Saturday, 8 February 2020

Poussin's Disabled Divinities: Orion and the Rising Sun

I’m writing up an article for a volume edited by my wonderful KCL colleague, Dr Ellen Adams, entitled The Forgotten Other: Disability Studies and the Classical Body. A myth hardly anyone has ever paid attention to, besides the French painter Nicolas Poussin, is my theme.

 It tells a heart-warming story about the cooperation between three disabled ancient divinities: the blind Orion, the dwarf Cedalion, and the lame Hephaestus. Orion receives advice about the way to find and face the rising sun, and thus be healed, from Hephaestus on the island of Lemnos. The blinded giant is guided by Cedalion, tiny enough to perch easily on his shoulders. Diana, Orion’s erstwhile enemy, looks on impassively.



Poussin painted the superb landscape (now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York), for his Parisian patron Michel Passart, in 1658. He was then succumbing to the acute tremors—perhaps caused by Parkinson’s disease—that were cruelly to sabotage his ability to control his brush-strokes. I like to think that the emotional power of the picture partly stems from his identification with these physically challenged classical deities.
Poussin found the story in Natalis Comes’ 1567 compendium of mythology and in the ancient satirist Lucian, who described an ancient painting in his The Hall as follows: ‘Orion, who is blind, is carrying Cedalion. Cedalion is showing him the way to the sunlight. The rising sun is healing the blindness of Orion, and Hephaestus views the incident from Lemnos’.






The only other painter to have been drawn to this theme may have been George Frederic Watts, but I can find no trace of his 1895 ‘Orion’. Poussin’s painting has had many admirers. Joshua Reynolds once owned it, and the essayist William Hazlitt wrote a panegyric on it:

Dwarf, perhaps Cedalion, looks after Hephaestus' wine
He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awakened out of sleep, or uncertain of his way;—you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the 'gray dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,' and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. 

Thetis requests arms for Achilles from Hephaestus
Of these disabled gods, although I have written a study of Hephaestus’ lameness,* it is Cedalion I find most fascinating. His rare appearances in ancient art and literature usually depict him assisting Hephaestus in his smithy. He is probably the dwarf beneath Hephaestus’ donkey during drunken processions. The most beautiful example is a Pompeii mural, where he wears the freedman’s cap.

Lemnos was associated with certain medical practices and healing cults in antiquity, and the myth of the three friends who met there—disabled in different ways but mutually supporting one another—may reflect some aspect of the reality of the lives of disabled individuals in antiquity. But even if it is entirely fictional, it offers a picture unique in classical sources of the mutual affection and cooperation that is possible between people dealing with different physical disadvantages. 

Cedalion, master metal-worker
Physical disability was routinely mocked in the ancient world, but this story offers a fascinating exception. The Classics never cease to surprise.



*Happy to send a pdf to anyone who writes to my email consisting of my two names split by a full stop @kcl.ac.uk.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

What did the Scots the Romans Met Really Look Like?



On Burns’ Night UCL’s Dr Tom Mackenzie and I decided to evade currently thorny issues around European/ British/ Scottish/Northern Irish/ Irish identity by buying lots of haggis/single malt whisky and holding (we believe) the first ever conference on Calgacus. According to Tacitus, he was the Scottish equivalent of Boudicca. He gave a rousing speech about not giving in to imperialists (translation below) before dying in battle fighting Tacitus' father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. 

Loincloth only on Minton Tile.

One famous phrase, ‘they make a desert and call it peace’ (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, Tacitus, Agricola 30.6) has entered modern languages as a proverb. My class-conscious Glaswegian mother used to say that posh people ‘make a dessert and call it pudding’.


Tall Brunette for William Hole
Calgacus has served many purposes across the political spectrum subsequently, as well has lending his name to a brand of American beer. But what did he actually look like?

This depends on whether you want him to be a Pict (body-painted 'indigenous' lowland Celt linguistically close to the Welsh, Cornish and Breton) or a Gael (an 'immigrant' western Celt linguistically close to the Irish). This  issue gets complicated when it comes to Celtic versus Rangers football face-offs, as you can imagine.

