domenica 7 ottobre 2012

Arcadia, a myth or a reality?

Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, 1838. Denver Art Museum.
Let me completely disagree with the idea that 'Arcadia remains an imaginary country' ('Myth of Arcadia' by Susan E. Alcock in Cambridge Illustrated History - Ancient Greece by P. Cartledge) In particular in that article written by Susan E. Alcock it is written that, according to a noted botanist Oliver Rakham, 'land has gone to the bad since classical times'. Stop, stop, stop. It has gone to the bad from which point of view?! Are we judging the hard life of a shepherd dressed in rags with the point of view of a literate citizen of Athens or Cambridge? This is homogenizing and, at this point, I would consider better the ideas of the Physiocrats. The fact that Arcadia was one of the major suppliers of Greek mercenaries seems to oblige us to deal with an 'impoverished region of Greece'. But also the literate citizens of the evolved Sparta and Athens were continually forced to fight (not as mercenaries, ma it doesn't matter, as in war more or less we are all the same) if they wanted to survive! So they were all miserable, according to this point of view! You will accuse me: I don't want to accept 'its harsher, grimmer face'. Of course you are right if you use representations as Thomas Cole's paintings. It is time to check our sources, Pausanias' Guide to Greece and Strabo's Geography.

In Pausanias' Guide to Greece [8.1.3] it is written that the 'Arcadians are shut off from the sea on every side and dwell in the interior. Hence, when they went to Troy, so Homer says, they did not sail in their own ships, but in vessels lent by Agamemnon.' Two humble considerations. First of all, why did they dwell in the interior if the things went so badly there? (look also 'inhabit the interior of the Peloponnesus' [8.1.1]) Secondly, why didn't they have their own ships in order to 'escape' their alleged misery, founding colonies abroad and so on? Why do we speak about 'the wooded mountains' in [8.1.4]? Maybe that wood is a poor material? Maybe that the goat cheese is rubbish? Of course I don't think so (as well as I would like to know if you have ever tasted a greek salad with feta). Look at another passage in [8.1.5] 'huts that humans should not shiver, or be soaked by rain, or oppressed by heat. Moreover; he it was who first thought of coats of sheep-skins, such as poor folk still wear in Euboea and Phocis.' Reading this, honestly do you have the sensation of poor huts? I don't think so. In [8.1.6] it is written that were 'introduced as food the nuts of trees, not those of all trees but only the acorns of the edible oak.' So, in Arcadia are many men who eat acorns. It is a clear passage that show off harmony with nature, isn't it? Another passage. The King Leonidas went to Arcadia when the citizens sentenced him to exile [3.6.8]. Usually the exiles of kings were golden! And Gold, also for Leonidas the hero-king of Sparta, probably meant pastoral simplicity, a life lived naturally, uncorrupted by civilization.

Take a look also at Strabo's Geography, Chapter VIII, where it is written speaking about Arcadia: 'there are rich pastures for cattle, and particularly for horses and asses, which are used as stallions.' Why did he write the adjective 'rich'? In Chapter III 'abounding with sheep.' Why did he write the adjective 'abounding'? Could we really consider Arcadia 'poor' due to 'abounding sheep'? It is a paradox to say that a land is poor because it has too many sheep (a Scotsman would thank me for this).

I took this picture in Ios, a Greek island in the Cyclades group. A goat scanning the horizon of the Aegean Sea. It is not relevant but.. people like me want to live their life in contact with nature to get as close as possible to the true expression of the human relationship: love and friendship. In my opinion Arcadia is still a "rich paradise" if we compare it to one of the financial cities so glorified. If we don't understand what really has value and what does not, this crisis will continue. I have been to Greece several times taking refuge in a "Arcadia spirit", in a campaign looking for an idealized otium, where the tumult and fear does not reach the quiet rural existence, simple, sober, devoted to beauty. In our chaotic cities it is quite impossible to cultivate the spirit realm, which can reinforce the deepest human ideals. Quite a paradox, but also, Virgil, who spoke about Arcadia, after composing "Eclogues" between 42 and 39 BC, had to flee the inappropriate enthusiasm of the people during his stay in Rome.

This painting ('Hylas and the Nymphs' by J.W. Waterhous, 1896) is shown in the article, cited above, 'The myth of Arcadia' as 'an example of romantic idealization of the Greek countryside'I try to refute. Follow me.

Map of the regions of the Ancient Peloponnese. It seems that the Neda River belongs also to Arcadia.

This is an original 1890 black and white wood engraving of the valley of the Neda river in Peloponnese, Greece.
Well, I have found a current scenario similar to that of the painting. How can we deny the possibility that in the past was better? And sorry, but If you watch the next video, you can see also the nymphs!

Neda Waterwalls
Neda Waterwalls

Another thing. NEDA (Neda) is an Arcadian nymph, from whom the river Neda and also a town (Steph. Byz. s. v.) derived their name. She was believed, conjointly with Theisoa and Hagno, to have nursed the infant Zeus (Callim. Hymn. in Jov. 38; Paus. viii. 38. § 3). (Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology). So, did the 'poor Arcadia' nurse the infant Zeus? Another paradox. 
It can exist a blind fundamentalism also by the side who wants to eradicate a myth. Of course in this case, I admit it, I had to wear the robes of a fundamentalist who wanted to defend the myth. What I want to say is to do not trivialize Arcadia as only a poor land of shepherds. There is something special there. As for example, taking advantage of the decreased power of Sparta, which had previously dominated and controlled Arcadia, we could find out that afterwards these 'poor shepherds' (Homer called them instead "Arcadian warriors well-skilled in fight" - Iliad II, 603–611) founded an Arcadian League (a league for mutual protection against Sparta) and the city of Megalopolis. "Megalopolis" means great city in Ancient Greek and still now this word is used all around the world! But I admit it, it could be the mega-dream of the shepherds to escape their hard condition.
We must also take account of the reason why millions of people find Greece an idyllic land for their holidays and dream, as me, to buy a house to spend their old age. If someone, returning from a swim in the Neda waterfalls, told me that he has had his best holiday in all his life, I would believe him, woulnd't you Maty? So, there is something special there. This is the myth of Arcadia, still now, believe it or not.

I find very interesting also Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia that revolves around a modern researcher's attempts to find out what made Byron leave the country and die in Greece. 

Sheep herd near Velimachi - Arcadia.

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