BOOK REVIEW: Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales

Classical Mythology: A Very Short IntroductionClassical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, reflects upon how these myths have come to be understood and used in the modern world, and proposes how these understandings may represent partial or incorrect views – in some cases. This approach can be seen from the book’s opening chapter, which investigates how Europa (a figure primarily known for being raped by Zeus) came to be namesake of the continent where classical mythology developed. In later chapters, there’s an exploration of how partial or erroneous understandings of Classical Mythology have been applied to psychoanalysis (ch. 5,) sexuality (ch. 6,) and New Age practices such as astrology and goddess worship (ch. 7.)

I learned a great deal from this book. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about what might have been if Freud had picked a different mythological figure to fixate on, other than Oedipus. How the famed psychiatrist might have extracted lessons that better stood the test of time than those that came about in reality.

While there’s not a great deal of room in a book such as this to explore the full scope of classical myths, the author does use a variety of myths – often well-known stories that don’t require a great deal of backstory – to make the book interesting and thought-provoking.

If you’re looking for a book on Classical Mythology, particularly one that discusses how it (for good or ill) appears in today’s world, I’d highly recommend this brief guide.

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BOOK REVIEW: Iphigenia in Aulis Adapted by Edward Einhorn [from Euripides]

Iphigenia in Aulis: The Age of Bronze EditionIphigenia in Aulis: The Age of Bronze Edition by Edward Einhorn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This illustrated play is an adaptation of Euripides’ drama of the same name. The title character, Iphigenia, is the daughter of King Agememnon and she’s lured to Aulis by her father to be a human sacrifice, but under the fraudulent claim that she’s to be married to Achilles. [Because, you know, people tend to not show up if you invite them to be murdered, but they’re much more amenable if you invite them to marry a hunky half-god.]

It’s a simple and straightforward story, but one that is never-the-less evocative and dramatic. Agememnon’s will to kill his daughter falters for a time and when his wife, Klytemnestra, scores Achilles’ support for the cause of saving her daughter, it’s unclear how things will unfold. It’s a story that encourages one to reflect upon fate and the virtue of sacrifice, while showing that different chains of causality applied to the same event can radically alter the perception of justness. When Iphigenia’s death is seen as the means to get back Helen (who eloped with Paris to Troy,) it’s vile and despicable. However, when it is viewed as the means to get the fleet moving in order to restore the honor of those assembled nations pledged to fight, that’s a different matter.

I found this play to be compelling and well worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Medea by Euripides [Trans. Gilbert Murray]

The Medea of EuripidesThe Medea of Euripides by Gilbert Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tragedy follows up the myth of “The Golden Fleece.” That hero’s journey culminated in three trials which Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) must complete in order to acquire the golden MacGuffin. Jason succeeds in large part because (arguably, entirely because) Medea, daughter of the fleece’s owner, i.e. King Aeetes, gives Jason some potions to make the trials a cinch. She does this in exchange for Jason’s everlasting love.

And, herein, lies the heart of this play’s conflict. Jason – like many heroes of Greek Mythology – is kind of a jerk. In flashing forward to the beginning of this play, we find Jason has traded Medea in for a younger and higher stature wife (i.e. a princess whose father doesn’t despise and disown her). [Note: Technically, Medea may not be married to Jason because of legalities, but she did bear him two boys.] To add insult to injury, Jason’s new father-in-law (King Creon) insists that Medea and her two boys be exiled, effective immediately.

What makes this play so fascinating is that we have sympathy for Medea’s plight, but then her inner monologue turns to the nuclear option she will employ – killing Jason’s new princess-wife and, more disconcertingly, her own children. Medea goes back and forth about her plan, showing reluctance to kill her boys, at least. So, the reader (viewer) ends up finding Jason loathsome because he steadfastly refuses to accept any blame for how poorly things have gone, but – on the other hand – he’s being more reasonable. (i.e. He talks kindly and isn’t murdering anyone.) It’s a fascinating reflection on the battle between rationality and passion.

I’d highly recommend this play. It’s a short and straightforward story, but it does present a great deal of food-for-thought.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Clouds by Aristophanes

The CloudsThe Clouds by Aristophanes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play scoffs at philosophers and sophists (in general) and Socrates, in particular. An old man, Strepsiades, is beleaguered by creditors, having purchased a horse and chariot for his son, Pheidippides. Strepsiades tries to get Pheidippides to study philosophy because the old man believes it will allow his son to argue away the debt. Pheidippides refuses, and so Strepsiades takes it upon himself to enroll as Socrates’ student. After some strained conversations and ill-timed masturbation, all parties conclude that the old dog can’t learn new tricks, and so Stresiades again tries to recruit his son. This time Pheidippides does join Socrates’ “think-shop” (called “the Thinkery” in some translations.)

Socrates’ characterization isn’t fair to the philosopher in some regards. If the works of Plato and Xenophon hold water, Socrates was neither a know-it-all nor was he obsessed with grandiose topics – rather, he claimed to know little and was said to have been only concerned with questions of how to live a better life (as opposed to lordly enigmas like the origin of the universe or the nature of reality.) However, this isn’t to say that Aristophanes has no valid point. That intense and abstract philosophical debate doesn’t change the hard facts of the world is a legitimate point. Debts aren’t erased by the creditor’s inability to successfully argue niggling points of grammar. Being stabbed by a jilted lover is no less painful if love is an illusion than if it equates to beauty or is a fundamental truth.
Much of the play’s humor is weakened (if not killed) by a lack of common context, but that’s not to say there aren’t jokes that still fly in the 21st century.

This short play is worth reading, as it presents a beneficial counterpoint to the Socratic dialogues.

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