August 24, 2010

The Legacy Of Our Buried Past

Vesuvius looming over the temple of Jupiter at Pompeii 
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
By Lucian 
The anniversary of the destruction of Pompeii reminded me of my visit to the ruins. It was easy to feel that greatness while walking among the stones of the ancient city, preserved for centuries by the deadly ash of Vesuvius. It also humbled me to behold the legacy of the eruption, a destructive force of nature that, within a day, turned a vibrant city into a tomb.
Vesuvius has erupted several times since Pompeii. The last was in 1944, destroying a B-25 Bomber group located in Capodichino Airport (Aeroporto di Napoli, Capodichino) in Naples. The Allied occupational forces, which had taken the city a few months earlier, assisted in evacuating nearby villages. This was a relatively minor eruption compared to 1906, 1872, or 1631. Earlier eruptions during the Roman Empire caused ash to fall as far as Constantinople. In 1845 the Osservatorio Vesuviano (geological observatory) was opened in the Kingdom of Naples, and is the oldest scientific institution dedicated to studying volcanoes. Surviving the Risorgimento, it was allowed to continue its work, and can still be seen today after miraculously escaping the lava flows of the 1872 eruption.
Remains of a victim
Volcanic eruptions have always been a threat in the Mezzogiorno. Etna, Vesuvius, and the Phlegrean Fields (Campi Flegrei) are all still active. The Marsili volcano, located under the Tyrrhenian Sea approximately 150 km west of Naples, can erupt at any time, causing tidal waves the length of the Italic peninsula and Sicily. I’m sure that the Italian government has emergency plans in the event of disaster, but their inability to stop corrupt officials and organized criminals from dumping dangerous toxic waste in Naples itself gives me little confidence in how well they could handle such an emergency. Perhaps I’m being unfair to them. When I see average people in Europe or America unable to handle normal or trivial events, I’m surprised that natural selection hasn’t caught up with them, so I guess it makes sense that the leaders they help elect might not meet our expectations. The condition of Western society these days brings to mind a quote from Oswald Spengler:
"Faced as we are with this destiny, there is only one world-outlook that is worthy of us, that which has already been mentioned as the Choice of Achilles — better a short life, full of deeds and glory, than a long life without content. Already the danger is so great, for every individual, every class, and every nation, that to cherish any illusion whatever is deplorable. The march of time cannot be halted; there is no question of prudent retreat or clever renunciation. Only dreamers believe there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice.

“We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on…without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.” (Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics)
Pompeii is a reminder that our ancestors survived in very difficult times, and still managed to be pragmatic, creative and disciplined. This is not to say that all of our ancestors were nice people, but who can seriously make that claim. At least I can respect them, more so than I do many people today.
Ruins of Pompeii
I have heard mean spirited anti-southern slogans such as “Go Etna!” or “Go Vesuvius!” which enthusiastically assert that a volcanic explosion obliterating Sicily or Naples would be a wonderful thing. That they could wish something like this on Southern Italians is worse than repulsive, and to wish for the destruction of our land and history as well is a crime against civilization. 

Why bury the history of the Southern Italian people? What would be the purpose of doing this to anybody? Unfortunately such actions are common throughout history and continue today, and our homeland was, and still is, a frequent target. Many treasures of the past were willfully destroyed by successive regimes since the fall of Rome, most recently during the Second World War where both the Allied forces and the Germans deliberately destroyed ancient architecture or works of art. However, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the Germans, under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, were far more likely to steal them or falsely claim credit for them.
Statue of Faun
As to why someone would do this, there is more than one opinion. There are those who claim that people with low self-esteem will try to tear down others in order to compensate for their own deficiencies, but some of them are as likely to claim that whoever disagrees with them is somehow mentally diseased and needs to be “cured.” It may comfort some people to believe that anyone who is oppressed is automatically moral and noble, or that the oppressors are always unintelligent brutes, but absolutes like this have more to do with propaganda than reality. Other claims are just as political, such as conquering an “inferior” people “for their own good.” Who on Earth wants that sort of help? In the case of Italy, the North has accomplished so much, from the ancient communes to the Renaissance, that to say their behavior is a result of low self-esteem or an inferiority complex is absolutely ridiculous. A more reasonable explanation for burying a people’s past is to make it easier to dominate them. Without their own culture, history and language to fall back on, a conquered people will more readily accept the viewpoint of their overlords. This explanation fits well into every situation where cultural leveling has been practiced or where inconvenient archeological findings threaten politically accepted views. There will always be those who wish to bury “offensive” facts under tons of cement, or volcanic ash, and hope that they will go away.

