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Upon Seeing “The Green Knight”

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Warning: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW

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As a medievalist, my focus is theology. I have never had any particular interest in Arthurian literature, so I will admit to having not read the original story since Middle School. My comments here are about the movie – the dvd isn’t available for pre order yet (not that I can find) or I would link to it here. I definitely want to add it to my collection! My husband and I saw it tonight and I just got back so you’re getting my stream of consciousness thoughts on this first viewing. 

The use of color in the movie made me cry. It’s absolutely beautiful. There’s also a conversation happening with the shifting tones of Gawain’s cloak, which starts out as a rich, yellow ochre and at times, as he picks up a fox traveling companion, shifts to a subtle saffron now and again, the exact shade of the fox’s fur.  I think this happens whenever Gawain has followed the fox into somewhere particularly eldritch and magical and is no longer moving in the mundane world alone. Likewise, the landscape is so stark and empty, yet magical and frightening. There’s a conversation there, especially when this is contrasted with the vibrant color always encircling Gawain. 

The walking giants show a world passing away and that’s what is so potent about this story the way it was originally written and the way it’s visualized here: it captures that sense of one world passing into memory, and another being built atop its echoes: Polytheisms, indigenous Paganisms were passing away, blending, shifting, syncretizing  – sometimes forcibly so –and a new religion was taking root but had not yet fully done so. That is a potent underlying theme in this vision. 

Fathers are important. One of the first things that I picked up on is that in this iteration, Gawain has no father present, nor any male role model. He’s not unkind. In fact, he’s a confused but largely kindhearted young man. He’s not unloved. He has a mother who loves him dearly and an erstwhile partner. But there’s no father figure present (something the King actually laments at one point: that he was not there as Gawain, his nephew was growing up) and it shows in the uncertainty that plagues Gawain throughout the film. He doesn’t know himself but moreover doesn’t trust himself. He doesn’t think he is worth anything (again, this comes out when Arthur invites him to take a seat at the royal table). He had the beauty and benefit of a mother’s love but there was no comparable male figure to show him how to be a man. (His mother is awesome, by the way: a seeress and sorcerous who, with her magic, sets all this in motion to give her son a chance to find himself. In the end he does, but it takes male figures: Arthur, the Lord of the Castle of distractions, the Green Knight himself to show him how to do this). 

The fox was my favorite part. It reminded me in personality of my cat Elena. 

Gawain went on a quest. The purpose of a quest is the honing of a man. The purpose of a quest is facing challenges and finding one’s honor and courage. Gawain wanted to become a knight. He’s challenged on this in the Castle of distractions. The Lord of the castle asked him, “is it just one and done? You’re knighted and then you’re a new person and that’s it?” and Gawain (a little slow on the uptake) says, “yes.” But that’s not it, as he finds out. Honor, the making of character, the making of a man (or a woman) is not ever defined by one instance. It’s making the right choices again and again and again, sometimes under horrible circumstances. It’s a never-ending process. 

Gawain is challenged at every turn: to look beyond pleasure and carnal enjoyment, to do the right thing without expectation of reward, to act with integrity even in the face of fear and death, to focus, to be courageous, to keep his word, and most of all to make the hardest choices of all. 

SERIOUS SPOILER FOLLOWS

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When he is kneeling before Green Knight, he flinches several times when the knight goes to strike. We see him running out of the cave, saying he’s sorry but he can’t do it. Then we see him being knighted, becoming Arthur’s heir, discarding his low born lover after taking their child from her (the worst scene in the movie in my opinion), marrying a princess, waging war, losing his son in war and seeing what kind of hard, pitiless man he will become if he goes home on the wings of stolen valor, instead of earning it rightly (even though earning it means pain, scars, and maybe even death). There’s an earlier flash when he is bound, having been overtaken by brigands and we see a skeletal body garbed just like him. The meaning is clear: you have a choice to give up or fight and use your mind and persevere. He meets that challenge. We find out at the end, that the horrible, brutal, merciless, cold, stone hearted man he has become at the end was a vision given to him by the Green Knight, conjured up by his mother a year earlier: this is what you will become if you don’t make the right choices. Choose. It’s up to you and every one of them counts; and in the end, Gawain faces the Green Knight realizing it is better to die a good, honorable man than live without manhood. 

