Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Kicking Against the Pricks

When I was young and even brattier than I am now I used to delight in the phrase "kicking against the pricks" because it sounded vaguely offensive, but it was in fact according to the Acts of the Apostles - what the risen Jesus said to Paul when he was converted on the road to Damascus.

I must have been, to use one meaning of the word, an annoying little prick in those days. The prick in the Bible appears to have been a wooden shaft with a pointed spike at one end that a man working an animal would use to exert control. Sometimes a defiant ox or horse would kick back at this goad, but only succeed in causing itself more pain, so to "kick against the pricks" is to indulge in a futile gesture of rebellion.

I was amazed to read the other day that Dionysus uses the same phrase in Euripedes' The Bacchae which was written four hundred years before around the time that the Athenians surrendered to the Spartans at the end of the Peloponnesian War. A similar timespan would take us back from today to Shakespeare.

Yet more proof (in a year in which I learned a little of the Bacchus in Donna Tartt's The Secret History and the Peloponnesian War in Victor Hanson's A Ward Like No Other) that culture is richer, stranger, more resilient, deeply entwined and universal than we credit in these educationally self-abnegated days.

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