Connolly gives Tacitus some Welly
My Glaswegian mother also told me she could easily tell Picts from Celts because Picts were/are short, round, brown-haired and hazel-eyed (like her) whereas Gaels were/are tall, bony, red-haired and blue-eyed. But since Tacitus doesn’t tell us what Calgacus looked like, and made him speak perfect Latin, we are left none the wiser.

So here are some uniformly guesswork-based attempts to visualise him. Minton’s late Victorian tile, like most of the 18th-century engravings, was monochrome so unhelpful. Striking hat but definitely brown-haired in William Hole’s 1898 frieze in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which I reproduced on the conference cake. Ambiguous russet hair but Pictish body-paint in Ian Turner’s lovely graphic design. When Billy Connolly performed the speech for a documentary he simply wore his own clothes but put a dead cat on a shield.
Ian Turner-Fine Illustrator


The prize must go to the living, breathing Calgacus whom our esteemed conference speaker Dr Filomena Gianotti met during the Edinburgh Festival (Italians seem besotted with Calgacus—another terrific paper was given by Dr Beppe Pezzini). His war paint is anachronistically inspired by the Scottish flag, and he wears ship's rigging and lots of fake fur.

Sadly, his hair is grey and he’s neither tall nor short, so we still don’t know whether he is a Pict or Gael. His speech in Tacitus still suggests that he wouldn’t be too cut up about leaving the EU either. But the whole point of the conference was to forget about that altogether.

Calgacus’ Speech
"Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain. To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain's glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
"Nature has willed that every man's children and kindred should be his dearest objects. Yet these are torn from us by conscriptions to be slaves elsewhere. Our wives and our sisters, even though they may escape violation from the enemy, are dishonoured under the names of friendship and hospitality. Our goods and fortunes they collect for their tribute, our harvests for their granaries. Our very hands and bodies, under the lash and in the midst of insult, are worn down by the toil of clearing forests and morasses. Creatures born to slavery are sold once for all, and are, moreover, fed by their masters; but Britain is daily purchasing, is daily feeding, her own enslaved people. And as in a household the last comer among the slaves is always the butt of his companions, so we in a world long used to slavery, as the newest and the most contemptible, are marked out for destruction. We have neither fruitful plains, nor mines, nor harbours, for the working of which we may be spared. Valour, too, and high spirit in subjects, are offensive to rulers; besides, remoteness and seclusion, while they give safety, provoke suspicion. Since then you cannot hope for quarter, take courage, I beseech you, whether it be safety or renown that you hold most precious. Under a woman's leadership the Brigantes were able to burn a colony, to storm a camp, and had not success ended in supineness, might have thrown off the yoke. Let us, then, a fresh and unconquered people, never likely to abuse our freedom, show forthwith at the very first onset what heroes Caledonia has in reserve.
"Do you suppose that the Romans will be as brave in war as they are licentious in peace? To our strifes and discords they owe their fame, and they turn the errors of an enemy to the renown of their own army, an army which, composed as it is of every variety of nations, is held together by success and will be broken up by disaster. These Gauls and Germans, and, I blush to say, these numerous Britons, who, though they lend their lives to support a stranger's rule, have been its enemies longer than its subjects, you cannot imagine to be bound by fidelity and affection. Fear and terror there certainly are, feeble bonds of attachment; remove them, and those who have ceased to fear will begin to hate. All the incentives to victory are on our side. The Romans have no wives to kindle their courage; no parents to taunt them with flight; many have either no country or one far away. Few in number, dismayed by their ignorance, looking around upon a sky, a sea, and forests which are all unfamiliar to them; hemmed in, as it were, and enmeshed, the gods have delivered them into our hands. Be not frightened by idle display, by the glitter of gold and of silver, which can neither protect nor wound. In the very ranks of the enemy we shall find our own forces. Britons will acknowledge their own cause; Gauls will remember past freedom; the other Germans will abandon them, as but lately did the Usipii. Behind them there is nothing to dread. The forts are ungarrisoned; the colonies in the hands of aged men; what with disloyal subjects and oppressive rulers, the towns are ill-affected and rife with discord. On the one side you have a general and an army; on the other, tribute, the mines, and all the other penalties of an enslaved people. Whether you endure these for ever, or instantly avenge them, this field is to decide. Think, therefore, as you advance to battle, at once of your ancestors and of your posterity."

Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.