Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Ancient Greek vase paintings that move?

Attic pelike, ca 440 BC. Lecce Museum
As part of my research lately I've been looking at lots of ancient Greek vase paintings. For instance, in October, I spent a wonderful rainy afternoon at the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano in Lecce in Southern Italy. They have a wide variety of painted and sculpted vases from about 550 BC onwards. 

Attic skyphos, ca 500 BC. Lecce Museum
I was entranced by the detail and beautiful compositions of these two. But there are many, many more wonderful things to see ...
Lecce Museum. Picture from Trip advisor.

In The Boy with Two Heads, my hero, Themis, painted on pots and terra cotta tiles. He may not have been able to remember much of his childhood, but he didn't lose his ability to draw when he suffered his accident. 

"He remembered painting a pot ... and then smashing it because it was not good enough. Ariphron had mended it because he liked the picture on it of goats reaching up to eat olive leaves."

I spent a long time the other day looking for a picture of a pot with olive trees and a goat to illustrate something I was writing about Themis. I was sure I had seen one at some point, but in the end I gave up.

However, I did come across this site: http://www.panoply.org.uk, which pleased me immensely. It has ancient Greek vase paintings that have been animated! They are done by experts but with input from local school children near Reading in Berkshire, west of London. They chose vase paintings from the Ure Museum at Reading University and made very short, but often amusing, little movies.

Also, there is a YouTube clip made by Oxford University for Christmas which includes brief moments of animated vase paintings among other wonders of the Ashmolean Museum that come alive here

These charming ideas reminded me that, when I was at university studying drama (more than 40 years ago), I wrote a storyboard for a short movie of a myth. It was to be animated drawings in the style of red figure vases (like those in the first picture above). In those days there was no chance of making such a film without a huge movie-making process and thousands of pounds, so it just stayed as an idea. My story was to be that of Hermes stealing Apollo's cattle. 

When, out of curiosity, I checked out that particular myth on-line, look what I found ...

from a hydra in the Louvre, Paris. ca 520 BC.

Can you see the goat in the olive tree? 

The mind works in mysterious ways. 

Happy New Year!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Dr Who meets the Antikythera Mechanism?

Did anyone else who saw the 50th anniversary edition of Dr Who on Saturday at 19.50 on BBC One notice that the ultimate Gallifreyan super weapon looked a bit like the Antikythera Mechanism (AM), but in a shinier box? I wrote a blog post back in March mentioning this 1st century BC astrolabe/cosmic movement monitor, which was found among the debris of a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera in southern Greece. 

Antikythera Mechanism from Wikipedia

I don't often watch Dr Who (though perhaps I shall in future), so I have probably got hold of the wrong ends of various sticks. But if I understood correctly, in this Dr Who episode (and in a previously unrecorded incarnation played by John Hurt) the Doctor 'watches Gallifrey [his home planet] falling to a Dalek invasion and decides to trigger an ancient Time Lord weapon of mass destruction called "The Moment", which is described as a "galaxy eater" and will destroy both races completely'* including something over 200 billion innocent children (forgive me, numbers with more than three digits go over my head). "The Moment" has a conscience/interface which manifests in the shape of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper), making actually setting it off even more difficult, as she asks "Are you sure?"

Antikythera model front panel 
Mogi Vicentini 2007
I can't find a picture of "The Moment", but it is a very neat cube of wood and brass about 40cm square. It has intricate wheels and cogs on at least one of its sides and reminded me irresistibly of the Antikythera Mechanism. It looks sturdier than this AM reconstruction and has no handles (so Rose/The Interface can sit on it comfortably), but "The Moment" is definitely visually reminiscent of the Mechanism. 

Of course, there's a big difference between the ultimate weapon and a machine that predicts eclipses and other cosmic occurrences - or is there? Were Steven Moffat and the Dr Who script researchers suggesting that it would be a similar mechanism that in fact would change the movements of the planets and stars (not just predict them) and therefore eclipse parts of our universe altogether? 

No wonder children (and others) are fascinated by such questions as "If our galaxy was sucked into a black hole, where would it come out?" or "If time were cyclical, would I meet myself coming the other way?" 

Even I enjoy examining the consequences of personal time slips ...

*Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_of_the_Doctor

Friday, 20 September 2013

Is the guitar descended from the Ancient Greek kithara?

