The Unlikely Way: Our Kind of Story

Euripides, Bacchae 1388-1392

Many are the forms of divine powers
Many are the acts the gods unexpectedly make.
The very things which seemed likely did not happen
but for the unlikely, some god found a way.
This turned out to be that kind of story.

πολλαὶ μορφαὶ τῶν δαιμονίων,
πολλὰ δ᾿ ἀέλπτως κραίνουσι θεοί·
καὶ τὰ δοκηθέντ᾿ οὐκ ἐτελέσθη,
τῶν δ᾿ ἀδοκήτων πόρον ηὗρε θεός.
τοιόνδ᾿ ἀπέβη τόδε πρᾶγμα.

[but also at the end of AlcestisMedeaAndromache, Helen]

Lucian in The Symposium 48

“That, my dear Philo, was the end of that party. But it is better to intone that tragic phrase: ‘Many are the forms of divine powers / Many are the acts the gods unexpectedly make. / The very things which seemed likely did not happen’

For all these things too turned out to be unexpected. I have still learned this much now: it is not safe for a man who is unaccomplished to share a meal with clever men like this.”

Τοῦτό σοι τέλος, ὦ καλὲ Φίλων, ἐγένετο τοῦσυμποσίου, ἢ ἄμεινον τὸ τραγικὸν ἐκεῖνο ἐπειπεῖν,

πολλαὶ μορφαὶ τῶν δαιμονίων,
πολλὰ δ᾿ ἀέλπτως κραίνουσι θεοί,
καὶ τὰ δοκηθέντ᾿ οὐκ ἐτελέσθη·

ἀπροσδόκητα γὰρ ὡς ἀληθῶς ἀπέβη καὶ ταῦτα. ἐκεῖνό γε μὴν1 μεμάθηκα ἤδη, ὡς οὐκ ἀσφαλὲς ἄπρακτον ὄντα συνεστιᾶσθαι τοιούτοις σοφοῖς.

Lucian, Gout, a Tragedy 325-334

“Many are the forms of the unlucky
but let the care and habit of pains
bring some comfort to men with gout.
This is how, my fellow sufferers,
you will forget our toils,
if the very things which seemed likely did not happen
but for the unlikely, some god found a way.
Let every person who suffers endure
being taunted and being mocked.
For this affair is that kind of thing.”

πολλαὶ μορφαὶ τῶν ἀτυχούντων,
μελέται δὲ πόνων καὶ τὸ σύνηθες
τοὺς ποδαγρῶντας παραμυθείσθω.
ὅθεν εὐθύμως, ὦ σύγκληροι,
λήσεσθε πόνων,
εἰ τὰ δοκηθέντ᾿ οὐκ ἐτελέσθη,
τοῖς δ᾿ ἀδοκήτοις πόρον εὗρε θεός.
πᾶς δ᾿ ἀνεχέσθω τῶν πασχόντων
ἐμπαιζόμενος καὶ σκωπτόμενος·
τοῖον γὰρ ἔφυ τόδε πρᾶγμα.

Image result for medieval manuscript gout
James Gillray, The Gout, 1799.

An Unlikely Hybrid: Medusa, Miley Cyrus, and the Politics of the Female Tongue

Homer, Iliad 11.36-37

“And set on the shield as a crown was a grim-faced Gorgon, glaring fiercely”

τῇ δ’ ἐπὶ μὲν Γοργὼ βλοσυρῶπις ἐστεφάνωτο / δεινὸν δερκομένη…

Gorgon 1
Images from Wikimedia Commons and the MET website, article by Madeleine Glennon 2017

The Gorgon’s face is one of the most recognizable symbols from antiquity, adorning everything from vases and cups to temple pediments and metopes to confront the viewer with her petrifying stare and snaky ropes of hair. While the apotropaic function of the Gorgon is usually attributed to the directness of her gaze (one that is highly unusual in Greek art), depictions of Gorgons–including their most famous representative, Medusa–in archaic art frequently include an additional provocation in the form of a tongue.

Long and lolling, often poised between vicious-looking canine teeth, this aspect of the Gorgons’ iconography has conventionally been interpreted as a way to enhance her grotesqueness. Over time, however, depictions of the Gorgon shifted dramatically to portray these figures with typically feminine, even beautiful, features while retaining her uncompromisingly confrontational gaze. You can see a great timeline visualizing this evolution on the MET website.

Gorgon 2

The ubiquity of the Gorgon’s tongue in archaic art has always intrigued me. That this feature of her iconography is unique to this period, and a feature unique to the Gorgon in particular, makes it all the more intriguing, as it suggests a fleeting but pervasive mode of representing female transgressiveness. The Gorgon’s tongue made me wonder about the significance of this gesture: why would a stuck-out tongue be characteristic of a female monster? After all, in contemporary iconography (I’m thinking here especially of emojis) a stuck-out tongue is correlated most often with silliness and disinhibition, a response to the goofy or outrageous.

Gorgon 3

Nonetheless, it’s not difficult to think of counterexamples. We, especially as children, might stick out our tongues in response to something offensive or unwelcome. And, of course, the gesture in the right context may appear sexually charged. A good illustration of the latter comes in the form of Miley Cyrus, a figure who, like the Gorgon, also exhibits a dramatic shift in her public image.

Google “Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance” and the prevailing image that will turn up is one that sees Cyrus bent over against co-performer Robin Thicke, clad in flesh-toned latex bustier and shorts, her tongue stuck out sharply, complementing the two spiky buns above her brow. The performance drew shock and condemnation, not least because of the transformation it evinced in the former Disney Channel darling.

