Bacchae, Euripides’ last gift

In Greek ancient history 406 B.C. is remembered for the battle of Arginusae and the consequent fretly taken death sentence issued against six Athenian generals who, albeit having won the combat, did not rescue the crews of some ships hit during the fight – allegedly because of the adverse weather conditions; a brutal and unreasonable episode that symbolises a remarkable change, the descending fate of the Attic overestimated supremacy and consequently the early days of the sunset of the ancient Greek civilisation. In my opinion though, the year 406 B.C. coincidentally marks one of the most important events of antiquity, impacting the future development of the western thought, as both Aeschylus and Euripides died and with them the Attic tragedy.

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The death of Euripides, a true and profound thinker, an incredibly deep analyser of human nature, capable to discover the anxieties of man’s soul, an acute and often obscure witness of the changing times, coincides perhaps with the beginning of our own era. The dawn of a new function attributed to drama – and, maybe, art in general – the birth of a new theatre conceived and considered as pure aesthetic experience, just like a seeming Spiegel of life. What is represented on stage is not aiming at any profound touching, conversion or reflection but to mere pleasure: art as aesthetic per se.

Yet in 405 B.C. Euripides’ echo still lingers on his contemporaries in a tragedy represented abroad, in Amphipolis, where he had found refuge under the protection of King Archelaus: Bacchae.

Bacchae is to be considered the very last message of an exhausted and old Euripides, misapprehended and undervalued by his generation, and discomforted by the events he had witnessed and by being misunderstood when he so generously had tried to give us clues to interpret our human condition, to enlighten us by tossing us a key to endure the sense of life. Euripides acknowledges the precariousness and uncertainty of being and firmly admonishes all those that are either unaware or disregard their status of being human and consequently frail and not at all faultless. He condemns the spreading excess of self-confidence of mankind and consequently discourages those ambitions that overestimate human abilities, both as individuals and even worse when gathered in a crowd; the same crowd that had sentenced to death the generals of Arginusae, and the very same assembly that will shortly afterwards sentence to death Socrates.

In Bacchae, Dionysus, arrives in Thebe in disguise, in order to affirm his questioned status of God and to prevent the sacrilegious abolition his rituals and ceremonies:

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land
Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she
Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand
Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semele,
Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,
I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan
Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side
I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,
The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great
Faint wreaths of fire undying–as the hate
Dies not, that Hera held for Semele
.

Dionysus allows himself to be captured and chained by King Pentheus who is determined to stop the God’s lascivious cult in his πολις, notwithstanding the admonishing wise words of Teiresias, that sounds like a preach coming from Euripides himself:

ταν λβ τις τν λγων νρ σοφς
καλς φορμς, ο μγ ργον ε λγειν·
σ δ ετροχον μν γλσσαν ς φρονν χεις,
ν τος λγοισι δ οκ νεισ σοι φρνες.
θρσει δ δυνατς κα λγειν οἷός τ νρ
κακς πολτης γγνεται νον οκ χων.

[Good words my son, come easily, when he
That speaks is wise, and speaks but for the right.
Else come they never! Swift are thine, and bright
As though with thought, yet have no thought at all]

Pentheus saturated by his over-confidence also doubts about Dionysus divine origins, and therefore he blasphemously dares to ill-treat him and at times he even mocks him:

Marry, a fair shape for a woman’s eye,
Sir stranger! And thou seek’st no more, I ween!
Long curls, withal! That shows thou ne’er hast been
A wrestler!–down both cheeks so softly tossed
And winsome! And a white skin! It hath cost
Thee pains, to please thy damsels with this white
And red of cheeks that never face the light!
(omissis…)
First, shear that delicate curl that dangles there.

The punishment of Pentheus’ arrogance and overriding self-confidence undergoes a long gestation, a stratagem used surely to enhance the taste of vengeance of Dionysus – who plays like the cat with the mouse – but mainly this ploy is used by the author to divulge how useless can be any human design and planning if one ponders and realises how many are the uncontrollable variables that characterise any event and action in our life. To add drama Dionysus prefers to have Pentheus own mother, Agave, to unintentionally perform his revenge: during the Baccahe ritual the God induces Pentheus to disguise himself in woman attire and spy the forbidden lubricous ceremony: the poor semi-unconscious mother slays Pentheus thinking he is a lion and triumphantly will show her son’s head. Dionysus will lead the epilogue explaining and stating his supremacy and how feeble and disillusioned humans can be.

