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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-12-25 11:05
Secret Women's Business
The Thesmophoriazusae (Or The Women's Festival) - Aristophanes

I actually quite like Aristophanes, not because he is a brilliant playwright, though since eleven of his works have survived 2500 years I really do not think that I am in a position to comment on his ability. Obviously there is a reason, and probably a good reason, not only why his plays have managed to survive, but that his plays managed to survive a somewhat puritan Dark Ages where pretty much anything that wasn't Christian was discarded. Okay, that is probably a bit too general since the Catholic Church didn't really begin banning books until after the Catholic Reformation (and despite my respect for my former Church History Lecturer, I still somewhat disagree with his assessment of the Catholic Reformation).

Aristophanes' comedies stand out in two ways: first of all they give as an insight into the common people of Athens of the 4th century, and also gives us an understanding, and some very good examples, of the vernacular language. It is the difference between reading a book written in proper English and a book that relies heavily upon a region's slang (such as Australia: for instance, the word <i>sook</i> and <i>prima-donna</i> mean the same thing, but in Australia we use the former, where as the latter is probably a more polite and correct usage). The second thing about Aristophanes' plays is that they are incredibly imaginative, and in some cases quite fantastic. Moreso, the plays are actually pretty funny and remains so despite the 2500 year gap and the language complications. Okay, a lot of the humour (such as the puns) are lost, however the Barrett translation of his works is still very good (and he even manages to use a rhyme scheme in places, noting that English is probably the only language, at least what I know of, that uses rhyme as a poetical form).

The Thesmophoriazusae is one of those interesting, and imaginative, plays that also gives us a bit of an insight into Classical Athens. Remember that the tragedies are written in a stylised language, and people do not, and have not, transacted like that. People in Elizabethan England did not talk to each other using blank verse and Shakespearian language. While the vernacular was no doubt a lot different to what it is now, they still used it. The only time such high form language would have been used would have been in diplomacy, and even then I can't imagine Queen Elizabeth and the King of France speaking to each other (or even writing to each other) in blank verse.

The play is set around a festival known as the Thesmophoria, which was a woman's only festival that lasted three days at a place known as the Pynx. Having read this play I have now learnt that the Pynx was the location of the assembly (I always thought it was the Areopagous, but that was the high court). Type Pynx into Google Images to get an idea of what it looked like, and I have also managed to locate it on the Google Maps image of Athens. It is located to the west of the Acropolis just to the southwest of the intersection of Dimitriou Aiginitou and Apostolou Pavlou. From what I can remember of Athens, there is a promenade that runs along the south side of the Acropolis, and then another path to the west heads uphill, past the Areopogaus, and then curves around to the north of the Acropolis (with a gate that leads to the Agora). Anyway, you do not take that path, but actually continue along the promenade to the west, and it will then curve to the north, but you should be able to find it (and if you don't ask somebody, they do tend to be quite helpful in Greece). Okay, that is enough of me showing off how well I know Athens after spending only a week there, so now onto the play.


Pynx and Acropolis


The play is about Euripides and how he learns that the women of Athens are upset about his portrayal of them, so he decides to sneak into the Thesmophoria in an attempt to convince the women that he was not all that bad. However, his plan involved a young Athenian who had yet grown a beard (all Athenian men had beards, some quite long at that) to disguise himself as a woman and sneak into the festival. However, this young Athenian didn't want anything to do with it so he gets his brother-in-law, the foul mouthed Mnesilochus, to do it instead. Obviously getting Mnesilochus to act like a woman was never going to work, and sure enough he ends up getting found out and tied to a stake to be executed. However Euripides comes in and convinces them (through a fine sounding argument) to release him.