Dev Patel is absolutely amazing in this role (the entire cast is amazing). He plays a Gawain who is insecure, who wants to be a good man but has no idea how and often feels hopeless and worthless. There’s a confused vulnerability there (which makes the contrast with the king he becomes in the alternate future vision all the more compelling), as though he can almost grasp the lesson but then is wrong again and again, screwing up again and again, until finally he learns to trust himself and makes his final choice, a good choice, and in doing so becomes the man he has always wished to be. 

As an aside, there were two other couples in the theater. I had almost as much enjoyment watching their confusion at the end, as I did watching the movie. They had zero idea what was happening at the end. It’s a type of story-telling we don’t see very often anymore (and the pacing was at once fast and very slow) because no one is reading the Classics of ancient and medieval literature anymore. There are a thousand layers to this story, and a thousand tips for moving in a world that is as much spirit as corporeal force. 

Best lines: 

When Arthur asks Gawain to tell him a story of Gawain’s accomplishments in the beginning, the young man says, “I have nothing to tell.” And the Queen interjects, “Yet.” 

Yes, exactly: yet. That tells you there, the type of journey this will be. (Also, as an aside, the Queen is arrayed like a votive image of the Madonna – one at Koln Cathedral in particular comes to mind – with her entire dress covered in Milagros). 

Finally, during one of his challenges, Gawain says to St. Winifred (who has asked him to help her find her head, which was tossed in a spring): are you real or a spirit?

St. W.: Is there a difference? I need my head. 

I gave a little cheer. 

Movie Monday: What a Mess (the Craft:Legacy)

So, we watched “The Craft: Legacy” the other night. What a piece of unmitigated garbage. I love the first movie (despite a rather milk-toast main character); it was edgy and dangerous and showed real “sisterhood.” There was a (thankfully fictional, given the story line) Deity figure mentioned (Manon), and it showed the danger of receiving too much power too soon. It also really captured what the neo-pagan and occult communities were like at the tail end of the nineties. This one…well, let’s start with what I liked. 

The performance of the main character was excellent and I liked the reveal about her parentage at the end of the movie. There was also a bi male character, which one rarely sees in movies. That was about it. Even the score was crap. 

What I disliked: the characters parroted social justice slogans, you know, in place of actual personality, ethics, or soul. I expected a bit of it, but the whole movie was suffused with this nonsense. In the original, there was character development, and the scars and trauma of the girls was shown on screen. In this new movie, it was just slogans. (For instance, one of the girls was trans. Ok. That could be really interesting, but we don’t actually see any of her experience or struggles or personality or journey. It’s just a label to check off).  The girls’ sisterhood also goes out the window the moment one of them demonstrates true power, betraying exactly the lack of critical thinking and reasoning skills I’ve come to expect from the left. Masculinity throughout the movie is portrayed as toxic (unless it’s utterly spineless, then it’s “woke”), the rituals are pathetic, and none of the girls are shown actually able to focus enough to work anything, and what could have been a fascinating continuation turned into a poorly written mess. One could have written this well, still with the leftist principles. That’s not what happened though, and it’s a shame, because the actresses were quite good despite being given personality-less characters to play. The movie did show how brutal and bullying high school can be though, in a much more graphic way than the original, which was well done. (Watching it, I said to my housemate: so many reasons to homeschool. So. Many. Reasons). 

