Calculus

It’s the first semester of freshman year at Carnegie Mellon. I’m enrolled in Calculus for Science Majors.

After the midterm, I skipped a couple of the weekly recitations. Then, when I finally did show up, I looked for my test in a pile of graded assignments.

On one midterm, in the space marked, “Name _______”, someone had written the word “Calculus.” I recognized the handwriting as my own.

I brought the test to the teaching assistant. “I think this one’s mine.”

He shook my hand. “I’ve been studying you for years,” he gushed with facetious excitement. “I’m your biggest fan, it’s such an honor to meet you.”


The Family Stones

Calculus is Latin for stone. Calculi, stones.

Let me introduce you to another member of the Calculus family.

William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down outlines and describes the Moral Calculus, a decision process by which one can determine whether violence is justified.

At a book signing, I suggested to the author that the Moral Calculus would make a good iPhone app; Vollmann concurred.

I met Vollmann again in early 2015 when he invited the Seattle Public Library crowd to join him for a drink over at the Hotel Vintage bar. We conversed. I mentioned the app again, and he said it would be fine if I built it. And if I ever learn how to program again, I just might.

Use case: 
You’re contemplating violence, but you’re not sure if it’s morally justified.

You open the R↑R↓ app and engage in an AI-powered dialogue:

“Are you bringing about a revolution?” 
YES.

“Do those for whom the revolution is being fought agree on the means and ends of the revolution?” 
YES.

“Have you sundered prior civil allegiances without creating new ones?”
YES.

Bzzzzzzt
“Violence NOT justified. Try again later!”

The first volume of Rising Up and Rising Down contains the decision tree of the Moral Calculus. The other six volumes contain illustrative case studies based on Vollmann’s extensive travels, interviews, and research. This combination of theory and examples reminds me of the MBA case study method, in which you imagine yourself a titan of industry to demonstrate how you would react in a given situation. If you work through enough case studies, you develop intuition for how to run a business.

I reckon that if you think enough about violence, you’ll be better prepared for it.

Because when you’re not prepared, you may forget your own name.


Further reading

William T. Vollmann fans await his latest: Shadows of Love, Shadows of Loneliness, a two-volume collection of photographs (vol. 1) and drawings, prints, and paintings (vol. 2) available Dec. 6, 2022. Hint-hint.

The abridged Rising Up and Rising Down is in paperback. The seven-volume set is a bit harder to find, but there are rumblings about McSweeney’s releasing an eBook version soon.

I own the seven-volume Rising up and Rising Down thanks to the peerless and incomparable Debbie Sarow at Mercer Street Books. We had spoken about Vollmann soon after the Seattle Public Library event. When she came across the set, she knew exactly who to call.

Debbie also introduced me to Martin McClellan, co-founder of Seattle Review of Books (2015-2020), which published my review of The Dying Grass along with several other book reviews and essays that I’ll include on the blog from time to time.

We lost Debbie in 2018, and she is dearly missed. I encourage you to read remembrances from Martin McClellan (“Remembering Debbie Sarow,” Seattle Review of Books, Aug. 24, 2018) and Paul Constant (“Mercer Street Books has become a world-famous neighborhood bookstore,” Seattle Times, Aug. 25, 2022).

My remembrance of Debbie is this entire blog. It occurs to me that my multiyear project to complete an online Ivy League curriculum is part of a larger undertaking: To read as many books as I can from every shelf of my favorite bookstore.

The writer we deserve

Originally published March 2, 2016, Seattle Review of Books.

It’s early in the year, time for taking on ambitious, resolution-worthy reading projects, and what better project than The Dying Grass, the latest novel from William T. Vollmann?

Vollmann, our young nation’s own Tolstoy.

Russia can keep Count Lev Nikolaevich and his high society, literary friends, peasant pedagogy, and pacifist moralism. Oh look, there’s Leo dressing up as a muzhik again.

Here in the modern-day U.S.A., we’ve got William Tanner Vollmann. Travels to war zones. Camps out in the Arctic. Rides the rails. Sleeps in homeless encampments. Smokes crack with sex workers. Venerates sex workers. Paints portraits of sex workers. Shoots guns. Big guns. Becomes a knowledgeable observer of Noh theater. Dresses up and walks the streets as “Dolores.” Doesn’t use the Internet, email or credit cards. Suspected by the FBI of being the Unabomber.

There’s a Facebook fan page dedicated to Vollmann: “What Would William Tanner Vollmann Do?” The page was established by the late Michael Hemmingson, a writer and Vollmann scholar whose body was found under suspicious circumstances in a Tijuana hotel room in 2014, dead of an apparent overdose. #NotAllVollmannScholars. Although we may not all follow as closely the brave and fearless example of our living bodhisattva, we are, as a group, characterized by a signature combination of moral seriousness, non-judgmental loquaciousness, and clear-eyed pragmatism.

Vollmann writes several books at a time using multiple publishers. He is currently working on a non-fiction book on fossil fuel and nuclear energy; a novel about extraordinary torture and rendition; and a book about lesbian and transgender sex workers.

