CARPE DIEM: Life and death in Calabria
On beaches in Sweden and Italy, I have occasionally seen bathers tattooed with the Latin words Carpe Diem. In most souvenir shops here in Italy you may purchase the phrase as a refrigerator magnet, or engraved on small marble slabs. When our beautiful friend Ann-Kristin lay dying of cancer, which devastated her day by day, she kept the words on the wall of her sick room. What moved us deeply was how Ann-Kristin to her last breath tried to take advantage of every day. Seldom have I met such a strong person.
Just back in our Roman home I have in vain searched for an adequate translation of the Roman poet Horace's poem to the unknown Leuconoe, found in his first book of Odes, published 23 BC. The intent below is a clumsy version based on the Latin, without rhythm and poetic metre. My Latin teacher, Bengt Hemberg, who was captain in the cavalry reserve, was as old as I am now when he tried to teach me Latin. Then I considered him to be a very old and extremely knowledgeable man. Hemberg thought my attempts to translate Horace were "inept and even pathetic", he was certainly right:
Do not ask me, Leuconoe, neither you nor I,
and certainly not any Babylonian horoscope,
know the destiny chosen for us by the gods.
Better to accept whatever we encounter,
whether more winters are awaiting, or if this one will be our last,
which Jupiter now brings forth from the Tyrrhenian Sea,
weary from its constant struggle with rocky shores.
Let us quietly strain our wine, let it mature and drink it.
Life is short and vanishes as we speak.
Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,
seize the day, do not put much faith in tomorrow.
A few days may contain a wealth of impressions and contribute to a change of your mind and ideas. By writing down what happened during the last days is for me a way a of taking care of a gift and express my gratitude. In Italy, and probably in any other place on earth, every day might contain unexpected gifts. Like when Rose as a birthday present gave me two days with her and our youngest daughter in a hotel by the beaches in Anzio, an hour drive from Rome.
At time of sun and rest after stress and worries, in a place where on the 22nd of January 1944 five cruisers, twentyfour destroyers, four huge cargo ships (Liberty ships) and 180 landing crafts brought 40,000 Englishmen, Scots, Canadians and Americans ashore, as well as more than 5000 vehicles. The landing was a success. The Germans were completely taken by surprise and only thirteen men from the allied forces were killed. However, everything got far worse. To begin with, the allied forces were unable to break through the German-Italian defence lines. The Germans retreated first after 136 days of hard fighting, then 7000 young men from the Allied forces had been killed in action and 5000 from the German and Italian fascist troops. 36,000 of the allied soldiers had been wounded, many with life-long injuries, several had “disappeared” and since their remains could not be identified they were not included among the killed. 30,500 of their opponents had suffered the same fate, being wounded or “vanished”. Time on earth had been short for the deceased, the majority of them were eighteen years old when they died.
Lloyd Clark, who wrote a book about the battle concluded:
The Battle of Anzio had been nightmarish. In its pure awfulness it stands comparison with any other battle of the Italian Campaign, or the Second World War for that matter. […] It was a battle fought with the ferocity of an encounter that neither side could afford to lose.
When I several years ago, together with one of my brothers-in-law visited one of the war cemeteries in Anzio, one where 1056 white stones marked a grave, he pointed out that the 40 ovens in Auschwitz handled 4,400 cadavers per day. Human behaviour is incomprehensible. Why all this wanton killing? What do numbers really say? I have seen war cemeteries in Normandy, Vietnam and Verdun, there are none in Auschwitz, only a “pond of ashes”.
Those are my thoughts right now, in Anzio it was rest and joy for having a family, a feeling that was prolonged through my daughter Esmeralda´s gift - a trip to her boyfriend's family in a village called Piminoro, in the interior of Aspromonte, Calabria's legendary mountain range. A timeless landscape I remember after I many years ago had read Corrado Alvaro´s novel Revolt in Aspromonte:
For centuries, the village had lain hidden in the valley, oblivious of the passage of time. All around, each a few kilometres away, were the other villages, perched on the steep slopes. They merged with the rock where they lay, they had the same structure, the same colour, as the butterfly becomes one with the flower on which it sways.