I think part of the problem, aside from the woke nonsense which I personally think should have been jettisoned wholesale (it became a caricature of these principles, which shouldn’t have been the intent. If you’re going to introduce that, it has to be done well and the time has to be taken to draw out the complexities and characterizations involved), is writers don’t understand the mindset of a magus or witch (used in the traditional sense not as a gloss for Wicca). It’s about the acquisition of power. Any magician who tells you he or she isn’t interested in power is lying to themselves and to you. There is a certain brutal amorality in the best of them. This isn’t the type of character with which the audience will empathize, especially not if that character is female. I’m reminded of a fiction author I used to like, who wrote one of my favorite vampire series (no, it’s not Anne Rice). She recently betrayed and frankly neutered her main character, rendering him harmless. She said in the epilogue that she was concerned about how popular this character was, because he was essentially a serial killer. Um yes, sweetheart, vampires should not sparkle. You wrote a compelling character drawing on a significant amount of traditional vampire lore. Have some courage and stay the course (Gods save us from cowardice passing as morality). Stories with harsh characters, with complicated villains who are not always bad but certainly not good (and heroes who are not always good either) are important, and they teach us about navigating the complexities of a morally grey world. We don’t need a handful of Mary Sues checking off social justice oppression points (but never actually depicting the struggles, which would have been interesting) on screen or on page. 

What disturbed me the most, is this movie is all about conformity with your peer group, not independent thought, not power, certainly not magic. It had very little to do with actual power, with overcoming fear of one’s power, with growing into power as a female or male, and even less to do with the much-touted ‘sisterhood.’ Skip it, my friends, and re-watch the original.  

Movie Monday: 13th Warrior

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I’m working on a deeper theological piece, but it’s going to take me a bit of time to complete, especially since I have a conference paper to finish writing. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying my movie Monday posts, so here’s another one. 

Someone at school asked me the other day what my favorite medieval themed movie was and without missing a beat, I said, “13thWarrior.” This was the first-time Heathenry had been portrayed on screen, at least insofar as I had seen and I loved it, and despite its flaws, it remains one of my feel-good movies. I think I’ve watched it dozens of times. 

The movie is based on a book by Michael Crichton titled Eaters of the DeadThis book itself uses two medieval stories, firstly Beowulfand secondly a book by Ibn Fadlan, a tenth century Muslim traveler to the North, who spent significant time amongst the Rus and later wrote a travelogue of the wonders he witnessed there. Viking Answer Lady has an informative post here that gives links to Fadlan’s account and also analyzes some of the more interesting sections. It’s worth a read because – and this is one thing that comes through in the movie too – we get to see the Northmen through a foreigner’s eyes, someone for whom the practices and customs he’s experiencing are completely alien. He is able to bring them into vivid relief in his account, because everything is different and strange and new. In the movie, the main character (supposedly based on Ibn Fadlan… a very very fictionalized Fadlan) becomes our interlocutor, in the same way, for a story of great heroism. 

Things I really liked about this movie: 

  1. The divination scene where the prophetess calls 13 warriors to journey forth. I particularly liked the respect they gave to her and the reverence the entire process of divination had for the Northmen.
  2. The prayer the Muslim character makes before the final battle – it’s lovely and potent (despite referring to God as “Father,” which is not congruent with Islamic tradition), and the prayer all the Heathens make before the final battle (in which the Muslim character joins too), to the ancestors. I just adore that final prayer. 
  3. The way the main character learns the Norse language, through osmosis, i.e. listening. 
  4. The way this then demonstrates how intelligent Bulwif is – I won’t give anything away, but he represents the best type of leader as described in the HavamalHe’s also very, very Odinic, especially how he dies. This is much more emphasized in the book than in the movie but it still comes through (in the book, he’s not only seated in the throne with his dogs at his feet but ravens come to rest on each shoulder). 
  5. The fight scenes – I’m a sucker for a good fight scene. 

