Episode 117 - A Royal Catherine Wheel of Marital Strife (Booze Week)
New patron: Kalie.
This is a repeat topic! We had ‘alcohol’ as our topic in late September 2020. I discussed brutal, old English punishments.
I’d like to introduce our listeners to a quote from a cycling commentator who works on ITV’s Tour De France coverage. Firstly, ITV are 99% crap. The 1% that isn’t crap is there Tour De France coverage. One of their commentators is a chap called Ned Boulting who I actually think is a very good commentator. However, he did come out with the following commentary earlier in the Tour when describing a Mark Cavendish victory: “Stop the clock! Turn back time! History is not in charge here! Mark Cavendish is! He tells history what is happening next!”
It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Firstly, history is never in charge; history comes after all the decisions have been made. The present is very much in charge. History is the present’s dog body – it does whatever the present tells it to do. Secondly, history doesn’t need to be told what is coming next because that’s the futures job, and the moment the future becomes the present, it becomes history, and that’s where history steps in. What would be more impressive is if Mark Cavendish was telling the future what is coming next, because that would be seeing into the future. Where Ned Boulting is going wrong is he seems to think that history is a person, and a person who is having a fight with a cyclist over who has temporal authority. Anyway, it’s one of the worst pieces of commentary I’ve ever heard.
Someone who is well in control of the past, the future and the present was Zeus. He was an Ancient Greek god. The Ancient Greeks had other gods, like Athena. The Parthenon in Athens was dedicated to Athena. The Parthenon is where the Elgin Marbles were stolen from. And that is me smoothly transitioned onto this weeks topic.
In a few of our recent episodes we have joked about the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. I also recall making a particularly witty comment about Centaurs and Lapiths; the sort of joke that only really clever people what like I am would get. Well, I decided that I would talk about the battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths this week. The battle is also known as centauromachy.
I’ll quickly start with the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum has the majority of the remaining sculptural decorations from the Parthenon in Athens. There are the pediments from both ends of the temple (these are the triangular spaces beneath the shallow gable roof), the frieze from above the interior architrave (which surrounds the main part of the building; the naos) and the metopes (which are square images that were above the exterior architrave and above the columns). These metopes depict the centaurs and the Lapiths having a scrap and they’re really cool.
The story of the Centaurs and Lapiths was well-known and very popular in Ancient Greece (it has remained a popular subject for artists ever since. The fact that it was chosen for the metopes on the Parthenon says alot.
Let’s start with a chap called Ixion. He was the King of the Lapiths and had killed his Father in Law. Zeus invited him to Olympia and agreed to pardon him. He was either very stupid or very brave. I’m going with stupid. He decided to hit on Zeus’s wife, Hera. You know Zeus, he’s the king of the gods. Not a good creature to piss off by grabbing his wife’s arse and calling her ‘sugar tits’. Zeus starts by playing it cool. He creates a likeness of Hera out of cloud and blows it over to Ixion when he is in bed. Nowadays, with dating apps, it’s not uncommon for young people to have a one night stand with an air head. This is exactly what Ixion did with cloudy Hera. Zeus catches Ixion boasting the next day and then does lose his cool. He straps him to a flaming cart wheel and sends him whirling through the air with the winds for eternity. Incidentally, this story was probably invented to explain an ancient practice of whirling a flaming wheel through crops that were in need of the sun’s heat according to my Encyclopaedia Britannica. The cloud of Hera then gives birth to centaurs.
Ixion left his son, Pirithous, in a difficult position. Pirithous was mates with Theseus and had accompanied Theseus on many of his adventures, like that time they went backpacking in Hades to meet Persephone who they’d met online. With his dad unable to fulfil his royal duties what with constantly being blown around on a flaming cartwheel, Pirithous had to throw away the Aladdin pants, cut off those dreadlocks and remove the bracelets. He needed to grow up fast and start doing some kinginging. The Lapiths now had a load of boorish and unruly Centaurs living next to them in the mountainous region of Thessaly in northern Greece.
