Archive for March, 2016

Styx and Stones

March 29, 2016

These days, written source material that is based exclusively on second- or third-hand hearsay versions of oral tradition probably would not be considered tremendously authoritative.  Except perhaps on Twitter.  But a thousand years ago, with relatively little written source material surviving from their historical past, Europeans granted a measure of credence to authors such as Herodotus, Hesiod and others.  Thus it came to pass that a ‘classical’ Greek version of cosmology, theology and the mortal afterlife entered into wider cultural circulation beyond the Mediterranean/ Black Sea basin.  And so, based on scant and sketchy sources, we now ‘know’ the Greeks believed that five night-dark rivers flowed in, around, and through the underworld to which the spirits of the ancient dead are consigned.

Scant indeed –beyond the ranks of Jeopardy! champions– are those who can name all five Hadean rivers.  Fewer still are they who can recite the characteristics of each, and its relation to the others.  I am not among this latter number.  Most people alive today, if they know anything about the mythology of the ancient Greeks, might vaguely remember the River Styx and a ferryman named Charon.  The guy who rows the newly-departed across the river to their new residence in Hades.  Scholars of the classics might assert that this particular version of mythology is a garbled one; that Charon rowed upon the River Acheron, while Phlegyas (who?!) was ferryman on the Styx.  But it doesn’t really matter: when you garble a text that’s garbled to begin with, there’s always a chance that it will end up in its original form.  And newer forms might be just as credible as the old ones.


So whether you maintain that it’s Charon or Phlegyas rowing upon the Styx or the Acheron, be they in Hades or in Tartarus, it’s surely indisputable that underworld rivers might bear more boats than those of the ‘official’ ferrymen.  Perhaps a few select demimondaines hold their petty monopolies on all cross-channel passenger traffic in what have been quaintly termed the infernal regions.  But other watercraft wend their way upon the Stygian flow, parallel to the banks, upstream and down, ranging somewhere between the head of navigation and some unseen debouchment into an unknown sea.  How can I make this bold, implausible assertion?  Because I’ve been there.  And back, on several occasions.

In the depths of night, somewhere between sleep and waking, I’ve pulled a sweep in one such boat launched from the mortal shore, rowing seven seat in a starboard-stroked, eight-oared barge black as unmined coal.  These dreamtime excursions leave scant records among the fragmented, misty memories available for recall in morning’s light.  The people encountered, the things heard, the places visited in this shadow world are little more than partial glimpses of mostly unfamiliar terrain … inhabited by strangers.  A European city somewhat resembling Vienna, for example.  Although I’ve never been to Vienna.  Or Graz.  Or Salzburg.  Or Linz.  Or even Budapest.  At least, I haven’t been there yet.  Any more than I’ve been to Grozny.

Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, borders Elysium, the final resting place of the virtuous.  Ovid claimed that the river flowed through the cave of Hypnos, god of sleep, where its murmuring would induce drowsiness.

  • Styx = river of hate
  • Acheron = river of sorrow
  • Cocytus = river of lamentation
  • Phlegethon = river of fire



Mixed Bag

March 15, 2016

First, the good news: Russia troops and warplanes are (allegedly) leaving Syria.


Now, the bad news: they’re headed toward Kaliningrad Poland.



Texas 2-Step

March 14, 2016

Seems like the Year of the Goat all over again.  Even though Tai Sui‘s celestial seat is supposed to be located in the west-southwest during the Year of the Monkey, misfortune continues to befall travelers in and around the annual SXSW festival in Austin.  It’s almost as though the previous year’s Tai Sui has refused to cede full power over human fate to his duly-appointed successor.  If so, this could be an ominous portent.

  • Exhibit One —

Louis Meyers, one of the four founders of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in 1987, died early Friday of a heart attack in Austin, on the day the SXSW festival opened for its 30th year.  He was 60.  Meyers was the SXSW’s music festival director for its first eight years.  He sold his share in the business to partners Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro after the 1994 conference.


  • Exhibit Two —

Ibtihaj Muhammad is ranked seventh in the world in the women’s saber.  She earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic fencing team in January and will become the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab (red, white and blue, of course), the head scarf she wears in accordance with her religious beliefs. [But] on Saturday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Muhammad was asked by a volunteer to remove her hijab for a security photo and later tweeted that she couldn’t “make this stuff up.”

Ibtihaj Muhammad

Muhammad, the daughter of a retired detective and a special education teacher, is intent on using her time in the spotlight to show the U.S. and the rest of the world that Muslim-Americans should be embraced, not shunned. “I’ve never questioned myself as an American and my position here,” Muhammad said. “This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We’re American by birth, and it’s a part of who I am and this is all that I know.

  • Exhibit Three —

United Flight 1704 left Newark Liberty International Airport en route to Austin at 6 a.m. Monday.  But it returned to the airport twenty minutes later after the crew on the Boeing 739 reported a strong odor in the cabin.  An investigation is underway on what might have caused the smell, which was described only as strong.

Of course, New Jerseyans know strong odors when they smell ’em: after all, the Bayway refinery in Elizabeth has been stinking up the northern stretch of Turnpike for generations.  So the aircraft cabin stench probably wasn’t merely petrochemical in nature.  Instead, this story reminds me of the two-step test for land navigation in the southwestern U.S.:  If you smell shit, you’re in Oklahoma.  When you step in it, you’re in Texas.