Things that annoyed me: 

  1. The different types of armor. While some of the older armor might have been passed down in a family, at least two warriors wore armor that wouldn’t be invented for another couple hundred years! 
  2. The wash basin scene – it’s just inaccurate, a misreading of Ibn Fadhlan. 
  3. The minor romance. Why must otherwise good action movies always have romance (if romance it can be called; it was really just a booty call on both sides)? Fortunately, it didn’t detract much from the movie and little time was spent on it. 
  4. All the older fighters die in the first attack. If they had lived long enough to be old, that means they were canny, intelligent, lucky, and badass fighters. They wouldn’t have crumpled in that first battle.

Is this a great movie? No, not by any means. It is, however fun, and it’s one of the few things I’ve seen that not only presents Heathens well, but taps into (however lightly) some of our lore. Despite its inaccuracies, it brings the viewer into a different world, a different time, a different way of being in the world. It shows certain virtues, like courage and honor, a willingness to confront terrifying things to do right by one’s allies. As always, I think it’s beneficial for us to see and read examples of heroism, of virtue. That’s a big part of why these stories, epics, folksongs and the like, were continuously recited. The media we consume changes us internally and that can be for the better or for the worse. That’s why it’s important to approach these things critically, to make good choices, to make choices that teach us how to cultivate a better way of being in the world, a message emphasized most assuredly, in the Havamal. 

Movie Monday: 1917

I had put off watching this movie since it came out because I knew it was going to tear me up (it did) and also because I knew that as I watched it, my military dead would be all over me (they were). I honor the military dead as part of my calling as an ancestor worker and I have a passel of WWI dead in my spiritual cadre. When they come around me, I often experience powerful physical sensations. Last night, as I was watching this movie, when there was smoke and gas, my chest closed up and I began to choke. I could taste it, and the bitterness lingered on my tongue until the movie ended; and oh, it was a wrenching movie to watch, beautiful, achingly so, especially the filmmaker’s use of tone and color. The performances, particularly that by George MacKay were outstanding. As an aside, one extended scene included a Sikh infantryman and I liked that, because a lot of people don’t realize that many Sikh and Indian troops served with distinction in WWI. Also, this movie was an homage to the writer (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and director’s grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, who served with British forces in WWI and whose stories formed the inspiration for the film itself. 

It’s a searing film and the way it was shot brings the viewer right into the action. It’s very stylized, but condemns the stupid, prideful futility of this war more than any other war movie I have seen, at last amongst those that come directly to mind as I write this (there are many, after all, that I have not viewed). It’s visually stunning. The framing and the use of color: the green of the grass, the sepia and orange tones of the fire, even the Payne’s grey of the helmets occasionally as they caught the sun is especially evocative. It’s one of those movies where any scene that you pause it at will look like a piece of art, and some of the background actually looked like photos of no-man’s land that I’ve seen in historical archives. Also, one particular scene has a man singing to his troop right before they are about to make a surely suicidal charge against the enemy, and he’s singing “wayfaring stranger” because they know they’re about to die. They don’t, but it’s close and his voice is hauntingly beautiful. Also, one thing that hits like a fist to the gut is the age of the majority of infantrymen: they were (accurately in many cases) staggeringly young. But, it also showed that we should never assume that just because someone is young, they cannot demonstrate heroism and self-sacrifice. Just because someone is young, we shouldn’t think that they can’t change their world. 

The only negative, if negative it be, occurred precisely because my WWI military dead were so strongly about me. Linking in as I was to their sensory memory and experiences of the war, I was having ongoing cognitive disconnect. They liked the movie but the men were taller, broader, more well fed, and overall healthier than any infantryman would have been at that time. Also, and they really kept going on about this, everything was too clean. The lice, the mud, the piss and shit, the stench of fear, the smell of rotting horse carcasses, rotting human bodies, unwashed living bodies, gunpowder, the lingering of the chemicals used in mustard gas, the vermin (rats, mice, etc.), the blood didn’t come through in the film. Of course, there’s no way it could since we cannot smell a movie, but still, it was very strange on this count what I was experiencing from them, especially combined with my own emotional response to the film. 

