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review 2016-12-04 06:50
The Greek Genesis
Theogony (Classical Library) - Hesiod,Richard S. Caldwell,Richard Caldwell

There seems to be a debate as to the usefulness of this little text and I would pretty much fall into the category of not much. The reason that I say that is because if this book was lost then we would lose very little of our understanding of Greek Mythology. Everything that is contained in this little book is also contained in more expanded works such as the Library of Greek Mythology and Ovid. While it is a primary source, it is still something that we could probably do without. Fortunately its small size means that it does not take up much space on my bookshelf, however I would probably not find myself ever actually needing to reference it. Okay, we could probably use it to talk about the accuracy of later works, but then again, this is Greek mythology, there is no consistency in it. In fact, there isn't even any consistency with the twelve tasks of Heracles.


Now, you would probably say that since this book is one of the earliest Greek texts then it gives us an idea of the development of Greek mythology, and yes, that is probably true to an extent, and from an anthropological view that is probably important, but I am not interested in that. On the other hand a lot of authors seem to look back at Hesiod with some sought of awe, and granted, it helps us understand the background from which they were writing, but remember most of Greek mythology back at this time was passed down by word of mouth and Hesiod is only one view of it.


I have written before, and will continue to write, about how my position with regards to the Greek gods is that they were humans that were deified, and Hesiod once again goes on to prove that point. This is a genealogical text much in the same way that sections of the Bible are genealogical texts, however by the time that Hesiod came around the Greek Gods had already been deified. There are some major differences between the two forms of genealogy though. As mentioned, the non-biblical genealogies tend to deal only with the gods, unless you are looking at a familial genealogy, where as the Biblical genealogies all deal with humans, and the Bible is very specific that the people mention in the genealogies are human. Secondly the biblical genealogies actually serve a purpose where as the non-biblical genealogies are simply a list of names.


The purpose of the biblical genealogy is to trace the line of people who in the end become the ancestors of Christ. These genealogies tend to reach their fulfillment in the Gospels, with both Matthew and Luke (and also, as some have argued, with John as well) containing genealogies. We do note that there are differences in the genealogies, and some have criticised the Bible for that, but I will simply say that the differences simply come out of methodology as opposed to inherent errors. My understanding is that in both maths and science one can reach the same proof even though two different methodologies were used.


Basically, whenever we see a genealogy in the Old Testament we are always looking at how it is directing us towards the saviour that was promised in Genesis 3. For those who are familiar with these genealogies you will note that they tend to only go down in one line, meaning that while a list of children may be given, the genealogy will end up focusing only one a handful of these children to narrow it down to a specific point. The exception is the table of nations in Genesis 10, the purpose of which is to outline the beginning of the nations as the readers would have known them to be at the time (namely during the Exodus). We do see a similarity between the table of nations and some Greek genealogies as it appears that a nation back then was defined by the father of the nation as opposed to a specific culture, language group, or location (and Apollodorus does give us that idea in the library of Greek Mythology).


There is a mention of the war of the Gods in Hesiod, and once again I have speculated on the origins of these wars. They can be twofold. The first is the idea that these wars developed out of different tribal groups moving into an already inhabited area bring their own culture and gods with them, winning a victory over the inhabitants, and installing their own culture (as defined by their gods). For instance, in early times we have a people group who worshipped Chronos as their chief God, but then they are invaded by a people who worshipped Zeus as their chief God and as the new group overran and conquered the old group, then Chronos was sidelined in favour of Zeus.


The second idea is the idea that I have proposed that these gods are little more than deified humans whose existence has been lost in the midst of times, so what we are actually seeing is some form of succession crisis. This would be particularly relevant if we are looking at an Antediluvian civilisation. In the era of short life spans and high morality, such succession crises would not be evident since when the old king died then the new king would still be old enough to assume the throne, but young enough not to have a number of children that would have to wait a long time for them to ascend the throne amongst a multitude of competeing claims. It differs today in that the Queen of England, the matriarch of the royal family, is still alive and well, and her grandchildren are now ready to marry and have kids. Pope John Paul II was the oldest living Pope in the history of the papacy, and it is likely that Pope Benedict will be around for a long time yet (unless he meets either with an unfortunate accident, or is removed for some reason or another - noting that this review was written prior to him stepping down).


