POEM: Orpheus Twisted [Day 30 NaPoMo: Ballad]

He played his way to the underworld,
capturing every ear.
Even the gods couldn’t move to fight,
but stood stock still to hear.

The musician made his merry way
to the throne of the gods.
And boldly made a petition
that defied rules and odds.

Ye, gods! There’s been a huge mistake.
My wife, she died too soon.
If you’ll let us go on our way
I’ll play THE most dulcet tune.

The gods conferred and reached a verdict:
“If our terms are heeded
and your tune is dreamy enough,
she Will be conceded.”

Tuning his lyre, the artist asked,
“May I, Now, hear the terms?”
“Lead her above — without a peek,
or t’s back to food for worms.”

The dulcet tune was as he claimed,
and Two had leave to go.
From Styx out to the burning sun,
he itched, her place, to know.

When almost out, he heard a thud
and his name feebly called.
He stayed true to the gods’ strict terms,
as her blood puddle sprawled.

As she was retaking bodily form,
she’d tripped upon a rock.
Maybe direct pressure on the wound
and she’d not bled into Shock.

So if god or man makes you a deal
contingent on ignorance,
you might think twice before taking
up residence inside that fence.

BOOK REVIEW: Odyssey by Homer [A. Pope translation]

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

Translated by: Alexander Pope

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This epic poem tells the tale of the action-packed return of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin,) from the Trojan War, as well as, of his resumption of the throne. The return home is harrowing because, early in the journey (though not in the story,) Odysseus blinds a cyclops that turns out to be the son of the sea god Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune.) Because he incurs the wrath of Poseidon, the journey which – even in the rickety sailing / rowing ships of the day – would have taken a few weeks, took ten years, most of which he was the guest / hostage of the nymph Calypso. Retaking the throne was challenging because he was enshrouded in a disguise by Athena (a.k.a. Pallas) so he couldn’t just walk right up and say “remember this face, I’m the boss.” The disguise is donned so he can make sure his wife, Penelope, is being faithful (despite the fact that he’s been schtooping nymphs, witches, and probably a few human women that don’t bear mentioning) and since throngs of suitors have descended on Penelope’s castle who would rather see Odysseus dead (in hopes of acquiring his kingdom) it’s safer all around to check things out in disguise.

The poem doesn’t take a linear approach. It begins twenty years after the war at Troy. Everyone who survived is back, except Odysseus and his men, and so a plague of suitors vies for Penelope’s hand in marriage so that one of them can acquire Ithaca’s wealth. Penelope, the picture of matrimonial virtue, is not having it, but Greek hospitality says you’ve got to feed and look after visitors (because they might just be gods in disguise.) The first few books not only set up the problem of the suitors but also follow Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he travels around trying to find out from those who returned from Troy whether they know anything about Odysseus’s whereabouts.

The poem then skips to where Odysseus was at the time of Telemachus’s travels, which was stuck on Calypso’s island. The gods intervene to force Calypso to let the King go, but Poseidon is still upset and swamps Odysseus’s ship. Odysseus washes up onshore and makes fast friends with the local king and queen. It is through friendly discussion that we hear about all the trials and tribulations of Odysseus’s journey up to that point. He tells the couple about how he blinded a cyclops with clever word play and a flaming stick, how Poseidon first tempest-tossed him, how he ended up on the island of the nymph / witch – Circe, how Circe turned his men into swine, how he survived the Sirens by plugging the ears of his men and tying himself to the mast, how he survived the horrifying monsters Scylla and Charybdis, how he visited the underworld and met with some comrades from the Trojan War, how he got stuck on Calypso’s island, and then how he ended up on the island on which he tells the story. The king and queen are big fans, and send Odysseus off with best wishes and some parting gifts.

Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, is summarily dropped off on the shore with said gifts – while he’s sleeping. That’s when he gets his disguise from Athena. He reveals himself to Telemachus, but otherwise keeps it all on the down-low, even keeping his return from Penelope. Telemachus also has to be careful because many of the suitors would love to assassinate him because he’s the only male opposition to their plans (if you haven’t noticed, Ancient Greece was misogynistic.)

