Beware the Ides of February: Cupid, Eros and St Valentine's Day

Today is Valentine's Day.  Happy Valentine's Day!

St Valentine in a spot of bother

St Valentine in a spot of bother

As an author of murder mysteries I feel I must point out that February 14 is Valentine's Day because it was on this day that the real St Valentine was beaten with clubs, stoned, and then had his head cut off. Not perhaps the most auspicious beginning for a day to celebrate love.

Oil Flask showing Eros as he plays the  aulos

Oil Flask showing Eros as he plays the aulos

However that was during the Roman period and I am an author of classical Greek mysteries.  There is a surprisingly strong connection between Greek mythology and our day of Love.  It comes via Cupid, the little fellow with the arrows, who we see on so many Valentine's Day cards.  

Cupid is the Latin name for the Greek god Eros.  Here he is, from a vase at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The wings for the little god of love were there right from the beginning.  It's not shown here, but the bow and arrow are original equipment too.  Some early pictures show the god blindfolded as he shoots his arrows, hence the meaning that love is blind, a common saying which is thousands of years old.

The earliest mention of Eros is, incredibly, from Theogeny, a book written by Hesiod in about 700BC.  It was the first ever attempt to describe the Greek Gods.  Eros gets a major mention.

Hesiod listed Eros among the very first of the gods, right at the start of Creation.

In the beginning there was Chaos.  From out of the chaos came Gaia, the Earth, the foundation of all things.  Then came dark Tartarus, the Underworld.  And then came Eros, the god of Desire, who is fairest of all the deathless ones.

So Eros, our god of falling in love, is one of the most primordial of all deities.  Zeus doesn't even appear for another two paragraphs. 

Eros then reappears a little later in Theogeny, emerging from the sea behind his mother Aphrodite.   Yes, I know that's a paradox.  Eros arose before the Olympian Gods, but Aphrodite is his Mum.  Welcome to Greek Mythology.

That, then, is the little deity who appears on our Valentine Day cards.  Oh, and he helped start the Trojan War.  But that's another story.


An unexpected election result

This seems a topical moment to talk about the world's first election that didn't quite go to plan.  It happened in 416BC, or thereabouts, in ancient Athens.

Back then two men were vying for control of the city: Nicias and Alcibiades.

Nicias was a crusty old conservative General and an associate of Pericles.  (Pericles had died thirteen years before.) 

Alcibiades was a charismatic, handsome, intelligent, deceitful, self-serving and utterly untrustworthy distant relative of Pericles.  If you think a combination of used car salesman and junk bond trader you won't be far wrong.

A vote against Hyperbolas, from the excellent site

A vote against Hyperbolas, from the excellent site

To put it mildly, these two didn't along.  They both controlled factions that between them were tearing apart the General Assembly, which was the world's first democratic parliament.  

Now in Athens they didn't need elections to their parliament, because every citizen was his own representative.

But they did have elections to exile people from the city.  This was called an ostracism.  The way it worked was that once a year anyone could propose that there be an ostracism.  If the Assembly voted in favour, then it was certain that someone was going to get tossed out, but no one knew yet who that someone was.  They had to have a vote.

This was a vote you wanted to lose, since the "winner" was exiled for ten years.  

On election day every citizen would write the name of the person they wanted to see gone.  Whoever got the most votes was the loser.  The voting slips were broken pieces of pottery, of which Athens had plenty since almost every type of food in every kitchen was stored in ceramic jars.  The ancient Greek word for pottery shard is ostrakon.  The vote was named after the voting slip: ostrakismos. Hence our English word ostracism is named for broken bits of pottery.

So Nicias and Alcibiades were causing lots of trouble, and everyone would be quite happy to see one or the other ostracised.

A dodgy minor politician named Hyperbolos, who wanted more power, realized he could make use of this.  He proposed an ostracism.  The followers of both Nicias and Alcibiades thought this was a wonderful idea, imagining the other side's leader being told to pack his bags.  The vote passed easily.

It was at this point that Nicias and Alcibiades both became very, very uneasy.  Neither was certain he'd survive the vote.

The two got together for a quiet chat, and probably through gritted teeth for the first time in their lives managed to agree on something.  

They both told their followers to vote for Hyperbolos.

When the count was complete, Hyperbolos was the one who ended up being ostracized.  Which probably isn't what he had in mind when he proposed the vote.

The result was such a shocker that the Athenians never again held an ostracism.

The voting slips when they were done with were used as landfill, since ceramic is kind of hard to get rid of any other way.  Thousands of these ostraka have been dug up around Athens.  The one in the picture has the name Hyperbolas written around the edge.  This is one of the votes that did him in.



What is a stoa?

Nico & Diotima do a lot of lurking, and they mostly lurk behind the pillars of a stoa.

A stoa is a classical Greek portico.  A stoa in classical Athens is where you go to see and be seen.

You would find people like Pericles and Socrates walking between these columns, under the shady roof, discussing affairs of state, or philosophy, or more likely passing on the sordid details of the latest scandal, and they would be surrounded by hundreds of like-minded citizens, all of them just hanging out.

You would also find Nico and Diotima behind the pillars, listening in on the conversations and going about their detective work.  On most of the book covers they are drawn doing exactly that.

Here on the left are Nico & Diotima, with a stoa in the background (from the cover of The Pericles Commission).  

On the right are two other dodgy characters.  That's me and my wife Helen, in the reconstructed Stoa of Attalus, in the agora of Athens.  We couldn't resist doing the cover shot.


That stoa is a reconstruction built during the 1950s of a for-real one from classical times.  It realy would have looked much like this.

Here's a view of the same building, taken from the Acropolis.


You need to remove the Byzantine church in the foreground.  Then replace all the vegetation with a lot of vendor stalls, because that space to the left of the Stoa of Attalos is the ancient agora of Athens, which obviously has seen better days.  If you then replace the buildings in the background with whitewashed daub double-storey dwellings then you have the center of classical Athens.  

Books from the Metropolitan Museum of New York: free to download

Just thought I'd mention this.  The Metropolitan of New York is one of the world's great museums.  Needless to say they have a pile of older catalogues and books.  Hundreds of which are now online and freely downloadable!

Go here to start browsing.  There's something for just about everyone in the lists.

I found this while searching around for some pictures of ancient Greek jewelry.  I stayed to collect vast amounts of stuff about Renaissance masterpieces, Babylonian art, Egyptian calligraphy, Assyrian friezes, illuminated manuscripts, the architecture of mediaeval Spain...I could be quite some time reading it all.

A big thanks to the Met for the very generous availability.



Napoleonic era journal discovered in Tasmania, of all places

Here's a great example of how the most unexpected things can turn up in the unlikliest places.

John Squire was a British army engineer who was involved at the siege of Badajoz in the Peninsular War.  Like all the best army officers of the time, he was a gentleman scholar. He personally knew Wellington, traveled all over the place, and kept a fascinating journal.

Which has turned up in a second hand bookstore in Hobart, Tasmania; about as far from Badajoz as you can get and still be on the same planet.  My family and I were there just last year. I must have walked within twenty meters of that journal and never knew.