Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

Rage is Born of Grief: Anne Carson’s new Translation of Euripides’s Bakkhai

Bakkhai continues to be one of Euripides’s (c. 484-406 b.c.e.) most popular plays to stage, translate, and interpret, even though it was never performed in its author’s lifetime. The ancient Greek playwright and Athenian wrote Bakkhai in the last few years of his life in Macedonia, where he had fled after becoming disillusioned with his native city-state. The play was found among his papers after his death and produced posthumously by either his nephew or his son at the Dionysia, the festival held annually for the eponymous god in Athens. The drama presents the god Dionysos arriving in Thebes disguised as a mortal to establish his cult in that city and exact a brutal punishment on his cousin, King Pentheus, who denies the existence of the god. Anne Carson’s unconventional new translation of Bakkhai is a fitting interpretation of what is arguably Euripides’s most enigmatic tragedy.

Dionysos is the first character to appear on stage in the play, and he tells us that he is harboring anger for his maternal family who have denied his immortality. Dionysos is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele, daughter of the king of Thebes. When Semele is pregnant with Dionysos, she is tricked by Hera into viewing Zeus, undisguised, in all his glory as the mighty god of sky and lightning. At the sight of him she is instantly incinerated and Zeus puts the fetus in his thigh to finish gestating, from which appendage of his father Dionysus is eventually born. In her typical precipitous, staccato phrases that are familiar from her previous translations and original poetry, Caron’s rendition of Bakkhai gives us a succinct version of the myth:  Continue reading my essay in the 50th issue of The Quarterly Conversation

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The Best of Bests: Kleos In Logue’s War Music

achilles_agamemnon_pompei_mosaic_namnaples_100006Achilles and Agamemnon, Scene from Iliad Book I.  Mosaic, Pompeii

As I discussed in my first post on Christopher Logue’s War Music, it is jarring to read an interpretation of the Iliad that does not begin with the first line of Homer’s epic.  Logue instead chooses to begin his poem with a concept of kleos, an idea that is central to understanding the motives of the Bronze Age heroes who agree to follow Agamemnon across the Aegean to scale the walls of Troy.

In most English versions of the Iliad, kleos is translated as “glory” or “fame” but these definitions do not fully capture the complexity of this Ancient Greek word.  When Logue begins War Music, Achilles is having an upsetting conversation with his mother about Agamemnon’s violation of xenia and his greedy, selfish behavior which has caused fighting among the Greek warriors.  In the course of speaking to his mother, Achilles mentions to Thetis the prophecy about his fate in life: he can choose not to fight at Troy, go home and live a long life but no one will remember who he was or any deeds he accomplished.  This path will not give him any kleos.  However, if Achilles stays and fights the Trojans, he will die bravely in battle and although his life will be cut short, he will have great kleos.  When we view kleos in the context of Achilles’s conversation with his  mother, we come to understand that kleos is fame or glory that lasts well beyond a hero’s life.  Men for generations will remember Achilles and the stories of his excellence (arête) on the battlefield if that is the fate he chooses.  Kleos is derived from the Ancient Greek verb kluein, “to hear” so kleos can also be defined as what other people hear about a man, for generations after his death.

In order to better understand kleos, we have to look at the Bronze Age view of the Underworld as it is presented to us in the Odyssey.  When Odysseus recalls various shades from the after life, Achilles is one of the old friends he meets and speaks with.  Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a slave or a man of humble means on earth than a king of the dead.  The Homeric view of the afterlife is a very bleak one, the heroes wander around in a type of limbo and there is no chance for reincarnation such as that presented in Vergil’s stoic version of the afterlife.

So the heroes who fight at Troy believe that they get just one life, just one chance to do something brave and heroic, something that people will remember long after a hero has died.  The opportunity for this type of fame, or kleos, presents itself in the form of valor on the battlefield.  That is why they agree to cross an ocean to help capture a city that has not done anything to personally provoke them.  Helen’s beautiful face many have launched Menelaus’s ship, but getting her back is an opportunity for the other warriors to fight on the battlefield at Troy and earn kleos.

James Redfield in his pivotal book Nature and Culture in the Iliad, argues that there is a social aspect to kleos, a man must earn his kleos from the society in which he lives.  Redfield writes:

Kleos is specially associated with the gravestone.  Society secures its memories of the dead man by creating for him a memorial to perpetuate his name, and remind men to tell his story.  He will not be utterly annihilated.  Thus the kleos of the hero is to some extent a compensation to him for his own destruction.

