Friday, 20 May 2016

Using Classics to Oil Corporate Wheels

Fiennes' Oedipus, sponsored by Shell
What is it with enormous oil companies and the sponsorship of classics-themed cultural activity?  In 2008 the National Theatre accepted funding from Shell to stage Sophocles’ Oedipus, a play concerning a plague-stricken land suffering from blighted crops and airborne pestilence. Now BP is pretending that it cares about our oceans.

What BP want you to associate with them
On Tuesday I enjoyed the press preview of the British Museum’s stunning new exhibition ‘Sunken Cities’, featuring underwater finds from the lost Greek cities of the Nile Delta. As I said on BBC Radio’s Front Row, it is exquisitely designed, accessible but erudite, and perfect for All The Family.  Besides the sensational statues, the best thing is the juxtaposition of artefacts with video footage of the divers on the sea floor pulling them from the sand.

 
Dudley's Pen mightier than truth?
But the effect of all these translucent aquamarine Mediterranean seascapes is jeopardised by the surreal hypocrisy of the ‘Sponsor’s Foreword’ to the exhibition guidebook, penned by Bob Dudley, Group Chief Executive of BP.


A few Environmental Protesters at the BM
Discovery is part science and technology, part human endeavour… we feel a strong affinity with the maritime archaeologists who have created and studied their own maps of the Mediterranean seabed to discover the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. We may work at different depths, but like our fellow marine explorers, BP knows the Nile Delta and the waters off the Mediterranean coast well… We continue to invest in Egypt’s future … through our social programmes which are supporting education and local communities. We remain committed...to grow [sic] production safely, reliably and efficiently.’ Nauseating.


What I actually associate with BP
The worst oil spill in U.S. history occurred on April 20 2010. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. It killed 11 people. By July 15, when the well was finally capped, BP’s pipe had leaked more than 3 million barrels of oil into the ocean off Louisiana. Both the oil and the chemicals used to disperse it did incalculable damage to water quality, seaweed stocks, wildlife, coral and the Gulf coast as well as the entire ecosystem and human health.

Mexico Gulf Dolphins
Sponsorship is not philanthropy. In this case it is a cynical attempt to obscure well-deserved reputational damage. BP have never issued any very convincing apology to anybody, let alone the millions of whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and 93 species of birds which they killed at the peak of spawning/nesting season. But they were forced into pleading guilty to 11 felony counts related to the human deaths and lying to congress.


Please go to this marvellous exhibition. But get your children to read the Smithsonian Museum’s account of the effects of the Gulf catastrophe before you take them. Because I have a  thing about dolphins, they (rather than BP’s alleged work for the environment and the poor) dominated my consciousness as I gazed into the clear turquoise waters lapping round those divers in the sparkling video installations. As Cervantes said, ‘Truth shrinks and doesn’t fragment, and  lies on top of falsehoods like oil on water.’

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Cheiron the Centaur for Minister of Education!

Cheiron teaches Jason the lyre
A Warsaw conference on mythical beasts allowed me to celebrate the centaur Cheiron. Where other centaurs are hyper-randy,tanked-up brutes, Cheiron is an expert in healing, botany, lyre-playing and hunting. He teaches these skills to heroes in childhood and adolescence. He is an Agony Uncle and initiation guru who gives youths romantic advice.

Centaur toy from 10th century BCE
But, far more excitingly, he is also the ONLY ancient Greek author with a non-human lower body. There was a poem as old as Homer and Hesiod called the Precepts of Cheiron, addressed to the teenager Achilles. It consisted of Cheiron's own timeless wisdom for all children and the people raising them.

In our days of compulsory testing of the literary and numeracy of even the very young (in my view, year 2 SATS are a form of child abuse), it's good to recall that Cheiron said that forcing children to read before the age of seven was counter-productive.* Cheiron for Minister of Education, say I!

Box on table is labelled CHEIRONEIA
Sadly, his poem has not survived except in fragments. Nor has the other poem in which he starred, the Cheironeia. Panaitios, the youth seated left on this vase in Berlin, is reading this epic intently in the presence of his tutor. The vase tells us that the both the boy and the poem are BEAUTIFUL.