Wise words are spoken by Euripides who borrows again old Teiresias’ voice and perfectly stigmatised the human limits that should never be forgotten:

οδν σοφιζμεσθα τοσι δαμοσιν.
πατρους παραδοχς, ς θ μλικας χρν
κεκτμεθ, οδες ατ καταβαλε λγος,
οδ ε δι κρων τ σοφν ηρηται φρενν.
ρε τις ς τ γρας οκ ασχνομαι,
μλλων χορεειν κρτα κισσσας μν;
ο γρ διρηχ θες, οτε τν νον
ε χρ χορεειν οτε τν γερατερον,
λλ ξ πντων βολεται τιμς χειν
κοινς, διαριθμν δ οδν αξεσθαι θλει

[Or prove our wit on Heaven's high mysteries?
Not thou and I! That heritage sublime
Our sires have left us, wisdom old as time,
No word of man, how deep soe'er his thought
And won of subtlest toil, may bring to naught.
Aye, men will rail that I forgot my years,
To dance and wreath with ivy these white hairs;
What recks it? Seeing the God no line hath told
To mark what man shall dance, or young or old;
But craves his honours from mortality
All, no man marked apart; and great shall be!]

Thus Euripides opens the gates to the beginning of a rather inglorious age – which perhaps is still ours –where actual values, sense of balance and true dimensions have become inhuman, out of reach, and steady refuge in the past cannot be answer. The unleashed overconfidence in human possibilities is of course the key of progress and has undoubtedly brought many technical and medical achievements, nevertheless it is undeniable that has also contaminated the human relationship with the environment and continuously impacts several – if not all – the actual aspects that pertain to the sense of living itself. Euripides unquestionably performed a comprehensive analysis and achieved a bright and lucid precocious diagnosis of both the essence and the discomforts of being, but unfortunately he left us without any therapy…

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Reason and emotion in Lucretius

Too often the voice of poets is misunderstood, underestimated, neglected, mistreated and even forgotten. I guess it comes together with the gift of sensitivity, a sort of a “side effect” of talent. Yet Lucretius is in my opinion one of the most marvellous examples of how poetry, which I consider the utmost human expression of feelings and emotions, can survive and resplend, against any adversity or fate and thus be timeless. Clearly I am talking about true poetry and not the one that, alas, too frequently outcomes from many practised rhyme-artisans or worse self (or press) alleged artists.

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Because of his De Rerum Natura Lucretius was ere ignored, then hated and fought and finally deserted and forsaken even by his late contemporaries. He has been the object of such an aversion that actually it is still a mystery if he really was a drug addicted and/or half mentally instable; and even the circumstances of his death – supposedly suicide – most likely will never be ascertained. His poem is now widely judged a fundamental treatise in Latin language on the Epicurean philosophical doctrine: its six books space with scientific tone and marvellously conceived hexameters on themes that range from the universe, atoms and matter to time/space and the nature and mortality of body, mind and soul. It cannot be denied that De Rerum Natura contains many ideas that were in those days judged too reactionary and that it suggests and stimulates alarming revolutionary reflections and behaviours.

The deceiving role of religion, which Lucretius to a certain extent considered mere superstition, in misguiding and influencing all mankind actions procured him enemies within the Church:

“Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum”

His radical approach marred his image and reputation for a long time. For instance St. Jerome stated that Lucretius was able to write his poem only during his little intervalla insanie; Tertullian and Lactantius, convinced Christians, will mention him just and solely in order to point out a bad example for nobody to follow:

“This is where materialism drives to: folly and suicide”

On the political side Lucretius firmly denounces the worthless rush for power and its consequences: war, political struggles, everyday compromises and the vast development of the rooted habit of deception, the diffusion of false prophets such as monarchs, politicians, middlemen and priests. Small wonder that he was almost immediately disregarded… I wish to underline though, that in that age some poets chose to live aside of reality, in a sort of ivory tower, unengaged in any social and political activity; others flung themselves in libelling against depravation and corruption. Lucretius instead chose deliberately to devote himself and his talent to fight not simply the current political establishment and its decadence, but the whole social status quo, he was not afraid to point the finger and contest the commonly accepted philosophy and religion; he endeavoured to unveil all the false myths and the misleading ideologies.

Apart from his determined and revolutionary courageous approach, Lucretius mostly impresses and conquers me because he reveals in his verses to be a deep and attentive observer of human nature. His entire composition is permeated with hints that clearly manifest his remarkable ability to understand and depict feelings, sensations and emotions: joy, fear, amazement, distress and love. As to this latter Lucretius vividly describes and enumerates and comments in details all those contrasting feelings and the turmoil of passion and distress that lovers feel. And he achieves this representation masterly, efficiently and most of all timelessly.

Lucretius perfectly describes and reproaches that reckless and distressed state of mind that often lovers go through whenever they fear or simply feel unsure and causelessly prepare them for the worst to happen. This restless attitude meanwhile keeps them away from their business, their social life and friends and forces them to be more and more secluded and alone:

inde redit rabies eadem et furor ille revisit,
cum sibi quod cupiant ipsi contingere quaerunt,
nec reperire malum id possunt quae machina vincat.
usque adeo incerti tabescunt volnere caeco.
Adde quod absumunt viris pereuntque labore,
adde quod alterius sub nutu degitur aetas,
languent officia atque aegrotat fama vacillans.

The description of jealousy is neatly written and reported with efficacy: a treacherous gesture, a misdirected smile or an inappropriate word will suffice to spark discouragement or rage in the disappointed lover:

pocula crebra, unguenta, coronae, serta parantur,
ne quiquam, quoniam medio de fonte leporum
surgit amari aliquid, quod in ipsis floribus angat,
aut cum conscius ipse animus se forte remordet
desidiose agere aetatem lustrisque perire,
aut quod in ambiguo verbum iaculata reliquit,
quod cupido adfixum cordi vivescit ut ignis,
aut nimium iactare oculos aliumve tueri
quod putat in voltuque videt vestigia risus.

Lucretius depicts clearly all those reminders such as images, sounds and odours that all lovers normally use to rely on in order to “survive” during the absence of their soul-mate, when they are distant and far away:

Haec Venus est nobis; hinc autemst nomen Amoris,
hinc illaec primum Veneris dulcedinis in cor
stillavit gutta et successit frigida cura;
nam si abest quod ames, praesto simulacra tamen sunt
illius et nomen dulce obversatur ad auris.

Moreover in addition to the perfect description of these common scenes from everyday life, he wisely suggests to rationalise and to give a fair right importance to things, persons and events:

at lacrimans exclusus amator limina saepe
floribus et sertis operit postisque superbos
unguit amaracino et foribus miser oscula figit;
quem si iam ammissum venientem offenderit aura
una modo, causas abeundi quaerat honestas
et meditata diu cadat alte sumpta querella
stultitiaque ibi se damnet, tribuisse quod illi
plus videat quam mortali concedere par est
.

In dispensing his advice Lucretius admonishes and alerts men, following the classic misogynist attitude of ancient Greeks and Romans, to always beware of the insidious behaviour of women:

nec Veneres nostras hoc fallit; quo magis ipsae
omnia summo opere hos vitae poscaenia celant,
quos retinere volunt adstrictosque esse in amore,
ne quiquam, quoniam tu animo tamen omnia possis
protrahere in lucem atque omnis inquirere risus
et, si bello animost et non odiosa, vicissim
praetermittere [et] humanis concedere rebus.
Nec mulier semper ficto suspirat amore,
quae conplexa viri corpus cum corpore iungit
et tenet adsuctis umectans oscula labris;
nam facit ex animo saepe et communia quaerens
gaudia sollicitat spatium decurrere amoris
.

To a certain extent Lucretius, wishing his readers to reach the ataraxia, a peace of mind perhaps humanly unreachable, but to which every one is supposed to tend, can be considered the first poet trying to describe and somehow solve the mal d’être both social and individual that I guess accompanies human beings from the dawn of civilisation. And he definitely succeeds with his splendid verses:

Carmina sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti
exitio terras cum dabit una dies [Ovid]

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Odysseus and the Women

Odysseus is much probably the most famous of Homer’s heroes and I am inclined to believe that it was also the author’s favourite character. He concentrates many talents and represents how far a gifted human can go, sometimes regardless – as well as sometimes thanks – to the help of the Gods.

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Many aspects of Ulysses personality and behaviour have been long and deeply pondered by numerous authoritative scholars: his temper, his shrewdness, his eloquence and his courage on the battlefield, just to name some. Odysseus multifaceted and intricate relationships with the women he met during his wandering is another perspective through which is interesting to understand the personage as well as the age into which he was living.

Clearly from this standpoint the first place is occupied by his loyal and wise wife, Penelope; nonetheless several others will try to win his heart and have him for good. Some of them will even succeed in this hard intent, albeit always temporarily.

A very courteous behaviour characterises the relation between Odysseus and Nausicaa: the very young daughter of King Alcinous. When she finds him shipwrecked, dirty and naked, Odysseus shows the utmost respect for the young innocent lady and her accompanying companions:

To them the king: “No longer I detain
Your friendly care: retire, ye virgin train!
Retire, while from my wearied limbs I lave
The foul pollution of the briny wave.
Ye gods! since this worn frame refection know,
What scenes have I surveyed of dreadful view!
But, nymphs, recede! sage chastity denies
To raise the blush, or pain the modest eyes.”

Then, after conquering her trust, Odysseus with sweetest words, swiftly wins also her heart and devotion:

If from the skies a goddess, or if earth
(Imperial virgin) boast thy glorious birth,
To thee I bend! If in that bright disguise
Thou visit earth, a daughter of the skies,
Hail, Dian, hail! the huntress of the groves
So shines majestic, and so stately moves,
So breathes an air divine! But if thy race
Be mortal, and this earth thy native place,
Blest is the father from whose loins you sprung,
Blest is the mother at whose breast you hung.
Blest are the brethren who thy blood divide,
To such a miracle of charms allied:
Joyful they see applauding princes gaze,
When stately in the dance you swim the harmonious maze.
But blest o’er all, the youth with heavenly charms,
Who clasps the bright perfection in his arms!
Never, I never view’d till this blast hour
Such finish’d grace! I gaze, and I adore!

Regardless the young girl’s dreams, Odysseus will eventually leave her island to go back to his Ithaca:

Oh heaven! in my connubial hour decree
This man my spouse, or such a spouse as he!

Odysseus can be also pitiless with regards to women, as it happens after his return with the punishment of twelve maids and other female members of his household for having betrayed him and slept with the suitors/invaders. He orders that they will have to clean the room where the hero’s vengeance has taken place and then after them having performed this duty, his son Telemachus will hang them to death:

Now to dispose the dead, the care remains
To you, my son, and you, my faithfull swains;
The offending females to that task we doom,
To wash, to scent, and purify the room

Calypso, a minor Goddess, succeeds instead in conquering Odysseus using all her powers: beauty, authority. Besides how could Odysseus refuse her avances and resist to her beauty superior even to Penelope’s:

Loved and adored, O goddess as thou art,
Forgive the weakness of a human heart.
Though well I see thy graces far above
The dear, though mortal, object of my love,
Of youth eternal well the difference know,
And the short date of fading charms below;

But after seven years, Ulysses, in spite of her profuse offers to stay with her for good and even to become immortal, wishes to leave the island where he was kept unwillingly – at least so he protests – albeit, I presume his “reluctant” seven years on the isle of Ogygia must have been not that unendurable…:

Met by the goddess there with open arms,
She bribed my stay with more than human charms;
Nay, promised, vainly promised, to bestow
Immortal life, exempt from age and woe;
But all her blandishments successless prove,
To banish from my breast my country’s love.
I stay reluctant seven continued years,
And water her ambrosial couch with tears
,

Circe uses all her magic powers to subdue Odysseus, as she already has easily succeeded with his crew. Nevertheless soon she comes to the conclusion that the hero is not an ordinary man and consequently decides to change her tactic into something more attracting and appealing…:

What art thou? say! from whence, from whom you came?
O more than human! tell thy race, thy name.
Amazing strength, these poisons to sustain!
Not mortal thou, nor mortal is thy brain.
Or art thou he, the man to come (foretold
By Hermes, powerful with the wand of gold),
The man from Troy, who wander’d ocean round;
The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,
Ulysses? Oh! thy threatening fury cease;
Sheathe thy bright sword, and join our hands in peace!
Let mutual joys our mutual trust combine,
And love, and love-born confidence, be thine.

Again in Odysseus reason prevails. He perceives the peril of her charm. He succeeds in seducing Circe and after obtaining freedom for his crew, and after enjoying her favours for quite a while he set sails – again homeward bound.

In each occasion Ulysses some how lets himself go, he releases himself and consequently emotions prevail on reason, but this happens only to a certain extent and only for a short period of time. He well knows the risks a man runs when he abandons himself to the irrationality of passions, lowering his defences and forgetting any usual and wise precaution.

So I guess even the greatest of the heroes is afraid of something: his own feelings, which makes him human after all…

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The foundation of Cyrene: legends and reality

Cyrene is definitely the main Greek African colony, located on the North Libyan coast. The old city and its area, Cyrenaica, are still suggestive archaeological sites that unfortunately only partly treasure their Greek great past. Myths and legends, as usually happens in any Greek colonisation, accompany its foundation which most likely took place in the beginning of the VII century B.C.

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Herodotus reports in this specific case two different versions and namely the tradition of the mother land (the island of Thera) and the legend told by the settlers and then inhabitants of Cyrene. The two stories only partly coincide because naturally the latter has more emphasis and mythical suggestion than the former.

“…This is the report of the Theraians; and for the remainder of the account from this point onwards the Theraians are in agreement with the men of Kyrene: from this point onwards, I say, since in what concerns Battos the Kyrenians tell by no means the same tale as those of Thera…”

According to the inhabitants of Thera, a former Doric colony itself, after neglecting the Delphian oracle who had suggested the colonisation of Libya, the island was struck by drought and famine for seven years, consequently the population prepared an expedition of two ships of approximately 150 people under the command of Battus and guided by a Crete sailor Corobios who was acquainted with the North African coasts. The settlers were chosen among the whole seven districts of Thera, they were male, and one each two brothers for each family.

the Pythian prophetess gave answer bidding him [Grinnos the king of Thera] found a city in Libya … so far at that time: but afterwards when he had come away they were in difficulty about the saying of the Oracle, neither having any knowledge of Libya, in what part of the earth it was, nor venturing to send a colony to the unknown. Then after this for seven years there was no rain in Thera, and in these years all the trees in their island were withered up excepting one: and when the Theraians consulted the Oracle, the Pythian prophetess alleged this matter of colonising Libya to be the cause. …they sent messengers to Crete, to find out whether any of the Cretans or of the sojourners in Crete had ever come to Libya. … they met with a fisher for purple named Corobios, who said that he had been carried away by winds and had come to Libya, and in Libya to the island of Platea. This man they persuaded by payment of money and took him to Thera, and from Thera there set sail men to explore, at first not many in number; and Corobios having guided them to this same island of Platea. …The Theraians meanwhile, when they arrived at Thera… reported that they had colonised an island on the coast of Libya: and the men of Thera resolved to send one of every two brothers selected by lot and men besides taken from all the regions of the island, which are seven in number; and further that Battos should be both their leader and their king. Thus then they sent forth two fifty-oared galleys to Platea.

