Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Hallowe'en and chthonic contacts

Hallowe'en tonight. I saw these magnificent pumpkins at a farm cafe yesterday. Not very ghostly without their inner lights, but quite savage looking! 

We don't admit to much contact with our ancestors these days, but in many cultures the ancestors are considered to be constantly present. It was so in ancient Greece, and there are various mentions of this in The Boy with Two Heads. I thought these two instances would be fitting for today.

If you have read the book you will know where they come from. If not, the first happens during the voyage on the Pelican. Someone has died and left a bag with a tablet in it. Captain Stomio, Themis, and Themis' uncle Panainos open it and read it so that they can deliver it to its addressee.

  The captain took his knife and carefully broke the seals … He laid the tablet on the deck in a patch of sunlight. The writing in the wax was clear. Panainos read it out.

  ‘ “To Diokles, Necromancer of Tainaron and Messenger of the Mighty Hades, greetings and felicitations. May the spirits speak truth through you. … The bearer of this tablet will bring you a boy, Themistokles, son of Kallistos.” ’

  They all looked at each other in surprise. Panainos read on.
  ‘ “He will ask to speak with his dead father. You will arrange for his father to tell him … ” ’ Panainos looked up, horrified. Themis heart was beating so hard he could hardly breathe.
  ‘Go on,’ growled the captain, unsurprised.
  ‘ “ … You will arrange for his father to tell him that he must do as he has been chosen to do and uphold the honour of the family.” ’ Panainos turned to   Themis, his face grey. ‘This must be a joke,’ he said.
  ‘But what does it mean?’ asked Themis. ‘What have I been chosen to do?’
  ‘This kind of message must be going backwards and forwards to the Oracle all the time,’ said the captain. ‘I’ve been asked many times to deliver boxes of tablets or other messages to the necromancers there.’
  ‘Does it say anything else?’ asked Themis.
  Panainos read again: ‘ “… the honour of the family. … Bring the tablet to me afterwards”,’ went on Panainos in a monotone. ‘ “You will reap a silver reward of great value.” ’
  ‘Is there a signature?’ asked the captain.
  ‘Nothing,’ said Panainos, with a wondering shake of his head. …
  ‘I’ve never seen that seal before,’ said the captain. ‘But I’ve seen messages like that again and again. Do you know what it’s about?’
  The captain looked at Panainos, who looked back, his eyes wide open. After a moment he shook his head emphatically.
  ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what it means.’ … He snapped the tablet shut and handed it to the captain. …
  ‘So what was going on?’ Themis asked. ‘Was Molon going to arrange for me to hear a voice at the Oracle that was pretending to be my father?’
  ‘Many people believe that all the voices heard at the Oracle are false,’ said the captain as he got up.
  ‘That’s what it looks like,’ said Panainos. 

The second instance is later, when Themis is at Olympia. His father, who had died the previous winter, had asked another uncle to arrange for Themis to visit an Oracle on a certain day. The Oracle is in a cave similar to this one on the Akropolis in Athens.

  Behind the screen was another narrow entrance. A greenish glow came from the cave beyond. In the centre of the cave sat a hooded figure muffled in pale robes, swaying and murmuring. Themis could not tell whether the seer was male or female. The light seemed to come from a boulder at the back of the cave.
  The priest led Themis to stand close enough to be touched by the figure. A dull drum began to beat and a flute played long, single notes in an echoing melody. The walls of the cave glistened with crystals.
  The priest spoke clearly but quietly. ‘Themistokles, son of Kallistos is here. He comes to ask Mighty Zeus for his blessing and for his help in his trials and endeavours. He comes at the behest of his father, who is now with the multitudes in Hades. He comes to know that which Zeus expects of him and how he should achieve it.’
  The drum and music went on, but the light became dimmer and greener. The robed figure swayed more vigorously and its mumbling grew louder. …
  Themis felt slightly sick and began to shiver in spite of the cloak. The figure groaned loudly and sat still, stiff with tension. A breeze lifted the corner of its robes and brushed Themis’ hands and cheeks. ... The priest readied his writing tools.
  ‘When the boy with two heads,’ whispered the seer hoarsely, ‘wins without a fight, Athena will pay her dues.’
  As the priest wrote this down, the figure began to fall towards them, drawing tight, rasping breaths.
  Two men in black that Themis had not noticed glided forward from beside the doorway. One politely moved Themis and the priest out of the way and the other caught the seer before he – or she – hit the floor.
  The first man whispered to the priest. ‘Do you need interpretation?’
  ‘Thank you,’ said the priest quietly. ‘The words are quite clear.’
  Themis’ teeth were chattering. The seer began to jerk and groan as they turned and left. The music had stopped.

These contacts with the Underworld of gods and ghosts are known as chthonic or kthonic, from the ancient Greek word for the earth (as opposed to sky). They pervaded most facets of life then, it seems. We don't have the same reverence now, but we still like to create those shivers down our spines, especially in Young Adult fiction ...

Enjoy this special night!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

School in Ancient Athens

It's bad form not to add to a blog regularly. I apologise to my followers, but life these days does not follow regular patterns. However, I have not been idle ...

This past few weeks, Connie and I have been arranging school and library visits to talk about The Boy with Two Heads

This has made me think about what I learned from my research about schools in 432 BC in Ancient Athens, where Themis, The Boy, lives at the beginning of my story.

 by Leo von Klenze, a German neoclassicist architect in the late 19th century
(Not all the buildings in this picture were finished at the time of my story.)