The Greeks, then, would be shocked at how we ‘educate’ our four to six-year-olds. But they wouldn’t be surprised at the popularity of centaurs in modern youth culture. I spent hours this week baffled by the explicit initiatory adventures of she-centaur Himeno Kimihara, in the bestselling manga series A Centaur's Life, until my own youngest teenager patiently explained that you start such books at what I call the ‘end’, the right-hand cover as you hold it.


But the best find of the week was this old bike advert. Cheiron, who had attempted to teach the youth to ride a horse, is in my view not racked with envious desire for a velocipede. He doesn’t need one. What he is actually planning is a centaur revolution: ‘four legs good, two wheels bad’. 
Peirce Brosnan as Cheiron in Percy Jackson movie








* That seven is the earliest age (aetas) at which a child is able "intellectum disciplinarum capere et laborem pati" was a Cheironic Precept  (Quintilian Inst. Orat. 1.1.15).

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Oedipal Quiz-Llittle Boys in Greek Tragedy

The "Oedipus Vase"--NOT
Fancy a Greek Theatre Workout? This is a blog crowd-sourcing about a famous ancient Greek image. Which myth or play does this vase-painting illustrate?

Sophocles’ Oedipus is one of the most famous plays in world history, but it is difficult to find any ancient Greek image illustrating the play in performance. So the one vase-painting that scholars have said shows a scene from the play gets endlessly reproduced. It is from the fourth century BCE, when the then century-old classic tragedy was being performed all over the Greek world. The precious pot is in the archaeological museum of Syracuse, Sicily. The label beside it insists it is a scene from Sophocles' Oedipus

Not much room for doubt there then
I recently had to withdraw from a wonderful conference in Leiden organised by two of my fave Hellenists, Ineke Sluiter and Felix Budelmann, about mental processes in tragedy, because my mother has been critically ill. I was going to argue that our assumptions about what Little Girls Ought to Look Like has led to a massive misunderstanding of this vase-image.
The assumed 'girls' on assumed 'Oedipus' pot

Everyone has assumed that the two children are girls, simply because they have long dresses and ringlets. The only play we have in which two little girls appear is Sophocles' Oedipus. At the end of the tragedy, the incestuous and parricidal hero is brutally separated from his daughters/sisters, Antigone and Ismene. Scholars have assumed that this vase-scene shows a fusion of the scene in which Oedipus and Jocasta learn who he really is, and that painful parting scene at the end of the drama.

Mystery woman with no role in Oedipus and ringlets
The best scholars did admit that the ‘extra’, ringleted dark-haired woman, listening in from behind the pillar on the right of the scene as you look at it, could not be explained from the play. She is also reacting to the bad news the messenger brings, but in a different way from the blonde queen-person.

Boy has frock and girl is semi-nude
I talked to several colleagues who know much more about ancient art than I do.They all said I was deluded because we would expect small mythical boys to be naked. But then I came across this second vase-painting, showing a scene from Euripides’ Alcestis. Alcestis dies, after a tearful parting from her son Eumelus and her daughter. In this image, it is certainly the daughter (right) who is semi-naked, and the son (left) who has a long frock and ringlets. 


UNHAPPY FAMILIES: Alcestis dies
What this means is that on the 'Not-Oedipus Vase' we need to see a myth/tragedy involving two different adult females looking horrified, and two little boy children who look like beardless, miniature versions of their dad and ringleted mystery woman. Fortunately there are far more brother doublets than sisters in Greek mythology. I will blog back with your suggestions soon! You can find my email on my personal website.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Hellenic Heroes in Lovely Lancashire



On the way to address an impressively big audience at the UK’s newest branch of the Classical Association, founded in Lytham St. Anne’s a couple of years ago by the enterprising (and then only 17-year old) Katrina Kelly, I stopped off in a hailstorm at Preston.  In the Harris Museum I stumbled across this jaw-dropping stained-glass window celebrating ancient Greek achievements in philosophy, science, art, literature, and riding horses bareback to the Parthenon.

