Poetic Dreams of Flight

The crash of Germanwings flight 9525 has been on my mind quite a lot recently.

Previously, on occasion of a similar incident (namely that of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370), I have published blog posts about the horrors that relatives of crash victims must go through – whether they know what became of their nearest and dearest or not.

The reason as to why this particular incident has been on my mind even more than previous incidents may have to do with the fact that this particular crash feels as though it happened a lot closer to home. I also have the distinct feeling that I, too, have flown on the same route with the same airline.

As a (fairly) frequent flyer I felt the need to remind myself of the many amazing aspects about modern day air travel – neatly summarised by Louis C. K. in a short segment that is available in the following clip (if strong language upsets you, this is not for you – you’ve been warned!):

Dreams of flight are as old as humankind, they say, and (like Louis C. K.) classicists will be quick to refer to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus to support that claim.

My personal favourite, however, is a short Latin verse inscription from Pompeii – a graffito discovered in the Casa degli Scienziati (CIL IV 1538 = CLE 43 cf. p. 853):

Quidam cum peteret alas . . .

When someone desired wings . . .

Resembling the opening of an Aesopic or Phaedrian fable, this little line – deliberately left open-ended by its writer (following the fashion of a common ‘in-joke’ at Pompeii) – to me is a delightfully mysterious expression of the universal dream to break down the barriers of our human existence and to imagine what could lie beyond.

How does this imagination continue? What is the quidam‘s fate? Will the wish come true, and will it end well? What would the writer have done with wings? What would we do? What would I do?

The graffito remains silent.

But it  invites us to think about it.

To think about what flying is about.

The speed of flying, for example, that is alluded to in an epitaph for Borysthenes Alanus, Emperor Hadrian’s horse – an inscription discovered in Apt/Apta in the province of Gallia Narbonensis (CIL XII 1122 cf. p. 823 = CLE 1522):

Borysthenes Alanus
Caesareus veredus
per aequor et paludes
et tumulos Etruscos
volare qui solebat
Pannonicos in apros
nec ullus insequentem
dente aper albicanti
ausus fuit nocere
vel extimam saliva
sparsit ab ore caudam
ut solet evenire
sed integer iuventa
inviolatus artus
die sua peremptus
hoc situs est in agro.

Borysthenes Alanus, the imperial steed that used to fly across water and swamps and the Tuscan hills – no wild boar, when pursued by him, dared to harm him with its white tooth!  – spraying his saliva from his mouth to the tip of its tail, as it commonly happens, in unbroken youth, with his limbs intact, deceased at an appropriate age, he now lies here in this field.

The imperial veredus, a light, quick horse, as the paradigm of flying – quick, hardly even touching the ground with his hooves: one gets a sense of the adrenalin and excitement that the emperor must have felt when riding his horse (which he named after the river Dniepr).

And then there is the dizzying height to which one gets to soar so easily when flying – a height also imagined in an early Christian epitaph from the city of Rome as the destination of the soul (CIL VI 32000 cf. p. 4800 = CLE 734 = ICUR I 307 = ILCV 60 add.):

Consul in egregiis bis senis fascibus auctus
magnus ab Insteiis – gens inclyta – Pompeianus
istic terrenos terrenis sedibus artus
reddidit inque sinus summi genitoris apertum
aethera pervolitans levibus se sustulit alis.
caeloq(ue) et terris placida sic pace repostus
felix luce nova saec(u)lorum in saecula gaudet.
femineo sed victa animo et miserabile dulci
germano divulsa dolens fratremq(ue) requirens
Paula soror tumulum dedit et solatia (!) magni
parva tulit luctus, tristiq(ue) heu pectore ‘salve
perpetuumq(ue) vale, frater carissime’ dixit.

A (sc. suffect) consul honoured with twelve outstanding fasces, the great Pompeianus of the family of the Insteii – a famous family indeed! – has returned his worldly limbs here to a worldly residence and, fluttering across the sky towards the welcoming bosom of the highest father, he has soared with his light wings. Thus put to peaceful, pleasant rest in heaven and on earth, he rejoices, happily, in new light in all eternity.

Overcome, however, by female spirit and pitiful, tormented in pain over her sweet brother, longing for her brother, Paula, his sister, has dedicated this tomb, gaining little solace for her great mourning, saying, with a sad heart (the pain!): ‘Greetings, and farewell forever, dearest brother!’

It is hard, of course, not to think of the sheer evil of a mind, poised to destroy not only itself, but 149 other, innocent people with him – taking away their control over their own lives, letting them die in full awareness of what dire fate to expect.

A horrendous thought – reminding me of one of the most peculiar Latin epitaphs that has survived from the city of Rome herself (CIL VI 26011 cf. p. 3532 = CLE 1063; image here):

Scita hic sit(a).
papilio volita(n)s
texto religatus
aranist: il(l)ei prae-
da rep(e)ns, huic
data mors su<b>i<t>-

Scita lies here.

A fluttering butterfly was caught in a spider’s web. The latter obtains quick prey, the former – death.

For those left behind, however, it may be a lot more wholesome and comforting to consider that, never mind how horrendous the fate of their beloved, they died while living through one of the oldest dream of humankind – the dream of flying like a bird.

Birds that died prematurely, however, are a reason to mourn even for the gods, as an epigram of uncertain authorship and age suggests (CIL IX 5922 adn. cf. p. 690 = CLE 1517):

Ereptam volucrem Cupido luget.
non est quod putat hic inesse lector,
sed vitam leget hic brevem puellae:
crescebat modo que (!) futura pulcra
multorumque amor, excidit et omen.

Cupido mourns a bird that has been snatched away.

In here is not what the reader thinks there is, but he reads about the short life of a girl: she who was just growing up to be a future beauty and to be beloved by many, died together with her fate.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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