Archive for the ‘Ancient Greece’ Category

Devil’s Porridge–It’s What’s For Dinner!

By: The Scribe on February, 2012

hemlockBeaver Poison, Musquash Root, Poison Parsley… or maybe you know it by its scientific name, conium maculatum. No? How about this one: Poison Hemlock?

Ah, yes. Hemlock. The deadly plant that killed one of the world’s most famous philosophers. But how much do you really know about this ancient plant? And were you aware that it still exists today, and can be just as deadly?

Hemlock’s fame originates from one of the most famous trials in history—the trial and execution of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Accused and convicted of impiety, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. Accounts of the trial can be read in his student Plato’s dialogues and the historian Xenophon’s Apology of Socrates to the Jury. While some experts still debate how accurate these records are in terms of Socrates’ words as he died, it’s typically agreed that there’s no mistaking the accuracy of the description of how the poison acted once ingested.

Conium maculatum, or hemlock, is an herb that becomes toxic once ingested by humans or most domestic animals. The stems of the plant can grow up to two meters high, and are characterized by bunches of small, white flowers (known as umbels). The poison of the plant is a neurotoxin, which means it disrupts the function of the central nervous system, leading to respiratory failure and death. Muscular paralysis sets in at the feet & legs first, works its way up the body, and eventually paralyses the lungs & heart so that no blood or oxygen can circulate!

socratesThe ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about this poison, because not only did they use it for execution, but some evidence has shown that they may have used it in small doses for other ailments such as arthritis, as a sedative, or to prevent or treat muscular spasms. Unfortunately, this may not always have been a successful venture, because the difference between a helpful dose and a fatal dose is very small.

Either way, when it came to executions, it certainly kept the mess down!

One-Eyed, Two-Tusked, Walking Shaggy People Eater

By: The Scribe on January, 2012

There are few figures from Ancient Greek mythology that have become such a part of mainstream knowledge as the Cyclops. Stories of the one-eyed, man-eating giants have been used to scare children for thousands of years—but it’s entirely possible that the origins of this creature have more basis in reality than scientists could have ever imagined.

In 2003, archaeologists working on the island of Crete uncovered several bones, tusks, and teeth of an enormous prehistoric mammal. Previous to that, additional bones and skulls of the same creature were uncovered elsewhere on the island. The animal is believed to have been an ancestor to today’s modern elephant, but what makes this mammal so special is the single hole in the center of the skull.

Today’s biologists have looked at the skulls and theorized that, in comparison our modern elephant, this ancient creature must have had a very pronounced trunk, much bigger than what we see today. However, to the Ancient Greeks, the skulls of these animals may have provided the foundation for their belief in ancient one-eyed monsters.

Remember, the people popularly referred to as “Ancient Greeks” (typically referencing to 5th-century Athens) had ancestors as well, and they were acutely aware of their heritage. Archaeologist Thomas Strasser from California State University has explained how the Ancient Greeks might have understood their own past: “The idea that mythology explains the natural world is an old idea, you’ll never be able to test the idea in a scientific fashion, but the ancient Greeks were farmers and would certainly come across fossil bones like this and try to explain them. With no concept of evolution, it makes sense that they would reconstruct them in their minds as giants, monsters, sphinxes, and so on.”

Scientists estimate that the Deinotherium giganteum, or “really huge, terrible beast”, stood around 15 feet tall, with 4.5 foot long tusks, making it one of the largest mammals who ever walked the Earth. They lived during the Miocene and Pliocene eras before their extinction, roaming Europe, Asia, and Africa. Much like today’s elephants, this creature was likely a strong swimmer, and would have reached Crete by swimming from Turkey during a period of lower sea levels.

As for the Ancient Greeks, they likely found the skulls and explained their existence as best they could. One of the best-known examples of Cyclops in mythology comes from Homer’s epic poem (The Odyssey) about the Trojan War hero Odysseus’ 10-year journey home after the war: When Odysseus  and his men were trapped in a cave with a Cyclops—who started eating Odysseus’ men—they fooled the giant by getting him drunk, stabbing him in the eye, and sneaking out of the cave by tying themselves underneath the giant’s sheep as they were let out to pasture.

Image: Dwarf elephant skull, copyright D. Finnan/AMNH

Oldest Decipherable European Text found in Greece

By: The Scribe on July, 2011

imageA discovery made in Iklaina Greece has turned out to be the oldest example of decipherable text in Europe. A dig has unearthed many Mycenaean artifacts including a piece of writing made by a Greek-speaking Mycenaean scribe.