It’s unfortunate, and I think very, very dangerous that WWI has passed out of living memory. The consequences of this war have been felt through the entirety of the 20thcentury. This war destroyed a world and we’re living in the echoes of what was left. 

As an aside, I also recommend the series Anzac Girls, available on amazon prime. It focuses, at least as much as I’ve seen, on a group of Australian and New Zealand nurses during WWI and I think we forget that world war meant world war. NZ and Australia served as well.  Then, there’s one of my favorite historical series Crimson Field. It’s one of the best WWI series I’ve ever seen. It was cancelled after one season, probably because it showed the incompetence of the leadership far too honestly. Still, that one season is worth watching. It also focuses on a group of (this time British) nurses.  Sadly, and to our lasting shame, the “War to End All Wars” didn’t. It only prepared us for worse. 

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen, who died in the trenches right before Armistice.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Movie Monday: Captain Fantastic

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I waited a long time to watch this movie and I really, really wanted to like it. I thought initially it was about a father homeschooling his children (and to some degree it is) and I very much support homeschooling. These days, I think as polytheists, if it’s at all possible given one’s family circumstances, to do anything other than homeschooling one’s children is unfortunate. Turning children over to public schools is turning them over for indoctrination into a modern, secular culture that is actively hostile to religion, to the development of virtue (in the classical sense), to common sense, not to mention just terrible from an educational perspective.

More and more families of all class, racial, and religious backgrounds are choosing to homeschool – and were well before Covid. I recently learned that the biggest reason people homeschool isn’t actually either of those things (Covid or religion), surprisingly, but rather because of bullying in schools (that, I might add, is rarely dealt with effectively by administrators). There are two main worries I hear constantly about homeschooling, that as an educator myself, I want to put to rest and then I’ll get into the movie. The first is that it’s more difficult for homeschooled children to get into college. That actually is not true at all and I work with several successful Phds who were homeschooled right up to their first year of undergrad. They took the SATs, the GREs and had no problem at all. Statistically, homeschooled children tend to score higher than average on these tests. The second concern is socialization. One does have to take care to provide opportunities for socialization for one’s child when homeschooling but there are homeschooling leagues and afterschool programs, hobbies, and activities (just like with any other regularly schooled child), and like anything else, it takes proper time and care. For those wanting more information, here is a link to the HSLDA, which gives state by state guidelines on homeschooling and requirements. Now, onto the movie.

So, this movie starts with a father and a passel of children (I think six – a lot). For the first half of the movie, I loved 90% of how he was raising them. They learned survival skills, self-reliance, languages, math, science, music, literature all at very high levels (at one point, we learn his kids speak six languages fluently)—his eldest son gets into like half a dozen ivy league colleges. The parents taught them how to hunt, live off the land, fight hand to hand and with weapons, and plan strategically. They lived well away from civilization. They also lived well off the grid and sans social media. There is a wholesomeness to their lifestyle. The father even did a sort of initiation rite into adulthood when the eldest boy killed his first deer (with a knife). At one point, he gifted all his children with weapons. It was beautiful and absolutely how I think children in a proper community should, in part, be raised.

As the movie progresses though, we see the downside. They aren’t as disciplined as they should be and freely argue with their father far more than I find appropriate. They’re being raised without religion, (and in fact, the father at least articulates opinions that are openly hostile to religion,) which I personally consider a step away from abuse. They’re being raised in a way that allows the children to explore Marxism and communism (though at least the father points out that genocide is as likely to happen under communism as under any other system. Historically, we know under communism genocide is even MORE likely). Most concerning of all, they aren’t socialized and we really see that as the movie progresses with the eldest son and especially with the father’s response to learning the son has applied to college. We also see the Buddhist wife’s Christian parents violating her wishes and behaving in ways that would have had me personally sending the one of them to the ICU. This is not an easy film to watch.

