On Thursday 24 February, the first day of the war between Russia and Ukraine, Snake Island on the Black Sea was attacked by a Russian ship. There were only thirteen Ukrainian soldiers defending the island. The Russians told them to surrender or else they would open fire:
“This is a military warship. This is a Russian military warship. I suggest you lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and needless casualties. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”
In response, a Ukrainian soldier said:
“Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
In times of war it is very difficult to verify information, so we are in the realm of the unknown. There is a chance those Ukrainian soldiers survived; there is the possibility that they died, defending their country. Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, announced that each of those thirteen men will be awarded the title “Hero of Ukraine”, on the sad assumption that they had died. Even if they have somehow survived, they risked their lives defending their post – and with remarkable courage.
Snake Island (Ostriw Zmijinyj in Ukrainian) has, in fact, a long history that reaches into ancient literature. Probably the oldest mention of the island can be found in the lost poem Aethiopis by Arctinus of Miletus. It was probably written in the 8th or the 7th century BC and belonged to the so called “Epic Cycle” – that is, the early Greek poetry relating to the Trojan War, which closely imitated Homer’s twin epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. From later summaries of the Aethiopis and its plot, we know that the poem told a myth according to which Thetis, the mother of Achilles, mourned his death with the Muses and her sisters, the Nereids. She snatched his body from the funeral pyre and brought it to the White Island. We learn from inscriptions dating back to the 5th century that the island on the Black Sea, called Leuke (“White” in Greek), was closely associated with Achilles. This White Island is today called Snake Island.
However, Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), a Roman author and friend of Emperor Vespasian (ruled 69–79), who mentions this island in Book 4 of his encyclopaedic Natural History, doesn’t call it the White Island. Instead, he gives it the name of the Island of Achilles:
Returning to the coast, we come to the Port of the Achaeans and the Isle of Achilles, famous for the tomb of that hero, and 125 miles from it a peninsula stretching out at a slant in the shape of a sword, and called the Race-course of Achilles from having been his exercising ground; its length is given by Agrippa as 80 miles. (Natural History 4.83, tr. H. Rackham)
A much more detailed description of the island can be found in a brief work by the historian Arrian of Nicomedia (AD c. 86–146/160), Periplous of the Euxine Sea. “Periplous” means literally “a sailing-around” and was an ancient subgenre of geographical writing. Periplous of the Euxine Sea (that is, the Black Sea) is probably Arrian’s first work, which was dedicated to Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117–38). The author devotes three chapters (32–4) to the White Island. He begins by saying:
Precisely against this mouth [of the River Ister, the modern Danube] there lies an island, situated directly opposite to those who sail the sea with the wind blowing from the north. Some call this the Island of Achilles, while others call it the Race-course of Achilles; still others call it Leuke [“the White Island”], from its colour. Thetis is said to have given it up to her son and it is said that Achilles dwelled there.
For Pliny, the Race-course of Achilles (Gr. Dromos Achilleōs) is not to be identified with the Island of Achilles, but with a sword-shaped peninsula, lying 125 miles from it. Arrian, however, claims it is an alternative name for the island. Further on, Arrian says that in his time there was a temple devoted to Achilles on Leuke, which included an ancient, wooden statue of the hero. No people lived there in his time (in 2012, a small settlement was introduced on the island, occupied by no more than 30 people), but there were a few goats. Arrian writes that in the temple of Achilles there were many offerings left by those who visited it, including rings, cups and precious stones. There were also verse inscriptions in the temple, both in Greek and Latin, praising Achilles and Patroclus.
Arrian devotes much time to describing mysterious behaviour of local birds. He says that many birds inhabit the island and he mentions sea-gulls (Gr. laroi) and shearwaters (both aithuiai and korōnai seem to refer to this species). It is interesting that Arrian says that all those birds therapeuousin, that is, literally, “worship” or “perform religious duties” in Achilles’ temple. This, at least, is what Arrian was told:
Every day in the morning they fly above the sea. Having moistened their wings in the sea, they hastily fly back into the temple and sprinkle it. Having done that, they sweep the floor of the temple clean with their wings.
The temple, according to Arrian, is very wealthy, because those who come to the island without their own animals to offer have to sacrifice one of those living on the island. In order to do that, however, they have to bargain with the oracle of the temple. One had to offer some amount of money to the oracle; if this was accepted, an animal could be sacrificed. However, if the oracle said that the price wasn’t high enough, more money had to be offered until an agreement was reached. It was said that the animals due to be sacrificed always stood still, waiting for the result and never trying to escape.
