The King of Asine

By Harriet Rix

All morning long we looked around the citadel

starting from the shaded side there where the sea

green and without lustre — breast of a slain peacock —

received us like time without an opening in it.

George Seferis [trans. Keeley and Sherrard]

 

I would never have remembered Asine were it not for Pamela. She gave me that volume of Seferis with the Greek on one leaf touching the English on the other, the two worlds running in parallel and never meeting until I wandered over the walls, sat with the sun burning my neck and shoulder, and read about the King of Asine and his city. The poet was as far away as Homer’s dim and distant figure, both viewed the wrong way down a telescope and layered without perspective. 

Asine, Homer, Seferis, were scratched together onto the two-dimensional past as relics from the age of heroes. Unlike the heroes, bombastic charlatans seething with ego, the King of Asine is a mystery. When Seferis highlighted Homer’s elision, did he know how distant I would find him, and how he would become, for me, an adjunct to the ruined cyclopean wall which is notable only for a single name?

There are certain people with a magnetism, impossible to ignore. And then there are the elided figures; those who lurk at the edge of letters or books, a touch on the grass. They travel with people rather than travelling themselves, and they are not at the centre of the picture. Perhaps they held the camera? 

Traditionally the elided figure is female, but there are men too — and the quantum flip between the known and the unknown leads us to analyse the uncertain ground of how people are defined. Pamela was nervous of being elided I think; worker at Bletchley, chatelaine of Petworth, expeditioner among the Bakhtiari. Perhaps she became effaced even as she connected people around her. Glue is most effective when transparent, and these careful handwritten notes, long-distance telephone calls, the glue of society, all take time. She sent me to stay with Patrick Leigh Fermor in Kardamyli, she was my introduction to Seferis and Cavafy, Byron and Nikos Kazantzakis, but she would never feature in my thoughts of Greece. She spun the web, and then others came in and filled it.

Now a facebook message comes in and it is Vere sending through two pictures from Edinburgh, a typewritten translation with mistakes corrected in ink, never published. Barely seen, the last two stanzas missing.

All morning we wandered gazing round the castle

Beginning from the shadowside, where the sea

Green and reflectionless – a slain peacock-throat –

Welcomed us, immaculate as the weather.

[trans. Patrick Leigh Fermor]

How was I to know, when I first basked in Asine, reading carefully printed words which were meant to be shared, that the poem would come back ten years later through a friend and catch me in a human web where the appeal had been impersonal stone and paper? Vere had found this translation in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s archive and it was manuscript: personal, unpublished, a rendering by a man now dead. 

Emptiness that follows us everywhere

And the bird that flew away last winter

With broken wing

A hiding place of life

And the young woman that ran away to play

With the dogs’ teeth of the summer 

[trans. Patrick Leigh Fermor]

 

*

 

I was living with Andy Agoropoulos, a man who kept sheep in the foothills of Mount Parnassus, and lived in a cold iron house that smelt mineral, of sour washing powder. I went with the sheep as they followed their nibbling top lips along the streams and through the anemones of the oak-scrub woodland. It was only when a ploughed field, or wheat shoots, tempted them as one up onto the gentle curves of the arable like so many brown fluffy maggots that I had to impose my own will on that flowing herd and rush at them with a stick, and an “έξω μαλάκα!”. 

 

The size of my Iliad fitted well into my coat pocket and the pace of the Iliad fitted well with the sheep; the flowers marking progress fell apart after each book. Pamela had written to her old friend about me, had received an answer, and so I rang on my mobile from Parnassus, lying among anemones with bright red petals and gloss-black hearts. “Harriet Rix? Never heard of her!” he said. “Pamela? Well, she’s a very old friend.”

“Come as soon as you can”, he said, and so when the snow had withdrawn most of the way up the summit of Parnassus, Andy drove me over the mountains to Delphi in an uninsured white pick-up truck with the sheep’s milk. A farm, however organic and run along Marxist, hippy principles, is a brutal place, and it was a relief to be out in true country, where life and death are decently cloaked. 

The mountains were wild and wooded, with stripes of limestone, deep red serpentine, occasional hanging meadows brown with snow-melt. We seemed to go impossibly fast round those wild bends, spun like a plate on a god’s arthritic fingers, clinging to the tarmac by inertia alone, Andy somehow preventing the milk in the back from flowing out of the tubs and down the precipitous cliffs. When, leafing through the dictionary, I said that the roads were good and smooth so there was no fear that the milk would curdle before we reached the feta factory (our destination in Itea) Andy said “Ha! Those pigs of politicians are fat with fines – they sell Greece to the EU, and in return we get a few miles of stone and tar. The police fined me for speeding, and when I refused to pay they took away my licence! Bastards!” Andy was cynical. God how cynical. The police were corrupt, the government were fools, no-one published proper poetry any more. There were no philosophers worth reading after Plato. 

And the soul that sought and screamed through the underworld

And the country carried away like a plane-tree leaf by the sun’s cataract

With antique monuments and sorrows of today.

