Giatras’ Aegis, And A Journey Through Old Cimeria

Konstantinos Doxiadis

The Cimerians were a pious and learned people, at the forefront of multiple cultural and technological advances of the late Classical era. In fact, they were so pious and learned, that the linguistic constraints of their language must come as a great surprise to any historian who studies them, near as a great a surprise as the elaborate methods that they devised to overcome them. Before delving into the intricacies of Cimerian literature, and the peculiarities which make it so unique, it is pertinent to first understand the socio-political environment and cultural norms it grew out of. As with most early civilisations, few Cimerians could read, and even fewer could write, the latter group consisting mostly of bards composing folk ditties to sing at inns, or commissioned elegies to honour the wondrous feats of nobles on the battlefields. Due to the nature of their craft, the bards would rarely, if ever, be given the opportunity to truly create their own work and break past the confines of pleasing a specific audience. When they did choose to do so, their works were seldom appreciated, largely due to the comprehensive and convoluted nature of their prose. They riddled their poetry with obfuscations and peppered their stories with adjectives whose meanings only they knew. After a time, the solitary nature of such creations grew tiresome even to the bards, and so, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Being a proud people, the Cimerians could do nothing in moderation. Thus, when the bards realised that their orotund use of adverbs and adjectives was not accessible to the masses, they decided to stop using them completely. ‘If the people wouldn’t conform to the language, then the language would have to conform to the people.’ It was this audacity, and desire to find a compromise between simplicity and depth, that led to the formation of what are now known as ‘Dynamic Lexical Modifiers’, or DLMs for short. Roughly speaking, a DLM is a noun, or list of nouns, that function as modifiers of an appended sentence, altering the tone in which said sentence should be interpreted. Due to their utilisation of subconscious associations, many consider DLMs to be a literary precursor to the ‘kenning’ structure found in Skaldic poetry of the early middle ages, reducing language to a sufficiently primitive basis such as to allow each reader to draw what they wish from it. (For an interesting discussion of the influences of DLM on Skaldic poetry and Norse literature, see Njor Byurkhart’s seminal Skaldic Poetry, or: How to Steal Original Ideas from Extinct Peoples) To illustrate, consider the following simple sentence:

John called Jim an idiot.

Based on how we choose to describe the events that transpired, we can develop the above sentence so that it leads to a multiplicity of interpretations. For example, we could say:

‘John angrily called Jim an idiot’, or, ‘John jokingly called Jim an idiot’. Wishing to retain such complex linguistic structures, the Cimerian bards started employing their DLMs to simulate each and every adverb and adjective that they could find. Thus, ‘angrily’, might be simulated as:

[Sword, moment, wound, blood, death]: John called Jim an idiot.

Where the nouns enclosed in square brackets are the DLMs. Similarly, for ‘jokingly’ they might write:

[Friend, smile, joke]: John called Jim an idiot.

The strength of the system is now apparent. The mastery of a language is a relative property, and thus, instead of requiring people to re-educate themselves and broaden their vocabulary, or grapple with irregular grammatical rules, the bards managed to strip Cimerian of sufficient material to raise the average level of literacy to that of a literary scholar. This now meant that the bards could develop their creative talents whilst enjoying much new-found appreciation by the public. Learned lords could deploy the full breadth of their intellectual capacities to derive deep and intricate truths regarding the human psyche, while less able thinkers could take pleasure in the more common banalities of unmodified sentences.

However, while it did promulgate development and interest in literary forms in the short-term, the slapdash solution the bards developed to counter the linguistic shortcomings of their people served only to stunt long-term growth. What the elders had not foreseen, as Marc Campbell points out in his masterful Cimerian Modifiers: How to Destroy a Language Through Boredom, was that the quality of intra-generational scripts would fall considerably. How can a prospective writer try to simulate the DLM for ‘nostalgia’, when he does not possess an adequate linguistic arsenal with which to peruse it in his mind? DLMs are useful in turning sparse syntax into complex images, but their functionality in achieving the converse, i.e. in formalising complex thoughts, is greatly diminished. No self-respecting thinker will wish to constrain the vivacity of the images going through their mind in a lifeless lump of nouns and articles. Thus, after a mere century of prolific Cimerian poetry, the civilisation ran out of steam.

 The Eastern Kingdoms at 435BC, 30 years prior to the invasion of Ilyenor by Nurat. At the time, Cimeria was comprised of only Gilash, Ilyenor and Atoll.

The Eastern Kingdoms at 435BC, 30 years prior to the invasion of Ilyenor by Nurat. At the time, Cimeria was comprised of only Gilash, Ilyenor and Atoll.