This play is clearly about women and their role in Athenian society. It is not incredibly deep, but it is clear that the women, despite their lower status in the society, did have some freedom, and also the right to religious celebration (as is clear with the Thesmophoria). These women though are compared to two women from antiquity, namely the model wife that is Penelope, and Euripides' presentation of Helen. Sections of the play actually recite Euripides' Helen, and while I will not go into details of that play here, I will simply mention that the purpose behind Helen was to redeem her in the eyes of the Athenians. Euripides borrowed from a legend that had the Helen of Troy as nothing more than a mischievous phantom, and that the real Helen had been kidnapped by the king of Egypt and that was were she spent the war. In Euripides' mind, Helen was innocent of the charges laid against her.



This is why I find the play rather strange because Euripides is being accused of being anti-women, but it is quite clear from his writings that he is not. Of the plays that I have read, particularly the ones involving women, they are the tragic figures. Consider Medea, Hecabe, Helen, and Iphangenia. They were all innocent of any crimes, yet suffered simply because they were women. In fact, with regards to Medea, it is Jason that is considered to be the antagonist by tossing Medea out of his bed for a younger, more influential, woman.


However, the charges that Euripides (and in a way Aristophanes) is that the women of then modern Athens, were nothing like those women in Euripides' plays. In fact they came nowhere close to them in virtue. Remember, at this time Athens was in the middle of a very long and drawn out war, which means that a lot of the young men were off fighting leaving only the women, the children, and the elderly at home in Athens. It is suggested here, and it is the bait that Euripides uses to free Mnesilochus from the Thesmophoria, namely that while the cat is away then the mice are at play. Of course, you don't want anybody telling the husbands what their women were up to when they returned, and in a way this is a reflection of the Orestia, despite that play being written prior to the Peloponesian War.


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/348724269
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review 2015-08-26 13:51
The life of the party
Symposium - Plato,Robin A.H. Waterfield

You've really got to love the way Plato writes philosophy. Whereas everybody else simply writes what is in effect a work of non-fiction explaining some ideas, Plato seems to have the habit of inserting them into a story. Okay, he may not be the only philosopher that uses a story to convey his philosophical ideas, but he certainly stands out from his contemporaries, who simply wrote treatises. I've read a few of his works, and he always seems to structure it in a similar way, usually beginning with a conversation that has absolutely nothing to do with the ideas that he is trying to explore, but rather idle chit-chat.



The Symposium stands out from his over works because the discussion occurs during a party (nice one Plato). In fact as I was reading this I could almost imagine the exact same scenario happening today. A group, who had had a pretty heavy night of drinking the night before decide to take it a little easier tonight, order a pizza, grab a couple of six packs of beer, and sit in the lounge room for a quiet one while still nursing the remnants of a hangover. Instead of turning on the television they decide to have a conversation. However, as the night wears on there is a knock at the door, and upon opening it we find the guy that we all know with two bottles of Jack Daniels in his hands who invites himself into the discussion. However this guy is hardly the philosophical type, and his discussion simply turns into how wonderful he thinks this other guy happens to be. Then there is another knock at the door, and as it happens he has invited all his friends over, and that quiet night ends up turning into another free-for all. Come morning, one of the guys from the original group picks himself off the couch, and in the haze of a hangover sees that three of the original group are still up and are talking about something completely different. However he is way too hungover to join in so he makes his way home.



That's basically the plot of the Symposium.


However Plato simply isn't telling a story about the party, he is exploring the idea of love. In fact it is suggested that what he is actually doing is recounting the discussion that occurred during an actual Symposium years before (and from the last couple of paragraphs it appears that the person who was telling the story was Aristodemus – whoever he happens to be – but he is telling it to another guy named Apollodorus, who I suspect is then telling Plato). This book is really interesting on so many levels. Not only are we allowed to listen into a discussion between Greeks about the nature of love, we are also given a pretty detailed glimpse of what went on during a symposium (or at least one that initially wasn't supposed to be a drunken free for all, but then again I'm sure we have all experienced something similar in our lives). Not only is it a work of philosophy, it is a work that gives us a very clear picture of the Ancient Athenian culture.


Before I continue I must say one thing – Socrates is a freak. The book opens with Aristodemus meeting up with Socrates and then Socrates invites himself along to a party at Agathon's house. However when they arrive Socrates doesn't enter, he just stands outside staring into space. The ensuring conversation goes a little like this:


AGATHON: Hey, weren't you with Socrates?

