02 December 2007

Ancient Carthage and her Gods

I have started reading Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo available free at Project Gutenberg. It is a lot of fun, though it can not be taken as seriously as the author wished as a work of historical research. Nonetheless, Flaubert's creative imagination is at a white hot peak when he wrote this. Consider a brief scene involving the fearsome general Hamilcar Barca as he visits a temple on his return to Carthage. It is rare for an author of historical fiction to attempt to delve into the mind of a pagan fanatic, and even rarer to pull it off. See what you think.

[The chamber] was softly lighted by means of delicate black discs let into the
wall and as transparent as glass. Between the rows of these equal discs,
holes, like those for the urns in columbaria, were hollowed out. Each of
them contained a round dark stone, which appeared to be very heavy.
Only people of superior understanding honoured these abaddirs, which had
fallen from the moon. By their fall they denoted the stars, the sky, and
fire; by their colour dark night, and by their density the cohesion of
terrestrial things. A stifling atmosphere filled this mystic place. The
round stones lying in the niches were whitened somewhat with sea-sand
which the wind had no doubt driven through the door. Hamilcar counted
them one after another with the tip of his finger; then he hid his face
in a saffron-coloured veil, and, falling on his knees, stretched himself
on the ground with both arms extended.

The daylight outside was beginning to strike on the folding shutters
of black lattice-work. Arborescences, hillocks, eddies, and ill-defined
animals appeared in their diaphanous thickness; and the light came
terrifying and yet peaceful as it must be behind the sun in the dull
spaces of future creations. He strove to banish from his thoughts all
forms, and all symbols and appellations of the gods, that he might the
better apprehend the immutable spirit which outward appearances took
away. Something of the planetary vitalities penetrated him, and he felt
withal a wiser and more intimate scorn of death and of every accident.
When he rose he was filled with serene fearlessness and was proof
against pity or dread, and as his chest was choking he went to the top
of the tower which overlooked Carthage.

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