According to the inhabitants of Cyrene the colonisation has a rather more emphatically mythical origin and I daresay its overture sounds like a fairy tale…:

“There is in Crete a city called Oäxos in which one Etearchos became king, who when he had a daughter, whose mother was dead, named Phronime, took to wife another woman notwithstanding. She having come in afterwards, thought fit to be a stepmother to Phronime in deed as well as in name, giving her evil treatment and devising everything possible to her hurt; and at last she brings against her a charge of lewdness and persuades her husband that the truth is so. He then being convinced by his wife, devised an unholy deed against the daughter: for there was in Oäxos one Themison, a merchant of Thera, whom Etearchos took to himself as a guest-friend and caused him to swear that he would surely serve him in whatsoever he should require: and when he had caused him to swear this, he brought and delivered to him his daughter and bade him take her away and cast her into the sea. Themison then was very greatly vexed at the deceit practised in the matter of the oath, and he dissolved his guest-friendship and did as follows, that is to say, he received the girl and sailed away, and when he got out into the open sea, to free himself from blame as regards the oath which Etearchos had made him swear, he tied her on each side with ropes and let her down into the sea, and then drew her up and came to Thera. After that, Polymnestos, a man of repute among the Theraians, received Phronime from him and kept her as his concubine; and in course of time there was born to him from her a son with an impediment in his voice and lisping, to whom, as both Theraians and Kyrenians say, was given the name Battos, but I think that some other name was then given, and he was named Battos instead of this after he came to Libya, taking for himself this surname from the oracle which was given to him at Delphi and from the rank which he had obtained; for the Libyans call a king Battos: and for this reason, I think, the Pythian prophetess in her prophesying called him so, using the Libyan tongue, because she knew that he would be a king in Libya.”

Apart from these legends that inspired the expedition, by reading Herodotus we can infer that the colonisation itself took place in a sort of paradigmatic process that strongly reminds the one of Pithecussa, Dichearchias, Cuma. The starting point is the consultation of the oracle in Delphi and the choice of the settlers and their leader (and a scout if needed), then the first settlement took places on an island off coast – Platea (probably the present Al Marakib): an island is always considered a safer way to approach a unknown area. Then after having somehow found a sort of agreement with the indigenous population or simply after having gained more confidence with the territory, the settlers left the island and occupied a safe nearby area on the continent – Aziris (probably currently Al Tamimi).

“…they made a settlement in Libya itself at a spot opposite the island, called Aziris, which is enclosed by most fair woods on both sides and a river flows by it on one side.”

Afterwards, probably under the pressure of the Libyan population, or because of the growth of the settlers’ number, or searching for a better and definitive location, they moved westward nearby a spring “Kyre” to the actual Cyrene (in the present valley of Jebel Akhdar) in those days a rainy and cultivable area.

“In this spot they dwelt for six years; and in the seventh year the Libyans persuaded them to leave it, making request and saying that they would conduct them to a better region. So the Libyans led them from that place making them start towards evening; and in order that the Hellenes might not see the fairest of all the regions as they passed through it, they led them past it by night, having calculated the time of daylight: and this region is called Irasa. Then having conducted them to the so-called spring of Apollo, they said, “Hellenes, here is a fit place for you to dwell, for here the heaven is pierced with holes.”

The information that derives from Herodotus can also be combined with an important original epigraphic text that celebrates the settlement of Cyrene. Actually it is rather amazing to notice how this ancient marble inscription matches with the narration of the Greek historian: according to the inscription Apollo has prophesised that Battus and the people of Thera will colonise Libya. The settlers were to be chosen as one male for each family plus any free citizen who would have voluntarily joined the expedition. They were to found the colony and equally share the new land. Thera gave to the expedition five years to achieve the settlement; only after that term had elapsed and in case the settlers would have not succeeded they would have been welcomed back to their homeland and reinstated in their properties and rights. Nobody of the chosen was allowed, for any reason whatsoever to withdraw or escape from the expedition. He and those who would have helped or hidden him would have been put to death. What may appear remarkable is the crude severity of the punishment for those who contravened this decision of the πολις, although it ought to be kept in mind that in that age the overpopulation and the consequent starvation were a real matter of survival. Thus the colonization process was taken as a necessity and very seriously as the marble inscription, which includes also the oath that preceded the expedition, clearly shows:

“On these conditions they made an agreement, those who stayed there and those who sailed on the colonial expedition, and they put curses on those who should transgress these conditions and not abide by them… they molded wax images and burnt them up while they uttered the following imprecation, all of them, having come together, men and women, boys and girls: “May he who does not abide by these oaths but transgresses them, melt away and dissolve like the images – himself, his seed and his property”.

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