Statue of Apollo
I would like to think that Southern Italy’s well documented contribution to civilization would make it difficult to marginalize, but it is not as difficult as it would seem, and it is not the only historically significant region or people to suffer in that regard. Since The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies fell in 1861, the efforts to suppress our culture, history and languages have led to a profound lack of knowledge and understanding of our own past; but with some effort that knowledge can be reclaimed. To those who would wish Etna and Vesuvius to bury us as it did Pompeii, I will say that such an event can never erase us completely, because our volcanoes are themselves as much a part of us as that ancient city that was buried so long ago. During the Risorgimento, some Southern Italian resistance fighters aptly referred to themselves as “Sons of the Volcano.” Surrounded by history and woven into our mythos, Etna, Vesuvius, and the Phlegrean Fields will always be important parts or our rich cultural heritage.

Roman legends and Virgil’s Aeneid claim that the primary gateway to Hades is through Lake Averno in the Phlegrean Fields. It is located near Cumae, an area that was settled by Greeks as early as 700 B.C., which predates the Greek founding of nearby Naples by over 200 years. It was here that the Sibyl of Cumae, the prophetess of Apollo, spoke to Aeneas on his journey to the underworld. The region has archeological sites such as the Antrum of the Sibyl, the Terme Romana, the Amphitheatrum Flavium, Crypta Romana, and the recently uncovered temples of Jupiter and Apollo that fit well into Virgil’s account.
Telamon at the Forum baths
Mt. Etna, named after Aetna (AitnĂȘ), a Sicilian nymph, was originally home to Adranus, a fire god worshiped by of the Sicils before the Greek settlements in Sicily. Adranus was driven out of his abode by Hephaestus, also known as Vulcan to the Romans. The Greek God of fire and the forge was originally said to reside in Lemnos. Greek colonists in Sicily moved the legendary forge of Hephaestus to Etna, the largest volcano in Europe. Under Etna Hephaestus and his assistants, the Cyclops, forged lightning bolts for Zeus and items of power for the gods and heroes of men. The fire that Prometheus gave to man was stolen from Hephaestus' forge. Mount Etna is supposed to contain a gateway to Tartarus, the lowest layer of Hades where the gods imprisoned and tormented their enemies for eternity. Aeschylus the poet said that the giant Typhon was imprisoned under Etna; his name is the origin of the word “Typhoon.” The rebellious giant Enceladus was slain and also buried there. Other giants were said to be buried or imprisoned beneath volcanoes, especially Etna, and their movements were said to cause the eruptions. Mimus, the brother of Enceladus, was supposed to be buried under Vesuvius by Hephaestus along with other giants, and their blood would flow up through the nearby Phlegrean Fields.
Statue of Diana
Vesuvius was said to be sacred to Hercules, and the town of Herculaneum was named in his honor. The eruptions of Vesuvius sometimes had odd timing, leading people throughout the ages to credit the gods. The day before the eruption of 79 A.D. the Romans observed Vulcan’s holiday (Vulcanalia), and celebrated in the name of their god of fire, unaware of their impending doom. Not only did Vesuvius destroy Pompeii, but also the towns of Herculaneum, Cossa, Leucopetra, Oplontis, Stabiae, Sora, Tora, and Taurania. Pliny the elder was killed by the eruption. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, recorded the events that as he saw them that day. Because of his detailed descriptions, the type of eruption that he witnessed is now called “Plinian.”

Even Christians have included Vesuvius in their legends, it is said that when Lucifer was cast from Heaven he fell to Mt. Vesuvius and proceeded to destroy everything in his fury. Seeing this from Heaven, Christ wept and one of his tears fell to Vesuvius and miraculously caused a vine to grow, eventually renewing the land. The wine Lacryma Christi (Christ’s tears) is named after the legend and is produced at Vesuvius. The volcano has been associated with vineyards and fertile soil for millennia. 

If you plan to visit Pompeii, consider touring the vineyards on the slopes of Vesuvius as well. For though Vesuvius is a bringer of destruction and death, it also brings the land fertility and life.