I won’t give away too much of the plot. I will say that I was sick, physically sick at the end of the movie because it ends with the father betraying his children by sending them to school. It angered and sickened me. My husband pointed out that it really highlights how necessary it is to have a focused, committed community when raising healthy children, that a single parent can’t do it all him or herself and that once the mother was no longer in the picture, the family’s way of raising the children wasn’t sustainable. I can see that but I disagree. I think the father caved. I think there were plenty of other ways to engage with the world and socialize his children than subjecting them to what is inevitably a subpar education. I don’t think one should compromise on the quality of education for one’s children, and it seemed by the end of the movie that the two youngest weren’t going to receive the type of focused life and survival training of which the eldest four had benefit and it made me nearly vomit. The public-school system in this country is designed to create mediocrity, not nurture excellence. It’s a travesty. The viewer is given a clear comparison of the more or less healthy (minus the points I noted above) way the father is raising his kids versus a typical American middle class upbringing when the six homeschooled children encounter their two soft, “normal” (and poorly educated and shallowly brought up) cousins. The contrast is really quite something to see:

Obviously, I have strong feelings about this movie. It evoked quite a bit of conversation in our home. I will say that the comments on homeschooling made in the movie are not accurate, at least not in the states in which I have lived and I encourage people who are interested to do their own research.

Movie Monday: 300

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Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.(1)

I love this movie. I got my start in Classics, and stories of men and women like those depicted in this fictionalized account of Leonidas and his defense, with three-hundred fighting men, of a pass called Thermopylae (the “hot gates”) never cease to inspire. While the movie is somewhat fictionalized, the event it depicts actually occurred. In 480 B.C.E., Greece was facing invasion and erasure by Xerxes I and the Persian empire. There was no unified Greece at this time, only independent city states many of which (like Athens and Sparta) were relatively hostile to each other. They came together, in part inspired by the battle of Thermopylae, to repel the Persian threat.

This battle stands as one of the defining moments of Greek (and Roman heroism), even though it was in and of itself a bloodbath. The story of the 300 is just that: a story of heroism, and we need those stories. They inspire us in cultivating the same virtues of patriotism and courage, valor and honor in ourselves. They inspire us to preserve our culture and our traditions, to value what we have created, to work hard to sustain it. They unify a people across boundaries and differences, and they teach us the necessity of sometimes sacrificing for something greater than ourselves. Those are good things, necessary things where the cultivation of virtue is concerned. These were the stories passed down to our grandparents, great grandparents, and beyond. They helped form the cultural and moral consciousness of the “greatest generation” that saved Europe from [actual] Nazis – and in 1941, allies defended Thermpylae again, this time against Nazi invasion– and maybe that shared cultural and moral heritage is precisely why stories like this are now under fire in our morally incomprehensible world today. But I digress.

The movie “300” is an adaptation of this story (a loose adaptation I grant you) from a graphic novel and it does take liberties. It is told from the perspective of a veteran of Thermopylae, rallying and inspiring later troops to fight the Persians. Because of that, the Persians are exaggerated in their presentation so that the valor of those that stood against them, may likewise be highlighted. It’s an excellent tale (though I think the original is even better! The most accessible account is probably Herodotus’s Histories,Book VII) (2).

Several people have asked me lately out of the blue, what some of my favorite movies are, or what I’m watching (most recently “Lovecraft Country”) or reading (a lot of Jane Austen atm). So, for those interested, I’ll try to do a post each Monday on a wholesome (by my definition, keeping in mind I really like action and horror – you have been warned lol) movie. I might miss a Monday here and there as school is just starting back up, but I’ll try to recommend some good things. Here’s your first:

better 300
Notes:

  1. “Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their laws.” In the 2007 movie, Frank Miller uses this translation, which I like, “Go tell the Spartans, passerby: that here, by Spartan law, we lie.” There are multiple translations of this epitaph. Cicero even translated it into Latin: Dic, hospes, Spartae nos te hic vidisse iacentes | dum santis patriae legibus obsequimur. Tusculanae Disputationes, 42.101.
  2. Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and Ktesias (among others) also mention it.