In my novel, The Boy with Two Heads, the hero, Themis, travels to
Olympia around the Peloponnese in a small cargo ship with his uncle Panainos and his personal slave, Frog. There is one other passenger, Molon. Journeys like this (see Map 2) were usually made by sailing during the day and camping on land at night. On the second evening of the four-day voyage, they sit round the camp fire as night comes down and the captain tells them a story. (Story-telling was, of course, a highly valued skill at the time.) Themis comes to sit by the fire ...

   ‘Arion overheard the sailors,’ Captain Stomio was saying. They had just broken into his travel trunk and found his hoard of gold. They were deciding when to throw him overboard.’ 
   ‘Not a good advertisement for your colleagues, dear Captain,’ said Panainos, one eyebrow raised.
   ‘They were Corinthians,’ said the captain. ‘What d’you expect?’ 
   Molon looked shocked, but Panainos and Frog laughed.
The captain went on. ‘Arion was a famous musician and had become rich from his profession. But there was little he could do. He offered to give them all his gold if they would spare his life. But the sailors just jeered at him. So he dressed himself in his richest performance robes and, standing on the bow of the ship, he played his best kithara and sang his favourite song as an offering to Poseidon.
   ‘The sailors enjoyed the song, but showed no mercy. So, rather than let them stab him with their daggers, Arion leapt off the ship into the sea, kithara and all.’
professional singer, ?450BC
   Captain Stomio stood up to kick the fire and drink some water. ‘Dolphins like music,’ he said, as he sat down again. ‘The ship sailed away, but a group of dolphins had gathered to listen to Arion’s song. They carried him with them on their backs for two or three days. They chattered and clicked at him to show they wanted him to play for them, and so he did, all the time hoping they would take him nearer to land. At last they understood he needed food and fresh water, and they brought him in to the west port at Tainaron still wearing his magnificent costume and carrying his kithara. He stood on the end of the quay and gave them one last song. Then, when he’d drunk and eaten, he set off for Corinth to find and punish his would-be murderers!’ 
   ‘And did he get his gold back?’ asked Panainos. 
silver two drachma coin, about 300 BC
   ‘Who knows?’ answered the captain. ‘But he may have, because he had a bronze statue of a man on a dolphin cast, and set it on the quay-side in Tainaron as a thank offering.’

Christina Katseli plays Cretan lyre, Angelos Kyriakos plays Steriano lute,
and Dimitris Zaharis plays bendir (hand drum)

I was reminded of the above story while on a flying trip to Athens last week. During a catch-up session with old friends, we remembered a wonderful musical evening we spent in the depths of winter in the cozy basement of a taverna, listening to traditional songs played on instruments which seemed to have changed little in thousands of years. 

There is an ongoing and intriguing academic argument about the origins of stringed musical instruments. One Greek myth records that the first stringed musical instrument with a soundbox was made by Apollo from the shell of a tortoise, with strings of cow hide stretched over a frame made from the cow's horns. The hypothesis goes that this original instrument (very similar to even older depictions of stringed instruments in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere) evolved in two different directions: one was the modern guitar and the other was lyres and lutes. The kithara as illustrated in the 5th century BC is neither of these. The main reason to believe that the modern guitar evolved from a kithara like Arion's seems to be the similarity in the name ...

Anyway, the instruments we listened to back in January on that Epiphany evening seemed to me to be almost the same as their ancient counterparts - but what do I know? The drum, at least, has changed not at all, though our modern musician was wearing a few more clothes than this ecstatic player ...

Whatever their origin, the instruments and music took us back to the days of bards singing while audiences ate and drank and joined in the choruses ... Christina and friends represent the many who still love and practice music played on lyres - it is very much alive and well, so we can still guess what Arion sounded like to his audience of dolphins.

The Boy with Two Heads is published by Trifolium Books UK, and is available from all good bookshops and on Amazon both as a traditional paperback and as an e-book.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

E-book authors' royalties on the rise?

As you may have gathered, dear reader, I have been busy on a variety of projects lately that leave me little time for blogging. However, something rather fine happened last week which made me think more general thoughts about the book-publishing world ...

It was confirmed to me a few days ago by Cambridge University Press (CUP) that my royalties on the e-versions of my Cambridge English Reader titles would be 20% rather than 15% of receipts, as originally agreed.