ARISTODEMUS: Yeah, he's just outside.

AGATHON: What's he doing out there, invite him in!

ARISTODEMUS: I suspect he's contemplating the nature of the universe.

AGATHON: There's plenty of time to do that, I'm going to bring him in.

ARISTODEMUS: Don't bother. You know what he's like. He'll come in once he's had his revelation.

AGATHON: What! He's still out there! This is getting ridiculous, I'm bringing him inside!

ARISTODEMUS: I wouldn't worry too much about him Agathon. You know how he exists in his own little world.


Come to think of it, he sound's like that cat that stands at the open door, but really has no intention of going inside, or even staying outside.


The cat at the pearly gates



However, as I have indicated (and as many of you probably already know) this book is more than a story about what happened at Agathon's party (though I am sure many of us have had the experience where somebody we know comes along and gives us a detailed account of the party they went to the other night – though it is no where near as good as actually being there) but an exposition of love. Each of the main characters gives a dissertation of their idea of love, and as is expected, Socrates' dissertation is left until last. However I am sort of wandering whether the conversation occurred how it has been reported, or whether Plato is altering the events to suit his own purpose (I can't remember the intricate details, or the philosophical discussion I had at any of the parties I went to – all I can remember is talking about George Bush). For instance, we have Pausanius talk about how there are two kinds of love – physical and celestial. In a way there is the base love that we humans experience, a love that is expressed in physical actions (such as sex). However there is also spiritual love, that which is expressed in spiritual actions (such as self-sacrifice).



I should pause here and state that my view of love unfortunately is tarnished by my Christian upbringing. I say that because the way I view love is that it exists entirely on the spiritual level. To me the love that Pausanius describes as physical love is actually little more than lust. However, Socrates does suggest that love is the desire to possess that which is beautiful, which does fall into the category that Pausanius describes. In my mind, love is not so much a feeling but rather expressed through actions such as self-sacrifice. Love is also unconditional – it doesn't play favourites, which means that it is impossible to love one person and no another (though due to our human nature, and our natural instinct to play favourites, unconditional love is a state that is very difficult to achieve).



Now I wish to say a few things about my view on desire and sex. In my mind sex has two purposes – a means to stimulate the pleasure centres of the brain (much like a drug) and to procreate. The reason that it stimulates the pleasure centres is because it is a mechanism to encourage us to procreate. However we won't know about its pleasurable aspects unless we actually engage in it, which is why many of us develop this desire for members of the opposite sex. These desires exist to encourage us to have sex so that we might perpetuate the species. Note that I don't speak about 'falling in love' simply because I do not believe that these biological desires have anything to do with love – once again Hollywood is lying to us.



Anyway, lets get on to Socrates: Socrates describes love as being the desire to possess that which is beautiful. In a way what he is suggesting is that if we possesses that which is beautiful then we are happy. In my mind Socrates is confusing love with happiness, but let us continue. He starts off by suggesting that this love begins on a physical level where we see a single person who we believe is beautiful and we desire to possess that person. This possession is fulfilled in the sexual act. However he suggests that to seek true beauty we simply cannot rest on one person, but we must begin to see the beauty in many people. As such our desire for that one person begins to diminish as we begin to see everybody else as being just as beautiful as this one person. However, he then takes the next step and suggests that we begin to move away from physical beauty to come to see the mental beauty (that is the intelligence) of individual people. As such we begin to lose interest in those whose beauty is not intellectual to focus on those who are. As such physical beauty begins to take a back seat. From there we move on to understand absolute beauty, namely that we can see beauty in everything without differentiation.



This absolute is quite interesting – Plato rejects relativism. In his mind there must be an absolute because the universe simply cannot exist without one. A relative world is a world that is chaotic and has no form, but by looking at the world he can see that there is an absolute form, but he realises that everybody sees these forms differently. Thus his quest is the search for the absolute, and to move beyond relativism and the world of the opinion to try to understand and grasp the absolute truth. This the the goal of this book, to reject the relativism of physical beauty and to seek out the absolute of the celestial beauty.