Odysseus checks out the town in his beggar disguise and is enraged that the suitor’s have overstayed their welcome, are eating all the island’s livestock – not to mention trying daily to get in his wife’s knickers. It all comes to a climax when a festival banquet takes place, and Penelope (who is always looking for creative and / or polite ways to put off her suitors) says that she’s willing to marry any among them who has the strength and skill to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads (battle-axes with a hollowed out blade so the weight is reduced.) They all fail. Some have arms too puny to string the bow; others lack the accuracy to shoot through the rings. That’s when disguised Odysseus says he’d like a try. The suitors object that he’s a beggar and couldn’t possibly run a kingdom. Telemachus, who knows what is up and who is – with his mother – hosting the event, agrees to let the disguised King take his shot. He succeeds, and then goes on a killing spree of the suitors.

After the bloodbath, he has to take great efforts to convince Penelope that he is actually her husband, the King. The god-given disguise is only part of what makes Penelope doubt. Odysseus has convinced everyone else by then. However, Penelope has had men trying to get in the sack with her for a decade, and to her mind it wouldn’t be above some skeezy god to play this gambit to try to bed her. She thinks the killing spree smells of god-like activity. [Even by Hollywood standards one guy killing 108 suitors (plus who knows how many of their groupies and hangers-on) strains credulity.] But eventually she is convinced.

Then Odysseus has to go see his father, Laertes, who is not long for this world. It’s during this visit that a second wave of attackers comes, and the “feeble old man” Laertes puts a javelin through the chest of the first of them. Then there’s a divine intervention that keeps the bloodbath from rolling on.

The most commonly stated moral of the story is: don’t run afoul of the gods. [Put more broadly / secularly, this could be restated as: behave morally.] Of course, Odysseus is not particularly moral, and he ultimately does alright despite being a liar, a trickster, a cheater, and a hypocrite (not to mention the murderousness.) So, there might be an additional clause, i.e. “behave virtuously, but – if you can’t – be on good terms with a few choice gods.” In truth, “use deception skillfully” may be more of the true moral of the story. Being tricky is a major part of what gets Odysseus through when all about him are dying. Modern critics sometimes take as a moral: “If women be nutty, then men are stark, raving lunatics.” This is consistent with what we see in the story (and, perhaps, in life,) but it would probably be attributing more progressiveness to the blind poet, Homer, than was the case.

I read the Alexander Pope translation, which is surprisingly readable given that it’s from the early eighteenth century (1720’s.) There were a few turns of phrase that I couldn’t find anywhere in dictionaries or search engine, but nothing that caused a major misunderstanding. It is a metered and rhymed translation, so it’s fun to read. Still if one isn’t comfortable with reading archaic English (for example if one doesn’t like reading Shakespeare,) one might not find it as enjoyable and easy to follow. That said, the edition I read had a short prose synopsis at the start of each book (i.e. chapter,) and reading that increases comprehension of the verse [if you don’t mind spoilers, which – if you’ve read this far, you presumably don’t.]

I’d highly recommend reading the Odyssey, and I was pleased with the Pope translation.

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BOOK REVIEW: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

Troilus and CressidaTroilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play combines a piece of the story of “The Iliad” with a love story that wasn’t part of the Iliad, but which is based on minor characters from the Iliad. [For those unacquainted, “The Iliad” tells the tale of the siege of Troy after a prince from Troy, Paris, returns home with Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and the Greeks launch “a thousand ships” to try to get her back.] Even the romance isn’t original to Shakespeare as the Troilus and Cressida tale had already been told and retold, and Shakespeare’s telling is said to have been influenced by Chaucer’s.

While most of Shakespeare’s plays are readily categorized as comedy or tragedy, this is one of the few that defies such characterization. In terms of how the story resolves itself, one might call it a tragedy, but the tone throughout is often more comedic.

The part of the Iliad that is told is largely about the Greek generals trying to get Achilles back in the fight because he is the best match for Hector, the mightiest of the Trojan princes. The love story pivots on Cressida being given to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange, and – as is often the case – features a heaping dose of jealousy that sours this great love affair.

This is definitely a worthwhile read, despite criticism that it feels muddled. One doesn’t need to have read the Iliad, though it may help to make it more entertaining.

