‘The Fly’ and ‘The Mole’
Lucian, Nicholas Jeeves
From Visions of Lucian Vol. 2: The Fly / The Mole
Mulita Small Editions, 2020
Lucian of Samosata
The fly is not the smallest of winged things, in comparison with gnats, midges, and still tinier creatures; it is as much larger than they as it is smaller than the bee. It has not feathers of the usual sort, is not fledged all over nor provided with quill-feathers like birds, but resembles locusts, grasshoppers, and bees in being gauze-winged, this sort of wing being as much more delicate than the ordinary as Indian fabrics are lighter and softer than Greek. Moreover, close inspection of them when spread out and moving in the sun will show them to be peacock-hued.
Its flight is accompanied neither by the incessant wing-beat of the bat, the spring of the locust, nor the buzz of the wasp. It has the further merit of a music neither sullen as with the gnat kind, deep as with the bee, nor grim and threatening as with the wasp; it is as much more tuneful than they as the flute is sweeter than trumpet or cymbals.
As for the rest of its person, the head is very slenderly attached by the neck, easily turned, and not all of one piece with the body as in the locust; the eyes are projecting and horny; the chest strong, with the legs springing freely from it instead of lying close like a wasp’s. The belly also is well fortified, and looks like a breastplate, with its broad bands and scales. Its weapons are not in the tail as with wasp and bee, but in its mouth and proboscis; with the latter, in which it is like the elephant, it forages, takes hold of things, and by means of a sucker at its tip attaches itself firmly to them. This proboscis is also supplied with a projecting tooth, with which the fly makes a puncture, and so drinks blood, which it gets without hurting its prey much. Of its six legs, four only are for walking, and the front pair serves for hands; you may see it standing on four legs and holding up a morsel in these hands, which it consumes in very human fashion.
It does not come into being in its ultimate shape, but starts as a maggot in the dead body of man or animal; then it gradually develops legs, puts forth wings and becomes a flying instead of a creeping thing, which generates in turn and produces a little maggot, one day to be a fly.
Living with man, sharing his food and his table, it tastes everything except his oil, which is death to it. In any case it soon perishes, having but a short span of life allotted to it, but while it lives it loves the light, and is active only under its influence; at night it rests, neither flying nor buzzing, but retiring and keeping quiet.
I am able to record its considerable wisdom, shown in evading the plots of its enemy the spider. It is always on the look-out for his ambushes, and in the most circumspect way dodges about, that it may not be caught, netted, and entangled in his meshes. Its valour and spirit require no mention of mine; Homer, mightiest-voiced of poets, seeking a compliment for the greatest of heroes, likens his spirit not to a lion’s, a panther’s, or a boar’s, but to the courage of the fly, to its unshrinking and persistent assault; it is not mere audacity, but courage, that he attributes to it. Though you drive it off, he says, it will not leave you; it will have its bite. He is so earnest an admirer of the fly that he alludes to it not once nor twice, but constantly; a mention of it is felt to be a poetic ornament. Now it is its swarming descent upon the milk that he celebrates; now he is in want of an illustration for Athene as she dodges a spear from Menelaus; so he makes her a mother caring for her sleeping child, and in comes the fly again. Moreover he gives them that pretty epithet, ‘thick-clust’ring’; and ‘nations’ is his dignified word for a swarm of them.
The fly’s force is shown by the fact that its bite pierces not merely the human skin, but that of cattle and horses; it annoys the elephant too by getting into the folds of its hide, and letting it know the efficiency of even a tiny trunk.
There is much ease and freedom about a fly’s love affairs, which are not disposed of so quickly as by the rooster; the act of union is prolonged, and is found quite compatible with flight. A fly will live and breathe for some time after its head is cut off.
The most remarkable point about its natural history is the one fact that Plato seems to me to have overlooked in his discourse of the soul and its immortality. If a little ashes be sprinkled on a dead fly, it gets up, experiences a second birth, and starts life afresh, which is recognised as a convincing proof that its soul is immortal, inasmuch as after it has departed it returns, recognises and reanimates the body, and enables it to fly; so is confirmed the tale about Hermotimus of Clazomenæ — how his soul frequently left him and went off on its own account, and afterwards, returning, occupied the body again and restored the man to life.