There is one final aspect of kleos that Achilles brings up when his shade speaks to Odysseus from the grave.  Achilles is eager to hear about the heroic exploits of his only son, Neoptolemus, and when Odysseus confirms that the young  man has proven himself to be a valiant warrior in his own right, Achilles is most pleased.  Kleos, thereforeis also carried on from father to son, it is something that is nurtured and fostered and carried on from one generation to the next.  A man’s kleos can become greater if his son carries out heroic deeds.  Part of Medea’s motivation for murdering her own children is that she will not allow Jason’s kleos to continue on through their son.  Also in the Odyssey, Telemachus eagerly awaits the homecoming of his father because it is his paternal kleos that he is eager to carry on.

Logue not only begins War Music with the theme of kleos, but he deftly weaves it throughout his interpretation of the Iliad.  Logue captures the notion of kleos on the very first page of War Music, with his fast-paced, heavy hitting poetry. Achilles says to his mother:

You had had me your child, your only child,
To save him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; in perpetuity

Notice that Logue uses some of his favorite poetic devices to emphasize Achilles’s kleos which will be greater than any other man’s.  Anaphora, for instance, is used to highlight the fact that Achilles is to Thetis her “only child.”  “His word” is also repeated which shows Achilles desperately clinging to the promise made by Zeus himself that he will have kleos.    Achilles’ will “be best,” “The best of bests.”  And my favorite of Logue’s literary devices, which is pervasive in War Music, is asyndeton.  Logue’s elimination of any and all connective words makes this entire speech dramatic and urgent and puts an exclamation point on the reason, the only reason, that Achilles stepped foot on the beach of Troy in the first place—to gain kleos.  And finally, attaining kleos is the one thing that keeps Achilles from carrying out his threat launched at Agamemnon to sail home and not help sack Troy.

Why don’t the Trojans just pack Helen up, open the gate and send her back to Menelaus?  Their reasons for fighting this war are not simply to let Paris keep his stolen wife or to defend their famous walls.  In Book II, Logue turns his attention to the Trojans who also desire kleos.  Hector gives a speech in which he says that he is tired of hiding behind the walls of Troy and wants nothing more than to fight the Greeks in combat:

We are your heroes.
Audacious fameseekers who relish close combat.
Mad to be first among the blades,
Now wounded 50 times, stone sane.

Hector wants kleos just as much as any Greek but he does have one additional motivation to fight Greece.  Up next, my post will be about Hector, my favorite Homeric hero, and the concept of aidos.  And in the future other aspects of War Music that I would like to explore are the role of the gods and fate and the role of women as prizes and wives.

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Rage—Sing Goddess: Some initial thoughts on Logue’s War Music

war-music

Homer’s Iliad begins: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος and the best translation I have ever seen of these first words of the epic is from Robert Fagles: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…”

I was disappointed, at first, how Logue chose to begin War Music, his modern reimaging of the Iliad.   As a classicist I naturally expected some version of the first line of the Iliad. The Fagles translation is my favorite because he just nails the translation of Homer’s first line—he puts “wrath” first, which is what Homer very deliberately does in the Ancient Greek. And every ancient epic after that in the tradition of the Iliad follows suit and puts the most important word, the word that sets the tone for the entire poem, as the very first word. So not to see this line at all was a bit startling. But,  I was immediately drawn in and excited by the exchange between Achilles and his mother. Logue manages to bring Achilles extreme form of rage to the forefront in just a few words. I quickly realized that Logue captures the spirit, the essence and the central concepts of Homer’s war poem and he does it with his own unique poetic style that, at times, is quite startling.

In the opening dialogue with his mother, Achilles is telling Thetis about the quarrel he has had with King Agamemnon. When his mother interrupts him we get the first small glimpse of his anger with a short, abrupt dialogue that is typical of Logue’s style:

Will you hear me or not?
Dear Child…
Then do not interrupt.

And when Achilles and Agamemnon almost come to blows:

Achilles’ face
Is like a chalkpit fringed with roaring wheat
His brain says: Kill him. Let the Greeks sail home
His thigh steels flex.

