Showing posts with label Alexander the Great. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alexander the Great. Show all posts

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Rage of Achilles and PTSD in Antiquity

Then said Achilles, "Son of Atreus, king of men Agamemnon, see to these matters at some other season, when there is breathing time and when I am calmer. Would you have men eat while the bodies of those whom Hector son of Priam slew are still lying mangled upon the plain? Let the sons of the Achaeans, say I, fight fasting and without food, till we have avenged them; afterwards at the going down of the sun let them eat their fill. As for me, Patroclus is lying dead in my tent, all hacked and hewn, with his feet to the door, and his comrades are mourning round him. Therefore I can think of nothing but slaughter and blood and the rattle in the throat of the dying."
The Iliad might have been better named the Wrath of Achilles, because that's the theme of the book. His rage after the death of his friend Patroclus is often described as a classic sign of PTSD. Achilles features in Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character which is one of the classic studies of PTSD, although I have no read it. Wrath and anger are signs associated with PTSD, and every time some man goes on a rampage and shoots people, then PTSD seems to get brought up. Shay wrote a follow-up on Odyssey, and those sorts of wanderings - ten years to get home?!? - seem closer to the mind-set of the vets I was in Group with that ended up homeless. (An NPR interview with Shay can be found here).

A lot of people are reluctant to discuss their PTSD publicly, because they don't want to be tared with this association. I didn't do the anger / killing spree / Rambo style massacres, and nor did the many others I know who were treated for PTSD. In some ways the term used in World War I - 'shell shock' - is more appropriate; people go into shock rather than exhibiting anger or rage. I've already covered why I came 'out' - I would rather do so than be blackmailed - and I was worried initially that people would fear I'd turn around and stab them with a kitchen knife or something, but luckily anyone who spend more than two minutes with me quickly works out that that's not the case.

I'm writing a book on ancient women who led armies, and although I've only written a quarter or so, I've done all the research, and it surprises me that there are so few mentions in Greek or Roman sources of peoples' reactions to battles. Mostly war was glorified.

There are a few ancient accounts however that do fit in with the 'shell shock' type of PTSD. Herodotus mentions a soldier at Marathon who lost his sight during the battle:
A strange prodigy likewise happened at this fight. Epizelus, the son of Cuphagoras, an Athenian, was in the thick of the fray, and behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly he was stricken with blindness, without blow of sword or dart; and this blindness continued thenceforth during the whole of his after life. The following is the account which he himself, as I have heard, gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a huge beard, which shaded all his shield, stood over against him; but the ghostly semblance passed him by, and slew the man at his side. Such, as I understand, was the tale which Epizelus told.
 Histories 6.117 (see also PseudoPlutarch)
I can be a bit OCD, and like to point out that only 298 Spartans died at Thermopylae. In this context it's also worth pointing out that Leonidas also gave his allied men a 'mental health' break at the battle, realising that they were emotionally exhausted from previous fighting, and wouldn't be of much use, he ordered them to retreat:
It is said that Leonidas himself sent away the troops who departed, because he tendered their safety, but thought it unseemly that either he or his Spartans should quit the post which they had been especially sent to guard. For my own part, I incline to think that Leonidas gave the order, because he perceived the allies to be out of heart and unwilling to encounter the danger to which his own mind was made up. He therefore commanded them to retreat, but said that he himself could not draw back with honour; knowing that, if he stayed, glory awaited him, and that Sparta in that case would not lose her prosperity.

The shell shock type of PTSD made soldiers incapable of fighting further, but others were functional as warriors and warred on. A big part of PTSD is the flash-backs and nightmares, which in turn prevent people from sleeping, so the first course of treatment tends to be tranquilisers or sleeping pills so that patients can get the rest they need.

The suicide of Ajax is interesting as a phenomenon, because although in Judeo-Christian society suicides tend to be hushed-up, his was told in literature, and depicted in art. I suspect that this is because, in an era when most citizens took part in military life, that many men could relate to his story which reads like a textbook case of rage PTSD. Ajax the mighty warrior took out his anger on a flock of sheep, in a delusion thinking they were the enemy, then took his own life.

