Song of Syracuse

All images are from the only live performance of this song to date, at the 2010 LUGO Festival at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. Video is courtesy of Jenn Pereira and Troy Mamer.

Steve Barss handled the cardboard puppets and the background panels, which could be flipped around to create different scenes. Like this:

song of syracuse flip

Steve and Troy helped us design and assemble the flip-panels. Troy did the illustrations. The story comes from Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War and Plutarch’s Life of Nicias.

CHAPTER XXIII.
19TH YEAR OF THE WAR. THE SIEGE AT SYRACUSE. THE LUNAR ECLIPSE. FOLLY AND OBSTINACY OF NICIAS.

So. We find the Athenians huddled in a marsh outside the walls of Syracuse, their dreams of conquest shattered.

song of syracuse introduction

Their mighty fleet has been driven from the harbour, their mighty army humiliated on the field.

Their generals quarrel. DEMOSTHENES argues for immediate departure. Old NICIAS hesitates.

The men are falling sick. The slaves are deserting.

At last Nicias agrees to wait till nightfall and launch the fleet for home. Preparations are made.

But just as the men are embarking, something strange happens in the night sky.

song of syracuse lunar eclipse
The lunar eclipse.

SPEECH OF NICIAS:

“It’s not a subject for discussion
It’s not a subject for debate
The priests all tell me it’s a bad bad omen, so we wait
You can call it superstition
Me I call it common sense
The gods have given their clear warning to stay put in our tents

Through life we stumble deaf and blind
The gods take pity now and then and send us a sign
The moon has turned a bloody red
It means that our blood would be shed
If we were heedless and still fled”

REPLY OF DEMOSTHENES:

“Now, Nicias, don’t be hasty
Just calm down and think things through
You say the gods are sending a message and I’ve no doubt that’s true
It’s a matter of interpretation
What does this miracle convey?
When the moon is swallowed up just before we sail away

Perhaps the gods are on our side
They wish to aid in our escape
So nimble Hermes in his flight
Has thrown a cloak over Phoebe’s light
That we may sneak off in the night”

But the men are just as superstitious as old Nicias, so his arguments win out. On his advice they wait one full cycle of the moon.

song of syracuse cycle of the moon

But at the end of the twenty-eight days, the Syracusans are ready. They line up their ships across the mouth of the harbour, blocking the only escape route.

In a final, desperate naval confrontation, the Athenian fleet is destroyed.

song of syracuse naval confrontation

The survivors straggle back to camp to consider their limited options.

CHAPTER XXIV.
FLIGHT AND ANNIHILATION OF THE ATHENIAN ARMY.

“We pack our bags and we strike our tents
And amid the wails of our wounded friends
All those who can stand
Exhausted and unmanned
Set off inland

song of syracuse sun beats down

And the sun beats down and it bakes our brains
And distant shouts drift across the plains
And for hours or years
We drag our broken spears
Till a river appears

And as we come in sight of water
We all rush forward, breaking rank
Just then the enemy appears
Upon the farther bank

song of syracuse river

But our thirst is so oppressive
We charge into the ambuscade
And amid the falling arrows
Into the stream we wade

And now the river fills with blood
But still we gulp the water down, our thirst is so great
Too weak to fend off their attacks
We crawl across each other’s backs
The bodies fall in heaving stacks”

song of syracuse river fills with blood

CHAPTER XXV.
UNHAPPY FATE OF THE SURVIVORS.

They threw the survivors in a quarry
Underneath the summer sun
And with no shelter to protect them, they perish one by one
And our two unfortunate generals
Lie on the bare rock side by side
And Nicias says “Demosthenes, we are punished for our pride”

REPLY OF DEMOSTHENES:

“My thoughts are not so elevated
Unlike you I keep my eyes fixed on the ground
If by some chance you should descry
A cryptic message in the sky
Don’t say a word, just let me lie
Don’t say a word, just let me die”

song of syracuse nicias and demosthenes