And when Achilles asks his mother to help destroy his own Greeks:

Let the Greeks die.
Let them taste pain.’
Remained his prayer
And he for whom
Fighting was breath, was bread,
Remained beside his ships
And hurt his honour as he nursed his wrong.

Xenia is an important part of the mores of the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age and the main conflict in the epic poem is caused because of a violation of this custom.  Xenia is translated as “guest-friendship” or “hospitality” and it covers three important circumstances.  First, if a person welcomes a guest into his home the expectation is that the host provides a warm place to sleep, good food, a bath, wine and entertainment.  In the Odyssey, Polyphemus perpetrates a horrible violation of this aspect of xenia when, instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, he eats some of his guests.

The next area that xenia covers is the mutual respect due to a host when one is a guest in another man’s home.  A house guest is expected to be polite, grateful and provide a gift to the host.  There is also a violation of this concept of xenia in the Odyssey when the suitors  have placed a burden on Telemachus and Penelope by overstaying their welcome, eating all of their food and being rude to their hosts.  The suitors are the ultimate bad house guests.

The conflict that is central to the plot of the Iliad also begins with a violation of xenia by Paris who was a guest in Menelaus’s home and stole something very important, Menelaus’s wife.  Instead of providing Menelaus with a gift, he takes something from his host that does not belong to him. Logue eloquently and simply writes: “Troy harbours thieves.” Menelaus, his warmongering brother Agamemnon and the rest of the Greeks are attempting to scale the walls of Troy to get Helen back, or so it seems.  They each have very different motives for being at Troy, which I will discuss a little later.

The final aspect that is associated with the concept of xenia is that of respect towards a suppliant.   If a Greek is approached by another man as a suppliant, begging for a favor and offering rich gifts in return for that favor, a Greek must be respectful and capitulate.  Logue, in two short pages, has a powerful and succinct description of Agamemnon’s violation of this aspect of xenia.  Cryzia, the Priest of Apollo, approaches Agamemnon as a suppliant and offers a ransom to get back his daughter whom Agamemnon has taken as his prize:

Two shipholds of amphorae filled with Lycian wine,
A line of Turkey mules,
2,000 sheepskins, cured, cut, and sewn,
To have his daughter back.

Agamemnon not only refuses Cryzia’s request as a suppliant but he also insults and threatens him:

If, priest, if
When I complete the things I am about to say
I catch you loitering around our Fleet
Ever again, I shall with you in one,
And in my other hand your mumbo rod,
Thrash you until your eyeballs shoot.

Logue’s style is fast-paced, poetic, graphic, and shocking. In just a few words he presents the spirit of xenia through the pleading words of the Priest and the enormity of the gift he is offering. And with Agamemnon’s violent and startling retort, he lays out the enormity of the violation of xenia by this arrogant and self-centered king.  One example of Logue’s writing genius is his handling of Agamemnon’s character with a focus on Agamemnon’s mouth. “Mouth, King Mouth,” Achilles shouts to Agamemnon when they are fighting over Agamemnon’s unacceptable and dangerous behavior.  The king listens to no one, he is brash, and he is all mouth. By contrast Nestor says about Achilles: “Your voice is honey and your words are winged.”

There is one final to mention about Logue’s first chapter.  In the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, Achilles brings up the oath that these men have taken about Helen when she is married to Menelaus.  The myth of Helen’s betrothal is a very specific piece of the Troy Saga and it struck me that it would be nearly impossible for a reader to understand Logue without being familiar with Homer as well as other parts of the Troy cycle.  In a conversation with Tom whose blog is  Wuthering Expectations, we both agreed that reading the Iliad first is a must before one begins to understand Logue on any level.  I am curious if anyone has tried to read Logue without first being familiar with Homer and the myths of Troy.

I have decided to cover Logue’s masterpiece over the course of several posts and talk about his brilliant rendering of more Homeric values in War Music. Why are these men really there? Could their sole motivation really be to recapture another man’s wife, despite any oath they might have? The answers lie in the Greek concept of kleos and arête. I am hoping that my posts will encourage readers to pick up both the Iliad and War Music.   Stay tuned…

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Review: Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus

I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books through Edelweiss.  As my regular readers know, I am a big fan of their line of classics.  For more information on their titles visit their website: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/.