Miley Cyrus VMA

Like Cyrus, the evolving image of Medusa calcified in ancient art is also a testament to transformation. As Ovid relates (Met. 4.793-803), Medusa was formerly a beautiful young woman who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena and punished by the goddess with her snaky hair. While earlier accounts like that of Hesiod (Theog. 270-6) suggest that Medusa was born to her distinctive form, the Ovidian narrative connects Medusa’s sexuality and desirability–and Athena’s savage punishment of this–with the transformation in her appearance.

Likewise, Cyrus’ performance cast her in a sexually-charged role that drove home her evolution from Disney Channel PG fame. While Cyrus later said in an interview that her hairstyle was consciously infantilizing, it was hard for me not to see those spiky buns in conjunction with Medusa’s similarly unconventional and distinctive hairdo.

Why, then, would a stuck-out tongue define such a transformation? On the one hand, it is provocative, a function that seems at odds with the archaic Gorgon’s apotropaic power. But coupled with her fierce, frontal gaze, the Gorgon’s visage forces viewers into a confrontation. As some would characterize Cyrus’ performance, the Gorgon’s ferocious visage is similarly nothing if not transgressive.

And it is the tongue, I think, for both Cyrus and the Gorgon, that embodies this quality. A stuck-out tongue reaches out into the space between viewer and viewed. The tongue, after all, is the only part of the body that can easily be extended out of its natural confines. Thus, unlike the eyes, it is vividly visceral. In this sense, the petrifying effects associated with the Gorgon’s gaze gain clearer significance. While her face is safely rendered in paint or stone, her eyes and tongue can still serve to confront the viewer with a reminder of their fleshy corporeality. The tongue, in particular, serves as a gesture of defiance against the medium in which the Gorgon’s gaze has been fixed.

Cyrus’ performance, too, can be interpreted as an act of defiance against the public image she had accrued earlier in her career. More specifically, her exaggerated facial and bodily expressions make the viewer aware that they are viewing her like an object. This is a dynamic that meets active resistance in the display she created at the VMAs, one that works to displace the previous image of Cyrus that each viewer brings to their perspective on her performance.

 

Amy Lather is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek aesthetics, hence her fascination with the Gorgon’s tongue. She can be reached at latherak@wfu.edu.

 

 

A Hero Shot A Man, Just to…Kill Me: Achilles and Odysseus, Again

Sophocles, fr. 965

“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly:
For many who have been my enemy hate me.”

ὀρθῶς δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς εἰμ’ ἐπώνυμος κακῶν•
πολλοὶ γὰρ ὠδύσαντο δυσμενεῖς ἐμοί

Yesterday, I was editing a manuscript and thinking about Odysseus’ so-called “lying tales” in books 13-20 of the Odyssey. In one of them, he talks casually about murdering the son of Idomeneus. A song burst fully formed into my head. I made a poll. Over 3500 people voted.

(And, yes, as twitter let me know, it should be “shot” not killed”). To be honest, I thought the answer was clear and tried to direct it a bit:

And I was not the only one to consider Odysseus’ character the crueler one:

I suspect that the issue here for most voters was really: who’s your favorite hero and who seems violent to you. Everyone knows Achilles is a cross between the Hulk and Superman and he just kills everything. Most people forget that Odysseus leaves a trail of slaughter in his wake too.

Earlier polls I have run seem to indicate that while the Iliad and Odyssey are pretty close in popularity people have a more positive view of Odysseus. I have spent several years working on a book on Odysseus (after working on the Iliad for over a decade). I think these evaluations of the characters are from an overall feeling and not an actual engagement with the texts.

I continued this conversation on and off line with Justin Arft:

Erik, who is in Germany, had some comforting words over text:

Erik text

I received another text from an actual resident of Reno, who had some thoughts:

Jed Text

My emotional stability did not increase during the day:

There were some cogent responses:

Achilles is intense, like super intense, like there is extra and then there is Achilles extra. He gets his feelings hurt and then asks for Zeus to make his own people die. Patroklos dies because Achilles is so damn sensitive. Achilles’ rage is the point of the whole poem. But he is not calculating. He feels. He reacts. He regrets.

But behind all the arguments is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be a hero in ancient Greece. They are not simple figures. They are not heroic in the modern sense. The word heros: can mean a man in the prime of his youth; or, a member of a race of superpeople before our current race of mortals; or, a person who follows a particular narrative/paradigmatic arc. It is value neutral when it comes to “good” and “evil”.

Erwin Cook writes well about this, noting that what marks heroes out in Greek myth and poetry is their ability to suffer or cause suffering to others.

Fortunately for the next 24 hours I found like-minded people to suffer with:

Despite Achilles’ constant lead, there was a chorus of objection:

https://twitter.com/braak/status/1144243133376581633

My friend Sean texted this morning with the most plausible explanation for the outcome:

Sean Text

https://twitter.com/RasBabaO/status/1144245260660330497

And I think people just didn’t get the question:

But, come on, Odysseus kills 108 unarmed people, has the slave-women hanged and does many other totally questionable things in his epic. In the Iliad, he lies to Dolon and has Diomedes kill him after he has informed on the Trojans. He’s a dark mage, a necromancer! And even the Odyssey is deeply ambivalent about his crimes: Teiresias implies that the suitors are only in Ithaca because of Odysseus’ mistakes!  The epic ends with the people of Ithaca splitting a vote whether to try to kill him or not.

