Thursday, 29 January 2015

Syriza's Minotaur-Slayer

The saturnine new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has a face like a gangster and the worked-out body of a fitness fanatic. His rhetoric is scathing, cogent, and graphic. He quotes Dylan Thomas and Aeschylus. He calls the austerity measures imposed on Greece ‘fiscal waterboarding.’ 

Varoufakis wrote the dazzling 2011 polemic The Global Minotaur. It equates the beast in the lair of world capitalism, the American banking system, with the insatiable man/bull of Minoan Crete to whom human tributes—the sons and daughters of Athenians—were given to devour every year. The Minotaur myth may originally have arisen as an expression of the imperial subjection of Mycenaean Greek communities to the Bronze Age Cretan monarchy. But the new, global Minotaur of economic imperialism was born in the 1970s, when vast sums of capital began to be sent to Wall Street from all over the world, creating unsustainable contradictions which precipitated the 2008 crash.
1974 cartoon on fall of Greek dictatorship

This Minotaur is dying, says our latterday Theseus, himself born in Athens: the imminent combat between him and the global Minotaur's lackeys at the European Central Bank is set to be an exciting spectacle.

Varoufakis is not the first polemicist to equate an opponent with the Minotaur. Martin Luther was compared to the monster by his leading Roman Catholic foe. And the Victorian reformer William T. Stead, who invented modern journalism in his 1885 exposés of London vice rings pimping girl-child prostitutes,  saw the rich men who demanded constant supplies of new victims as Minotaurs;  Stead’s series was called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, and was written in prose as colourful as Varoufakis’s: 

William Stead,  Victorian Minotaur-slayer
This very night in London, and every night, year in and year out, not seven maidens only, but many times seven, selected almost as much by chance as those who in the Athenian market-place drew lots as to which should be flung into the Cretan labyrinth, will be offered up as the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Maidens they were when this morning dawned, but to-night their ruin will be accomplished, and to-morrow they will find themselves within the portals of the maze of London brotheldom… The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable, and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.

Varoufakis, with hair, versus American Economic Imperialism
Stead’s lurid press campaign was instrumental in the age of consent being raised by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 from just 13 to 16. The Minotaur of mass child sex abuse in London was slain. We shall have to wait and see whether the Greek election and the appointment of such an articulate economist as Varoufakis may similarly presage the demise of the 21st century's ravening Minotaur at the centre of the world banking shambles.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Breasts from the Amazons to Page Three

Amazon Queen of Czechoslovakia
This week  starred  mammary glands and their role in matriarchy and patriarchy.  I thought I knew everything about matriarchal legends, but my trip to Eastern Europe introduced me to the two Amazonian warrior queens, Libussa and Valasca, who founded Prague and ran it as socialist feminists in the 8th century AD.

 Then my review of Adrienne Mayor’s thrilling  book on the Amazons appeared in New Statesman. It is a global history of mounted warrior women, skilled in archery. Many classical myths about Amazons turn out to have archaeological substantiation. In the Tarim Basin (north-west China), a mass grave of the second/first century BC contains the skeletons of 133 male and female nomads killed in combat. One trouser leg was discovered, amazingly, to be decorated with a centaur blowing a war trumpet like those blown by Amazons and Scythians in ancient Greek art.

Just about the only Amazon myth containing no truth is that they routinely cut off one breast; this was a false etymology of Amazones, a prehistoric Iranian ethnic term unconnected to the Greek word for ‘breast’, mastos or mazos.

Speaking of present and absent breasts, I can’t be certain whether the man who in 1970 invented the Page Three Girl would have encountered Greek etymology when he attended Rastrick Grammar School in Yorkshire, but exposure to Latin and thus to Camilla, the Amazon of the Aeneid, is likely. 

