Sunday, November 16, 2014

On a Cold Bed




The Greek word for nightmare is "ephialtes." This word also names the famous traitor who led Persian forces through the mountains above Thermopylae to ambush the Spartans defending that pass. Our only source for the history of the Persian wars with the Hellenes is Herodotus and all accounts of the battle of Thermopylae derive from his Histories. When evaluating historical evidence, it is well to consider the maxim "uno testis non testis" – that is, "one witness is no witness." And, indeed, I think there are other reasons to regard Herodotus’ story of the battle at Thermopylae as mythos, that is, more legendary than factual.

First, commentators observe that Herodotus introduces his narrative about Leonidas’ last stand at Themopylae with the word "gnome" – a Greek term related to gnomen, that is "opinion." With this term, Herodotus suggests that what follows is less a sober account of military history, than speculation. Since all but one of the Spartans fighting at Thermopylae died in the battle, Herodotus’ source materials is limited and questionable. (The Spartan survivor of the battle, Aristodemus, suffered disgrace and calumny as a result of returning alive from the fray. He seems to have been unbalanced and tried to kill himself by mounting a berserk suicide charge in the later fighting at Plataea - an attempt that failed and, only, resulted in more blame being attached to his name.) Accordingly, it seems that Herodotus suggests that he is reconstructing the battle on the basis of unreliable evidence.

Second, accounts of the battle don’t make much sense. The Spartans successfully held the narrow pass, a few hundred feet between a mountainous escarpment and the sea, for two days against Persian attacks. Although the Persian army greatly outnumbered the Greeks, the narrow strait of the "hot gates," as the place is called because of its thermal springs, prevented the Asians from encircling the defenders – thus, Persian forces had to meet the Spartans head-on and could not shove enough troops through the pass to overrun their fortified position. The traitor, Ephialtes, led a Persian force through the mountains on a rugged trail that has never been identified in the topography adjacent to the battlefield – I don’t know Greek, but the trail’s name Anopaea, after a nearby mountain, seems suspicious to me: I see "an" in the word, a negative, that means "without," such as anencephalitic ("without a brain"). Ephialtes’ treachery seems to have caused the Spartan’s Phocian allies, assigned the defense of the mountain trails, to withdraw from their sentinel duty. But Herodotus does not describe the Spartans as ambushed or attacked from the rear. Indeed, from Herodotus’ account it is hard to ascertain the effect of the Persian flanking maneuver on the Spartan defenders. The motif of Greek against Greek conflict is vital to Herodotus’ History – in his view, the triumph of the Hellenes over the Persians is all the more miraculous because of the severe political fragmentation and disunity of the Greek city states. It is important to Herodotus to show that a Greek acting against other Greeks was instrumental in the defeat of Leonidas and his Spartans, although exactly how Ephialtes’ treachery figured in the final destruction of the 300 is obscure.

Herodotus tells us that the outflanked Spartans for their last stand sallied-forth and were driven back by overwhelming numbers to small hill where they fought the Persians with swords, knives, fists, and teeth until all of them were killed. There are many reasons to doubt this account. First, Herodotus is obviously influenced by Homer and pauses in his narrative to describe a fierce struggle over the corpse of the Spartan commander, Leonidas. This part of his story is clearly a nod to similar duels over the bodies of dead heroes in the Iliad. Further, Herodotus’ narration seems fanciful when compared with what we know of actual "last stands".

In American history, three "last stands" come readily to mind: two of them incidents in the wars with the Plains’ Indians and, of course, the battle at the Alamo. Both the Fetterman fight and Custer’s last stand involved groups of soldiers defending hilltops against large enemy forces and these battles are nothing like the struggle described by Herodotus. Colonel Fetterman with 80 men was wiped-out by Lakota and Cheyenne forces on December 21, 1861. Fetterman was lured from Fort Laramie by a decoy force of 50 Indians, caught in the open by a massive counter-attack and tried to withdraw to a defensive position on a knoll, now bearing the sinister name "Massacre Hill." Almost none of the Indians were armed with firearms and they fought this battle with arrows, spears, and war-clubs. Red Cloud and other Indian commanders recalled that less that 12 warriors perished in the affair. The troops were surrounded and shot down by hails of arrows. When the soldiers were mostly wounded or disabled by panic, the Indian cavalry swept down on their defensive position from the side and rear and killed everyone in a matter of minutes. Indian witnesses estimate that the entire fight lasted less than forty minutes.