Outside of the epics: he frames Palamedes and has him stoned to death; he tricks Achilles into coming to war; he strands Philoktetes for being wounded and then gets him to come back to Troy; he tries to stab Diomedes in the back; he is known for arranging for the killing of Astyanax. He probably killed Hecuba too.

He is also known in later traditions for wanting to kill Telemachus. Otherwise, he’s busy in myth having children all over the Mediterranean. When he gets home, he cries about his dog but not his wife.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Odysseus is important, but Emily Wilson is totally right in saying he is a “complicated man”. He is a survivor- and he teaches us about the compromises one must make and risks one needs take to survive. He is not a hero, he is not divine. He is like us.  And this is not always good. He minimizes slavery and manipulates his slaves, he is definitely more into truthiness than truth. And he is his own worst enemy: he needs to figure this out before he can even start to go home.

Achilles’ rage is big and easy to conceptualize, easier to blame; Odysseus’ calculation is harder to understand and frame. We want to be like Achilles, I think, because we can blame our faults on emotions. That’s nature, right? We can’t control nature! It is harder to admit where we are like Odysseus because then we need to take responsibility for our faults. People who love Odysseus too often explain away his faults. (Which is why so much of Homeric scholarship refuses to acknowledge that Odysseus is crossing a line in killing the slave women, the suitors, blinding Polyphemos and more).

Not everything was about bashing Odysseus:

And some people worked hard to bring greater context to the song and the identification:

This probably undermines the entire enterprise:

Some people couldn’t play the game right!

https://twitter.com/gemmagreene16/status/1144260781665652736

https://twitter.com/DLVLK/status/1144268767393976322

There may have been some salutary effects:

Thank you to Carly Maris (@carmarky) for making this so I didn’t have to

thanks to everyone who played along and took what was a lark seriously. Apologies to all the wits and wiseacres I didn’t include in this post. The thread on twitter is pretty cool. But, as with everything, Plato did it first and better.

Plato, Hippias Minor 

364c

“Homer made Achilles the best man of those who went to Troy, Nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the most shifty.”

φημὶ γὰρ Ὅμηρον πεποιηκέναι ἄριστον μὲν ἄνδρα Ἀχιλλέα τῶν εἰς Τροίαν ἀφικομένων, σοφώτατον δὲ Νέστορα, πολυτροπώτατον δὲ Ὀδυσσέα.

365b

“Achilles is true and simple; Odysseus is shifty and false.”

ὡς ὁ μὲν Ἀχιλλεὺς εἴη ἀληθής τε καὶ ἁπλοῦς, ὁ δὲ Ὀδυσσεὺς πολύπροπός τε καὶ ψευδής

366a

Soc. “People who are many-wayed are deceptive because of their foolishness and thoughtlessness, or because of wickedness and some thought?

Hippias: Most of all, because of wickedness and intelligence.

Soc. So, it seems, they are really intelligent.

Hip. Yes, by Zeus, wicked smart.

Soc. And men who are smart—are they ignorant of what they do or do they understand it?

Hip. They really understand what they are doing. For this reason, they also do evil.

Soc. So, is it the ignorant or the wise who know these things which they understand?

Hip. The wise know these very things, how to deceive.

—ΣΩ. Πολύτροποι δ’ εἰσὶ καὶ ἀπατεῶνες ὑπὸ ἠλιθιότητος καὶ ἀφροσύνης, ἢ ὑπὸ πανουργίας καὶ φρονήσεώς τινος;

—ΙΠ. ῾Υπὸ πανουργίας πάντων μάλιστα καὶ φρονήσεως.

—ΣΩ. Φρόνιμοι μὲν ἄρα εἰσίν, ὡς ἔοικεν.

—ΙΠ. Ναὶ μὰ Δία, λίαν γε.

—ΣΩ. Φρόνιμοι δὲ ὄντες οὐκ ἐπίστανται ὅτι ποιοῦσιν, ἢ ἐπίστανται; —

—ΙΠ. Καὶ μάλα σφόδρα ἐπίστανται· διὰ ταῦτα καὶ κακουργοῦσιν.

—ΣΩ. ᾿Επιστάμενοι δὲ ταῦτα ἃ ἐπίστανται πότερον ἀμαθεῖς εἰσιν ἢ σοφοί;

—ΙΠ. Σοφοὶ μὲν οὖν αὐτά γε ταῦτα, ἐξαπατᾶν.

Trojan Fan Fic: Astyanax, The Boy Who Lived

In the tradition of Greek Myth, Hektor’s son Astyanax is well-known for being killed during the sack of the city. Other traditions weren’t having this. To wit, Servius:

Servius Danielis on Vergil, Aeneid, 9.264

devicta genitor (sc. Aeneas) quae cepit Arisba]

“Which his father took once Arisba was conquered…”

“(And yet, according to Homer, Arisba sent aid to the Trojans and was overcome by Achilles)…the city is called Arisba after the daughter of Merpos or Macareus who was the first wife of Paris. According to some authors, Abas, who wrote the Troika, related that after the Greeks left Troy, the rule of this city was given to Astyanax. Antenor expelled him once he had allied himself with the states neighboring where Arisba’s location. Aeneas took this badly and took up arms for Astyanax; once the expedition was prosecuted successfully, he returned the kingdom to Astyanax.”

