Category Archives: Greeks

Hadestown

Anyone done any work on Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown project?

It seems that there was some commentary in Syllecta Classica (which is on my To Be Read pile) but I know very little about Reception in music so I’m looking for some broad thoughts…

It is a ‘modern folk opera’ based on the Orpheus myth and I heard about it on the Radio; partly because, although it was started a while ago, she is planning a stage show which might eventually come to the UK.

I am hoping to actually sit down and listen soon but I would welcome thoughts from any classicists who’ve heard it or can offer some background on the various Orpheus poems/operas etc already out there.

Thinking about time-travel

So if you could go anywhere, anywhen and see anything what would you do?

Why?

What makes any particular location interesting? Is there a famous person you’d like to meet or observe,  some aspect of your life you’d like to re-visit, a subject from school that has nagged at you either because there wasn’t enough information or because you thought it was wrong?
Do you want to change the past or learn something about it or yourself? What will you bring back with you to your life now? What, after all, is the point?
And what if you were going to write fiction about a time-period? Its not enough that you are interested in the subject matter but rather you have to know enough about it to make it convincing but not get so caught up in the details that it becomes overwhelming. Ideally your readers should already be broadly interested in the time-period but neither know so much about it as to get bored nor so so little as to be confused. And again what is the point – why that time period and not any other one? what is it about then that shows off the ideas you are bringing out?

Naturally, I tend to think that the ancient classical world offers an excellent setting for fiction. Apart from the obvious fact that we tend to define it rather loosely – it easily covers 1000 years (are we including Myceneans or Minoans? Is 476 the real fall of the Roman empire – what are you doing with the East?) and covers (at various times) from Britain to the Middle East with a chunk of North Africa thrown in – and that means there is plenty of scope for exploring, it is also something that many people are able to recognise and pick out stories from. Not only have chunks of its history and literature been traditionally taught in Western schools but it has also been absorbed into our culture in more subtle ways (such as architectural iconography and narrative tropes).

OK so far so obvious but actually it raises more questions for me:
Who chooses to write fiction about the classical world, especially to contrast it directly against their contemporary world? Is there a gender bias? a racial one?
Are some parts of the classical world more popular than others – what makes them so, their familiarity or shared themes (I tend to notice themes of imperialism everywhere so…)?
What do the characters learn? Is it the same as the readers?
How does the portrayal of the ancient world react to scholarship on the topic?
Does the immersive potential of fiction allow scholars to examine the past differently or do we simply partake in the wish-fulfilment?

So… as part of my ongoing thinking/research on the topic I want to collect examples.
I am focusing on time-travel and NOT historical fiction so there must be some element of the character(s) experiencing contrasting time periods but I don’t mind if thats by magic or a device and I am willing to be persuaded on what counts as the ‘classical’ world – if you have suggestions please add them to the comments.

SFF 6

So.. I haven’t forgotten that I promised you Warhammer

I chose to head to this topic not as a gamer but as the friend and relation of gamers. As such I started from a position of understanding some of the structure, a little of the specific world-building practices and very little of the details.
It was fabulous. [Don’t get me wrong I’m not about to set up a 40k game but…] The first speaker, Alexander McAuley treated us to a paper on the notion of a Virgilian Divus Imperator in the 40k universe. His premise revolved around the methods of presentation of a God-Emperor in both Virgil and Warhammer – specifically an (Augustan) Emperor’s role as a figurehead that creates order amongst chaos. The Warhammer Emperor rules enigmatically over a system of provinces and cultic practice that mimics an image of an Augustus who is defined by his major battle and transformation into supreme leader. McAuley suggested that just as the eventual leadership of Augustus is understood to underpin the whole of the progression of the Aeneid even where it is not explicit so the Emperor’s rule is a ‘necessary’ implicit in all the other actions of the 40k story. He also pointed out similarities in the deification process and somewhat pre-empted the subsequent paper by suggesting parallels between the Horus Heresy (prequels) and the Octavian-Antony Civil War.

