The Embroidered Armourby Roberto Peregalli
In investigating ancient Greek concepts concerning the relationship between seeing and knowing, Roberto Peregalli presents an eloquent demonstration of/i>
The Embroidered Armour examines the Greek Mysteries, mythology and legends that heralded a revolution in thinking between the time of Homer and Plato, which gave birth to the Western cultural tradition.
In investigating ancient Greek concepts concerning the relationship between seeing and knowing, Roberto Peregalli presents an eloquent demonstration of the modernity of ancient Greek wisdom.
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The Embroidered Armour
The Greeks and the Invisible
By Roberto Peregalli
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2013 Pushkin Press
All rights reserved.
THE AMBIGUITIES OF THE VISIBLE
In Homer everything is visible. This abrupt assertion is intended to dismiss those interpretations which trace a few passages from the poems back to mysterious or irrational events. Mortals, immortals, souls and dreams, even Hades itself, are arranged within a horizon of light. The distance that separates them is that which decrees a space defined by the gaze. And it is the gaze (in the sense of 'glance'), with its levels of depth, that defines the relationship of forces in the arrangement of the Homeric world. Sight is, in fact, the very possibility of knowledge. The same verbal paradigm of idein (to know) and orao (I see) demonstrates the extent to which the linguistic fabric is inscribed within this law.
But if, in Homer, everything can be seen, not all beings see in the same way and with the same intensity. The relationship between mortals and immortals is based on this tragic difference. The hierarchy determined by the intensity of sight establishes the distance of the inhabitants of Olympus from those who dwell "on the bounteous earth". The gods see more things than men. That is what makes them more powerful.
The Homeric arrangement of the world is therefore constituted by different ranges of intensity of vision. This gradation contains within itself the germ of the invisible. It is the reverse of the total knowability of the world. He who sees everything has the power to turn to his advantage that which is invisible to those with limited vision. The invisible is the measure of the distance of men from the gods.
"Who can see the comings and goings of a god, if the god does not wish to be seen? (Od. X 573–574) In a world in which everything is potentially visible, the possibility of eluding vision is a discriminating act. In it, mortals and immortals are playing at fate. But the former are not granted the ability to make themselves invisible. They are only able to hide. But the game is not an even one. In the constant criss-cross of references with which men and the gods interact, the former can decipher only those actions which remain under the sign of the invisible.
In Book II of the Iliad (l. 305 ff), Odysseus reminds the Achaeans of the moment when, gathered under a plane-tree making sacrifices to the gods, "Zeus sent a fearful serpent out of the ground, with blood-red stains upon its back, and it darted from under the altar on to the plane-tree" and attacked a nest of birds. After swallowing them all, along with their mother, "when it had eaten both the sparrow and her young, the god who had sent it made him invisible; for the son of scheming Kronos turned him to stone." The episode is very important within the economy of the poem because it anticipates the victory of the Achaeans over Troy And that is how the sign is interpreted by the soothsayer Calchas.
It is here, the only time in the two poems, that the word 'invisible' appears. This is a disconcerting fact, but at the same time it contains the trace of an explanation. Zeus' gesture is an action: the red-backed snake becomes invisible. The action is directed at the mortals, who are obliged to interpret it as a sign, a great sign. Like all the actions in the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is enclosed within a visual horizon. It is within this horizon that men and gods interact. The bond between the two connects the action with the open space beyond that which is seen.
The action, measuring the distance between mortals and immortals, grants the permanence of the invisible, and thus manifests the fate of mortals to remain dependent, obliged to interpret it as a sign. This sign, which pierces the visible in order to plunge itself into the darkness of the invisible, has a name: 'deception'. It is not a simple trick. It has a tragic dimension. For this reason it does not have a negative value in Homer. The gods deceive. Mortals, if they create deceptions, are wise. The fame of their feats (beginning with those of the cunning Odysseus) reaches all the way to the heavens.
So deception concerns the very possibility of a space beyond the visible. It is the condition of that possibility. It is not solely the prerogative of the gods. It is universal. Its structure concerns sight as the very source of wisdom. Therefore it occurs as a tragic event. That which is not seen is that which is not known. In the subtle distinction of this equation, deception becomes a threat. In the relationship between sight, wisdom and deception, the full visibility of the Homeric world is dimmed.
Everything that comes from the heavens is deception, in that it is the work of fate and the gods: the magic threads, sleep, mist, souls, dreams. They are 'figures' bounded by the invisible. They suggest, but do not say.
The extreme proximity of mortals and immortals, their mutual interaction, mask a fundamental distance. The gods hold the secret of that which is not seen. That secret concerns knowledge and death.
The Magic Threads
There is an invisible weaving that hangs over men and gods. It is cruel Moira, spinning with her thread the fate of mortals. The gods have nothing with which to counter her. Magic threads are inscribed within this 'fabric': cloth, net, chains. Her power conditions the very existential dimension of man, making it a deception. The life of mortals is a deception of fate.
