Tuesday, June 05, 2007

O Hammers, Head...

I read something today that just made me laugh. Pretty hard, at first. Then I thought about it...and lost a few sanity points. It's dark. So dark it almost passes from dark back into funny again. It sounds like something right out of a Douglas Adams novel...if it was made into a movie by Terry Gilliam. And yet it's totally true. I thought maybe some of you would laugh as much as I did at this bit of quirky, creepy trivia, and then feel just as icked. So here it is.

I was reading a book today on the contents of the private library recovered from the ashes of Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. We haven't completed excavating, so we might have less than half the scrolls that were there, and of course most even of what we've recovered is illegible or fragmentary. We've counted over 1100 scrolls so far (equal to about 110 books, give or take), but they were so badly damaged none survive complete and most are just little burnt bits of words.

Most of this private collection was of the books written or owned by a lesser known but prodigious Epicurean philosopher who eventually settled in Italy about a century earlier, Philodemus of Gadara (yes, Gadara of the Gadarene swine). Personally, I'm peeved that the one dude's library we actually almost recovered was some kind of insane lunatic for poetry and (ick!!) the philosophy of poetry. Gag me. I mean, why couldn't he have been Posidonius, or Strabo, or Cicero, or a big fan of Stratonican dynamics, or Erasistratean physiology, or Aristarchan astrophysics? Poetry!? Christ!

Anyway, I digress. Back to the set up...

Of the books whose burnt bits we've recovered from this library so far, one of the few that actually counts as cool is Philodemus' treatise On Methods of Inference, which is one of the most interesting treatises in inductive logic known from antiquity, and which we would otherwise never have known even existed, much less have any idea of its contents, if not for these lucky burnt bits. We also have chunks of another treatise that discusses yet another Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus' teacher, Zeno of Sidon, who we now know wrote On Geometrical Proofs, which included some of the earliest formal discussions of the possibility of non-Euclidean geometry, and which yet again we would otherwise never have known even existed, much less have any idea of its contents, if not for these charcoaled rolls.

These finds are all the more remarkable because the Christians chose to preserve exactly zero Epicurean books (well, okay, they kept one cool poem), despite there having been several hundred titles in circulation already by the time of Philodemus, many by Philodemus himself, and Zeno, and other Epicurean philosophers I'm sure you've never heard of, like Bromius (don't name your kid that). Instead, most of what we know about Epicureanism comes from the preserved writings of critics and bystanders, who all told us the Epicureans didn't give a sh-t about logic or mathematics. So foot in mouth there. Okay, corpse feet in corpse mouths, but you know what I mean.

Well, maybe not. Never mind. Let's move on.


I was reading about the first of these, and a portion of the recovered text, where we find some Humean-style discussion about the perils of induction. On the particular point that exceptional cases can always screw with us--you know, like just because there are figs in Italy and Greece doesn't validate the induction that there are figs in every country--Philodemus gets to talking about how generalizations about even something as seemingly secure as the viable range of human stature can be wildly wrong. Here he digresses on something he saw once when he was in Egypt:

For example, consider the man in Alexandria who was a foot tall, with a colossal head that could be beaten with a hammer, who used to be exhibited by the embalmers.
Swha?

Dude, there are so many things disturby about that sentence I don't even know where to begin. Uhhh, foot tall? Okay. Maybe Philodemus was just guestimating--smallest man so far clocked in at under two feet, so, you know, it's at least ballpark. Colossal head? Sure, but poor guy. Wait. They beat it with a hammer in a public show? What the f--k? Whoa, hold on...embalmers!?

Picture me with a furrowed brow and a freaked-out, puzzled expression...you know, like I just found out Eraserhead was actually a documentary
. Even P.T. Barnum would be turning white. "Holy sh-t, man! Okay, let me get this straight. A bunch of corpse embalmers come on stage with a disturbingly disfugured microdwarf with a giant head and they proceed to beat it with hammers? That show's waaaaay too dark, man. I think I'd rather book the Aristocrats." Even the director of Phantasm would be, like, "Uh...we're cutting that scene, right?"

