The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, January 13, 2006


I daresay some heavy-duty academic work has been done on the origins of the vendetta, particularly in those countries where it was - and still is? - prevalent, of which I'm totally unaware. Notwithstanding that, there are some resonances which I've come across in a few seemingly unrelated books, which I find interesting.

The first, what really kicked it off, was a few lines in Philip Vellacott's introduction to his translation of The Oresteia:

' far as the Furies are concerned, a single murder may lead to an insoluble feud and an endless series or murders in successive generations.' [p.17]

And a bit later:

'Just as the Hebrew law of the Old Testament, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", imposed an exact limit on the indiscriminate vengeance of primitive savagery, so the Delphic code enjoined the taking of life for life by the next of kin to a murdered man, and then offered to purify the avenger by ritual cleansing and so avoid further murders and an endless feud. But this principle, though preferable to the blind and unlimited operation of the Furies, is still unsatisfactory. [...] Aeschylus shows that the quest for justice can hope for no final solution from Apollo and the principle of vengeance.' [p. 18]

This came like a sucker punch, because it pretty well described the vendetta, which I'd been reading about the year before in Dorothy Carrington's excellent Granite Island: A History of Corsica, and Norman Lewis's account of vendetta killings in Sicily in The Honoured Society. Carrington first went to Corsica in 1948, by which time the vendetta as an institution was on the way out; nevertheless, several had taken place well within living memory. In considering various other Corsican traditions, she often credits them with a Bronze Age origin, although this is rarely backed up by evidence and seems to be a result of wishful thinking - she wants them to be indigenous, unique, ancient, unspoilt, original (much like Thesiger seeking "unspoilt" peoples). It's the one weakness I've found in a book which is otherwise solidly researched and, as far as I can tell, totally dependable. She may not be wrong, but she doesn't present a convincing case that she's right. Regarding the vendetta, however, she may be bang on the money, because The Oresteia is 2,500 years old.

Now, the capacity for a belief or practice with its roots in antiquity to survive in a rural or otherwise remote environment is without doubt. Garner (him again) deals with this imaginatively in Thursbitch, which concerns the rite of bull-worship in 18th century Cheshire, and factually in his essay "Oral History and Applied Archaeology in East Cheshire". This seems drier than it is: it's about the survival, through a folk-tale, of the memory of a Bronze Age track across Alderley Edge, where folk have been living for 4,000 years.

There's also a suggestive hint in Arabian Sands:

'But the desert was inviolable. There [Syria] I lived among tribes who claimed descent from Ishmael, and listened to old men who spoke of events which had occurred a thousand years ago as if they had happened in their own youth.' [p. 38]

Later on we have this:

'The society in which the Bedu live is tribal. Everyone belongs to a tribe and all members of the same tribe are in some degree kinsmen, since they are descended from a common ancestor. The closer the relationship the stronger is the loyalty which a man feels for his fellow tribesmen, and this loyalty overrides personal feelings, except in extreme cases. In time of need a man instinctively supports his fellow tribesmen, just as they in like case support him. There is no security in the desert for an individual outside the framework of his tribe. This makes it possible for tribal law, which is based on consent, to work among the most individualistic race in the world, since in the last resort a man who refuses to accept a tribal decision can be ostracized. It is therefore a strange fact that tribal law can only work in conditions of anarchy and breaks down as soon as peace is imposed on the desert...'

This suggests just why it is that the vendetta, or the Bedu equivalent of it as quoted in my previous post, operated the in the way it did - from a certain point of view it was regulatory rather than destructive, helping to reinforce the bonds among men and women of the same tribe even as it took the lives of those of another.

Parenthetically, I've been reading Michael Asher's biography of Thesiger, and the accounts he gives of Bedu raiding are hair-raising. It should also be pointed out that in the interviews with Thesiger's companions, made in the early 1990s, they all say how much better things are now, with peace and prosperity. Not one of them wants to go back to the old ways.

The compulsion laid down by tribal law on the individual finds a parallel in the comment made in Lewis by D'Agostino, the murderer of five in a vendetta: "Surely you don't imagine that I had any choice, one way or the other?"

The vendetta in Corsica and Sicily has an element (among many others, no doubt) which sets it apart from the practice amond the Bedu, and that is the highly complex ritual associated with it:

'The sophisticated Don Vito [head of the Mafia between the wars] can hardly have realised, either, that Mafia symbolism - the system of graded warnings from the cutting down of a vine and the maiming of an ass or mule, to the depositing at a man's door of his beheaded dog or a sheep with its throat cut - is shared with certain African tribes of the Republic of Mali. How strange, too, that the custom of vendetta of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily, whose peoples have presumably been separated for thousands of years [a wrong note here, perhaps - the sea is now thought to have acted as a link between the Scots of Dalriada and Ireland] - should be so similar in all its curious detail: the ritual denunciation of the slayer by the professional mourners at the funeral [...] the entrusting of the vendetta to the male nearest-of-kin by the senior female member of the household; the kissing, even the pretended sucking of the wounds, by close relations such as mother, wife or brother [...]' [Lewis, p. 27]

Lewis also describes the Mafia as "psychologically still entangled in the prehistory of humanity"; and while the origin of the word mafia is in doubt, he says it may derive from (ta-dah!) the Arabic for 'a place of refuge'.

The chthonic gods of the Oresteia, with their demands for blood, may have survived Athene's judgement after all.

A final note on the vendetta, or rather, on something that came up while I was looking for quotations:

'Usually, Bedu lop tall trees to provide food for their camels, but the ghaf trees here were unmutilated, for Mughshin is a hauta where no tree may be cut. On my way to the Hadhramaut I had passed several of these hautas, probably once the sacred groves of some forgotten cult. We would ride down a wadi and camp under trees in no way remarkable from others which we had passed, but I would be warned not to damage them for this was a hauta. The Bedu believed that to ignore this prohibition would be to incur misfortune and possibly even death.' [Arabian Sands, p. 111]

'The [Barbaccia and Lorello] families quarelled back in 1918 over the possession of a wood. This in itself is perhaps significant, because the wood, standing unaccountably intact in a country denuded of trees since Roman times, may have survived through its supposed possessionof sacred or magic attributes.' [The Honoured Society, p. 24]

I guess that the notion of the sacred grove is a common one around Europe and the Middle East, but still, it's interesting.


At 13 January 2006 at 07:23 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

good to know all that


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