Spin

The hot topic at a recent dinner party was the excellent French political drama series entitled Spin that had us all well and truly hooked for three seasons. Why did it impress us so much? Because it lays bare the extraordinary behind-the-scenes efforts that are involved in crafting a positive political image to sell to the public in the face of a wave of personal and political scandals – a timely subject given the events of the last few weeks in Australian politics.

Today, as I rifled through my books, I found myself wondering about ‘negative image management’ in the ancient world. There is, of course, plenty of evidence of ancient leaders doing their utmost to craft a positive image of themselves for posterity: from the massive carved reliefs and monuments depicting military victories, to the vastly exaggerated numbers of enemy dead described in historical accounts, to the erasure of the names of opponents from official records and the propagandized images on coins deliberately circulated throughout empires.

But there is one story that strikes me as a curious example of the age-old need for  ‘spin’ and it involves a rather curious encounter between the god Apollo and the satyr Marsyas. When we think of Apollo, we think of him as a strikingly handsome youth, with a perfect male form, god of archery, prophecy, music and healing. He has, one could say, a pretty good public image. But there is a lesser known and less attractive side to his character – a fair amount of vanity and pride, a youthful arrogance and sense of presumption, bad luck in love and an inclination toward violence.

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[Belvedere Apollo – Vatican Museums]

Marsyas, the other character in this story, was a satyr, one of those curious composite beings, with both human and animal features, half divine, half beast, he is said to have been the son of Olympos or Oiagros. Marsyas is said to have been born in Phrygia and to have been a follower of the goddess Cybele, the Phrygian mother of the gods.

The short version of the story is that Marsyas engaged in a musical contest with Apollo and lost. Apollo then killed Marsyas. Fair enough, we might think. No-one in their right mind would dare to take on a Greek god in a contest of any sort and, if one does, there is bound to be an unhappy result. But the manner of Marsyas’ death at the hands of Apollo is so cruel and so shocking – Apollo hung Marsyas from a tree and flayed him alive – that it seems pretty hard to put a positive ‘spin’ on it. Still, I have to hand it to the ancient writers and mythographers for doing their best with this story.

The earliest reference to the myth dates from the fifth century and it adopts a no-nonsense approach. Herodotus, describing the march of Xerxes’ army through Phrygia, tells us about a place named Celaenae, where Herodotus matter-of-factly says, “the skin of Marsyas the Silenus also hangs there; the Phrygian story tells that it was flayed off him and hung up by Apollo.” Herodotus gives no motive or explanation for the flaying. This is one approach to a difficult and unpleasant topic  – simply relate the ‘facts’ in a nonchalant way without blinking an eye and your audience might just accept them, or not notice them very much.

It is Xenophon who gives us the reason for the flaying of Marsyas but he does so for a very specific purpose. Xenophon describes the great palace complex of King Cyrus at Celaenae where the river Marsyas flows through the city and empties into the Maeander. Xenophon explains: “It was here, according to the story, that Apollo flayed Marsyas, after having defeated him in a contest of musical skill; he hung up his skin in the cave from which the sources issue, and it is for this reason that the river is called Marsyas.” Xenophon demonstrates another approach to ‘spin’ – diverting the reader from dwelling on the gruesome facts by giving an entirely reasonable and practical explanation for a loosely related phenomenon (in this case, the origin of a river).

Another technique employed in ‘spin’ is to conveniently focus people’s attention on the earlier, better or more sanitized aspects of the story, and only hint at the later events. Thus, the group of statues that once inhabited a prominent position on the Acropolis only depict Athena cursing and throwing down the double flute which Marsyas later uses in his contest with Apollo.

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[Athena and Marsyas statue group, Vatican Museums]

We have to fit the various pieces of the story together for ourselves. Athena is said to have invented the double flute but later discarded it because she didn’t like how she looked when she played the instrument. It gave her swollen cheeks and a bluish face and she was offended that Hera and Aphrodite laughed at her when she played it. So she cursed the instrument, only for it to be adopted by the unlucky Marsyas. In some versions, Marsyas is unaware of the curse, while in others, he simply picks up the flute and begins to play.

Clearly, Marsyas became a little too accomplished with his flute-playing. In some versions, the local people are said to have boasted that Apollo could not make better music with his lyre, while in other versions, Marsyas boasts about his own abilities. Either way, Apollo becomes angry and he challenges Marsyas to a contest. The winner, Apollo says, will be allowed to inflict whatever punishment he likes on the loser. Marsyas agrees and the Muses sit as judges of the contest.

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[Relief from the Mantinea base depicting a seated and robed Apollo with lyre (on the left), Marsyas playing the double flute (right) and a rather nonplussed looking Sythian executioner waiting with knife in hand (centre)].

The contest begins. Marsyas plays the flute and proves to be equal in skill to Apollo who sings and plays on the lyre.  The Muses simply cannot choose a winner. It looks like Apollo has finally met his match but in a brilliantly deceitful manoeuvre to regain his reputation, Apollo suddenly changes the rules of the game and challenges Marsyas to play his instrument upside down and play and sing at the same time. Obviously Marsyas cannot meet this impossible challenge. Apollo meanwhile, turns his lyre upside down and begins to sing beautiful hymns. The Muses judge Apollo to be the winner. Marsyas must admit defeat and accept whatever punishment Apollo decides. The punishment that Apollo chooses is for Marsyas to be flayed alive and his skin nailed to a tree.

