For some reason I remember Day 5 of The Decameron starting: ‘In the annals of ancient Crete’. Clearly this is impossible. What is just possible is that I read a translation that started: ‘In the annals of ancient Cyprus’, but for the life of me I can’t find that version now. In a note in this version I have found this, however:
Boccaccio himself affirms that he had read the account in the ancient histories of Cyprus; and Beroaldus, who translated this novel into Latin, also informs us that it is taken from the annals of the kingdom of Cyprus – a fact which that writer might probably have ascertained from his intimacy with Hugo IV, king of that island.
So maybe there is such a version out there somewhere.
I do love the sound of that incorrect beginning, and I have to wonder if at some point I started to write a story that began that way: In the annals of ancient Crete…
I’m ashamed to say that Boccaccio’s The Decameron is one of those books that sits on my bookshelf and never gets read – not properly, anyway – along with Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses,… The list goes on.
I underwent something of a spiritual crisis some time around 1997, having reached the conclusions:
- Humanity is doomed: we’re destroying the Earth, the population is out of control, there’s nothing we can do about it, and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket, circa 2050.
- There is something beyond physical reality, something that science is axiomatically unable to recognise, and scientists’ efforts to explain away everything inexplicable are often symptomatic of a zealous denial rather than rational argument.
What does this mean? Do I believe in God? Well, maybe. We have a complicated relationship.
In 1997 I decided to read Dante’s Inferno, working through one Canto each evening, notes and verse – reading the verse aloud. Here is how it begins (from the Mark Musa translation):
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
for I had wondered off from the straight path.
How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
It’s quite dry, but readable, and the imagery is powerful, and the notes provide an entertaining glimpse of Florentine politics at the start of the fourteenth century. The prize of my book collection has to be Inferno in the original language (see, e.g., here). I can’t speak more than a few words of Italian, but I adore its sound and rhythms:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
If you look carefully, you can just see the inscription over the gate to hell:
“Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate”.
Abandon all hope, you who enter…
In the very Pit itself is Cocytus:
a lake of ice stretching beneath my feet
more like a sheet of glass than frozen water
This ninth circle of hell is for traitors:
so these frigid, livid shades were stuck in ice
up to where a person’s shame appears;
their teeth clicked notes like storks’ beaks snapping shut.
Ever since reading that, I get amused whenever hearing someone say, ‘When hell freezes over!’ because, in Dante’s Inferno, it already has…
It may seem like a strange choice of reading matter for someone in the midst of depression and spiritual angst, but it had the effect of resuscitating my interest in Greek mythology and my unrequited love affair with Iphigenia, and in 1998 I travelled to Greece to visit her grave (see Iphigenia at Brauron; if you’re interested in Iphigenia and Artemis, take a look also at Alyth and Artemis).
Iphigenia makes an appearance in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, along with Cassandra. The daughters of Agamemnon and Priam, one princess dedicated to Artemis and sacrificed, the other princess dedicated to Apollo and driven mad (and sacrificed / murdered by Agamemnon and Clytemnestra respectively). (Mortal Women of the Trojan War has nice summaries of Iphigenia and Cassandra.) That these names should be found in the annals of the ancient kingdom of Cyprus is no surprise, but the story in The Decameron is unconnected to those unfortunate princesses. (Over 1750 years separate Boccaccio’s Iphigenia from Euripides’ Iphigenia, after all, and even Euripides was writing of events that occurred distant centuries before.)
But it’s a very entertaining tale, in which the youth Cimon, who has resisted all efforts to make him cultured and educated, chances upon Iphigenia, ‘the fairest creature that had ever been seen by mortal eye.’ So enchanted is he with her, and so determined that she should be his wife, that over the next four years he recreates himself, until he ‘waxed most eminent among the philosophic wits … made himself accomplished in singing and music … the most gallant, and courteous … of the young cavaliers that were in the island of Cyprus.’ Ah, such is the power of love!
Iphigenia is promised to another man, however, and high jinks ensue. Her feelings about Cimon, and the fate of her intended, are of little consequence… we can only hope that she – and Cassandra, who suffers a similar fate – likes her males to be very alpha.