Corrado Alvaro´s harsh, inhospitable landscape is evident on the side of the Aspromonte where steep, scorched slopes lean towards the Ionian Sea, indicating:
a life that you have to be a part of, to understand - to love it you have had to be born there, shrouded as it is by rocks and thorns.
Piminoro lays on the mountain range´s lush side, the western slope that embedded in greenery, through which streams with fresh, drinkable water are purling. Vincenzo´s big family received me with open arms and a variety of food home grown in garden plots in and around their village; wine and olive oil that had matured on their slopes and pressed by friends and neighbours; sausage, cheese and ham stored, seasoned and cooked in their kitchen.
Every evening I and Esmeralda were treated to a feast, and on the second day we shared a sumptuous meal with parents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandparents and their grandchildren, by a long table set in a meadow between the beech trees high above their village, close to a babbling brook and garden plots.
The houses in Piminoro are not like the dilapidated shacks with mud walls which I later saw in several of the poor, semi-abandoned villages on the other side of the mountains. They were sturdy houses made of stone and concrete, unfortunately most of them unpainted, with modern bathrooms and large kitchens. From the terraces you look out over hillsides and vast fields opening up to the distant Tyrrhenian Sea. Over us fluttered swallows and it smelled of rosemary, basil and mint. Everything was clean and swept, the villagers friendly and generous.
Calabria is ancient country, like everything else in Italy characterized by human presence. On the Ionian side of the massif there are villages where some older residents still talk Griko, Greek. Specifically 2000 people living in nine villages. Calabria had, despite periods when it was conquered by Romans, Arabs and Normans, since 800 BC been recognized as part of Magna Grecia, the Greater Greece, but with an increasingly influential papal state and a Spanish-Italian central power based in Naples, Greek disappeared as the dominant language from most places in Calabria, with the exception of some small isolated villages high up in the mountains.
We visited the town of Bova, which rises on both sides of a tall, oddly shaped rock. The paved, clean swept alleys are similar to those you may find in towns of the Greek islands. Streets and alley names are written in both Latin and Greek alphabet. From the base of the cross that crowns the cliff high above the village we could look out over the distant, sapphire blue Ionian Sea.
Southern Calabria is mostly mountains and sea. They are always present and below the joviality and generosity of its people and varied landscapes I occasionally imagined a somewhat frightening presence. In the hills above Piminoro there is by a crossroad a high, wooden crucifix with a black painted Christ. It is erected to mark the place where the 'Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia, after ransom had been paid for kidnapped victims, who had not been dissolved in acid or drowned, were returned to their loved ones. Not far from the crucifix are the ruins of a house where Esmeralda´s boyfriend's grandfather was born by the beginning of the last century.
To my surprise, people talked openly and generally condemningly about the 'Ndrangheta, although this does not mean that the criminal organization has discontinued its lucrative racketeering, corruption of politicians, trading hard drugs and illegal garbage disposal, but it seems that 'Ndrangheta influence differs from village to village, and it appeared to be non-existent among Piminoro´s open, generous and exceptionally friendly inhabitants.
The idea of Calabria's landscapes had been poisoned came to me when we were on the first day bathed in the crystal clear water in front of the beach at the town of Scilla. A place I have dreamed of ever since Grandpa read the Odyssey for me.
Circe - enchantress, and daughter of the sun god, who after having turned Odysseus' crew into pigs, became so enchanted by their leader that she once again turned them into men and even came to appreciate them. After returning to Circe´s island from a perilous journey through the Underworld the goddess came down to the Greek ships to greet their crew and warn about the perils awaiting them:
She hurried toward us, decked in rich regalia, handmaids following close with trays of bread and meats galore and glinting ruddy wine.
