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"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thais of Athens preview - Chapter XIV - Wisdom of Eridu

Thais and her friends travel to the temple of Eridu in hopes to rescue the young sculptor Ehephilos, who is hopelessly in love with Eris, and to partake of the wisdom and philosophy more ancient than the sands of Egypt.

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With [...] frightening precision, the Indians had calculated the length of the dark and menacing period of troubles in the history of mankind, which started after the great battle in India two thousand seven hundred seventy years prior, when the best of people perished. This era or, as they called it, Kali-Yuga was to last another four hundred twenty-nine thousand years.

“Other scholars believe it to be much shorter,” – the tall Indian said, “Only a bit over five thousand years.”

Lysippus and Thais exchanged glances. Such enormous discrepancy contradicted the precision of the enormous numbers. Noting the Helenians’ confusion, the Indians continued telling them about the precise calculations developed by their mathematicians. In the book of “solar science” the time was segmented in a way the Helenians were not familiar with. One hour equaled 24 Helenian minutes, and one minute or vikala – 24 seconds. The time was further fragmented by a factor of 60 all the way down to a kashta: an unimaginably brief moment of one three hundred millionth of a second. To Lysippus’s question, what was the use in numbers that could be neither measured nor imagined, the Indian replied that human mind had two stages of consciousness. At the higher stage, called buddhi, a person was capable of comprehending such small measures and understanding the structure of the world made up of the smallest particles and central forces that were eternal and undefeatably strong, despite being mere points of energy.

Helenians learned about the great physician Jivak, who lived three hundred years ago and possessed a stone that could show a body’s internal organs, and of another healer, who protected people from small pox by making a small scratch and rubbing into it some blood from a person who had survived the disease.
“Then why don’t physicians use this method today?” – Thais exclaimed, “You speak of it as something half-forgotten?”

The elder priest gazed at her silently, while the younger cried out with indignation, “You must not say such things, beautiful initiated one! All this and many other things constitute a mystery locked in ancient books. If it is forgotten, then such is the will of gods and Karma. When we, the priests of the highest caste, discover that a person of a lower caste has overheard the reading of the sacred books, we pour molten lead into his ears!”

“Then how do you carry out the distribution of the knowledge?” – Thais asked acidly, “You have only just spoken of the perils of ignorance.”

“We care not about the distribution, but about preservation of the knowledge among those, who are meant to possess it!”- the tall priest replied.

“Among one caste? And what of the others – are they to be kept ignorant?”

“Yes. And to fulfill their destiny. If they do it well, they will be born into a higher caste in their next life.”

“Knowledge preserved by a small group will invariably grow weaker and become forgotten,” – Lysippus interrupted, “and closed circles that are castes are only good for breeding animals, not people. The Spartans tried creating a breed of warriors, and even succeeded at it, but all things in life change faster than people can anticipate. Life of war put the Lacedemonians at the brink of extinction.”

“We have not one, but many castes, as is necessary for human existence,” – the Indian objected.

“Still, I find the Helenian approach toward people more consistent. In your sacred books and philosophic writings you place humans at the same level as gods, but in reality you breed them like livestock and keep them ignorant,” – Lysippus said firmly.

“Do Helenians not acknowledge the nobility of one’s origins?” – the elder priest frowned.

“They do. But there is one very basic difference. We believe that a nobleman can be born anywhere and deserves any knowledge, art and skill he wishes to learn and use. If he finds an equally good mate, the noble line of their descendants will be equally welcome in an Athenian palace and in a house of a Khalhidian farmer. Good and bad can originate anywhere. It is common to believe that particularly outstanding individuals are born of gods and goddesses.”

“But you have slaves, whom you do not consider human and humiliate to the level of animals!” – the Indian exclaimed.

Thais wanted to object. Lysippus stopped her by quietly squeezing her hand. He rose and leaving the Athenian alone with the Indians, followed the familiar path to his room and returned with a large chest made of purple amaranth wood with ornate golden corners. Having placed it carefully on the octagonal table, the sculptor opened the clasp. He revealed a strange mechanism – a combination of gears and levers of various sizes. Silver rings were marked with letters and symbols.

The interested Indians leaned over the chest.

