Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Aristeas of Proconnesus

I have already mentioned where the author of this account came from; and now I shall tell you what I heard about him in Proconnesus and Cyzicus. Aristeas, they say, was in lineage the equal or superior of any citizen in his town. One day he entered a fuller’s shop in Proconnesus and dies there, so the fuller locked up his workshop and went to announce to Aristeas’ relatives that he had died. The news of his death quickly spread throughout the city, but a man of Cyzicus objected. He had just come from the city of Artace, and he claimed to have just met and talked with Aristeas, who was on his way to Cyzicus. So he vehemently denied that Aristeas was dead. Meanwhile, the relatives of Aristeas went for his body at the fuller’s shop, bringing along what they needed to take up the corpse for burial. But when the place was opened, Aristeas was nowhere to be seen, dead or alive. Seven years later, he appeared in Proconnesus, composed the verses that Hellenes now call the Arimaspea, and, after he had finished them, disappeared a second time.

That is the story told in these cities, but I know also what happened to the Metapontines in Italy some 240 years after the second disappearance of Aristeas. I calculated this interval myself by adding up the years between his appearance in Proconnesus and his appearance in Metapontum. The Metapontines say that Aristeas himself appeared in their land and that he ordered them to erect an altar to Apollo and to set up beside it a statue identified with the name of Aristeas of Proconnesus. For, he said, of all the Italiotes it was to them alone and to their land that Apollo had come; and that he himself had followed the god, not as Aristeas, as he now appeared, but then in the form of a crow. After saying this, he disappeared. … And still today, in their agora, the statue with the name of Aristeas stands beside the cult image of Apollo, surrounded by bay laurel trees.

- Herodotus, The Histories, Book Four, Paragraphs 14 and 15 (translation by Andrea L. Purvis)

Herodotus has dozens of these tantalizing asides in The Histories, snippets of stories he has heard or things he has seen. Unfortunately, many of them raise additional questions. What was the cause for Aristeas’ first disappearance? Did he fake his death in order to take a break from his family? Or did he just want to go for a walk-about? Did he intend to exit with such a flourish? How was he greeted on his return seven years later? Could the sources be trusted for his descriptions of one-eyed men and gold-guarding griffins (described in paragraph 13—not included in the quote above) in the land above the Issedones? Why the second disappearance? Did his life of exploration continue? Who had the bold idea to show up 240 years later and claim to be Aristeas? (That would be the equivalent of someone claiming to be James Cook showing up in Australia today, 240 years after his discovery, requesting the erection of two statues—one of him next to a statue of George III.)

Aristeas makes an appearance in a few additional places, such as Plutarch’s reference to the similarity between Aristeas’ and Romulus’ disappearances in his Life of Romulus. All I have been able to find of Aristeas’ poem is an excerpt in Longinus’ On the Sublime:

Herein I find a wonder passing strange,
That men should make their dwelling on the deep,
Who far from land essaying bold to range
With anxious heart their toilsome vigils keep;
Their eyes are fixed on heaven’s starry steep;
The ravening billows hunger for their lives;
And oft each shivering wretch, constrained to weep,
With suppliant hands to move heaven’s pity strives,
While many a direful qualm his very vitals rives.

(translation by H. L. Havell)

No comments: