Category Archives: Ancient Tales

Ancient World Now: Brutus, Part II

Click here for direct link to audio podcast Episode #69.

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Quite early one morning, a couple of months ago, our backyard was inundated with water from someone’s broken sprinkler system. I threw on my robe and drove up the hill to try to locate the neighbor whose house had the leak. I knocked on the door to a house that appeared to be awake, and a kind, calm gentleman opened the door and invited me in. As we were trying to figure out which yards backed up to mine, I noticed that his house had a full-on Greek theme going on! He determined that the leak was from his neighbor’s yard, and we very soon stood at the door again, saying farewell. I reached out to shake his hand in thanks, and asked his name. Imagine the shock when he said his name was “Achilles!” I nearly fell down to the ground in disbelief! Of all names on Earth, his name happened to be Achilles! I told him about my work with ancient world stuff and about my cat Achilles, and we decided to get the neighbors together for a party. So, on Saturday night, some neighbors gathered together here at our house and we all bonded over costumes and scripts. What a treat it was, to have Katerina invoke the muse in her native Greek language! Here are a couple of pics from the night. (above: Achilles and his family, with me on the right)

Today’s episode is our second installment on Brutus, from Plutarch’s Lives for Boys & Girls, retold by W.H. Weston, and illustrated by W. Rainey, published in London & Edinburgh in the early 1900′s. Enjoy!

(below left: Larry, Cathy, Katerina, David, Melina, Scott, Estelle, and Debra—thanks for being such good sports! and below right: my David!)


Ancient World Now: Aristides, Part I

Click here for direct link to audio podcast Episode #44.

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As you know, one of my favorite things is to peruse the stacks of any used bookstore. Over many years I have acquired an amazing library, which allows me to take a book down from a shelf and answer any of my many questions in a matter of minutes. In fact, my library is now so large and specialized that I am considering dividing sections into historical periods to help with my research!

Today I read from a little treasure I found somewhere I can’t even recall, Plutarch’s Lives for Boys & Girls. Retold by W.H. Weston, and illustrated by W. Rainey, this book was published in London & Edinburgh. Like many old books prior to when society began to think of them as a commodity, it is without an ISBN (international standard book number) or publication date. It is safe to say this book is from the early 1900’s, when books for children were beginning to have real interest for writers and illustrators. One can easily think back to N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Walter Crane, and Kate Greenaway. This book has the same feel as a Howard Pyle adventure book. Beautifully bound, with high quality heavy paper, and words impressed into the surface by the printing press so that you can practically read them like braille. A lovely find! And to top it off, it is well-written and in the general tone of Plutarch, as they hadn’t yet started “dumbing down” the classics.

Having brought us through the Persian Wars, I thought it might be nice to take some time to learn about some of the main characters. Aristides is up to bat & later we’ll give equal time to his rival, Themistocles. Sit back and enjoy this first part of Plutarch’s life of Aristides! See if you can tell which scene is illustrated here.

Ancient World Now:Mycenaean World

Click here for direct link to audio podcast Episode #36.

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Once upon a time, Heinrich Schliemann married a girl named Sophia. For the rest of their lives they searched for Homer’s Troy and Agamemnon’s Mycenae. News that they had discovered both stunned the world. And they lived happily ever after! This image of Sophia draped in “Helen’s gold” set off a firestorm of excitement for ancient-style jewelry. Enrich your life by reading about Schliemann’s heroic search. And enjoy today’s podcast on the basic facts about the Mycenaean world.

Ancient World Now:Minoan Crete

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #35.

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Some tech difficulties after an “upgrade” made us miss last week! With this temporary fix we are back on track, and as promised, here is Minoan Crete.

Upon her discovery, this lovely lady was nicknamed “La Parisienne”, and she is a major icon of Minoan civilization.

Who were these amazingly artistic people? The jury is still out. Their civilization flourished between 2200 BC and 1450 BC, long before the Golden Age of Athens. In fact, that’s 1,000-2,000 years before Pericles and his fabulously enduring monument, the Parthenon. Consider the events and world changes that have happened within the past 2,000 years! The Knossos palace finds of Sir Arthur Evans in 1899 AD shook the archaeological world! This ancient Bronze Age civilization existed only in the dim distant memory of legends. They are referenced in Homer and the stories of the ancient heroes, but until Evans’ excavations between 1899 AD and 1935 AD, the magnitude of their power and prestige was unknown. This is the land of King Minos and the Labyrinth of Daedalus. Of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. This is the land of the bull dancers and the snake goddesses. And their story is still unclear!

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford houses the Sir Arthur Evans finds. I was there in 2006 and remarked to myself how antiquated it looked for such an important collection. Lo & behold, the museum was renovated in 2009. I will definitely visit in the future.

Enjoy the podcast! Next week, the Mycenaeans. Bring it on, Clytemnestra!

Ancient World Now:Freya Stark

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #32.

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Freya Stark went boldly where no woman (& sometimes no man) had gone before. She is one of the most fascinating women of the 20th century. Born in 1893, she followed in T.E. Lawrence’s and Gertrude Bell’s footsteps across the Middle East. Like her predecessors, she learned Arabic and Persian, and lived the life of a nomad whenever she was able. She often traveled where no woman had gone before, and in some cases could claim to be the first Western explorer. She dressed as was the native custom in the lands she walked, and crossed deserts and mountains by camel. She wrote touchingly perceptive descriptions of what she saw, as with the scene in today’s podcast of young Turkish boys going off to war in the Black Sea town of Giresun. She knew her classics, knew her geography, and knew her “place” (on the road!). She wrote dozens of books and lived to be 100 years old, dying in our own lifetimes, in 1993.
Today I read from her book Rome on the Euphrates.

Check out Moe’s Books in Berkeley for a top-notch selection  of Classical literature.

Thank you, Freya, for being bold and brave and living your life to the fullest!

Next week we continue with prehistoric times, focusing on the Neolithic period. When will it end???

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:Marine Boy & Neptina

Podcast Episodes On Vacation……

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The podcast is “o’er the river and through the woods” the weekends of Christmas and New Year’s, so enjoy the peace of the holidays, everyone! The technical difficulties with last week’s episode will be worked out & I’ll rebroadcast Episode #28 on Monday, January 10, 2011. Thanks for hanging around!

And for those of you not visiting “grandmother’s house”, I give you this early Japanese anime to brighten your spirits. This holiday, I rediscovered Marine Boy, one of my favorite shows when I was a kid. Riding Splasher the dolphin is Marine Boy and his friend Neptina. The story has all the elements of what we know and love in ancient tales. Seeing my old cartoon pals made me wonder about all the little things that contribute to a life. Mythological and ancient world references stuck with me—barnacle encrustations on the barque of my life, as I moved joyously through the waters of experience. Life is an adventure that we don’t know we are living until we are old. It is a story already written, full of symbolism and meaning, and if we are really lucky, we get a chance to rewind and analyze the passages with a key to understanding. Can you rewind and “see” the barnacle encrustations that make up who you are?

Click below to enjoy Marine Boy: Land of the Strange Vikings (1966)
Episode Part I
Episode Part II

Ancient World Now:Medea the Warrior

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #23.

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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:The Medea-Die Kindermorderin

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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.