The Sheep and Lion Dilemma

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pec3It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep”, a vigorous Donald Trump retweeted a few weeks ago, raising quite a few eyebrows. In fact the maxim has always been associated to Benito Mussolini, the Italian Duce, so when Trump was asked if he was aware that the motto belonged to Mussolini and if he really wanted to be related to a fascist, he replied: “No, I want to be associated with interesting quotes” and added “Sure. It’s OK to know it’s Benito Mussolini. Look, Mussolini was Mussolini. It’s OK. It’s a very good quote. It’s a very interesting quote. And I saw it and I know who said it. But what difference does it make, whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else?”  True. I have to confess that I use it myself many times, without thinking that somebody might regard me a fascist ( being very far from those political ideals), because it was used by Mussolini. Plus, the Dux was not original.

pec6Mussolini had found himself to rule a very young nation, which had suffered long dominations , whose positive heritage can be clearly seen in each of our regions in the variety of culture, food, music, language. But in those centuries of oppression, Italians had also gradually developed a high degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness are “virtues” which are still associated to the Italian way of being, but they were also the weapons which had been developed in time to defend themselves from foreign rules. The problem is that once free and politically united, the making of a common identity was, actually, a slow process, because a chronic distrust in rulers runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” rather than the “common” way. That’s why we still tend to look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems, thus ending in the catastrophe everybody is familiars with. Our recent history makes no difference.

pec4Mussolini knew that he had to fuel his people with words that had to inflame hearts, thus trying to cement his fragmented country. Strength, courage, sacrifice, a country of lions rather sheep, this was what he wanted. Even if only for one day. This motto was one of Benito Mussolini’s most popular slogan. Starting from 1926,  it became a significant part of the fascist propaganda and ended on school books, coins,  graffiti etc., but as I have said before, the Dux was not original.The truth is that the phrase was written during the First World War, on the wall of a house in Fagarè (now Fagarè della Battaglia, the municipality of San Biagio di Callalta, province of Treviso). According to the newspaper  “Il Secolo D’Italia(but the primary source was “Il Corriere della Sera” of 19 February 1958, p. 6)  the author was Ignazio Pisciotta, mutilated in 1911, an officer in World War I.  On the ‘Corriere della Sera’ of 31 July 1918, in his war correspondence, Arnaldo Fraccaroli writes : “We find on the houses around here – on the ruins of the houses – the words of the soldiers traced by rapid brushstrokes  in the early days of the resistance(..)”All heroes! We will win the Piave, or  we will all die! “It is better to live one hour as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep!” Oaths were held. With these writings, the humble battered homes have a sacred majesty of a temple “.

pec7Mussolini himself, as a matter of fact, never said to be the author of these words, which he used (at least) on three occasions, but always recalling them as the words on the wall of the house collapsed in Fagarè. One of these was a visit at Umberto I barracks in Rome on 26 June 1926,  Mussolini said: It was good that in recent days it was remembered a phrase that should not be forgotten: the one written by an anonymous official or little infantryman, it doesn’t matter, on one of the houses on the eve of the battle of the Piave: “Better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “. Seeing the physical and moral strength of your troops, flower of the renewed nation, I am perfectly convinced that if it will be necessary tomorrow, all the grenadiers, all foot soldiers, all soldiers of Italy, all the people in Italy prefer to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep “.

Now, there is no doubt that the expression rightfully belongs to the fascist rhetoric dictionary, but to attribute the invention of the words to Mussolini only denotes the usual sloppiness that distinguishes certain journalists when reporting historical facts. And after all, would you really want to live all your life as sheep? C’mon!

 

 

 

 

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Homer’s legacy

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hom4The first time a man attempted to engrave a sign or a sketchy hunting scene on a rock, he was actually doing more than a simple drawing, he was defying time. That sign allowed him to overcome his transient nature, it was the everlasting witness of his existence, which could also become the legacy of his experience. Man, differently from any other species, soon understood that the transmission and storage of data was the key for his evolution and survival. The outcomes of present experience were to be passed to the next generations in order to be enriched with new developments and discoveries. It is the record of man’s achievements that allows us to overcome the limits our body, which is subjected to time and decay. But how could data be transmitted and stored in times when there was not the help of technology or not even the use of paper yet?

hom5The first rudimentary means could be only memory. Greek epic poems, for example, played an important part in maintaining a record of the great deeds and history of a culture, before the development of writing. At first they were memorized and only  later, they were written down. However, it was a huge effort, if you think that a popular translation of the Iliad runs to nearly to five hundred pages in small font, hence, one cannot but wonder on how the rhapsodes could sing their lengthy poems without any written texts. As far as we know, their performances could last many days. Techniques such as rhymes, rhythm, similes etc helped the bards memorize the lines for sure, but the story was the most helpful of all.

