Monday, 17 March 2014

Ancient Greek Gods with Barbara Graziosi

Landing stages at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, March 2014

This is the last of my three posts about Words by the Water (a festival of Words and Ideas, staged by Ways with Words) (#WBTW14), which finished yesterday at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria.

During the festival, I chaired three speakers, and my last was Professor Barbara Graziosi of the University of Durham. She was talking about her book The Gods of Olympus, A History, which came out last year.

The very first sentence of her book is: “This book is a history of the Olympian gods - the most uncivilised ambassadors of classical civilisation.” This sets the tone for an erudite but fast-paced romp through history in the wake of the "multifaceted, migrating Olympian gods". Even when they have been banned and relegated to hidden altars or the role of demons in nursery stories, they have survived and reappeared again and again.

Barbara was great company and we swopped stories about our careers and our kids over lunch before her talk. She was wearing unremarkable dark clothes, just as my two male speakers had. But, unlike them, she changed into a pair of brightly mottled red, green and white platform heels just as we went through to the stage. For me, that summed up her sense of fun against a serious and well researched background. 

The audience were very attentive, especially when she explained how Arabic translations of Ancient Greek texts were made at the House of Wisdom, started by caliph al-Ma'mun and his father in what is now Iran (see page 2 of the link). This institute of learning in Baghdad kept the Ancient Greek texts alive during the European 'Dark Ages' and itself survived for 400 years until 1258 AD. 
Barbara Graziosi in discussion

From her book I learned that in Plato's ideal city (see The Republic), "Homer and Hesiod would have no place, because their poems spread false and degenerate rumours about the deities"; and that "In Renaissance art, the gods of Olympus tended to appear in lush settings: fresh meadows, riverbanks, shady woods, the seaside. In that respect too they were exploiting a gap in the market, for Christianity was essentially a city religion," a thought that had not occurred to me.
Barbara Graziosi sharing a joke

Afterwards, I gave Barbara a copy of The Boy with Two Heads as she said she was interested in my descriptions of Zeus and his statue at Olympia. For me, her book has made it easier to imagine how the Ancient Greeks saw their gods, how they felt about them and the many ways in which they questioned their existence. 

It also poses and partly answers the question of why we are still conscious of them, still writing stories about them, and some people still worship them. I haven't found an answer that completely satisfies me, in spite of Barbara's help. Perhaps, like so many others in the course of more than two and a half millennia, I never will ...

photographs © Julia M Newsome

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Ancient Greeks with Tom Holland, by the Lake

Landing stages at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, March 2014

As mentioned in my last, Words by the Water (a festival of Words and Ideas, staged by Ways with Words) (#WBTW14) finished today at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria.

The second speaker I chaired was Tom Holland. His new translation of the Histories of Herodotus came out in September last year, and he was talking about this on March 11th. 

Tom has a vivid sense of fun and is interested in a wide variety of subjects, from owls, to cricket, to fossils, to - oh, just about everything! And so was Herodotus. He tells us about flying snakes, sheep with tails so long and heavy they had to be supported by little trailers, methods of building pyramids, love matches, dismemberments, stonings, soldiers who lasso-ed their opponents to pull them onto their daggers, family feuds, the Egyptian version of what happened to Helen of Troy, and - after many fascinating travels and stories - finally the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. 

So listening to such things re-told by Tom gave the audience lots to laugh at and think about. Tom's translation, as I said in my introduction of him, is in an easy-to-read, colourful style (as are his other books). An example is:
Older translation:  “The Phoenicians took them on to their ship and sailed away for Egypt.”   
Tom's translation: “Into the hold went the captives, up came the anchor, and off sailed the ship to Egypt.”

Tom told us, upon questioning, that Herodotus is the longest Ancient Greek text surviving. It took him six years - translating a paragraph a day, every day (sometimes two pages, sometimes a couple of lines) - to complete. He was asked to do this by an editor at Penguin Classics who saw him presenting his own take on the Persian Wars in Persian Fire some years ago, at - of course - Words by the Water! 