[trans. Patrick Leigh Fermor]

 

“Come as soon as you can”, he had said, and so from Delphi I hurried on past Patras and Olympia and the rivulet-bisected plains of Sparta, through budding plane-trees in their first immaculate light green. I found the bus from Kalamata to Kardamyli and walked in the heat along the side of the hill to his house, and then was far too early, and tortured by nerves and shame so that I couldn’t sit quiet on the lucid pebbles of the cove, but had to skirt the sea and scramble along the side of the promontory beyond it.

Veins of rock dropped down from high above,

twisted vines, naked, many-branched, coming alive

at the water’s touch, while the eye following them

struggled to escape the monotonous see-saw motion,

growing weaker and weaker.

On the sunny side a long empty beach

and the light striking diamonds on the huge walls.

[trans. Patrick Leigh Fermor]

Now this scene has become confused with another promontory near Marathon, where ten years later the path was immobilised by a thousand webs, an enormous spider on each. Everything was wreathed, even the short young pines were covered with great silky webs, trapping the marching menace of pine processionary moth. Vere had driven over the mountains from Athens, and my father had given us the directions. A promontory next to Marathon; follow the road beyond the marsh, cross the bridge, then go just a little bit further up the road, park in the wider part by the telegraph pole, and a steep path will head up to the right off the road towards the headland. You’ll find it there.

And the poet lingering gazes at the stones and wonders,

Does he exist

In those ruined lines and ridges, these hollows and these curves

Does he exist

Here where the paths of the rain cross, of the wind and decay.

Do they exist, 

The face’s movement, affection’s shape

Of those who so strangely doubted in our life

Of those who lingered, wave-shadows, and thoughts with the limitlessness of the sea.

[trans. Patrick Leigh Fermor]

It was a place of stillness, none of the furious busyness of Velazquez’s Arachne, spinning, weaving, weft and warp flying in all directions in her workshop in Colophon, famed for its production of purple cloth. The path was narrow, overgrown by thorny scrub and steep, sometimes bare limestone, easy enough to climb. Had my parents really come here? But we climbed up over the stone, and there we did find them, suddenly they were everywhere. The first was in the middle of the path. It was about ten centimetres high, and the capsule was small. Then we scrambled up another of those big limestone slabs and we were really among them. Tall, straight, sometimes double-headed, growing in twos, threes, fives. Too many to count. And surrounding them, webs of scalloped, serried silk come in and out of focus, unsolved.

 

those who remained the shadow of waves and thoughts with the sea’s boundlessness

or perhaps no, nothing is left but the weight

the nostalgia for the weight of a living existence 

[trans. Keeley and Sherrard]

 

Nostalgia for that living shape ran through ancient Greek literature, and settled in Ovid’s elegant scoop of metamorphoses. Counterintuitively, it is in these intangible possibilities that women are least elided. Among the archaic pot-makers of Crete, women were the finest craftsmen, and that was forgotten, though their creations are not. In the myth of Arachne, Athena is trounced in open competition by a cloth depicting her father’s love affairs. She doesn’t transform the girl directly, you remember, but tears up the tapestry weaving the ugly truth of a god’s misdeeds into beauty, in a cold, vengeful rage. Arachne has boasted that she owes nothing to the goddess; now, “out of shame and terror” says Ovid, she hangs herself. Then Athena turns Arachne into a spider, out of remorse? Hatred perhaps. AE Stallings suggests that Arachne saw an advantage to it; [I, if not beautiful, am beauty’s maker // Old age cannot rob me, nor cowardly lovers.] but Arachne smarted in her new appearance as soon as she realised it, and in the end it stymied her.

image of a form that the sentence to everlasting bitterness has turned to stone:

the poet a void. 

[trans. Keeley and Sherrard]

She was immobilised. She could no-longer weave her knowledge of the wickedness of the gods, the beauties of their misdemeanours. The Qu’ran opposes idolatry, a dozen hadith prohibit figurative representation, Sunni exegetes expounded this to faithful Muslims. It took generations for the faithful to become calligraphic, for the kallos graphein to oust the rough urges of hiero glyphos with one elongated thrust of the pen. Arachne was forced to total aniconism in her own lifetime. “The rest is belly” says Ovid, and however small her head became, frock-consciousness stuck there, and with the knowledge of her changed body she lost her courage. 

God-figures became arabesques, misdeeds became patterns, until in small-minded fear she was forced to weave round and round in concentric circles, the weft, which is everything, becoming just a structural addition. Of guaranteed beauty, but nothing more than a trap, and all she will ever have as a gold funeral mask. 

Flung here like a gold funeral mask.

You touched it, do you remember how it rang? 

Empty in the glare

Like a dried pitcher in an excavation,

The same as in the sea our oars’ ring

The King of Asine a hollow under the mask

[trans. Patrick Leigh Fermor]

Vere and I couldn’t escape the webs no matter what contortions we went through, and in our haste we picked more seed capsules of Fritillaria obliqua var. marathonis than we had planned. They now occupy ten pots as threadlike seedlings, and if they all survive to flower, a bank of the deepest purple will drown the anodyne colours of the rock they are on. 

