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Sunday, February 2, 2003

Call me crazy

I can be a superstitious person, all right. All this weekend I just kept hearing little voices telling me, "It's an omen." The U.S. space shuttle, with an Israeli Air Force man on board, tragically disintegrates just as America prepares to launch another war in the Middle East. I guess I spent too much time around The Iliad and The Aeneid when I was in high school and college, because I keep flashing back on the signs that the Greek and Roman gods would send just before key events in war.

The Greeks had a spectacular one in The Iliad. Just before the Greek troops sail off to invade Troy, the king of the gods sends a horrible sign:

Not long ago, when our Achaean ships
gathered at Aulis, bringing disaster
for Priam and his Trojans, we sacrificed,
on holy altars placed around a spring,
hundreds of perfect creatures to the gods,
the immortals--underneath that tree,
a lovely plane tree, where bright water flowed.
And then a great omen appeared, a snake,
blood-red along its back, a dreadful sight,
a thing Zeus sent up into the daylight.
Out from under the altar that snake slithered,
darting for the plane tree, where there lay
tiny, new-born sparrows, eight fledglings,
huddled under foliage at the very top.
The ninth one was the mother of the batch.
The serpent ate the infants, screaming with fear.
The mother fluttered around here and there,
lamenting her dear chicks. The coiled serpent
snatched the crying mother by the wing.
Once the beast had gobbled up the sparrow
and her chicks, the god who'd made the snake appear
did something to it there for all to see.
Crooked Cronos' son changed that snake to stone!

So what did it mean? The Greek warrior recounting this story to his troops outside the Trojan city walls put quite a spin on this omen:

"Counselor Zeus has made manifest to us
a tremendous omen. It has come late,
will take a long time to be fulfilled,
but its fame will never die. Just as that snake
swallowed the sparrow's brood, eight in all,
with the mother who bore them the ninth victim,
so for that many years we'll fight over there.
In the tenth year we'll take Troy, wide streets and all."

The Romans had another omen story, which they told in their nationalistic rehash of Homer, The Aeneid. This scene came at the end of the same war that kicked off with the Greek snake snacks. The Trojans had found a huge wooden horse outside their city's walls, and they were about to pull it inside. It had been left by the Greeks, who had from all appearances given up on their assault and sailed home. A Trojan by the name of Laocoon (which we were taught to pronounce LACK-oo-ahn) ran up to warn the crowd not to do it.

He made a long speech, including the famous line about "Greeks bearing gifts," but it fell on deaf ears. And after he made a sacrifice -- he was on rotation as a priest that year -- out of the sea arose a huge sea monster, who ate Laocoon's two sons and killed Laocoon as he tried to defend them.

On further reflection, I guess Laocoon's demise wasn't so much a warning as a trick. The god Apollo, who was on the Greeks' side, sent the serpent to let the Trojans think that Laocoon was a kook who got what he deserved. But the Trojans had also been warned by the seer Cassandra not to bring the horse inside the city walls, and they didn't listen to her, either.

So if you're like me, and you have a tendency to behave like a fool and talk about signs, what does this one mean? Does it mean the war will be a spectacular American failure? That there will be seven years of war before America succeeds in its mission? That six times as many Americans will die as will Israelis? Or is it a trick sent by an enemy god, trying to make us feel vulnerable, weak, and uncertain of our chances for success when what we need to do is press ahead?

While I'm in the lunatic mode, I'm also noting all the 16's in the story. Launched on the 16th, 16 days in space, 16 minutes from touchdown. I spent last week at a law school academic competition in Florida, where the shuttle was supposed to land. The winning team on that Saturday afternoon? The Florida team. Number 16, of course.

[Iliad translation by Ian Johnston, Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, B.C.]

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