Monday, November 15, 2010

And looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes (The Phalaris Bull)


Phalaris, der Tyrann von Agrigent, läßt den Künstler Perilles in einen Bronzestier einschließen. (Phalaris condemning the sculptor Perillus to the Bronze Bull)  After Baldassare Peruzzi, before 1562. Engraving Copperplate print, 22.4 x 17 cm

Choose your poison is not one of my favorite expressions.  I'm too much a literalist and tend toward being "slightly depressive" (on good days).

Therefore, when I learned about the Phalaris Bull while reading Dante's Inferno earlier this year, it really affected me.  This is a bad one.

Briefly, the story is this:

Phalaris (Greek Φάλαρις) was the tyrant of Acragas (Agrigentum) in Sicily during the period approximately 570 to 554 BC.  He was entrusted with building the temple of Zeus Atabyrius in the citadel and took advantage of this position to make himself despot.  Under Phalaris' rule,  Agrigentum attained considerable prosperity and he supplied the city with water, adorned it with fine buildings, and strengthened it with protective walls.

On Sicily's northern coast, the people of Himera elected Phalaris general and granted him absolute power despite warnings by the poet Stesichorus (ca. 640-555 BC), commonly considered the first great poet of the "Greek West", against doing so.  According to Suda, the 10th century AD Byzantine encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world, Pharalis succeeded in making himself master of the whole island of Sicily before finally being overthrown in a general uprising headed by Telemachus, the ancestor of the later tyrant Theron (ruled ca. 488-472 BC).

Phalaris was notorious for his excessive cruelty, including allegedly, the practice of cannibalism, which he practiced upon the very young.

In Phalaris's brazen bull, said to have been proposed and invented by the Athenian brass-founder and sculptor Perillus, Phalaris loaded and shut up his victims through a door in the animal's hollow metal torso, then kindled a fire beneath them, roasting them alive. The victims' shrieks represented the bellowing of the angry bull.  These were channeled and amplified externally through an ingenious and complex system of tubes and stops in the device's "head", which also, according to Phalaris's instructions, released smoke in the form of spicy clouds of incense.

Legend has it that Phalaris made Perillus himself the first person to be executed using his invention. After Telemachus' victory, Phalaris himself was executed in the bronze bull cauldron.

Phalaris orders the death of Perillus

The story of Phalaris' bull cannot be dismissed as pure fiction or fantasy. Pindar, who lived less than a century after Phalaris, expressly associates this instrument of torture with the tyrant by name. A brazen bull at Agrigentum is recorded as having been carried off by the Carthaginians to Carthage. It was later restored to Agrigentum by Scipio the Elder ("Africanus") ca. 200 BC. 

Dante begins Canto XXVII of the Inferno, which takes place in Hell's 8th Circle among thieves who have committed sins of fraud, on this grim note:

The flame was already quiet and erect again,
 Done speaking, and, as the gentle poet allowed
Leaving us, when behind it another one

Was drawing near, the confused sound it made
Drawing our eyes toward its flickering tip.
As the Sicilian bull (which bellowed loud

For the first time when he who gave it shape 
With his file's art was forced to give it his voice, 
Justly) would use a victims cries, sealed up

Inside its body, to bellow -- so that, through brass, 
It seemed transfixed with pain when it was heated;
So, having at first no passage or egress 

From fire, the melancholy words were transmuted 
Into fire's language.

(lines 1-14; Robert Pinsky translation)

Cheerless, cheerless words for a darkening, increasingly cold November day, which I'm grateful and pleased to say has been lived on mostly much happier notes.  I hope it's a good week.

Inferno Canto XXVII:  Dante and Virgil with Guido de Montefeltro among the false counselors, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Holkham Misc. 48. 


  1. I must keep at medium pace
    it is good site

  2. Based on the last several posts, I fear that although you emerged safely from Leviathan's belly and escaped the falling piano, you have found yourself, like Jonah, in a difficult spot.

    It is sometimes forgotten that, in the incredibly strange story of Jonah, the protagonist suffers greatly even after he escapes the whale. God sends him to sinful Ninevah to preach repentence. (It was the effort to escape this mission that led him into the belly of the beast in the first place.) The people of the city hear Jonah, and cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. God decides to spare them all. Jonah is unhappy; he chides God for His mercifulness -- the people did not deserve forgiveness -- and he goes to sit in the desert. God sends a gourd to shade Jonah from the sun, and then, the next night, sends a worm to devour the gourd. Jonah is so angry about the death of the gourd that he asks God to kill him. The book ends with one of the most baffling speeches God ever gives:

    "And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.

    Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

    And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?"

    I don't know if this is helpful, but it certainly has the ring of authenticity.

    Hope the day is improving.

  3. I'm fine -- just reflecting and reporting up-and-down rhythms, variety being the spice of life and some spices being more bitter than others. Thanks for asking and also for retelling Jonah's tale, which I did read once and agree has the ring of authenticity. Actually, this was the cheerful selection between two alternatives. Curtis

  4. Good God. Glad we didn't get the grimmer one.

  5. The next couple of days should be reasonably cheerful. I do hope that on this one you played the two musical numbers. They're very cheerful (sort of).