ARCADIA AND “ARCADISM”
AN IDEA THAT HAS MOVED INTELLECTUAL EUROPE FOR CENTURIES
In the European countries the expression “I, too, lived in Arcadia” is often used to conjure up the retrospective vision of a bygone happiness, enjoyed in the past, unattainable every after, yet enduringly alive in the memory.
For centuries in Europe, artists and poets have considered Arcadia as the embodied dream of infinite peace and happiness, an imaginary land of heavenly and carefree life. It was a great boast to say:
“I, too, was born in Arcadia” or “I, too, lived in Arcadia” or “Even I have been to Arcadia”…
But how did it happen that Arcadia, the land which gave birth to the most illustrious of the gods and which was inhabited by the –“godlike” (according to Asius) and “acorn-eaters” (according to Pythia)–Arcadians, was considered for centuries by intellectual Europe the imaginary kingdom of beauty, love and dreams incarnate?
We do not claim the exhaustion of such a vast subject here, but we will attempt to outline it.
It is true that, since antiquity, Arcadia has been considered the kingdom of shepherds and the god Pan, in whose honour there was a sanctuary on Lycaeus Mountain.
Asius (a poet of the 7th century BC) said that: “In the high and wooded peaks of the mountains (of Arcadia), the black earth brought forth the godlike Pelasgian race, so that there might be a mortal race”.
From the time of the Delphic Pythia, Arcadia was considered special:
“You ask me for Arcadia? You ask too much; I grant it not. There are many men in Arcadia, eaters of acorns, who will hinder you.”
This was the oracle given by the Pythia of Delphi to the Lacedaemonians when they consulted her in order to attack and conquer Arcadia. These days, we say it for ‘those who seek the great and unprofitable in vain’.
Herodotus says that of the seven nations of the Peloponnese, two were autochthonous. The Arcadians and the Cynurians. The same is also attested by more prominent historians: Thucydides and Xenophon. Demosthenes says that: “It behooves the Arcadians to exalt themselves in freedom, since only they and the Athenians of all the Greeks are autochthonous”.
Also, according to the historian Polybius: “There were two great nations of the Peloponnese, which were the great nations of all the Greeks: the Arcadians and the Dorians”
When the traveller Pausanias visited Arcadia, he found its inhabitants describing themselves as “Proselenes” (pre-lunar), claiming that the Arcadians settled in their country before the Moon.
Lastly, Hesychius writes that the Arcadian Nymphs were called “Proselinides”.
But by whom and when did the nostalgic worship of Arcadia, i.e. “Arcadism”, begin? All the researchers who have so far dealt scientifically with “Arcadism” – which remained popular in intellectual Europe for centuries – accept that the first who chose and worshiped Arcadia as a kingdom of pastoral simplicity, virgin morals and infinite happiness was the epic poet of the Romans, Virgil.
In his Aeneid, Virgil (who lived in 70-19 BC) discusses the Arcadian Legend, according to which the original Rome was founded by the Arcadians. At another point, he presents Arcadia as a seat of virtues and thus as a symbol of morality and ideals to which everyone should return, and projects the love of the Arcadians for the honest simplicity of Arcadian morality.
Then, in his “Eclogues” (”The Bucolics”), which is the triumphal pinnacle of an idealized Arcadian vision, he praises the life of the Arcadian Shepherds and writes that the complete picture of happiness is to enjoy an afternoon nap in the shade of trees. And in general, he emphasizes the purity of morals and goodness, in which lived a type of uncorrupted people, who firmly maintained the accepted habits of life.
In Arcadia itself, people were not valued by their inventions, but by their virtues. Without malice, merciful, humanitarian, oblivious to their own misery and interested in the fate of their fellow men.
The Latin poet Ovid (48 BC. – 17 AD), who associated Arcadia with a mythical cosmogony, writes that the Arcadians existed before Zeus and the Moon and were ruled by Pan.
“Et in Arcadia Ego”
The literature of the 18th and early 19th century is full of texts in which this happiness is invoked. Goethe (1749-1832), the king of German poetry, treats the expression: “Et In Arcadia Ego” – meaning I, too, lived in Arcadia – to describe a happy trip to Italy!
The English painter Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) made a painting of Arcadia. The list of foreign painters and writers who painted or wrote about Arcadia, fascinated by “Arcadism”, is endless. We will dwell only on two: The famous French painter Poussin (1594-1655), and the German poet Schiller (1759-1805), a contemporary of Goethe.
Nicοlas Poussin left us his famous painting – now held in the Louvre- “The Arcadian Shepherds”. The painting was made in 1630-1635 and depicts three shepherds and a young woman, gathered around a tomb, trying to read the half-obscured Latin inscription: “ET IN ARCADIA EGO” (“I too lived in Arcadia”). Their faces contemplate the message that comes from the tomb, a message from a fellow human being who lived before: “I, too, in Arcadia, lived, in which you now live. I, too, have known the joy, which you now know, and yet I am dead and buried”…
The deeper meaning of Poussin’s painting is double and strange. On the one hand the sad expectation of inevitable fate, and on the other the sense of the infinite sweetness of life.
But Schiller also begins a poem of his with Arcadia (the poem was translated in Greek by Ag. Stefanos, in “Arcadia” magazine 1970):
Yes! even I was in Arcadia born,
And, in mine infant ears,
A vow of rapture was by Nature sworn;—
Yes! even I was in Arcadia born,
And yet my short spring gave me only—tears!
Once blooms, and only once,
life’s youthful May;
For me its bloom hath gone.
The silent God—O brethren, weep to-day—
The silent God hath quenched my torch’s ray,
And the vain dream hath flown.
Upon thy darksome bridge, Eternity,
I stand e’en now, dread thought!
Take, then, these joy-credentials back from me!
Unopened I return them now to thee,
Of happiness, alas, know naught!…
Lastly, we should add that the “Academy of the Arcadians” was established in Rome in 1690 (and still exists today), and its members bear names of ancient Arcadia.