Socotra: The diachronic value of multi-cultural societies (2-2) [Archives:2004/784/Last Page]

October 25 2004

The text reads as follows.
A. Dioscouridou Nesos – Socotra within the 'Periplus of the Red Sea'.
“And beyond that (cape Syagros, i.e. Ras Fartak), in the open sea, in the middle of the distance between that (cape Syagros) and the opposite cape, the Cape of the Perfumes, but however rather closer to Syagros lies an island that is called Dioskouridou, a very big island with humid climate and desert environment. There are several rivers in the island, crocodiles, many big snakes and huge lizards. The inhabitants eat the flesh of these lizards, and use the fat, after melting it, for oil. There is no agricultural production, neither vineyards, nor wheat fields. The inhabitants are not numerous, and they dwell in the northern side of the island only, that is the part that looks towards the Arabic peninsula. They are emigrants Yemenites, Indians, and some Greek speaking Egyptians, and they have all intermingled with one another. They keep themselves busy with trade trips to all the coasts around. The island offers the best type of turtle shells, as well as the usual type of land turtle shell, and white turtle shells, everything in big quantity and in big size. There are also available shells of the huge mountain turtle that are very herd. This turtle's ribs that are the most useful part of its body cannot be easily cut, and in addition are of dark yellowish color. Contrarily to that, any part of its shell can be used; out of it, craftsmen make small boxes, small plaques, small dishes and plates, and all sorts of similar objects, since it can be easily cut. One finds here the Indian cinnabar (in Greek kinnabari) that is collected from specific trees on the trunk of which it flows.
The island belongs to the aforementioned king of the Frankincense-bearing country, in the same way Azania belongs to Kharibael and the Mofar administrator. The island's merchandise is usually transported on Mouza ships, as well as on some ships of the Limyrike and of Barygaza, when they happen to cross this part of the world. If such is the case, they exchange (barter trade) rise, wheat, and cotton from India, as well as female slaves that are most desired since scarce in the island, with huge quantities of turtle oysters. For the time being the king has purchased the island, and there is royal garrison permanently residing on the island”.
B. Plausible Interpretations of the Ancient Greek name of Socotra
The reference to Socotra we find in this excerpt of the Periplus is among the earliest ones in the history of the island. The same name is used by Diodorus Siculus, the Sicilian Greek historian of the years of Caesar and Octavian, who wrote a second hand analytical history of the campaigns of Alexander the Great.
What means 'island of Dioskourides'? Knowing the natural wealth of the island, the abundant fauna and flora of Socotra, and anticipating that it would be even more impressive at those days, as the aforementioned excerpt suggests, we are tempted to make a parallel with the great Alexandrian scholar and natural scientist Dioskourides, who was working at the Library of Alexandria at the same time the anonymous author of the Periplus of the Red Sea was about to write this text! Perhaps even they met, and it is only normal that the captain and merchant gave the precise information, if not specimens as well, to the renowned scholar! If such were the case, naming Socotra after the great scholar would mean that this heavenly island would be the correct 'laboratory' for the top natural scientist of Alexandria! However, of course, it is not like this, the name was used at least 100 years earlier
What means in Greek 'Dioskourides'? Here we are met with two possibilities. First, the name can mean the 'descendent of Dioskouros' (or of the 'Dioskouroi', I mean of both of these people), or the 'protected by Dioskouroi', the 'disciple' or the 'follower' of them. Second, it can also be a reference to the Dioskouroi themselves.
It would be plausible that an Alexandrian Egyptian mariner, well versed in Greek mythology, appropriated for him the name of Dioskourides in the sense of the 'protected' mariner. The reasons of this protection we describe just below. Then, according to this possibility of interpretation, he settled in the island, rose to political power among the inhabitants, and ruled the island as an autonomous country. He then may have sold the island to Eleazos, and returned rich and wealthy in Alexandria. Either this is the case, or the island was attributed to the divine protection of the 'Dioskouroi'.
Who were the Dioskouroi? The name refers to the environment of Ancient Greek mythology. The name itself, in Singular Dioskouros, means in Greek 'the young man of Zeus', the young priest or the dedicated adolescent, the Zeus' disciple, follower and/or believer. The complex names to be formed in Greek use always the Genitive case, that is why we have Dios-('of the Zeus')-kouros (and not Zeuskouros).
Who were the two young mythical adolescents of Zeus, the Supreme God of the Ancient Greek Pantheon? Their names are famous: Castor and Pollux (Polydeukes in Greek). They were the twin sons of princess Leda, both born mortals; Polydeukes was fathered by Zeus, whereas Castor was the son of Leda's husband, Tyndareus. Because of their generosity and kindness to operate in life, they became gods at death, being the object of an 'apotheosis', i.e. deification, being guaranteed 'eternal life' or 'immortality'. First, only Polydeukes was offered immortality, but – in order to accept – he demanded that his half-twin Castor received the same honor. Zeus consented but the twins had to spend alternate days in the Nether World, the terrible 'Hades', in order to appease the Fates, powerful divinities, and Pluto, the God of the Dead. Ultimately, Castor and Polydeukes received also a distinct place amongst the constellations, becoming the Mansion of Gemini (Didymoi in Greek, al Gawzat in Arabic). They were believed as the gods of horsemanship, and were considered as the protectors of guests and the homeless.
What does the island of Soqotra have to do with the mythical twins of the Greek mythology? Here we have to consider that according to several versions of Ancient Greek mythical texts, the Dioskouroi appeared to sailors in distress during storms in the form of St. Elmo's fire, which is an electrical discharge creating a glow about the masthead and rigging of ships. It is actually a natural phenomenon well known to sailors; during thunderstorms, the air between the clouds and the ground becomes electrically charged, and then this electricity is drawn to the closest conductor, usually the top of a tall building, or the mast of a ship. This was believed to be a portent of escape from a storm. 'Until suddenly these two are seen darting through the air on tawny wings', this is the way the Homeric Hymn XXXII to the Dioskoiroi puts it. Greek Lyric poet Alcaeus (fragment 34) addresses them in this manner: “brilliant from afar as you run up the fore-stays, bringing light to the black ship in the night of trouble”. In Silvae (3.2.1) they are asked as follows: “sit upon the twin horns of the yard-arm” and “let your light illumine sea and sky”.
The most plausible interpretation of the Ancient Greek name of Socotra reveals its character of shelter and safe heaven for the embattled Indian Ocean mariners and the faraway driven navigators in jeopardy.