The matter-of-factness of the Greek accounts of the myth up to this point make sense in light of the rivalry between the Greek Apollo and the Phrygian Marsyas. As Wyss puts it, “[a] story that pits the Athenian city goddess against an uncouth, arrogant Phrygian satyr and then tells of his execution by a major Greek deity is indeed well suited to boost Athenian pride.”

As the decades roll on however, and the political imperative shifts, the myth evolves too. Over time, greater sympathy is shown towards Marsyas, especially in the versions of the myth from Hellenistic and Roman times. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, adds new details to the story, including a description of Marsyas winning the first contest, but not the second (The Library 3.59.2–3). He also describes a heated debate between Marsyas and Apollo about the fairness of the contest and its result (3.59.3–5). Diodorus also adds a description of Apollo’s regret after he has flayed Marsyas:  “quickly repenting and being distressed at what he had done, he broke the strings of the lyre and destroyed the harmony of sounds which he had discovered” (3.59.5–6).

By the time we get to Ovid’s account in the Metamorphoses (6.382–400) written some time in the early years of the first century CE, there isn’t much sympathy for Apollo at all. Ovid gives such a vivid description of the cruelty of Marysas’ punishment as to render it unforgettable:

Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him

Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,

Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering

And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,

And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs.

The sympathy from the people who witness this horrific scene reflects our own sympathy for Marsyas as we read Ovid’s account, and Marsyas, the new hero of the tale, experiences a sort of rebirth and metamorphosis:

The countryfolk, the sylvan deities,

The fauns and brother satyrs and the nymphs,

All were in tears, Olympus too, still loved,

And every swain who fed his fleecy flocks

And long-horned cattle on those mountainsides.

The fertile earth grew moist and, moistened, held

Their falling tears and drank them deep into

Her veins and, changing them to water there,

Issued them forth into the open air;

And thence a river hurries to the sea

Through falling banks, the river Marsyas,

The freshest, clearest stream of Phrygia.

Ovid washes the slate clean with his marvellous poetry, transforming a straightforward and unrepentant story of Apollo’s divine vengeance into a story of Marsyas reborn as a clear-watered stream. Still, one can’t help feeling that the uncomfortable account of Marsyas’ contest with Apollo began as a very old story that could never be entirely erased or ‘spun out’ of people’s collective memory. It could be given new slants, new interpretations, new meanings, but the fact remains that Marsyas was a great musician who appears to have risen to great heights owing to a form of divine inspiration and musical ability that did not come as a gift from Apollo. Furthermore, Marsyas may be an emblem of a foreign musical tradition that easily rivalled that of the Greeks. It was this slight on Apollo as the Greek god of music, as well as the slight on his authority and power and his precious self-image and his vanity that necessitated ‘spin’, and in that wider sense, the circumstances that give rise to the need for ‘spin’ really haven’t changed a jot.

Primary sources:

Herodotus, Histories, 7.26 (available on Perseus online)

Xenophon, Anabasis, 1.2.6 (available on Persesus online)

Diodorus Siculus, The Library, 3.59.1-6 (available through University of Chicago online texts)

Ovid, Metamorphoses (transl. A.D. Melville), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Secondary sources:

E. Wyss, The Myth of Apollo and Marsyas in the Art of the Italian Renaissance, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

Images: Vatican Museum and Internet commons

Spin / Les hommes de l’ombre: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2181219/

 

Song of Trees

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Even as the leaves of the trees such is the race of men. Homer, Iliad 6.146. 

The brief holiday period affords a precious opportunity to reconnect with nature before returning to sterile office spaces, plastic swivel chairs and laminated desks. So, over the past few weeks, I have been spending a fair bit of my time with my loved ones among trees, especially the Chinese elm and Japanese maples in my own garden, the magnificent Himalayan Cedars at the National Arboretum and the many varieties of oaks that line Canberra’s suburbs. I have been watching the leaves catch the light, breathing their good oxygen, resting in shade and walking in woodland forests. A visit to a local photographic exhibition about the wilderness prompted me to reflect further on the wonderful and ongoing generosity of trees throughout the centuries. It also prompted me to create a mental map of ancient and modern quotes, poems and stories about the wilderness, the restful beauty of nature, the strength and majesty of trees and their kinship with our own physical form, the importance of respect for trees and our need of them. Below are several excerpts and musings from the sixth century BCE to the twenty-first century CE:

  1. The shade of trees

[Aesop, the world-renowned storyteller and fabulist, takes a rest from the midday heat and his daily labour. He finds himself a shady spot to relax and listen to the sounds of nature.]

He picked out a spot on the farm that was green and peaceful, a wooded, shady place where all kinds of flowers bloomed amid the green grass and where a little stream wandered among the neighbouring trees. There Aesop threw his mattock on the ground, lay down on the grass and, putting his napkin and his sheepskin under his head, went to sleep. The stream whispered and, as a gentle zephyr blew, the leaves of the trees around about were stirred and exhaled a sweet and soothing breath. There was much humming of cicadas from the branches, and the song of birds of many kinds and many haunts was to be heard. There the nightingale prolongs her plaintive song, and the branches of the olive murmured musically in a sympathetic refrain. (1)

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  1.  A Journey to the Wild

[A man ventures deep into the Tasmanian wilderness, rediscovering the wild and free spirit in himself and capturing fragments of beauty in photographic form.]