[[atqui secundum Homerum Arisba Troianis misit auxilia et ab Achille subversa est …]] dicta est Arisba ab Meropis vel Macarei filia, quam primum Paris in coniugio habuit. quidam ab Abante, qui Troica scripsit, relatum ferunt, post discessum a Troia Graecorum Astyanacti ibi datum regnum. hunc ab Antenore expulsum sociatis sibi finitimis civitatibus, inter quas et Arisba fuit. Aeneam hoc aegre tulisse et pro Astyanacte arma cepisse, ac prospere gesta re Astyanacti restituisse regnum.

 

Image result for astyanax greek vase
Image taken from this article by Mary Louise Hart

Of Ice and Fire I Sing

This text was discovered inside the hollow of a golden branch. On top was written, Pius Aeneas hoc scripsit (“Pious Aeneas wrote this”). On a separate document was a message written by one P.V.M. that said, carmen tam horribile est ut cum inhumata turba vagari malim.” (“This poem is so terrible that I prefer to wander with the unburied masses”). An earlier fragment seems obsessed with a certain Ioannes Nix.

It is thought that after Aeneas encountered Marcellus in the underworld, he received poetry lessons from Vergil himself. From a close reading of this text, we can also infer that Aeneas met the disembodied soul of George R.R. Martin and saw a performance of Game of Thrones. Edited by Dani Bostick.

“And just as constipated infants contort their miserable
Faces but cannot manage to liberate their bowels,
In this way, Jon Snow with a worried expression,
Miserable, looks on the overturned city and kills the
Mother of dragons in a sneaky way with his sword. Then, the
Unhappy monster carries her body on his toenail into the ether.
Snow speaks with these words: “Love is the death of duty.”
But Dido gave herself a wound voluntarily with a sword,
This queen is dead because of herself; it is not my fault,
For I am remarkable in piety, but Snow rules
In no kingdom.”

Ac veluti torquent ora infantes miseranda
Crudi sed nequeunt compressos solvere alvos.
Sic Nix sollicito vultu eversam miser urbem
Aspicit et matrem draconum ensi necat furtim.
Tum monstrum infelix corpus vehit ungula in aether.
Nix tali ore refert: “Amor est finis pietatis.”
At Dido vulnus dedit sponte sua sibi ferro,
Regina moritur propter se; non mihi culpa est.
Sum pietate insignis, et rex; Nix regit nullo
In loco.

« Messire Lancelot du Lac » de « GAULTIER MOAP ». « Messire Lancelot du Lac » de « GAULTIER MOAP ».
,

Learning From Students in the Classroom

Brandeis University Commencement is today. We say farewell to our graduating students. And now is a time for my confession….

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Kim Stanley Robinson The Years of Rice and Salt (2003: 758)

“Over time, Bao came to understand that teaching too was a kind of reincarnation, in that years passed and students came and went, new young people all the time, but always the same age, taking the same class; the class under the oak trees, reincarnated. He began to enjoy that aspect of it. He would start the first class by saying, “Look, here we are again.” They never knew what to make of it; same response, every time.

He learned, among other things, that teaching was the most rigorous form of learning. He learned to learn more from his students than they did from him; like so many other things, it was the reverse from what it seemed to be, and colleges existed to bring together groups of young people to teach some chosen few of their elders the things that they knew about life, that the old teachers had been in danger of forgetting.”

Seneca, Moral Epistles 76.3-5

“People of every age enter this classroom. “Do we grow old only to follow the young?” When I go into the theater as an old man and I am drawn to the racetrack and no fight is finished without me, shall I be embarrassed to go to a philosopher?

You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.”

Omnis aetatis homines haec schola admittit. “In hoc senescamus, ut iuvenes sequamur?” In theatrum senex ibo et in circum deferar et nullum par sine me depugnabit ad philosophum ire erubescam?

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum.

Seneca, Moral Epistles 7.8-9

“Both habits, moreover, should be avoided. Don’t imitate bad people, because there are many of them, nor hate the many, because you aren’t like them. Take shelter in yourself, whenever you can. Spend time with people who will make you a better person. Embrace those whom you can make better. Such improvement is a partnership, for people learn while they teach.”

Utrumque autem devitandum est; neve similis malis fias, quia multi sunt, neve inimicus multis, quia dissimiles sunt. Recede in te ipsum, quantum potes. Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt. Illos admitte, quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines, dum docent, discunt.

Image result for ancient greek old age

The ‘Wives’ of Telemachus

Tell me of Telemachus, Muse, and the tawdry tales
of his trio of tender-ankled temptresses

Hesiod, Fr. 221 (Eustathius in Hom. (π 117—20) p. 1796. 38)

“Well-belted Polycaste, the youngest daughter of Nestor Neleus’ son, gave birth to Persepolis after having sex with Telemachus Thanks to golden Aphrodite.”

Τηλεμάχωι δ’ ἄρ’ ἔτικτεν ἐύζωνος Πολυκάστη
Νέστορος ὁπλοτάτη κούρη Νηληϊάδαο
Περσέπολιν μιχθεῖσα διὰ χρυσῆν ᾿Αφροδίτην

This resonates with one moment in the Odyssey (3.464-5):

“Then pretty Polycaste, the youngest daughter of Nestor
the son of Neleus, bathed Telemachus”

τόφρα δὲ Τηλέμαχον λοῦσεν καλὴ Πολυκάστη
Νέστορος ὁπλοτάτη θυγάτηρ Νηληϊάδαο.

Dictys, BNJ 49 F10

“And Telemachus took the daughter of Alkinoos as bride, her name was Nausikaa.”

λαμβάνει δὲ Τηλέμαχος γαμετὴν θυγατέρα Ἀλκινόου Ναυσικάαν ὀνόματι.