Moira's gesture has repercussions upon the entire hierarchy of the world. Women, mortal or immortal, weave. Men, on the other hand, make nets and chains. In the Odyssey, Penelope makes the cloth, Odysseus the net, Hephaestus the chains.
"Here is the deception she conceived in her heart. She set up a great frame in her room, and began to weave a measureless piece of fine cloth. During the day she would weave the large cloth, but at night she would unpick the stitches again." (Od. II 93 ff).
Penelope's gesture, which marks out the temporality of the Odyssey, includes an ambiguity. The time of the gesture is in fact the preparation of a deception. The cloth is enormous, literally 'measureless' (perimetron, that is, it is unreal in character. Two goddesses, experts in deception, weave: Circe and Calypso. Penelope's gesture refers us directly to this ambiguity 'Weave', in fact, refers not only to cloth but also to deception.
Penelope's cloth anticipates the future slaughter of the Suitors. The word 'weave' contains a dual resonance. The cloth brings death. It also has one other characteristic: it is fine. The threads that hold it together are invisible. Therein lies its value. The invisible threads of the cloth are the threads of the fate of the Suitors.
Sister to the cloth is the net. "The net, an invisible mesh of bonds ... can seize anything yet can be seized by nothing."
After Odysseus slaughtered the suitors, he "searched the whole court over carefully, to see if anyone had managed to hide and was still alive, but he found them all lying in the dust and weltering in their blood. They were like fishes which fishermen have taken from the sea in their thousand-eyed nets, and thrown on the beach to lie gasping for water till the heat of the sun makes an end of them." (Od. XXII 381–386)
The net is made of magic threads. Their invisible weave allows the fisherman to deceive the fish. The holes in the weave are actually thousands of eyes lying in wait for their prey. The art of fishing is based on mythological space. Within that space the fate of mortals is in question. Penelope's cloth is magically inverted into Odysseus' net.
This transformation is apparent in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. The tapestry (the cloth) that Clytemnestra lays at the feet of her husband will be transformed into a net of Hades, "a boundless net like a fisherman's." The spreading of the net's threads marks the passage from planned death to actual death.
On Olympus the magic threads are made in a different way. They are of iron, forged by Hephaestus the blacksmith. Their magic is more consistent. The fineness of these threads is miraculous, fashioned as they are from a material less pliable than linen. The finished product is called a 'chain'. But they are very particular chains (very different from the ones used by Zeus in his battle with the Titans).
The episode (Od. VIII 267 ff) is related by the bard Demodocos, and tells of the love between Ares and Aphrodite. Her husband Hephaestus, aware of the betrayal, wove an act of revenge. "He went to his smithy brooding mischief, put his great anvil on its block, and began to forge some chains which none could either unloose or break, in order to catch them. When he had finished his snare, outraged by Ares, he went into his bedroom and festooned the bed-posts all over with chains like cobwebs; he also let many hang down from the great beam of the ceiling. Not even a god could see them, so fine and subtle were they." When Ares and Aphrodite arrived, "they went to the couch to take their rest, whereon they were caught in the toils which cunning Hephaestus had spread for them, and could neither get up nor stir hand or foot, but found too late that they were in a trap."
Ares had tried to deceive Hephaestus, but Hephaestus defeats him because his deception is invisible. His is a weave of chains as fine as cobwebs. So fine are they that no one, not even the gods, could see them. But the material is so resilient that, once someone has fallen into their trap, they can't get out again. Just as the spider grabs the insect indirectly by means of extremely laborious and invisible work, Hephaestus traps his adulterous wife and her immortal lover.
His weave of threads has one other characteristic: it is circular. The circle is disorienting in that it has neither beginning nor end. Encirclement is a deception because, the centre remaining empty, it becomes invisible.
The episode of Hephaestus concludes with the divine and inextinguishable laughter of all the Olympians summoned to witness the scene. And this seems to cancel out its tragic repercussions. Not so. Here the mortals are absent. But, by contrast, human destiny increases its tragic properties. If punishment for the immortals is a farce which provokes laughter, the magic threads, when used for mortals, become an instrument of death.
Sleep is a god, the brother of Death. He reigns over Night. His power extends over men and gods. His weapon is invisible. With it he reaches all the way to Zeus. Being capable of putting Zeus to sleep, he strips him of his ability to see, and hence his omniscience. This is the only deception capable of taking hold of Zeus. He who sees everything closes his eyes. His greatness becomes nothing.
But Sleep's deception does not act in the same way on mortals and immortals. For the latter, Sleep is an invisible bond that puts them hors de combat. Their vigilance vanishes. Like a net, Sleep spreads and envelops everyone in its meshes. Because his sister Death has no power over them, Sleep becomes the most dangerous of the gods. The epithet "sweet" which Homer confers upon him (Il., XIV, 242) underlines his ambiguity. Sleep is an enticing deception.
The relationship between Sleep and the mortals is very different. Penelope says: "But no one can do without sleep for ever. The gods have given it its allotted space in our daily lives, like everything else on this bounteous earth."