When you have the antediluvian civilisation, where biblically (and elsewhere) you have people living for hundreds of years, even if you did not begin having children until the age of a hundred, by the time you die (even if it is five to six hundred years old) you still have at least four living generations below you, all of them struggling to get your position, and knowing that for them to get to that position they would have to wait a very long time. This is something that we see in this text, namely a fear in Chronos that his children would rise up and overthrow him, so he acts proactively and removes them before they have a chance of removing him. Much of it is allegorical though (and for the sake of space I will not go into detail here, for instance the gods all seem to have been born as adults, and also Chronos eats his children, but upon his defeat, all of them are released) so it can be difficult to understand what actually went on, though to take it literally can in itself be dangerous (and also somewhat ridiculous).


The final point I wish to make is the interesting note that Hesiod was a shephard tending sheep on Mount Helicon when he received this vision and wrote it down. This is something that seems to happen throughout the history of humanity in that many religious icons seem to have come from humble pasts and have made a tremendous impact upon human history. Many have suggested (and it is true to an extent) that history, up until the mid 18th century, was written by the upper class. However the reason for that is because it was only the upper class that had the time to write histories, as well as being the only ones who could read and write. However, this is not always the case, particularly with these early civilisations, because much of the history was passed down by word of mouth. This is why we can have shepherds actually becoming literary heroes because they did not need to read and write, they simply needed to be able to tell a story people could remember, and also convince them that they had a vision (or actually have had a vision) to make people sit up and listen.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/440745452
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review 2016-10-08 11:15
The story of Winter
Hymn to Demeter - Hugh G. Evelyn-White,Matthew Vossler

While the title of this poem is ‘The Hymn to Demeter’ and the poem is a part of a collection of poems referred to as the Homeric Hymns, a part of me feels that these titles are a little misleading, which is why I am more inclined to refer to this as a poem (or a song) as opposed to a hymn. First of all, having grown up in a Christian tradition my idea of a hymn is a song that is basically about how wonderful the Christian God (and in turn Jesus Christ) happens to be and is generally accompanied by an organ and a choral ode. Further, most of these songs tend to follow along the similar pattern of, well, Amazing Grace, which is basically a song about how John Newton (the composer) was this huge crook, but then he discovered that Jesus loved him and died for his sins, and all of the sudden everything was fine and dandy (despite the fact that he continued trading slaves).


The second problem that I have with the categorisation of it being a Homeric hymn is that it doesn’t feel like it was written by Homer. Okay, I would hardly call myself an expert on Homeric writings, and while I did study the Odyssey in the original language back at university I don’t sit in my sun room with a copy of the Greek text and a pot of tea, and casually read it (in fact the only book that I happen to read in Greek is the Bible, and that is usually when somebody is reading it aloud in English). However, despite my lack of authority, I still don’t believe that it was written by Homer – it just didn’t feel right. First of all the poem doesn’t take up 24 scrolls, nor does it go into explicit details of the surroundings and the people, nor does it break off into massive tangents. In fact the poem is actually quite self-contained (and pretty short as well). The other thing was that as I was reading it (though it may have more to do with the translation, which was pretty shocking by the way) it reminded me for some of the Ancient Babylonian texts that I had read in times past.