The men gathered around the beautiful but treacherous, goddess and while they enjoyed the wine and food they listened by their fires to Circe´s tales about monsters and hazards along the Mediterranean coasts. After having escaped the singing, but man-eating sirens, they would have to sail underneath an enormous crag that “thrusts into the vaulting sky its jagged peak, hooded round with a dark cloud that never leaves”. In its interior, within a "fog-bound cavern, facing west toward Erebus, realm of death and darkness" lived the terrible Scylla, before Odysseus and his men were confronted with her they could hear the monster´s pitiful whimpering:
… yelping horror, yelping, no louder than any suckling pup, but she´s a grisly monster, I assure you. No one could look on her with any joy, not even a god who meets her face-to-face … She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset, packed tight – and armed to the hilt with black death. Holed up in the cavern´s bowels from her waist down, she shoots out her heads, out of that terrifying pit, angling right from her nest, wildly sweeping the reefs for dolphins, dogfish or any bigger quarry she can drag [out of the sea].
Not only marine animals were devoured by Scylla. No ship could pass within her reach without her snatching up “a man from the dark-prowed craft and whisk him off.” When Odysseus´ men rowed his vessel through the dark and disturbed water beneath Scylla´s cave, she snatched six of his “toughest, strongest” companions
Glancing backward over the decks, searching for my crew I could see their hands and feet already hoisted, flailing, high, higher, over my head, look – wailing down at me, comrades riven in agony shrieking out my name for one last time!
The high cliff of Scilla is no longer as smooth and inaccessible as Homer depicted it, now it is crowned by a castle built, torn down and reconstructed since time immemorial. The Roman-Greek writer Strabo (64-24 BC) mentions in one of his seventeen books about Mediterranean settlements that Scilla even before 500 BC was the haunt of pirates, since then the cliff´s constantly changing rulers - sometimes Greeks, sometimes Romans, Byzantine soldiers, Normans, Spaniards, or Barbary corsairs. Residents were known to be untrustworthy and rebellious, in 73 BC they chose to support of Spartacus's fight against the Romans.
Perhaps the legend of Scylla finds its origin in a cave, now hidden by a gallery built for motor traffic, from which a crescent of sand, with depth and size perfect for the anchorage of ancient ships, could be mastered. It was probably from this beach that pirates' vessels with great speed shot out like Scylla´s rapacious heads, snatching wealth and slaves from passing merchant ships.
As in real life, myths and legends have a life of their own. They tell about people, gods, animals and monsters whose origin, age and appearance vary depending on the narrator's skill, origin and purpose. They all agree that Scylla once was human, but the notion about of how and why she was turned into a monster differ.
The most dramatic and poignant description of Scylla´s tragic fate was provided by Ovid (43 BC - 18 AD). In his Metamorphoses this adroit poet tells us that Scylla once was a beautiful maiden tormented by the woeers who assailed her with persistent entreaties for intimacy and weddings. To avoid all these eager males Scylla sought refuge in an isolated bay, where discrete water nymphs became her friends, foremost among them Galatea, an unfortunate naiad who told Scylla how an obsessed admirer had ruined her life. The brutal, one-eyed giant Polyphemus, maddened by jealousy had thrown a rock at Galatea´s lover, Acis, and then cut him to pieces.
However, the admirer who caused Scylla´s terrifying fate was no brutal, one-eyed, hairy giant, but a handsome, cheerful fisherman named Glaucus, though at the time he fell in love with Scylla Glaucus was no longer a human being, but a triton with fish tail. Ovid lets Glaucus tell us how it all happened:
I was once mortal, but even then I was destined for life in the depths of the sea and passed my days in the joys of the ocean, drawing the nets which were drawing the fish or busily plying my rod as I sat on the rocks.
Even as a young human Glaucus was coveted by the beautiful sea nymphs and he felt more attracted to the sea than land. After a day of fishing he once ended up at a beach where lush, soft grass grew right down to the edge of the water. Glaucus placed his abundant catch directly on the grass, fascinated by the contrast of the fish´s glittering colours against the emerald freshness of the grass he suddenly noticed how the fish began to quiver and jump, finally, they had all made it back into the sea:
I was dumbfounded and long perplexed as I searched for a cause: “Had a god produced this effect, or was it some juice in the grass? No grass in the world has a power like this!" I said to myself, as I causally plucked a couple of blades and started to chew them. I´d barely swallowed the unfamiliar juices down, when I suddenly felt a powerful flutter inside my heart and with an overwhelming to belong to the sea.