Every nation gets the Tolstoy it deserves.


In August 2015, Vollmann read from The Dying Grass at Seattle Public Library. The novel has no “he said” or “she said” dialogue markers. There’s no omniscient narrator walking you through the blocking or framing of each scene. The only signal of a change in voice or narrative mode is the typography. Otherwise, you have to figure it out on your own. As it’s mostly dialogue interspersed with interior monologue, it’s a difficult book for a live reading.

Rather than Vollmann’s steady, flat, and carefully enunciated mode of speech, it would have helped to have a voice guy. I’m not asking for Michael Winslow, but on second thought, yes, I am asking for Michael Winslow.

Vollmann invited the audience to join him for a drink over at Sazerac, the bar at the Hotel Monaco.

After signing everyone’s books, Vollmann arrives at the bar accompanied by two volunteers from SHARE/WHEEL, Seattle’s self-managed community for homeless people.

Vollmann has been well known as an advocate for the homeless since his March 2011 report for Harper’s, “Homeless in Sacramento.” The police stopped him from allowing homeless people to sleep on his property, and so he started visiting Sacramento’s homeless encampments. He borrows a sleeping bag and waits in lines for donated food. He returns over and over again. He becomes recognized in the community. He takes in its rhythms.

I join them for a drink. Vollmann has a double Johnny Walker Black, neat. The cover band plays “Take it Easy.” Times like these, it’s always the Eagles.

We talk about the positive reception of his books by Native Americans. We talk about climate change. We talk about Cervantes. We talk about adapting Rising Up, Rising Down for the digital age.

He moves along. I enjoy meeting a few other Vollmann fans. I go home with a signed copy of The Dying Grass and resolve to read it.


Vollmann’s novel reanimates a historical moment, a fundamental moment, a central collision in American history, and it’s way too important, GODd—n it, for the author to waste time figuring out what the average reader may or may not know about American history. Despite my earlier comparison, Vollmann isn’t Tolstoy. He’s not going to take you by the hand to the edge of the battlefield for a clear vantage point of the crashing of armies as the occasion for an interpolated authorial lecture on the meaningless of war or some grand philosophical theory of history. No, there’s none of that. Vollmann aims to get into the heads of these historical personages. You are there to listen.

As readers, we have been trained to be careful, linear plodders. We’re accustomed to literature that dribbles out tiny little mysteries, cliffhanger chapter endings to be resolved in the next digestible chunk, which in turn spawns a new cliffhanger according to a formula. We expect to have things explained to us. When we encounter something we don’t understand, we either blame ourselves for not being ready for the work, or we blame the author for being unnecessarily obtuse. Neither of these stances are helpful when reading The Dying Grass.

My advice: Whenever you come across an unfamiliar historical reference in Vollmann, instead of crashing to a halt or running to Wikipedia, just keep going. If it’s something you need to know, you’ll more than likely see it again. You’ll pick up through context the names, voices, landscapes, and language. Sure, keep a separate bookmark at the Chronology and Glossaries, but more often than not, just keep reading.


The Dying Grass is Volume 5 of a series, “Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes,” of which to date Vollmann has written (not in sequential order) all except Volumes 4 and 7.

Just as with the Star Wars movies, you are under no obligation to go through the series according to release order or volume order.

I’ll go even further and say that you don’t have to read The Dying Grass starting at page 1 and continuing linearly through page 1215. Vollmann famously eschews the services of pesky editors along with recommended page counts, but in the age of the Internet we are all free to create and share our own editorial apparatus.

The novel is split into nine unequal parts. Here’s the original order:

Indian Service (1805-77)
Edisto (1862-74)
The Burial of Lieutenant Theller (June 1877)
I Am Flying Up (June-July 1877)
The Rest of My Days (July-August 1877)
Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic (August-September 1877)
Detached Pictures (September-October 1877)
I Raised My Eyes (1877-78)
The Americans Are Your Friends (1877-1904)
And here’s my suggested order:

The Burial of Lieutenant Theller (June 1877)
I Am Flying Up (June-July 1877)
The Rest of My Days (July-August 1877)
Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic (August-September 1877)
Indian Service (1805-77)
Detached Pictures (September-October 1877)
Edisto (1862-74)
I Raised My Eyes (1877-78)
The Americans Are Your Friends (1877-1904)

Skip Part I, “Indian Service.” You’re not ready for it.


The Dying Grass, like other volumes in the “Seven Dreams” series, is narrated at the largest frame through the authorial presence of “William the Blind.” However, once we get into the story proper, William the Blind disappears. So, if you’re like me, jumping into one of these volumes without having had the experience of reading the other published volumes, you don’t need to begin with that introductory apparatus.

It’s also easiest to delay the time-bending chronology of Part I, in which the narrative leaps forward to the present to describe William the Blind perusing archive photos of Nez Perce Indians and driving through Oregon. Then, the story goes back in time to a wagon train on the Oregon Trail in 1876; and from there, farther back to the first encounters between Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce in 1805. Finally, we arrive at the beginning of the main narrative of the book, starting in June 1877.

