)[9]. 

The traditional polymophism of Artemis is represented by the statue in Sibiu, Romania, of Hecate Triformis. The representation of Luna (Artemis), dressed in a peplos with embroidered designs, is rich in association. First of all Iana-Luna at her loom will be associated with the production of an artwork such as the one in which Hecate is here dressed. Secondly there is a strong link between the circular dance being performed at the bottom of the peplos and practices on Leuce. The word for the dance is ‘Hora’ in Romanian and this derives from the Greek ‘χορος’. Its ancient circularity is confirmed by Heyschius who relates the word to ‘κυκλος’ (‘circular dance’) and ‘στεφανος’ (‘garland’).  The artistic ancestor of the dance is the 6th century BC Greek Black Figure Francois Vase where Theseus joins a dance on, it is suspected, Delos. The female participants wear peploi and dance or process in the form of a ‘Hora’ around the hem of the peplos or the rim of the vase. Wine craters such as the Francois Vase were regularly crowned with garlands during symposia. Thus the dance scene puns on the word ‘stephanos’ ('dance' 'garland') in the sense that the dance evokes the flowers that will be literally crowning and encircling the dancers’ heads as they process around the vase. Meanwhile the interlinking of dancers' hands represents the entwining of the garland’s stems. There may also be a certain contamination of the dance and the garland through the Greek word 'χορωνος' which in Simonides (174) is a synonym of the unaspirated version of the same word 'κορωνη' ('garland'). However Simonides' version is also morphologically close to the circular dance or 'χορος' which may have led to their identification.

As at Delos, so in Homer, the poetic text itself is both an encompassing dance and a woven tapestry (‘εἰ δὲ λίην πολέες σε περιτροχόωσιν ἀοιδαί, / ποίηι ἐνιπλέξω σε’: Callimachos Hymn to Delos 28). The weaving of words and the use of the shuttle at the loom is symbolised by the weaving of the ‘geranos’ dance on Delos. The word ‘chorus’ conveys the 'circularity' not only of the dance but also of the single eyes of both Sun and Moon. As Book 12 of the Odyssey opens with dawn over Aeaea, so the circular disk rises from the sea along with the 'dancing places' or 'choroi' ('νῆσόν τ᾽ Αἰαίην, ὅθι τ᾽ Ἠοῦς ἠριγενείης / οἰκία καὶ χοροί εἰσι καὶ ἀντολαὶ Ἠελίοιο'). Even today the hillside 'horae' of the Romanians are circular.

The frankincense burnt in the White Monastery also finds an echo in Homer. In book 10 of the Odyssey the hero climbs to a vantage-point above today's Golden Bay whither his ship had been guided by the Danube current. The smoke he sees is no ordinary smoke. It is described as ‘αἴθοπα καπνόν’ (10.152). The adjective suggest a very dark colour perhaps including flashes of flame within it. It is also a synonym of ‘heat-producing’ in Hesychius. The Romanian texts mention ‘walls made of frankincense’ but also ‘9 pillars for wax, for frankincense, and for the torches’. In our view Odysseus was witnessing the preparations for the burning of frankincense. Charcoal would have been used to create the necessary ‘heat’ required for the incense to ignite. Lump charcoal, that is natural charcoal, would have been made directly from the oak hardwood on the island. It gives off sparks, flames and dark grey smoke whilst it is creating the hot embers required for the incense[10].

Meanwhile Circe’s transformation of the men into pigs suggests a preponderance of oak trees on the island, acorns being the pig's staple diet as Eumaios knew well. Just opposite Leuce on mainland Romania, the former delta island of Letei today contains 2,000 hectares of oak forest. Pausanias (3.19.11) describes Leuce as ‘bristling all over with forest and full of animals both tame and wild’ (‘δασεῖα δὲ ὕλῃ πᾶσα καὶ πλήρης ζῴων ἀγρίων καὶ ἡμέρων’). Though treeless today, Homer’s Aeaea was entirely covered by trees as we learn from Odysseus' traverse of the island (10.197: ‘through the thick brush and wood’ ; ‘διὰ δρυμὰ πυκνὰ καὶ ὕλην’). The island provides the billets of wood for Elpenor’s funeral pyre (12.11) and a woodland pasture for a stag (10.159). The rise up to Circe’s palace is characterised by wooded glades or simply glens (10.252, 275). Meanwhile, in Homer’s portrait there are both wild animals, (such as the stag felled by Odysseus) and tame animals, (specifically the wolves and lions that fawn on Odysseus’ men when they arrive at Circe’s palace (10.214-215)). One is tempted to make a connection between these mythological animals and the real animals brought and left on the island by travellers. The Periplus of the Euxine Sea records sources who state that ‘some of the men who reach this island, come here intentionally. They bring animals in their ships, destined to be sacrificed. Some of these animals they slaughter, others they set free on the island, in Achilles’ honour’. Animals bred for sacrifice suggest animals bred to behave tamely, almost, one might suggest (with Circe's pigs in mind) anthropomorphically, in the interest of avoiding ill-omens during the ceremony.