[This reading of Virgil managed (for me) to reiterate the points made by Rea about our discomfort with the violence and anger shown by Aeneas at the end of the poem and what we give up for ‘divine’ order- although I’m still not sure whether conclusions can be drawn from that]

The second paper was by a brilliantly passionate Luke Pitcher who took several of these ideas and developed them further in a paper entitled “The Promise of Progress? The Problem of the Roman Past in Warhammer 40k“.
Pitcher was particularly interested in the way that the figures of Julius and Augustus Caesar appear to have been blended together in order to give a more fitting legend to the figure of Roboute Guilliman (son of the God-Emperor and Primarch of the Ultramarines – in themselves an interestingly  Romanised fighting force). Guilliman’s backstory relies on both some of the Divus Imperator imagery discussed in McAuley’s paper and a story of avenging his foster father during a civil war….
One of the interesting facets of Pitcher’s talk was his use of the fact that in the Warhammer canon much of the material about the activities of the God-Emperor and his children was created after the initial world-building despite the fact they happen earlier in the temporal scope of the universe and as such the development of the mythos are appropriate metaphors for reception generally. Including the tension surrounding the idea that looking too much to the past can lead to a kind of stasis… He also touched on the issues relating to multi-authoring within the corpus (before less formalised fanfic is even considered) and the constraints that are potentially placed on interpretations of actions by other writers and notions of canon. He suggested that classical elements in the stories allowed writers to draw on their own existing experiences of interpreting a real shared past as they handled the stories as well as ensuring that they were using a common pot of material.

Although this was a slightly shorter panel than some of the others it provoked some quite lively discussion at the end and over coffee. Particularly of note was the role of fanfic and the way that understanding and corpus is developed through this process of multiple authoring but that because the Warhammer universe uses historical background rather than mythological the approaches of the writers varies somewhat from that discussed by Amanda Potter with relation to Dr. Who earlier in the conference.

The panel was followed by the final plenary of the conference- Edith Hall talking about Xenophon’s Anabasis in Space.
It is worth confessing up front that I have never read the Anabasis (in English let alone Greek) and as such my knowledge of it goes no deeper than the brief precis that Dr Hall offered by way of introduction. Fortunately, Dr Hall confidently took the audience through the imagery, structural nuances and tonal subtleties of Xenophon’s work that the writers of SF she picked out were interested in.
Hall highlighted how through translations of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth the imagery of soldiers/explorers reaching a somehow recognisable sea  (Thalatta! Thalatta!)  despite the ‘alien’ nature of the landscape they have been struggling through became a staple feature of Science Fiction and she chose to discuss 3 of the more extensive reworkings which cover a variety of styles: Andre Norton’s Star Guard, Weber and Ringo’s March Up Country & Kearney’s Ten Thousand.

The militaristic and ethnographic features of Xenophon’s work allow it to to be reworked in multiple modern genres and the strongly moral overtones appeal to a lot of writers. In Xenophon, not only are there  conflicting political ideologies between warring states but there are  also competing approaches amongst the ten thousand and this makes it possible to use the story to emphasise different aspects of any journey. More importantly, Hall also talked about the importance of the idea that Xenophon’s return is, despite having elements of both, not just an Odyssean journey home nor does it follow the Iphegenia in Tauris story arc  (she digressed slightly to show how Iph in Taur influenced Trader Horn, Road to… and ultimately Star Wars stories). What in many respects makes Xenophon’s narrative more potentially interesting for writers are the aspects of failure and loss around the initial endeavour and perhaps more importantly his own internal conflict about the notion of returning home.  If returning home is not easy or perhaps not desirable then one’s attitude to new territory is subtly shifted towards its potentials for a new start…

Hall was very clear in her preference for Norton’s version of the tale over the others that she had selected. Although (and I am surmising without having read any of them) Norton’s is almost certainly the most political and literary of the three I could not help but feel that in making such a personal aesthetic choice Hall didn’t offer her audience quite the depth of comparative analysis  she is capable of. On the other hand she made a lovely plea for more authors to attempt engagement with the ancient text, a very good case for using Xenophon as an inspiration and appeared to have been able to use the modern texts to help her find new interpretations of the Anabasis.
The paper was pleasingly thought-provoking for me, in that it engaged with a series of texts that stylistically I know very little about and brought them more into my world-view but it was not quite the end of the conference….

SFF 4(?)

Aaaargh sorry for the exceptionally long delay.

Still on Day 2 but post lunch
Session 13: Divine Updates – Myths of the Classical World in Popular Literature.
This panel was all by academics from the University of Zurich, I’m not sure I quite caught a unifying theme to the papers but each of them offered me a whole load of food for thought.