Robin Lane Fox, Oxford academic and biographer of Alexander the Great, wrote in a column on Gardening Therapy for PTSD "Ignorantly, I used not to believe in PTSD. I thought that veterans should get out into the fresh air and stop whingeing" (FT) ... I have to admit, that the 'pull your socks up and get on with it' form of therapy was the one I chose for a long time. It doesn't work. But Prof Lane Fox should have been aware of this description of PTSD from Plutarch's Life of Alexander:
All which made such a deep impression of terror in Cassander's mind that, long after, when he was King of Macedonia and master of Greece, as he was walking up and down at Delphi, and looking at the statues, at the sight of that of Alexander he was suddenly struck with alarm, and shook all over, his eyes rolled, his head grew dizzy, and it was long before he recovered himself.
If that's not an anxiety attack, then I'm not sure what is. There have also been studies that see Alexander the Great as having suffered from PTSD (see here). I've seen people de-bunk these on the grounds that he couldn't have led an army whilst suffering from PTSD, but ... I've seen plenty of soldiers do so, and it is possible to function whilst suffering from PTSD amazingly well (people tend to use disassociation and use throwing themselves into work as a way of avoiding dealing with the issues)

When I was researching Gaius Marius (someone recently published a book on him, so that one is alas on the back-burner), like many other historians I had a huge problem with him - for most of his life he was this great man, a brilliant soldier, a leading political reformer, then at the end he goes a bit mad and has a lot of enemies killed. I've read countless theories about what made him 'flip' in this way, but the only one that makes sense to me is that he was deeply traumatised by having to flee Rome into exile and being hunted down by Sulla's men as an enemy of Rome. The vacillation about wanting to enter the city he had re-captured but waiting to be invited into Rome officially, make sense to me. I can't relate to the rage of killing people, but this is a textbook symptom of rage PTSD. Even Plutarch mentions Marius' anxieties on his death-bed, including the irrational fear of Sulla marching on Rome - since Sulla was stuck in Greece fighting Mithridates (Life of Marius):
45.2 But Marius himself, now worn out with toils, deluged, as it were, with anxieties, and wearied, could not sustain his spirits, which shook within him as he again faced the overpowering thought of a new war, of fresh struggles, of terrors known by experience to be dreadful, and of utter weariness. He reflected, too, that it was not Octavius or Merula in command of a promiscuous throng and a seditious rabble against whom he was now to run the hazard of war, but that the famous Sulla was coming against him, the man who had once ejected him from the country, and had now shut Mithridates up to the shores of the Euxine Sea.
3 Tortured by such reflections, and bringing into review his long wandering, his flights, and his perils, as he was driven over land and sea, he fell into a state of dreadful despair, and was a prey to nightly terrors and harassing dreams, wherein he would ever seem to hear a voice saying:—
"Dreadful, indeed, is the lions' lair, even though it be empty."
And since above all things he dreaded the sleepless nights, he gave himself up to drinking-bouts and drunkenness at unseasonable hours and in a manner unsuited to his years, trying thus to induce sleep as a way of escape from his anxious thoughts.
4 And finally, when one came with tidings from the sea, fresh terrors fell upon him, partly because he feared the future, and partly because he was wearied to satiety by the present, so that it needed only a slight impulse to throw him into a pleurisy, as Poseidonius the philosopher relates, who says that he went in personally and conversed with Marius on the subjects of his embassy after Marius had fallen ill.
5 But a certain Caius Piso, an historian, relates that Marius, while walking about with his friends after supper, fell to talking about the events of his life, beginning with his earliest days, and after recounting his frequent reversals of fortune, from good to bad and from bad to good, said that it was not the part of a man of sense to trust himself to Fortune any longer; and after this utterance bade his friends farewell, kept his bed for seven days consecutively, and so died.
6 Some, however, say that his ambitious nature was completely revealed during his illness by his being swept into a strange delusion. He thought that he had the command in the Mithridatic war, and then, just as he used to do in his actual struggles, he would indulge in all sorts of attitudes and gestures, accompanying them with shrill cries and frequent calls to battle.
7 So fierce and inexorable was the passion for directing that war which had been instilled into him by his envy and lust of power. And therefore, though he had lived to be seventy years old, and was the first man to be elected consul for the seventh time, and was possessed of a house and wealth which would have sufficed for many kingdoms at once, he lamented his fortune, in that he was dying before he had satisfied and completed his desires.
The mention of drinking to drive away the nightmares and the lack of sleep are classic signs of PTSD. Unfortunately too many people self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, because the underlying mental health issues are undiagnosed - and that's why too many veterans end up homeless, living on the streets. I'm amazed nobody else has suggested that Gaius Marius was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I've covered examples of PTSD suffered by soldiers in this post, because these are the ones we have in the sources. The victims of war tend to get ignored by history, but those that were tortured, enslaved or rape by the soldiers probably suffered from PTSD too. My only advice is that if you think you're having issues, then ask for help and talk to a doctor. Ignoring them won't make them go away.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When Men Were Men ... And Wore Dresses