Specific similarities between the physical geography of Leuce and Homer’s Aeaea can be supported either through other ancient texts or by contemporary observation. As Odysseus says, Aeaea is an island ‘garlanded by the boundless sea and low-lying’ (10.195-196: ‘νῆσον, τὴν πέρι πόντος ἀπείριτος ἐστεφάνωται: / αὐτὴ δὲ χθαμαλὴ κεῖται …’). This accords with its present appearance. From Leuce nothing but sea is visible. It has sea cliffs, but once one has climbed, like Odysseus, to a height, it appears relatively flat. Whilst Odysseus was telling the truth about the island when he said that it was 'garlanded by the sea' in his day he could not have seen through the trees from above Golden Bay.  Odysseus uses the expression safe in the knowledge that a Greek garland did not necessarily encircle the head. A skyphos from Lucania of 370 BCE shows Nike preparing to crown an athlete in anticipation of his victory. The olive wreath is clearly horseshoe-shaped. In other words, had Aeaea been a peninsula Odysseus would still have been telling the truth. At 135ft the island’s highest point today is the culmination of a gentle conical slope in the middle of its west side. From there, as from Circe’s palace (10.211), a panoramic view extends out to sea. Circe’s palace is on the highest point and it too is in the middle of the island. Meanwhile the cave into which Odysseus is advised to drag his ship by Circe finds several parallels today according to a Romanian website:[11] Ţărmurile sunt inalte, in medie de 12-15 m, dar ajungând şi la 21 m, şi terminate cu faleze in care pot fi descoperite râpi şi peşteri’ (‘the coast rises to an average of 12-15 metres, sometimes reaching 21 metres; it forms into cliffs at the sea’s edge in which there are caves and chasms’). If, as we believe, Calypso is a cryptic, or 'hidden' Circe, she will have had ample caves from which to choose her residence.

The Greek geographer Dionysius Periegetus of Bithynia, observes that ‘the souls of Achilles and other heroes … wander up through the island’s ‘deserted glens’’. Here the author has borrowed Homer’s word for the wooded slopes leading to Circe’s palace. However the geographical coherence of Homer's Aeaea is threatened by the presence of the stag killed by Odysseus in the act of descending to drink from ‘a river’. It is clear that Leuce is little more than a huge grass-grown rock with no fissures at all. There are certainly no rivers. There is one way to resolve this crux and again the solution reflects the way Homer, just like Odysseus, uses words that tell a narrow and almost undetectable truth. The stag was on its way down to drink at a river, but that river was the Danube. Pliny asserts that the fresh water of the Danube was borne by the current to a distance of 40 miles into the Black Sea. A sober look at modern statistics will suggest the salinity of the Black Sea is only from 14 PSU in the area east of the delta. This is well below the Black Sea average (17.5-18 PSU) which is itself low compared to other oceans. The fresh water that enters the sea is scarcely affected by the stagnant mass of water beneath which is rich in Hydrogen Sulphide and comprises a huge 87% of the total mass. By the time the Danube waters reach Leuce they are brackish but no more than that. As far as Homer and Pliny are concerned, 59 kilometres out from Chilia the Danube is still the Danube.

However deer rarely drink freshwater if their diet is rich in green vegetation. In other words this stag was going to drink the ‘river’, not in spite of its salinity but because of it. Deer seem to require salt to supplement their diet when that diet is such as is provided by the forests of Leuce. The sun that oppressed the stag was, if anything, draining it of salt through perspiration. Deer are adept at swimming the ocean, which in itself argues for their tolerance of salt water. So regularly are they found swimming at sea that Homer may well be suggesting this stag has migrated from the mainland[12].  Deer inhabiting small islands is a widely-reported phenomenon. Furthermore they do not seem to mind the sort of cramped environment provided by Leuce[13].