 Lamb (right) with Bob Maxwell
Did Camilla excite Larry Lamb?
Albert aka ‘Larry’ Lamb, later knighted by Margaret Thatcher for insulting miners, was the son of a coalfield blacksmith. Because his father died, Larry was forced to leave school at 16, and later admitted that he had ‘a substantial chip on my shoulder, on the grounds that I am not educated, and I should have been.’ If he had gone through sixth form and university, might he have learned enough about class, gender and race to change the history of British popular journalism (he also opposed the release of Mandela)?

David Phalakros Dinsmore
We will never know. Lamb is no longer with us. To be fair, in his memoir Sunset he confided that the Page Three Girl was probably a mistake. His view is not shared by the current Sun editor David Dinsmore, a demented-looking hairless Glaswegian  whom the Greeks would have called phalakros (‘penis-head’). Reports of the demise of the Page Three Girl earlier this week were on Thursday proved to be premature by Nicole from Bournemouth. Dinsmore is a graduate, of Paisley and Columbia, in Business and Management Skills. I hope it was in the USA, not Scotland, that he learned to be such a booby.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Tearing down the Iron (Stage) Curtain

As a child I was fascinated by the Eastern bloc. I took out a subscription to Soviet Weekly with my pocket money, to read exalted claims about factory outputs and stories with boy-meets-tractor plots. 

As a student in the 1980s, I contacted classicists behind the ‘iron curtain’, and discovered that they were neither monsters nor always victims of persecution. In fact, they were much better adjusted and presentable than most of their British counterparts. 

So this week’s conference in Warsaw has fulfilled a longstanding dream: Classics and Communism in Theatre has brought together experts on performances in Eastern bloc countries to illuminate what the ancient Greeks meant on eastern stages before 1989. I am one of a gang of just four occidentals here to stress that there were also committed communists using ancient drama west of the curtain, from the founders of the Provincetown Players to Cuba, C.L.R. James to Joan Littlewood. She was inspired by her production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to produce the socially engaged musical theatre most familiar from her Oh! What a Lovely War.

"Let's perform a Greek tragedy, Tovaritch!"
The quality of the delivery and of the content of the papers is staggering. The delegates all speak better English than we do, and assume a grasp of cultural theory so sophisticated that it puts me to shame. The revelations have been spine-tingling: the censoring of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes in East Berlin just after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Red Army, bizarrely, performing Euripides’ uncheerful Hippolytus in a Bolshevik celebratory pageant on May Day 1920.

There have been some mirthful moments. One eminent Polish archaeologist reacted to footage from  Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, starring a very overweight actress as Clytemnestra, yelling ‘Eat less!’ across the auditorium. We heard about the side-splitting pranks played on Slovenian bureaucrats by a rebel playwright/classicist in the late 1940s. We were petrified by a Russian Professor who complained about the (excellent) facilities, ran FORTY minutes over time and interrupted every interlocutor--all this at a conference where Russian imperialism was the underlying context.

We’re planning a repeat meeting in a couple of years, maybe on our different national/ideological experiences of classical themes in history painting: perhaps I’ll bring all my new friends over to London next time.

Friday, 9 January 2015


Tony 'the Hoodie'
If the earliest Greeks invented satire, it was the Greeks of Alexandria in Egypt who kept the vital practice alive under the Roman Empire. The Greek historian Herodian reports how the Emperor Caracalla murdered thousands of Alexandrians just because they had used laughter to criticise his regime.

Caracalla’s real name was Antony (his nickname was taken from the distinctive hoodie he wore). After murdering his brother Geta, he became sole ruler of the empire in 211. In 215, exactly eighteen centuries ago, he decided to visit Alexandria. This was ostensibly to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great, but (according to Herodian) he had another motive:

caracalla: a Gaullish tunicwith a hood
“While he was still residing in Rome, both while his brother was alive and after he was murdered, reports came to Caracalla that the Alexandrians were continually poking fun at him. The Alexandrians are naturally inclined to mockery at the expense of those at the top of the tree. Although these clever jests may seem very funny to those who produce them, they inflict severe pain on those who are ridiculed.

