Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the importance of Scythian discourse.

From his home in near the Black Sea, a young man named Anacharsis made his way to Athens in the early 6th century BCE. At that time Athens was the centre of the civilised world, a metropolis teeming with innovative politicians, philosophers, poets and artists. Anacharsis was a Scythian, a culture which most Athenians would have considered to be the epitome of barbarity. The ancient historian Herodotus, for example, describes their dipsomania, and how they rode horses bare-back and apparently smoked a form of marijuana! For the Greeks, the Scythians were decidedly inferior. Incidently, various accounts of Ancient Ireland derive the Latin word for Irish scottus from Scythia, claiming that this Indo-European tribe came to Ireland via Egypt, Spain and finally the Atlantic coast. This mytho-historical origin from such reputed barbarians was used by the English renaissance poet Edmund Spenser , who lived in Cork, to justify English rule in Ireland.

In spite of the fact that his mother was Greek and he was raised bilingual, Anacharsis was not readily accepted in his new land. When he arrived in Greece he is said to have visited the home of the illustrious Solon the archon, or ruler. Solon was also a philosopher and renowned poet and it is probably for this reason that the intellectual Anacharsis decided to make his acquaintance. When he arrived at the home of the Greek archon , Solon asked him the purpose of his visit. Anacharsis replied “ I have travelled here from afar to make you my friend”. Solon was not interested and retorted “ it is better to make friends at home”. Anacharsis’s riposte was pungent “ Therefore it is necessary for you, being at home, to make friends with me”. Solon was deeply impressed by the sagacity and wit of his interlocutor and decided to offer him the traditional Greek hospitality. The idea of hospitality plays a central role in Ancient Greek culture. They called it xenophilia, literally love of the stranger. This was also a feature of Gaelic culture. The brú or hostel provided food and raiment for the passing traveller and was a common feature of the ancient Irish countryside.

Anacharsis’ was noted for the frankness of his speech. This irreverent directness became known as Scythian discourse. His outspokenness and love of knowledge made him popular among the Greeks. He was the first metoi or foreigner to be made a Greek citizen and the first foreigner to be inititiated into the Eleusianian mysteries, the equivalent of becoming a member of Aos Dána in Ireland or the Academie Francaise in France, I suppose. He is said to have written a book comparing the laws of the Greeks to those of the Scythians. His comparison of laws to spiders’ webs, which catch the little flies but let wasps and hornets escape has not lost its relevance today. The Scythian sage exhorted moderation in all things. Coming from a binge drinking culture, he had seen the effects of over-indulgent bibulosity. He couldn’t quite understand why the Greeks starting their drinking sessions with small jars and when they were drunk, finished them with big ones! He described the vine as containing three clusters of grapes: the first pleasure, the second drunkenness and the third disgust! When he was asked to describe the safest ship, he replied “ the one brought into harbour”. He was once reproached for his Scythian origins and his reply is one which any foreigner whose nationality is criticised should remember. He said “well, my country is a disgrace to me, but you are a disgrace to your country!”

Anacharsis represents for me the model foreigner. He came to Greece to learn from them yet, on the contrary, he was not averse to teaching the Greeks a lesson or two. What he perceived as progressive in Greek culture, he attempted to introduce in his own country, though this eventually cost him his life! Nevertheless, the very phrase Scythian speech is what the encounter with other cultures is all about. He openly expressed what he felt about his new adopted country. Perhaps in this sense Scythian discourse is what Meto Eireann tries to promote. In providing a forum for the immigrant, the outsider, the foreigner to openly express their views on Ireland, we are followers of Anacharsis or proverbially Scythian Speakers.

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