What you need to know from Part I: The U.S. Army demanded that the Nez Perce remove themselves from their land and onto a reservation. A few young men from the tribe, recalling numerous legitimate grievances, strongly object to being cooped up, and so they commence hostilities. The Army responds, leading to their defeat at White Bird Canyon.

If you do dip into Part I, follow the lead of Vollmann, who at the Seattle Public Library read the following excerpts from Part I:

  • A slow-motion account of what was going through a settler’s mind as he was attacked by Swan Necklace, one of the three young men who decided to fight rather than confine themselves to a reservation (“And Black Birds on the Lake, June 10-13,” §18, p124-5);
  • How the brothers and war-chiefs Ollokot and Heinmot Tooyalakekt (aka Chief Joseph) heard about the attack and how they responded (“Some Kind of Peace, June 14-16,” §1-7, §10, p.132-610);
  • Colonel Perry and Lieutenant Theller at a U.S. Army camp prepare for the Battle of White Bird Canyon (“Should Be a Pleasurable Fight, June 15-17,” excerpt from §1, p.172-178).

Here’s a link to the MP3. Read along with Vollmann, and for best results, have the book open before you. And then, save the rest of Part I for later.

You should also save for later Part II, “Edisto,” which introduces the central figure of the novel, General Oliver Otis Howard. After the Civil War, Gen. Howard, a man of good conscience and a firm believer in the rightness of the Emancipation Proclamation, accepts a post heading up the Freedman’s Bureau. He sets aside land and establishes schools, hospitals, businesses and banks for former slaves, but those lofty plans are thwarted by racists, planters, economic interests and politicians. All of this is prelude to General Howard’s command of the pursuit of the Nez Perce, another occasion of duty overriding morality.

If you only read one section from this book, read “Edisto.” In fact, I would set “Edisto” apart as a novella on its own. It’s sad and beautiful, evocative and frightening, mostly horrible. But in a narrative sense, it gives away too much, as we get the entire backstory of the main character before the action begins. In the remix, I pair the post-Civil War “Edisto” with Part VIII, “I Raised My Eyes,” which similarly concerns the political spoils of the military victors in the aftermath of war. This pairing underscores the tragedy of being a person of conscience in a position of power, unable to reconcile the underlying oppositions.

Parts III through VII describes the Nez Perce War as conducted over the course of five months in 1877, in which General Howard, the U.S. Army and a militia of citizen volunteers pursued Chief Joseph and the bulk of the Nez Perce Indian tribe through the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the book takes place in camp, on the march, on patrol. It’s soldiers talking, cursing their commanders, speculating on enemy movements, indulging in sexual fantasies, writing letters home. When the scene shifts to the Nez Perce perspective, it’s them setting up camp, singing, talking, quarreling, riding, fighting.

Take a break in the military campaign after Part VI, “Very Beautiful and Almost Automatic,” to tackle Part I. After having followed the campaign for months, you (unlike the soldiers) will be able to go back in time and appreciate how it all began.

Conclude, as Vollmann does, with Part IX, which takes you through the years of confinement, exploitation and decline of the surviving Nez Perce.

At Seattle Public Library, Vollmann said in his opening remarks: “The Nez Perce War, like all the Indian wars, was a race war.”

This is our history, and it’s an ugly history, and to paraphrase Faulkner, it’s not even history.

So when you’re done with the book, help someone else to read it.


Vollmann 101: Suggestions for introductory reading

Harper’s. “Homeless in Sacramento,” March 2011.
Harper’s. “Life as a Terrorist,” September 2013.
New Republic. “You Are Now Entering the Demented Kingdom of William T. Vollmann,” by Tom Bissell, July 22, 2014.
The Paris Review. “William T. Vollmann, The Art of Fiction No. 163,” interviewed by Madison Smartt Bell, Fall 2000.

The second-biggest schmuck in the world

Murray’s wife: “Murray, you’re a schmuck. You’re such a schmuck, you’re the second-biggest schmuck in the world.”

“Oh yeah?” responds Murray. “Why aren’t I the biggest schmuck in the world?”

“Because you’re such a schmuck!”


I’ve discovered a pattern in my writing.

The galgo, Cervantes’ invisible dog-narrator of Don Quixote.

Barsabbas, the alternate juror of the New Testament.

Testocles, a fictional account of the hidden man behind the enmity between Athena and Aegina.

Do you see the pattern? If not, I have other examples.


Several years ago, I enrolled in a non-fiction writing class called “Why should I read you?”

Classroom activity #1:
Write down everything you want to write, your best ideas. Now tear up the paper.

Classroom activity #2:
Write down everything you don’t want to write. Now start there.

Recoiling from the aesthetics of broken parts, I dropped out.

It doesn’t matter. What you don’t want to write shows up anyway.

Classroom activity #3:
Think of everything you don’t want to say. 
Hold it all in your thoughts while you write something else.

This is the burlesque approach to revelatory writing.

Shake your body, waving giant feathers.

One month of blogging.