The first was by Meret Fehlmann on the re-imagining of classical myth (and religion) in the novels of Robert Graves and Elizabeth Hand.
I haven’t read anything by Hand and I haven’t read the novels by Graves that Fehlmann discussed (though perhaps unsurprisingly I have read his Greek Myths & I, Claudius) but I am quite conscious of the fact that his interpretation of pre-historic Goddess worship has been influential so I was interested to see how she traced his ideas and reactions to them. Fehlmann demonstrated 2 points: firstly how Graves developed his ideas about the cult of the mother Goddess from his version of the Golden Fleece into his book 7 Days in New Crete to suggest a kind of utopian re-balancing of society and secondly how Hand re-wrote those ideas about the cult and ultimately rejected their usefulness.
Graves’ ideas about both the importance of women in cultic scenarios and the notion of the necessity of destruction in society have their basis in a number of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropological enquiries, including those of Jane Ellen Harrison. The ideas are played out across swathes of pagan and feminist literature but were fairly quickly rejected by scholars and then ultimately by those groups too. It is interesting to see the literary positions that demonstrate the trends but unsatisfying to consider how much more there could be done on tracing lines of influence… My brain was so buzzing with the possibility of showing how JEH influenced 70’s lesbian pagan feminism I was quite distracted.

Next up.. a Paper on the Watchmen graphic novel/comic from Scott Brand

This paper served as a gazetteer of almost every classical allusion the speaker could find. Naturally there was an interesting discussion on the impact of using Juvenal (quis custodiet..) as the central theme of the novel (albeit mediated through American politics) and some focus on the Promethean elements of the characters. However, to my taste the paper as a whole was a little light on analysis (although it is only fair to note that this was not his normal research topic) but instead offered up some interesting possibilities for further analysis as well as illustrating how classical material can serve as ornamental short-hand and foreshadowing. I would particularly like to see someone with greater skill than I pick apart the interplay between the Greek, Roman and Egyptian identities and images of the character of Ozymandias.

The 3rd paper of the panel entitled “Where’s the glory in repeating what others have done? Mediating the Ancient and the Modern in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians series” was from Petra Schrackmann.

This rather fascinating paper took great care to show how the novels actively re-write ancient mythology in order to make it more relevant to modern children. Schrackmann especially argued that by juxtaposing the modern and the mythological Riordan was able to critique both and that he used the books to create a modern mythos that especially highlights issues with the education system as well as providing a pathway to the growth of personal identity. It is clear that the series shares some of its central themes with many other books for its target age-range, specifically the notion of the power of knowledge and learning to negotiate independence through issues of agency but the speaker nicely highlighted why the often fatalistic Greek myths could still be used fruitfully.

This paper was followed rather well thematically by the final paper of the panel by Aleta-Amiree Von Holzen on Anne Ursu’s Cronus Chronicles. I have to confess that not only have I not read these ‘middle grade’ stories, I hadn’t even heard of them before the paper. Nonetheless the speaker competently outlined the key plot points before explaining some of the ways that the author took some of the same basic premises of the Percy Jackson series but created a different feeling in order to offer thoughts on the nature and purpose of power. The paper suggested that Ursu’s modernising of the myths sometimes inserts a slightly comic tone into the stories but the disregard of humanity shown by the Gods has a lot in common with the  ancient tragedies. Von Holzen also drew out the importance of the Promethean myth to the Chronicles’ consideration of free-will and the role of the Gods in a modern world – a classical connection that (as well as being discussed indirectly in a later paper) surely ought to be brought out more in modern writing.

In summary, despite (or perhaps because of) the fairly diverse directions of these modern mythological re-tellings/re-purposing it was clear that writers have been very conscious of the difficulties of using such a different cultural medium as ancient myth in their own work but also that they can use that to their advantage.

Right, better stop there before this gets any longer.
Monday morning next (Nick Lowe’s plenary will I think act a as kind of conclusion to the whole conference)

The Phoenicians and Me

I am currently re-writing part of my thesis – specifically I am trying to tease out some examples of Cornish historians who write about Phoenicians and justify their work with classical texts and trying to make some observations on trends and possible reasons for them.

It wasn’t a big part of my thesis per se since what I wanted to focus on was the role of the more traditional Greek and Roman classical civilisations on historiography. Nonetheless not only is it impossible to talk about the ancient Cornish tin trade without talking about the Phoenician myth but it turns out that one of the key uses for classical texts in building the historiography of Cornwall is “proving” that the Phoenicians came to Cornwall.
The Classical reception scholar in me is fascinated by the way that not only do the ancient works form the basis and framework for historical research but also how quickly they become cheap acontextual citations to make a point and how important the phraseology of a translation can turn out to be for the non-specialist. But…
…that is what part of the thesis was about not what the article is supposed to say.