Proclus (?), Chrestomathia 324-330

“And then Telegonos went sailing in search of his father; once he stopped in Ithaca he was trashing the island. Odysseus shouted out and was killed by his child because of ignorance.

Once Telegonos understood his mistake he returned the body of his father along with Penelope and Telemachus to his own mother. She made them immortal. Then he lived with Penelope and Telemachus lived with Kirke.

κἀν τούτῳ Τηλέγονος ἐπὶ ζήτησιν τοῦ πατρὸς πλέων ἀποβὰς εἰς τὴν ᾿Ιθάκην τέμνει τὴν νῆσον· ἐκβοηθήσας δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς ὑπὸ τοῦ παιδὸς ἀναιρεῖται κατ’ ἄγνοιαν.
Τηλέγονος δ’ ἐπιγνοὺς τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τό τε τοῦ πατρὸς σῶμα

Image result for Ancient Greek vase Circe

Decolonizing a Myth Class

This post is an explanatory (and exploratory) framework for a website I have started for a course on Classical Mythology. This website is developing as the central ‘text’ of my Classical Mythology Course at Brandeis University. The website and the following discussion are intended as adaptive and evolving responses to teaching Greek myth. 

 

Since the events of the most recent SCS Annual Meeting and its subsequent coverage, I have been thinking a lot about the state of the discipline of Classical Studies and what I can do (as well as what I must do) based on the various roles I play within the field and the University. I have been listening carefully to what people like Joy Connolly, Yurie Hong, and Rebecca Futo Kennedy have to say about the measures we can institute now, in the medium term, and in the long term; I have also seriously contemplated what Classicists of color have to say about themselves and the field—learning a lot in particular from Dan-El Padilla Peralta, Nandini Pandey, Jackie Murray (through her deep and powerful interview with Scott Lepisto on Itinera), Mathura Umachandran, Yung In Chae, and my own student Helen Wong, whose critique of my department’s focus on “Western Civilization” has been eating away at me for months now.

Through conversations with some of these generous people as well as other friends and colleagues (including Suzanne Lye, Amy Pistone, Kelly Dugan, Tara Mulder, Caitlin Gillespie, Robyn LeBlanc, Hilary Lehmann, Curtis Dozier, Justin Arft), I have clarified for myself that my actions must be commensurate with the roles I play. But they also must be made with the help of and participation of others. (And this is why I am trying to name everyone I have spoken to and listened to about these issues: none of us will change our fields alone; none of us is in this alone.) Envisioning and creating a community is essential, especially when the odds can seem so long and the voices eager to dismiss the need for change so many.

For me, this means trying to align my values with my actions over several separate domains: my ‘scholarship’, my work as a midcareer reader and editor, my role as department chair and in university governance, my mentorship of students at the graduate and undergraduate level, and, finally, but not of least importance, my role as an instructor. While these roles naturally influence each other, the classroom is a place where I know I can take direct and immediate action.

I am going to be working with my department to alter our curriculum, and to change the language of our mission (to align with what we actually do), and to reconsider the way we train graduate students. And I will likely write some posts here and there to talk about these efforts. But, for now, let’s talk about Classical Mythology.

 

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

I have had training at two institutions for what was called “Affirmative Action Advocacy” at one and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the other. For the most part, my training has not been about creating inclusive classroom spaces or diversifying our disciplines; instead it has been about the workplace and hiring practices. At Brandeis University, I have learned a lot from training in our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the past few years, and I think that the basic distinctions plotted by each category are useful both for understanding the manifold character of problems in our field and for adapting our classrooms.

Diversity is something most people can understand to an extent: it means creating and valuing a space that has people from different backgrounds, religions, language groups, genders, sexual orientations and identities, and abilities. But diversity alone can be no more sophisticated than collecting baseball cards if we do not recognize that because of structural and institutional prejudices (racism, sexism, ableism, and on…) the individuals who are representative of diversity do not start with the same knowledge, skills, or emotional stances towards education.

Equity means making the effort on institutional and individual bases to redress the unequal starting points (and this often gets some people riled up because equity is about achieving fair outcomes, but not about giving everyone the same thing). And Inclusion means modifying the space to accommodate the different abilities and perspectives of our community.

I have taken the trouble of spelling this out in part because there is much opportunity for confusion and in order to make my starting point clear. A good exercise before engaging in this activity is to take a self-test for implicit bias. I also think that Robin D’Angelo’s  “White Fragility” is an essential read. In addition, check out Amy Pistone’s round-up of a SCS workshop “Centering the Margins: Creating Inclusive Syllabi” (with Suzanne Lye, Yurie Hong, Robyn LeBlanc, and Rebecca Kennedy).

 

What is Decolonizing?

Decolonizing is a process with philosophical underpinnings in the middle 20th century which seeks to de-center the works of European colonial authorities, to recenter global voices which have been marginalized from our history and literature, and to re-frame the past by listening to the voices of those marginalized by their bodies and class. Decolonizing also means reading the work of scholars who have been traditionally marginalized from our fields and re-introducing non-canonical subjects as a historical corrective.

For literature courses and history courses, this process has been ongoing as curricula have change to be more inclusive and re-analyze the past from perspectives outside Europe and the United states. But this movement is not just about changing the content of our courses; it is also about the way we run our courses and treat the people who take them. Such a movement has, of course, been ongoing and has created its own series of backlashes from the staid and deceptive work of Harold Bloom to the more aggressive onslaught of Who Killed Homer.