“We go to the wilds to reaffirm our place in the natural scheme of things, to be rejuvenated by contact with elemental forces and to be reminded that the civilised baggage with which we complicate our lives is perhaps not so important to our happiness as the advertising man would claim.” (2)

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  1. Tree and Man

[Theophrastus was the father of botany. He wrote two important works classifying and describing various trees, shrubs and plants and, in the following excerpt, he makes comparisons between the human body and the structure of the tree.]

Thus plants have what corresponds to muscle; and this quasi-muscle is continuous, fissile, long…Again plants have veins: these in other respects resemble the ‘muscle’ but they are longer and thicker and have side-growths and contain moisture. Then, there are wood and flesh, for some plants have flesh, some wood…Bark then is the outside, and is separable from the substance which it covers. Core is that which forms the middle of the wood, being third in order from the bark, and corresponding to the marrow in bones. Some call this part the ‘heart’, others call it ‘heart-wood’. (3)

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  1. Tree lovers

[Philemon and Baucis represent the epitome of goodness, piety and harmony. They were visited one day by two gods in disguise, Jupiter and Mercury. Despite their poverty, the couple showed great hospitality and kindness to their guests and, in return, they were granted a long life as guardians of Jupiter’s temple and eventually they were metamorphosed into trees]

Their wish was granted; as long as life was allowed them, they served as the temple’s guardians. When time had taken its final toll, and while they were casually standing in front of the steps of the building, telling the sanctuary’s history, both Philemon and Baucis witnessed their partner sprouting leaves on their worn old limbs. As the tops of the trees spread over their faces, they spoke to each other once more while they could. “Farewell, my beloved!” they said in a single breath, as the bark closed over their lips and concealed them for ever. Still to this day the peasants of Phrygia point to the oak and the linden nearby which were once forms of Philemon and Baucis. (4)

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  1.  Nature lover

[Even as a child, William Morris showed a great interest in nature. As an adult, Morris created some of the most beautiful representations of nature in his wallpapers, fabrics, tapestries and books.]

I was always a lover of the sad lowlands country… I noticed every turn of the banks of the little brook, every ripple of its waters over the brown stones, every line of the broad-leaved waterflowers; I went down to the brook and, stooping down, gathered a know of lush marsh-marigolds; then, kneeling on both knees, bent over the water with my arm stretched down to it, till both my hand and the yellow flowers were making the swift running little stream bubble about them… I see a little girl sitting on the grass, beneath the limes in the hot summertide, with eyes fixed on the far away blue hills, and seeing who knows what shapes there; for the boy by her side is reading to her wondrous stories of knight and lady, and fair thing, that lived in ancient days… (5)

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   6. Best friend

[Before you enter the Himalayan Cedar Forest at the National Arboretum in Canberra you are greeted by this quote …]

The best friend on earth of man is the tree: When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources of the Earth.  Frank Lloyd Wright

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    7. A raft to sail homewards

[Odysseus spent many years on Calypso’s island. In Calypso’s arms, he forgot his home, himself and his aim. When Zeus finally insists that it is time for Odysseus to leave, he must make a wooden raft for himself with his own hands and venture out once again upon the sea]

As soon as Dawn appeared, fresh and rosy-fingered, Odysseus put on his tunic and cloak, and the Nymph dressed herself in a long silvery mantle of a fine and elegant material, with a splendid golden belt round her waist, and a scarf over her head. Then she planned her noble guest’s departure. First she gave him a great axe of bronze. Its double blade was sharp, and the shapely handle of olive-wood fixed firmly to its head was comfortable to hold. Next she handed him an adze of polished metal, and led the way to the farthest part of the island, where the trees grew tall, alders and poplars and towering firs, all dry timber that had long lost its sap and would make buoyant material for his raft. When she had shown him the place where the trees were tallest the gracious goddess went home, and Odysseus began to cut down the trees. He worked fast and felled twenty in all and lopped their branches with an axe, then trimmed them in a workmanlike manner and with a line made the edges straight.(6)

Text references:

1.Anonymous, Life of Aesop, chapter 6 (transl. by L. W. Daly in W. Hansen’s Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature).

2. Quote from Peter Dombrovskis (1945-1996), Exhibition entitled Journey to the Wild, National Library of Australia, at https://www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/dombrovskis

3. Theophrastus, Historia Plantarum 1.2.6. Available at: https://archive.org/details/enquiryintoplant00theo

4. Philemon and Baucis in Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.711-720 (transl. D. Raeburn).

5. William Morris, From ‘Frank’s Sealed Letter’ in G. Naylor (ed.), 2004, William Morris by himself (Time Warner Books: London) pp. 27-8.