It’s the usual practice for bloggers and independent scholars to pick a favorite topic, whether it’s World War II history or butterflies or anime or prog rock, and circle around it for a lifetime. It’s a time-tested method for gaining expertise, creating blogs, and joining a community.

My way is that of Odysseus resisting the Sirens.

I hear them but not for long.
The ship keeps moving,
Different Sirens, different songs.

For the past nine years, I’ve been following the bulk of the Open Yale Courses curriculum, one or two courses at a time. (Read: My Yale Years.) These courses provided a starting point, and local libraries allowed me to follow through with additional reading and research.

But the most important part of the project was the knowledge that each course would end. The awareness that upon finishing the lectures for one course, a new course would soon follow.

In 2014, I completed courses on The Hebrew Bible and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. These were my first choices in the Open Yale Courses curriculum — the first, because it’s my heritage; and the second because I hadn’t yet read Don Quixote in full despite my familiarity with Cervantes’ talking-dog short stories.

Just days after starting the lectures for The Hebrew Bible taught by Professor Christine Hayes, one of her students invited me to a Talmud study group. (Read: Cautionary tales.) I might have stopped the whole Yale project right there.

Siren, Siren, love that song.
Sorry, Siren, moving on.

Theory of Literature was almost my major in college. (Read: The weed-out course.) Here again I might have abandoned ship but kept going.

Next up for 2015 were African American History, Ancient Greek History, and The New Testament. The first, banned in schools; the second, defunded on campus; and the third, missing from the usual reading list for someone of my background. People spend lifetimes in these fields, and nobody would expect me to give them more than a glance.

This is precisely where education has its greatest potential value, offering perspectives beyond our inborn views.

You can orbit yourself for a lifetime.
I’m off the ecliptic. Askew to the new.

I still carry the old songs with me. That very same year, I learned how to read from the Torah and reenacted my bar-mitzvah. (I’ll spare you that story for now.) I also had the idea of writing a book based on my unconventional reading of Don Quixote (saving that for last) and on the lost adventures of the Greek anti-hero Testocles (throwing that one back in the water).

Old songs, new rhythms.

This blog started one month ago. It’s still evolving.

I’m glad you’re here.

The Trojan Women

Seattle’s poetry bookstore Open Books: A Poem Emporium has moved to Pioneer Square!

And that’s where I met up with my friend Beverly Aarons, creator of Artists Up Close, for one of our expansive chats about writing, art, technology, and the world around us. Beverly knows that I’m a big fan of the talking-dog genre and so directed my attention to The Trojan Women: A Comic, illustrated by Rosanna Bruno with text by Anne Carson.

In this graphic novel, the Trojan Women of the title are dogs and cows, Poseidon is a giant wave, Athene is an owl mask plus an empty pair of overalls (“Warhartt”), and Talthybius is a giant crow. There are surprises on every page, deft movements from comedy to tragedy, and an essential faithfulness to the spirit of the source material.

And talking dogs, plenty of talking dogs.

Over seven years after a deep dive into Ancient Greek History, this is exactly how I want to imbibe the classics.

No, don’t ignore it.

Buy: The Trojan Women: A Comic, by Rosanna Bruno, text by Anne Carson (New Directions Books, 2021).

Visit: Open Books: A Poem Emporium.

Drawings, 2015

Between 2012 and 2014, I took about a dozen drawing classes at Gage Academy of Art, culminating in a trio — Pen & Ink, Composition, and Beginning Color Theory — with Margaret Davidson. Best art teacher I ever had.

At the start of class, we’d put our latest work up on the corkboard and take turns sharing what we did, what we liked about our work, and what we might have done differently. A reflective, guided self-critique rather than the piñata approach, in which you hang up your piece and let people take blind swings at it.

Margaret Davidson stopped teaching at Gage. The traffic between Skagit County and Capitol Hill was getting to be too much. Completely understandable. Even the traffic within Seattle between Queen Anne and Capitol Hill was too much.

I tried a painting class in early 2015, but then stopped going to Gage until it went virtual with the pandemic.

For much of that year, I had an art desk at home: Pencils, brushes, pens, color pencils, pen-and-ink paraphernalia, pastels, calligraphy brushes, sharpeners, erasers, cutting boards, tapes, glue, charcoal, rags, chamois, blades, a triangle, a protractor, art instruction books, a wide selection of paper, and a plaster cast of a foot.

But without the structure of a class, I didn’t keep up the pace. I did The Honeymoon Album, a bunch of self-portraits, and a few other odds and ends, including this map:

Ivan Schneider. “Greek-Italian Dragon-Map” (2015).

What I like about it: There’s a twisty, dragon-like quality to the land masses on the right, with Crete as the dragon’s mouth and the Adriatic and Western Black Sea coastlines as the dragon’s flanks. Perhaps that makes Italy the dragon’s claw. Sicily is Sicily.

What I might have done differently: Seems unfinished. Too much contrast between the heavily worked areas with dark colors and the lightly cross-hatched areas with light colors.