The circumference of Leuce as reported either by Strabo (20 stades) or Pliny (10 Roman miles; 4.27) does not correspond to today’s much smaller circumference (1.93 km). Of course the island may have suffered erosion or cataclysmic damage over the centuries, or (more likely) the MS tradition in Pliny's case has replaced 'stades' with 'Roman Miles'. However when Odysseus returns to Aeaea to perform Elpenor’s funeral rites in Book 12, the dead oarsman is buried on ‘the furthest extreme of a jutting headland’ (12.11). Leuce has such a headland which forms a low-lying extension to the north-east beyond an ever narrowing isthmus[14]. Furthermore Elpenor had earlier mentioned being buried ‘on the shore of the grey sea’ (11.75) and this is not inconsistent with the very moderate height of the headland as it enters the sea, particularly on its western flank[15]. Pliny's Natural History (4.27.1) meanwhile refers to the burial mound of Achilles on Leuce. This was clearly a landmark (‘Insula Achillis tumulo eius viri clara’) which suggests that Elpenor’s burial could have been intended by Homer as an ‘aition’ to explain the contemporary presence of this ‘widely-known’ and/or ‘widely-visible’ tumulus (‘insula … tumulo … clara’).

[1]  Berezan and Kefkan are also considered islands

[2] See Proclus Chrestomathy for a summary 

[3] Denusianu Chapter 5

[4] See also 10.237-241

[5] Note that the mention of apples in the Romanian texts (‘there’s a golden apple under the golden apple’; ‘he throws an apple at the moon … and another at the sun’) may relate to Apollo the god of Abalo, ‘the Isle of the Apples’, which equates to the golden apples of the Hesperides and Medieval Avalon (see Isidore 14.6.8  on   ‘Insulae Fortunatorum’ = ‘the Isles of the Blessed’). 

[6] Circe dons a ‘long white robe’ which recalls the length of the Good God’s robe. She also puts on a golden girdle and a veil. Her appearance is Sun-like.  

[7] We consider with Denusianu that  Chilia was so closely associated with Leuce through its position as the regular embarkation point for the island that its name derives from [A]chilles himself.  Similarly the name of the adjoining oak forest of Letea is easily accommodated to ‘Leto’, the mother of Apollo, as Denusianu points out. The texts mention ‘the little Mother of God, in her arms her little son’ and ‘the Most pure Mother’. These seem to point to Leto, the mother of Apollo. A contamination in the tradition between Thetis / Achilles and Leto / Apollo may not be out of the question however. See below on etymologising

[8] Note also ‘patriarch’ as a term in the texts

[9] engraving by lambert junior from a drawing by pierre jean-francois turpin from chaumeton, poiret

[10] See


[12] The following comments on deer will be found instructive: ‘Recently I saw a fawn drinking from the canal in Lewes. Pretty much full salt water, I think. I figured that it was a goner but was told by an old timer that it is not unusual to see’. ‘I have only seen a deer drink water once maybe twice in 35 yrs. They don't need water to live. I have seen the Everglades so dry it looked like the desert and the deer can live through drought and fires for months’. ‘Deer get a lot of their hydration through their diet in the spring and summer. Leaves and grasses have a high moisture content. They often times need salt to balance out the hydration level. That’s why salt blocks and other mineral licks are so popular among deer this time of year but not as much come hunting season [August 19 2010]’. ‘All our deer depend on water. If there isn't any, there's no deer. We don't have a lot of what you'd call lush vegetation though either’. ‘Yes they swim in the ocean. There are islands in the Chesapeake that are populated with deer. There are no fresh water sources on these islands which raises the question of how they thrive on the islands. I suppose they drink the brackish water...I don't have any explanation for this one’. ‘They also like seaweed as a food source’. ‘It was on the Wildwood side frolicking around on the beach, near the tree line. I never knew there were deer there. How the hell do they survive in such a small area? I have seen individual deer and small herds pretty far out [in the ocean]’.

[13] Note that the one-time peninsula of Elafonissos in Greece (Venetian ‘Tservi’) long had a reputation for deer as its different names testify

[14] ‘Solul moale de pe istm se erodează foarte rapid, afirmă specialistul Viktor Ostrohliad’.

[15] Elpenor dies when falling off the roof of Circe’s palace. From this highest point of the island he may have looked down upon the headland he later earmarks for his grave. 


© Barney McCullagh 2017. All rights reserved


Tagged:  #Circe Calypso
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