I nominate Talôs as god of the meteors.
We’ve returned from Crete, the long island that separates the Aegean sea from the Mediterranean. I had never before set foot in Crete, though I once saw its mountains on the horizon as I was brought on a ship from Libya to Greece, and before that I had daydreamed of wandering through its villages. Visiting it these days isn’t that kind of experience.
As we planned to go to Crete, I gave a thought to Talos, the bronze giant who ran around its coast three times a day, hurling rocks at ships that dared to approach.
The Greeks had a god of the thunder and lightning, Zeus, and a god of earthquakes and floods and the sea, Poseidon, and a god of the underworld, Hades, and a god of the sun, Helios or perhaps Apollo, and several goddesses who could have been of the moon, and a god of the sky, Ouranos, and gods who were constellations, though seemingly no god of the stars in general, except possibly a minor figure called Asterios.
We stayed at first in the old town of Chania, in the picturesque quarter (called Topana) along the west side of the harbor. At the tip of it is a space that has been named Talos Square.
As you can see, it looks more like a car park than a piazza. One imagines Talos loping along cliff-tops, but Crete is not entirely cliff-bound, and his bronze feet may often have had to stomp on beaches or lighthouses or coastal fortresses like the mass you see to the right, though this was built by the Venetians when Crete was one of their colonies.
If you still have my Astronomical Calendar 2005, its cover picture story will tell you how Zeus in the form of a bull brought Europa over the sea to Crete, where she became the mother of Minôs, who took possession of Crete by displacing someone called Asterios – that’s all there is about Asterios. The legendary figure of Minos represents the later Greeks’ memory of a pre-Greek civilization based in Crete. According to the catalogue of the armies in Homer’s Iliad, Crete had ninety cities. The Bronze Age civilization we call Minoan was at its height from about 1900 to 1200 B.C.; it was brought to light by the excavations, starting in 1900 A.D., of Arthur Evans and other archaeologists, first at the vast palace covering the low rounded hill of Knôssos, then at many other sites.
I wanted to see the plain of Mesara, on the south side of the island, where some of the other palace cities were, Phaistos and Gortyn. The route has to cross the central mountain range, past the end of the highest mountain, Ida (called now Psiloritis), a cave of which was said to be the birthplace of Zeus. Ida’s summit seemed evemed even higher for being lost in a dark layer of cloud. (My hasty drawing isn’t worth showing.)
Crete is a mountain-spined island, 160 miles long, and the length of its coastline is said to be 650 miles. So Talos ran 1,950 miles a day, at an average speed of about 81 miles an hour, unless he took short cuts across headlands. Presumably he didn’t need to rest, eat, or pause for any other functions except to pick up rocks and make sure of driving off a suspicious ship.
Actually the length of a coastline is, unlike the length of an island or of a comet’s orbit, something that is essentially impossible to state, because it is fractal. It is about the best example of a fractal shape, one that is self-similar at all scales. Every bit of coast will become longer if you measure around its indentations and projections, and again at finer scales if you measure around its rocks, and its grains of sand.
If the boulders that Talos shied are meteorites, then he was a comet, and the coast of Crete represents his elongated orbit. Of course, no one knew till recent centuries that meteorites are fallen meteors, and that they are shed from comets, and that comets travel in orbits. But ancient people did know of stones that had fallen from the sky, such as the Palladium that was the talisman of Troy (if it was stolen, Troy would fall) and the black stone in the Kaaba at Mecca.
The bronze automaton Talos was no doubt one of the many handiworks of Daedalus, the craftsman who came from Athens (then a dependency of the Minoan empire) and made things for Minos, including the great palace of Knossos itself, which had so many rooms and passages that it seemed to the Greeks a maze – a labyrinth, the word deriving from the labrys or double axe, which was a mysterious cult object of the Minoans.
Wooden model of the palace of Knossos, looking south.
Daedalus fell from Minos’s favor and was imprisoned in his own maze, but crafted wings for himself and his son Icarus to fly out.
Most about Talos comes from the Argonautica, the epic by Apollonius Rhodius, which tells of the sailing of Jason and his companions on their ship Argo to steal the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis (now Georgia), in which they succeeded because Medeia, the king’s daughter and a sorceress, fell in love with Jason. On their devious journey home, the Argonauts passed Crete, and Talos pelted them in his usual inhospitable style. Though a robot, he had blood, or rather ichor, the stuff that ran in the gods’ veins and kept them immortal. He had only one vein, from his head to his heel, where it was stopped by a plug. Medeia bewitched him with a glance, then pulled out the plug; the ichor drained away, and Talos fell dead. So he couldn’t have been a god, because it was reported in later times (by the historian Plutarch) that only one god had died, and that was Pan.
I think the legend of Talos may have been an expression of the Greeks’ amazement that the ancient realm on Crete appeared to have no fear of enemies. The rambling palace of Knossos had no defensive wall around it. The Minoans were a maritime, trading power that ruled the sea around them and the nearby coasts. They were secure until earthquakes weakened them and then Greeks invaded.
Knossos was some miles inland and had a port, now covered by the largest modern city, Herakleion (pronounced Iraklion). Till we visited the museum there, I had not realized the sheer abundance of the human and animal figurines the archaeologists have discovered. Minoan civilization gives an impression of cleanliness and light-heartedness. There was plumbing and fresh water; wall-painted frescoes show scenes of dance and music, and scanty clothing. There was an aesthetic motif of down-tapering: many of the vessels in which wine or oil were stored taper down almost to points; painted human figures have wide shoulders and slender bodies; the characteristic Minoan pillars taper downward, being derived from earlier use of palm trunks, which were set upside-down so that their prickles would point downward.
Animals seem to have been liked, and one especially worshipped: the bull.
The bull cult was remembered in the later Greek legends of Europa’s bull and of the Minotaur, half-man half-bull, kept within the maze of the palace, feeding on captives till slain by a Greek hero. But what actually happened, as shown in Minoan vase paintings, was a ritual spectacle or sport of bull-leaping, in which the object was not to kill the bull but to seize his horns and vault clear over his back. The boys and girls who performed this must have been well trained, and perhaps there were accidents, as imagined in this reconstruction by H.M. Herget.
One afternoon near the Morosini Fountain, the central spot on the avenue along which people promenade in Iraklion, we saw some boys break-dancing. My sharp regret is that, though I gave them some coins, I thought only too late of taking a snapshot so as to show you their incredible skill. The feats of these kids – flipping and spinning upside-down, using the hard pavement more as a ceiling than as a floor – made it believable that kids like these could have twirled over the horns of charging bulls in the Crete of forty centuries before.