Ancient World Now:Death & the Underworld in Ancient Greece Redux

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #28.

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Redux: brought back or restored; from the Latin “reducere”, meaning to “bring back”. This episode is our final installment of the five-part series on Odysseus in the Underworld. Tech difficulties required a “re-broadcast”. So—enjoy! And please make time for a little Gilbert Murray in your life. You will not regret it. I am waiting for one of his books, The Five Stages of Greek Religion, to arrive in the post. Can’t wait!

Next week begins a series on the periods of Greek history.

The Rise of the Greek Epic, by Oxford’s famous classicist Gilbert Murray, was first published in 1907. It is one of the smoothest reads I have ever encountered and Murray’s erudition is tempered with the charm of the everyday. He is genuine. I wish I could have known him. This Australian-born Oxford scholar once taught Greek at the University of Glasgow. He refused a knighthood in 1912, and was a friend to one of my all-time favorite rebels, George Bernard Shaw. Murray’s daughter, Rosalind, was a writer and married Arnold Toynbee, the famous historian. Ah, the good old days, when the mind was more important than the toys you had….

On the right is a photo of Gilbert Murray taking a break from reading, by Alfred Eisenstaedt (whose birthday is the same as mine: December 6).

From The Rise of the Greek Epic:

“Among the pre-Greek populations the most prevailing and important worship was that of the dead….But the men of the Migrations had left their father’s graves behind them….At times like these of the Migrations it was best not to bury your dead, unless indeed you could be sure of defending their graves….(the enemy) can dig up some of your fallen comrades from their graves….There is hardly anything in Greek antiquity which is so surrounded with intense feeling as this matter of the mutilation of the dead….There was one perfect way of saving your dead from all outrage. You could burn them into ultimate dust.”

This, then, is why you have burial practices and funereal burning existing side by side in ancient Greece. This also puts into perspective the horror with which both Greeks and Trojans looked upon Achilles’s treatment of Hector’s dead body. And, gives me more reason to hold Odysseus in contempt for leaving Elpenor’s body unburied on Circe’s island! This is an outrage!

Today’s episode is all about death and the underworld in ancient Greece. Fascinating and useful info for all you ancient world groupies out there, as death abounds in Homeric epic and Athenian tragedy. Enjoy! And check out Gilbert Murray!

Ancient World Now:Joseph Campbell and Myth

Podcast Episodes On Vacation…..

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Happy New Year, everyone! Here’s to another great year of Ancient World Now!

Next week I’ll rebroadcast Episode #28 which gives a general background to death & the underworld in Ancient Greece.

Joseph Campbell transformed our lives in the Bill Moyers PBS series The Power of Myth. Campbell’s  The Hero with a Thousand Faces demonstrates that the stories we tell each other in print, in song, in speech, and in memory, are richly varied, yet can be reduced to the same basic tale called the monomyth. If you’ve never heard of Joseph Campbell, rush out and get any of his books, lectures, or videos and watch your world burst wide open! YouTube has some cool stuff. Check out the Joseph Campbell Foundation for an in-depth appreciation. Enjoy!

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

Click here for link to audio Episode #27.

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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

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #26.

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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:Bride of Odysseus in the Underworld

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #25.

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Today’s episode is dedicated to my loyal listeners in Michigan! Turns out the Detroit area is home to a slew of ancient world groupies! A free autographed copy of my book to the first 5 fans from Michigan to give me a shout-out at gwen@gwenminor.com. Thanks for listening!

Today I show you how to read an epic. You’ll learn how to break it down so you can analyze it in chunks, be it for fame, fortune, or fun! Impress your friends with your newfound ability to distinguish between an aristeia and a prolegomena! Actually, these two topoi are more readily found in The Iliad, than The Odyssey, which is our epic du jour.

The “sacrifice & prayers” topoi is one of the most common of topoi, along with the “catalogue or parade” of something or other. Book XI of The Odyssey begins with both. To the right you can see Odysseus with sword in hand, the blood gushing from the sacrificial animal, and Teiresias, the famous seer, getting ready to tell Odysseus “what it is”.

And like the sweet segments of an orange, whose nectar prevents scurvy, so too, Gwen Minor will separate out the various epic segments. Let’s roll!

Ancient World Now:Odysseus in the Underworld

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #24.