My Review:
PrometheusI have to admit that when I found out that the translator of this ancient classic drama is not himself a classicist and does not know Ancient Greek I was rather skeptical.  After reading the introduction to the work, however, I began to come around to the idea that Joel Agee was capable of giving us a modern rendition of this play while making it accessible to a 21st century audience.  Agee describes his process of consulting older, literal translations as well as consulting experts in Ancient Greek philology.  The result is an impressive translation of one of the oldest Greek dramas in existence.

Prometheus is a Titan and in Zeus’ fight against the generation of Titans, Prometheus knows that Zeus will reign supreme and so Prometheus wisely takes the side of the god of thunder.  Yet, after his defense of Zeus, Prometheus betrays him by stealing fire for mankind.  As his name in Greek tells us, Prometheus is literally “forethought,” he knows what will happen before anyone else.  So we might wonder why Prometheus chose to steal fire from Zeus and gift it to humans if he understands perfectly well that his punishment from Zeus will be long-lasting and most severe.

When the play opens Prometheus is being chained to a rock by Hephaistos for his crimes against Zeus.  Zeus is about to destroy man and create a new race of beings when Prometheus gives these pathetic humans the gift of fire.  Fire allows them many things, including warmth, food, light, and civilization.  Prometheus becomes the champion of civilized societies, artists and those who fight against any form of tyranny.

One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the fact that Zeus himself is not a character and never speaks a word.  Zeus’ thugs, or henchmen, which include Kratos (Power), Bia (Force), Hephaistos and Hermes speak on his behalf.  The Chorus in the play is a group of water-nymphs, the Oceanids, who are horrified at and sympathetic to Prometheus’ sufferings.  The other female in the play, which I have always found to be an interesting choice, is Io who also explains her path of suffering which is caused by Zeus.  Io and Prometheus commiserate with one another and Prometheus, even though he is tortured, still manages to give Io hope about her own situation and her release from torment.  It is Io’s progeny who will ultimately be responsible for freeing Prometheus.

Prometheus Bound is not the most action oriented of the early Greek dramas yet, it is one of the more thought-provoking: Is Prometheus the champion of mankind who opposes all manner of tyranny or is he a dangerous revolutionary who challenges the authority that is necessary to maintain order and justice?

Thanks to the New York Review of Books Classics series for providing us with another great translation of a classic.

About The Authors:
Aeschylus (525 BC–456 BC), the first of ancient Greece’s major dramatists, is considered the father of Greek tragedy. He is said to have been the author of as many as ninety plays, of which seven survive.

Joel Agee is a writer and translator. He has received several prizes, including the Berlin Prize of the American Academy in Berlin in 2008 and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for his translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s verse play Penthesilea. He is the author of two memoirs—Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany and, more recently, In the House of My Fear. His translation of Prometheus Bound was produced at the Getty Villa in 2013. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Guest Post: Author Marie Savage On How to Begin An Historical Fiction Novel

 

Today I welcome Marie Savage to The Book Binder’s Daughter who is writing about her new book Oracles of Delphi and her process of beginning an historical fiction novel.  I invite you to read her interesting guest post, enter to win your own copy of her book and visit the other stops on the tour.

Great beginnings: Setting the historical scene to keep the reader turning the pages

As a writer, editor, publisher, and avid reader, I think a lot about how to draw a reader into a story and keep them turning the pages. All good stories must have a powerful beginning that not only hooks the reader immediately, but also sets the mood and gives tantalizing clues about what is to come. In historical fiction, the beginning has to do even more work—it has to transport the reader to a time and place that may be completely unfamiliar.

9780989207935-Perfect.inddThere are many ways to grab a reader from the very first line and first paragraphs, and in writing ORACLES OF DELPHI, set in 340 BCE, I think I tried them all before I got it “right.” I probably rewrote the first chapter fifty times, and that’s no exaggeration. Ultimately, I believe, a successful beginning boils down to a deft use of tension and in ORACLES, the first paragraph plunges the reader directly into the story, gives a sense of the time period, and sets up the tension between two characters:

Nikos’s heart pounded against his rib cage like a siege engine. He pressed his back into the stone wall, closed his eyes, and tried to calm his breathing. He couldn’t believe he’d been such a fool. “Next time I’ll surrender the prize,” Charis had always promised. Next time he would claim it, he always hoped. But instead….

