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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 29 March 2018

"Myths of the Greeks and Romans" by Michael Grant

Yet another wonderful book lent to me by my mate Fred whose other contributions include:
  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • The Mighty Dead: a superb analysis of the Iliad but an author who writes like a dream
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • The Song of Achilles  a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
  • Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
This loan was possibly in response to my lending him Mythos by the brilliant Stephen Fry; also heartily recommended.

To read Grant's book is a little like exploring in a slightly chaotic museum. Each chapter is based around a tale told by some wonderful writer; he starts with Homer and the Wrath of Achilles, and moves through the Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex by Sophocles to Virgil, Ovid and Apuleius. And having recounted the substance of the story he then tells you about its context, historical and archaeological findings, biographies of the writers and some description about the styles of work that they were using, and then their influences all the way through the Andre Gide. So even if you are, as I am, more or less familiar with the story itself, there is a wealth of other information. It's like web-surfing. One thing leads to another in a wonderful voyage of slightly haphazard discovery.

Some of the things I learned:

C3000 BC the stone age inhabitants of Greece were supplanted by bronze agers “possibly from Asia Minor ... probably of non-Indo-European origin” (p 32)

on the Greek mainland., people speaking a language somewhat resembling Greek, and perhaps originating from the South Russian steppes, began to arrive during the first centuries of the second millennium BC.” (p 32) Culture part Cretan part Hittite, part new. (p 32 - 33) Myceneans using written Linear B. c1250 BC they “besieged and burnt” Troy. (p 33)

The name Hector appears in Linear B tablet. (p 33) Homer’s mentions of “the huge shield of Ajax like a tower, Hector’s bronze helmet, the cup of Nestor, the silver-studded swords, and the only reference to writing, are traceable to the Mycenaean age.” (p 34)

Dorians invaded Greece through Balkans pushing Aeolians and Ionians into Asia Minor c1150 - 1100 BC. Dark Age until c700 BCE. (p 35) Writing vanishes untril Homer c 750 - 700 BCE. (p 36)

We can see Homeric poems intended for oral transmission because there are 25,000 repeated phrases in 28,000 lines of Iliad and Odyssey. (p 36) Poems prob 1st published by King Pisistratus of Athens; present division in 24 books may date from the third century BCE. (p 37)
Cremation ... is the universal Homeric practice, whereas the normal Mycenaean custom had been inhumation.” (p 39)

There are “detailed echoes” in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Ugaritic poems “mainly of fourteenth century date, belong to the north western branch of the Semitic languages ... written in Canaanite alphabetic cuneiform, foreshadowing the Phoenician alphabet which was to come to Greece in the eighth century BC” (p 49) eg dogs are popular in the Odyssey and Ugarit “but nowhere else in the Semitic world” (p 50) At about this time “ the Greeks borrowed, first, the Phoenician alphabet, and then ... the many ‘orientalizing’ artistic features, fantastic monsters and the like, for which Phoenicia was the natural intermediary between Greek lands and the near or middle east - Babylon and Assyria, with their roots in the Sumerian past.” (p 50)

The Iliad introduces the hero: “The hero must use his superior qualities at all times to excel and win applause, call that is the reward and demonstration of his manhood. He makes honour his paramount code, and glory the driving force and aim of his existence. ... his ideals are courage, endurance, strength and beauty.” (p 51) Homeric heroes are “violently emotional, and of erratic temperamental stability.” (p 52) “Heroism leads to misery and death, honour to slaughter ... there is pity for the shortness of heroes’ lives and the waste caused by their anger and pride.” (p 55)

The meeting of Achilles, at the end of the poem, with the bereaved father of his enemy is in profound contrast to slaughter and human sacrifice; it is like the Reversal or Recoil which was later to be the hallmark of many an Athenian tragedy ... out of the degradation and misery comes compassion.” (p 57)

The Odyssey is a collection of folk-tales and fairy-tales.” (p 81) It is more complicated than the Iliad: “an epic changing into a novel. ... mind and character now prevail over circumstances” (p 86)

The story of the castration of Uranus by Cronos is “distinctly similar” to the Epic of Kumarbi “evidently translated from Hittite in Hurrian” and the Apollodorus variant localizes the event at Mount “Cassi (Hazzi) in north-western Syria (on the Turkish border) just as the Hurrian-Hittite story does.” (p 114)

Thespis was the first dramatist whose name is known. “It may well have been he who converted ‘the answer to the chorus’ ... into a regular actor impersonating a character ... responding to the chorus not in a choral metre but in the characteristic iambic verse-pattern of tragic narration, imitating the cadences of speech.” (p 176)

The chorus complements, illustrates, universalizes, or dramatically justifies the course of events; it comments or moralizes or mythologizes upon what happens, and opens up the spiritual dimension of the theme or displays the reaction of public opinion.” TS Eliot suggestive that it makes things more intense by showing them to the audience twice. (p 177)

Aeschylus introduced “a second actor, which created the possibility of a dramatic situation or conflict.” (p 179)

Oedipus ... entered, as WB Yeats paraphrased the lines, through the door that had sent him wailing forth.” (p 229)

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex ... is more disturbing in its savagery ... suggesting at times the incantations of Christian liturgy and implications of Christian theology ... man is dominated but may find his own redemption, and light comes to Oedipus when he loses his eyes.” (p 232)

Xenophanes claimed that people created Gods in their own image:
Horses’ gods are like horses, like kine the gods of kine. 

‘Snub-nosed are the Immortals, and black’ the Ethiops say; 
But ‘No’ the Thracians answer, red-haired, with eyes of grey.” 
If there is one god how can he be fashioned in the likeness of man? (p 264)

In a fragment of his Sisyphus Critias suggests that humans invented gods replaced conscience. (p 265)

In a fragment of the lost Bellerophon Euripides suggests that the problem of evil means gods don’t exist (p 267)

Strabo believed Jason was looking for gold, and explained that the Cochians collected the dust from the river in fleecy skins. According to the Byzantine Suidas, the fleece was a parchment book explaining how to obtain gold by alchemy” (p 298)

The earliest known mention of a wife of Orpheus is in Plato's Symposium.” (p 310)

Orphism is close ... to the ascetic mystery religion and way of life established in southern Italy during the later sixth century [BC] by Pythagoras.” (p 313)

In the fifth century ... the Greeks invented ‘Romus’ (Rhomos) as a typical aponymous city-founder. In Italy, the form Romulus became current - ‘the Roman’ ... When the Greeks heard of Romulus, they differentiated him from Romus” which led to Romulus and Remus. (p 355)

The Etruscans became identifiable shortly before 700 BC as a separate civilization, occupied in trade, industry and agriculture, but particularly in piracy and war. They made great use of horses, introducing at the chariot to Italy. Etruscan strength came from the working of metals: the copper of Tuscany and the iron of Elba were perhaps what had tempted them to settle, and the whole of rorthern Etruria became a region of mines.” (p 365)

Deluge myths occur in thirty-four out of a specimen group of fifty among the world’s mythologies.” (p 400)

The Deucalion version [of the flood] ... may perhaps enshrine memories of a post-Paleolithic epoch in Greece itself, when central Thessaly became a lake.” (p 401)

Isn't it a joy?

March 2018; 430 pages

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