Tjaden Lotito, Western Colorado University in Gunnison
I have long had an interest in the mystery of ancient nomadic consciousness. It is fascinating to contemplate how different the consciousness of pre-literate people would have been from our own.
The technology of writing has had an irreversible effect on human cognition and experience (Ong, 2012: 77–113). The development of human thought through written language, along with our modern focus on the individual, has come at a price. We are oblivious to the intellectual and creative capacities of communal consciousness. We ignore or even dismiss the resources that exist outside of the modern, inwardly focused experience of self. Though we may feel that the ancients were limited by a lack of technology and rational modes of thought, we are equally constrained by our technologically induced isolation from others and from the world around us.
My poem Penthesilea is an ode to these lost, pre-literate modes of being. It is an attempt to discover what has been lost and gained through the development of written language and modern consciousness. In Penthesilea I thus explore how meter, syntax, diction, and other poetic building blocks might be used to approximate and portray a forgotten way of experiencing reality.
While in the Greek mythic tradition, notably in the Aethiopis [Proclus], Penthesilea was Thracian her values would have resembled those of the ancient Scythian tribes of the steppe (Mayor, 2014: 34–51). I chose to create a cultural background for her that draws on both possibilities. In order to imagine my way as completely as possible into this mythical woman’s life, I have created new names for the main characters in Penthesilea. These names are constructed from linguistically sparse traces of word roots listed in a Thracian glossary (TIED, 2000). In my story Penthesilea is renamed Surarsiltea. I also named her horse Arzas.
In Quintus’s Posthomerica—the most complete surviving version of the myth—Penthesilea is exiled due to the accidental death of her sister during a hunting accident. While this plausibly prompts the tribal condemnation and expulsion that Quintus describes, it does not provide a compelling reason for Penthesilea to have then aligned herself with King Priam against the Greeks. Worse, to have her simply kill Achilles for glory, a hero unknown outside of her culture, did not feel right to me since she would not subscribe to the Greeks’ heroic value system. It seemed more believable that she could have been driven to fight in a foreign war by the shades of spiritual ancestors who also sought purification and release from shame and exile. The ancestral shades in my story are an attempt to approximate a Scythian version of the Greek Furies.
Since my poem is too long to publish in its entirety here, I present an excerpt which takes place after Surarsiltea (i.e., Penthesilea) has killed her sister in a hunting accident. Tribal custom decrees her exile, and hence, social death as punishment. Surarsiltea and her horse, Arzas, wander. Damned, lost and alone (Padel, 1995: 99–119). Unaware of the Trojans and their war. Unaware of her fated encounter with Achilles.
Excerpt from Penthesilea
Penthesilea’s birth name: Surarsiltea.
suras– ‘strong, brave; a hero’ [Old-Ind. súra-h ‘a hero, a warrior’, Avest. súra- ‘brave, courageous; a hero’].
ars– ‘to flow; current, river’ [Old-Pruss. RN Arsio, Arse, Old-Ind. árs, ati ‘to flow’, Hitt. arš– ‘the same’].
iltea– ‘a chosen woman’.
Her sister: Tithadrenis.
titha– ‘light, radiance’ [Greek titó’ ‘morning glow; morning, day’, Alb. ditë ‘day’].
drenis- ‘deer’ [Alb. dre, dreni ‘deer’].
Her horse: Arzas.
arzas– ‘white’ [IE *arg’– (white, to shine; clear)].
Source: The Indo-European Database, 2000. https://tied.verbix.com/project/glossary/thra.html
Cunliffe, Barry. The Scythians. Oxford University Press, 2019.
[Homer. Iliad. Translated by Tyson Hausdoerffer. Manuscript in preparation.]
Mayor, Adrienne. The Amazons. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. Routledge, 2012.
Padel, Ruth. Whom Gods Destroy. Princeton University Press, 1995.
[Smyrnaeus, Quintus. “The Fall of Troy”. Translated by A. S. Way. Harvard University Press, 1984.]