Most interesting combinations of nouns had already been found and written down, and little new culture emerged to inspire the people of Cimeria. The bards started instead to simply recite the works of their predecessors, whose depth and intricacy was lost on the illiterate youth. Losing all motivation to form new art, the notion of adjectives and linguistically complex sentences started to fade in memory, until, by the early third century (BC), the Cimerians could no longer say anything but concatenations of nouns. As a result of this prolonged period of disuse, the average Cimerian brain size slowly shrank to that of a peanut, leading to the rapid devolution of the civilisation. As Holter notes in his Principles of Brainology, this is the critical size threshold for a human to possess, and overstepping the boundaries forces one back into more primitive forms of Sapiens, and ultimately, extinction.

The story of Cimeria would have been a truly short-lived one, if the bards had penned their thoughts on parchment, as the Assyrians, Babylonians and Ghiscari did before them. But, thankfully, the nobles at the time thought it wise to immortalise their favourite pieces on their courtyards, etching the words onto stone. As a result, our records are comprised of the greatest pieces of Cimerian literature, finely tuned and crafted to impress affluent hosts and guests. The majority of the pieces speak of great feats of the past, of brave warriors and horrific gods, of beautiful muses and wonders of nature, given just the right amount of historical accuracy to truly pique the interest, and make one wonder whether what they initially took to be mere fiction, might in fact be something more.

However, despite the extensive records archived by leading scholars around the world, few people are aware of the wonders of Cimerian literature, or indeed the civilisation itself. They choose instead to turn a blind eye on the wealth of information available to them, and, focus instead of more mainstream and derivative cultures such as those of Rome and Greece. While scholars scoff and attribute this to a generally disinterested general public, the truth is that much of the responsibility for this lack of exposure lies with the scholars themselves. Why would any modern-day reader choose to indulge in an ancient text whose prose is ridden with peculiar, inefficient, and frankly, confusing, objects such as DLMs? What should convince me, as a non-Cimerian scholar to leave my evocative and accessible verse, complete with its pretty adjectives and flowing tone, to engage with the stilted mass of linguistically primitive Cimerian oeuvre? Unless I speak Cimerian myself, all I will gather from the translations is that these people were uneducated and lyrically inept.

This was at least the case until the early twentieth century, when Cimerian texts started to suddenly surge in popularity. The origin of the craze was located in Athens, in the liberal, loose translations of the renowned scholar Patroklos Giatras. Giatras, a wonderful poet in his own right, held the firm belief that no verse can be successfully translated from one language to another. Instead, all that one can do is try to adapt it, writing and rewriting until the end result is incommensurable with the source. And in this spirit, he began adapting large chunks of the Cimerian oeuvre, reconstructing and retelling these primitive and obscure stories in a language that everyone could understand. In fact, his adaptations were so revered that Ezra Pound took them as a basis for his own work on Chinese poetry, Cathay, and dedicated it, ‘To P. Giatras, the greater adapter’. Perhaps the most important feature of Giatras’ work was his affinity to cultural familiarisation, substituting Greek myths and heroes in for the more obscure Cimerian legends. Of course, such a radical experiment is prone to countless (and to some, irreconcilable) concessions, garnering much criticism from more conservative scholars of the time. As a result, it is perhaps better to treat Giatras’ adaptations as creative achievements in their own right, regardless of how faithful they ended up being to the originals.

The following poem is called ‘The Forgotten Aegis,’ translated at some point during the 1730s, based on the Cimerian script of 435BC with the same title. Giatras’ text is based upon the story of the Ancient Greek hero, Jason, leader of the Argonauts, and develops a narrative surrounding his achievements. The corresponding Cimerian script talks of ‘Ilyenor’ (after whom a prominent Cimerian city was named) and the deterioration of history from fact to fable. Due to the considerable similarities between the two stories, many scholars posit that the Cimerian legend was in fact modelled upon the story of Jason (hence the choice to substitute the names by Giatras).

The Forgotten Aegis (Original: 435BC (roughly), Adaptation: 1732-5)

The aegis has rusted
Cold iron on worn leather straps
Left there, abandoned in some attic
Left there, to gather dust in the dark.