Actually, when I read a commentary on this poem, the explanation as to why it was considered a Homeric Hymn was not because they believed Homer wrote it but because tradition since the Roman times had attributed it to Homer. Actually, the whole debate over the attribution of these songs, as well as the Odyssey and the Iliad, to Homer has more to do with them being written down as opposed to composition. Actually, come to think of it, if Homer was blind as legend has it then it does make me wonder how he would have been able to write it down anyway (though no doubt he could still have been an oral poet). Well, being blind hasn’t stopped people from becoming famous poets in the past, as was the case with Milton, but that is beside the point. Anyway, the attribution to Homer, in my opinion, has more to do with the poems being written down from an oral tradition as opposed to the original composer.


I probably should actually start talking about the poem itself as opposed to the reasons as to why I don’t consider it a hymn, or having been composed by Homer. So, the story is about the Greek God Demeter, who happens to be the god of the harvests. Basically she is the one that makes sure all of the wheat grows so that nobody starves. Anyway she had a daughter by Zeus (who else – it seems that whenever a god, or a mortal, becomes pregnant, Zeus seems to have something to do with it, which makes me wonder whether this arose as an excuse for pregnant women to cover up infidelity) and one day Zeus sort of lets his brother Hades kidnap Demeter’s daughter and take her into the underworld to be his wife. The thing is that Demeter doesn’t know what happened to her daughter (Persephone), despite the fact that not only was Zeus well aware of this, but he basically feigned ignorance when asked. Mind you, despite the fact that most of the gods were being tight lipped about the whole event, not all of them were, and Demeter soon found out what happened. As a result he basically turned her back on Olympus and travelled to the city of Eleusis where she basically becomes a domestic servant.


Eleusis Ruins


The Ruins of Eleusis


The problem was that now that Demeter had left Olympus there wasn’t anybody there to make sure that the crops grew and as such the Earth plunged into a period of darkness and sterility – can anybody say Ice Age? However, this was turning out to be a bit if a problems for the gods because, well, despite the fact that they are immortal, they still need to be worshipped, and feared, and with humanity dying off through hunger they knew something needed to be done, so they pressured Hades to let Persephone return to her mother. There was one problem – she had eaten a pomegranate, which meant that she was now a denizen of the underworld and while she could return to her mother, she couldn’t stay, so for three months every year she had to return, which as it happens tends to coincide with the winter months.


So what we have here is what is called an aetiological myth, namely a myth that tells a story of why something is the case at a time when people didn’t have a rational scientific explanation as to why the world did what it. It is like that story of the witch with the salt machine that broke down and ended up dumping countless tonnes of salt into the ocean which is the explanation as to why the ocean is salty. However, while this myth is supposed to explain the seasons I think that it goes a little deeper than that, namely because it also tells of a time when there appeared to be a huge famine in the land, which could well have been an account of an ice age. Mind you, the origins of this myth may have been far back in the mists of time if it is talking about what could have been some sort of ice age, or even just a time when there was a severe famine, though the suggestion also is that it was after this that the seasons started to become noticeable.


The other really cool thing about this poem is how it happens to be about Demeter disguising herself as a human and becoming a nurse maid for a family in Eleusis. This event eventually gave rise to what became known as the Eleusian Mysteries, a yearly festival that was performed in a small city on the outskirts of Athens. In fact even today you can visit the city, and even visit the well of the Nymphs, which is the well that the story indicates Demeter was sitting beside when she was discovered, and taken in, by this family (and no doubt the festival was based entirely around this event). Yet I also find it interesting as to how complex this myth actually is – here we have a story of a god becoming a human and living amongst humans, not so much in the Jesus is God and lived among us sinful humans type story, but rather the story of the member of an aristocratic class having a fight with the monarch and leaving to live among the normal people. In a way it is a story that is still told in different forms even today (though many of these stories tend to be based more on the story of Jesus Christ as opposed to the Ancient Greek versions).


Oh, and here is a photo of the Well of the Nymphs that I took when I visited Eleusis back in 2011.


