The Tapestry

Diogenes tapestry

A tapestry showed two men beside a river; one standing in fine armour and the other dressed in rags and sitting before an overturned wine-barrel. Trees loomed behind them and she had the impression something hid among them.

Acts of the Servant, volumen secundus

Many years ago when I lived in the fine city of Bath I was a regular visitor to Dyrham Park. It has a picturesque deer park and a manor house built in the Queen Anne style, which was popular in the decades following the Glorious Deliverance and independence from Denmark. The house has the curious distinction of having two fronts and no back, much like so many in government, which it owes to the changing fortunes of the area. At one time the ancient village of Dyrham was the focus of the house, but with the opening of the Bath Road and the development of Bath as a fashionable spa town the house literally did a volte-face.
Dyrham Park, GloucestershireThat is not the reason I mention Dyrham Park, however; rather, in one of its rooms is a tapestry of a wooded dell wherein an old man sits inside a wine-barrel and looks on as soldiers approach. Are our barrel-dweller’s hours numbered? No: for this is the famous, perhaps legendary, encounter between Alexander the Great and the Greek hermit-philosopher, pricker of vanity, and bone-conjuror, Diogenes. A man who once while carrying a lamp through the streets in broad daylight claimed he was,

looking for an honest man

Diogenes looking for a man - attributed to JHW TischbeinThe description in MacGregor’s text is unmistakably this famous meeting and yet the tapestry might show any other scene or not be described at all and it would make no difference to the narrative. Therefore, we ought to ask why MacGregor describes Alexander meeting Diogenes. For once the dependable, if eccentric, Dr Claude Crabtree is of no use in the matter for he had a particular blind spot regarding Greece and Greek scholarship. Quite why is something of an enigma wrapped in scurrilous gossip. It is a matter of record that during the Great War he was briefly stationed in Athens – there was a fear Germany would attempt to annexe the oil-fields in nearby Bulgaria – and, with little in the way of soldierly duties to attend, he took to wandering the slopes of the Acropolis. At this point in the story gossip takes over for, supposedly, a patrol of Greek soldiers found him drunk on grappa and in a compromising position with a goat, or goatherd, depending on which version one hears. Ignoring his protestations that he was teaching the goat, or goatherd, to sing, the soldiers beat him soundly and arrested him for indecency.Dr Claude Crabtree, painted by Vaughan Davies, 1935Owing to complicated local politics and moral sensitivities – the locals having forgotten in the intervening millennia that they were the inventors of pederasty – it was six months before the English authorities managed to extricate him from jail, following which he was discharged from the army as morally unfit for duty. Dr Crabtree’s revenge, ineffectual though it was, was to ignore or traduce any supposed assumptions regarding the excellence of Greek scholarship and cultural achievement – though I believe he remained fluent in Greek for the rest of his life. I suspect it must be his peculiarly self-induced blind spot that led him to miss, or ignore, the significance of the tapestry, and so I must speculate without his assistance.L'Acropole et le ParthénonDiogenes is a pauper, albeit self-made since he was certainly the son of a rich man – a coin-maker of Sinope (Sinop in modern-day Turkey) – and a despiser of power, wealth, and fame who once mocked Plato’s claim that man is nought but a featherless biped by plucking a chicken and asking if it was not then a man and at another time proved himself a proto-Marxist by claiming that, 

In a rich man’s house, there is no place to spit but in his face

Yet Diogenes’ aestheticism drew admirers. It was said that he threw away his only possession, a drinking bowl, when he saw a man drink from his cupped hands, and many claimed he could to see through the material veil to greater truths.

Thus, we understand why Alexander might have sought Diogenes’ advice and yet our knowledge is scant for there is no clear account of what Alexander actually asked him. In one version, Diogenes casts his tell-bones and when Alexander inquires, Diogenes tells him he was looking for the bones of Alexander’s father but found only those of a slave. In another account Alexander asks what he might do for Diogenes and the philosopher asks him to stand out of his light. In yet another account Alexander offers Diogenes anything he desires and Diogenes asks only for things Alexander cannot possibly give, such as causing the sun to set upon his command.Diogenes, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1873. Courtesy, Musée Marmottan Monet, ParisThe subtext is clear: Diogenes requires nothing of Alexander, other than to be left alone, and Alexander has no comprehension of the truths Diogenes could offer him. One is a philosopher-hermit who has nothing and wants for nothing, while the other is a conqueror who laments there is no more world for him to conquer. And yet, had Alexander the wit to ask Diogenes the right question he might have been saved the heartache of losing his lover, Hephaestion, and an early death. The tapestry therefore represents a famous meeting between exponents of the magickal and martial arts and while Alexander is blind and deaf to what Diogenes might offer him I believe MacGregor is suggesting that his failure is one of comprehension, not desire.

The true error, MacGregor implies, would be if those in power were wholly indifferent to magick.

Isle of Skye Accordion & Fiddle Club


Bard of Tweeddale

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2 thoughts on “The Tapestry

  1. A wonderful portrait, but are you certain of the subject? The most amazing tapestries ever I recently saw at Boughton House, Northamptonshire. Due to the house being closed for over 1000 years, the contents were mostly superbly preserved, some of them 15th century. The tapestries, English, are late 16th century I believe. May be useful to you.

    1. Oh indeed, yes. The room in which the tapestry is displayed is named after it: The Diogenes Room. Some of the more elderly custodians have wittily renamed it ‘dodgy-knees’ what larks, eh!

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