Margaret Davidson would suggest doing a series of ten when starting out with an idea. That’s what it takes to figure out what you’re doing and where you can take it. And if you’re still interested by the time you get to ten, you’ll be ready to keep going.

Anyway, here are six self-portraits in color pencil.

Lawmakers

Round him, as if to catch a haul of fish, I cast an impassable net—fatal wealth of robe—so that he should neither escape nor ward off doom.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 1380.
Bust of tragic poet Aeschylus in Athens, Greece
(Adobe Stock)

Robert Greene’s Laws of Power came out the same year I got an MBA. It was in the zeitgeist, and since then it’s become one of the most requested books in prison.

When I read Laws of Power, I began to recognize how its adherents shape our world. For example, LAW 6: COURT ATTENTION AT ALL COSTS. Need I say more?

When you encounter a Machiavellian framework such as this, you have a choice:

Accept: Learn the laws and play to win.

Reject: Follow your own principles and hope for the best.

And if you don’t like either choice, there’s yet another way.

Deconstruct: Learn how frameworks are made.

To make your own framework, all you need to do is cast a wide net throughout history to find interesting stories and then extract from them pithy lessons aimed at modern sensibilities.

With that in mind, let’s see what we can learn from the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy of the fates of Agamemnon and his family after the Trojan War.

The Oresteian Rules

RULE 1: JUDGE IMPARTIALLY.

In the myth of the Judgment of Paris, Paris of Troy was asked to judge the fairest of three divine contestants. Each contestant offered a bribe. Paris might have chosen Hera’s diplomacy or Athena’s military power, but he chooses Aphrodite’s gift of the most beautiful woman. Maybe Aphrodite was truthfully the fairest, but when Paris accepted Aphrodite’s gift, he incurred the wrath of the other two, Athena and Hera.

Paris was doomed no matter which bribe he took. Had he picked Athena’s military power, Troy would have been undefeatable but vulnerable to a diplomatic or romantic defeat; and had Paris picked Hera’s diplomacy, Troy would be vulnerable to military or romantic defeat.

By choosing between the three bribes, Paris abdicated his role as judge. He was no longer judging the fairest, but rather judging the quality of the bribes.

It may seem difficult to refuse bribes, but that’s exactly what a judge must do.

RULE 2: STAND BY YOUR BROTHER.

Accepting the gift of Aphrodite, Paris took Helen away from Menelaus, her husband, and brought her to Troy.

Menelaus turned for help to his brother, Agamemnon.

Had Agamemnon refused Menelaus, it would have risked a sibling battle to match that of the prior generation, in which King Atreus killed his own nephews and served them up in a meal (c.f. the “Frey pie” in Game of Thrones) to their father, his own brother, Thyestes. Agamemnon’s refusal would have also emboldened other nations to strike against the Achaeans (Greeks) without fear of retribution.

Agamemnon gave his assistance without limit. The Achaeans fought on faraway enemy turf without foreknowledge of Troy’s offensive or defensive capabilities. They risked their lives and left their families and estates behind to restore Menelaus’ house.

RULE 3: OBEY GODS WITHOUT QUESTION.

Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to gain divine favor to win the Trojan War, placating the gods who would have kept the Achaean armies in check.

If you accept the existence of gods, you cannot question them, no matter what they ask of you.

No virgin, no peace.

RULE 4: PRUNE THE FAMILY TREE DECISIVELY.

As told in Aeschylus’ tragic play Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus take revenge upon Agamemnon for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. While Agamemnon was away, his wife Clytemnestra took a lover, the renegade Aegisthus, the only son of Thyestes that was not killed and cooked by King Uncle Atreus.

Agamemnon returns home from Troy and takes a ceremonial bath. Clytemnestra wraps him in a confining, heavy blanket of robes, and then, with the help of her lover Aegisthus, stabs him. The chorus wails.

The moral of the Iphigenia story is that if, on behalf of your brother, you’re going to kill your own daughter, you might as well go ahead and kill her mother too because there’s no coming back from something like that.

The moral of the Aegisthus story is that if your father kills all but one of your cousins, don’t be surprised if the sole surviving cousin comes around and stirs up trouble with your wife.

RULE 5: FATHERS OUTRANK MOTHERS.

In Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, the children of Agamemnon and Elektra take revenge against their surviving parent.

Grieving at Agamemnon’s tomb, his daughter Electra wishes for the return of her brother Orestes, who then steps forward and swears by Apollo to avenge Agamemnon. He enters his mother’s palace in disguise, claiming to have news of his own death. His mother’s lover Aegisthus is brought in to hear the news. Orestes first kills him, and then Clytemnestra, a matricide that summons the Furies. Orestes flees.

Did Orestes really have to kill Clytemnestra? Could he have cast aside Apollo’s warning and Electra’s exhortations? Could he have spared himself from the wrath of the Furies? Apparently not. Orestes had to pick a side. Along with his sister Elektra, he picked Dad’s side. Even though Dad killed Orestes’ sister Ginny on behalf of Uncle Menny and his Trojan War. He was a war hero, so he gets a pass retroactively.