In this case the invisible bonds of Sleep have a beneficial outcome. They distract men from their troubles. They allow people to forget for a moment that which cannot be forgotten, because it is part of their essence as mortals: cruel Moira. For them, too, Sleep is a deception.
While in the case of the gods it is Sleep as god that pours its enchanted weapon over their eyelids, in the case of men any god can do the same. Sleep is thus a seeming death. It is a curious fact that only those who can die sleep untroubled.
"Hera (...) you need not fear that any god or man will see us: I shall hide you in a golden mist so dense that even the sun, whose rays give him the keenest sight in the world, will not see us through it."
This is the voice of Zeus. He weaves a deception. Its name is 'mist'. It renders gods, men and things invisible. Not even the Sun, the god who is the sky's eye, can enter it. It is a divine instrument, an act to deceive. It appears frequently in the Homeric poems, to different ends.
It conceals the appearance of the gods. Thus Thetis appears to Achilles: "She rose as it were a mist out of the waves." Thus Apollo comes towards Patroclus "enshrouded in thick mist."
It is sent by the gods to hide a mortal. Paris is rescued from his duel with Menelaus by Aphrodite who "hid him under a cloud of mist." Idaeus is saved by Hephaestus wrapping him in a cloud of mist. Athena hides Odysseus from the Phaeacians by pouring "a thick cloud of mist" around him. When he reaches Ithaca, Athena throws mist around him, to make him unrecognisable.
It is sent by the gods to obscure the sight of mortals. Thus Poseidon pours mist over Achilles' eyes when he is fighting, to save Aeneas.
It is taken away from mortals by the gods, so that they may see better. Thus Athena lifts the mist from the eyes of Diomedes, that he may know both gods and mortals.
Mist thus creates a distance between mortals and immortals. An instrument of separation, even when it brings men closer to a higher condition, it stresses their underlying impotence. Mist, in fact, is the sight of men. It is because of it that they are unable to see everything. Their knowledge is limited. The intervals of light that the gods allow them constitute the chance nature of a knowledge that tragically roots itself within its 'misty vision'.
Souls and Dreams
There is a word in Homer that lies between the visible and the invisible: eidolon (apparition, phantom). Its root is orao (I see) and its meaning is obscure. Two things are defined by this word: the soul and dreams.
Eidolon, like eidos (figure, appearance), is the 'image', but with a hint of unreality. It is the apparition of a thing, its simulacrum. The image, in fact, is what we see of a thing that doesn't exist. It is an absence of being. As such it represents a deception.
After Patroclus is dead, Achilles, grieving, lies down "on the shore of the sounding sea." He falls asleep, and is visited by the "sad spirit (psyche) of Patroclus, as he had been in stature, voice, and the light of his beaming eyes, dressed, too, as he had been dressed in life." Achilles speaks to it: '"Why, true heart, have you come here? Draw closer to me, let us once more throw our arms around one another, and find sad comfort in the sharing of our sorrows.' He opened his arms towards him as he spoke and would have clasped him in them, but there was nothing, and the spirit (psyche) vanished as a vapour, gibbering and whining into the earth. Achilles sprang to his feet, smote his two hands together, and lamented saying, 'Of a truth even in the house of Hades there are ghosts and phantoms (psyche kai eidolon) that have no life in them.'"
What is the essence of this shade? It "has no connection with the thinking and feeling soul." In Homer, psyche is only the soul while it animates man, while it keeps him alive. Separated from the body, it appears as eidolon, phantom, image.
It is this soul-image that Hermes, the messenger-thief, guides to the realm of the dead with his golden rod. A cortege of shades accompanies the mysterious journey from the surface to the depths of the earth. But the soul as image is a deception. Resembling the person from whom it comes, as visible as that person, it has no consistency. Achilles tries to embrace Patroclus' soul, Odysseus that of his mother. Both clutch the void. It no longer has its mind: its memories and sensations are erased. It has no power over the living, it awaits nothing. Parted from time, it wanders in a dark cave as a blind image.
Its contacts with the surface world are broken. It appears to the living only in dreams. The realm of dreams constitutes the bond between mortals and the shades of mortals. "Pindar tells us that the body obeys Death, the almighty. But the image of the living creature lives on ... for it is sleeping when the limbs are active, but when the body is asleep it often reveals the future in a dream."
Dreams, like the soul, are eidola, images. They are sent by the gods. As Penelope falls asleep, and lies on her bed "within the gates of dream," grey-eyed Athena makes "a vision (eidolon) in the likeness of a woman. (...) It came into her room by the hole through which the thong went for pulling the door to, and hovered over her head, and spoke to her."
Excerpted from The Embroidered Armour by Roberto Peregalli. Copyright © 2013 Pushkin Press. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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Meet the Author
Born in Milan in 1961, Roberto Peregalli studied Philosophy and now runs his own architectural firm. He also designs sets for opera and has contributed articles on cinema to Condé Nast publications. The Embroidered Armour is his first book.
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