I love movies, but I sometimes worry that the general public gets a few odd ideas about the ancients from them.

For example in '300' the Spartans dismiss the Athenians for - and I may be paraphrasing - liking little boys. Actually ... whilst many Athenian men seem to have been bisexual, the Spartans institutionalized it as part of their military training and it played a more important role in their society. Greek 'naughty' vases with inscriptions almost all speak of the love of one man for another, and most of those great macho Greek warriors probably slept with more men than they did women given that access to women was limited.

Men sleeping with men was greatly frowned upon by Republican Romans, though it seems to have been tolerated to some extent under the Empire. People's reactions depended on other aspects of the man's life: successful generals such as Sulla could sleep with men; so could powerful emperors such as Hadrian (though his cult of Antinoos was thought of as going a little too far); failed emperors such as Caligula found that it was another black mark against their name ...

I hate people citing 'the ancients' at me when they want to find a way to justify their own views, and someone recently tried to cite them when discussing cross-dressing and the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. As so often happens, they were wrong - Greek and Roman men did sometimes wear dresses too (chitons and peploi rather than Balenciaga, but it comes to the same thing).

In Naples this relief was just unveiled as a recent find from Herculaneum. It's one of several panels found embedded in the wall of a house (see video at bottom of this post). It's a neo-Attic work, and depicts a rite which formed part of an Attic festival of Dionysus, as David Meadows pointed out, called the Oschophoria.
Two Athenian youths of the highest birth were honored by being allowed to dress as women, and those are the two figures shown to the left in front of the statue of the god (which I assume is meant to represent the one in the temple of Dionysus where the procession started).

The relief seems to have surprised a lot of people, but it is by no means unique. To make the point, I include a small selection of the ancient images of cross-dressing by great warrior-heroes ....

The man on the right is clearly a warrior and can be identified as Odysseus. He's grabbing the wrist of the figure on the left, clad in a white dress, who is ... Achilles, the great Greek hero of Troy, about whose wrath the Iliad was written ... who, before he finally decided to fight at Troy and Achilles hid amongst the daughter of Lycomedes to avoid being enlisted, and dressed as a woman so as to be unrecognizable.
Fresco from the House of the Dioscuri, Pompeii [source].

This mosaic from Zeugma, circa AD 300, depicts the same myth, with Achilles wearing a dress. Again, Achilles' shield is prominently depicted to show the hero in case of doubt ...

This fine mosaic was found in Saint-Romain-en-Gal, but is no longer extant; fortunately a drawing was made at the time, forever preserving the full technicolor image for us of Achilles wearing blue and playing dress-up with the daughters of Lycomedes - Odysseus' more traditionally 'macho' bearded head can be seen in the top left corner.

This third century sarcophagus shows Achilles dressed as a woman hiding at the court of Lycomedes to avoid having to take part in the Trojan War [Louvre Ma 3570]. Another sarcophagus in the Louvre [Ma 2120] shows him also at that court, though not in drag.

Hercules also dressed as a woman, when he fell under the spell of Queen Omphale; in this story she also appropriate and wore his lion skin. Although most examples date to the Roman period, an Attic red-figure pelike ca. 400 BC (British Museum, E370) depicts the myth with the exchange of clothing.