Other Mycenaean artifacts were found at the same dig. They included parts of a palace, murals, giant terrace walls and even proof of a drainage system. The Mycenaeans had a very advanced civilization and were able to dominate much of Greece between 1600 BCE and 1100 BCE. The civilization became legendary after Homer mentioned them in his work, the Ilead, which is an account of their war with Troy.

The tablet measures 1 inch tall by 1.5 inches wide. It was written using a writing system known as Linear B. This system was made up of 87 different signs that represented syllables rather than individual letters. The system was usually used to record financial matters that may have been of interest to the ruling elite at the time. This holds true for the pottery fragment that was discovered. Archaeologists have been able to determine that the syllable appearing on the fragment had to do with manufacturing although it is unknown what the rest of the piece would have said in its entirety.

There is also text on the back of the piece as well. This piece of writing includes a list of names as well as numbers. Archaeologists believe that this may have been part of a property list. There are a number of reasons why this find is so big.

The first reason is that the tablets were only meant to last a season and were therefore not made out of clay that was fired. They were dried in the sun and this made them extremely fragile. Because they were so brittle very few of the tablets have been found. They usually turn up in major palaces rather than at digs like the one at Iklaina.

It was believed that the tablet was only preserved as a fluke of luck. It appears as though the tablet was thrown into a fire pit where garbage was being burned. The heat from the burning garbage fired the clay and made it durable enough to last for thousands of years.image

It is important to remember that while this is the oldest known sample of writing in Europe it is not the earliest known sample of writing that has been discovered to date. The oldest samples include pieces found in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The writing that has been found in those areas dates back to as early as 3,000 BCE. Scientists are hoping to be able to find evidence of an earlier writing system known as Linear A that may have been related to Egyptian hieroglyphics. Scientists and archaeologists have been unable to translate any of the Linear A writings that have been found to date.

Scientists are also hoping that the Linear B writing will give information on how Greek kingdoms may have been organized.

Theseus and the Six Entrances to the Underworld- Part 4

By: The Scribe on June, 2011

Theseus was almost to Athens. He had been travelling around the Saronic Gulf instead of taking the easier method of traveling by boat. His partially divine nature had given him the ability to defeat many of the bandits and monsters that he encountered along the way. He had avoided being torn in two by Sinis, beaten with a club by Periphetes and had managed to kill an enormous pig that had been killing other travelers. He had also avoided being tossed off a cliff near the town imageof Megara.

He still had a ways to go, however, before he could reach the city and claim his birthright as one of Aegeus’ sons. He still had two more enemies to defeat before he could reach Athens and meet his father.

At Eleusis, an important religious site and the location of the Eleusinian Mysteries Theseus met up with King Cercyon. Cercyon was extremely strong. Some legends say that he was also a son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. Other legends state that he was the son of Branchus and the grandson of Apollo. Cercyon challenged Theseus to a wrestling match. In the past, Cercyon had always managed to defeat his opponents and would kill them after he had defeated them. But he had met his match in Theseus. Instead of being defeated and slain, Theseus was able to defeat Cercyon and killed him after the wrestling match was over.

After defeating Cercyon at Eleusis, Theseus continued along the route to Athens. He met the final enemy that he would have to defeat on the plain of Eleusis. His final battle was with Procrustes. Procrustes was also known as “The Stretcher”. image

Procrustes was a rather nasty man. He would force passers-by to lay down in an iron bed. He would then measure them against the bed. If they were too tall for it he would cut off their legs. If they were too short to fit in the bed he would stretch them out until they fit. Of course, nobody ever fit the bed. This was because Procrustes actually had two beds. One was shorter and one was longer. Nobody would ever fit the beds. Theseus defeated Procrustes and forced him to lie down in his own bed. When Procrustes did not fit, Theseus cut off his legs and then decapitated him using Procrustes’ own axe.

With these enemies defeated, Theseus could continue on to Athens and meet up with his father, Aegeus. Instead of immediately announcing his parentage Theseus decided to lay low. His father was suspicious of who this powerful young stranger was. Aegeus’ wife Medea recognized him and was not happy that he was there. She worried that Aegeus’ son would supplant her own son as ruler of the kingdom.

Medea decided that she wanted Theseus to be killed. She set him the task of capturing the Marathonian Bull. She thought that he would likely die in the attempt and she would no longer have to worry about him taking the throne away from her son Medus. Theseus left on this task and Medea thought she could sit back and relax. But could she?

Tomorrow: What really happened with Theseus and the Marathonian Bull.

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