That's not the funny bit. Okay, it's a little funny. If you're into dark humor and laughed at the Monty Python Mouse Organ routine. And can pretend this didn't really happen. Okay, no, it's just creepy. Unless he was like modern circus freaks and rather proud of his bizarre living. Yeah. That's it. Yeah.

Anyway, so the book I was reading went on to note that we have also recovered a lot of bits of Philodemus' poetry. Which I'm told is pretty good, but since poetry is to me like red wine to my wife, I confess the aesthetic criteria are lost on me. But good or bad, among his charred epigrams is a little ditty about this tiny man, though it is so badly burned we only have the first three words...

Wait. Hold on a minute. Before I end my story by telling you what they are, the actual three words, all that's survived of an actual poem from the first-century ashes of a volcano, about an actual freak show that is actually, genuinely freaky, I must apologize, because when I read them I couldn't help laughing. I mean, this is a punchline to a dark, bizarre story that you'd think could only come from the fevered imagination of a Douglas Adams or a Terry Gilliam, and yet this is all true, man. All true.

Rescued from the ashes. The lost poem of Philodemus. About a poor tiny man with a mega-big head that some creepy Egyptian embalmers beat on with hammers for fun and profit. An actual event. An actual man. An actual poem.

Cut off abruptly after the first three words.

Yep.

All that survives.

"O hammers, head..."

10 comments:

David Fitzgerald said...

Dude! You provide interesting political content and combine it with morbid details. Me likee!

Jim Lippard said...

This sounds like something that Ricky Jay, Jan Bondeson, or the Mutter Museum should be made aware of...

Rook Hawkins said...

Richard, this is awesome! I had to show it to Brian and Kelly and we all had a good laugh! Just brilliant, man. Thanks for this!

Abyss of Silence said...

Ok, I get why you were laughing so much last night.

To use the vernacular, that shit is wack!

FreeThinker said...

Great. Now I'm going to have weird and creepy dreams tonight.

John said...

Hey, I just wrote me a haiku!

O hammers, O head!
My life, a paltry freak show
Not a cent for me...

maya inez christina said...

shit can't stop laughing
somewhat hysterical though...

A. Thinker said...

I once beat a small man badly by hitting him with a hammer in his gross, bulbous head. Why didn't I go to jail?

This is a logic problem for the day!

Mark Plus said...

What will christians say if scrolls found at Herculaneum present discreditable information about a cult leader named Paul who had made the rounds a few years previously?

The effort to rediscover and reconstruct the largely suppressed Epicurean philosophy sounds really interesting, especially if it produces some previously lost and interesting arguments. I'd much rather read about restoring Epicurean manuscripts than all the nonsense written about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Richard Carrier said...

A critic wrote about this post on another blog but he doesn't seem to understand it (e.g. he thinks the story of the little man is in the poem whose first line reads "Oh Hammers, Head," when quite clearly that is not what I say), nor does he seem to realize that I am following established scholarship (e.g. he seems to think I'm translating the papyrus on my own, when in fact I am simply reporting what the experts on it already say, including the link to the little man, which is a connection they made, not me, cf. e.g. David Sider's The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum 2005, p. 87).

He also evidently didn't read the original text, where it is quite clear no riddle is meant, nor anvils, nor even corpses, since it is not a "corpse" they exhibit, but a "man" (which typically would mean he was alive), and the point is about inductions regarding the limits of human stature, not anvils or riddles.

Otherwise, whether Philodemus was duped in some way is possible but in no way the most probable explanation of his report. Freak shows were a phenomenon in antiquity (Pliny the Elder reports on this fact), so there is nothing implausible in the report except the small height, which I already mention as probably an exaggeration or round number (although it now occurs to me that there could be a man shorter than two feet, in the same manner as Prince Randian).