Glaucus dived into the water and found that he could tumble around in the depths without having to catch air, he had never been so free and happy:
The sea-gods received me and judged me worthy of joining their number. Ocean and Tethys were asked to purge me of all my mortal features, and quickly they both took charge of my ritual cleansing. After they´d chanted a spell nine times for my purification, I next was told to immerse myself in a hundred streams. At once the rivers discharged their waters from every direction and swirled in a deluge over my head.
Glaucus fainted, when he returned to his senses, his body had been transformed; his hair had turned green, his skin become blue, his chest and arms even more muscular than before, while the lower part of his body had been transformed into the tail and fins of a heavy, silvery fish.
The miraculously transformed fisherman was overjoyed. Glaucus had found his true nature and tumbled around in the element he always had wanted to be a part of, until fate one day hit him with a devastating force.
Picture a little pool, with its margin curved like a bow, where Scylla delighted to rest. It was there she would find a retreat from the fury of the seas and the sky when the noonday sunbeams were burning most fiercely and the shadows were shortest.
Like a seal Glaucus rose his head out of the water and became irretrievably imprisoned by the young woman's dazzling beauty. Quickly he swam toward land and pleadingly called out to Scylla, maybe as in the scene below, though the baroque artist has here turned Ovid´s handsome young man into a pleading, ridiculous old man.
Horrified Scylla stared at Glaucus´ blue-green body, his glittering, smoot fish tail and his green hair that covered his back and shoulders. Glaucus was for sure a handsome creature, but was he a god or a monster? The sea creature tried in vain to calm Scylla:
“Fair maiden” he said “I am not some monster or dangerous beast. My sway in the ocean is no less mighty than what Próteus or Triton wields ...”
Scylla, who had listened to Galatea´s sad story about how a love crazed monster had ruined her life, asked Glaucus to leave her alone and ran further inland. Scylla's dismissive attitude shocked Glaucus. How could a mere mortal maiden put off a handsome creature like him? A an attractive , strong man who was coveted by every sea nymph.
Angry and heartbroken Glaucus swam across the seas towards Circe´s island. When he arrived at her palace he pleaded: "No one knows the power of herbs and grasses better than I, for my transformation was due to their magic," that was the reason to why he had turned to Circe, among all deities she was the one who was most knowledgeable about witchcraft and magic potions. He asked the goddess if she could produce a concoction making Scylla desiring him. Glaucus did not know that after Helios, the Sun, had revealed Mars´ and Venus´ love affair for all to see, the love goddess had put a curse on Helios´ offspring – Circe would be doomed to fall in love with every handsome man she met – this was the reason to why she turned the males she encountered into animals. However, Glaucus was no longer an ordinary man and Circe had thus no power over him:
Look into my eyes, I may be a goddess, a daughter born to the gleaming Sun; the power of my spells and my herbs may be great, but I pray that I may be yours.
As a matter of fact, the drugs and spells of Circe could not affect a god like Glaucos. He had to be attracted to Circe out of his own free will and Circe wad forced to persuade him to love her through words alone: “Reject the one who rejects you, respond to her who pursues you.” However, Circe´s boundless passion frightened Glaucus and he assured her:
While Scylla is living, my love for her will not alter, till foliage grows in the ocean and seaweed sprouts on the peaks of the mountains!
Circe became bitterly disappointed and decided to let her frustration smite Scylla, whose human beauty had been preferred to that of a goddess like her. The daughter of the Sun mixed together herbs and poisonous juices into a hideous brew. Dressed in a "sea-blue cloak" she walked dry-shod across "the seething waves of a stormy sea", until she arrived at Scylla´s secluded beach, placed herself on the water surface and emptied her poison bowl, fouling the water
with monster-producing poison, by sprinkling the juice from baleful roots as she darkly muttered her magic spell thrice nine times over in mazy, mysterious language.