6. Homer, Odyssey, Book 5, lines 228-245.

Images:

Header image: https://www.posterlounge.co.uk/japanese-maple-tree-next-to-pond-pr220966.html

Van Gogh’s Olive Grove: http://www.vangoghgallery.com/catalog/Painting/348/Olive-Grove.html

Ancient trees: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2010/dec/01/walking-with-ancient-trees

Philemon and Baucis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baucis_and_Philemon

Morris tapestry: https://www.thetapestryhouse.com/tapestries/view/355/tree-of-life-small

 

 

 

 

 

Rome and Egypt: Retold

“History is written by the victors” or so the saying goes. But surely history is rewritten by every new generation as events are retold, reinterpreted and understood differently depending on changes in values, viewpoint and perspective. During the holidays, and thanks to some terrific Christmas gifts, our children have been busy rewriting the history of Rome and Egypt with some pretty hilarious results. Our four-year old daughter and six-year old son bring their own unique perspective to the life of Cleopatra.

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Scene 1. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, is living on the banks of the Nile not in a sumptuous palace but in a cosy cottage. Cleopatra lives with a ginger-coloured cat. She has a fairly casual relationship with a dark haired leopard-skin wearing fellow who seems to fulfil various roles including slave, husband, cook and driver. His name is simply ‘Servant’. She also has a baby bunny (presumably from an earlier relationship). Cleopatra has her own plunge pool (of course) and a green convertible car (don’t ask), plenty of furniture and her most highly prized possession of all: a sturdy fry pan for making pancakes. Cleopatra wears her jewellery to bed. In fact, my four-year old tells me that Cleopatra spends a fair bit of time in bed because she gets tired easily. Although she has some difficulty getting up the ladder to the second storey of the house because of the curious shape of her hands she is adamant that she can DO IT HERSELF! Overall, life for Cleopatra is happy and harmonious and quite lovely until a Roman galley manned by a six-year old is spotted sailing up the river…

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Scene 2. The galley is large, ominous and black. The sail is emblazoned with SPQR in bold red letters (I am told by my reliable six-year old source that these letters stand for ‘Super Playmobil Quest Rome’). The oars are powering along, men are shouting, and there is a sense of mischief and intrigue in the air. Suddenly, a missile is fired from the galley. It hits the wall of the cottage announcing the arrival of Mark Antony. Cleopatra squeals, then shrieks, then growls and harsh words are uttered between four-year old and six-year old. Four-year old is duly reminded that these gifts are for sharing and that there is no such thing as ‘my game’. So, for the moment, play resumes in a more harmonious way.

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Scene 3. Mark Antony jumps off the deck of the galley and lands in the front yard of the cottage. He looks grand, decked out in flashy golden sandals, laurel wreath, a red cape, gold belt and sword. Cleopatra is smitten. They marry immediately. But while Mark Antony is distracted, his men are up to no good. A fight breaks out over food. It seems that there has been a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables on board the galley. Titus Maximus has taken all the fruit and the other Roman soldiers are not impressed. The skirmish turns into a nasty fight as swords and spears are engaged and more missiles are fired. One missile hits the house. Another injures Cleopatra’s cat. Cleopatra is distraught. [Some urgent parental intervention is required at this point. Parent suggests a more contained gladiatorial combat between Titus Pullo and the other main offender named Quintus, with Cleopatra and Mark Antony as spectators].

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Scene 4. Titus Maximus and Quintus take their places in the arena. The fires are lit. Cleopatra has to remain standing because her dress is too tight and it won’t enable her to sit. The fight begins. Matters are somewhat complicated by the appearance of a scorpion and a dark green snake in the arena. Titus knocks Quintus over.  Quintus accidentally treads on the scorpion which mysteriously flies off stage. Meanwhile, the snake coils itself around Titus’ leg. This gives Quintus a chance to start tickling Titus with the horse-hair crest of his helmet. Titus laughs so much that a truce is declared. In a sudden turn of events, Titus and Quintus join forces and start firing missiles at Cleopatra instead. Cleopatra makes a quick escape in a horse-drawn chariot manned by a very shady and hirsute fellow named ‘Hair’ and she is never seen again.

Well, who’s to say this never happened?

As parents, we have learnt that:

  1. Children are never too young for history.
  2. Toys can be a convenient way to introduce all manner of historical concepts and scenarios to children.
  3. Children’s capacity for understanding complex relationships and events is tremendous.
  4. Both children and adults need time to play. As Aristotle says: “he who is hard at work has need of relaxation, and amusement gives relaxation” (Aristotle, Politics, 8.3).

 

Link to Playmobil history: http://www.playmobil.co.uk/onlineshop/products/history

Link to Aristotle’s Politics online: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.8.eight.html

‘The Modernity of Antiquity’

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It’s not every day that I get to write about runway fashion or to watch a parade of exquisitely beautiful and sinuous women dressed in Greek designs and motifs from every period from the archaic to the high classical. For this reason, I simply can’t let this year pass by without doffing my cap to Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel’s latest Cruise 2018 collection entitled “La Modernité de l’Antiquité” (The Modernity of Antiquity). As a tribute to ancient Greek design, this parade was truly stunning and if you haven’t seen the video yet, it’s well worth watching (see link below).

Lagerfeld created a backdrop that had me pressing my nose up against the screen for a better look. The Doric columns were so realistic, the placement of the fallen blocks so skilful, the runway scattered with fine white gravel, the olive tree perfectly placed and a sunset backdrop that looked like a scene shot at Cape Sounion in Greece. It’s hard to believe that Lagerfeld created all this within the Grand Palais in Paris. The backdrop was so stunning that I can even forgive the Vogue writer Steff Yotka for confusing Doric and Ionic columns (Doric columns don’t have a scroll at the top sweetheart).