“A follower of Pythagoreans, Heraclites of Pont, who was close to Aristotle, discovered that the globe of Gaia revolves around itself, akin to a top, and that its axis is tipped with respect to the plane traveled by the Sun and its planets. This mechanism was built to calculate the movement of planets, without which navigation and prediction of the future could not exist. Here is someone’s mind that established itself one time, having designed this mechanism, to be followed by the others hands and the tables inscribed on the cover. People who use it are free from long calculations and have time for higher pursuits.”


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Thais, Lysippus and Eris descended down a narrow staircase into a large cellar under the tower. The interpreter remained upstairs. The Helenians knew Persian language tolerably well, and the Indians spoke it fluently.

In a spacious square room, brightly lit by the smokeless Indian torches, they were greeted by two pale-faced and one dark-skinned, short and stocky young woman of about thirty, who looked like the elder priest.

“My sister,” – he said, guessing his guests’ thoughts, “She is our Nagini, the ruler of serpents.”

“Is she initiated into Tantra?” – Thais asked.

“She would die without!” – the priest replied sternly, “She will not only carry out the ritual, but all the required preparations. Sit.”

They settled onto a cool stone bench near a wall. A fourth girl appeared, carrying a large flat bowl with warm scented milk and a handful of fragrant herbs. The ruler of serpents shed her clothes. The woman rubbed down her entire bronze-colored body with the herbs soaked in the milk, pinned up her hair and put on a soft leather apron that covered her from collarbones to knees.

Never looking at the visitors, calm and serious, the ruler of serpents approached the heavy metal door, carrying a golden cup filled with milk. At her sign, a grate was lowered, separating her from her assistants and guests. The girls started playing instruments similar to flutes. One played the quiet melodious main theme, while the other punctuated it with a rhythm of whistling sounds. The short dark-skinned priestess started singing in a high-pitched voice, making a sharp vibrating whistle in place of a refrain. She opened the door and spread out her arms, still holding the cup. Black emptiness of a cave loomed behind the door. A gap glowed faintly at the other end of it. Apparently there was a narrow passage to daylight. For some time, the priestess sang accompanied by the flutes – a very long time as it seemed to Thais who was waiting for something terrible. Suddenly the dark-skinned woman leaned forward and placed the cup beyond the threshold of the door. The flutists stopped playing. They could clearly hear the rustling of a heavy body, sliding over a stone floor. A very wide flat head peeked out from the darkness of the cave. Two clear eyes, tinged with crimson, looked carefully over everyone, as Thais imagined. The head with square scales, similar to a soldier’s chest armor, briefly dipped into milk. The priestess called with a melodious whistling sound. A giant male serpent slipped into the cellar. He was twenty elbows in length with a greenish-black back turning deep olive on the sides. The usually brave Athenians felt a chill down her spine, and found Eris’s hand, who responded with an anxious squeeze of her fingers.

The serpent coiled himself up, directing his pitiless and fearless gaze at the priestess, who bowed to him respectfully. Continuing to sing, she raised her arms high above her head with her palms folded together, and raising on tiptoe started rocking from side to side, flexing her sides, her legs pressed firmly together, maintaining incredible balance. The rocking movement increased in frequency. The enormous serpent matched it, as he slithered and coiled on the floor, raising his head level with the priestess’s head. Only now did Thais notice three ribbons braided into the woman’s hair, each of them armed with rows of polished glittering needles. The serpent rocked in rhythm with the priestess, approaching slowly. Suddenly, she held out her right hand and patted the monster’s head, dashing with fantastic swiftness away from the opened maw that struck at the very spot, where her face has been only a fraction of a second prior.

Rocking and singing continued; the priestess moved her feet with the skill and control of a dancer, as she approached the serpent. Having reached the right moment, she took his head into her hands, kissed it and darted away again. The serpent struck with the barely perceptible speed, but each time the ruler of serpents guessed his intentions exactly and moved away even faster. Three times the young woman kissed the serpent’s head, evading his bite with incomprehensible ease, or offering him the edge of her apron, into which he sunk his long poisonous fangs. Finally the irritated serpent rose up in a spiral, struck at the woman, missed and froze, rocking and aiming again. The priestess bent her back, clapped her hands and in one lightning-fast movement pressed her lips to the serpent’s mouth. The snake struck at that very second, but this time he did not stop and chased after the priestess. Incredibly, she managed to evade him and slipped through the narrow door behind the grate, opened and shut by a fourth assistant in advance.

The clang of metal, the thud of the serpent’s body and the angry beast’s hissing reverberated in Thais’s nerves like a force of nature.

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