When the merciless heat of noon scorched the earth, Scylla came and waded into the sea, though when the water reached her waist she was startled by a sudden, agonizing pain in her legs and found herself surrounded by menacing, yapping beasts.
At first she did not realize that the hell hounds actually were a part of her, but violently threw herself back and forth, only to find that when she in inexpressible fear tried to protect herself against the squealing monsters they followed her around where ever she went, howling and stabbing after her while she seemed to drag them behind herself. She brought her hands down to her waist, trying to feel her legs, but all she encountered was the ferocious pack of hell hounds with their drooling jaws.
The hounds had become an outgrowth of herself and resentfully she was forced to accept her sad fate, in vain she tried to kill herself. It was impossible, she had become immortal and to calm the monster dogs she had to feed them with the seals, dolphins and even humans. In the beginning it tormented her, but over time she became cold and in the end fury over her undeserved fate made her just as ferocious and voracious as the animal part of her.
Scylla is described in a variety of ways, sometimes she is provided with the six heads as described by Homer, but just as often as Ovid´s beautiful maiden with her lower body disfigured by a monstrous horde of ferocious wolf dogs, which callously tear their prey to pieces. As represented by the fragmentary sculpture salvaged from the sea by our favourite bathing beach in Sperlonga. From a distance the marble group exhibited in Sperlonga´s museum resembles a scrap sculpture, but if you approach it you will soon discern how desperate men desperately wriggle while hell dogs devour them and the handsome Scylla rises above them.
Myths are believed to be immortal and they thus reflect our current existence. Maybe Scylla´s tragic fate might be compared to the ruthless 'Ndrangetha, which true to its insatiable, murderous greed is dumping lethal chemical - and nuclear waste along the Italian coasts and thus threaten our entire, fragile ecological system, or entire human existence. Like the beautiful, innocent Scylla and cCalabrese are forced to live connected with these ruthless, Mafia monsters, despised and feared by almost everyone.
However, the Calabrian sea conceals more than misery. Still you may like Glaucos swim around in crystal clear waters, there are for example the beach at Capo Bruzzano, where we swam among rock formations that easily can be taken for fossilized monsters and gods. Not far away from Capo Bruzzono were in 1972 two more than man-high, intact bronze sculptures of Greek athletic soldiers salvaged from the sea.
They are now placed in splendid isolation in a whitewashed hall in the museum of Reggio, where we saw them the day before we went swimming by the beaches of the Ionian Sea. The fact that they are standing side by side, in the same position, reinforces the impression they give. One of them has a youthful, muscular body, flowing and curly hair and beard, and an athlete's diadem on his forehead, while the other has an equally athletic body, but by him the strong musculature is more lax and his posture more dejected than by his younger companion. Instead of a diadem he wears a helmet and the defiant attitude of the younger man is by the older man replaced by what seems to be tired resignation, reinforced by the fact that he is missing an eye.
A comprehensive, "scientifically conducted and analysed" survey concerning the impressions of museum visitors found that an overwhelming part of the ladies found that the younger man was "sexually attractive", while most of the men "identified themselves" with the elderly soldier.
In several places in Calabria I imagined I had found a mysterious link between nature and human life. On winding roads, which periodically were littered with fallen stones and an occasional large boulder, Vincenzo drove us into the heart of the Aspromonte. On the slopes above the deserted village of Roghudi he showed us several rock formations rising above the arid landscape and its thorny bushes. Among others, a "dragon head", creating associations to both aliens from outer space and Cycladic idols, they directed their gaze towards villages that laid abandoned by either mass emigration or due to impending natural disasters.
On zigzagging, increasingly unsafe mountain roads we ended up in Roghudi, clinging to a ledge between two riverbeds, which were now almost drained from water, but during winter and spring they may turn into raging torrents threatening to tear away everything in their way. Something that several times endangered the pastoral village of Roghudi. After a violent inundation in 1973 the inhabitants decided to urgently abandon their homes and most of them now live in a newly built village several miles from there.
