Thursday, 21 August 2014

Estuary Greek Philosophers and an Offer



Two years ago I decided to make some money from my pen so I could offer our children help with university fees. One has threatened not to do university at all because she doesn’t want to start adult life encumbered by vast debts. So I wrote Introducing the Ancient Greeks: from Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.

Sian Thomas: my Audible avatar 
The US edition, published by Norton, recently hit the shops for under $20 or £20. Beautifully read by Sian Thomas, my absolutely favourite classical actress, it has also now come out on Audible.com (not available on Audible.co.uk for UK download until next spring). I have one free hard copy and five codes for free Audible.com downloads to give away to the first five people to write to me on my King’s College London email, findable through the Classics Department webpage. But if you write, please answer the three questions at the end of this blog! Go on, indulge me! [Sorry you're too late--ed. 24/9/14].

and  Amelia Bones in Harry Potter
The reviews have all been warmly glowing (e.g. in The Independent), except for James Romm’s in the Wall Street Journal. Romm has a reputation for being a dour reviewer, and people who read WSJ are unlikely to share my worldview anyway. He is also the only person alive who would complain that I don’t write enough in it about the ancient theatre—most people think I've  published too much on that already! He also says I never use the word *polis* (city-state), which I do on pp. 51, 104,120, 196, so one does have to ask whether he actually read it. [NB just heard on 23/09/14 that he has apologised and will try to get a correction published].

What western Turkey looked like then
But even he likes my bit on early Greek thought's connection with the silting up of the Maeander Estuary, which I believe is original and which most reviewers have appreciated. It is this:

Miletus today: landlocked
The Milesian thinkers who began discussing the world's unseen causes were watching that world change every day. In about 1,000 BC, their harbour began to silt up. The winding (‘meandering’) River Maeander disgorged itself into the sea, and the particles of rock and soil, ‘alluvium,’ sank to the bottom of the estuary. Every year, the alluvium extended the shore towards Miletus. By the Christian era, Miletus itself was landlocked. The process must have been about half completed when the first philosophers were alive. The men watching fresh water and stones meet salt water and sand, producing new land on a daily basis,  became the first people in recorded history to inquire into the origins of the world exclusively in terms of natural causes. 

Thales: Estuary Thinker
The earliest, Thales, thought that the first cosmic principle or element—the one being pushed back by new land—was water. The argument he used to support this view is that inanimate things lose water and dry out. His student Anaximander drew a map of all the physical world the Milesians knew, and suggested that everything they could perceive—both land and sea, which visibly limited each other—must be surrounded by something else that was limitless and immeasurable--apeiron. The third Milesian thinker, Anaximenes, watched land expand and sea shrink, and argued that all the constituents of the world man could see--fire, wind, cloud, water, earth, stones--are created out of air by processes of condensation or sublimation: the differences between them result from their relative density. In Ephesus, another city not far from Miletus which also became steadily cut off from the sea, Heraclitus asserted the principle that the physical universe was constantly changing: panta rhei, he said, ‘everything is in flux’. Quite.
QUIZ
So, if you want an Audible.com code allowing you to listen free to Sian Thomas’ delicious voice purring through my version of Greek history, from Linear B to 391 AD, then email me the answers to these three questions:
1] What is the name of the Turkish village nearest to the (now inland) ruins of Miletus?
2] Which ancient Greek philosopher jumped into a volcano?
3] What was the name of Prometheus' Mother?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Where did Medea Bury her Children?



Be afraid, Jason.
Helen McCrory sizzles at the National Theatre in Euripides’ Medea. This tiny actress grabs the text, the stage and the audience by the jugular and doesn’t let go until they are emotionally exhausted. When she drags the bags containing her small sons’ cadavers from the stage, the forest quivers and there is a suggestion of an earthquake. Hair-raising.*

Not at the National
All the reviewers have commented on the absence of Medea’s flying chariot of the Sun. But none has asked the far more important question: where is she taking them? What does a Bronze Age divorcee from Georgia want to be the last resting place of her beloved children? 

Medea's flight path in white box
I can answer this question, having read the Greek text, and just yesterday visited the site of their graves. It is the temple of Hera near Perachora just across the Gulf of Corinth. This is 90 minutes’ drive from Medea’s house in the Corinthian suburbs, but probably only ten minutes in a flying machine of which the sole previous owner was divine. For an aviator it is en route to Athens—Medea’s final destination.

The land route just takes too long..
Hera, Queen of Heaven
The temple of Hera had two elaborate storeys, a stunning marble floor, and was crammed with votive objects dedicated by both men and women who wanted healthy children. It is located in one of the most beautiful bays in the Mediterranean, lapped by turquoise waters and fringed with pine and cedar trees. The ancient Greeks had no problems in praying to the very children who had been murdered by their mother for the health of their own progeny: UNITY OF OPPOSITES.

Temple-of-Hera-on-Sea
If you can’t get to London for this remarkable production, directed by Carrie Cracknell, you can go to your local Cineworld and enjoy it being relayed live on 4th September 2014. Popcorn may not seem appropriate to an infanticide story, but these days you can get gin and tonic--also enjoyed by McCrory's Medea--at the movies too.
*I'm pleased to be discussing whether Medea was Mad or just Bad at the National on Tuesday 19th with Professor Femi Oyebodi
 http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover/platforms/medea-acts-of-madness