Part II: “Erotion – A Tale of Ancient Greece”
“Erotion – A Tale of Ancient Greece” propels the reader back to the Homeric age and relates a situation of crisis. It then poses a dilemma similar to the one Constantine and Erota faced in “The Pearl of the Bosphorus”: attachment to family bonds or devotion to a cause or authority? Could absolute devotion to the ideal of family, especially in time of crisis, be more sacred?
The story was published anonymously in the October 1847 issue of the DUM. The tale is set in Homeric Taurica (the Crimean peninsula). The heroine of the story is Erotion, a sixteen-year-old priestess at the temple of Diana, where Iphigenia presides as arch-priestess. The inclusion of Iphigenia in the story is critical, since it connotes by her own father to the cause of the Achaians and the Trojan War.
Erotion’s personal history is shrouded in mystery. As is later revealed, her birth is connected to a sacrilege to the goddess: Erotion’s mother, Iole, was herself a priestess of Diana who chose earthly over divine love. When the love affair was exposed, Iole helped her lover escape and died shortly after giving birth to the child. Iole’s history and the element of the child’s lost father will serve as a catalyst to the unfolding of the story.
The first half of the tale portrays Erotion as a creature of keen spiritual sensibilities who embraces a vocation. The reader first encounters Erotion as a child at the yearly celebration of Diana Taurica. She is chosen by the goddess to become her priestess and is initiated to the mysteries of the cult of Diana Triformis. She receives Iphigenia’s solemn blessing before entering the sanctuary: “The goddess calls and must be obeyed. Go, and be thou fortunate; for the influence of her whose name is unutterable, is upon thee” (454). Thus, the child enters a solemn pact to obey and honour a higher power, in a way similar to Constantine of the “Pearl” when he took the terrible oath of the Heteria and bound himself to the cause of the Motherland.
In describing Erotion’s spiritual experience in the sanctuary the author draws on the biblical tradition. She is companied by the voice of a divine spirit “whom mankind worship under the name of Diana […] and give such shape and ascribe to it such symbols as are easiest of comprehension to human mind” (455), Erotion crosses the ocean of Death and wanders though a place of sublime beauty and light where the shadows of the dead revel in eternal happiness – the average Christian reader would probably think of Paradise. She is then briefly led through a vale where “the sunshine grows less bright, the flowers less beautiful” and where the shadows wear in the face “a pensive sweetness that is almost sad” (457). It is here that Erotion meets the shadow of her mother, who awaits the spirit of her child and “one more” (458) in order to reach a state of exoneration. At the end of her tour, the child meets a host of shadows “diviner and more beautiful in shape than any she had yet beheld” who address her in words that foretell her fate and the inevitable turn of the story:
We are blessed, we are blessed; we died joyfully for what was dearest to us on earth; […] Oh, spirit, loosed from the earth-bonds for a time, behold thy destiny – thou shalt be one of us – rejoice, rejoice! Such a death is sweet – sweet as a babe’s slumber – such an immortality is unspeakably glorious. Erotion, fulfill thy destiny, and come to us. (458, emphasis mine)
In this rather protracted first part of the story, the author carefully constructs a religious context only nominally Greek and pagan but in essence Christian. The reader may easily recognize and identify with its elements while fully comprehending Erotion’s devotion to this spiritual call. Yet, the very words “on earth” uttered by the spirits of the vision preclude Erotion’s actions at the moment of crisis and pose the moral dilemma to the reader, as well.
Erotion is next seen spending the following years in a spiritual trance, trying to clearly see the scope of her destiny:
Her eyes were of a dreamy depth, and had a strange, mysterious look, as if her soul saw without the aid of mere bodily organs […] her inner mind was ever brooding over things beyond earth” (458).
It then happens that her destiny arrives in the shape of her unknown father, Tisamenes from Crete. A sea-storm casts him ashore and Erotionfinds him hurt and starving in a cave by the sea. Tisamenes mistakes her for her mother, priestess Iole, and from that moment on Erotionis Diana’s priestess no more. Tisamenes “sat with his daughter’s hand in his, looking into her calm sweet face, in which the wild enthusiasm of the vowed and inspired priestess was seen no more, but had given place to an expression of tenderness and human love” (460).
Happiness will not last as events move fast. Erotion is reported missing and search parties look for her. The crime of Tisamenes is not forgotten and, if found, he will be sentenced to death. Significantly, it is the terrible, forbidding Iphigenia who discovers them in the cave. Iphigenia spares Erotion, in a gesture that underlines the sanctity of filial love and devotion: “Shall I doom to death a child because she would fain preserve a father – I, who willingly had died for mine?” As the story draws to its end, Erotion manages to save her father and die in his stead. Her very last words are “I have fulfilled my destiny; he is saved” (465).
“The Pearl” and “Erotion” were published in the Anglo-Irish, unionist, pro-Tory and pro-Protestant Dublin University Magazine during what proved to be the worst year of the Great Famine. Death, starvation, the economic and social dissolution of the country, and fear of civil unrest prompted Isaac Butt, a founding member of the magazine and its editor between 1834 -1838, to publish in April 1847 a devastating critique of how the imperial metropolis handled the crisis:
In a country that is […] under the protection of the mightiest monarchy upon earth […] thousands of our fellow-creatures are each day dying of starvation, and the wasted corpses of many left unburied in their miserable hovels, to be devoured by the hungry swine (501).
The DUM addressed the Protestant middle classes of Ireland and steadfastly supported the Union with Britain. The Great Famine and the ghost of social revolution threatened this tie. Nevertheless, the two stories in question provide a space wherein to think of contemporary sorrows and dilemmas albeit in a foreign – and thus less painful – setting: Constantinople of 1821 and Homeric Taurica.
Greece serves as a multi-purpose vehicle: in its classical associations, it invokes culture, spirituality, and perhaps moral elevation – although appraisals of the meaning of ancient Greece tended to shift throughout the nineteenth century. In its recent historical associations Greece invokes the noble ideal of liberty, although the author of the “Pearl” is careful not to expand on the product of the Greek Revolution, namely, the independent nation-state – that would be treacherous ground for a magazine advocating Union with the British empire. The anonymous author rather wishes to highlight the distress and loss that revolution involves.
The choice of a maiden as agent of action seems highly symbolic. Erota and Erotion are young and fragile beings, dependent on their parent (the father, the goddess/temple) for survival. Yet, in the face of mortal danger they have a very clear idea of their duty and they act upon it: protect the bond of earthly kinship at all costs. One could perhaps see a connection between Ireland, as a dependent part of the empire, and its “parent” Britain. On a more literal level, perhaps it is a call for family and social unity during the atrocious trials of the Great Famine.
Both stories essentially promote filial devotion and the attachment to family bonds as the only morally and spiritually acceptable path in times of extreme distress. Was Constantine’s true duty to honour the vision of a Motherland, oppose the empire, and forsake his kin? Erotion seems better answer the dilemma.
Anonymous. 1847. “Erotion – A Tale of Ancient Greece.” Dublin University Magazine 30 (December): 453-465.
Butt, Isaac. 1847. “The Famine in the Land.” DUM 29 (April): 501-540.
Tilley, Elizabeth. 2000. “Charting Culture in the Dublin University Magazine.” In Ireland in the Nineteenth Century: Regional Identity, edited by Leon Litvack and Glenn Hooper, Society for the Study of Nineteenth Century Ireland 4 (Dublin: Four Courts Press): 58-65.
Image: Serov, Valentin. 1893. Iphigenia in Tauris.