The various disciplines of Classics have been slow to respond to this movement outside of various forms of reception studies because Classical Studies has been so thoroughly identified with Europe and, as Rebecca Kennedy has shown in a pretty convincing twitter thread, was intentionally weaponized as part of “Western Civilization” to justify and enforce colonialism, slavery and their associated horrors. As Cate Bonesho has recently argued, part of our disciplinary inheritance is denying connections with the Ancient Near East; and as the reactions to Martin Bernal’s Black Athena reveal, our field has mobilized to defend the centrality of European exceptionalism within the last generation.

So, the first question is: can you decolonize the classics? Can we decolonize a tool of colonialism? While the answer is complicated, I think we certainly can: courses that have focused on sexuality and gender, slavery, race and ethnicity, and non-canonical texts have sought to do this in their own way. But what about a myth course?

 

Decolonizing a Myth Class

There are, I think, two chief aspects of dealing with a Classical Mythology course. One has to do with the courses’ intention; the other has to do with its content. Some institutions and instructors may decide to go the way of Eva M. Thury’s and Margaret Devinney’s excellent Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Oxford, 4th Edition). This book focuses on kinds of narratives across cultures (tricksters, heroes, creation stories) and does an admirable job of integrating major scholarly approaches with clear tellings of the myths involved.

The problem with this text is that it is a little expensive, the publisher puts out new editions with some frequency (changing page numbers, undermining the used book market), and the authors can’t sidestep the fact that the process of canonization in Europe has preserved sophisticated versions of the Greek and Roman narratives and, further, that our aesthetic and academic expectations have been shaped by the canon. I taught using this book for many years and found that the aesthetic inheritance of Greek and Roman materials causes students to ‘marginalize’ material from other traditions in their reception. (That said, I would recommend trying out this book to anyone who is starting a myth course from scratch)

Additional considerations when choosing how to teach a myth class include: the competence of the instructor and the curricular/educational intention behind the class. Let’s take up the second thing first. When I teach myth I always start with a discussion of why it is important to teach a myth course. I introduce what I see as the different methods (Edith Hamilton-style anthology vs. literature based deep context) and an overview of why we might even teach myth.

In the process of introducing the course, I explain that one longstanding reason for teaching myth is “cultural literacy”, namely that since so much of “western culture” is shaped or informed by Classical Myth, one needs to be conversant in it to ‘decode’ it. I trouble this notion from the moment I introduce it, emphasizing that (1) there is no single Classical Mythology (anthologies like Hamilton’s select and present narratives from different periods and social contexts erratically) and (2) “western” reception of that non-singular mythology is uneven and spectacularly strange. Artists and authors revel in the odd and obscure: any course of study set up to provide someone with cultural literacy would be a banal trudge through disconnected detail rendered for erudite allusion.

Yes, I tell my students, a Mythology course can function to educate us about elements used in the creation of the “Western Canon” and can thus be indispensable in mounting a critique of it. But I position my myth course as being about storytelling and the way that cultural discourse functions to shape the way we view the world and what we think our roles in it can be. In approaching myth this way, I start with a healthy dose of cognitive science and psychology on how stories shape the brain and our perception of the world; I also include information on the definition of discourse and ideology from perspectives informed by sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and post-modern theory. As such, I argue, myth should be taught with cultural contexts in mind and with an emphasis on the way stories are altered for specific needs and how they function to enforce and explore dominant ideologies.

Understanding how myth is part of how we see the world and how we are initiated into the act of understanding it, I tell my students, is part of developing a personal “user’s manual” for the human brain. Any deep well of traditional storytelling presented within the right framework can help us achieve this knowledge—any body of narrative from Mesoamerican, South Asian, African, East Asian to modern science fiction can contribute to the same ends. Cultural distance, indeed, helps us appreciate how storytelling shapes us. And instructor competence is critical in unpacking and reshaping the reception of myth.

 

Basic Principles of the Class

Much of what follows reflects what I do in many of my courses. But I have benefited a lot from talking with Kelly P. Dugan who was kind enough to share her syllabus for a myth course with me.

Transparency

One principle central to my ‘decolonizing’ of a myth course is transparency about what our goals are in the course and what my basic principles are in teaching it. While I do believe deeply that other storytelling traditions could do the same work, I cannot fully decolonize my myth course (that is, integrate other storytelling traditions into it) because of my own competences and because of the particular advantage myths from Greece and Rome present: anyone who speaks a European language or is engaged with the popular culture wielded as its own form of discourse by these language groups comes with a familiarity in the basic narrative patterns, assumptions, and aesthetics which are embedded in them. Introducing greater justice and equity in our culture means tackling these forces and assumptions head-on. From the foundational narrative of the triumph of patriarchy to the adoption of “the hero’s journey” as a dominant narrative paradigm, the traditions of Greek storytelling continue to have powerful (and often harmful) effects on our world.

On one test of decolonizing the curriculum, then, my approach is an abject failure: but this is, I think, a fate and a challenge all Classical Studies curricula must face head on: our subjects are products and producers of a racist paradigm. We can, I believe, start the hard work of transforming this paradigm on multiple fronts. Within the framework of a course on myth, I think this means we need to focus on the stories and how they functioned within their cultural contexts and also how they are ‘re-purposed’ as ideological tools in different contexts.