RULE 6: IF YOU SEEK JUSTICE, GO VENUE SHOPPING.

In Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, Apollo helps Orestes to elude the Furies. Recall that Apollo had sanctioned the hit on Clytemnestra.

Orestes reaches the temple of the Athena, goddess of wisdom. Athena convenes a citizens’ court to try Orestes for the murder of his mother. It’s a tie vote. Athena breaks the tie in favor of Orestes.

The Furies protest and threaten to spread miseries among the people, but Athena placates them to wrap up the episode.

Why did Athena acquit Orestes and placate the Furies?

The answer is that Athena wasn’t an impartial judge. Paris chose Aphrodite over her, and Agamemnon sacked Troy with her blessing. In Athena’s wisdom, she was not ready to punish the Apollo-sanctioned killing of the murderer of a war hero.

RULE 7: DISREGARD RULES 2 THROUGH 6.

I didn’t write the rules … oh wait, yes I did.

So let’s say this instead – I didn’t write the stories that the rules are based on. I just wrote the rules extrapolating lessons from the stories.

The first rule came out fine, and the second isn’t objectively horrible until you grasp the implications, and then we get into some pretty dark places. Not at all what I had in mind.

If you want to change the rules, if you want better rules and fairer rules, if you want true justice, start with different stories.

Let’s change the rules.

Tunics

“As there are no accounts of these events which are independent of Herodotus, a historical reconstruction, as opposed to a validation of all or part of Herodotus’ narrative, is impossible”

Figueira, “Herodotus on the Early Hostilities between Aegina and Athens,” The American Journal of Philology 106.1, Spring 1985, 49).

The famine in Epidaurus

The Epidaurians’ crops failed, and so they consulted the oracle of Delphi. The oracle answered that the Epidaurians must create images to goddesses Damia, of the earth, and Auxesia, of growth, and that these images were to be made of olive wood.

The Athenians possessed the best olive trees – or, some say, the only olive trees – and so Epidaurus asked Athens for permission to cut olive wood from the plains of Attica.

The Epidaurians received the Athenian olive wood and made the holy images. In return, the Epidaurians promised to render upon Athens yearly sacred dues to Athena, the city’s patron goddess, and to Erechtheus, the city’s mythic founder.

The oracle did not say: “Go beg for food from Athens.”

The oracle offered a magical solution, that carved images from an olive tree would end the drought. Instead of images of bronze or stone that Epidaurus could make on its own, the oracle prescribed olive wood that could only be found in Athens.

Athens took advantage of its monopoly by demanding an annuity rather than a one-time payment, as the annual tribute would bring neighboring Epidaurus closer to powerful Athens. In return, Epidaurus might have cause to ask Athens for help during any future famine.

If crops had continued to fail even with possession of the carved images, the Epidaurians would have said to the Athenians: “You say Athenian olive trees are holy, but your olive wood has failed us, and this is your fault.” The Athenians would have been honor-bound to support the Epidaurians, whose tribute was a form of insurance.

The olive-tree images served their purpose, and the crops returned.

What would have happened if the crops had failed again?

Perhaps Athens, after having received annual payments during the good years, would have been amenable to sharing its wealth during the bad years.

However, the moral force of the agreement would have weakened over time. The Athenians could claim that the images had already done their job by ending the first famine; and that the new crop failure was no longer their fault, but rather divine displeasure incurred by the Epidaurians on their own account. The Epidaurians would then have to enter into greater debt with the Athenians by purchasing more olive-wood in exchange for higher annual tributes. Or, Epidaurus could travel to Delphi for another expensive consultation.

Unless Epidaurus believed that it would receive good faith support from Athens during a future crop failure, the annual offerings would have become harder to justify.

How might the Epidaurians have broken the contract?

The Epidaurians couldn’t simply return the images to Athens. The arrangement was made under an oracular pronouncement. Any person that denied the religious significance of the oracle and of the efficacy of the images to Damia or Auxesia would be in serious jeopardy, even more so if the crops were to fail following their removal.

The politics of the contract were also important. Epidaurus would have to tread lightly with nearby Athens, their mighty maritime neighbor. In addition, a small state would hardly wish to put itself in direct opposition to the oracle. Delphi was a powerful enemy, and their pronouncements could be bought. One can easily imagine a future oracular pronouncement: “Destroy the Epidaurians.”

If Epidaurus had wanted to annul the contract, they would have had to find another way, one that respected the gods, one that saved face with Athens, and one that preserved the integrity of the oracle.

The raid of the Aeginetans

Aegina was a former colony of Epidaurus that built its own ships and then revolted. With ships, an island people no longer must subject themselves to the rule of farmers. With ships, an island people can embark on raiding and trading. With ships, an island people can take revenge.

The Aeginetans “ravaged Epidaurus, and even carried off these very images of Damia and Auxesia, which they set up in their own country, in the interior, at a place called Oea, about twenty furlongs [2.5 miles] from their city.”