Pirithous decided to invite some Centaurs to his wedding with Hippodamia (daughter of the brilliantly named Butes the beemaster). The Centaurs arrived and all was going well until the Centaurs switched from their usual drink, milk, to wine. It turns out that Centaurs can’t handle their booze. They all get rat-arsed and start hitting on Hippodamia, never a good idea to get rapey with the bride at her wedding; it tends to ruin the event. Luckily for Hippodamia, there are some pretty esteemed guests at this wedding. Theseus is one of them. He jumps in and boshes the Centaur who is dragging Hippodamia off by her hair with a goblet to the face. He follows this up by bishing and bashing some other Centaurs. By this point all hell has broken loose. There are bowls, plates, trifles, cake, spoonsful of greek yoghurt and salmon canapes flying everywhere. The Centaurs are trying to have their wicked way with anything in a skirt, much to the annoyance of the Scottish delegation. Nestor is also there, he’s a prominent figure in the Trojan Wars, and there’s also a chap called Caere (Sare-ee). He was originally a she. As a she, she had shagged Poseidon (quite the catch! She got him hook, line and sinker! She probably hooked him with some master bait). When they lay in bed afterwards smoking fags and requesting performance feedback, Poseidon turned Caere into an invulnerable man as a reward for her most satisfying sex. In truth, Poseidon raped Caere and then promised her anything in the world and she decided that she wanted to be a man, because she wouldn’t have been raped if she’d been a man. He killed a number of the Centaurs who couldn’t believe that their blows were doing him no harm, weapons just bounced off him as if they were hitting marble. One of the Centaurs tells Caere to bugger off and do the washing up because he’s really a girl which I think it funny. Eventually they ganged up on him and piled a load of trees on him so that he couldn’t move.
A good place to go for a full account of the Centaurs brawling with the Lapiths is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 12. Ovid was a Roman poet from the 1st Century AD and the Metamorphoses is seen as his greatest work. His description of the brawl is very graphic and comes from the mouth of Nestor (of Iliad fame). Here’s an example, “Amycus dashed it (a candlestick) against the forehead of the Lapith Celadon, and left him with his skull smashed, his face unrecognisable: for his eyes leaped from their sockets, his nose, pushed backwards as the bones of his face were shattered, was driven firmly into the middle of his palate.” Don’t worry though, Pelates knocks Amycus out with a chair leg. Ovid is really very graphic by the way! There are hot pokers down throats, eyeballs hanging out, skin sizzling as it burns, centaurs falling off mountain sides and being pierced by the shards of fallen trees and spears through heads. A particularly gruesome death is the one of Dorylas the Centaur, he has a javelin thrown at his head. He sees it coming and puts up his hand. The javelin goes through his hand and into his head, pinning his hand there. A number of men then cut his abdomen open and Dorylas tramples all over his guts as he panics and tries to run away.
So this is the story that was depicted in the metopes of the Parthenon. I mentioned earlier that it would have had to have been a very well-known story to be depicted on the Parthenon. Well another important aspect to the story is that the brawl represented a battle between civilised Greeks and coarse, sweary, pull my finger barbarians. The Ancient Greeks were well up themselves and very proud of their cultural achievements. They would have been well aware of surrounding nations that did not have the same cultural sophistication. I also wonder whether the Ancient Greeks viewed Centauromachy in the context of the fragility of civilisation and social development. The barbarism that can destroy civilisation, represented by drunken, randy centaurs, is as likely to come from within as it from outside of Greece. If the Greeks didn’t continue to value democracy, art, literature, philosophy, science and theatre, they could easily devolve into a civilisation of leather jacket-wearing, politically corrupt, money-owing sluggards.
One final thing, it’s interesting isn’t it how Centaurs have been portrayed in fiction throughout history. Chiron is a classical centaur who supposedly educated Alexander the Great and a whole host of other Classical heroes because he was so wise. However, he seems to be the odd one out. Generally Centaurs are rowdy drunkards in Classical sources. Yet famous modern fantasy writers, like CS Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia and JK Rowling in the Harry Potter series, depict Centaurs as very wise, intelligent and sophisticated star gazers. These two authors have obviously been inspired by Chiron.