George Armstrong Custer with about 260 soldiers was rubbed-out at the Little Big Horn in June 1876. In this battle, Custer’s adversaries, Arapahoe, Northern Cheyenne, and Lakota warriors, were well-armed with 1860 Henry rifles as well as Winchester 66 rifles – long guns that could fire between 13 and 15 rounds (.52 caliber) before being reloaded. Custer advanced on a massive Indian village, met resistance at a ford on the river, and, then, withdrew under heavy fire to a ridge of hills, gathering his troops at the summit of "Last Stand Hill." The Indians destroyed Custer’s force with accurate, long-range rifle fire and, then, overran the position with a flanking cavalry charge. The battle resulted in very few Indian casualties and was over, according to Lakota informants, in about the time "it takes a hungry man to eat a meal." There was no battle over Custer’s corpse, no heroic defense, and no organized resistance to the Indian onslaught. The Indians said the white soldiers’ bodies were scattered across the battlefield like a handful of corn thrown up into the wind.

The 1836 battle at the Alamo seems more similar to Herodotus’ account of the fight at Thermopylae. But at the Alamo, Texan forces occupied a heavily fortified position and had no avenue of retreat. The Texans did have artillery and were able to fire canister into the ranks of the advancing Mexican troops. The Mexican army was poorly trained, advanced in tight formations, and, apparently, troops in the rear of the attacking army fired volley after volley into the backs of the soldiers ahead of them. Ultimately, of course, the Mexicans prevailed, although at a heavy cost. Presumably, the heroic tenor of this siege was primarily an outcome of the Mexican general’s bad strategy and tactics – instead of mounting a frontal attack, he would have been better advised to besiege the Alamo and use long-range bombardment to reduce its defenses. By contrast, Leonidas advanced from within a fortified position for reasons that are now inscrutable to me – it seems likely that his fate, and that of the 300 Spartans, would have been similar to the outcomes of the battles involving Fetterman and Custer. (Probably, the Texans defended the Alamo with vigor because many of them, presumably, had some classical education and had read their Herodotus.)

The final factor that persuades me that Herodotus’ account of the fighting at Thermopylae is primarily a romantic legend is the names that he provides with respect to the combatants. As previously noted, the traitor’s name is "Nightmare" – although there is some question about whether that name originates in the events of the battle or arises as a result of that fight. "Aristodemus," the sole Spartan survivor, means "best of the people." An earlier Aristodemus was instrumental in the conquest of the Peloponnesus; this warrior is also associated with a battle conducted in a narrow strait – an oracle told the Greeks to attack by sea through a narrow channel. Aristodemus followed the advice of the oracle but died when struck by a lightning bolt during the sea-assault. The commander of the Spartans, Leonidas, has a suitably leonine name. Earlier in Herodotus’ History, we are told that the Persian army was much harassed by lion attacks as it moved through the mountainous terrain of Greece. Both Aristodemus and Leonidas boast a distinguished pedigree – according to Herodotus, they are Heraclids, that is, men who trace their descent from the demi-god, Heracles. The location of battle at the "hot gates" also seems significant. The toponym signifies that the battle was fought on terrain thought to be adjacent to Hades itself – the "hot gates" were an opening to the Underworld.

I don’t dispute that some kind of military action occurred at Thermopylae. Modern historians suggest that the 300 Spartans were an advance guard of a Greek army that was cut-off by Persian forces somewhere near the "hot gates" and wiped-out. The burden of my note is to suggest that Herodotus’ account of the fighting is thematically organized to support aspects of his narrative that are more mythological in character than coldly factual.