But let’s get onto the designs, oh the designs! I simply loved the knitted fabrics, evoking Penelope-style tapestries with fringes and tassels. The fine embellishments of gold, green and silver threads with the modern additions of pockets, buttons and hoods. I delighted in the archaic-style printed dresses embellished with lines, waves, palmette and key motifs, in dark terracotta shades, blacks and greys. I adored all the trappings and trimmings, so seductive and so evocative: the gold spiral arm bands, the long black flowing ribbons, the elaborate gold headbands, bold beaded necklaces, the bracelets and chokers. I even came to like the exaggerated column-heeled sandals in every imaginable colour from black to bright orange.

I think I may have held my breath for the entire segment devoted to the ‘goddesses’. I just didn’t want to miss any of the beautiful flowing robes or fabrics. Hollywood costuming on ancient world themes can be pretty sumptuous but this was real fashion. The golden clasps at the shoulder, the flowing drapery, the multiple ribbon ties at the waist, all so exquisite and romantic. One could be forgiven for mistaking a Vittoria, Kiki or Arizona for an Atalanta, Circe, and Calypso. Lagerfeld has clearly been studying ancient Greek pottery and statues. In this collection, he stayed true to principles of ancient beauty but gave them a modern edge.

According to Vogue, the inspiration for this collection came from a bust of Venus sitting on the mantelpiece in Coco Chanel’s apartment. In Lagerfeld’s words:

“The criteria of beauty in ancient, then classical, Greece still hold true. There have never been more beautiful representations of women. Or more beautiful columns.”

Thank you Chanel for continuing the ancient Greek commitment to beauty and the perfect form! And Karl, if you ever need a classicist to promote and wear any items from the collection, you are looking at a very willing size 10 candidate.

Link to Vogue article: https://www.vogue.com/article/chanel-resort-2018-fashion-show

Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmvFYuXB9Sg

Link to Harper’s Bazaar article: http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/fashion-week/g9604272/chanel-cruise-show-2018/

 

 

The harmony of the spheres

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One of Pythagoras’ many fascinating theories is known as the harmony of the spheres. I remember first hearing this theory mentioned in a lecture almost twenty years ago and being utterly captivated by it. It struck me as such a beautiful idea that I simply had to learn more. The theory is that each heavenly body in the universe emits its own distinct sound as it travels through space. The intervals between the heavenly bodies are said to replicate the intervals between notes on the musical scale, and taken together, these sounds combine to create a celestial and wondrous music:

Pythagoras, employing the terms that are used in music, sometimes names the distance between the Earth and the Moon a tone; from her to Mercury he supposes to be half this space, and about the same from him to Venus. From her to the Sun is a tone and a half; from the Sun to Mars is a tone, the same as from the Earth to the Moon; from him there is half a tone to Jupiter, from Jupiter to Saturn also half a tone, and thence a tone and a half to the zodiac. Hence there are seven tones, which he terms the diapason harmony meaning the whole compass of the notes. [Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, 2.20.]

Plato adopts the idea and writes about it in book ten of his Republic. In the myth of Er, Plato describes the journey of a soul after death, the judgement of souls, and the structure of the entire cosmos. At the heart of the cosmos is the spindle of Necessity around which all the orbits of the universe turn. On each orbit, a Siren stands, singing a single note. Together, these eight singing Sirens combine to create a wonderful harmony. Singing along with this music are the three daughters of Necessity, known as the Fates: Lachesis who sings of things that were, Clotho who sings of things that are, and Atropos, the things that are yet to be. [Plato, Republic, 10.616c-617d]

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Necessity and the Fates

The idea reappears in the writings of Cicero many centuries later. The universe is described as linked together in nine circles or spheres. The outermost sphere embraces and holds together all the others. As the planets revolve within their spheres, they produce a note, depending on the speed of their revolution. The celestial zone, full of stars, revolves quickly and is said to produce a sharp, high note while the moon is said to produce the lowest tone of all. The combined effect of these sounds is captivating and beautiful:

“What,” I asked, “what is this sound that fills my ears, so loud and sweet?” “This,” he replied, “is that sound, which divided in intervals, unequal, indeed, yet still exactly measured in their fixed proportion, is produced by the impetus and movement of the spheres themselves, and blending sharp tones with grave, therewith makes changing symphonies in unvarying harmony.

Cicero suggests that earthly music can open a pathway back to this celestial harmony:

Now the revolutions of those eight spheres, of which two have the same power, produce seven sounds with well-marked intervals; and this number, generally speaking, is the mystic bond of all things in the universe, And learned men by imitating this with stringed instruments and melodies have opened for themselves the way back to this place, even as other men of noble nature, who have followed godlike aims in their life as men.

The problem for mankind is that, according to Cicero, “the ears of men overpowered by the volume of the sound have grown deaf”. [Cicero, The Dream of Scipio]

This theory of the music of the spheres continued to be influential throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, and reappears in Shakespeare:

Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.

Such harmony is in immortal souls,

But whilst this muddy vesture of decay

Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 5, Scene 1.

