Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lion from Piraeus

Visiting Venice recently I set out early one morning walk to the gates of the Arsenal to see the Piraeus lion. Though I'd long wanted to see inside the Arsenal also--the medieval mother of all shipyards--I knew it was off limits. But the lion was worth the walk.

Sculpted in white marble, the Piraeus lion is one of two placed on either side of the Arsenal's entry. Around nine feet tall, the sculpture is a striking example of the vagaries of history. It's rare to come upon Greek marbles inscribed with Scandinavian runes. 

Originally stationed at the Piraeus harbor near Athens, the two lions were transported to Venice in 1687 by Francesco Morosini after a successful campaign against the Turks. From the beginning it was noticed that one of them had strange markings carved into its shoulders, apparently some kind of writing. Nobody knew the meaning of the writing, however, or even what language it was. Only much later did scholars recognize the markings as runes--a puzzling discovery.  What were Scandinavian runes doing on a marble lion taken from a Greek port? The inscribed words themselves would answer the question. A guidebook gives one translation of the inscription on the lion's left shoulder:
Hakon, combined with Ulf, with Asmund, and with Orn, conquered this port. These men and Harold the Tall imposed large fines, on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk has been detained in distant lands. Egil was waging war, together with Ragnar, in Romania and Armenia.
According to the runes on the lion's other shoulder, it was Harold the Tall who ordered the inscription, against the wishes of the defeated Greeks. At the time he and his cohorts were working as mercenaries for the Byzantine emperor.

Proof once more of what my grandmother used to say: Those Vikings didn't dress very well, but they sure got around. In an essay about the Scandinavians and their ambiguous conquests, Borges makes a similar point, underlining their odd individualism, how they covered vast territories and raised settlements, only to, culturally speaking, disappear:
Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro conquered lands for their kings: the Vikings' prolonged expeditions were individual. . . . After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language and were speaking French.

Runic graffiti can still be seen on the marble balustrades of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, carved ten centuries ago by Vikings who made up part of the Byzantine emperor's imperial guard. One imagines the Northern warriors standing through the Byzantine liturgy, understanding none of it. Restless and bored, one of them begins to scratch in the marble with a knife or the edge of a buckle: Halvdan was here. That, at least, is what the longest bit of graffiti says. Borges writes of runic inscriptions "scattered across the face of the earth," of Leif Eriksson's expedition to North America and the failed Viking settlement, of the Vikings' books--particularly the Icelanders' great literary tradition of the sagas, how in the twelfth century they developed an advanced art of narrative fiction, a hardboiled realist form whose like wouldn't be seen again in the West until the 19th century. This literature remained a phenomenon entirely of Iceland, utterly without influence on the other people's of Europe:
These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of Scandinavia are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel--the art of Flaubert, the Norman--and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.
But think of the poor lion. Sculpted to guard a Greek port, it ends up getting inscribed upon by northern henchmen: crooked barbaric characters are chiseled into its once proud shoulders. Later it's dragged to Venice by yet another conqueror, this one Italian. Finally the lion has to suffer being photographed in the morning light by another barbarian of sorts, this one an American in sandals wielding a digital camera made in Japan. The greatest indignity yet?

The Greeks who carved the lion might be glad to know that my camera later malfunctioned and the photos of its shoulders, as well as all my other photos of Venice, were erased. One-hundred-fifty carefully shot images gone in an instant. It's called technological progress.

Though the runes on the lion's shoulders are much weathered, they are still recognizable, after all these centuries, as runes. The memory chip in my camera however is empty, utterly void. And as for this page you're reading, as for anything you've read online today--if you don't print it out it and store it safely, if you don't scratch it into copper or carve it into stone, it will likewise disappear as soon as the Internet crashes along with our own overproud civilization. It's called technological progress.

Eric Mader

[An earlier version of this piece was posted at Photos taken from various Internet sites; Borges' essay, "The Scandinavian Destiny," is in Borges: Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger.]

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