Well of the Nymphs


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1778820131
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review 2016-03-13 11:00
Athens and the Children of Heracles
Orestes and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) - Euripides,Philip Vellacott

The only reason I got this volume was because it contained the one Euripidean play that I did not have: the Heraklidae (or, the Children of Heracles). Herakles, otherwise known in Latin as Hercules (which is the term we generally use) was an ancient Greek hero and demigod. He is most famous for the twelve labours, but he appears elsewhere, notably as one of the Argonauts who sailed with Jason to search for the golden fleece (though he is left behind halfway there and goes his own way). Heracles is also well known for his strength, and in Greek Mythology he does seem to come out as a 'strong man' in the same sense that Samson of the Bible does. To me he is simply a hero in the same sense as Achilles.


Heracles is also known for having over 700 children, and as such creating a race who eventually invaded and conquered the Peloponesian peninsula. The play is set before their rise to power (though it needs be remembered that there was an awful lot of them). Heracles' offspring come to blows with the King of Mycenae and flee to Athens for protection. While there the king raises an army, but the Athenians warn him that the Heraclidae are under his protection. However an oracle says that unless a woman is sacrificed then they will lose the war. One Athenian (no doubt in love with one of the Heraclidae) offers herself up, and thus they go to war and win, and capture the King of Mycenae alive. They are reluctant to execute him, but he prophesies that if they kill him then his spirit will become a defender of Athens.


Euripides wrote this play during the Peloponesian war, and while we have a lot of his plays, he was always second best to his contemporary Sophocles. Initially only seven of his plays were to survive (in the same sense that we have seven each of the other two great tragedians), however an entire volume of plays also managed to survive and as such he have a much larger collection than normal. The Heraclidae would be one of those plays.


This play, obviously written during the war, is designed as a patriotic piece to inspire the Athenians during a dark period of their history. As mentioned, the Heraclidae became the Peloponesians, of which Sparta is one of the many cities. Thus the audience is reminded of a time when they were the protectors of those who are now enemies, and is a way to justify their current actions. Further, the sacrifice of the former enemy of the Heraclidae is a reminder of a promise that Athens will be protected.


Greek myth is very fluid and tends to change depending on the location and the events. Perseus is considered to be the father of the Persians and Media is the mother of the Medes. Both characters where betrayed by Greek kings, which is why their respective countries became enemies. Of course it is highly unlikely that either of these characters were to ancestors of these races, but in a Greco-centric world, one does not accept that there is any explanation beyond your own borders (which is very true of what is happening today).

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/187693555
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-02-17 11:59
The Ultimate of Greek Tragedies
Oedipus Rex - Sophocles,E.H. Plumptre

This play is so messed up that a part of me says that it has to be based on true events. It is sort of like one of the arguments that people use regarding the authenticity of the Bible: every character (with the exception of Jesus Christ) is so flawed that one cannot consider that the stories have been made up. In particular we see the heroes of the Israelite nation, that being Abraham, Moses, and David, warts and all. However when us consider the Grecian myths we suddenly discover similar things here.


The story of Oedipus is that his parents received a prophecy that their child would kill his father and marry his mother, Laius, Oedipus' dad, and king of Thebes, pinned the child's legs together and left him to die on Mount Cithaeron. However, unbeknownst to him a shepherd found the boy, took him into his care, and then sent him to the city of Corinth to be raised by the king and queen there. However, years later when Oedipus had come of age, during a feast a man got too drunk and blurted out that Oedipus' parents weren't his true parents. Despite their pleading Oedipus left Corinth and travelled to Delphi to ask the oracle the truth. The Pythian Oracle, as usual, did not give him a straight answer and simply repeated the prophecy to Oedipus. As such, he decided not to return to Corith but to flee so as not to kill whom he believed where his parents.


However on his way out of Delphi he is confronted by a rather arrogant man who demanded that Oedipus move out of the way. Oedipus tells him to bugger off and a fight ensures resulting in Oedipus' victory. He then arrives at Thebes while the city is being tormented by a sphinx who has a riddle that nobody knows the answer, but Oedipus correctly guesses it, kills the sphinx, and when word is brought about Laius' death Oedipus marries Jocastra, and lives happily ever after.


