Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Hallowe'en and chthonic contacts

Hallowe'en tonight. I saw these magnificent pumpkins at a farm cafe yesterday. Not very ghostly without their inner lights, but quite savage looking! 

We don't admit to much contact with our ancestors these days, but in many cultures the ancestors are considered to be constantly present. It was so in ancient Greece, and there are various mentions of this in The Boy with Two Heads. I thought these two instances would be fitting for today.

If you have read the book you will know where they come from. If not, the first happens during the voyage on the Pelican. Someone has died and left a bag with a tablet in it. Captain Stomio, Themis, and Themis' uncle Panainos open it and read it so that they can deliver it to its addressee.

  The captain took his knife and carefully broke the seals … He laid the tablet on the deck in a patch of sunlight. The writing in the wax was clear. Panainos read it out.

  ‘ “To Diokles, Necromancer of Tainaron and Messenger of the Mighty Hades, greetings and felicitations. May the spirits speak truth through you. … The bearer of this tablet will bring you a boy, Themistokles, son of Kallistos.” ’

  They all looked at each other in surprise. Panainos read on.
  ‘ “He will ask to speak with his dead father. You will arrange for his father to tell him … ” ’ Panainos looked up, horrified. Themis heart was beating so hard he could hardly breathe.
  ‘Go on,’ growled the captain, unsurprised.
  ‘ “ … You will arrange for his father to tell him that he must do as he has been chosen to do and uphold the honour of the family.” ’ Panainos turned to   Themis, his face grey. ‘This must be a joke,’ he said.
  ‘But what does it mean?’ asked Themis. ‘What have I been chosen to do?’
  ‘This kind of message must be going backwards and forwards to the Oracle all the time,’ said the captain. ‘I’ve been asked many times to deliver boxes of tablets or other messages to the necromancers there.’
  ‘Does it say anything else?’ asked Themis.
  Panainos read again: ‘ “… the honour of the family. … Bring the tablet to me afterwards”,’ went on Panainos in a monotone. ‘ “You will reap a silver reward of great value.” ’
  ‘Is there a signature?’ asked the captain.
  ‘Nothing,’ said Panainos, with a wondering shake of his head. …
  ‘I’ve never seen that seal before,’ said the captain. ‘But I’ve seen messages like that again and again. Do you know what it’s about?’
  The captain looked at Panainos, who looked back, his eyes wide open. After a moment he shook his head emphatically.
  ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what it means.’ … He snapped the tablet shut and handed it to the captain. …
  ‘So what was going on?’ Themis asked. ‘Was Molon going to arrange for me to hear a voice at the Oracle that was pretending to be my father?’
  ‘Many people believe that all the voices heard at the Oracle are false,’ said the captain as he got up.
  ‘That’s what it looks like,’ said Panainos. 

The second instance is later, when Themis is at Olympia. His father, who had died the previous winter, had asked another uncle to arrange for Themis to visit an Oracle on a certain day. The Oracle is in a cave similar to this one on the Akropolis in Athens.

  Behind the screen was another narrow entrance. A greenish glow came from the cave beyond. In the centre of the cave sat a hooded figure muffled in pale robes, swaying and murmuring. Themis could not tell whether the seer was male or female. The light seemed to come from a boulder at the back of the cave.
  The priest led Themis to stand close enough to be touched by the figure. A dull drum began to beat and a flute played long, single notes in an echoing melody. The walls of the cave glistened with crystals.
  The priest spoke clearly but quietly. ‘Themistokles, son of Kallistos is here. He comes to ask Mighty Zeus for his blessing and for his help in his trials and endeavours. He comes at the behest of his father, who is now with the multitudes in Hades. He comes to know that which Zeus expects of him and how he should achieve it.’
  The drum and music went on, but the light became dimmer and greener. The robed figure swayed more vigorously and its mumbling grew louder. …
  Themis felt slightly sick and began to shiver in spite of the cloak. The figure groaned loudly and sat still, stiff with tension. A breeze lifted the corner of its robes and brushed Themis’ hands and cheeks. ... The priest readied his writing tools.
  ‘When the boy with two heads,’ whispered the seer hoarsely, ‘wins without a fight, Athena will pay her dues.’
  As the priest wrote this down, the figure began to fall towards them, drawing tight, rasping breaths.
  Two men in black that Themis had not noticed glided forward from beside the doorway. One politely moved Themis and the priest out of the way and the other caught the seer before he – or she – hit the floor.
  The first man whispered to the priest. ‘Do you need interpretation?’
  ‘Thank you,’ said the priest quietly. ‘The words are quite clear.’
  Themis’ teeth were chattering. The seer began to jerk and groan as they turned and left. The music had stopped.

These contacts with the Underworld of gods and ghosts are known as chthonic or kthonic, from the ancient Greek word for the earth (as opposed to sky). They pervaded most facets of life then, it seems. We don't have the same reverence now, but we still like to create those shivers down our spines, especially in Young Adult fiction ...

Enjoy this special night!

No comments:

Post a Comment