I want to point out that there are patterns for discussing the topic and that they show us some of the key concerns of the historians involved.
Specifically, the writers always use Strabo’s description of the Cassiterides and the Phoenicians at 3.5.11 (but never mention 3.2.9 or any of his writing about Britain) and usually conflate this account with Diodorus on Belerion (5.22.1-2) . The writers also seem to regularly get entangled in issues surrounding the possible dating for the trade and exact locations for parts of the route. Even more importantly it is clear that the Phoenicians form a kind of shorthand for understanding the development of Cornish civilisation and technology.

The Cornish writers attribute improvements in the process of mining, the design of hill-forts and parts of the language to the interactions between the Cornish and the Phoenicians. This allows the writers to suggest that certain important  parts of Cornish culture had developed well before the Roman invasion and therefore that these Celts were somehow different to Caesar’s savage Britons. Like a number of historical writers of the period the writers tend to focus on the cultural legacy passed from the classical peoples to the natives rather than the existence or role of artefacts (rather handily when they are somewhat absent as in this case). In the texts that I have looked at there are some wild conjectures about the activities of the Phoenicians in Cornwall as well as more measured hypotheses but almost all of them are keen to describe the interactions as positive for the Cornish. I believe that in this way they  took their own ideas about the important parts of Cornish history and framed them into a local mythos.

Now I just need to find a way to argue that as a convincing conclusion before the end of the month.
(more SFF soon. honest.)

SFF & Classics (3)

So still on Day 2 but now with extra coffee.
The Whedonverse:
The first two papers of the panel focused on Firefly/Serenity and the 3rd compared Angel to the Southern Vampire (Sookie Stackhouse) Mysteries and all 3 looked at classical influences from slightly different angles.

The first paper, by Janice Siegel, was on the Cyclopean properties of the Reavers in Firefly. Siegel wanted to draw attention to the way that 3 aspects of ancient monsters re-appear in the form of the Reavers- namely rape, cannibalism/anthropophagy & the desecration of corpses. She made it clear that she did not believe that Whedon was directly referencing the monsters of the Odyssey when the Reavers were conceived but instead wanted to draw attention to the fact that the same social anxieties crop up now as then when we attempt to consider what makes Us civilised & Them monstrous. Nonetheless, she notes some important ideas that comparing the approaches brings up  – firstly and most obviously Rape is considered much more linked with violence and thus horrific in our culture than in antiquity; secondly cannibalism involves a kind of loss of humanity but often this is represented as a subversion of the dominant culture and finally that this is irreversibly tied to the need for a cultural agreement on the treatment of the dead (eating corpses- emphasises the monstrosity of the lack of respect) which holds as much true for us as it did the ancient Greeks. Siegel used a variety of different examples of parallels between the Odyssey and Serenity which made for compelling listening and was particularly intrigued by the suggestion by a member of the audience that in fact because of their communitarian aspect the Reavers were rather more like Laestrygonians than Cyclopes. A point which didn’t change the key contrast the comparison brought out that what particularly differentiates the Odyssean monsters from the Reavers is in the Odyssey, things which appear cultured or safe are often revealed to be in fact monsters whereas the Reavers which appear so monstrous are in fact “human”.
[One extra thing the Siegel dropped in which is also worth thinking some more on is the similarities in personality between Mal & Odysseus, including the similar types of trickery to escape]

The 2nd paper by Jennifer Ann Rea was entitled “You can’t stop the signal/signum: ‘Utopian’ Living in Whedon’s Serenity and Vergil’s Aeneid“. I must confess that my memories of it are a little hazy which is odd given that I felt fairly confident that I knew both “texts” quite well. After re-reading the storified tweets, I do remember the gist of the argument about how both make their audiences consider when violence is justified, what means can be used to create the desired (utopian) society and when the price for a ‘pax romana’ is too high. The discussion hinged on the ambiguity of the end of the Aeneid in comparison to the somewhat more openly didactic (albeit unresolved) elements of Serentity. I think there are some really interesting ideas about the ‘messages’ in the texts but fear that the breadth of research on the Aeneid makes us more likely to pick our favourite theory and then apply it to Serenity rather than trying to see whether responses from the audiences to Serenity can suggest new approaches to the Aeneid…. That or I wasn’t in the mood for politics.