It’s a suspicious theft. Perhaps by stealing the olive-wood holy images from the Epidaurians, the Aeginetans hoped to invoke another famine or spark conflict between Epidaurus and Athens. Or maybe it was a chance opportunity to steal a prize from their former masters.

But what if someone among the Epidaurians enticed the Aeginetans, or colluded with the Aeginetans, or made it easy for the Aeginetans? Placing the blame on the Aeginetans would be an ideal exit clause from their annual obligation to the Athenians.

In any event, the Aeginetans reinstalled the stolen images in their own sanctuary.

… they fixed a worship for the images, which consisted in part of sacrifices, in part of female satiric choruses; while at the same time they appointed certain men to furnish the choruses, ten for each goddess. These choruses did not abuse men, but only the women of the country. Holy orgies of a similar kind were in use also among the Epidaurians, and likewise another sort of holy orgies, whereof it is not lawful to speak.

Herodotus

Epidaurus stopped paying tribute to Athens, as they no longer had the olive-wood holy images.

Athens asked Aegina for the return of the olive-wood holy images, and Aegina refused, as they had no obligation to Athens.

But Athens wanted the olive-wood holy images returned to Epidaurus so that the tribute could resume. Plus, Athens had its reputation to consider.

The massacre at Aegina

Athens conducted a raid on Aegina, sending ships to retrieve the images by force. There’s no consensus on what happened during the raid, but only one man of Athens returned alive.

“It is, however, unlikely that the Athenians could have penetrated to the Damia/Auxesia sanctuary at Oie in the Mesogaia c. 490. It would have been imprudent for them to detach a large force (strong enough to annihilate a picked corps of 1000 Argive hoplites) while an Aiginetan fleet of 70 triremes might reappear. The interior of the island, in any case, is rough terrain for the most part, scarcely the place to fight a hoplite engagement.”

Thomas J. Figueira, Excursions in Epichoric History, 45.

Herodotus offers two accounts of the events that transpired.

In the first version, according to the sole Athenian survivor, Athens had sent a single trireme whose men tried to haul the images away.

“In the midst of their hauling suddenly there was a thunderclap, and with the thunderclap an earthquake; and the crew of the trireme were forthwith seized with madness, and, like enemies, began to kill one another; until at last there was but one left, who returned alone to [the Athenian port of] Phalerum.”

Herodotus

The second version, told by the Aeginetans and their Argive allies, held that Athens sent a large number of ships to Aegina. The Athenians came inland to fetch the images, and in dragging them, the two statues “fell down both upon their knees.” Meanwhile, the Argives and Aeginetans cut off the Athenians from their ships and attacked. At that moment, as with the other account, there was thunder and an earthquake.

Why would there be Argives in Aegina? Thomas Dunbabin suggests that Argos may have encouraged the Aeginian revolt to weaken, and then conquer, Epidaurus. In return for protection, Argos would have a friendly port and other advantages.

Yet there’s something missing in both accounts.

“Only in the Aiginetan version (albeit supported by the Argives) did a military conflict takes place. To the Athenians, their ship had come to grief mysteriously. Aiginetans and Athenians both agreed on a single survivor, but the motif of the single survivor might have played a different role in each of their reports to Herodotus.

[…]

“For the Athenians, the existence of the survivor provides a witness or guarantee that the Athenians did not suffer a military defeat. Neither Athenians nor Aiginetans bother to tell us how the survivor got back to Attica. The Aiginetan version ends with Athenian humiliation, while we have no Athenian report at all of an aftermath to the expedition.”

Figuera, Excursions in Epichoric History, 52

The surviving sailor

Herodotus says that the Athenian emissaries went to Aegina demanding the return of the images, and they are turned away.

Maybe so, but I think something else happened.

What if the Athenian emissaries had been offered a different form of recompense for their stolen olive wood?

“We are not farmers like the Epidaurians and can offer no tribute of that kind,” said the Aeginetans, “but would you care to participate in our ritual ceremonies?”

The details of these ceremonies – it’s not lawful to speak of it.

The Athenian emissaries get a taste. They return home. They spread the word to certain people. A group of likeminded Athenian citizens assemble to discuss.

“Satiric chorus, holy orgies. Who’s in?”

“This thing on Aegina, it’s got potential.”

“But what do we tell our wives?”

“And won’t they expect us to come back with the statues? How do we explain that?

They come up with a plan, to put on their armor, make a big show of protecting the honor of Athens, and then sail to Aegina for a few days of partying. They’ll come back empty-handed.

“Those sneaky Aeginetans must have hidden the holy images.”

“We’ll just have to try again next year, and the year after that.”

But it all went wrong. The satiric chorus and holy orgies, that was the bait. The Athenians took it and they paid with their lives, all but one. The sole survivor returned with the thunder-and-earthquake story, but that story didn’t hold together.

Plus, someone else in Athens knew about the expedition. And the women knew something strange was going on with their husbands. The wives of the dead Athenians were not satisfied with the lone sailor’s story.

Out came the brooch pins.

A brooch of the peace?
Adobe Stock

Each of the widows, in turn, asked “Where’s my husband?” and then stabbed the sailor using the brooch pin holding up her tunic.