The central tondo of a Julio-Claudian phiale in the BNF, Paris, from the Trésor de Berthouville - it shows Omphale asleep on Hercules' lion skin.

The Omphale myth is interesting as Augustus seems to have adopted it as part of his anti-Cleopatra propaganda, with the Egyptian cast in the role of the Eastern Queen who had enchanted - and metaphorically castrated - a man. Mark Anthony, who had claimed descent from amongst others Hercules, naturally fit the role of the fallen hero ...

This may explain the large number of Augustan and Julio-Claudian images of Omphale excavated around Vesuvius. It also seems to be the source of the image on mass-produced Arretine pottery; for example, a number and moulds in the MFA, Boston, and a mould for making the bowls in the Metropolitan Museum, NY.

This mould in the MFA clearly shows a woman with breasts cradling a club and wearing a lion skin; to the left is a man in a dress.

A panel showing Hercules and Omphale cross-dressing from a mosaic of the Labors of Hercules, circa AD 225, found in Llíria and now in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid.

Hercules and Omphale. Fresco from the oikos of the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto IX.3.5, Pompeii. Omphale is clearly shown wearing Hercules' lion skin. [photo]

This fresco is now in Naples Museum, which also has an ex Farnese collection sarcophagus with Hercules and Omphale; an ex Borgia collection funerary relief of Cassia Priscilla (p. 148 here), as well as a large number of other images of Hercules and Omphale, suggesting some sort of a cult in the region of Vesuvius.

Another fresco from Pompeii VII.16.17, a house linked to Marcus Castricius, shows Omphale seated above a dress-clad Hercules drunk and rolling on the ground [click here for image].

A Roman statue, possibly a portrait of a woman in the guise, of Omphale [image].

Early Hellenistic earrings from Macedonia with the head of a woman wearing a lion skin [Metropolitan Museum].

Similar heads, in profile, can be found on coins from Phokaia [MFA]; in a coin from Lampsakos Hercules wears the tiara of Omphale [MFA]. Roman coins with the myth here and here - although Augustus meant for Anthony to seem 'shameful' under the thumb of Cleopatra-Omphale to the Republican Romans, those who minted these coins clearly did not feel the same way.

A video showing how the new Herculaneum relief was found and restored:

Text only Copyright © 2009 Dorothy King

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Watchmen: Ozymandias

Augustus liked to point out that it was easier to conquer than to rule. This was a pointed critique of Alexander the Great whose empire might have been vast, but whose floruit was briefly - and descended into internecine war after his death because of it lack of post-invasion planning. In fact, the first half of Augustus' own record of his great deeds, the Res Gestae Divi Augusti written shortly before his death, concentrates mostly on his non-martial work on behalf of Rome.

Ozymandias, the 'villain' of Watchmen, greatly admires Alexander the Great, and like him ... aims for world conquest, sod the consequences in the short term. He's not a straightforward villain; they're not meant to want to save the world in normal graphic novels.

He's also fascinated with Egyptology.

His pet is named Bubastis, after the capital of the 22nd Dynasty Pharaohs, which was in turn named after the lion-faced war goddess Bast. Archaeological excavations have largely borne out Herodotus' 5th century description of the city. Bubastis also features in Ezekiel 30:17 - another sign that Ozymandias is not one of the good guys.

The name Ozymandias derives from a Greek transliteration and corruption of User-maat-re Setep-en-re - which is part of a very long name / title that Ramesses II took when he became Pharaoh circa 1279 BC. Ramesses is better known to us today as Ramesses the Great - or the tyrant that led Moses to ask for our people to be released from slavery, which in turn led to the Exodus to the Promised Land.

As a Great Pharaoh, Ramsses had many statues of himself erected, including this one at Thebes in Egypt. In antiquity, we know thanks to Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, that the base was inscribed with:
King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works

Napoleon has tried to steal the statue from Egypt for the Louvre - hence the bullet holes in it.

In 1813 Henry Salt was given a firman to be allowed to legally do so by the Ottoman sultan.

In 1818 it arrived in the British Museum - but because it weighs 7.5 tons of granite even in its fractured state, a detachment of Royal Engineers led by a veteran of Waterloo was needed to erect it.