However, he does something really interesting – once Socrates finishes his speech in comes Alcibaides and brings the entire discussion back to reality. Not only does he interject into the discussion, he turns it completely on its head by telling everybody how wonderful he thinks Socrates is (he lusts after Socrates, but Socrates won't have a bar of it). Plato understands the real world, and this is what Alcibaides represents. While we may begin to ascend the ladder towards our grasp of absolute beauty, things will happen that will bring us crashing back down to reality. As I said, Socrates was a freak, which is why he was able to rebuff Alcibaides' advances.



Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1371344385
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review 2013-10-07 19:25
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
The Secret History - Donna Tartt

You can find more of my reviews plus discussions and giveaways at Christina Reads YA.


On occasion I'm in the mood to read something a bit darker, more mature than most of the YA fare stocked on my shelves. I don't usually review adult titles, but this one is set on a college campus and may have some crossover potential, though it is quite bloody and brutal for those who are accustomed to YA. Anyway...

Why did I want to read this?
1. I went to a liberal arts college and I'm always looking for more books with college settings (and not of the now typical NA fare).
2. Last fall I took a class on Greek tragedy and philosophy, so needless to say, this topic and subculture are fascinating to me. This book is full of references to ancient, classical culture (Plato, Greek tragedies, Greek mysteries, the old gods, Latin, dead languages, etc.), and one of the plays constantly referred to was one that I'd studied and that enchanted me.
3. Anything that says "modern classic" is bound to catch my eye. True or false?
4. This book must have been on some list from an author or reviewer who I trust. I bought it last summer so I no longer remember where I'd seen it, but I'm sure that contributed to my excitement at the time. That, and one of my closest friends has consistently mentioned to me that her brother loved this one, and from what I know, he's generally a picky reader.
5. Unreliable narration.

Why am I telling you this? Because I went into the book with those expectations and found myself rather satisfied with what I'd gotten.

Ten Likes/Dislikes:

1. (+) Richard, the protagonist - Here's the thing you should know about the characters, including the protagonist. They do shitty things. Are they likable? That's something to debate, but Richard was probably the most likable of the bunch, especially as we see things from his perspective. Richard is a poor kid who was often depressed before he fell into this group of Greek-addicted misfits. He wasn't happy with where he came from, so he'd learned to lie quite well, and it's quite obvious that he's desperate for these people to like him. It's easy to slip into his perspective because you can sense some of that earnestness in how he looks at these other characters, but also because of his determination (he transferred from his first college; the way he approaches everyone and work and school) and the fact that he's a sort of outsider in the group - the only one on a scholarship and not with swathes of money at his disposal, not with great connections nearby. He's not the one who holds the group together, but he's probably the one you'd find it easiest to talk to of the bunch.


2. (+) World-Building - Do you like Greek culture? How about Vermont? How about dead languages and philosophy? How about liberal arts education? There's a lot to be said about the world that's built upon this Greek foundation. There are aspects of ancient Greek life that you don't think will necessarily apply until they do, and then you're just shocked. Even those familiar with ancient Greek culture, I imagine, will find themselves shocked and pleased with the level of detail - it's clear that the author, if not well versed in the classics already, did her research well. The liberal arts setting was also fairly well done except for a couple of things: one, even though the characters also comment on how unusual a situation Julian has (their adviser, most of their classes?), I doubt that could ever exist; two, this book has some of the typical stereotypes of college such as heavy drinking and drug habits. I don't remember meeting a single college-aged character who did not partake in these activities. It's true that these characters may not meet anyone like that, but drinking in the middle of day, constantly being hung over... It was only a tad disappointing that we just didn't get as much on the details of the collegiate setting and a more rounded picture of what it actually meant to go to a liberal arts college (though I understand that that was a part of the point). Everything is extreme.