I had heard of the artist, Henry Holiday, because I’ve done some research on women from classical history in British art. He painted Aspasia, Pericles’ intellectual girlfriend, sitting on the Pnyx Hill where the Athenian Assembly met. But I didn’t know, until The Best Window in Britain sent me scurrying off to read his memoirs, that Holiday was a sterling supporter of women’s suffrage (which explains the significance of the Pnyx).
Holiday's Aspasia on the Pnyx

He was a colourful character. He also campaigned for Irish independence, socialism and dress reform. He believed that sartorial uniformity was destroying homo sapiens and that we should all wear different clothes. He personally liked to wear an outfit of medieval chain-mail. 


Medieval Holiday
Hirsute Tertullian
For years he kept a cast of Praxiteles’ Hermes and an enormous model of the Acropolis he'd constructed for himself in his studio. The latter, he says, he sold to the Royal Ontario Museum: Toronto readers, is it still on display there? 

He had an intense relationship with all the many hundred figures he portrayed in stained glass in churches, town halls and universities in the USA as well as Britain. The clean-shaven patristic writer Tertullian, whom he designed for Trinity College, Cambridge, had to be revised when a friend told him that the worthy Church Father thought shaving was effeminate. 

Robert Harris reading
Holiday’s Greek window was commissioned in 1905 by the Harris Museum, founded in memory of the longstanding Headmaster of Preston Grammar School, the Reverend Robert Harris. He was the upwardly mobile son of a ‘goods carrier’. He had read a few classics books himself.

Homer with line 1 of the Iliad
The lowest panel portrays Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Homer. The middle panel, with its Greek inscription The Great Panathenaea, is a vivid rendition of some Parthenon horsemen.


The classics-mad GCSE Drama set from Lancashire Technology College
But I need help on the top panel (thinkers and artists) because my arms couldn’t hold my camera high enough to include all the names. I think the information on display has got some of the names against the wrong figures and that Aristotle, of whom I’m collecting portraits, is actually second from the left at the top. There is no guide book available offering any discussion.


Which Sage is Which? 
Entrance to the Harris is free. If anyone in the north-west taller than I am can get a good photo of the top panel, with all the names, I would be grateful. 

I want to discuss it in my forthcoming book from my Classics & Class projectA People’s History of Classics, co-authored with Henry Stead, which has been accepted by Routledge under their Gold Open Access scheme and will be made available, entirely free, online. This is only appropriate for a study addressing the historic exclusion of the working class from intellectual property. But I need a good image of Holiday’s top panel! You will be warmly thanked in the caption.
Holiday's Sappho
Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston

Sunday, 24 April 2016

What's Hecuba really to Hamlet?

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

Shakespeare's Ovid
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death takes me to Stratford on Avon to record a BBC Radio programme going out on Tuesday at 1000 pm about The Bard’s Putative Bookshelf.  

He had certainly read lots of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Arthur Golding’s juicy verse translation: Prospero’s famous speech summoning  ‘Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves’ imitates one Ovid’s Medea delivers before chopping up a victim. Shakespeare absorbed many ghosts and disease metaphors from a 1581 multi-authored English translation of Seneca his Tenne Tragedies. He was eclectic with his Roman  history, keeping translations of Appian, Livy and the Gesta Romanorum handy as well as Plutarch’s Lives of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Coriolanus etc as translated by Thomas North from the French of Jacques Amyot.


The Play Scene in Hamlet by Daniel Maclise
But the most exciting Plutarch reference is the least understood.  It occurs in the player scenes of Hamlet, initiated by the arrival of the 'tragedians of the city' to offer their Lenten entertainment. In Act II scene 2, the player performs a speech by Aeneas describing the death of Priam and Hecuba's response to it.  

Hamlet wonders how the player could make himself go pale, weep, and speak with a broken voice for a woman about whom he in reality cared nothing. If he did really care about Hecuba, and have Hamlet's reasons for feeling strong passions,

He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

Hecuba's suffering, if depicted by a skilled actor, could inspire weeping and 'make mad the guilty'. It is this example that suggests to Hamlet the idea that 'the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.' Claudius subsequently watches a play dramatising actions so similar to crimes he has himself committed that he gets upset and has to absent himself from the performance.