hom6The main actors of these stories where the heroes, who actually embodied the highest expression of  the values of their society: loyalty, honour, love for the country, sacrifice. With their deeds, they were the symbols of the power, pride but also ethics of their people, thus contributing, through a natural process of identification, in the making of what could be called national awareness. The Iliad, the Odyssey and the many poets and tragedians who followed up Homer‘s themes gave a “running” report of how to be Greek, which the young naturally learned to imitate. We have to consider, that at the time of Plato almost everyone could recite some or many portions of Homer or other poets, therefore, there were many who held in their memory not only the episodes of Polyphemus, Circe etc  among the others, but also the knowledge.of the agricultural, metallurgical and building techniques of the times, food recipes etc. thus making epic poetry a sort of tribal encyclopedia as Professor Eric Havelock defined it.

hom7The verses of Homer, in fact, not only guided archaeologists to the interpretation of the finds of  excavations, but they proposed significant elements for the study of the first agriculture and livestock in the Aegean world. The Odyssey, in particular, provides some important elements which are absolutely singular.  For example, when Odysseus visits the orchards of the King of the Phaeacian, he accurately gives details of  the  prodigy of irrigated agriculture of the time. Then, once landed in Ithaca he climbs through the woods and comes to the pigsty built by his servant Eumaeus, there he reports about a genuine breeding system for 600 sows, which seems to forerun modern farm models. Two prominent scholars of primitive agriculture, Antonio Saltini, professor of history of agriculture, and Giovanni Ballarini, a professor of veterinary pathology, were able to estimate, from the reading of Homer,  the amount of acorns that the oaks of Ithaca could produce and the number of pigs that were breeded. When Odysseus meets his father, he reminds him of the different plants that the old man had given him for his first garden, mentioning 13 varieties of pears, 10 of apples, 40 types of figs and 50 different grapes, as proof of the intensity of the test selection which man had already subjected the fruit species at the dawn of the first millennium BC.

Therefore, Homer and the poets were not only artists but rather “ the equivalent of mass media, Internet and official state religion rolled all in one“. In times when there was no other form of communication, they were those romantic figures who had the task to spread the seeds of knowledge in order they could grow and blossom to guide man to modernity.

 

 

The Prophecy of Rapanui

 

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ea1When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in Easter Island  with their large canoes more than a thousand years ago, they found a luxuriant, heaven like land covered with palm trees.The place was actually less hospitable than it seemed. The island was volcanic in origin, but its three volcanoes were dormant. Both temperatures and humidity were high and the only fresh water available was from the lakes inside the extinct volcanoes. Only a few species of plants and animals inhabited the land: there were no mammals, only few insects and two types of small lizards. Furthermore, as the waters that surrounded the island weren’t very fishy, the first inhabitants had to learn to live basically mainly on sweet potatoes and chickens.

ea6The islanders heavily depended on its native plants: giant palms, toronimo trees and basswood (hau).The woods from the giant palm trees were used for shelters and in particular for big canoes which enabled the settlers to fish in richer waters and catch dolphins. The basswood was used as fuel to cook or to keep warm and its fibers were used to make ropes or fishing nets. However, the forests were slowly cleared to improve farming and grow sweet potatoes. All this brought to a rapid increase in population (more than 15.000 inhabitants), but as the island was very small, its natural resources declined rapidly.

ea2Instead of taking measures of life sustainably, the clan leaders started to build large stone platforms, known as Ahu, which were used as burials, ancestor worships and to commemorate past clan chiefs. The majority of these constructions were built near the coast, around the island’s perimeter. One day they stated to erect huge monolithic stone statues (Moai) on these platforms, which took up immense amounts of  labour. Almost all the Moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue, which seemed to represent their deified ancestors. More than the carving, the greatest problem was the transport of the massive statues from the quarry to the Ahu and as they lack any draught animals, they had to rely on the effort of men who could only drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as wheels.

ea7The enigmatic faces of the Moai rapidly spread all over the island and they were always more and more enormous, in fact the bigger was the statue the stronger was supposed to be the clan which had made it, therefore a never-ending, competition among clans started; a devastating contest which required amazing quantities of timber. By 1600 as the island was almost completely deforested, the statue erection had to be stopped leaving many of them stranded and incompleted at the quarry. But, when did they exactly stop? When it was too late.

ea5The shortage of trees had already made people stop building houses from timber and find shelter in caves. Canoes couldn’t be built any longer, so it was now impossible to go fishing or even abandon the island. It had also become impossible to make nets for fishing. Furthemore the early deforestation had brought the island to a rapid desertification.The only source of food on the island was the chickens which became precious and primary object of theft. The lack of proteins available brought to cannibalism.The islanders were now trapped in their insane world and they  couldn’t escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse.

ea8Moreover the drop of the resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare. One of the main aims of warfare was to destroy the Ahu of opposing clans, therefore only a few burial places remained and many of the magnificent stone statues – which had cost so much – were pulled down. Only few remained standing.When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen visited Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722, the island had now become a barren wasteland, whose 3,000 inhabitants lived in a primitive state in squalid reed huts or caves, had resorted to cannibalism in order to escape famine and were still engaged in perpetual warfare.

 

The question is, how can it be that they didn’t realize what they were doing to their environment? Why didn’t they stop in time? Or better, will we be able to stop in time?