The British Museum web site has a podcast about it here.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was inspired to write this sonnet about the sculpture in December 1817:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The original part of the poem is inscribed on the base of the statue in Ozymandias's mock-Egyptian temple lair in the movie.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Alexander the Great and Greek Protesters on the Acropolis

The Acropolis has changed and adapted with the ages, and earlier today it became the site of a giant banner unfurled by the students protesting in Athens. The photograph shows the east end of the Acropolis [AP].
To the left in the photo one can see the front of the Parthenon. If you look closely at the lower frieze band, under the metopes and triglyphs, you can make out the square cuttings into which were slotted wooden pegs that held decorative shields dedicated by Alexander the Great. The East Façade later had on inscription of bronze dedicated to Nero. The façade is largely reconstructed as it was badly damaged when the Parthenon was turned into a church.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Battle of Gaugamela 331 BC

The 1st October is the anniversary of the battle of Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great defeated Darius III. The exact site of the battle, as with so many ancient battles, is uncertain, but in took place not far from Mosul in what is now northern Iraq - the area can be seen on Google Earth here. Darius' army was annihilated, and he fled.

Although Darius tried to raise another army he was assassinated in 330 by Bessuss, the Satrap of Bactria and one of the commanders at Gaugamela. According to Curtius Rufus, Bessus was in turn crucified by Alexander at the same spot where he had murdered Darius.

The Achaemenid Empire fell as a result of this battle.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Exciting New Macedonian Finds

The recently announced finds from Pella in particular are very exciting, so I'm posting all the photos from the Daily Mail story.

Greek dig unearths secrets of Alexander the Great's golden era - Daily Mail.

The Archaic helmets excavated at Pella:

Also, having seen some of the other blog coverage ... I seem to have to point out the obvious about the reconstruction in the first photo. The gold foil is funerary, and used to cover the face and embellish the helmet at the time of burial - the warrior was buried this way, but would not have gone into battle with the gold bits, 'coz that would have meant that he could not see. In the words of Homer Simpson - Doh! Similarly the gold eye covers in the second photo were also funerary, and not martial ...

Twenty warriors were excavated in the cemetery out of a total of 43 graves; they ranged in date from 650 to 279 BC (the date is not clarified in the article, but presumably there is a destruction layer linked to the invasion by Brennus and the Gauls?). The high number of military graves - identified by swords and daggers, as well as armour - shows that Macedonia was a military society along Spartan lines.

Jewellery from a woman's tomb - which I think is shown in situ in the photo below. This is one of 11 tombs of women found there dating to the Archaic period.

So we have 43 graves, of which 20 are warriors of assorted dates, 11 are Archaic women - and the rest are ... well the article hints that there were signsof trade as early as the seventh century BC, so I presume they also found imported items.

A cemetery uncovered in northern Thessaloniki during metro construction: (these have nothing to do with the article, but when you have good photos you might as well post them).

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Lions as Military Monuments

The 2nd August 338 BC marks the date on which Philip II pretty much put an end to the independence of the city states, and created a Macedonian empire, with his victory at the Battle of Chaeronea. Diodorus Siculus, Library, has a description of the battle.

Google Earth has a photo of the site -

View Larger Map

Personally, I don't find it all that useful.

What is more interesting is that Philip erected a lion monument to commemorate his victory - the cenotaph is still extant, and I wrote about it in my thesis - which can be seen from above.

View Larger Map

There is a similar monument in Macedonia at Amphipolis - because the town was an important naval base, and it seems to be the tomb of someone very important, some believe it to be the grave marker of an admiral.

View Larger Map

Monday, August 28, 2006

Greeks in the East

The Sampul Tapestry was found in what is now western China. The warrior depicted looks Greek, and the centaur in the background is also a motif of Greek art. It was found in a mass grave in the Tarim Basin dating to around 200 BC. Many bodies buried in the region look more Caucasian than oriental, and the Sampul deceased were probably from the West via Bactria.

The theory in the article below is highly dubious, and started as "TV history". There were Europeans in Afghanistan after the conquests of Alexander the Great. I seem to remember that when he went there he found Greeks already in the region - descendents of mercenaries who had worked for the Persians. I'll post soon on my better theory about the Mummies, but for now take this and any other of Mair and Barber's theories with a large bag of salt.

