I humbly declare this book to be the greatest literary work of mankind. If you don't learn Greek (worth it just to read this Meisterwerk, never mind the rest of the immortal trove of Greek literature) you can read it in so many translations that have become classics in their own use of the English language, Fagles and Murray, just to mention two. Oh, what the Hades, let's throw in a third, not just for its brilliant translation, but also owing to the exotic character behind it: no less than Lawrence of Arabia.
The Homeric poems were sung in a less-enlightened time, in comparison with the later Greek tragedies, and with the later epics too. Apollonius' Argonautica was composed, post Greek Tragedy, and his audience would have been, no doubt, familiar with Euripides' Medea. Questions such as how justice and revenge affect societies were addressed by Aeschylus in the Oresteia; likewise, the reception of the anthropomorphic gods, and their pettiness, was raised by Euripides in Hippolytus and the Bacchae. Furthermore, the real nature and brutality of warfare was also raised in the Trojan Women. Throw in how one state views another state, and questions of racial identity, and you have The Persians by Aeschylus, and Medea by Euripides. Additionally, if you include Philoctetes by Sophocles, and the issue of how youth should conduct themselves is also raised. If you consider, too, Ajax by Sophocles, and you find that the bloodthirsty myths of an earlier age are filtered through questions that C5 Athenian society faced. What is better, the brute force of an unsophisticated Ajax, or the sophistry and rhetorical arguments of Odysseus in Ajax? By the time we arrive at Virgil, and The Aenied, brutal events such as the death of Priam by Neoptolemus in Aeneid Book II, are tempered with a more enlightened approach. Neoptolemus is condemned for killing Priam, and rightly so, as mercy is important, and exemplifies the Romanitas of 'Sparing the humble, and conquering the proud'. However, Aeneas doesn't show mercy in his killing of Turnus at the end of Book XII.
If you're into Greek Literature, read on.
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.
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.
For some reason when people think of Plato and government we seem to automatically jump to the though 'gee, what a wonderful idea' as if a Platonic government would actually be a good thing. The question that I raise is what if it isn't? What if this form of government that Plato outlines actually isn't all that good, or moreso what if it doesn't work. In a way it is a bit like the western reaction to Buddhism. For some reason the young and hip seem to love Buddhism, believing that it is the one religion that you can do whatever you like, but as long as you treat other people okay then everything will be all right. However, when they delve into it (such as offering to volunteer at the Tiger Temple in Thailand) they pretty quickly discover that Buddhism is not all that it is cracked up to be – what no sex!?! No alcohol !?! Okay, I've known Buddhists that have breached both of those restrictions – at the same time – however they probably fall into the category of 'nominal'.
As for Plato we seem to have this idea that because he is this really famous, and apparently really smart, philosopher then any form of government that he comes up with has to be good, and has to work. Well, my argument is what if it turns out that this wonderful form of government sort of turns out to look a little like this:
The thing is that the more I think about Plato's political theories the more I realise that the freedoms that we enjoy under our modern democracies will be basically non-existent. For instance, you know how when you are in school you get to choose what you want to study at University, or even if you go to university – well, that won't happen in Plato's realm – your career path will be chosen right from the word go, and if you don't like it then tough, deal with it because the state that Plato envisages is a perfect, and efficient, state, which basically means that human free will sort of takes a back seat because free will is actually the thing that causes half the problems that we face today. Oh, and you know that idea that is known as the family - well we have none of that in Plato's realm because families are bad since they work to undermine the perfect nature of the society (or was that 1984: I don't know, but I recently saw it in London, and this book was so long and, well, dull that I may have got the two mixed up).
Another interesting thing about Plato's state is that it happens to be communist – it is against the law to have excess wealth, and if you have excess wealth well, at best it simply gets confiscated, at worse you are severely punished. Oh, and don't think that you can get around it by hiding it in another form of currency because he has that area covered as well. Oh, and let us talk about punishment because in Plato's mind nobody does wrong willingly – the only reason they do bad things is because they don't actually realise that they are doing bad things – even though we have free will this free will isn't actually free because we only do things out of ignorance, and if we weren't ignorant then we wouldn't do these things. However, Plato seems to acknowledge that people will do bad things even if they are told that they are bad. Well, it seems that in Plato's mind they have some sort of inherent defect so we might as well kill them. Yep, you heard me right, Plato is a big fan of the death penalty – if you are criminal then, well, there is no way that you are going to change so off with your head (or whatever way they decided that they will kill you).
Another rather interesting thing that I noticed in this particular edition was that the editor, and I assume translator, had a go at us moderns because we look down on slavery, and because we look down on slavery then we consider the ancient Greeks to be somewhat barbaric. Well, it is probably a good thing that we consider slavery to be barbaric because as far as I am concerned we really shouldn't be owning people and forcing people to do things against their will. However, those who look down on the Greeks because of slavery really don't understand the world in which we live – we have a form of slavery – it is called employment. Okay, we can leave our job whenever we like, but when we have a mortgage, and countless other debts, then the ability to walk away from our job really doesn't exist. While our employer may not be the slave master, the banks certainly are because if you don't pay back those debts they will let you know about it.
Which brings me to an interesting point about bankers – being a Christian I have heard how a number of people have given up a promising career in banking to become ministers of religion. Most of the time I just let it go over my head however I suddenly realised that banking is hardly what you would call an ethical profession. Okay, there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with banking, just as there is nothing intrinsically wrong with law, accounting, or even politics. However, I would hardly call the lot who brought about the global financial crisis paragons of virtue. Moreso, I have never heard anybody say that somebody has given up a promising career in plumbing to become a minister of religion (despite the fact that you can make some pretty decent money as a plumber) even though plumbing is actually a lot more honest than banking. Okay, there was one minister that I knew indicated that he didn't leave the legal profession for some holy and righteous reason, but rather because his conscience really couldn't handle the rubbish that he had to deal with. Actually, the more I think about it – bankers, fund managers, and lawyers as ministers of religions – I think I'd rather go with the plumber.
As for this book, well all I can say is don't bother – it really isn't all that great. In fact it is sort of half philosophy half idealistic legal text. In fact the translator writes it as if it were a piece of legislation, or at least the parts appeared to have been like that rather confusing stuff that politicians get paid ridiculous amounts of money to argue over. Sure, Plato may have some good ideas, however what I discovered was that these good ideas were few and far between and in reality were buried deep within what appears to be little more than a totalitarian state. Sure, Plato says that the military (otherwise known as the Guardians) and the rulers were to behave in a certain way but seriously, these are humans that we are talking about – as the saying goes power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As for the Greeks being less sophisticated that we are – all I can say is that I don't think so – apparently our lust for technology and luxuries have pushed us past the point of no return – we have destroyed our environment and the global financial crises has resulted in a greater discrepancy between the haves and and the have nots that it feels as if we are returning to the middle ages, that is if we don't nuke ourselves over Syria first.
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.
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.