It’s good to remember that in crises, natural crises, human beings forget for a while their ignorances, their biases, their prejudices. For a little while, neighbors help neighbors and strangers help strangers.—Maya Angelou, 2011
Upon getting up the next day, we caught glimpses, as often as the whale opened his mouth, of land, of mountains, it might be of the sky alone, or often of islands; we realized that he was dashing at a great rate to every part of the sea. We grew accustomed to our condition in time, and I then took seven of my comrades and entered the strange forest in search of information. I had scarcely gone half a mile when I came upon a shrine, which its inscription showed to have been raised to Poseidon; a little further were a number of graves with pillars upon them, and close by a spring of clear water; we also heard a dog bark, saw some distant smoke, and guessed that there must be a habitation.
We accordingly pressed on, and found ourselves in the presence of an old man and a younger one, who were working hard at a plot of ground and watering it by a channel from the spring. We stood still, divided between fear and delight. They were standing speechless, no doubt with much the same feelings. At length the old man spoke: “What are you strangers? Are you spirits of the sea, or unfortunate mortals like ourselves? As for us, we are men, bred on land; but now we have suffered a sea change, and swim about in this containing monster, scarce knowing how to describe our state; reason tells us we are dead, but instinct that we live.” This loosed my tongue in turn. “We too, father,” I said, “are men, just arrived; it is but a day or two since we were swallowed with our ship. And now we have come forth to explore the forest; for we saw that it was vast and dense. I think some heavenly guide has brought us to the sight of you, to the knowledge that we are not imprisoned all alone in this monster. I pray you, let us know your tale, who you are, and how you entered.” Then he said that, before he asked or answered questions, he must give us such entertainment as he could; so saying, he brought us to his house—a sufficient dwelling furnished with beds and what else he might need—and set before us greenstuff and nuts and fish, with wine for drink. When we had eaten our fill, he asked for our story. I told him all as it had passed, the storm, the island, the airy voyage, the war, and so to our descent into the whale.
It was very strange, he said, and then gave us his history in return. “I am a Cypriot, gentlemen. I left my native land on a trading voyage with my son here and a number of servants. We had a fine ship, with a mixed cargo for Italy; you may have seen the wreckage in the whale’s mouth. We had a fair voyage to Sicily, but on leaving it were caught in a gale, and carried in three days out to the Atlantic, where we fell in with the whale and were swallowed, ship and crew; of the latter we two alone survived. We buried our men, built a temple to Poseidon, and now live this life, cultivating our garden, and feeding on fish and nuts. It is a great forest, as you see, and in it are vines in plenty, from which we get delicious wine. Our spring you may have noticed; its water is of the purest and coldest. We use leaves for bedding, keep a good fire, snare the birds that fly in, and catch living fish by going out on the monster’s gills; it is there also that we take our bath when we are disposed. There is moreover at no great distance a salt lake two or three miles around, producing all sorts of fish; in this we swim and sail, in a little boat of my building. It is now twenty-seven years since we were swallowed.
From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto, Mexico, c. 1790. Museo de América, Mexico.
“Our lot might have been endurable enough, but we have bad and troublesome neighbors, unfriendly savages all.” “What,” said I, “are there other inhabitants?” “A great many,” he replied, “inhospitable and abhorrent to the sight. The western part of the forest at the tail is occupied by the Stockfish tribe; they have eels’ eyes and lobster faces, are bold warriors, and eat their meat raw. Of the sides of the cavern, the right belongs to the Tritonomendetes, who from the waist upward are human, and swordfish below; their notions of justice are slightly less rudimentary than the others’. The left is in the possession of the Crabhands and the Tunnyheads, two tribes in close alliance. The central part is inhabited by the Crays and the Flounderfoots, the latter warlike and extremely swift. As to this district near the mouth, the east, as it were, it is largely uninhabited, owing to the frequent inundations. I occupy this territory, paying an annual tribute of five hundred oysters to the Flounderfoots.
“Such is the land; and now it is for you to consider how we may make head against all these tribes, and what shall be our manner of life.” “What may their numbers be, all told?” I asked. “More than a thousand.” “And how armed?” “They have no arms but fishbones.” “Why then,” I said, “let us fight them by all means; we are armed, and they are not; and if we win we shall live secure.” We agreed on this course, and returned to the ship to make our preparations. The pretext for war was to be nonpayment of the tribute, which was on the point of falling due. Messengers, in fact, shortly came to demand it, but the old man sent them about their business with an insolent answer. The Flounderfoots and Crays were enraged, and commenced operations with a tumultuous inroad upon Scintharus—this was the old man’s name.
Expecting this, we were awaiting the attack in full armor. We had put twenty-five men in ambush, with directions to fall on the enemy’s rear as soon as they had passed; they executed their orders, and came on from behind cutting them down, while the rest of us—twenty-five also, including Scintharus and his son—met them face to face with a spirited and resolute attack. It was risky work, but in the end we routed and chased them to their dens. They left 170 dead, while we lost only our navigating officer, stabbed in the back with a mullet rib, and one other.
We held the battlefield for the rest of that day and the following night, and erected a trophy consisting of an upright dolphin’s backbone. Next day the news brought the other tribes out, with the Stockfish under a general called Slimer on the right, the Tunnyheads on the left, and the Crabhands in the center; the Tritonomendetes stayed at home, preferring neutrality. We did not wait to be attacked, but charged them near Poseidon’s temple with loud shouts, which echoed as in a subterranean cave. Their want of armor gave us the victory; we pursued them to the forest, and were henceforth masters.
Soon after, they sent heralds to treat for recovery of their dead, and for peace. But we decided to make no terms with them, and marching out the next day exterminated the whole, with the exception of the Tritonomendetes. These too, when they saw what was going on, made a rush for the gills, and cast themselves into the sea. We went over the country, now clear of enemies, and occupied it from that time in security. Our usual employments were exercise, hunting, vine dressing, and fruit gathering; we were in the position of men in a vast prison from which escape is out of the question, but within which they have luxury and freedom of movement. This manner of life lasted for a year and eight months.
From True History. Born around 120, Lucian was apprenticed to a sculptor in his native Syria and became a successful rhetorician in Italy and Gaul before beginning his writing career in Athens. William Shakespeare drew inspiration from one of Lucian’s plays for Timon of Athens; Ben Jonson took the idea that Helen of Troy “launched a thousand ships” from The Dialogues of the Dead; and Lucian’s story “The Lover of Lies” served as the basis for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which was later incorporated as a sequence in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.