Tartan is not just Celtic or just any other nonsense textile expert Barber is often attributed as claiming. A Hellenistic sculpture from Halicarnassus (now in the British Museum, published by Peter Higgs) has a 'tartan' pattern incised into the marble drapery. A piece of 'tartan' fabric has also been excavated. In fact tartan is the easiest pattern to weave, so one of the most popular in many societies. Madras check from Madras (now Chennai, India) is a form of 'tartan'.

From the Independent:
28 August 2006 11:49

A meeting of civilisations: The mystery of China's celtic mummies

The discovery of European corpses thousands of miles away suggests a hitherto unknown connection between East and West in the Bronze Age. Clifford Coonan reports from Urumqi

Solid as a warrior of the Caledonii tribe, the man's hair is reddish brown flecked with grey, framing high cheekbones, a long nose, full lips and a ginger beard. When he lived three thousand years ago, he stood six feet tall, and was buried wearing a red twill tunic and tartan leggings. He looks like a Bronze Age European. In fact, he's every inch a Celt. Even his DNA says so.

But this is no early Celt from central Scotland. This is the mummified corpse of Cherchen Man, unearthed from the scorched sands of the Taklamakan Desert in the far-flung region of Xinjiang in western China, and now housed in a new museum in the provincial capital of Urumqi. In the language spoken by the local Uighur people in Xinjiang, "Taklamakan" means: "You come in and never come out."

The extraordinary thing is that Cherchen Man was found - with the mummies of three women and a baby - in a burial site thousands of miles to the east of where the Celts established their biggest settlements in France and the British Isles.

DNA testing confirms that he and hundreds of other mummies found in Xinjiang's Tarim Basin are of European origin. We don't know how he got there, what brought him there, or how long he and his kind lived there for. But, as the desert's name suggests, it is certain that he never came out.

His discovery provides an unexpected connection between east and west and some valuable clues to early European history.

One of the women who shared a tomb with Cherchen Man has light brown hair which looks as if it was brushed and braided for her funeral only yesterday. Her face is painted with curling designs, and her striking red burial gown has lost none of its lustre during the three millenniums that this tall, fine-featured woman has been lying beneath the sand of the Northern Silk Road.

The bodies are far better preserved than the Egyptian mummies, and it is sad to see the infants on display; to see how the baby was wrapped in a beautiful brown cloth tied with red and blue cord, then a blue stone placed on each eye. Beside it was a baby's milk bottle with a teat, made from a sheep's udder.

Based on the mummy, the museum has reconstructed what Cherchen Man would have looked like and how he lived. The similarities to the traditional Bronze Age Celts are uncanny, and analysis has shown that the weave of the cloth is the same as that of those found on the bodies of salt miners in Austria from 1300BC.

The burial sites of Cherchen Man and his fellow people were marked with stone structures that look like dolmens from Britain, ringed by round-faced, Celtic figures, or standing stones. Among their icons were figures reminiscent of the sheela-na-gigs, wild females who flaunted their bodies and can still be found in mediaeval churches in Britain. A female mummy wears a long, conical hat which has to be a witch or a wizard's hat. Or a druid's, perhaps? The wooden combs they used to fan their tresses are familiar to students of ancient Celtic art.

At their peak, around 300BC, the influence of the Celts stretched from Ireland in the west to the south of Spain and across to Italy's Po Valley, and probably extended to parts of Poland and Ukraine and the central plain of Turkey in the east. These mummies seem to suggest, however, that the Celts penetrated well into central Asia, nearly making it as far as Tibet.

The Celts gradually infiltrated Britain between about 500 and 100BC. There was probably never anything like an organised Celtic invasion: they arrived at different times, and are considered a group of peoples loosely connected by similar language, religion, and cultural expression.

The eastern Celts spoke a now-dead language called Tocharian, which is related to Celtic languages and part of the Indo-European group. They seem to have been a peaceful folk, as there are few weapons among the Cherchen find and there is little evidence of a caste system.