“The most acute pain is caused by jokes which expose one’s defects.  So they cracked jokes about the emperor murdering his brother. They called his elderly mother 'Jocasta' [because Julia Domna was old enough to be, as Oedipus’ wife Jocasta actually had been, her children’s grandmother]; they mocked him because, despite his own short stature, he aspired to be like the most courageous and tallest heroes, Alexander and Achilles.”

So the short, humourless but “naturally brutal and irascible Caracalla” invited all the young men of the city to a military festivity, and had his own troops systematically execute every single one. The Nile ran with their blood, but still Caracalla’s malice was not assuaged, and he slaughtered thousands of the other citizens.

Caracalla  Tramples Crocodile representing Egypt?
Two years later Caracalla was himself assassinated, while urinating beside a Syrian highway, by his own bodyguard. But neither the shortness of his life, nor the ignominy of his undignified death, will have been any comfort to the Alexandrians. They had not only lost innumerable family members, but had suffered this blow simply because of their their skill at expressing themselves freely about abusive practices, as a proud citizenry “naturally inclined to mockery at the expense of those at the top of the tree.”


Saturday, 3 January 2015

Ancient Cats and Modern Moggies

RequiesCAT in pace, Poppy
A TV round-up of ‘major events' in 2014 reminded us all of the momentous death at the age of 24 of the world’s oldest cat (according to the Guinness Book of Records), Poppy the tortoiseshell from Bournemouth. While I am sceptical, to say the least, that there are not older living representatives of the species felis silvestris catus or felis domesticus, I am now staking a claim to the world record for my parents’ cat Sheba, born early in 1992. She was once our own cat, and her real name is Gas Board (her sadly deceased sister was called ‘Lecky’, or ‘Electricity’).

Gas Board, the oldest cat alive?
The ancient Greeks had much to say on the subject of dogs, but information about cats is much harder to find. The word for cat, aielouros, probably means ‘twisting tail’; my future as a Professor of Greek was probably determined when I was eight and asked my father why our tabby was called Ailoura.

Cambyses, the felines' foe
The most famous cat story in ancient authors is not about Greece at all: it concerns the Persian emperor Cambyses insulting the people of an Egyptian city he was besieging. Cambyses did something unconventional with cats, which the Egyptians of course believed to be sacred: he probably did not use actually use them as missiles, as some artists have suggested, but may have carried them in the ranks or painted them on his men’s shields.

Artemis' Avatar at Vravrona
In one Greek comedy, the Acharnians of Aristophanes, a pedlar arrives in Athens from central Greece  to sell edible flora and fauna, including ‘geese, hares, foxes, moles, hedgehogs, CATS, martins, otters and eels.’ When the satyrs in another play are asking about the newly invented musical instrument, the lyre, which they have heard but not seen, they ask the nymph of the mountain whether it resembles a cat or a panther.

But the untold story of cats in ancient Greece I am convinced has much to do with temple sanctuaries, especially those of Artemis, deity of small furry mammals. When I visited the Athenians’ dazzling sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron (Vravrona), I was met at the gates and escorted all round it by the vocal young female, the goddess’s avatar, in the photo above. And then when I researched vases illustrating Artemis’ Black Sea temple at Sevastopol for my book Adventures with Iphigenia, what did I find but a cat involved in sacred rituals? But nobody has ever explained exactly what the man holding the cat is doing. Suggestions in the comments section, please!

Friday, 26 December 2014

What Baby Jesus did Next

Would you trust this boy?

 I always thought Christmas was the best Christian festival—everyone loves new baby stories. But sweet newborns become hyperactive toddlers, and so on to the hurricanes of puberty. I have also always thought that the most entertaining Christian storytelling—the narratives labelled ‘apocryphal’—are precisely the ones excluded from the New Testament.

The canonical gospels are virtually silent, for example, on how Jesus of Nazareth and his parents weathered his first decade. Fortunately a text exists in both ancient Greek and Syriac which fills in the stormy missing years. The ‘Infancy Gospel’ attributed to St Thomas, and vividly illustrated in a manuscript in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, reveals a child who should have been handed over to Psychiatric Social Services.

