June 14, 2010

Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist Decoded: The black man/Libya

Filed under: Gene Wolfe, Greece, Soldier of the Mist — ubikcan @ 12:06 am

Part IV of a series begun here.

Here are some explanations of the places, people and events as we find them in the opening chapters of the book. Where Wolfe has provided explanation in the Glossary this is indicated in red. Text from the novel is indicated in blue.

The black man/Libya/Nysa

The black man–[no entry]

Nysa–The black man’s country, south of Riverland

A black man is with me. He wears the skin of a spotted beast, and his spear is tipped with twisted horn. Sometimes he speaks, but if ever I knew his words, I have forgotten them all. When we met, he asked by signs if I had seen such men as he. I shook my head, and he seemed to understand. He peers at these letters I make with great interest.


LI´BYA ( Λιβύη), was the general appellation given by the more ancient cosmographers and historians to that portion of the old continent which lay between Aegypt, Aethiopia, and the shores of the Atlantic, and which was bounded to the N. by the Mediterranean sea, and to the S. by the river Oceanus. With the increase of geographical knowledge, the latter mythical boundary gave place to the equatorial line: but the actual form and dimensions of Africa were not ascertained until the close of the 15th century A.D.; when, in the year 1497, the Portuguese doubled the Cape of Good Hope, and verified the assertion of Herodotus (4.42), that Libya, except at the isthmus of Suez, was surrounded by water.

By the term Libya, Herodotus understood sometimes the whole of ancient Africa (4.42), sometimes Africa exclusive of Aegypt (2.17, 18, 4.167). He defined its proper eastern boundary to be the isthmus of Suez and the Red sea, in opposition to those who placed it along the western bank of the Nile. In this opinion he is supported by Strabo (i. pp. 86, 174) and Ptolemy (; and his description of the Great Desert and other features of the interior prove that his narrative generally rests upon the evidence of travellers in that region.

…Of all the ancient geographers, however, Claudius Ptolemy, who flourished in the second century A.D., displays the most accurate and various acquaintance with Libya Interior. Yet, with the works of his predecessors before him, the scientific labours of the Alexandrians, and the Roman surveys, Ptolemy possessed a very inadequate knowledge of the form and extent of this continent. His tables show that its western coast had been explored as far as 11° lat. N.; and he was aware of the approximate position of the Fortunate Islands (now the Canaries), since from them, or some point in them, he calculates all his eastern distances or longitudes.

…It is still an unsettled question whether the ancient geographers were acquainted with the countries S. of the Great Desert; i. e. with the upper part of the river Quorra, commonly called the Niger. Herodotus (2.32.) relates, on the authority of some Cyrenians, that certain young men of the tribe of [2.179] Nasamõnes, who inhabited the Syrtis and the district east of it (the present gulf of Sidra), crossed the Desert in a westerly direction, and came to a great river which ran towards the rising sun, and had crocodiles in it, and black men inhabiting its banks.

NYSA or NYSSA (Νύσα or Νύσσα), is said to have been the name of the place in which the god Dionysus was born, whence it was transferred to a great many towns in all parts of the world which were distinguished for the cultivation of the vine. In Asia.


Libya in ancient times meant Africa as a whole, or at least Northern Africa (excl. Egypt). “Nysa” in ancient times was identified with Ethiopia, Libya, or even Arabia. Presumably GW means to invoke Ethiopia or Sudan, however, which are south of Egypt.

In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter we find the following lines:

She was dazzled and reached out with both hands at once
to take the lovely delight; Earth with its wide roads gaped
and then over the Nysian field the lord and All-receiver;
the many-named son of Kronos, sprang out upon her with his immortal horses

(Trans. A.N. Athanassakis, 2004.)

“She” here is Persephone/Kore being abducted by Hades, who the Greeks were sometimes reluctant to name directly out of fear and respect. “The lovely delight” is a narcissus flower. Athanassakis notes that “scholarly efforts to identify the Nysian field have not yielded any credible results.” (p. 65.).

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