He is gone now
… dirt in the ground
What have you amounted to,
Jason, son of Aeson, rightful king of Iolcos?
Nothing more than dirt in the ground…

The sun strikes upon its edges
Spraying the walls with gold
And only rats bear witness to the spectacle…
None enter the attic any more
And why should they?
It is full of broken and forgotten things…

Who are you now,
Jason, lover of Medea,
Descendant of the winged god?
Who are you now, who
As the light cuts through the crevice
And falls upon your shield
Have not even the decency to turn in your grave?
Who are you now, oh mighty Jason,
Who with plain dirt have mingled
And whose once sturdy bones
Are nothing more than rotting ash…

Night falls, and roaches form in the shadows…
Pale waning and lifeless
The light sways from side to side
Enveloping the attic in its gloom.
Only those soft strokes of silver
Playing across the dull scratched surface
Only they
Casting their light upon the wall
Only they
they’re just like the waves
Look, Jason. Do you see?
It remembers…
After all these years, it remembers…
While the maggots feast upon your flesh
It remembers…

I searched for your tomb, Jason
I admit it, I did.
Through long forgotten fables
And old musty feats
Past myth and legend and myth again
I searched, scoured, and dug
But your tomb, I did not find

Or perhaps I found it…
Woe betide that I have
That those old, dirty relics
I overlooked for rubble…
That they…
How beautiful nothingness seems in their place.

Instead, I dreamt…
I dreamt of a mound upon a hill
Hidden away between the mountains
Wildflowers and berries growing through the stones
Small weeds sprouting from the moss
The only living remnants
From all those centuries of rain

I dreamt of Argo, or what remains of her
Salt-licked timber resting in some cove
Sifting through the sands
With that warm lull of the moonlit waves

I dreamt of your sword
Of the Harpies
Of those clashing cliffs
That man had yet to cross

I dreamt of your smile
And the cheers from your crew
As foe upon foe lay to waste upon your feet

I dreamt of all this and more
But your aegis, is all that remains
And this too, has begun to rust
Abandoned in some nameless corner
Propped up against some moth-eaten wall

What good will it do you now?
This dull chunk of metal
What good will it do you
Now that your arms have been ground to fine dust?

You are gone, Jason, and your time has passed…

Your seed has been forgotten
No son of yours shall rule Iolcos
Your legacy is but a fable
Nothing but a whisper in the wind
And even Argo, that stallion of dreams
Serves only to guide children to sleep

Only your aegis remains
This small and sturdy plate
This final mirror of the past
With none to look inside…

And yet, you have buried much beside you
And left behind even more…
For as the morning breeze gathers its strength
Rising up against the frothing waters
And as the sun strikes true upon the churning seas
I can hear the waves calling
Oh, so quietly…
‘Mighty Jason, firstborn son of Aeson,
Rightful king of Iolcos…’

I am not particularly a fan of analysing poetry, and especially when the words are imbued with the force that a poet like Giatras can give them, any commentary seems redundant and superficial. However, the main aim of this piece has not been to simply showcase the work of Giatras, but also to compare it to the original Cimerian texts that it is building upon. Thus, I have chosen to touch upon a few key instances of the poem where Giatras took full advantage of his liberty as a contemporary translator and departed from the source. I will not provide any commentary or explanation for Giatras’ stylistic choices. Instead, I will simply place excerpts from the original literal translation of the poem (permission kindly granted by the P. Giatras Foundation) alongside the adaptation and leave the analysis up to you, the reader. It is my hope, following this article, that you yourselves might be motivated to undertake a project such as Giatras’, recreating vivid and insightful poetry, out of old and neglected Cimerian scripts.


[su_column size="1/2" center="no" class=""]
And whose once sturdy bones
Are nothing more than rotting ash

Pale waning and lifeless
The light sways from side to side

Salt-licked timber resting in some cove
Sifting through the sands
With that warm lull of the moonlit waves

Abandoned in some nameless corner
Propped up against some moth-eaten wall

This dull chunk of metal
What good will it do you
Now that your arms have been ground to fine dust?

Mighty Jason, firstborn son of Aeson,
Rightful king of Iolcos…

Literal Translation


[su_column size="1/2" center="no" class=""]
1. [Strength, Deterioration, Weakness]:
His bones
Are now ash

2. [Transience, Weakness]:
The light moves
With no life

3. [Silence, Deterioration, Warmth, Peace]:
The boat rests in some cove
Moving up and down
With the waves

4. [Neglect, Rot]:
The shield in a corner
Against some wall

5. [Materiality, No-soul]:
This piece of metal
What does it matter
Now that you have no arms

6. [Power, Grace]:
Jason, son of Aeson,
King of Iolcos…


Konstantinos Doxiadis

I’m a recent philosophy graduate from the University of Cambridge interested in philosophy of language and formal logic, with an emphasis on the relation between formal and natural languages. When not writing about philosophy or logic (which I suspect will be quite often!), I will be focusing on prose and verse, where my main aim is to investigate the malleability of voice in narrative, and what effects this has on literary works.

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