I dip into Herodotus often. In The Boy with Two Heads, I use one of his stories. It is about Arion, who was saved from drowning by dolphins (my chapter 18). Herodotus himself appears for a second in chapter 45, sitting on a box under a tree in Olympia, reading his own histories from a scroll to the milling crowds that have come to witness the Olympic Games. Perhaps he sold copies of short extracts.

Herodotus underpins so much of what we know about Ancient Greece. Scholars think his writings must have been preserved because they are so interesting, conversational and, at times, funny. As he says himself, he can only be sure of what he has seen with his own eyes. As for what he has been told, all he can do is write it down. He cannot vouch for its truth.

That's all any of us can do, isn't it?

All photographs © Julia M Newsome.

Ancient Greeks - and Louis de Bernieres - by the Lake

Landing stages at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, March 2014

Words by the Water (a festival of Words and Ideas, staged by Ways with Words) (#WBTW14) finished today at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria.

This year I volunteered to chair three talks with connections to Greece and/or Greek, and was granted all three. This post is about Louis de Bernieres, who spoke to a large audience on March 7th, Day 1 of the festival.

Louis read some of the poems in Imagining Alexandria, his first book of poetry, published last year. He says the style of the poems in this book follows that of Constantine Cavafy, who lived in Alexandria and wrote poems in Greek from about 1900 to 1933. 

I sometimes read Cavafy's poems to keep my modern Greek alive, and my children studied a few of them at school. Some of them are about love between men (both ancient and modern) and some take moments in Ancient Greece and look at them through the eyes of an unexpected participant - a battle viewed by a poet*, or a pedlar confused by a phoney victory parade**. 

Some of Louis' poems are similar. One particularly poignant one is imagined as by the jailor of Socrates***.

In my introduction, I quoted Louis as writing about the British: 
"We are rigid and formal in some ways, but we believe in the right to eccentricity, as long as the eccentricities are large enough... Woe betide you if you hold your knife incorrectly, but good luck to you if you wear a loincloth and live up a tree."
He told us that this was an extension of the opinion of a Frenchman who said, "Britain really is an immense lunatic asylum".

Louis read other unpublished poems. One of them was about his lively young daughter who woke up saying "I dreamed I was flying." Another was about rooks wheeling and riding the wind over the valley near where he lives. Louis told us he rescues baby rooks that fall out of nests and keeps them as pets (see the introduction page to his website). He is convinced they are more intelligent than dogs. In my opinion, Louis is not quite in the loincloth-up-a-tree class, but he's much more entertainingly eccentric. 

Darius by C. P. Cavafy
** In Alexandria, 31 B.C. by C. P. Cavafy
*** The Jailer by Louis de Bernieres

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Those Ancient Greeks are still following me ...

Hello again!

Further to my previous post about those Ancient Greeks following me everywhere, they've been appearing in the oddest places in London ...

Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living".

On the underground ...

statues of 2 men facing each other
at 350 Euston Road, London

... and on the street! 

Hermes (?by Praxiteles) at Olympia
Hermes at Olympia
I couldn't find any reference to the sculptor of these two naked men facing each other through the glass, but I'm sure there was at least some influence  from statues such as the Hermes in the museum at Ancient Olympia. If you know who made the two men, please contact me. 

At present I am reading The Gods of Olympus: A History by Professor Barbara Graziosi. She traces people's attitudes to the twelve gods from their origins before Homer to the Middle Ages, a period of more than 2000 years. In the preface she says, "Like many migrants, they adapted to their new circumstances, while retaining a sense of their distant origins". That seems an appropriate comment on their appearances in our lives today.

artist's representation of Phidias' statue of
Zeus at Olympia, by Sian Frances
And they are still here - with me, at least - as kaleidoscopic and mutable as the human characteristics they represent. They fire my imagination and augment my stories. In fact, today is the second anniversary of the publication of The Boy with Two Heads in which Zeus features so strongly. I have a copy of Sian Frances' painting of him on my noticeboard. 

So now it's more a case of my following the Ancient Greeks, I suppose...

You can contact me via:
Comment on this blog
@JuliaMNewsome on Twitter
'J M Newsome, author' on Facebook

All photos ©Julia M Newsome except Sian Frances' painting (permission to use non-commercially granted)