Another mysterious phenomenon associated with the island was that Achilles was said to appear to the sailors, instructing them how to arrive there safely. Arrian says that this is similar to the apparition of the Dioscuri (Castor and Polyduces, the sons of Zeus and Leda, brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra), but the divine twins appear to sailors all over the sea and do that “clearly” (Gr. enargeis) and as “saviours” (Gr. sōtēres), while Achilles appears only to those who come close to his island. Interestingly, in some of the Black Sea inscriptions, Achilles bear the title of Sōter, “the Saviour”. Another feature of those apparitions, according to Arrian, is that Achilles used to appear to sailors not only during sleep, but also when they were awake, being seen, for instance, atop the mast. Patroclus was also said to be seen, but only in dreams.
The Island of Achilles makes its appearance also in the geographic poem, comprising nearly 1,200 hexameters, Guide to the Known World. This was written by Dionysius of Alexandria (also known as Periegetes, from the Greek title of his work: Periēgēsis tēs oikoumenēs), probably the contemporary of Arrian. Dionysius writes:
There is also, above the left-hand path of the Euxine [Black Sea], opposite the Borysthenes, a well-known island in the sea, the Island of Heroes. They call it by the name of Leuce, because the serpents there are white. There rumour has it that the spirits of Achilles and other heroes roam this way and that through the deserted glens. This is the gift from Zeus which attends the most noble in reward for their virtue. For virtue is allotted a pure honour. (540–5, tr. Y. Khan).
Interestingly, Dionysius calls Snake Island a “well-known island”. Besides the name of Leuke, he also gives it the name of the Island of Heroes rather than the Island of Achilles, emphasizing the fact that both Achilles and Patroclus were worshipped there, as Arrian also reports. Dionysius has a different explanation of the Greek name Leuke than Arrian: he claims that it derives from the white serpents living there rather than its white colour. And it is from Dionysius that the contemporary name of the island derives.
In the modern period the Greeks called it Fidonisi, Snake Island, and there were battles over this island between Russia and Turkey in 1788 and 1917 (when the lighthouse built there was destroyed). In the Second World War, the Soviet Union and Romania fought over control of the island. Since the independence of Ukraine in 1991 it has claimed Snake Island, the ownership of which was established by the International Court of Justice against the rival claim of Romania in 2009.
Yet Snake Island is many things. It is not only the island of white snakes, or of sacrificial goats, intelligent and patient enough to wait until the right price is negotiated for them, or the pious birds, sprinkling and cleaning the temple daily. It is primarily the Island of Achilles or the Island of Heroes. And on 24 February 2022 we were reminded of this ancient name by the heroism of the thirteen Ukrainian soldiers who were prepared to give their life there.
Achilles was also many things for many people in antiquity, but he was surely a hero. Arrian says that for him the island is primarily the symbol of that:
I believe strongly that Achilles was a hero, if anyone was. He was marked by his noble birth, physical beauty, and a robust soul, and by leaving the company of men so early in life, and by the fact that Homer spoke about him. And by being a lover and a friend, because he chose to die for the one whom he loved.
The heroism of Achilles was also poignantly invoked by Socrates in Plato’s Apology (set in 399 BC). He asks himself whether an untimely death is to be avoided and answers:
“a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad.”
Socrates mentions Achilles as the one who wanted to avoid disgrace rather than death. His mother Thetis revealed to him that, if he takes vengeance of Hector for slaying his beloved Patroclus, he will soon die too. Socrates sees himself as a soldier, a soldier of god and a soldier of philosophy, who has to be ready to do what is right in all circumstances rather than what is safe, pleasant or profitable.
Socrates identifies himself with Achilles who
hearing this, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonor, and not to avenge his friend. “Let me die next,” he replies, “and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a scorn and a burden of the earth.” Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying. (Plato Apology 28c–d, tr. B. Jowett)
We can doubt whether the Ukrainian soldiers defending the Island of Heroes ever read Plato or shared Arrian’s love for heroic poetry. Probably not. They didn’t answer their enemy quoting the Iliad, but by simple and uncivil soldier’s language, not without some bitter sarcasm. Perhaps, Achilles and Patroclus were standing there with them, laughing at their joke and, if these soldiers really have died for their country, they surely will have welcomed them as fellow companions in that place where heroes head after death.
Mateusz Stróżyński is a Classicist, philosopher, psychologist, and psychotherapist, working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is interested in ancient philosophy, especially the Platonic tradition.