This feels very much like a step in the right direction, though a few more steps would be welcome! My other publisher, Trifolium Books UK, pays me a much larger percentage of the receipts from e-books, and I hope that, as publishers come to grips with new e-markets, this practice will become more widespread.
Long ago (!), when books were only paper, I worked in publishing and experienced all the steps in the procedure as a commissioning editor, a publisher, and a writer. I know that book budgets were then based on the estimated sales receipts. Development costs of the content had to be within a certain proportion of the overall projected receipts. This budgeting model must by now have changed, as the number of e-copies grows and the number of paper copies, upon whose price the budget was based, shrinks.

And yet many e-books cost the same as the paper version. The development section of any book budget will still be necessary, but the paper, printing, transport and warehousing of the paper books must be a far lower part of the overall costs for most books by now. With this in mind, it is strange that the e-version of so many novels is the same price to the consumer as the paper version, and that the authors are still getting such low royalties.

From my experience in the independent publishing sector, this is unjust. If the e-book is priced logically (i.e. lower), far more copies sell. The receipts rise and the profits with them. There’s more for the publisher and more for the author. Why are so many mainstream publishers still not adjusting their prices to the e-book market?

It seems that, as part of their huge internal re-organisation, CUP and their collaborators have in fact been working on this and begun to adjust. I thank all those concerned for this, and hope it is just the beginning of a general trend…

Monday, 15 July 2013

Thought walks for writers?

Trying to write while living in the country is not always ideal, even in this amazing weather. (Sometimes because of this amazing weather. The garden’s siren call is at every window.) 

But a few days ago, there were so many plots and characters in my mind that I couldn’t focus sensibly on anything. So I set off on a walk to help me sort them out – what I call a thought walk.

As you can see, the paths between the fields were clogged with rampant weeds (like my brain!) but the hedgerows were full of flowers. One field was a mass of oxe-eye daisies, while in others the barley rippled and rustled like fine silk.

Five fledgling swallows – maybe they were martins – sat motionless near the top of a hedge. Now and again they opened their beaks into yellow, baby-bird squares, but they didn’t make a sound or move from their perches in spite of the skittish breeze.

I met no one (except a few sheep), and in the end, rather than helping me think, my walk removed most of my thoughts, and life became much simpler. A no-thought walk!

These are some more of the photos I took:

(full extent of the zoom)

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

How many lions in Olympia?

Before I begin on the lions, I just want to mention that Trifolium Books is offering The Boy with Two Heads e-book for a limited time at the incredible price of £1.02, via my Trifolium Books author page. Go to Trifolium Books in the menu bar, and Authors in the drop down list, then The Boy with Two Heads. Click on the right hand of the two icons of the book.

This is a special promotion of all Trifolium Books to celebrate the imminent re-publication of The Bride of the Spear by Kathleen Herbert. Thank you, Connie, for including me in your celebrations! And congratulations on your guest posting on Helen Hollick's blog.

But to go back to the lions, every time I go to the Archaeological Museum at Olympia, I am enchanted by something new. This time I came across this little creature ...

Dating from (I think) about 700 BC, he must have been a knob or handle on a bronze vessel. I thought he was charming, and set off on a lion hunt through the museum to find more.

And they were everywhere: 

underfoot (from the pediment of the Temple), ...


... on the gutters, ...
 ... on the rims of cauldrons, ...
 ... as parts of statues, ...

... handles, ...
... religious offerings, ...

... and even as warnings. 

They reminded me of the importance of lions at Mycenae, where the remains of the palace date from about 1400 BC. 
The Lion Gate entrance to Mycenae.
from the cover of the official guidebook
to Mycenae
I have often wondered whether these Mycenean lions ever had heads and, if so, how they fitted into the triangular space ... But at least there were heads on some of their lions, like this glorious gold one, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens ...

... and these tiny but perfect lions on the blades of Mycenean daggers which are there, too.
from the official guidebook to Mycenae

As I said in my last posting, in ancient times, there must have been all kinds of dangers that today we cannot even imagine. From the number of representations of lions, they were one of those dangers. Herakles (Hercules) of the Twelve Labours was central to the myths of heroes, and his first Labour was to kill the Nemean Lion. 