Which Hecuba did Shakespeare really have in mind? Despite all the critics you have ever read, it was not Erasmus’ translation of Euripides’ Hecuba. It was a performance of Euripides’ Trojan Women in the fourth century BCE.

North's Plutarch's Lives
Shakespeare read about this performance in  Plutarch's little read  Life of Pelopidas, chapter 29. Plutarch is describing the crimes of an abominable tyrant named Alexander of Pherae. These included using humans as dog bait and massacring the male populations of entire cities. But Alexander had to leave the theatre out of 'shame that his citizens should see him, who never pitied any man that he murdered, weep at the sufferings of Hecuba and Andromache' (29.4-6). 
Sybil Thorndike as Hecuba in Trojan Women


Hamlet gets the idea for using a mimed murder to test Claudius’ conscience from Alexander’s sudden tears at seeing the women of Troy suffer as he had made his own victims suffer. The spine-tingling beauty of this is that Shakespeare is placing himself in a tradition of tragic theatre which even in 1600-1 went back two thousand years. We still perform Euripides’ Trojan Women today. I know of a few tyrants who should watch it.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Report from Lesbos

Menander Mosaic in Mytilini Museum
As the Pope flies into Lesbos (now Lesvos), I report on my own stay there last week. I was apprehensive given the appalling death toll and continued suffering of the refugees. I was afraid it was insensitive to be visibly enjoying myself in that context.  But I was encouraged by a Greek friend, writing a PhD at SOAS, who has been volunteering in the camps. She insisted that the islanders want life to go on as normally as possible.

Delicious Lake Kalloni Seafood
Arion of Methymna, Lesbos
The flights, hotels and restaurants were eerily empty. The crisis has had a catastrophic effect on the local economy.  If you haven’t booked a holiday yet, do choose the unbelievably beautiful island of poets Sappho, Alcaeus and Arion.  Hotels, restaurants and car hire are inexpensive. You won’t regret it and you will be lending a helping hand.

Eresos High School, south-west Lesbos
The museum in Mytilini is a revelation. Gorgeous mosaics and figurines reflect the ancient islanders’ twin obsessions with fish and theatre. We were the only visitors all morning.

Bust of Theophrastus at Eresos
I went to Lesvos because Aristotle lived there for a while. He researched the zoology of idyllic Lake Pyrrha (now Kalloni), including the ancestors of the cuttlefish (soupies) which we devoured in an excellent but empty restaurant on the marina. We paid homage at Eresos, home town of Aristotle’s friend, the philosopher-botanist Theophrastus. It is a dazzling seaside town where the secondary school is called the Theophrasteion.

Assos with view over to Lesbos
From Lesvos for 10 euros you can get a sturdy return ferry across that tragic, turbulent sea to Ayvalik in Turkey. For a day trip you don’t even need a visa. Then you can travel up the coast to Assos, one of the most impressive archaeological sites I’ve visited. Aristotle spent two years there. You can see Lesvos from the Doric temple of Athena or the wonderful Assos Hellenistic theatre.  

Beware the Prices at this Turkish port cafe
One warning: in the Ayvalik Port Café, don’t let them cynically overcharge you 8 euros/25 Turkish pounds for an iced coffee.  I was ripped off when the Turkish proprietor figured out I wasn’t Greek but northern European.

One of the Camps as Seen  from the  Mytilini/Ayvalik Ferry
The migrants’ camps are almost all on the north-eastern coast of Lesvos. We could just see the one nearest Mytilini from the Ayvalik ferry. If you want to help, support the bona fide Lesvos Solidarity charity recommended by my expert volunteer friend.  


