Saturday 11 June 2016


This is me at 0930 on Friday morning in Patras, due to kick off a pioneering international conference on Classical Reception and the Human with a lecture at 1400. I have always hated mosquitoes since my friend Caroline Fraser, a fine physicist, died at 40 of undiagnosed malaria after visiting South Africa. The Zika virus is doing nothing to rehabilitate them in my eyes.

Dual Purpose Ancient Egyptian Netting
Mosquitoes have never liked me, or perhaps  liked me too much, but this was ridiculous. The irony was that one part of my paper was about how humans should treat animals with respect. Aristotle refers to the extinction of a species of scallop ‘partly by the dredging-machine used in their capture’. I would happily have dredged up and annihilated every mosquito in Greece.

Mosquitoes and Murder Fantasies
Herodotus tells how clever Egyptians defy mosquitoes by wrapping themselves at night in the fine-gauged nets with which they catch fish by day. But ancient Greek references to mosquitoes often occur in sinister contexts. Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, taking years to figure out how to kill her husband because he had killed their daughter, describes with double meaning how ‘lightly whirring mosquitoes whizz around’ and constantly waken her from dreams in which she imagines him suffering.

"Better the (full) mosquito that you know"
One story in Aesop emphasises the ‘jungle law’ that is so important to the cynical world view of the ancient fable: a mosquito defeats a great lion by repeatedly biting his face, but is then himself entrapped by a spider. Another Aesopic fable discourages anybody to opt for a change of master or government. A fox whose tail looked like my face yesterday morning still declined the offer to have the mosquitoes driven away. He reasoned that full mosquitoes could hurt him less than the hungry new ones which would inevitably come and victimise him.

Feeling like Aesop’s suppurating lion and fox, I had to confess the problem to the conference organiser Efimia Karakantza. She is an extraordinary woman, with a team of inspirational students. No Greek economic crisis or slashing cut to university funding has stopped them, so why should a trifling mosquito bite?

Edith, Efimia and Marietta
These wonderful young Greeks include Marietta Kotsafti, who calmly drove us to a hospital. Despite the obvious shortage of resources, I was treated for free with speed, humour, and kindness. Efimia could have done without the  excitement, especially when she broke her own glasses. Like the Graiai, there was now only one sighted person in three.

But a huge injection in my rear and by 1400 I could see enough to paste eye shadow all over the swelling and give my paper. I’m coming back in September, but this time with an armoury of mosquito-targetted chemical weapons, syringes full of antihistamines and an Egyptian fishing net. KOUNOUPIA OF PATRAS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Edith and Efimia

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