Actually they don't because without realising it the prophecy has been fulfilled. Further a great crime has been committed, and since a father murderer is living in Thebes the entire city is struck with a plague. Oedipus, who has become king, and is the hero of the city, decides to investigate. However his investigations quickly uncover a truth that is hidden from him and upon learning of this truth, namely that he killed Laius, who turns out to be his father, and married his wife, Jocastra, who turns out to be his mother, he is struck with the guilt of what has come about, Jocastra kills herself and Oedipus rips out his eyes and exiles himself from Thebes.


Well, I have just told you the plot of the play without actually saying anything about the themes in the play. Well, there are two reasons why I outlined the plot, one being that it is a very complicated plot, and secondly to demonstrate how messed up everything is. This is not a simple Hollywood plot where everything is resolved in the end and everybody goes away happy. In fact it does not seem that there was really anything that Oedipus could have done to get himself out of the mess that he found himself in. In fact it seems that the more he attempts to get out of it the deeper the hole that he digs for himself, but it is not as if he could avoid doing it. He flees because he doesn't want the prophecy to come true, but there is a lot that he does not know and a lot that he is not being told. His step parents are not telling him the truth, and in hiding the truth, they are also making the prophecy come true. As for Laius, once again, everything that he does only serves to make the prophecy come true. While he attempts to kill his son, this fails because of the compassionate nature of humanity. It is the shepherd's compassion that prevents him from leaving Oedipus alone on Cithaeron.


The essay question that I answered on this play involved the question of fate and freewill. However there really does not seem to be any freewill here. Every decision that Oedipus makes only brings the revelation closer to being revealed. As a good king he simply cannot ignore the plague, and as a good king, he cannot do anything but seek justice and cleanse the city, despite the fact that he is the root cause of the problem. Despite the curse that he calls on the perpetrator, he must suffer the punishment himself, despite the pleas to the contrary. Oedipus is a just king, but despite his actions it is only when the fog is cleared and the truth comes out that he discovers that he is the perpetrator. Hey, he didn't even realise that the guy that he encountered at the crossroads was the king of Thebes, and his father.


Aristotle in his Poetics writes that characters in a drama should have a fatal flaw, but nobody seemed to have told Sophocles that. Granted Ajax may have had a fatal flaw, but Ajax is not Shakespeare, and is dealing with an issue that has nothing to do with his character. Ajax is dealing with PTSD (though not by that name) and Oedipus does not seem to have that fatal flaw. In reality, other than killing Laius at the crossroads (though some could argue that he did so in self-defense), Oedipus has done nothing wrong. In fact, if he had not investigated the cause of the plague then he would have been negligent. No, it is not Oedipus that has done anything wrong, but rather his ancestors. Laius is cursed and I believe that going up the ancestral chain further we come to a situation where an ancestor fed human flesh to another human, mostly as payback (I can't remember off hand who it was, it could have been Thyestes, but it could have been somebody else - one of Agamemnon's line is also guilty of a similar offense). In a sense then it is not the actions of Oedipus that brings about his suffering and downfall, but that of his father, and of his father's father. Poor Oedipus is only caught in the middle.


One might wonder what was so appealing about a story that everybody knows. Well, it is the same with us. When we look through the video store at all the movies available we discover that the plots of each and every one of those movies are pretty much the same. It is not the question of the plot, but how we get to the ending, and how the movie ends. We pretty much know that in around 90% of the movies available the good guys win and the hero gets the girl. We know that so we don't watch the movie for that, but rather how they get there, and how the good guys win. This was the same for the Greeks, and it is fortunate that we have versions of the Electra from the three great playwrights. In this we can see how the actual event differs and how each of the playwrights treated the subject. No doubt with Oedipus, both Aeschylus and Euripides would have explored different themes, and painted Oedipus in a different light, so that despite knowing the outcome, we arrive there through a different method.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/309068235
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review 2015-10-31 12:29
The War between Faith and Reason
Prometheus Unbound - Percy Bysshe Shelley

This is probably what you would consider to be Shelley's Magnus Opus. This would be his most ambitious work and also what he is probably most famous for (though at least one lecturer has suggested that as a poet Shelley is somewhat dwarfed by his wife Mary Shelley, who is also the author of Frankenstein). This is sort of a sequel to the Aeschylan play Prometheus Bound and I say sort of a sequel because we have fragments of the original sequel, but the play itself is lost.