When we were there no one could be seen in the deserted streets. We looked into rooms where beds, tables and household items remained, soft drinks and beer bottles from the 1970s remained among the vestiges of mattresses and clothing eaten by mice and other animals. Doors and shutters slammed abandoned in the gentle breeze, while hundreds of swallows buzzed in the air above us.
Just before we entered Roghudi we had paused by a walled, solitary cemetery with rusty gates, dilapidated chapels, cracked burial niches and graves overgrown with thistles and other weed. A small village of death, which in its simplicity reminded us of Locri, which remains – temple fragments, votive- and grave offerings, statues and painted urns – we had seen in the museum in Reggio.
Locri, by the Ionian coast, was in Greek antiquity an important pilgrimage site with several temples and underground caves to which pilgrims flocked to bathe in healing, life-giving waters. Ruler of the temples were the underworld gods who were governed by Persephone (daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility) and Hades (keeper of earth´s treasures). Certainly lugubrious deities both of them, though like earth itself, they were also a promoters and protectors of life. It was they who gave us all the food produced from earth's life giving soil - bread, wine, fruit and olives. Many plaques, which had been hung from trees or close to the idols, show them sitting side by side - Persephone always in front of her husband and in their hands they carry fruit, ears of corn, as well as roosters, an age-old symbol of resurrection and fertility.
I was impressed by the art that had been salvaged in Locri. A wide variety of votive offerings and plaques indicating a fervent worship of earth as life-giver, but also fear and puzzlement emerging from a confrontation with darkness and death. There was apparently a feeling of how the dark depths of the underworld brought forth light and life.
People have often gone down into caves to drink from and bathe in wellsprings, believed to be sources of the life giving force of the world below. An underworld which also was the home of death and darkness. Confronting oneself with such “holy” places could for many mean a life changing experience, a religiosity close to the one the German theologian Rudolf Otto called mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a terrifying and fascinating mystery.
Several sculpture groups found in Locri paid homage to the twins Castor and Polydeuces, both mortal and divine sons of Zeus, emerging from the sea, while their horses were lifted out of the waves by marine divinities. Sometimes the twins seemed to defy the elements by floating weightlessly in front of the horses.
Calabria - a mixture of life and death. A constant, almost timeless intersection of nature and human presence. Sometimes nature seems to have the upper hand, sometimes the people. In some places there is a grim sterility, while others present an abundance of greenery, fruits, vegetables, wine, olives, bread, cheese and meat, served with generosity, joy, dance and music. But there is also an insidious poison sipping in, of envy, petty gossip, apathy and mafia; pollution and invisible violence. Scylla´s tragic attachment to her yapping hounds, the magnificent bronzes arisen from the sea by Riace, the joyous, frantic tarantella with its life-affirming rhythm, poetry with roots deep in the Greek soil, joy of food, beverage and human community, the menacing presence of the ´Ndrangheta.
In Calabria, present and past are intertwined, in all their grandeur, all their misery. A place where carpe diem, seize the day, become a pressing obligation due to ever present dangers and joys. I realized during the few days I spent there that they strangely enough were sufficient for providing me with memories for a lifetime. Thanks Esmeralda, Vincenzo and everyone else who give meaning and warmth to the days of my life.
Alvaro, Corrado (1990) Revolt in Aspromonte. New York: New Directions. Clark, Lloyd (2007) The Friction of War: Italy and the Battle for Rome 1944. London: Headline Publishing Group. Homer (2006) The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles. London: Penguin Classics. Horatius Flaccus, Quintus (1967) The Odes of Horace, with original texts and translation by James Michie. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Ovid Naso, Publius (2004) Metamorphoses a New Verse Translation by David Raeburn. London: Penguin Classics. Osborne, Robin (1998) Archaic and Classical Greek Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Otto, Rudolf (1958) The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.