He pulled himself to the top of the wall and lay flat. The moment of escape calmed him. The gates of the Sacred Precinct were locked, and he’d had to climb out the same way he’d climbed in. On the way out, though, he wasn’t carrying a body.

He glanced to his side, toward the theater, and then down to the Temple of Apollon where he’d left Charis’s body for the priests to find. Stars winked in and out as clouds drifted across the black dome blanketing the night sky. He crouched, reached for a nearby branch, and swung down to land on the ground with a soft thud.

Does it work? With references to the siege engine, the Sacred Precinct, and the Temple of Apollon, does it put you in the scene and in the time period? Will it keep you reading? I hope so. Here’s one of my favorite beginnings, this one by Deborah Lincoln whose book, AGNES CANON’S WAR, I edited and published.

Agnes Canon saw a woman hanged on the way to the Pittsburgh docks. The rope snapped taut, and a hiss rose from the watching crowd like steam from a train engine. The woman dangled, ankles lashed together, hooded head canted at an impossible angle, skirt flapping lazily in the breeze. A sharp pang of sorrow shot through Agnes though she knew little of the woman’s story.

I love this first paragraph because it puts you right into the story. In the first line, we read “Agnes Canon saw a woman hanged on the way to the Pittsburgh docks” but we don’t know why she was going to the docks—does she work there? Is she meeting someone there? Or is she going on a journey, leaving from the docks to parts unknown? Second, we know immediately that the story is set in a time during which hangings were done in public and steam engines were common. Third, the description of the woman’s body dangling with “ankles lashed together, hooded head canted at an impossible angle, skirt flapping lazily in the breeze” grabs the reader and immediately begs the question: what was this woman’s crime? Last, we discover that although Agnes knows little of the woman’s story, she knows enough to feel sorry for her, and that sympathy tells the reader something of Agnes’s character.

A good beginning should not be loaded down with adjectives and adverbs, but careful use of descriptive language can be effective in setting the mood, anchoring a story in time and place, and evoking a particular atmosphere. Below is the first paragraph from SLANT OF LIGHT, an award-winning Civil War-era novel from Steve Wiegenstein.

The keelboat moved so slowly against the current that Turner sometimes wondered if they were moving at all. Keeping a steady rhythm, Pettibone and his son worked the poles on the quarter-sized boat they had built to ply the smaller rivers that fed the Mississippi. Whenever the current picked up, Turner took the spare pole and tried to help, but although he was tall and muscular, with a wide body that didn’t narrow from shoulders to hips, poling a boat wasn’t as simple as it looked. He pushed too soon, too late, missed the bottom, stuck the pole in the mud, all to the amusement of Pettibone’s son, Charley. And with every stroke, Turner asked himself: What in all creation am I doing here?

In this paragraph, we know immediately that the story is set in the past as keelboats are not common modes or transport these days. And we know that Turner, who is tall and muscular, is unused to working the poles—something even a young boy can do. Turner is clearly a guest on the keelboat or has hired Pettibone and Charley to transport him. But transport him where? We know the boat is plying a tributary of the Mississippi, but what is Turner doing there and where is he going? The last line sets up the rest of the novel, hinting that discovering why Turner is on that keelboat in the first place is at the heart of the story.

What are your favorite first paragraphs and what elements draw you in and keep you turning the pages?

-Marie Savage

About The Author:

02_Marie Savage_Author PhotoMarie Savage is the pen name of Kristina Marie Blank Makansi who always wanted to be a Savage (her grandmother’s maiden name) rather than a Blank. She is co-founder and publisher of Blank Slate Press, an award-winning small press in St. Louis, and founder of Treehouse Author Services. Books she has published and/or edited have been recognized by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY), the Beverly Hills Book Awards, the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction, the British Kitchie awards, and others. She serves on the board of the Missouri Center for the Book and the Missouri Writers Guild. Along with her two daughters, she has authored The Sowing and The Reaping (Oct. 2014), the first two books of a young adult, science fiction trilogy. Oracles of Delphi, is her first solo novel.

Giveaway:

Marie is giving away one copy of her book (US/CAN).  Just leave me a comment below and let me know you want to win.  It’s that easy!  One winner will be chosen on Jan.9th and notified via email.  The winner will have 48 hours to respond.

Click on the Tour Banner below to view the full list of blogs participating in the tour!

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