Even older than the Cherchen find is that of the 4,000-year-old Loulan Beauty, who has long flowing fair hair and is one of a number of mummies discovered near the town of Loulan. One of these mummies was an eight-year-old child wrapped in a piece of patterned wool cloth, closed with bone pegs.

The Loulan Beauty's features are Nordic. She was 45 when she died, and was buried with a basket of food for the next life, including domesticated wheat, combs and a feather.

The Taklamakan desert has given up hundreds of desiccated corpses in the past 25 years, and archaeologists say the discoveries in the Tarim Basin are some of the most significant finds in the past quarter of a century.

"From around 1800BC, the earliest mummies in the Tarim Basin were exclusively Caucausoid, or Europoid," says Professor Victor Mair of Pennsylvania University, who has been captivated by the mummies since he spotted them partially obscured in a back room in the old museum in 1988. "He looked like my brother Dave sleeping there, and that's what really got me. Lying there with his eyes closed," Professor Mair said.

It's a subject that exercises him and he has gone to extraordinary lengths, dodging difficult political issues, to gain further knowledge of these remarkable people.

East Asian migrants arrived in the eastern portions of the Tarim Basin about 3,000 years ago, Professor Mair says, while the Uighur peoples arrived after the collapse of the Orkon Uighur Kingdom, based in modern-day Mongolia, around the year 842.

A believer in the "inter-relatedness of all human communities", Professor Mair resists attempts to impose a theory of a single people arriving in Xinjiang, and believes rather that the early Europeans headed in different directions, some travelling west to become the Celts in Britain and Ireland, others taking a northern route to become the Germanic tribes, and then another offshoot heading east and ending up in Xinjiang.

This section of the ancient Silk Road is one of the world's most barren precincts. You are further away from the sea here than at any other place, and you can feel it. This where China tests its nuclear weapons. Labour camps are scattered all around - who would try to escape? But the remoteness has worked to the archaeologists' advantage. The ancient corpses have avoided decay because the Tarim Basin is so dry, with alkaline soils. Scientists have been able to glean information about many aspects of our Bronze Age forebears from the mummies, from their physical make-up to information about how they buried their dead, what tools they used and what clothes they wore.

In her book The Mummies of Urumchi, the textile expert Elizabeth Wayland Barber examines the tartan-style cloth, and reckons it can be traced back to Anatolia and the Caucasus, the steppe area north of the Black Sea. Her theory is that this group divided, starting in the Caucasus and then splitting, one group going west and another east.

Even though they have been dead for thousands of years, every perfectly preserved fibre of the mummies' make-up has been relentlessly politicised.

The received wisdom in China says that two hundred years before the birth of Christ, China's emperor Wu Di sent an ambassador to the west to establish an alliance against the marauding Huns, then based in Mongolia. The route across Asia that the emissary, Zhang Qian, took eventually became the Silk Road to Europe. Hundreds of years later Marco Polo came, and the opening up of China began.

The very thought that Caucasians were settled in a part of China thousands of years before Wu Di's early contacts with the west and Marco Polo's travels has enormous political ramifications. And that these Europeans should have been in restive Xinjiang hundreds of years before East Asians is explosive.

The Chinese historian Ji Xianlin, writing a preface to Ancient Corpses of Xinjiang by the Chinese archaeologist Wang Binghua, translated by Professor Mair, says China "supported and admired" research by foreign experts into the mummies. "However, within China a small group of ethnic separatists have taken advantage of this opportunity to stir up trouble and are acting like buffoons. Some of them have even styled themselves the descendants of these ancient 'white people' with the aim of dividing the motherland. But these perverse acts will not succeed," Ji wrote.

Many Uighurs consider the Han Chinese as invaders. The territory was annexed by China in 1955, and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region established, and there have been numerous incidents of unrest over the years. In 1997 in the northern city of Yining there were riots by Muslim separatists and Chinese security forces cracked down, with nine deaths. There are occasional outbursts, and the region remains very heavily policed.

Not surprisingly, the government has been slow to publicise these valuable historical finds for fear of fuelling separatist currents in Xinjiang.

The Loulan Beauty, for example, was claimed by the Uighurs as their symbol in song and image, although genetic testing now shows that she was in fact European.

