Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pergamon and the Apocalypse

I finally remembered why the name 'Pregamon' rang such a bell in my head. In one of my favorite college courses, 'Reading for the Rapture', which was all about apocalyptic literature, we discussed at length the carvings on the altar at Pergamon. It was built to commemorate a Roman triumph over the Gauls and an entire side of the monument portrayes some of that battle. The Roman soldiers were portrayed in all their armored glory while the Gauls were immortalized with long, dirty hair, wearing what amounts to loin clothes, no shoes, and being decimated by the legions of the Roman Army. The Romans had very interesting and more or less uniform ways of portraying their 'barbarian' enemies. The word 'barbarian' actually means 'those whose language sounds like bar-bar-bar-bar'. Its more or less a gigantic piece of ancient propaganda.

But what really interested us budding apocalyptic scholars was the other side of the altar which featured the battle between the Olympian gods and the Giants. The Olympian Gods – Athena, Zeus, Apollo, Posiden, etc. - are battling the Giants who are creations of the Titans. The Titans were in power before the Olympians were created. Their rule was, by all accounts, sucky. The head Titan, Cronus, was told by an oracle that he was going to be overthrown by his son, just as Cronus had overthrown his father, Uranus. So he ate all his children. An entirely rational response.

In the end his children, Zeus and all his brothers and sisters, escaped and the prophecy was forfilled. The Titans fought alongside their creations, the Giants, and were eventually defeated. The Giants were imprisoned in Tartarus. This is, in essence, an apocalyptic story. It tells the reader, no matter how unfortunate your lot is now, just wait, just be good and you will receive your reward. The world will end, the viel will be lifted, and the world order will reverse.

All apocalyptic literature have a couple features in common across all cultures and that is that they were written by those who were not in power as a way to keep the hope alive that they one day would be in power. The main theme: 'the meek shall inherit the Earth'.

Sound familiar? Christian literature is lousy with apocalyptic references. The Dead Sea scrolls were written by a small Christian sect and told of a forthcoming battle in which the people would rise up against their oppressors with far more might than archeology tells us they actually had. It wasn't really about telling the future, it was more about giving hope to the hopeless.

Whether it's 72 virgins in heaven, the promise of an eternity on the Elysian fields, or a comfortable existance in heave, people have kept the faith for millenium on the promise of a wide range of rewards – or punishments that await them. Just look at the Book of Revelations – another of the readings for that class – no one would want to be on the wrong side of that crazyness. Wine presses full of bodies and rivers of blood are just some of the pleasant imagery involved in the end of the Christian world.

In the instance of Pergamon, I don't think the Romans were thinking about the significance of the message – only that it was an epic struggle in which the Greco-Roman world emerged victorious. If they had thought about it a little more they might have chosen a different story to illustrate. In the end, the altar proved prophetic. The Roman Empire fell to maraudering 'barbarians' (the Visigoths, the Huns, etc) several times before it dissembled into the kingdoms of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

I write all this first, because its only my mind, but also because all I did yesterday was track down the local post office (I ended up walking there the first time, though it was two tram stops away) and mail about 18 lbs. of my clothes home. I don't know why I didn't do this in Korea, it certainly would have been much cheaper. My only excuse is that I had forgotten what traveling is like and thought I would need a lot more than I actually did. I had to walk back to the post office carrying 18 lbs of clothes in my hands and the guy there packed it all up for me. I felt a little bad because my obvious cluelessness led to the Foreigner Express Lane and I bypassed about 20 people who were waiting in line, but on the other hand, they didn't seem to mind too much.

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