The harmony of the spheres has clearly inspired poets, mystics, philosophers, musicians and writers for many centuries. Astronomers have even found their own version of the truth, making recordings of the many amazing sounds of space. But can we recapture the inner harmony that Shakespeare suggests we are capable of? For my part, I’m going to close my books for a moment, unplug the headphones, step outside on this late Spring evening and watch the stars. It is time to respond to Cicero’s exhortation: “Come!…how long will your mind be chained to the earth?”

Resources:

BBC Radio 4: In Our Time – The Music of the Spheres:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00c1fct

Sounds of the universe:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2014/nov/21/comet-67p-sounds-of-the-universe-planets-nasa

Online texts:

Plato’s Republic, 10.614d:

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D10%3Asection%3D614b

Cicero’s Dream of Scipio:

http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/cicero_dream_of_scipio_02_trans.htm

 

 

Out and about in fourth century BCE Athens

If you should find yourself out and about in Athens in the fourth century BCE, here are some things to be mindful of:

1. Dress Code and Grooming

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One’s cloak should reach down to the calves. An ankle-length cloak is a sign of affectation, while a short cloak is the mark of a poor person, a penny-pincher, a pro-Spartan or a philosopher. The cloak should be thrown over the left shoulder, so that it hangs in folds, held in position by the left arm, leaving the right arm free. One should definitely wear undergarments. The right combination is thin undergarments, with a thick cloak, not the reverse. When sitting, the cloak should be pulled down below the knees.

Long hair is the sign of a rich young dandy, but hair cut too often, whitened teeth, and strong perfume are the signs of an oligarch or an arrogant man. Conversely, to smell of garlic, or strong herbs is boorish. As for tattooes – it is best not to have them, or at least, to cover them up. In Thrace, a tattoo is the mark of noble birth, but in Athens it is the mark of a runaway slave.

2. Shopping

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In ancient Athens, men do the shopping, not women. It is appropriate to be accompanied by a slave who will carry one’s purse and the shopping and walk behind at a distance. A respectable man does not carry his own shopping, or use the front pocket of his cloak as a shopping bag. In the market, one must be careful not to be seen outside the perfumer’s or the hairdresser’s shops for this is where loungers and gossips congregate. And one mustn’t associate with market-traders, riff-raff or people who have lost lawsuits. By all means, one can talk to the nut and fruit sellers, but not when the market is really busy, and it’s not fair to eat their produce while talking to them.

3. Meeting and greeting

When shaking hands, only the right hand is used, the left hand is kept inside the cloak. Double-handed clasping is considered over familiar and to embrace someone with both arms is excessive and obsequious. Only a boorish type talks at the top of his voice, wipes his nose with the back of his hand, or spits in public. Slandering others is bad form, particularly slandering one’s friends and relatives. To speak ill of the dead is unlawful.

4. The bathhouse

There are only four rules to remember in the Athenian bathhouse: bring your own oil flask (it must be fresh oil, not rancid); respect the bath-attendant (it is his job to douse you with water, not yours); don’t practice wrestling moves or wriggle around; and don’t sing.

5. Attending a symposium

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If you are invited to dinner, it is important to remember that shoes are not normally worn indoors. Modest praise of the host and the host’s children and the house and the wine is appropriate. The place of honour is beside the host but only a man of petty ambition would insist on sitting next to the host. If you are minded to spit, you mustn’t spit across the table and hit the wine-waiter.

6. Hosting a symposium

If you are hosting the dinner, it pays to remember that a respectable host will never answer the door himself because that is his slave’s job. Make sure that there is enough food, especially meat and bread. A host must dine with his guests – only an arrogant man would ignore his guests and instruct one of his employees to look after them. It is important to mix the right amount of wine, to have the flute girls ready to go, and only to dance with those who are sufficiently intoxicated.

*This is a selection and summary of material I presented at the 2017 FAAIA Annual Fundraising Dinner.

Sources: J. Diggle (2004) Theophrastus: Characters, Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 43, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Images: Watercolour sketches by Peter Connolly (sourced online).

 

A time-traveller’s guide to etiquette in fourth century Athens

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To be a classicist is to be a type of time-traveller. Every day, with the help of a set of wondrous keys known as ‘texts’, ‘artifacts’, and ‘material remains’ we step into our cerebral time-machines and return to the ancient world. We wander the landscapes, witness battles, overhear debates and visit the sacred temples. We walk the streets of ancient cities, visit the marketplaces and the Stoas, the bathhouses and the gymnasia. We watch theatre performances, wander through private homes and sit in on symposia. It is an extraordinary experience and a great privilege.

One of our jobs is to bring back the information that we have learnt from these experiences and to articulate it in a clear and comprehensible way for a modern audience. To close the gap in time, to bring the ancient world into the present and to share what we have observed and understood about these ancient and fascinating peoples.

Tomorrow night, I look forward to presenting the end of year speech at the Annual Fundraising Dinner for the Friends of the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens. In my speech, I will present a set of findings and observations about etiquette in fourth century Athens, based on a recent time-travelling experience conducted along with twelve students, with the help of an extraordinary guidebook from 319BCE known as the Characters of Theophrastus.

