Orientius and Occidentius

Ever since childhood, I have been interested in Greek mythology. An important milestone in my absorption of knowledge was the book The Fabled Antiquity of Ellada based on the writings of Tadeusz Stefan Zieliński, which was a retelling that compressed a large chunk of it — starting with Cadmus and the Serpent and ending with Odysseus’ voyage — from originally disjoint myth into a single, cohesive narrative with clear themes and moral messages. The book, which is otherwise unrelated to this post, had a preface about Zieliński’s life, and in it, a parable from another one of his books, Our Debt to Antiquity.

It was written in 1910, and as such, is now in the public domain. I find it insightful in many ways: the conflict between the two protagonists here, in my eyes, goes beyond just the specific dichotomy the author obviously intended to portray.

When the angels had fallen and their evil and insolent devices brought on them a merited punishment, two of the fallen, Orientius and Occidentius, were deemed worthy of pardon as being less guilty. They were not cast away for ever. They were permitted to redeem their sin by a laborious task, that with its completion they might return to the cloisters of heaven. The task consisted of this to go on foot, with a staff in the hand, a journey of many million miles. When this sentence was pronounced on them, the elder of the twain, Orientius, besought the Creator and said: “O Lord, show me yet one mercy! Grant that my path should be straight and even, that there be no hills and dales to delay me, that I see before me the final goal towards which I journey!” And the Creator said to him: “Your prayer shall be fulfilled.” And he turned to the other and asked: “And you, Occidentius, do you desire nothing?” And he answered: “Nothing.” With that they were let go. Then a mist of oblivion enwrapped them, and when they came to themselves, they awoke each one on that place which was the destined starting point of their journey.

Orientius stood up and looked round him. A staff lay close by. All around stretched out, like a sea asleep, an immeasurable flat unbroken plain, over it the blue sky, boundless and cloudless everywhere; only in one place far away at the very edge of the horizon shone a white light. He understood that there was the place whither he should direct his steps. He grasped his staff and went forward. He journeyed on for a day or two and then gazed all round him again, and it seemed to him that the distance which separated him from his goal had not decreased by a single step, that he was still ever standing in the same place and still ever surrounded by the same immeasurable plain as before. “No,” he said in despair, “eternity is too short to cross a space like this.” And with these words he flung away his staff, sank down hopelessly on the ground, and fell asleep. He slept for a long time, right up to our own age.

At the same time as his elder brother, Occidentius also awoke. He rose up and looked round him. Behind him was the sea, in front a hollow, beyond the hollow a wood, beyond the wood a hill, and a white light seemed to be burning on the hill. “Is that all!” he exclaimed gaily. “I shall be there by evening.” He grasped a staff that lay by his feet and set out on his journey. And indeed before evening he had reached the top of the hill, but there he saw that he had been mistaken. Only from the distance it had appeared that the light was burning on the hill; in reality there was nothing on it save some apple trees, with whose fruits he allayed his hunger and thirst. On the other side was a descent, and below ran a river. Over the river a hill rose, and on the hill shone ever the same white light. “Well, what?” said Occidentius. “I shall rest, and after that to the road! In two days I shall be there, and then straight into heaven!” Again his calculation proved right, but again it was not heaven that he found. Behind the hill was a new, broad valley, beyond the valley rose a higher hill, whose top was crowned by the rays of the white light. Of course, our pilgrim felt a certain vexation, but not for long. The hill beckoned him irresistibly forward; there at last for sure were the gates of heaven! And so ever on and on, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, age after age. Hope is succeeded by disillusion, from disillusion rises a fresh hope. He is moving forward at this very moment. Ravines, rivers, crags, impassable bogs delay his progress. Many times he has wandered off the path and lost the guiding light; he has made circuitous marches and turned back till he has succeeded in marking again the reflection of the longed-for brightness. And now boldly, with his trusty staff in his hand, he is climbing up a high hill, the name of which is “The Social Problem.” The hill is steep and craggy. He must struggle through many ravines and thickets and scale abrupt walls and precipices, but he does not despair. Before him he sees the gleam of the light, and he is firmly assured that he has but to win the summit, and the gates of heaven will open before him.