10 September 2008

The Cape of Barking Dogs

They sang sometimes with half-closed eyes
as we were passing the abandoned island to the west
with the prickly pear, past the cape
of the barking dogs.


So wrote George Seferis, returning to myth the nearby cliffs of Cape Skyllaion, Cavo Schillo, Cape of Dogs--the cape close to the channel of Poros, almost directly south from Athens. Its name comes from a girl who behaved so badly it is difficult to think that 'dog' is not a euphemism for a closely-related word, but the Cape of Dogs is a node for a cluster of small images.

The name comes from Ovid's story of Scylla, daughter of Nisus of Megara who was known for his lock of purple hair. Apollo visited their castle once, and rested his lyre on the stones, and when Scylla was a child she could set the stones singing by tapping them with a pebble. But her father was for six months beseiged by Minos of Crete and Scylla became enamoured of the heroic armored figure she watched from the walls. One night, she cut off Nisus' purple lock, the secret of Megaran security, and took it to Minos, offering him victory and herself. When Minos rejected her in horror--the victory he was not free to reject was definitively his--the obsessed girl swam out after his ship and clung to the stern. Her father, transformed into an osprey, tore at her until she was transformed into a shearwater -- named for the shorn lock of hair. Pausanias's more sober version says that Minos had her thrown overboard, and her body was torn by sea birds where it washed ashore on the cape.

There are too many elements here that do not bear up under scrutiny, but the cape, true to Ovid, changed its number of dogs, its location, its shape, and even its location for on occasion we find Ottoman and Venetian sources that sometimes refer to the cape down by Spetses, as the Cape of Dogs, and sometimes the cape by Poros.

Piri Re'is rounded the Cape of Dogs many times in his career--that is his unfinished sketch of galleys above. He wrote of sailing for the cape and finding the Venetians in possession of the small port of Poros. The channel between Poros and the mainland is so narrow that it seems as if fully-extended galley oars would smash on either side. It was night and no retreat. Piri Re'is had his oarsmen muffle their oars and the galley slipped silently through the channel on the current and down past the cliffs of the Cape of Dogs.

As I did one morning as dawn broke. The boat had turned off its engine and as we drifted through Poros in silence, I saw illuminated in the rays of sun on the horizon, a woman in a white gown on a balcony, bending over to brush the long hair that hung to below her waist. In that misted early sun, the stones had been set singing.

For the poem, see George Seferis, Mythistorema, Part 4. Trans. DW.

1 comment:

  1. M. Palola-HarrimanThursday, 03 December, 2009

    Thanks! This was very helpful in a paper I am writing for my World Poetry class on Yorgos Seferiades. I've lived in Thessaloniki and Crete for 7 years now, but I was not familiar with Seferiades or the Cape of Dogs, so again, thank you! Efcharisto para poli.

    ~M. Palola-Harriman


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