Eagle and snakes for the Tivoli recess at the Sir John Soane Museum.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an excerpt from the ‘Dionysiaca’, book 40, written by Nonnus of Panopolis (end of 4th and mid-5th century A.D.). Here Herakles tells Dionysus a story linked with the mythical foundation of the city of Tyre, in Lebanon. Also, Nonnus make use of Sumerian mythology (or more precisely hints about), with the two brothers Enlil and Enki, symbolized by the snake and the eagle and the tree. Also an obvious case of Hellenization of ancient myths attached to Astarte and local herakleian figure hero, Melqart. English translation by William Henry Denham Rouse (1863-1950), from the Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1940.
Herakles tells the story to Dionysus of the foundation of the city of Tyre
§ 40.421 …Hear the story, Bacchos, I will tell you all. People dwelt here once whom Time, bred along with them, saw the only age-mates of the eternal universe, holy offspring of the virgin earth, whose bodies came forth of themselves from the unplowed unsown mud. These by indigenous art built upon foundations of rock a city unshakable on ground also of rock. Once on their watery beds among the fountains, while the fiery sun was beating the earth with steam, they were resting together and plucking at the Lethean wing of mind-rejoicing sleep. Now I cherished a passion of love for that city; so I took the shadowed form of a human face, and stayed my step overhanging the head of these earthborn folk, and spoke to them my oracle in words of inspiration: Shake off idle sleep, sons of the soil! Make me a new kind of vehicle to travel on the brine. Clear me this ridge of pinewoods with your sharp axes and make me a clever work. Set a long row of thickset standing ribs and rivet planks to them, then
§ 40.448 join them firmly together with a wellfitting bond — the chariot of the sea, the first craft that ever sailed, which can heave you over the deep! But first let it have a long curved beam running from end to end to support the whole, and fasten the planks to the ribs fitted about it like a close wall of wood. Let there be a tall spar upright in the middle held fast with stays. Fasten a wide linen cloth to the middle of the pole with twisted ropes on each side. Keep the sail extended by these ropes, and let it belly out to the wind of heaven, pregnant by the breeze which carries the ship along. Where the newfitted timbers gape, plug them with thin pegs. Cover the sides with hurdles of wickerwork to keep them together, lest the water leak through unnoticed by a hole in the hollow vessel. Have a tiller as guide for your craft, to steer a course and drive you on the watery path with many a turn — twist it about everywhere as your mind draws you, and cleave the back of the sea in your wooden hull, until you come to the fated place, where driven wandering over the brine are two floating rocks, which Nature has named the Ambrosial Rocks.
On one of them grows a spire of olive, their age-mate, selfrooted and joined to the rock, in the very midst of the waterfaring stone. On the top of the foliage you will see an eagle perched, and a well-made bowl. From the flaming tree fire selfmade spits out wonderful sparks, and the glow devours the olive tree all round but consumes it not. A snake writhes round the tree with its highlifted leaves, increasing the wonder both for eyes and for ears. For the serpent
§ 40.478 does not creep silently to the eagle flying on high, and throw itself at him from one side with a threatening sweep to envelop him, nor spits deadly poison from his teeth and swallows the bird in his jaws; the eagle himself does not seize in his talons that crawler with many curling coils and carry him off high through the air, nor will he wound him with sharptoothed beak; the flame does not spread over the branches of the tall trunk and devour the olive tree, which cannot be destroyed, nor withers the scales of the twining snake, so close a neighbour, nor does the leaping flame catch even the bird’s interlaced feathers. No — the fire keeps to the middle of the tree and sends out a friendly glow: the bowl remains aloft, immovable though the clusters are shaken in the wind, and does not slip and fall.
You must catch this wise bird, the highflying eagle age-mate of the olive, and sacrifice him to Seabluehair. Pour out his blood on the seawandering cliffs to Zeus and the Blessed. Then the rock wanders no longer driven over the waters; but it is fixed upon immovable foundations and unites itself bound to the free rock. Found upon both rocks a builded city, with quays on two seas, on both sides.
Such was my prophetic message. The Earthborn awaking were stirred, and the divine message of the unerring dreams still rang in the ears of each.’
An amusing note made by W.H.D. Rouse at the footnote:
‘Where, if anywhere, Nonnus found this extraordinary tale
of the founding of Tyre is unknown…’ 🤓