Monday, 4 June 2012

Flower Power - By the River Bank

I was hoping to post this very early yesterday because my brother and I were travelling down to London to see the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, but I didn’t get time. We had a wonderful time, and got very wet! I realised last night that today’s post has a river theme. It wasn’t planned, so it seems very topical.

Not all Greek myths were written down in ancient times. Not many people could read or write. So myths were passed on in long verses, epic poems and fables. One flower/plant fable seems to have remained unwritten until the 4th century.

It occurs in “Dionysaica”, the longest surviving poem, and among the last, from Ancient Greece or Rome. It was written by an Egyptian called Nonnus. The plot follows the exploits of the cross-dressing god of Dionysus and his various adventures in India. It includes the story of his love affair with a young lad called Ampelus (the subject of a future Flower Power post). When Ampelus is killed Dionysus is grief-stricken, so our old friend Eros, the god of gay sex, comforts him by telling him the story of Kalamos and Karpos.

As seems usual with semi-divine youths Kalamos was remarkably gorgeous and athletic. He was the son of Maiandros, the god of the river whose winding and wandering course gives us the word “meander”. Kalamos had a mortal boyfriend called Karpos who was equally gorgeous. Some myths say Karpos was also semi-divine though Nonnus’s “Dionysaica” implies he was mortal.

One day the two youths were enjoying a day beside the Meander river and they decide to have a swimming race to the opposite bank and back again. Kalamos, being the son of that river’s god, was quite literally in his element and he reached the far back first. Realising he had an unfair and unnatural advantage he slowed down on the return leg to let Karpos overtake him and reach the start bank first.

Then a sudden gust of wind and large wave came down the river. Even Kalamos struggled briefly to keep his head above water and when he reached the bank he climbed out and looked around for his boyfriend. Karpos was nowhere to be seen.

When he realised Karpos had drowned Kalamos went into throes of deep grief, and his words take up quite a few lines in the poem. First he denies that his father the river god could have drowned Karpos, then he blames the gods of the four winds.

“My star sank in the stream and hasn’t risen”, he cries. “My morning star has not shone. Karpos is drowned, and why should I see the daylight any more? Who has quenched the light of love? Come along, my boy, why do you stay in the water so long? Have you found a better friend than me? Have you thrown the love of poor Kalamos away so that you can stay with him? If a water nymph has carried you off I will kill them all! Karpos, have you reached the bank further down the river? I’ve shouted till I’m tired and you don’t answer”.

Kalamos can take it no longer and decided to join his boyfriend. “If my father carried you off in the merciless rush of his wave, let him receive his son also in the waters.” In floods of tears he cuts off a lock of his hair (a traditional custom to honour the dead). “Accept this hair and then my body for I can’t see another dawn without Karpos.  Karpos and Kalamos had one life and both one watery death together in the same stream. Build on the river bank, water nymphs, one grave for us both and put this verse on the gravestone, ‘I am the grave of Karpos and Kalamos, a pair of lovers whom the pitiless water slew in days of yore’.” And with those words Kalamos leapt into the river and allowed himself to be drowned.

To honour his self-sacrifice the gods turned Kalamos into a water reed. His name became used in several languages (e.g. Sanskrit, Hebrew and Latin) as the word for a writing pen, as reeds were often fashioned into writing implements.

Karpos, the boyfriend, whose name means “fruit”, lent his name to various flower-related words. From the Latin version of his name comes “carpel”, the female part of a flower, and “carpology”, the study of fruit and seeds.

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