For instance, I learned that our word school comes from the Ancient Greek verb, scholazo. This meant to be at leisure, to have nothing to do! Come to think of it, in modern Greek it still means to be let out of school, to break up for the holidays. Perhaps in those days, you had to have time free from farming, hunting or fighting to be able to study. 

The word used for what we would nowadays call education (of boys more than girls in Ancient Athens) seems to have been paideia, which translates literally as the state of childhood. (This is as opposed to the state of being an infant (tropheia) during which time you were merely played with, protected and fed (in modern Greek trophi means food). There were those who never wanted to leave that stage, even then ...)

So the sons of Athenian citizens spent their paideia/childhood being taught the necessary skills for a 'good citizen and soldier'. These included reading and writing, mathematics, music, poetry (stories were usually told in verse, like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey), debating, weapons practice (for hunting as well as war), and hand-to-hand fighting. Of course they also had to become, and stay, as fit as possible, like modern commandos. 

The school rooms seem to have been near or attached to a gymnasium and the classes seem to have been small. Boys were accompanied to school by a male slave who helped them carry scrolls, tablets, instruments and weapons. This slave was usually either elderly and probably quite well educated himself, or a slightly younger boy.

Vase painting of a school-room, in about 480 BC. Notice that the boy slave is drawn a lot smaller than his young master. This was an accepted way of depicting slaves.  (J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California)

In The Boy with Two Heads, Themis goes to lessons with his boy-slave, known as Frog. Themis usually has lessons with a small group of boys, and they have a trainer for physical lessons at the gymnasium. But for music he has a private teacher because he wasn't very good at music before the story began ...

  Themis was shown into a small room to wait. Frog said, ‘Your mother wants you to have a short lesson today, so I’m to stay until you’re finished. I’ll be ready any time you’ve had enough.’ He winked and left for the slaves’ room ... 
  Themis followed Melissus into the music room. There was a large window in front of which two stools were set, and a stand for tablets. 
  ‘So, take your usual stool, Themis and let’s see what you remember,’ said Melissus, trying to sound enthusiastic.  
  Themis didn’t sit. ‘That is my problem, Mr Melissus. I don’t remember anything.’  
  ‘Oh come on.’ Melissus sat on his stool. His voice was tired and had a hard edge. ‘You always have excuses for not doing your practice. But I’ve never heard that one before.’  
  ‘Perhaps I am wasting your time altogether, sir, but I really do not remember anything from my life before my injury.’ Themis saw that Melissus was speechless, so he went on. ‘I’ve looked at the tablets that my mother says are from our lessons, but I do not understand them at all ...’

The music is the thicker, darker marks above the lines of words.
From papyrus P. Yale CtYBR inv. 4510
Nor do I, but there are those who do

It's such a pity that no one thought to write down much about the girls of that time, or what was written down has got lost in the 2,400 years since then.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Olympic colossi

The Orbit from inside the Olympic Park

As you probably know by now, I enjoy drawing comparisons between the Modern and the Ancient Olympic Games.
The other day we drove past the Olympic Park on the A12, and I noticed that  more of the Orbit sculpture is visible from the road now. 

Building the Orbit, from Anish Kapoor's website 

I followed progress with interest last year while they built it, as I was writing about building a different kind of Olympic colossus at the time. I never quite believed that something as odd as the Orbit would be identified with the excitement of the Games, but I was always in awe of those huge cranes ...

The sculptor of the Orbit, Anish Kapoor, always takes me by surprise with his creations - sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not.

Sian Frances' magnificent impression of the statue
In Ancient Olympia it seems there were many amazing sculptures, more and more as the years wore on. The most famous sadly no longer exists. I've tried to describe the building of it in The Boy with Two Heads. As you probably know, it was made by Phidias, the famous Athenian sculptor who was responsible for much of the decoration and design of the Parthenon on the Athens Akropolis. According to Pausanias, this statue was a wooden structure overlaid with gold and ivory (see § 5.11.1). It stood (or sat!) 14 metres high, and was one of the Seven Wonders of the World for hundreds of years. It represented Zeus in his Temple in the sacred precinct of the Altis at Olympia. The Olympic Games were held in his honour. I had to guess about how the statue was built as I could not find any descriptions of the process, but I enjoyed imagining it. 

You may remember the scene in The Boy with Two Heads where the hero, Themis, helps install the face, one of the last components to be put in place:

   Themis lay along the beam and watched as a huge parcel, crated and wrapped, was brought to the door [of the Temple] by a team of ten men. He could hear the stamping of the oxen at the Temple ramp. The hubbub inside suddenly stilled.
   Phidias strode into the Temple and stopped in the middle of the floor, in front of the cloth-covered statue. He turned towards the doors.
   ‘Master Harpist!’ he called, and a musician stepped out from behind a column. ‘You and your musicians should be up in the gallery. When I make this signal with my hand you will play in the rhythm we agreed.’
   ‘Certainly, Master Phidias,’ said the harpist with a nod, and he and his two colleagues ran up the stairs to appear opposite Panainos.
   The great bundle was carried into the open space beside Phidias. The slatted casing fell away and a sling of ropes was tied round the wrapped disc inside.
   At the signal from Phidias, the musicians began to play. Themis and the men in the roof all shuffled into their places. Men on the floor pulled on their ropes. Curtains of dust drifted down as the wrapped disc rose towards the ceiling, swaying in time to the music. When it was almost touching the beams there, Themis and his team began work. They pulled and stopped as directed by the music. The disc moved towards the gaping front of the head. Men wriggled along beams, moved pulleys and re-laid ropes. 

So Phidias and Anish Kapoor 
both created world-famous colossal Olympian sculptures, although for very different reasons. And of course, their building methods were a bit different, too.