Arachne, daughter of Idmon of Colophon, dyer in purple, Tyrian purple, was born less than an hour’s drive away from Seferis in Urla, two among the many satellite towns of Izmir. I do not know that he ever mentions her, and yet isn’t her myth said to be quintessentially Lydian and Ionic? They say that the Lydio-Carian thalassocrats vied with the Athenians for sea-room in the second millennium B.C., and after some tension they monopolised trade with Tyre, and on the back of the trade in purple-dyed cloth Colophon became rich, and Athens’ nose was put out of joint. The seals of Cretan Miletus bear a spider, the buildings of Didyma, Labraunda and Knidos bear the non-effaceable signs of that wealth, just as The King of Asine’s wealth is worn by the massive stones of his old walls.

    

His longing the flutter of bird’s wings and the wind

In the spaces of his musing and his ships

Anchored in a vanished harbour

A hollow behind a mask.

[trans. Patrick Leigh Fermor]

I think that Arachne had a secret; a lover in Colophon, or almost a lover. She would have risked pregnancy – as they did, even then, although less often – because she really loved him. He was the son of an Athenian merchant in the city, ordinary enough, but not rich or old enough to marry. But love does not correlate perfectly with loving, and for some reason that she could never explain, their love did not work. The waves of their passion arose at different times until Arachne’s feelings, strong during the day while she sat at her loom with silk in her lap, wound themselves round and round and tighter when she was with him in tenderness, after god knows how many risks and deceptions, until they bored into her skull and she became knotted into immobility, bound hand and foot for her own safety.

The personal story is no more impossible than the geo-political, but it is untraceable. Nature in its slow evolution gives us one certainty though; the murex snail secretes the dye as part of a mucus that sedates its prey, and 6,6-dibromoindigo is the major component. The indigo is a flat molecule of carbon rings, studded with nitrogen and oxygen in rotational symmetry. By itself the rings distribute electrons evenly, so that the light reflects back as a deep blue — add two atoms of bromine sucked from seawater, and the rings are destabilised enough to gain a gleam of red and shift the blue to rich, imperial purple. The impurities were important too, enough to confuse the eye and add lustre and individuality. Something we have lost.

Shieldbearer, the sun climbed warring,

and from the depths of the cave a startled bat

hit the light as an arrow hits a shield:

[trans. Keeley and Sherrard]

Pamela had a purple tunic which was as fine as spider’s silk. She wore it tight at the waist with an antique silver belt from Afghanistan. She wore it over immaculate trousers, wide legged and diamond shaped, and laced shoes, fitting tight and light and supple to the feet. When I knocked on Patrick Leigh Fermor’s door I was wearing jeans, boots, and a white shirt — my smartest clothes — and I had enormous bumps across my face; an allergic reaction, perhaps to a sandfly crawling around in the night. Pamela had sent me, and now I was disgracing her, and my generation, aeons of clothes consciousness, attempts to dress well for important occasions, and a thirst to be Πορφυρογέννητη.

I was comforted by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s youthful example, recorded in A Time of Gifts “My best shirt came out, crumpled from the bottom of my rucksack; it would have to do”, but he was older now, and wiser, and when he heard me talking terrible Greek in the kitchen he came through in immaculate order — a tweed jacket and perfectly polished brogues — and the shame of interrupting his retreat was redoubled by the shame of interrupting his civilisation.  

He fed me and told me stories from the depths of that civilisation; of hawking in castles, taking part in the last cavalry charge against the Venizelists, playing puns with E.M. Forster, and of arriving in Istanbul after walking across Europe. The trouble is that he told other people too. In the form of his biography, in The Broken Road, in published letters to the Duchess of Devonshire, the stories he told me are to be found in downstairs loos, in spare bedrooms, in scrubby public libraries in Blackheath, online, in blogs, reprinted in newspapers. 

’Ασíνην τε. . .’Ασíνην τε. . .’. If only that could be the King of Asini

we’ve been searching for so carefully on this acropolis

sometimes touching with our fingers his touch upon the stones.

[trans. Keeley and Sherrard]

After I left him, I felt an agony of possession, a horror of hearing those shared stories that should have been mine alone. Like a miser, a collector, I wanted this knowledge close and unseen by others. All that remained to me was the precise circumstance of staying in his house, red snappers and spinach and restsina for lunch under the colonnade, and the specific touch of my fingers, sometimes touching on his touch upon the stones.

​​​​​

Images: 

Stamp cylinder, hippo ivory (?)

Soft stone technique

CMS II,1 no. 248

A row of seven lions in right profile are walking the one behind the other in the outer periphery of the seal face. Six spiders are placed the one behind the other in a circular configuration in the inner periphery of the seal face

From Platanos, Tholos A, Area ζ

Context: EM III-MM II

Stylistic dating: EM III/MM IA

Heidelberg University

Photograph of anemones taken by author near Pteleos, Magnesia, Greece

©2020 Pericles at Play. Homepage paintings by Annabel Dover