Rather than replicate some of the problems of an anthologized myth course which elides cultural differences, I teach an almost entirely ‘Archaic Greek’ myth course which traces the ‘teleologically’ minded cosmic history generalized through Panhellenism in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I pay particular attention to providing studies with multiforms or allomorphs (terms I privilege over ‘variant’, which reifies the idea that there is a ‘master’ narrative from which other traditions diverge) and also to contextualizing these multiforms within particular places, periods, and expectations. I also heavily emphasize that the process of Panhellenization is one of ideological force, defining ‘Greekness’ by exclusion primarily through the creation of a unified other. In addition, I take every opportunity to reiterate the pluralism of “Greekness” (different dialects, peoples, polities, values) and the multicultural origins of much of what we have received as Greek.

The primary content of my course, then, is not particularly remarkable—I use Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and the Homeric epics with supplementary material drawn from Apollodorus, Ovid, Greek poets, and fragments I have translated on my own. I have begun the secondary step of decolonizing by providing students not just with the multiform traditions from ancient Greece but also to modern critical responses from diverse scholars (where possible).

 

Affordability and Accessibility

The biggest step I have recently taken is the creation of a website which uses only free sources for the core readings in the course. Rather than expect students to purchase a large selection of books, I have found appropriate alternatives online and have supplemented with my own translations where necessary (most of them from this website). I have created this space as an evolving and open course for others to use if they see fit and for even those outside of the academy to use as a starting point for researching Greek myth. Each class day has a brief summary, a list of authors who are discussed in the course that day, links to the open source translations, links to blog posts with additional information, and links to articles. There is a page for resources for researching Greek myth; there is also room for adding material by and for students. I am still working on ways to include my powerpoint slides on the website; for now, all slides are available on the University LMS for students. Since the LMS is clunky and not available outside the Brandeis community it is important to me that course material be made fully public.

 

Responsiveness

Developing new materials and responses to myth over time requires a level of knowledge I could not hope to attain on my own. Students have a large range of knowledge and experiences and bring a lot to the course. I encourage students to share links and material with me and I will integrate their work (when they do it and if they wish it) into the course over time. Sometimes this means I have to have difficult conversations in class about why Sparta is less than cool or why Jordan Peterson is a dangerous ideologue, but these are important moments in helping students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle material from the ancient world. Even though I spend a the bulk of the course on Early Greek material, I use the last few weeks of the course to highlight how ‘Greek’ material is adapted to new contexts (and how different ‘Roman’ material is) and how storytelling functions as myth in modern genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction.

 

Course policies

An essential pedagogical understanding is that students bring different experiences, learning modalities, and skills to the course. Some will have a strong grasp of the concept of discourse; others will know myriad details of myth which escape me (as happens every semester). I believe that a course must be created in such a way as to allow all students to succeed in attaining its stated goals. Many students are new to college and need to work or have other reasons for not being able to attend all classes: all students can make up any class or missed quiz by completing extra credit.

Because students have different responses to exams and come with different preparation for studying, I have an adaptive grading process. This means that all exams can be made up to full credit (in addition students can earn ‘extra’ credit at any time in the course by writing responses to supplementary material posted on line). This also means providing students with plenty of extra time for exams and assignments and honoring all accommodation needs without creating obstacles. Finally, the course’s activities need to be aligned with its goals: the course starts out lecture heavy to help create a common ground, but I increasingly move toward discussion and workshops. The final assessments are student-designed projects that allow them to work and rework ancient narrative structures. (In earlier versions of the course I have had some success in bringing storytellers to class and having students retell myths in their own words.)

 

Some Future Plans

I teach this course every other year. In addition to updating course materials and continually adding in the work of underrepresented authors and linking to comparative myths in other traditions (a particular weakness of the current format), I need to improve the accessibility of the course. I will eventually create audio versions of each class; but I also need to work with my campus accessibility services to make sure that the powerpoints and website material can work for students of varied abilities. One of the reasons I chose to use wordpress instead of my campus LMS for the material beyond opening up the course to the world at large is that the wordpress site populates to mobile devices fairly well.

In general, however, I hope to benefit from students and researchers who care enough about myth to add to the material on the website. I look forward to any comments and additions and will integrate them as I can. Please email me (joel@brandeis.edu) if you would like to be able to add supplementary material directly or if you have any advice for uploaded the powerpoint slides to the website. I am also profoundly unvisual and have an (unjustifiable) antipathy towards video. I would be particularly grateful, then, for links to appropriate, useful, humorous or otherwise significant video clips. Finally, I would like to integrate more material about reception, but this is another one of my weaknesses.

Farnese Sarcophagus from Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum

Greek to Make a Man Puke

Hugh E.P. Platt, A Last Ramble in the Classics:

“The false quantities made by scholars would furnish a curious list. When Joshua Barnes desired his wife to devote her fortune to the publication of his edition of Homer, and at last persuaded her to do so by assuring her that the Iliad was written by Solomon, in the joy of his heart he composed some Greek hexameters. One of these he began with εὐπρᾰγίης which Bentley said was ‘ enough to make a man spew.’ (Ribbeck lately complained that Madvig’s emendations of the Latin dramatists had the like effect on him, nauseam adferunt.)”

 

A Mythical Monday: The Minotaur’s Origin

Since Erik posted about Moonface’s Album of Songs about the Minotaur, I have been listening to it while driving my children to school. (They love it. They keep asking to listen to it. I think I have ruined them). The actual material about the Minotaur from ancient remains is mostly about Theseus. Here are some passages about Pasiphae and the Minotaur.

Hesiod, Fr. 145.13–17

“When he looked in her eyes he longed for her
[and she gave herself over to the bull]
After she was impregnated, she gave birth to a powerful son to Minos,
A wonder to see: for he had the appearance of man
Down to his feet, but a bull’s head grew on top.”