Professor Mair acknowledges that the political dimension to all this has made his work difficult, but says that the research shows that the people of Xinjiang are a dizzying mixture. "They tend to mix as you enter the Han Dynasty. By that time the East Asian component is very noticeable," he says. "Modern DNA and ancient DNA show that Uighurs, Kazaks, Kyrgyzs, the peoples of central Asia are all mixed Caucasian and East Asian. The modern and ancient DNA tell the same story," he says.

Altogether there are 400 mummies in various degrees of desiccation and decomposition, including the prominent Han Chinese warrior Zhang Xiong and other Uighur mummies, and thousands of skulls. The mummies will keep the scientists busy for a long time. Only a handful of the better-preserved ones are on display in the impressive new Xinjiang museum. Work began in 1999, but was stopped in 2002 after a corruption scandal and the jailing of a former director for involvement in the theft of antiques.

The museum finally opened on the 50th anniversary of China's annexation of the restive region, and the mummies are housed in glass display cases (which were sealed with what looked like Sellotape) in a multi-media wing.

In the same room are the much more recent Han mummies - equally interesting, but rendering the display confusing, as it groups all the mummies closely together. Which makes sound political sense.

This political correctness continues in another section of the museum dedicated to the achievements of the Chinese revolution, and boasts artefacts from the Anti-Japanese War (1931-1945).

Best preserved of all the corpses is Yingpan Man, known as the Handsome Man, a 2,000-year-old Caucasian mummy discovered in 1995. He had a gold foil death mask - a Greek tradition - covering his blond, bearded face, and wore elaborate golden embroidered red and maroon wool garments with images of fighting Greeks or Romans. The hemp mask is painted with a soft smile and the thin moustache of a dandy. Currently on display at a museum in Tokyo, the handsome Yingpan man was two metres tall (six feet six inches), and pushing 30 when he died. His head rests on a pillow in the shape of a crowing cockerel.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Timing of the Eleusinian Mysteries

The chief priest of Eleusis (the hierophant) summoned potential initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries to the Stoa Poikile in the Agora – always on the 19th Boedromion.

The date of the start of the Eleusinian procession was immovable, literally carved in stone, and was presumably linked to the harvest. Its celebration was compulsory, so clearly was wheat linked with food and living, and Persephone with eventual death, its opposite.

During the Persian wars Xerxes sacked Attica and the Athenians fled to the island of Salamis. On the 19th Boedromion 480 BC the Athenians were too busy preparing for what would become known as the battle of Salamis, and failed to hold the procession.

Instead, the historian Herodotus (VIII.65) records, a procession of non-humans rose up from the underworld, first to enact the procession, and then to help the Athenians defeat the Persians on the following day. The Greeks still believed their mythical heroes assisted them in times of need, and that Theseus had helped them defeat the Persians at Marathon.

Since Eleusis was tied to the fate of Greeks, their ancestors in Hades could not let it celebration lapse. Two Greeks amongst the Persian camp saw 30,000 ghosts take part in the march, in reverse, from Eleusis; if the ghosts represent the numbers that took part in the procession each year, it suggests that the entire population of Athens joined in. Although we can doubt the authenticity of the episode, it underlines the idea that Eleusinian Mysteries could not be instituted at another time of year, nor elsewhere: they were location specific, as well as time specific.

So important were the Mysteries of Eleusis, that when men were otherwise engaged, the gods intervened to ensure than the Persian non-believers did not conquer Greece and prevent them from taking place. This is not an event that occurred at any other cult or sanctuary.

Another anecdote clarifies how inflexible the date of the celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries was.

Pythodorus is recorded as the dadouchos (torch-bearer, second priest) who had to explain to the Macedonian king Demetrius Poliorketes why he could not be initiated into the Mysteries when he wanted, during a random month of his royal choice.

The Athenians needed to appease Demetrius – this successor of Alexander was after all the king who kept his whores in the Parthenon – but they could not alter the sacred calendar.

Instead they changed the name of the month of Mounichion (April) in 302 BC: first to Anthesterion (February), so that Demetrius could be initiated into the Lesser Mysteries at Agrae, then to Boedromion (September) for the Mysteries at Eleusis.

The letter of religious law was kept.