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Today I begin our reading of Book XI of The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus travels to the Underworld. He is one of a number of mortals to complete a round-trip to Hades and live to buy a round of drinks in celebration-Orpheus and Aeneas being a couple of others.

Over the next five weeks we will be studying this, one of the most famous books, of the most famous adventure story ever told.

Week 1: I read from Richmond Lattimore’s translation, lines 1-384.

Week 2: commentary on the reading

Week 3: I read from Richmond Lattimore’s translation, lines 385-640.

Week 4: commentary on the reading

Week 5: Death & The Underworld in Ancient Greece

Part of my commentary will be aimed at teaching you how to approach reading and analyzing a book in any ancient epic, such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Aeneid.

So, sit back and enjoy!

Ancient World Now:The Medea-Die Kindermorderin

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #22.

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The Medea—why does Euripides add the article “The” to his play about Medea? A play called “Medea” would simply be about the character Medea, like Euripides’s play Alcestis or Hippolytus. But a play titled The Medea elevates the story from the personal to the universal. The Medea is about the rage of woman. If you have not experienced it, consider yourself lucky! Notice I did not say “a woman”. I left out the article—and what a difference it makes, n’est pas?

Medea was a princess of the Black Sea area called Colchis. But more than that, she was a powerful sorceress and granddaughter of Helios. One day a ship called the Argo came to Colchis and its captain was a man named Jason. The Argonauts included such well-known heroes as Orpheus, Castor and Polydeuces, Peleus, and the great Herakles (Hercules). Long story short: Medea helps Jason get the fabulous Golden Fleece, runs away with him, settles down and bears his children—and when Jason dumps her and sets himself up to marry a young princess, Medea exacts vengeance. Virgil had Medea in mind when he was writing of Queen Dido in The Aeneid, but Dido turned her rage inward and destroyed herself, while Medea gave new meaning to the phrase “Come to momma”! What was that song that came out a few years ago…Carrie Underwood’s Before He Cheats: “I took a Louisville slugger to both head lights. Slashed a hole in all 4 tires. And maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats…” That guy got off lucky!

The story of Jason and the Argonauts is older than The Iliad and in Homer’s time, it was universally known. Like all these great tales, there are numerous versions and side-stories. Thanks to Apollonios Rhodios, we get the many strands woven together. Today I will read to you from the 1898 edition of Bulfinch’s Age of Fable or Beauties of Mythology, which will set us up for next week’s Episode which delves into the Euripides’s play The Medea. Bulfinch merely glosses over the revenge sequence, but Euripides takes a magnifying glass and makes us look at the dark side of humanity until it bursts into flames! Euripides is the go-to man if you want to understand the noir ways of your fellow humans. It’s all about suffering with him! Just check out the daily news stories to see how what it is is what it was.

Ancient World Now:Andromache & Hector

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #21.

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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

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #20.

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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 Eleusinian Mysteries

Click here for direct link to audio podcast Episode #14.

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Part II in a five-part series on religions of the ancient world.

This ancient tale is the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries honoring the grain goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone.

One bright spring morning, when the dew was still clinging to the flower petals and the green blades of grass, the lovely Persephone, daughter of Demeter, was making her rounds of the fields. Persephone had a special duty as the daughter of Demeter. It was her job to paint the flowers in the springtime. So, with her paintpot she wandered from blossom to blossom, choosing the colors that were most pleasing to her.

Her mother, Demeter, was busy making things grow, and did not notice that her daughter had wandered away from her side. With great delight, Persephone mixed the colors of the sky with the colors of the grape to get just the right shade of lavender, when suddenly, the Earth ripped open a chasm right at her feet and from the depths charged a great chariot pulled by two black stallions. Driving the chariot was Hades, King of the Underworld, and he snatched Persephone up in his arms and dove back down to the depths of his dark kingdom.

Demeter heard the cries of her beloved daughter, and raced to the sounds of the fading voice. By the time she reached the spot, there was no trace of what had happened there. Demeter cried aloud for her girl, but there was silence. She searched field and forest day and night, carrying a flaming torch to light her way. But Persephone was nowhere to be found.

This famous painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti of our girl gives a clue to her tale in the red pomegranate she is holding.  Listen to this week’s podcast to find out what happens to Persephone! Enjoy!

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