It toils not, but lives at its ease, profiting by the labours of others, and finding everywhere a table spread for it. For it the goats are milked, for its benefit and man’s the honey is stored, to its palate the chef adapts his sauces; it tastes before the king himself, walks upon his table, shares his meal, and has the use of all that is his.
Nest, home, local habitation, it has none; like the Scythians, it elects to lead a wandering life, and where night finds it, there is its hearth and its chamber. But as I said, it works no deeds of darkness; ‘live openly’ is its motto; its principle is to do no villainy that, done in the face of day, would dishonour it.
Legend tells how Myia (the fly’s ancient name) was once a maiden, exceedingly fair but given to talk, chatter and song. She was Selene’s rival for the love of Endymion, and when the young man slept, she was for ever waking him with her gossip and tunes and merriment, unill he lost patience, and Selene in wrath turned her to what she now is. And so it is that she still, in memory of Endymion, grudges all sleepers their rest, and most of all the young and tender. Her very bite and blood-thirst tell not of savagery, but of love and human kindness; she is but enjoying mankind as she may, and sipping beauty.
In antiquity there was a woman of her name, a poetess wise and beautiful; and also a famous Attic courtesan, of whom the comic poet wrote:
As deep as to his heart fair Myia bit him.
The comic Muse, we see, disdained not the name, nor refused it the hospitality of the boards; and parents took no shame to give it to their daughters.
Tragedy goes further and speaks of the fly in high terms of praise:
Foul shame the little fly, with might courageous,
Should leap upon men’s limbs, athirst for blood,
But men-at-arms shrink from the foeman’s steel!
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I might add many details about Pythagoras’s daughter Myia, were not her story so well known.
There are also flies of very large size, called generally soldier-flies, or dog-flies; these have a hoarse buzz, a very rapid flight, and quite long lives; they last the winter through without food, mostly in sheltered nooks below the roof; the most remarkable fact about these is that they are hermaphrodites.
But I must break off now; not that my subject is exhausted, only for fear you may think that, as the saying goes, I am making an elephant out of a fly.
A mole is a pigmented spot on the skin, sometimes flat but often raised, and occasionally hairy. They may grow on any part of the body and vary greatly in colour and size, though they are usually dark and no larger than a pea. Physicians call them nevi, or nevus in the singular — a misnomer as the Latin gnaevus means ‘born in’, and many moles arrive on the body a little later in life.
Almost everybody has a small collection of moles, and the arrangement on every body will be different. The average collection of moles numbers between ten and forty. Some may have hundreds so that they qualify as having a syndrome. The precise number of moles needed to qualify for a syndrome is not known.
Those who spend extended periods in the sun may quickly grow new moles, and these are worth noticing. The fairest-skinned are thought to be most susceptible. Physicians advise such folk that when one’s shadow is shorter than one’s height, long sleeves and brimmed hats must be worn. If such attire is unavailable, the person may coat themselves in a protective cream. Some are further encouraged to keep a ‘mole map’, a diagram of the body that marks the location of all one’s moles, the idea being that the owner will be able to more readily identify a new one. Should a new mole appear, or should a familiar one change its appearance, the physician will take a particular interest in it, and may take a little piece of it for examination.
When found on the face a mole can be an insignificant thing, or the thing that makes it significant. Whether or not a mole might be considered an asset is a matter of judgment. The size of the mole is the first consideration; its location the second. In the West a small single mole above the lip or on the cheek, or perhaps the neck or shoulders, may be considered atractive; on the tip of the nose, a blemish. A large mole anywhere on the body is considered unfortunate, except in parts of Asia where they are believed to be auspicious. The largest and hairiest are the most revered, especially on the face, and these are carefully protected by their owners. Certain of these moles will have several inches of hair sprouting from them, kept longer than the hair on the head.
The ancient Greeks were ambivalent about moles, yet preferred a mole to a pockmark. Skilled tradesmen might affect a mole from a small patch of leather, made for sale to stick over offending scars. Naturally occurring moles were called ‘olives of the body’, and were thought to be a punishment by jealous gods to correct unnatural beauty. The physician and astrologer Hippocrates was interested in moles and wondered how their arrangement on a body might relate to the stars in the sky: thus began the practice of moleomancy. A mole on one’s cheek might prophesy great wealth, while a mole on the back of the neck might foretell a beheading — or a desire to lead a simple life, depending on the prophet.
