Ancient World Now:Theories of Mycenaean Collapse

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Migration and movements of peoples has been a constant ever since Australopithecus set up camp in a more advantageous spot one day four million years ago. This photo by Christian Sinibaldi, posted on the Guardian U.K. website, shows the boat graveyard on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where North African migrants abandon their vessels on their flight to more advantageous spots in Europe. In my constant quest to see the ancient world in our everyday modern lives, I encourage you to consider the current explosive uprisings throughout North Africa & the Middle East as an overlay onto your understanding of the events that precipitated the Greek Dark Ages.

Award ceremony and podcast and taxes, oh my! An overwhelming number of factors contributed to my missing our last podcast. Hope you can forgive me! To make up for it, in today’s podcast I am trotting out a new theory on the destruction of Mycenaean civilization. Michael Shanks and Gary Devore, archaeology professors at Stanford University, discussed their own theory in last week’s Archaeology of Greece class.

For many years now I have been on the children’s book committee for the Northern California Book Awards. Each year for the past 30 years, committees have gathered together from October to April to review the year’s published books from Northern California’s authors. There are dozens and dozens of books to read for each category: fiction, general non-fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, children’s literature, and translation for poetry & fiction. In the spring I do NCBA work and in the fall I do work for Litquake, the annual literary festival in San Francisco. I am honored to be a part of these organizations and my volunteer work is one of the many ways I contribute my creative energy to the Bay Area writer’s community. As I was writing this, we had a little earthquake! Felt like a truck hit the building. It disturbed the cats (including Achilles, my tuxedo warrior) and we all fled to different parts of the house! And today is the anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake! Yet another ancient world connection: ancient earthquakes. Think Crete, Delphi, Sicily, and Alexandria, to name a few.

Ancient World Now:Daughter of Son of Bride of Odysseus in the Underworld

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The towering figure of Clytemnestra dwarfs all other infamous gals from the ancient world. Here she is standing over Agamemnon’s body. What was her beef? She got steamed when Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter so the guys could get a fair wind for Troy all those years ago. Clytemnestra’s skills with the battle-axe were also the death of the prophetess slave and princess of Troy, Cassandra, as shown below on this piece of pottery.

Go back to the ancient tragedians to see the full-on misery of the house of Atreus unfold, or check out the powerful trilogy of films by Michael Cacoyannis, starring the spellbinding Irene Pappas as Electra.  Electra (1962) by Michael Cacoyannis. Not to spoil the story or anything, but Electra finally gets hers when she convinces her long-lost brother Orestes to assist her in the plot to avenge their father’s death and murder Agamemnon’s killers!

Clytemnestra tries to defend Aegisthus from Orestes, while on the right of this vase Electra’s happy arms welcome the act! In desperation, Clytemnestra even bares her breast to her son, hoping to dissuade him from killing his own mother. Alas! Puts our modern tabloids to shame.

Ancient World Now:Son of Bride of Odysseus in the Underworld

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Where is the justice for Ajax??? These images tell the story. To the right Odysseus and Ajax quarrel over the arms of Achilles, and to the left, on the vase, they get physical with each other. After Achilles’s death, his arms were to be awarded to “the best of the best”, but as you remember, Athena fixed the voting & Odysseus got  the goods. Ajax was  driven to suicide, as shown on this British Museum vase.

Here, finally, is Tecmessa, daughter of the Phrygian king Teuthras, covering the body of her beloved Ajax. This drinking cup is at the Getty Villa. Tears me apart just to look at it…..

And after all this, Odysseus thinks he can just stroll into Hades  and everything will be right between them. I don’t think so!

Ancient World Now:Medea the Warrior

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Did Medea have a choice? Surely, you say, she could have just killed the princess and done enough damage to Jason’s hopes and dreams. Why, you ask, did she have to go and kill her children to top it all off?

Well, the warrior class from the Golden Age of Heroes would certainly have understood the insult to Medea’s ti’me. Ti’me (pronounced tee-may) was the honor code by which the ruling class lived—and when it was insulted, there was hell to pay! Achilles and Ajax both had their ti’me insulted. The entire Iliad is about Achilles’s honor being insulted: Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles!

Medea’s children would have lived the rest of their lives in danger. Travelling with their cast-off mother to Athens would have made them forever outcasts. Outsiders. Obviously, they couldn’t go back to Colchis after Medea’s dramatic exit with her then-new beau, Jason. If they would have stayed in Corinth with Jason and his new gal, the step-mom’s kids would take precedence over Medea’s kids. That’s always hard. And if you know anything about the ruling families of Imperial Rome, you know that step-children are the first to be bumped off. Their very existence threatens the power of the new wife and her brood. And the power women had over their husbands was all about providing children (READ: male) for them.

Julius Caesar’s wife Calpurnia could not bear him children, so he was played like a card by Cleopatra, who knew her trump card was giving him a son, which she did. How horrible good Calpurnia must have felt, when she heard Cleopatra was going to bear her husband a child! And what about Henry VIII? English children know the outcome of his six wives when they memorize this: Divorced-beheaded-died, Divorced-beheaded-survived. All because the king needed a male heir!

But Medea does the abhorrent because she knows it is the only way to cripple Jason. Sure, if the princess dies, he can always get a new one. But if the princess dies and Jason’s own children die, Jason has to start from Square One. Medea achieves her end. She admits that it will destroy her, too, but she believes she has no choice.

So—what do you think?
Write in to let me know your  thoughts on these great questions
of honor and justice.