As if in revenge for my skepticism, Ephialtes – that is, "nightmare" – has visited me repeatedly in the past few days. I attribute these nightmares to sleeping in a room that is colder than I am used to. The first really cold spell has descended upon Minnesota and the sidewalks are deadly with ice and, in the gloomy dawn, powdery snow filters down from grey skies like the precipitate of some immense and uncommunicative sorrow. The first snow and the first serious cold of the season induces a kind of furious restlessness – it’s as if we sense that we are about to be confined for another four months, perhaps, five, and the soul yearns for warmth and beauty, but encounters everywhere the prison walls of this season of discontent and frigid paralysis. You pace the rooms of your house or walk the circuit of your office afraid to venture out to where the ice is lurking in inevitable ambuscade. Certainly, before this cold season ends, you will have fallen, not once but several times, and been bruised by the frozen ground or suffered worse injury. And, in my house, the radiator’s burp and fart – the water in them is stagnant and smells like sewage, an odor of rotten eggs permeating the house, although, perhaps, this is also attributable to imperfect combustion in the gas-fired furnace in the dank basement. The radiator in our bedroom has long since ceased to function. It’s hidden under a cabinet, an icy monument to disutility, and the cold wind seeps into the room around the air-conditioner notwithstanding the duct tape sealing the gap between the metal box (also icy to the touch and as useless as a cube by Donald Judd) and the window’s sill and frame. Little birds, probably sparrows, have made a nest in a nook under the air conditioner and there is nothing more cold and desolate than the sounds that they make trying to stay warm in their tiny, hidden nest. Winter is savage and it’s cruelty can not be over-estimated.

When the cold comes into your bedroom and lingers over your pillow and blankets, you are at risk for nightmares. Here is the mechanism causing these bad dreams. A leg or an arm or shoulder protrudes from the cocoon of bedclothes. The body senses a chill but, because it is paralyzed during REM sleep, can not move to remedy this problem. A vague sense of threat and menace is transmitted to the brain. The risk of hypothermia translates into sinister imagery, coloring the dream that you are experiencing and, ultimately, frightening you into consciousness. You awake and feel cold and you pull the covers that have been disarranged up under your chin and, if you are aroused around the time of the lightless dawn, you will hear the little, fragile birds twitching with their own nightmares in their nest outside the window.

Two times certainly, I suffered this dream. I may have had the dream on several other occasions but I don’t know whether I actually dreamed or merely dreamed that I was dreaming. I was walking on a high, barren ridge and saw a village on a mountain above me. The village was a Sicilian hill town clinging to the sides of a stony butte rising like a battered and sore thumb into the bright sky. The town armored the mountain slope below an escarpment where the rock rose so steeply that it was impossible to build on that surface. To my eyes, the town seemed prismatic, a cubist collage of walls and roof surfaces, a kind of flat shingling that girdled the base of the tower. The hill town was picturesque and it delighted my eyes, but, then, I noticed that the entire landscape was sagging. The town was not where I had first noticed it, but rather drooped like a slack piece of rope or chain suspended between two opposing supports. The shape of the village had assumed a caternary geometry, a slumped curve. The tile roofs of the village houses seemed to have become detached and they were gathered like a talus field in the cup made by the caternary arch. This seemed very logical to me and exact, an outcome of the geometry governing the heights above where I was hiking. When I looked again, I noticed that the orange tiles of the roofs accumulating in the lowest part of the inverted arch had turned brown and assumed a chitinous form. The slumped inverted arch now held a mass of scales like the wings of cockroaches or beetles. The spectacle was vaguely disgusting to me and I looked away. Everything was now near at hand and, although the hill-town had been far above me at first, it had come very close and I could hear it buzzing and humming with insect activity. Then, the hill town reached out to me and took my shoulder, loudly pronouncing my name. The icy touch of the village on my skin and the sound of my name reverberating across the empty landscape terrified me. I woke up and found that I was shivering with cold, having kicked aside my covers, and exposed myself to the chilly air in the bedroom. Outside, a siren howled and, somewhere, a snow plow had put its iron snout to the cement and was grinding its way through the ice to the surface of the road. It is a frightening thing to be touched when you are asleep and the place where the hill-town made from cockroach wings had seized me was like a brand on my flesh. I was transfixed with a sense of guilt and horror: what have I done? What have I done?

The winter, it seems, will be long.

The cold is a nightmare. It comes by a path through the grim and rocky mountains called Anopaea. The path is so slender and well-concealed that no one can find the way except bad dreams. The traitor descends the dark escarpment and you are flanked, attacked from the rear, and there is no hope of escape.

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