Monday, May 19, 2008

Tree of Death and Rebirth in Carthage

Ancient Carthage is wreathed in mystery to some extent as it was the Romans who were victorious ultimately. When one visits the sites of Carthage, guides often speak of Carthage I, Carthage II, Carthage III and Carthage IV... The civilisations are layered one upon another, only superficially visible at this point in time for the most part.

Here on the site of the old Punic ruins in Carthage I was delighted to find the Tree of Attis. The Tree and Attis were one in the ancient mysteries. Those rituals cannot be reconstructed fully with the small amount of literature that is available, but his 'resurrection' involved a real Tree, a cave and many lamps that were lit to represent the new dawn.

The proponents of mystery religions always have been wanderers. Even the god Dionysius wandered from land to land. The rites of Attis were widespread and ancient, but the evergreen is a potent symbol that features in the rites of many gods, including Christ and Odhinn.

It is not Attis who is connected with the legends of Carthage but Dido. As a child, I loved Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' but I realised even then that is was the stuff of romantic tragedy rather than history. In fact, I liked the music better than the plot, quite honestly. It always distressed me when women immolated themselves at the altar of unrequited love. Aeneas had no thoughts for the Queen, considered her as nothing more than a means to an end.

It pleased me when I later discovered that the supposed relationship between Aeneas and Dido was a Roman bastardisation of ancient history. Dido was a far stronger woman than the putative lover of Aeneas. In fact, it is virtually impossible to decipher the truth in this matter, but there are some threads that are constant in all the woven tales.

By all accounts, Dido or Elissa is considered the founder of Carthage. She and her brother Pygmalion were the children of a king of Tyre. He made them co-heirs to his kingdom. Dido meanwhile married a priest of Melqart who may have been her uncle. When her father died, Pygmalion became the sole ruler, murdering Dido's husband, Acerbas in the process. Dido fled from Tyre with a number of 'senators'. It is evident that this was a political move, and that the Queen had support of a significant nature.

They finally arrived in North Africa where Dido made an agreement with a local ruler to take as much land for herself and her followers as would be encompassed by one oxhide. By cutting the hide into small strips, she was able to encompass the area of an entire hill. The city then was given the name of 'Byrsa' or 'hide'. Whatever the truth of the event, it has been immortalised in contemporary mathematics as the 'Dido problem'.

Having founded the city, it then was threatened with war by a neighbouring chieftain or ruler who, as the price of peace, demanded Elissa or Dido as his wife. Her people did not convey the terms to her properly, only suggesting that the demand was for some one to live with him to teach him Phoenician ways. Living with a 'savage' would be abhorrent to any true Carthaginian, her courtiers remarked. Dido declared that any one who would not be willing to make such a sacrifice for the good of his/her people would be an individual without honour. She, of course, would be willing to sacrifice her life for the good of her people.

When told the true nature of the terms, that it required her to become the ruler's wife, Dido created a ritual funeral pyre for her first (dead) husband, stating that it was required for the propitiation of his spirit before she could marry again.

In fact, she ascended the pyre herself and slew herself with her sword. She then was deified.

Whether this represents an ancient religious ritual of the sacrifice of a Queen for the welfare of the land as described in 'The Sacred Bough' or has its roots in historical events is not clear. Elissa or Dido is a fundamental symbol of ancient Carthage. It has been said that Tanit and Dido are one and the same.

Yet, for all that Carthage lives in the halls of myth and legend, it is not Carthage as such but Rome that one sees when one visits the old sites in Tunisia. It is the Roman Empire that imprinted itself upon the land, and it is Roman amphitheatres, aqueducts and baths that have endured. Below ancient Rome lie the ruins of Punic Carthage. Perhaps in time, there will be sufficient excavations to bring more of the Punic history to light again.

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