τῆς δ’ ἄρ’ [ἐν ὀ]φθαλμοῖσιν̣ ἰ̣δὼν ἠράσ̣[σατο
†ταύρωι̣.[…]ρ̣ι̣μενησ̣κ̣α̣μ̣ε̣ρ̣μ̣ιδαο̣τα̣[†
ἣ δ’ ὑποκ̣[υσα]μένη Μίνωι τέκε κα[ρτερὸν υἱόν,
θαῦμα ἰ[δεῖν·] σ̣α μὲν γὰρ ἐπ̣έ̣κ̣λ̣ι̣ν̣[εν δέμας ἀνδρὶ
ἐς πόδα̣[ς], α̣ὐ̣τ̣ὰρ ὕ̣π̣ε̣ρθε κάρ̣η τ̣α̣[ύροιο πεφύκει

Suda, Epsilon 1421

“In every myth there is also Daidalos’ corruption”: People say that because Pasiphae lusted after a bull, she begged Daidalos to make her a wooden cow and, once he had set it up, to put her in it. When the bull mounted her as a cow he made her pregnant. The Minotaur was born from this. For certain reasons Minos was angry at the Athenians and he took from them seven maidens and the same number of youths. They were thrown to the beast. Since origin and responsibility for these evils were attributed to Daidalos and he was hated for them, this was translated into the proverb.”

᾿Εν παντὶ μύθῳ καὶ τὸ Δαιδάλου μύσος· Πασιφάην φασὶν ἐρασθεῖσαν ταύρου Δαίδαλον ἱκετεῦσαι ποιῆσαι ξυλίνην βοῦν καὶ κατασκευάσαντα αὐτὴν ἐνθεῖναι· ἣν ἐπιβαίνων ὡς βοῦν ὁ ταῦρος ἐγκύμονα ἐποίησεν. ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη ὁ Μινώταυρος. Μίνως δὲ διά τινας αἰτίας ὀργιζόμενος τοῖς ᾿Αθηναίοις ἑπτὰ παρθένους καὶ ἴσους νέους ἐξ αὐτῶν ἐδασμολογεῖτο· οἳ παρεβάλλοντο τῷ θηρίῳ. εἰς Δαίδαλον οὖν ἀρχηγὸν τούτων τῶν κακῶν καὶ αἴτιον γενόμενον καὶ μυσαχθέντα ἐξηνέχθη εἰς παροιμίαν.

Heraclitus the Paradoxographer, 7 Concerning Pasiphae

“People claim that [Pasiphae] lusted after the Bull, not, as many believe, for an animal in a herd—for it would be ridiculous for a queen to desire such uncommon intercourse—instead she lusted for a certain local man whose name was Tauro [the bull]. She used as an accomplice for her desire Daidalos and she was impregnated. Then she gave birth to a son whom many used to call “Minos” but they would compare him to Tauro because of his similarity to him. So, he was nicknamed Mino-tauros from the combination.”

Περὶ Πασιφάης.
Ταύτην φασὶν ἐρασθῆναι Ταύρου, οὐχ, ὡς πολλοὶ
νομίζουσι, τοῦ κατὰ τὴν ἀγέλην ζῴου (γελοῖον γὰρ
ἀκοινωνήτου συνουσίας ὠρέχθαι τὴν βασίλισσαν), ἑνὸς
δέ τινος τῶν ἐντοπίων, ᾧ Ταῦρος ἦν ὄνομα. συνεργῷ
δὲ χρησαμένη πρὸς τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν Δαιδάλῳ καὶ γεγο-
νυῖα ἔγγυος, ἐγέννησε καθ’ ὁμοιότητα τοῦ Ταύρου
<υἱόν>, ὃν οἱ πολλοὶ Μίνω μὲν ἐκάλουν, Ταύρῳ δὲ
εἴκαζον· κατὰ δὲ σύνθεσιν Μινώταυρος ἐκλήθη.

Bacchylides, Dith. 26 (P.Oxy. 2364 fr. 1)

“[in] Pasiphae
The Kyprian goddess [sewed]
Longing [….]
To the son Eupalamos
The wisest of the craftsmen
She told Daidalos [about]
Her sickness. Credible oaths
She ordered him to make [so that]
So that she might have sex with the bull
But keep it secret from her husband
Minos, the oppressive-archer,
The general of the Knossians.
But when he learned of the tale,
He was overtaken by worry and
[about his] wife….

[ ]θεα̣ καὶ γ[.].[ ]
φρα.[ ]
Πασι[φ]ά̣[α]
εν Κύπ[ρις]
πόθον [ ]
Εὐπαλά[μοι’] υἱε[ῖ]
τεκτόν[ω]ν σοφω̣[τάτῳ]
φράσε Δαιδάλῳ ά.[ ]
νόσον· ὅρκια πισ[τ]
[ τ]ε τεύχειν κέλευ[σε]
μ̣είξειε ταυρείῳ σ[ ]
κρύπτουσα σύννο̣[μον]
Μίνωα [τ]οξοδάμαν[τα]
Κνωσσίων στρατα[γέταν·]
ὁ δ’ ἐπεὶ μάθε μῦθο[ν]
σχέτο φροντίδι· δε[ ]
[ ]ἀλόχου[ ]

Image result for greek minotaur vase baby
This is the most superior image of the Minotaur by far. Pasiphae’s expression is perfect.