3. (+) Characters - You want a book full of memorable, flawed characters? Check this one out. The characters sometimes act morally reprehensible and are not always likable, but they are so real, so easy to imagine. You've got this trying-too-hard Gatsby-esque all-American guy who's too proud and a tad slower than the manic others; you've got this cold, calculating scholar who alternates between sociopathic tendencies, academic ambition, and the loving charm of a leader; and more, many others who are just as developed as the original five (Richard, Henry, Bunny, Charles, and Camilla) such as their teacher, Julian. It is the ever changing character dynamics that propels a good deal of the plot.


4. (+) Plot - Once this story gets going, it's out there. It's remarkably detailed and complex and focused on character interactions changing, morphing as the characters constantly react in different ways to the complications thrown into their paths. And my god, this was unpredictable. Usually I pride myself on being able to tell where a story is headed, but for some reason -- maybe all the details and how well founded they and the characters were -- I just didn't see any of that coming.


5. (+) Themes/Moral Ambiguity - Sometimes I need to take a break from YA because there seem to be very few that manage to portray morally ambiguous situations well or at all. Not so here, though it's less about moral ambiguity (we all know what they should not have done), and more about the dawning horror of how easily one could fall into... as the summary puts it, evil. How much would you do to belong? How much influence can someone exert over you? Is it possible to escape the self? Is there such a thing as redemption? This is the kind of book I imagine would go well in a class that also featured Greek literature or philosophy; great to compare the two, and great for stimulating discussion.


6. (+/-) Privilege/Class Discussion - For all the discussion of how Henry and Francis and the lot are privileged, untroubled kids who can do as they please with money, wasting it on cars and alcohol and drugs and trips to country houses, this book does not seem to have a certain... self-awareness so to speak. Yes, it's set on a liberal arts college campus, and yes it's pointed out how it's not entirely pragmatic to keep switching majors and how a literature major might not be ideal for Richard. But what about these kids who are studying classics? Who are all so effortlessly slick and cool and noticed by everyone else on campus? Who can carry out conversations in dead languages and who have their classics teacher monopolize their class schedule but who are probably not learning stuff that will apply in their immediate future? In a sense, the poorer members show as outsiders in this group, but there's also a certain, oh-woe-is-me in regards to some of their affairs that makes sense for their situation but also highlights some missing aspects to this discussion on class and privilege. There's also the fact that unless you are somewhat privileged, you will likely not understand all the references and some of the conversations these characters have. I know I didn't, and sometimes had to skim.


7. (+/-) Believable? Empathetic? - Here are the two things that I think would drive away most readers: whether they think the story *could* actually happen, and whether they (need to) relate to the characters. I myself was questioning how believable some of the story elements were (I believe in the characters, but would they all be congregated in this Vermont liberal arts college? Would the circumstances line so perfectly?), and sometimes, as stated above, I found it hard to relate to their situation (privileged, sometimes unlikable white kids who do stupid things), but ultimately the story was too engrossing for me for either of those two issues to matter.


8. (+) Writing - The writing is magnificent. There's this dreamy, unreal feel to quite a few of the scenes that fits in with one of the themes: the beauty of terror. Indeed there's a disturbing poetic aspect to some of the more bloody and brutal scenes that I'd bookmarked because the writing--the writing was so wonderful. The author also did a great job mixing in a future POV looking in on the past well with the generally formal tone of the entire story.


9. (+/-) Pacing - The key word is "once" the story gets going. There was a beautifully terrifying prologue, and then I found myself somewhat bored/restless for about a hundred pages. Not right after the prologue, but maybe around pages 50 - 150? It was really slow in the beginning in that way that means you'll learn about the characters. For me this didn't always work because there was an abundance of narration, long info-dumpy/summary-like paragraphs on things that had happened that I couldn't keep track of and that didn't feel as immediate as normal scenes. But after *event* happens, the pacing was perfect, with rising tension and conflict that had me flipping the pages as fast as I could.

10. (+/-) The Cover - Eh. Not all that inspiring. I wonder if that's Dionysus?

