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Cimmerians

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Ovid among the Scythians
Eugène Delacroix, Owidiusz wśród Scytów

At the far west, near islands (where, according to Homer, live personifications of dreams), close to gates, which follow to Underground, was supposed to live mythical folk – Cimmeroi (Homer, Odyssey, book XI,  lines 14-19). We do not know habits of the tribe nor other information about their lives, because they are only mentioned as “the folk of land, where rays of sunshine does not come”.

The plot of eleventh book of Odyssey concerns the meeting of the main hero with ghosts, e.g. of the ones who died in the battle of Troy, like Achilles, who was crying to the king of Ithaca because of tragic human’s fate after death. This fabulous description of visit at the border of the Ocean, where was supposed to be an entrance to Underground, made Cimmeroi interesting subject of consideretions for ancient writers.

Tibullus, well known Latin poet from 1st century BC, in his trial to express in sublime way fantastic lands, has written about Cimmeroi as well. According to him they were supposed to live  near the Pluto’s country and to never see the Sun, which goes under the earth near their land (Tibullus, Elegies, book III, poem 7, lines 64-6). Moreover, Cimmeroi were linked by Tibbulus with death – when he wanted to describe dying of Lygdamus, who said just before his end, that he was going to see Cimmeroi’s land (Tibullus, Elegies, book III, poem 5, lines 23-6).

Latin authors, while wanting to join Greek literal tradition, were forced to use motives of well known authors such as Homer, that is why they were interested in Cimmeroi. Because of that, Ovid, in “Metamorphoses”, in his description of Somnus, god of sleep, he created his land in place belonging to Cimmeroi (Ovid, Metemorphoses, book XI, lines 605-9). He joined Somnus’ land to Cimmeroi’s country, because they were associated with darkness, which was the domain of the god of Night (who was Somnus’ mother).

Several decades after Ovid’s activity, Valerius Flaccus, Latin poet living during Vespasian’s reign, wrote Latin version of Argonauts expedition, where he has added terrifying description of Cimmeroi’s lands. Nearby Styx, in the land of silent, in complete darkness, there is a country of fear, where souls live – this is home of Cimmeroi (Valerius Flaccus, Argonauts, book III, lines 398-9). Similarly, a bit later poet (Statius), who lived in Domitian’s time, has described the tribe as living in a sad country without sun’s rays (Statius, Silvae, book III, poem 2, line 92).

Thanks to Homer, Cimmeroi for centuries have become for latin authors frequent element of so called locuc horridus (literary theme, which contained description of horrible place, full of dangerous things). What has led Homer to mention Cimmeroi living in the nearby of Underground, what helped them to become a popular mythical tribe for Romans? The word “west” in ancient greek language is ζόφος  – it marks both the side of the world, where Cimmeroi lived, and the adjective meaning “dark”1. Homer etymiologically linked the far west world with darkness and with the tribe, which can be translated as “those who live in darkness”2. At the east of Homer’s world lived Ethiops, who were supposed to live in a place full of sunshine and wealth, and who were often visited by the Olympic gods (Homer, Odyssey, book X, lines 81-6). The Cimmeroi’s country was made in opposition to the land of richness and happiness, what helped later poets to imagine, how is it at the end of the world, where there are no rays of sunshine.

Author: Radosław Domazet
Footnotes
  1. R. Beekes, Etymiological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden 2010, s. 502.
  2. A commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, Vol. II, books IX-XVI, eds. A. Heubeck, A. Hoekstra, Oxford 1990, s. 79.
Sources
  • Homer, Iliada, tł. K. Jeżewska, Wrocław 1972.
  • Homer, Odyseja, tł. J. Wittlin, London 1957.
  • Owidiusz, Metamorfozy, tł. A. Kamieńska, S. Stabryła, Wrocław 1996.
  • Stacjusz, Sylwy, tł. S. Śnieżewski, Kraków 2010.
  • Tibullus, Elegies, tr. and ed. F. W. Cornish, J. P. Postgate, J. W. Mackail, London 1988.
  • Waleriusz Flakkus, Argonautyki: ksiąg osiem, tł. S. Śnieżewski, Kraków 2004.
  • R. Beekes, Etymiological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden 2010.
  • A commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, Vol. II, books IX-XVI, eds. A. Heubeck, A. Hoekstra, Oxford 1990

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