The final paper of this panel was from Juliette Harrisson and moved away from Firefly/Serenity and onto contrasting oracles in Angel and Sookie Stackhouse. Juliette began by offering a little bit of context on the vampire genre and the way that vampires can be used to create a link between the past and the present. She highlighted the fact that modern vampire mythos tends not to offer classical (esp. not Greek) origins for its vampires (we have some from Confederate USA, a few from WW1 and some Egyptians & Vikings) but in 1819 Polidori’s Vampyre was heavily invested in the Romanticism associated with ancient Greece and contemporary Greek struggles. The key point of the vampire then is the blend of the exotic with familiar enough. Harrisson then mentioned some of the issues surrounding use of magic vs. religion in modern fiction and related that neatly to the (fictional) role of oracles as access to higher power without necessarily invoking any particular religious scheme and their particular use for dramatic foreshadowing. After comparing these uses to the ancient views of oracles, she moved on to her specific examples.
In the Buffyverse, generic old and magical was generally represented by  (bad) Latin and the really ancient tended to be Near Eastern/Egyptian which left little space for representations of classical Greece. Nonetheless, the Oracles in Angel look and feel Greek and are consulted in order to answer a question in very classical fashion (interestingly they are also able to turn back time before they are conveniently killed to prevent repeated use of this deus ex machina). In the Southern Vampire Novels there are fewer classical allusions but they are slightly more unusual – the rampant Maenad, Eric’s Roman vampire maker and the ‘Pythoness’ (“the [?] oracle Alexander consulted”). This oracle’s access to higher power is more uncertain but her role as judge of the Vampire Queen (authority over authority) is certainly out of respect for both her extreme age and her reputation as an oracle when she was turned.
Thus Juliette argued that the Oracles offer an interesting and different connection to the ancient world and allow the worlds they inhabit a means to touch some kind of ancient tradition, authority and higher power separate to that of the Vampires themselves. Is the lesson that we don’t yet have any other non-christian models for authority be it in politics or our future?

Overall, the panel reflected a number of ways that modern social and political tastes can be reflected and echoed in well-known classical examples – not a surprise to Reception scholars but nonetheless it was interesting to see new connections.

Next on my list a panel on Myths in Popular literature

Sirens

Post written for the Ure Discovery Blog: (and currently published on their facebook page)

38.8.48 – The Siren
(Kendrick School)

Black Figure Lekythos (dating from c. 550-525 BCE) depicting a Siren between two male figures, one of which is holding a spear

38.8.48

What Sort of Pot?

A lekythos (Greek: λήκυθος – Plural: Lekythoi) is a type of Greek pottery used for storing oil and perfume. It has a narrow neck and one handle. Many lekythoi are found in tombs and the images on the sides were often depictions of daily activities or rituals and especially those connected with death. Giant Lekythoi sometimes formed tomb markers.
This one was identified as being made in around 520 BC by Annie Ure.

What are Sirens?

In classical mythology the Sirens lured sailors to their deaths with their songs. They appear most famously in Homer’s Odyssey [Bk. XII] but also feature in Appollonius Rhodes’ Argonautica [4.891-919] and Ovid’s Metamorphoses [5.551 and following.]. Although modern artists often show Sirens in the shape of beautiful women the ancient Greeks painted them as half-human and half-bird with wings and talons or webbed feet and their distinctive shape makes them a recognisable type of decoration.
The Sirens were associated with music and death and are sometimes said to help make travelling to the underworld easier with their music. They are perhaps related to the Egyptian Ba [See Here].

One of the most famous images is from a vase in the British Museum which shows Odysseus tied to the mast so he can listen to their beautiful song without going crazy. The Sirens have feathers and neat hair that makes them more obviously feminine than the ones on this Lekythos.

Odysseus & the Sirens – British Museum

As time went by the images of Sirens made them more and more human.
Statue in National Museum of Archaeology, Athens
137-Sirene-vers--330

H.J. Draper (1909) Ulysses and the Sirens
Ulysses and the Sirens by H.J. Draper

Modern writers often use Sirens and Siren song to symbolise something almost irresistible but dangerous and female singers who are especially alluring are also described as Sirens. …All a bit different to the dark winged figure on this pot who is singing the warrior into his afterlife.

Other Sirens

In the Ure Museum there are several other items with Sirens on that you can look up on the database or go take a look at:
2005.3.24 – Aryballos on display in “History Grave”
37.7.1 – Aryballos in “Myth & Religion”
37.7.2 – Aryballos in “Greece”
51.1.4 – Plate in “Myth & Religion”
See also this decoration in Tampa Museum of Art;  this Lekythos in the British Museum and this one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Further Academic Reading

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