In ancient China, nine divisions, or ‘wealth spots’, were said to constitute the face, and the location, colour and size of moles within these divisions could be used to divine one’s fortune. Moles on other parts of the body signified other aspects of character: a mole on the right breast was thought to indicate laziness; on the left breast, a sign of formidable energy. Chinese moleomancers also believed that every visible mole had a concealed twin: where there is a mole around the mouth, its brother will be found around the genitals. Thus follows the belief that everybody must possess an even number of moles.
European history teaches us that moles have rarely been seen as marks of beauty. For the Romans, fair and unblemished skin was most desirable: moles, freckles, and other raised marks — being a defining feature of the toad, or of infected cattle — much less so, and Roman women might attempt to remove or fade their moles with the ashes of roasted snails, sold to them by quack physicians. In Medieval times moley people were often ridiculed and sometimes attacked, their moles being read as indications of inherent wickedness, marks bestowed on the person at the moment of ingress by the Devil. A woman with a mole might thus be believed a witch.
In later centuries the wisdom of the Greeks was retrieved in order to mollify the effects of smallpox on the skin. Thin patches of mouse fur were sold in a variety of shapes and sizes to cover up pox scars on the forehead or cheeks; if mouse fur was too rich, silk, velvet, or wood varieties might be presented as affordable alternatives. In France these fabricated moles were known as mouches, or ‘flies’. In Venice a whole street was dedicated to their production, the Calle de le Moschete — the Street of Flies. In Spain they were made from fine slices of tortoiseshell and known as chiqueadores.
For subsequent generations these patches were used less to conceal something on the face than to celebrate it. The contrast effected by a point of black on the skin was thought to draw attention to pretty eyes or mouths, or the general fairness of a complexion. The benefit of these ‘beauty spots’, in contrast with natural moles, was that they could be migrated according to the whims of the owner. In England the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell placed a ban on beauty spots as symbols of immorality; with the restoration, Charles II brought them back. Then as now it was important not to overdo it: more than three were said to blight the face, distracting, rather than focusing, the gaze of the hoped-for admirer, and signifying a disagreeable excess of vanity.
In recent times those most committed to their vanity, and who desire a permanent beauty spot, may have one tattooed. This is a convenient and almost painless process; removing the spot once the attraction has faded is neither. Larger moles may be simulated with the attachment to the skin of a small metal ball, secured to a clasp set beneath the surface of the skin. If later removed, a scar is left behind which the owner may wish to conceal, possibly with a mouche.
For those whose vanities run in the opposite direction, and who believe they already have a mole too many, a physician will, for a fee, carefully shave it away, leaving no scar behind. Typically the expense of the surgery is in direct proportion to its lack of medical necessity. Such costs leave the door open for the quack, whose various remedies might include rubbing the mole with the juices of lemons, apples, cauliflowers or pineapples; or alternatively with various vinegars or oils, and some types of honey. Others will advise the strapping-on of a slice of onion or garlic, or sometimes a patch of urine-soaked wool, having first abraded the mole so that the solution can sufficiently penetrate. The most commonly attempted remedy is to tie off the mole with a length of cotton thread, starving it of blood until it falls away. Sometimes the wound does not become infected.
And so the wise caution us not to concern ourselves too much with outer beauty, and to avoid meddling with natural imperfection. ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’ — or so says the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Still a mole of any size might be acceptable to the eyes yet not to the touch: even with eyes closed in ecstasy, if a mole sits on a part of the body that attracts the fingers, it may disturb the senses. For myself, I have in the small of my back a pink-brown mole of which I am ashamed and would wish to have removed, but cannot: in my vanity I fear the physician might think me vain. It is the size of a grape pip but in texture more like the grape than the pip, soft and fleshy. Yet in my mind it grows larger and plumper by the moment. The temptation when touching it is to pluck it from the body, but it is too firmly anchored. In my small despair I am reminded that it is not good to dwell on such things: I should instead join the world in remembering the words of Erasmus, who cautions us not to ‘make a mountain out of a molehill.’
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