“Where’s my husband?” Brooch pin to the neck.

“Where’s my husband?” Brooch pin to the chest.

The sole survivor, brooch-pinned to death by a crowd of topless widows.

That sailor’s name: Testocles.

The rest is Histories.

This is how this man met his end, and the Athenians found the action of their women to be more dreadful than their own misfortune. They could find, it is said, no other way to punish the women than changing their dress to the Ionian fashion. Until then the Athenian women had worn Dorian dress, which is very like the Corinthian. It was changed, therefore, to the linen tunic, so that they might have no brooch-pins to use.

The truth of the matter, however, is that this form of dress is not in its origin Ionian, but Carian, for in ancient times all women in Greece wore the costume now known as Dorian.

As for the Argives and Aeginetans, this was the reason of their passing a law in both their countries that brooch-pins should be made half as long as they used to be and that brooches should be the principal things offered by women in the shrines of these two goddesses.

Herodotus 5.87-88

Testocles

Tamara Schneider. “I’m so embarrassed” (2022)

History has two Testocles.

The rich kids from good Athenian families clamored to the fights at the Cynosarges gymnasium, the best fighters in town, always a good show. If you hung around long enough, you’d pummel and grapple and bleed and laugh with the rest.

The good Athenian families were distressed to see their sons doggy-fighting with foreigners from Cynosarges, the dogs of Argos. “We take in these stray Argive dogs, and now they’re showing our noble children how to snarl and bark and eat their own shit,” they would say. “The kynos-orcheis [dog’s balls] should lick themselves, not our sons.”

But Neocles didn’t mind. He was proud of his son’s scars. Any family with a Neocles, neo-kleos for new glory, had no excess of old glory. Perhaps his son would make something of himself and the family.

“Why do they call you Testocles?” Neocles asked his son. “Why don’t you tell them that your name starts with a theta, not a tau?”

Testocles knew better than to protest a nickname. After the battles of Marathon and Salamis against the Persians, everyone would remember forever the name Themistocles. For now, Testocles.


Tamara Schneider. “It’s a dog eat dog world!” (2022)

Many a brave soul did [the anger of Achilles] send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures.

Homer, The Iliad, trans. Samuel Butler

Two hundred years earlier, another Testocles was being beaten to near death by his fellow students.

The clever children had already memorized the Iliad to the catalogue of ships and beyond. Testocles hadn’t made it past the dogs and vultures of the second line.

His mother died in childbirth and his father had fallen in battle. Out of respect and pity, the elders in his deme allowed him to follow the other children in their lessons, even though he was dull beyond measure.

Testocles was not dull, only inattentive. While the other students watched the teacher draw triangles in the dirt, Testocles gazed at the skies as he invented a language of squawks and caws for the vultures circling the fields. As he listened to the epics, his eyes drifted to the streets as he imagined names and lineages for the dogs.

At last, he spoke up: “If the dogs and vultures eat the brave souls of Achaeans and Trojans, shouldn’t the Muse sing the epics of the dogs and vultures?”

At the behest of Xelus, the teacher of epic poetry, the clever children led by young Peisistratus beat Testocles savagely. He lay in the dirt, drooling bubbles of bloody snot.

Testocles squawked to summon an avenging phalanx of vultures. The vultures did not come.

Testocles whined to summon a rescuing file of dogs. The dogs, they came. Dogs of the line of Herganos of the Herganossians, strongest of the curs. Dogs of the Xipyonians from Xipynos, island of endless shade. The direct descendants of dogs who dined on the warriors killed by Achaean heroes such as Ajax and Achilles.

And the dogs told him: We will dine on your corpse and spray your name, Testocles, upon all the roots of the earth. But first you must perform great deeds.


The customary path to great deeds goes through battle, and you rarely had to wait long. Yet Testocles was no warrior. He was barely able to carry a shield. To spear enemies while also carrying a shield? Such physical feats were unthinkable. Homer or his descendants would never write his story of valor in battle. Nor would the poets write odes about his prowess on horseback. He would win no discus-throwing contest. His javelin would set no distance records.

The poets were as weak as he, so what about them? At every competition, the poets awarded each other prizes. Could he win one of their prizes? Could he find a troupe of actors to perform his play at the competitions? Or compose an ode whose lyrics would travel around the known world?

No, what they wanted to hear, he didn’t want to sing. What he wanted to sing, they didn’t want to hear.

Testocles had dark thoughts. If I cannot perform great deeds in the world of men, he reasoned, what of the world of dogs? What are great deeds to dogs? What are great deeds to vultures?

Carcasses, piles of carcasses. The lion kills and takes its share. The dogs rip into the carcasses left behind. The vultures pick at the organs and bones.

The men, they emulate lion-hearted Achilles and the resourceful Odysseus. The dogs and vultures, they praise Helen for what her beauty provoked in men. Absent the beauty of Helen, there would be no rage of Achilles, no Trojan war, no glorious death, no heaping carcasses left on the plains.

The dogs and vultures demand their carcasses.