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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Victory Mythologized [Free Verse]

victory in the palm of the hand
(specifically, 
the winged, laurel-bearing Nike --
goddess who personifies victory)

it's a bit on the nose
as is the bent front leg
as if standing on the chest 
of a vanquished foe

as is the looming,
nothing says victory
like looming
(unless you're a weaver) 

but victory is never so 
unambiguously glorious
as it's mythologized

Helen of Troy [Limerick]

Abduction of Helen; (mid-18th cent. Venice)
There was pretty lady named Helen
whose beauty had all the boys yellin'.
No arrows from Cupid;
her glance made 'em stupid.
But did her face split a thousand melons?

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: Fine Print, Vol. 1 by Stjepan Šejić

Fine Print, Volume 1Fine Print, Volume 1 by Stjepan Šejić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This erotic graphic novel intertwines a “real world” star-crossed love story with a storyline set in a fantastical realm that mixes Greek Mythology, the lore of incubi and succubi, and elements from the author’s imagination. The central premise is a Faustian bargain, but with some twists.

The artwork is beautifully done, colorful, and in some cases quite explicit. Readers who are a bit prudish or who are considering buying this for someone as a gift should beware that there are many graphically explicit scenes of nudity and a wide variety of sex acts.

It’s best read in a single sitting because the non-linear depiction of events combined with the crossing between two different story worlds can result in the read being a bit disjointed / confusing.

I found this story to be engrossing and evocative with likable characters.


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BOOK REVIEW: Punderworld, Vol. 1 by Linda Sejic

Punderworld, Volume 1Punderworld, Volume 1 by Linda Šejić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: August 25, 2021

Punderworld is a disneyfied telling of the love story of Persephone and Hades from Greek Mythology. I mean that in two ways. First, the art seemed stylistically reminiscent [to my neophyte eye] of a movie like “Frozen” (all the people are preternaturally good-looking / charisma-laden and even the Underworld has the sort of charm that makes it seem like it would be a nice place to visit.) The other sense in which it reminded me of a Disney story is that, while it comes from Greek Mythology, it is written and drawn to maximize resonance with a present-day American reader, and would probably be fundamentally unrecognizable to an ancient Greek even if translated into ancient Greek. (As the “Aladdin” animated movie would not resonate with an Arab viewership as much as it would Americans.) Punderworld could also be thought of as a Rom-Com of the star couple of the Underworld. [I assume the title is a “Branjelina”-like meet cute confection of a word.]

The story dragged a bit in the first half, but made good in the second, and I ended up enjoying the book more than I expected to. If you’re up for a disney-esque telling of this ancient Greek love story, give it a look.


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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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