Lyric Poets of Lesbos Alcaeus & Sappho
And book that Lesvos holiday. Swimming, seafood and ancient history make a superb combination. I witnessed just one bad piece of behaviour in four days. A shopkeeper, presumably a Golden Dawn sympathiser, refused to serve both me and a Syrian woman on the ground that we weren’t Greek. Everyone else was internationalist, hospitable and friendly. The people of Lesvos want to welcome you on holiday. Let’s help them continue to help the refugees.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Aristotle's Attempt to Pursue Happiness


I've always had a problem with the way Aristotle’s thought is taught. At my uni in 1981 all his historical context, natural science and radical potential were removed. He was presented in the anachronistic guise of an Oxford Analytical Philosopher with a dash of Utilitarianism and a sprinkle of Philosophy of Mind.

I’m writing a book which argues that Aristotle did more to create the inner contours of all our minds than any other individual in history.  Being intuitively convinced that life experiences and material environments affect intellectual theories, this week I went with our 17-year-old daughter Sarah Poynder and two Greek friends to visit all eight places in which we know Aristotle resided.

Stageira, his birthplace in 384 BCE, was a small, dazzlingly beautiful city-state in northern Greece where his father was a doctor. Stageira was trying—but failed—to remain independent of the expansionist Macedonian monster to its west.
Camerawomen Christina and Sarah in Academy

Aristotle spent twenty years at Plato’s Academy in Athens from the age of 17. His nicknames there were ‘The Mind’ and ‘The Reader’.  His entire philosophical system fundamentally disagrees with Plato’s.


Awesome:   Assos Doric Temple of Athena + VIEW
When Plato died in 348 BCE Aristotle was not appointed Head of the Academy. A philosophical friend called Hermias, who ruled Assos on the coast of what is now Turkey, invited him to stay. Assos is a cliff-top city with a breath-taking temple of Athena.


With Sarah and Aristotle at Lake where he Studied Cuttlefish
Two years later Assos, an independent realm, came under pressure from the Persians. Hermias was tortured to death by them. Aristotle, who had married Hermias’ daughter, sped off to Lesbos and did natural science, probably with his friend, the botanist Theophrastus of Eressos.


Pella. As Impressive as Philip Wanted it to be
After three years Aristotle was summoned by Philip II the One-Eyed of Macedon to his gargantuan court in Pella to teach the court teenagers including the young Alexander to think.
Aristotle's daily walking path in Mieza

Plutarch says Philip built Aristotle a school to do this in at Mieza, a heartbreakingly lovely Macedonian glade, sacred to the nymphs.

  
    The assassination of Philip and the departure of Alexander to Asia at last allowed Aristotle to return to Athens and set up his Lyceum where he spent 12 golden years. He wrote 150 books, gave specialist and general public lectures, supervised research and collected books. 

 But when Alexander died, anti-Macedonian feeling at Athens meant Aristotle had to pack his bags one more time. He died on his mother's family estate at Chalkis, beside (some said by drowning in) the churning waters caused by the mysterious Euripos tides.

Admiral Constantinides explains Euripos Tides
One way you can read all of Aristotle’s sensible, grown-up, rational, humane ethical philosophy (and before everybody yells, yes I DO know what he said about slaves and women) is as a response to the extreme personalities, militarist cultures, autocratic tyrants, wild debauchery, frequent murders and court intrigues and paranoias he had experienced directly.

Tidal waves of Chalkis where Aristotle is said to have drowned himself 
Our journeys between Lesbos and Turkey, at this particular time, deserve another whole blog, which will be posted in a couple of days. A short film of the entire Aristotle biopic is also in preparation and will be posted online. And now I’m going to have an ouzo in the Gloucestershire rain and summon my inner Aristotle to help me reflectively infer general principles from the empirical data I have recently collected.


Assos, Turkey: Leonidas, Sarah, Self and Murat
THANKS TO EVERYONE, most ESPECIALLY DR LEONIDAS PAPADOPOLOUOS, CHRISTINA PAPAGEORGIOU and Murat Başkurt, but for hospitality, transport, company and expert advice also to the entire Papadopoulos family in Thessaloniki, Eleni Fanarioutou, Rear-Admiral Simeon Constantinidis, George Plakoutsis, HMA John Kittmer, David Bates, Bess Kittmer-Bates, Richard Poynder, Prof. Roddy Beaton, Prof. Walter Puchner, Prof. Peggy Reynolds and Lucy Reynolds.