Full of memorable if not entirely likable characters and burning philosophical questions on human nature, The Secret History is not to be missed if you're a fan of ancient Greek culture or unpredictable contemporary thrillers.

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review 2013-02-11 00:00
The Greek Tragic Theatre (Ancient Culture and Society Series)
The Greek Tragic Theatre - H.C. Baldry The Greek Tragic Theatre - H.C. Baldry excellent, brief account of the performative aspects of Greek tragedy - down to the little details... a great little book
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review 2011-11-04 06:00
Exploring the Mystery Religions
Orpheus and Greek Religion: A Study of the Orphic Movement - W.K.C. Guthrie,L. Alderlink

I haven't read many books on the mystery religions and even less on Christianity and mystery religions, but while the focus of this book is not to compare religions, it is very difficult to explore even one of the multitude of ancient mystery religions and not find one self looking over at Christianity and seeing the similarities. As mentioned, this book is not on the subject of comparative religion but rather exploring the Orphic Mysteries as they existed in Classical Athens (around 4th Century BC) and, with the very limited information that we have available, looking at the theology of this particular cult.


The good thing about Gutherie is that he tries to be very objective, though in writing this book you get the impression that he is not hostile to the Judeo-Christian faith, and accepts the historicity of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is the historicity of Jesus Christ that he uses as proof of the existence of Orpheus, though we must remember that unlike Christ, whose existence is confirmed through documents that were written within 50 years of his death, that most of the documents that we have that support an historical Orpheus are at least 500 years after his purported existence. Unlike Christ, the real Orpheus has been lost to mythology and we are unlikely to be able to learn the truth about him beyond the myths.


Orpheus was a bard that legend says was taught the gift of music on Mount Parnasus near Delphi in Central Greece. His gift of music was said to be so powerful that he was able to use it to tame wild beasts, and images show him sitting among animals playing his harp. The legend has it that his wife was killed on their wedding day when she was wondering through the fields and was bitten by a snake. In response Orpheus descended into the House of Hades and bargained with the god of the underworld to release her. This he did, but on one condition, that he could not look upon her until they had both returned to the surface. When Orpheus had returned to the surface he turned around to see her, but because she had not yet passed the threshold, she was whisked away never to be seen again. Orpheus is said to have then rejected women, and created a cult restricted only to men, and while he lasted a while, he was finally caught by a group of women and torn apart.




The concept of tearing apart is a common theme in the ancient world. Osiris was torn apart by his brother Set, Dionysius was torn apart (and was resurrected as was Osiris), and a number of Dionysius' enemies (such as Pentheus in the Bacchae) were also torn apart. I guess this is where we get the saying 'to be torn limb from limb'. Not really the most pleasant way to go if I do say so myself, but that is a digression. The other interesting this about this book is how they explore the eschatological (end times) and soteralogical (doctrine of salvation) in application to the Orphic religion. It is suggested that Christianity is the only faith with a Teleological view of the world (that is history moves from a definite beginning to a definite end) however this does not seem to be the case. Putting Islam aside, not all of the ancient religions had a cyclical view of history (that is that history moves in cycles but the end always comes back to the beginning). Further Christianity is not necessarily the only faith that looks at a means of salvation, or even having a personal relationship with a deity. However, unlike Christianity, a number of the cults did believe in reincarnation, but not strictly in the cyclical sense but in a sense where there is an ultimate move to an end point.


This book is much more of an academic text book and can be difficult going, especially when Guthrie quotes in Greek, Latin, German, and French. Okay, my Greek is reasonable however I am not a linguist and this quoting in other languages does make the book difficult to follow, but then being an academic text makes it slow reading anyway. However, that does not mean that it is a bad book, but probably not one that one would sit down and casually read. However, objective, non-anti-christian books on the topic of mystery religions are hard to find, especially since many of the authors in this field use this topic to attack Christianity and attempt to undermine the historicity of Christ. If there is one final thing I can say about this book is that it is the only book that I have read that uses the word 'eschatology' outside of a Christian context.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/224715893
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