And how interesting to compare the
shy, innocent maiden Medea, in the beginning of  Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautika,  to the warrior Medea in Euripides’ play The Medea! Check it out!

Ancient World Now:Andromache & Hector

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The parting of Hector and Andromache ranks as one of the most touching scenes in literary history, if not the most. In Book 6 of The Iliad, before going on to the battlefield for the last time, Prince Hector says goodbye to his tearful wife, Andromache, and their son Astyanax. When Hector approaches, the baby screams with fear at the sight of the bronze helmet with its horsehair crest. Both mother and father burst into laughter at the sight. The deep tragedy of their situation is cut through with this stroke of humanity.

Homer is not on the side of the Greeks or on the side of the Trojans. Homer is on the side of humanity and wants us to feel the pain of war. Andromache, for thousands of years, has been the epitome of the loving wife. Her sad plea for Hector to remain with them is for naught. He must go out to fight. Though she has lost both parents and all of her brothers to war, Andromache has two more loved ones to lose. Hector, of course, is killed in a mad rage by Achilles, and Astyanax is ripped from his mother’s arms and thrown from the walls of Troy by the Greek soldiers.

The most touching moments in The Iliad bloom up from scenes involving the Trojan royal household. Walk with me through Book 6 & Book 22 of The Iliad to sample the literary techniques Homer uses to take us to the war inside the hearts and minds of the non-soldiers, from the dutiful maidservant to playboy Prince Paris. Have tissues handy!

Ancient World Now:Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy

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So many of you have asked me: What do you think of Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy?

Well, filmmakers always tamper with characters and situations from the original story, and Petersen is no exception. But I ask where,  in Homer’s name, is the real tale of the death of Ajax? And where, indeed, is Laocoon, the great seer, who with his sons was dragged to his watery death by a sea serpent when he tried to tell King Priam that the wooden horse would bring about the end of Troy?

The “greatness” of great story lies in the portrayal of the depth of human character. That a director has 180 minutes in which to show the scope of human triumph and tragedy is unrealistic. One must go to the source of these great stories in order to learn from them.

And how do we as humans display character? By the small things we do each day. In times of peace, it might be something as simple as nodding to the driver who yields their right of way. Or by patiently accepting the customer service routine from eager teen clerks because they are in training. And in times of crisis and war, we might reveal our character by resolving not to look at images of humiliation, or by remaining speechless in a time of sorrow and shame. These minor actions and inactions reveal the complexities of the human mind, heart, and spirit in ways, that in the rush of our lives, we often fail to see. It is precisely the lack of these simple human gestures that keeps modern film epics from attaining greatness. Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is by its very nature crippled in its attempts. But, hey, using technology to create the image of the “launch of a thousand ships” was pretty cool! And then Brad Pitt as Achilles, well, what can I say?

Listen to this week’s podcast to find out how Petersen’s film differed from the original epic. Enjoy!

Ancient World Now: The Iliad

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Diomedes was one of the most revered heroes of the ancient world. Though we don’t hear much about him nowadays, he had as many adventures as Achilles and Odysseus! He is quite overshadowed by those other characters. But a huge chunk of The Iliad is devoted to his “aristeia”, or glory day on the battlefield, during which, he wounds Aphrodite, goddess of love.

This dramatic painting is by Arthur Heinrich Wilhelm Fitger and shows the mad chaos of Aphrodite’s desperate move to save her wounded son, Aeneas. And if you are a good student of the ancient world, you know that, yes, of course she saves him. Virgil’s Aeneid is the tale of Aeneas’s trials and tribulations after the Trojan War. Stay with me and you will hear my version of The Aeneid, soon to come as a podcast.

Next week we begin The Odyssey!!!

Ancient World Now….nine days…..

Podcast launch date: Monday, June 14, 2010.

First episode: The Iliad 20-30 minute podcast.

This marble relief is from the Getty collection. Achilles and his mother are in a chariot and approach a group of worshippers along a road. The three rams are for sacrifice to Achilles. This piece is thought to be from Thessaly, where Achilles was born. Scholars believe he was worshipped there. Because Achilles was born of a mortal man and an immortal goddess, he was destined to die. However, Thetis did everything she could to keep him from harm. We refer to a person’s weakness of strength or character as their “Achilles’ heel”. Find out why in the first episode of Ancient World Now.

Ancient World Now….ten days…..

Podcast launch date: Monday, June 14, 2010.

First episode: The Iliad 20-30 minute podcast.

This tiny Greek figure is from the British Museum’s collection.
The Nereid goddess Thetis, mother of Achilles, is riding a dolphin buoyed up on the crest of a wave. She carries the arms of Achilles, newly fashioned by Hephaestus, god of fire and metal.

W.H. Auden wrote “The Shield of Achilles” (1952) in response to this passage from The Iliad.

Why was new armor made for Achilles? What was so special about this armor? Find out in ten days on the maiden podcast of Ancient World Now….

Ancient World Now….eleven days…..

Podcast launch date: Monday, June 14, 2010.

First episode: The Iliad 20-30 minute podcast.

This bronze statue of Achilles is in Hyde Park, London. Built in 1822 as a tribute to Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, by “the Women of England”, it was cast from cannons won at the victories of
Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse, and Waterloo. The fig leaf was added later…the Victorians and all……

The Iliad means “The story of Ilium (Troy), but The Iliad is not the story of Troy, it is the story of Achilles. The story begins with these famous words:

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians…”

The great hero Achilles is miffed & lets everybody know it. Find out why in the first episode of Ancient World Now….

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