Prometheus Unbound is what you call a lyrical drama, which is in a similar vein to Milton's Samson Agonistes. The idea of a lyrical drama is that it is not written to be performed but rather to be read (and as I have indicated reading a drama without watching it being performed can be a difficult task), the performance, as some have suggested, goes on in the imagination.


The scope of this work is immense and Shelley explores some of the themes that have come out of the original play, and then brings them through to his own conclusion. While Shelley was an atheist, he uses the mythological as a method of criticising his own society, and the conflict that had arose between faith and science. Shelley's Jupiter is representative of God, which, to Shelley, is representative of the church who seeks to hold society in chains and prevent them from being able to examine and question the world in which he lives. His Prometheus is representative of the rational human, the one who questions and explores, but is attacked by the church because of that desire. Demogorgon could be seen as social change, which frees the rational mind from those chains, and pushes blind faith into the background.


The idea behind the original play is that humanity had fallen from grace and was living in a world of suffering, so Prometheus, against the decree of Zeus, teaches them the art of making fire and for doing so he is punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver ripped out on a daily basis by a vulture. The play ends with Prometheus being cast down into the netherworld. The idea that I see in this play is the concept of humanity being given the gift of technology (which is representative of fire) and by having this ability it strengthens them against the power of the deity. In Shelley's mind this is the idea of science, and we see in the past when people began to explore the nature of the world the church would respond in an aggressive manner, for fear that in doing so God would be unseated from his throne. This war continues to this day, with fundamentalist preachers (and I am only speaking of Christianity here) claiming that science unseated God from his throne, and evolution unseated humanity from the pinnacle of creation. In the end though, no matter how much faith we have, the Earth is not the centre of the universe.


Notice though that the original play ends with Prometheus being cast into hell, and that the second play, where Zeus and Promentheus are reconciled, no longer exists. It may be just coincidence, but the play ends with the triumph of faith over reason, and the play in which faith and reason come together in mutual agreement no longer exists. In a way this is very Hegalian in that we have opposites, with the thesis being faith and the anti-thesis being reason (or is it the other way around?), but the reconciling (or the synthesis) of faith and reason never comes about. Even today many a church baulks at the concept of a synthesis between faith and reason, and forces reason, and with it humanism, out of the door. My position is that since God gave us the gift of reason, the ability to be able to think and question, then to deny that gift, and to deny everything that comes from that gift, is to do a disservice to God. However that does not mean that we do not question what comes out of humanism, for to blindly accept what is said without questioning is to once again do a disservice to God.


As for Prometheus Unbound, there is no synthesis of faith and reason. In fact faith comes out as the loser in the struggle, with reason being freed by Demogorgon (and being an atheist we cannot consider that Shelley would necessarily believe in Satan), with represents the complete destruction of faith. In the end reason triumphs, and faith, and the church, are left being in the dark annals of history. Notice though, that it is Demogorgon and not Satan. Shelley is purposeful in this in that he indicates that the character of Satan, as painted by Milton, is a rather poor character in his opinion. Granted, Shelley could have created his own Satan, however he seems to feel bound to Milton's interpretation, and a creature that is fuelled and dominated by revenge would not serve the purposes of his poem. Shelley did not want a character with a chip on his shoulder, but rather a character that frees reason from his chains to allow him to prosper and flourish.


I have also written a blog post on the original play, however I do touch on this poem as well.


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/586559936
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