Zeno Falls mysteriously from the upper storey 
At five, Jesus dammed a stream by telepathy and polluted the Sabbath by making twelve living sparrows out of mud. When another boy destroyed the dams, he cursed the boy, who promptly died. When a second child ran into him, Jesus cursed him and he also expired. The villagers protested to Jesus’ human father Joseph that his son was a dangerously disturbed juvenile delinquent. Jesus’ response was to have his accusers miraculously blinded.

Mary & Joseph needed Supernanny
When Joseph asked for a teacher’s help in disciplining his dysfunctional child, the five-year-old told his ostensible dad that he had been born ‘so that, father, I could teach you a lesson’.  Time for having pocket money withheld, if you ask me. Irritatingly precocious, Jesus taught himself the alphabet in order to show off at school. Time for Supernanny and the Naughty Step. But no. 

Unchecked by his baffled parents, Jesus then murdered his next, wholly sympathetic schoolteacher, just for under-estimating his IQ. A third boy called Zeno, with whom Jesus was playing on a roof, fell off mysteriously and died.
'Who needs a bucket with my magic waterproof cloak, mum?'

There were, to be fair, a couple of ‘good’ miracles.  The young Jesus carried water for his mother in a cloak and sowed a miraculously abundant harvest. But does that outweigh four undeserved deaths and a mass blinding? I would be interested to know what you think! I need cheering up after an unexpectedly medieval week, not in a good sense, of which more anon.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Hubris and Hippocratic Healing

Mind the fat blister
I learned a very Greek lesson this week. I was happy on Monday* and boasted so to the world. I bought a leg of lamb to celebrate. On Wednesday at 1704 pm I checked on its progress in the oven. From a blister on its skin, a jet of scalding lamb fat spurted down the left side of my face. There ensued an evening in Casualty. Happiness evanesced. Hubris was punished.

The NHS treatment was ice-cold compresses and vaseline to keep the air away from exposed nerves. It still hurt. It occurred to me that the ancient Greeks must have suffered innumerable cooking accidents, since they roasted joints over open flames and offered smoke emitted by sizzling fat to the gods.  So I got out Guido Majno’s The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World (1975) to look for remedies.

"A Nile between my thighs"
An ancient Egyptian would have applied gum mixed with hairs from a ram, then intoned a charm over the breast-milk of a new mother of a son. The incantation is put in the mouth of Horus’ mother Isis when she heard her son had suffered burns: “Water is in my mouth, a Nile is between my thighs, I have come to put out the fire. Flow out, burn!”

If this means what I think it means I would have preferred to be treated by one of the Greek Hippocrates’ disciples. They knew the importance of sterile conditions to counter septicaemia in burns, and that burns victims became dehydrated. The Hippocratics gave them plenty to drink, and swilled their injuries with cool seawater (the salt prevented infection). In their textbook on ulcers they learned about ointments made of fat, oil and wax spread on clean cloth, like the vaseline gauzes which burn doctors use today.

But prevention is better than cure. From now on I will always wrap joints of meat in foil, and to hell with the crispy finish. The Father of My Children, to prevent me going anywhere near an oven, has booked us a pub lunch on Christmas Day. I may even go vegetarian again (last time was after being offered kangaroo stew in Australia). Quite a few of you out there will be roasting fauna over the next few days, so as I sport (I hope only temporarily) my Phantom of the Opera look, my heartfelt holiday message is simply this: COOK, BEWARE: Caveat coquus.**

*Because (1) two of my wonderful PhD students, Helen Eastman and Matt Shipton, had passed their vivas with flying colours; (2) the best Classics & Class film yet, Henry Stead’s brilliant mini-feature starring Sara Monoson on radical Aesop, was posted on the project website.
** Or, as Herodotus might have said, "Call no woman happy until the roast is safely on the table".