Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Dancing Satyr Who Left the Sea

Michael Phelps’s record-setting accomplishment in the water almost defies the imagination. Excellence is one thing, but to be able to win against world-class competition with such short-term repetition simply invites disbelief, and yet, he did it.

I encountered another amazing aquatic story in a small fishing village in the southwest of Sicily called Mazara Del Vallo.

In 1997 a fishing boat from Mazara found a bronze leg amidst the fish in its nets. Many odd things from the sea end up in nets, the detritus of millennia of shipwrecks. The captain turned it over to archeological authorities and went back to business.

A year later, on March 4, 1998, the same boat and same captain were hard at work when one of their nets got caught on something on the sea floor. When a diver went down to free it, he saw that it was caught on some sort of bronze torso. He freed the net, put the torso into it, and signaled to bring it up. After 2,400 years, the dancing satyr was breathing air again.

The captain brought the torso to the same authorities. The leg from a year ago was from the same statue, a two-legged satyr (Greek saturos), with pointy ears and a space in the back for a tail. In mythology, lecherous, happy, dancing satyrs often accompanied the drunken god Dionysius.

It turns out this was a very important find. Some have dated it to 4th century BC, but it is at least from the Hellenistic period of the 3rd or 2nd century. The importance is in its distinction: the satyr is in a moment of ecstasy. His head is thrown back, his back is arched, his hair swings to the left, as it would if he were spinning. The Roman authorities did computer simulations of the piece, and determined that the physiology of the statue perfectly matches that of a whirling dervish. The sculptor was very, very skilled to achieve those details.

Ater a 5-year renovation, the Dancing Satyr of Mazara was on display in Rome where thousands went to see this amazing new reminder of their own celebrated antiquity. Then the Italian government put a lot of money into a permanent display in Mazara del Vallo, were we saw it. Like the Venus del Milo, it doesn’t have arms, or a second leg, but that’s not much of an issue for something as old as it is.

What stays with me about this story is the sheer magnitude of the 2,400 years that this statue lay on the bottom of the sea, quiet, patient, resigned. The Greek empire ended, the Roman empire ended, Christianity started, and there he be. Then somehow his leg becomes detached---maybe that happened in the initial accident that stopped his journey, maybe he landed intact, but the centuries wore away at the leg, until it was free.

Either way, the leg floats up and into the lives of the fishermen, a harbinger of his presence until he could muster the power the next year to snag the net.

As I walked around the piece and marveled, I realized what a huge metaphor it is for the idea that some things will not stay submerged, not in our psyches, not in our past. Certain things have the power to come into light, no matter what the odds, nor how long it takes. A word to the wise, I’d say.


dorki said...

It does seem that art endures through changing time and cultures. Probably the musical sounds of our cave dwelling ancestors would not only be recognizable but entertaining. One can only guess at what wonders still lie unfound.

M.A.Peel said...

dorki, interesting that you mention the music of our cave dweller ancestors. Music being the most ephemeral of art.