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BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Circe is a minor goddess / sea-nymph in Greek mythology. While her father is the powerful Titan sun-god, Helios, she is the runt of the litter. She has a weak voice by godly standards, has few and limited powers, and is sympathetic to the fates of humans in a way that is considered ungodly. (The latter was strengthened by her affinity for Prometheus, the god who introduced fire to humanity and was subsequently punished by having his liver eaten each day by an eagle.) Circe’s underdog status would only go so far in producing an interesting story, but things become more intriguing when she begins to develop her skill as a witch. This makes her more powerful, and the increasing power of a minor deity threatens greater gods. Some of her abilities as a witch may result from her divinity, but it’s made clear that even mortals can practice witchcraft. Her gift for witchcraft is especially prominent in her abilities of transformation.

Circe’s adverse reaction to the Cinderella treatment she gets at home in addition to the increasing and unexpected threat she presents as a witch – seen when she turns a mortal into a god and another nymph into a monster — gets her exiled to an island. While it would seem that her story would get uninteresting while she’s exiled to a remote island, she’s visited by a number of mythic figures – mortal and god alike – who keep her tale fascinating, these include: the master craftsman Daedalus, the messenger deity / trickster god Hermes, and – most crucially to her story – the heroic king of Ithaca, Odysseus. She also makes a couple of trips off the island, such as when her sister, Pasiphaë, gets a special dispensation to temporarily break the exile in order for Circe to attend to the birth of Pasiphaë’s child. (This might make it seem that the siblings were close, or at least liked each other, but that’s not the case at all. The only family member she has a decent relationship with is her younger brother, Aeëtes, but he is not so much warm to her as he is tolerating of her affections, and even that alliance of convenience is doomed.)

Miller presents readers with a Circe who is both sympathetic and intriguing because she’s no match for the forces arrayed against her and can only survive by her wits and self-knowledge. Circe’s diligence in practicing her craft and her knowledge of her strengths and limitations allows her to persevere in the face of great dangers. She faces hordes of horny sailors, familial dysfunction, and, most crucially, a dire threat to the child who results from her dalliances with one of her most prominent visitors. The story features the many twists, common in Greek Mythology, resulting from gods and men trying to outwit the Fates, but it’s also the straightforward story of a mother who’ll do anything to keep her child safe against a hostile world.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction, regardless of whether they have a specific interest in Greek Mythology. It’s a great story, well written, readable, and featuring characters who one can love and others who one can loathe.

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BOOK REVIEW: Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli

Treasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & MonstersTreasury of Greek Mythology: Classic Stories of Gods, Goddesses, Heroes & Monsters by Donna Jo Napoli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book consists of 25 biographical sketches of figures from Greek Mythology. It’s one of those books that grew on me, and the reason it grew on me was a few of the chapters toward the end were engaging, such as those about Heracles, Jason, and Helen. This also means that the number of stars I gave it is fairly meaningless. It was in no danger of getting 5 stars nor 1, but could’ve been anywhere in between at various points in my reading.

The problem with the book is that the unit of interest isn’t the myth, i.e. not the story, but rather the mythical figure, the various gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Because of this organization, some of the chapters have a tight and memorable story, such as that of Heracles and his 12 labors, while others are just piles of genealogical facts mixed with odd mythical happenings (e.g. who burst from whose forehead) and tossed with that mythical figure’s bit parts in larger myths. The book is a good, solid reference book for schoolkids doing research on Greek Mythology, but much of it’s not very engaging to read.

The graphics are beautiful and colorful, if a bit artsy (not always instantaneously clear in subject.) There are maps, a timeline describing happenings of ancient Greece — real and mythical, a bibliography, and a quick guide to the characters that would make more sense if the book wasn’t a collection of relatively brief biographical sketches to begin with (but repetition has its merits, particularly for children.)

If you’re looking for a collection of biographies of mythical Greeks (i.e. a reference for children,) then this is a good book for you. If you’re looking to get your kids intrigued by the Greek myths, then you might want to shop around. Put another way, if you’re looking for a version of what Neil Gaiman did with this “Norse Mythology,” only for the Greeks, this isn’t it.

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