Tension

Greetings here at the doorstep of Beltane, the first of May. This is a boisterous time on the peninsula, with everything passing from dormancy to luxuriance faster than seems possible. How is it that a thing can become its apparent opposite right before the eyes?

Before we get into it, I’d like to extend an invitation to support my work by becoming a patron over on Ko‑fi. I’ll be sharing audio recordings of these letters there as a gesture of thanks, and will add more offerings as time goes. I’d love to have you along. Please don’t feel any pressure though — these letters are offered as a gift, and your bright imaginations are reciprocation enough!

We continue this month along the labyrinthine path we’ve been treading, and begin with an anecdote from the childhood of the goddess Artemis. Why not?

The arrow-head hovers unsuspended at the center of the image. Its form is both approximate and precise, deft, and its metallic surface has oxidized to the color of lichen.

Bronze arrow-head made between 675 and 475 BCE, Ionia

As a child, Artemis is said to have sat on her father Zeus’ knee and asked him to grant her ten wishes. Among them, as Callimachus tells us in his hymn to the goddess, was a wish to have a bow and arrows made for her by the giant one-eyed Cyclopes — a tool with which she could hunt hares and lynx, among other things, in the mountains. Her father smiled and nodded in assent.1

Artemis spent her youth seeking out the items she would need to become such a hunter, a search which took her to the volcanic island of Lipara where she found three Cyclopes at work around the anvil, fashioning from a mass of glowing iron a horse-trough for the sea god Poseidon. The nymphs who accompanied young Artemis were frightened, we are told, but the goddess was not. She approached the giants at work and asked them for a well-bent bow, some arrows, and a quiver to hold them. The Cyclopes equipped her just as they had her father long ago with his thunderbolt, a fiery weapon which according to Heraclitus ‘steers the course of all things’.2

The Cyclops, perhaps on account of its single round eye, has been associated with a state of primordial wholeness, an edenic state into which each of us is born before wholeness splits necessarily again into the particulars of earthly life. Its name may derive from the Greek for wheel-eye, linking the Cyclops with the circular mandala image in which opposites are seen to coincide, much as Heraclitus sees them in the image of a strung instrument.

The cosmos works
by harmony of tensions,
like the lyre and bow.3

The opposites in this image, however, may not exactly coincide. Yes, when Artemis draws the bow her arms pull in two directions at once, but what about the lyre? Rather than coinciding, the opposites can be seen instead to proceed from one another, to succeed the one before. The string is alternately pulled and released. As the classicist W.K.C. Guthrie observes:

Both are necessary if the arrow is to be dispatched or the musical note sounded, and so in the world there must be an alternation of opposite states.4

Artemis knows this as she looses her arrows. She wields to great effect the succession of opposites in the string of her cyclopean bow, which is pulled taut to life and released quick to death. Amid this harmony of tensions, the bow and lyre — weapon and vessel — each changes into its opposite, much in the same way the lines comprising the trigrams of the I Ching change into one another at their extremes. There, firm lines become yielding ones and vice versa; yang to yin, yin to yang in eternal alternation. Plato writes:

Are we satisfied, then, said Socrates, that everything is generated in this way — opposites from opposites?

Perfectly.5

The fragment hovers over a gray background. On its glazed surface we can make out an arm and a hand, a shoulder draped in cloth on a dark field. The hand bears a torch, whose rich orange flames lick the rough edges of ceramic.

Pottery fragment with figure holding a torch, 440-410 BCE, Attica

In the single wheel-like eye of the Cyclops we might glimpse a mysterious wholeness, primordial in the sense of coming first or preceeding. We glimpse it as a small luminous reflection of ourselves as if in a dark mirror. It is a beautiful image, this reflection, in which self and its transpersonal origin coincide for a moment before blinking to a crescent thin as a drawn bowstring. It reveals what Byung-Chul Han calls ‘the phosphorescence of time’, the beauty of reminiscence.6 It is clear as a plucked note — or a loosed arrow.

The Greek phōsphóros means light-bringing or torch-bearing. Callimachus tells us that among Artemis’ wishes as she sat on her father’s knee was another: ‘give me to be the Bringer of Light’, she asked.


Thanks for reading along with this April chapter of Polylith. If you enjoy these writings, consider sharing one with a friend or becoming a patron. As always, correspondence of all kinds is more than welcome. Reply to this email, write a postcard, or drop by for a cup of tea in the garden. I mean it!

Until next month, may a harmony rise from the tension.

  1. From A.W. Mair’s translation of Callimachus and Lycophron 

  2. Fragment 64, translated by John Burnet. Heraclitus, deploring civil life in his native Ephesus, is said to have spent his days playing jacks with children in the Temple of Artemis. He may have later left his lone written work, which survives only in riddling fragments, there as a dedication to the goddess. 

  3. Fragment 56, from the Penguin Classics translation by Brooks Haxton. Artemis’ brother Apollo, like Orpheus, played the lyre so beautifully that gods and mortals alike were enchanted by the sound — ‘as if the sunlight had been turned into music’, writes Carl Kerényi. 

  4. From Guthrie’s Orpheus and Greek Religion 

  5. Phaedo, 71a, translated by Hugh Tredennick. It is Cebes, an earnest disciple of Socrates, who replies to the question. 

  6. From Han’s The Transparency Society