It seems likely that lions were still roaming the forests of Greece in Alexander the Great's time (356 to 323 BC) as the illustration on his father, Philip II's tomb at Vergina suggests. This is a reconstruction of the frieze above the doors of the tomb. The man on the horse in the middle is assumed to be Alexander. The boar at the feet of his horse has been dispatched and he turns his attention to the (strangely red) lion being harried on the right. 
Artist's reconstruction of the frieze over the door of Philip of Macedon's tomb
from 'Vergina', published by Ammos Editions, Athens.

My hero, Themis, does not meet a lion in The Boy with Two Heads. But he does meet a bear on a mountain top, and bears, though endangered, still live in the forests of northern Greece.

I read somewhere that lions were extinct in Greece by about 100 BC. Still, it was obviously a feat of great bravery to kill one while they were still a threat. Even today (although killing a lion is against the law in all but exceptional cases) the Maasai warriors of East Africa still gain glory and status if they take part in such an exercise. I must say, it's not quite my idea of a restful Sunday afternoon pastime ...

Friday, 28 June 2013

Who were the Greeks?

It's a while since I posted anything here because I've been travelling. I had a varied and fascinating time and will try and share some of my impressions with you in the next few weeks.

But first I want to highlight Who Were The Greeks?, which I caught on BBC 2 last night. 

The presenter is Michael Scott, a classicist at the University of Warwick. "Ancient Greece," in his words, "seems full of ... contradictions. A place that invented democracy but also ran on slave labour, that idolised youth but left children to die through exposure. The key question for me in Who Were The Greeks? ... was how to make sense of those contradictions, how to understand what made ancient Greece tick."

That is an attitude I can accept and learn from, I thought. My own research and experience confirm such contradictions in both ancient and modern Greeks!

And then one of the first places Dr Scott stood to address the camera, was on the plain of Marathon. I spent a week staying in a friend's flat on the hills there last month! So I was hooked.

Plain and swamp of Marathon on a misty May evening, showing the 2004 Olympic
rowing lake and radio mast. The area is now a protected wetland and forest sanctuary.

Painting of Phidias' statue of Zeus at
Olympia in the museum
Later he described helmets in a case in the museum at Olympia. And I was there last month, too. In the programme, this painting of the statue of Zeus was in the background as Dr Scott walked away from the camera. If you've read The Boy with Two Heads, you'll know what an important focus that statue is in my story, as it also was in the minds of many people in those times. As Dr Scott says, the gods were inextricably woven into every facet of life.

The ancient theatre at Sparta with Mount Taygetos
in the background** (June 2012)

And of course he visited Sparta's woods and tried that 'black soup' made from pork, blood and vinegar, that the Spartan army* marched on ...

The Parthenon from the east on the
Athenian Acropolis
... and Athens to talk about democracy, slavery, and sexual mores, among other things.
Plan of the Athenian Agora

One thing he mentioned that I hadn't heard about before, was the well in the Athenian Agora full of babies' and dogs' skeletons. Most of us are no longer under any illusion that the Ancient Greeks lived and thought as we do now, but this did surprise me. I had heard of exposing imperfectly formed or ill babies in the countryside, but had never thought about how they were disposed of in the city. Distasteful to us now, but, as Dr Scott says, a necessary facet of survival in that insecure world of warring city-states. The dogs seem to have been sacrificed, probably in connection with the deaths of the babies. 

I did get a little tired of the close-ups of his face fading in from the faces of statues (perhaps the editor wants to point out his similar good looks?), but his enthusiasm and curiosity are infectious. If you are interested and have iPlayer, you have 13 days left to watch Part One here. Part Two (there are just two parts) will be on BBC 2 next Thursday evening at 9pm. 

Some of the comments on-line about this programme have prompted me to clarify my own attitude to what we know of the Ancient Greeks. The ancients of all races lived before the spread of religions that advocate (but often have not supported!) peace and harmony. In those days, an idea not linked to survival could not last long. 

The humans living in the area we now call Greece had to deal with natural dangers (earthquakes, diseases, and wild animals, for instance) which most modern people cannot even imagine, as well as vying for resources and territory with neighbouring groups of humans. We should not be judging them at all, let alone on terms we see as acceptable today. Learning about - and from - them is enough. 

*The Spartans were, it seems, in many respects the exception to much of what we learn about the Ancient Greeks in general. Paul Cartledge's The Spartans is a very readable account. If I remember rightly, it even mentions the soup!
** The photograph heading this blog is of the same Mount Taygetos from the other side.