Theophrastus’ little book gives us a wonderful insight into the subtleties of social etiquette and behaviour in the ancient world: how long should one’s cloak be? what sort of pets should one keep? how should one shake hands? how should one behave in the bathhouse and theatre? how should one behave as a guest at dinner, or as a host?  All of this, and more, is revealed by a careful reading of this unique work. I look forward to presenting a compact guide to social faux pas, and how to avoid them, in late fourth century Athens.

[The dinner will take place at 7.00pm on Friday 3 November 2017 in the Aegean Room at the Hellenic Club of Canberra in Woden. Tickets are $65 (and $50 for students). With special thanks to the ANU Canberra FAAIA.]

The Classic Hangover

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It is the final week of the university semester. Lecturers have been sapped, library shelves have been ransacked, campus lawns bear the scars of countless feet trekking between buildings and a few dedicated students trudge off to their final classes for the week. For students and lecturers alike, there is a mixed sense of pride, relief and achievement in finishing their courses. Many students will spend time celebrating and drinking with friends before sobering up to face their impending exams, and many will celebrate again after exams and well into the Christmas period. So, here is a blog for those students who are so inclined. A well-meaning, amusing but salutary warning against excess and its after-effects from the seasoned revellers of the classical world. It comes with kind humour and my best wishes to all students for the exam period, a happy end to another teaching semester, and a festive but safe holiday period:

A portrait of The Drunkard, written by Lyco of Troas (c. 300-225BCE):

‘Satiated with too much food and drink from a former day, at noon he is with difficulty awakened drunk, first with eyes wet with wine, blinded with moisture, heavy, unable to look at the light steadily; exhausted because his veins are filled with wine rather than blood, he cannot raise himself; at last, leaning on two servants, languid, tired from lying in bed, clothed in a tunic but without a mantle and wearing slippers, his head bound in a little cloak to keep off the cold, his head bent, eyelids lowered, face pale, he is raised from the couch in his bed chamber and is dragged to another in the dining room.

There, a few daily guests await him, summoned by the same desire. Here indeed as a petty chief, with what he has left of his mind and sense, he hastens to proffer the cup; he challenges to drink, he incites just as if he were in battle and surmounting or striking most of the enemy, thinking the greatest share of the victory his own. Meanwhile he proceeds to mock time in drinking; his eyes, weeping wine, make mists about him; the drunk scarcely recognise the drunk. One man without cause provokes his neighbour to a quarrel; another, surrendering to sleep, is kept awake by force; a third gets ready to quarrel; the doorman restrains a fourth from corrupting the company with a desire to go home; he beats him, forbids him to leave, pointing out the master’s injunction. Meanwhile a boy supports another fellow, abusively pushed out of the door reeling, and leads him away, the man dragging his mantle through the mire. At last left alone in the dining room, our man cannot put the cup down before sleep overcomes him as he drinks; the cup slips from his shaky hand as he collapses.’

Source for text:

Lyco of Troas (c. 300-225BCE) ‘The Drunkard’ quoted by Rutilius Lupus, Schemata Lexeos (On Figures of Thought and Style), translated by Boyce (B. Boyce, The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642, London, Frank Cass & Co., 1967, pp.22-23).

Header image:

Terracotta jug depicting a drunken old woman clasping a wine jug: Roman, early third century CE, made of African red slipware. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.

Link to source:

http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/index9.html

When nature merges with myth

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It’s springtime in Canberra. The days are temperate, the sun lingers longer in the afternoons and the trees are glowing with effervescent green. Gardens are punctuated by bright splashes of colour from tulips, daffodils, cyclamens, anemones, irises and ranunculi growing in their midst. Riding through local suburbs I am struck by wave upon wave of floral perfumes – first sweet daphne, then mellow hyacinth, rich lilac, heady freesia, honeyed jonquils and aromatic wisteria. Which got me thinking: all these floral names evoke some wonderful Latin and Greek terms with some very interesting mythological stories to match.

The anemone or ‘wind flower’, for example, comes from the Greek ἄνεμος meaning ‘wind’. The petals of these flowers are so easily disturbed by the slightest breeze I can see how the flower acquired its name. The name reminds me of the Greek gods of the winds – Zephyros (the west wind, the gentlest of them all), Boreas (the north wind, fierce and gutsy and notorious for snatching a princess of Athens named Oreithyia) and Notos (the south wind). The steward of the winds was Aiolos. He collected the winds and bound them in a leather bag to help Odysseus sail directly homewards but, just as Odysseus’ dear island of Ithaca came into sight, the exhausted Odysseus fell asleep. Odysseus’ companions, thinking that the bag he was guarding was full of treasure, stole it. When they opened the bag, the wild and furious winds were released, a great storm blew up and the ship was driven far out to sea once more.

The narcissus is more commonly known as the daffodil and/or jonquil. The name is derived from the Latin ‘narcissus’ which, in turn, is derived from the Greek νάρκισσος and the Greek word νάρκη meaning ‘numbness’. The legend of Narcissus from Greek mythology is well known. Poor Narcissus has now acquired a bad reputation for vanity, self-infatuation and self-love but when he first caught sight of his reflection in the pool, he was unaware that the reflection was his or even that it was just a reflection (he tried to embrace it). There is an absolute innocence and lack of self-knowledge in the tragedy of Narcissus that is often overlooked.

The iris flower is named after the Greek word for ‘rainbow’ or ‘a bright halo of light’. It is also the name of the Greek god Iris, divine messenger of the Olympian gods. She is the female equivalent of Hermes, but she is less mischievous and found only in the heavens and on earth (never in the Underworld). In Book Five of the Iliad, Aphrodite is wounded in the fighting. A sharp spear tears through her immortal robes and gouges her wrist. Aphrodite lets out a piercing shriek “[b]ut Iris quick as the wind took up her hand and led her from the fighting…racked with agony, her glowing flesh blood-dark” (5.353-354).

Cyclamen is from the Latin cyclaminos which is in turn derived from the Greek word κύκλος meaning ‘circle’. These curious little plants produce round tubers, which are thought to have inspired the name. I can’t help thinking of the enormous Cyclopes, so named because of the single round eye in the middle of their foreheads. The Cyclopes were wild and brutish giants who represent the antithesis of Greek notions of respect for the gods and hospitality towards guests. Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops named Polyphemus is a favourite episode from the Odyssey and is often portrayed in Greek vase paintings. A lesser known tradition is that the Cyclopes were blacksmiths (with names like Brontes ‘Thunderer’, Steropes ‘Lightner’ and Arges ‘Flasher’) and were responsible for forging Zeus’ thunderbolts.

Daphne comes from the Greek word δάφνη meaning ‘sweet bay, laurel’. It is impossible not to be reminded of the myth of Daphne and Apollo when smelling this incredibly perfumed flower. Daphne was a beautiful nymph but like many of her kind, she wasn’t keen on male company. She preferred to live a carefree life in the wilds of nature. She was hotly pursued by Apollo but she resisted and begged her father, a river god, to transform her before she could be taken. Her father transformed her into a bay tree, and from that time on, the laurel became the sacred tree of Apollo.

Apollo continued to be unlucky in love. He next fell in love with a handsome Spartan youth named Hyacinthus. They liked to take turns throwing the discus. But on one occasion, Hyacinthus was too eager to collect the discus and it bounced and struck him in the head, killing him instantly. From the blood of Hyacinthus a flower grew, with petals bearing the Greek letters αἰ or αἰαι, representative of the sound of crying and grieving.

What evocative little wonders of nature these flowers are, with such interesting names, histories and associations! The stories range from the tragic, wondrous, exciting and frightening – almost as varied as the colours and shapes of the flowers themselves. And this is only a small selection. Too soon the wind will change, the petals will fall, the colour will fade and the heat of summer will come. Just like the seasons with their endless cycles, and the disappearance and reemergence of spring blooms, these mythological stories reappear and are told again and again in a myriad of forms.

References:

W. Hansen, Classical Mythology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Homer, Iliad (transl. Fagles), London, Penguin, 1990.

The Horticultural Society of Canberra Inc., The Canberra Gardener (ninth ed.), Canberra, Pirion, 2004.

Header image:

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1625, Apollo and Daphne, marble sculpture, Galleria Borghese.

Image sourced from: http://nashvillearts.com/2014/09/see-berninis-apollo-daphne/

 

 

Pleasure and pain

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Sitting in prison, having just received a visit from his distraught wife and his little son, surrounded by a few devoted friends, and rubbing the painful mark that the chains have left upon one of his legs, a man remarks on the dualistic nature of pleasure and pain:

“What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head. And I think,” he said “if Aesop had thought of them, he would have made a fable telling how they were at war and god wished to reconcile them, and when he could not do that, he fastened their heads together, and for that reason, when one of them comes to anyone, the other follows after. Just so it seems that in my case, after pain was in my leg on account of the fetter, pleasure appears to have come following after.” (1)

Any man who has the strength of will to philosophize awaiting execution is no ordinary man. These are, of course, the words of Socrates. A profound observation presented not in the usual form of a statement, question or dialogue, but a simple Aesopic fable that captures a universal truth: pain and pleasure are conjoined and follow soon after one another.

Dualism was fundamental to ancient Greek thought, philosophy and language. Dualistic concepts such as Greek/barbarian, male/female, and freedom/slavery underpinned ancient Greek social definition and status; Greek philosophy is replete with discussions of dualistic concepts such as bad/good, form/material and body/soul; Greek expression is full of contrasts and opposing concepts and ideas (sooner/later, on the one hand/on the other hand, one/another).

What I like about Socrates’ story is that, just as in so many things in life, it takes a third party to intervene in the war between dualistic opposites (in this case, pleasure and pain) and to insist upon unity (in this case, the intervention of Zeus, by fastening their heads together).

But given Socrates’ instructive fable, why is it that when we are consumed by either pleasure or pain, we tend to forget the inevitable and imminent arrival of its opposite? And is there an exactly proportional relationship between the two phenomena (the bigger the pleasure, the bigger the pain that follows, and vice versa)? And is it possible for pain and pleasure to exactly coincide, or by definition, can they only ever follow, one after the other? Questions, and more questions. Socrates might have reflected further on these topics had he not been interrupted by his companion Cebes. And alas, we have no further musings on the subject, for we all know what happened to dear Socrates.

(1) Plato, Phaedo 60b-c;

Text available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D60b

(2) Header image: Eternal Love by Igor Mitoraj, sculptural exhibition at Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, 2011.

Image sourced from: http://www.widewalls.ch/artist/igor-mitoraj/