Friday 26 December 2014

What Baby Jesus did Next

Would you trust this boy?

 I always thought Christmas was the best Christian festival—everyone loves new baby stories. But sweet newborns become hyperactive toddlers, and so on to the hurricanes of puberty. I have also always thought that the most entertaining Christian storytelling—the narratives labelled ‘apocryphal’—are precisely the ones excluded from the New Testament.

The canonical gospels are virtually silent, for example, on how Jesus of Nazareth and his parents weathered his first decade. Fortunately a text exists in both ancient Greek and Syriac which fills in the stormy missing years. The ‘Infancy Gospel’ attributed to St Thomas, and vividly illustrated in a manuscript in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, reveals a child who should have been handed over to Psychiatric Social Services.

Zeno Falls mysteriously from the upper storey 
At five, Jesus dammed a stream by telepathy and polluted the Sabbath by making twelve living sparrows out of mud. When another boy destroyed the dams, he cursed the boy, who promptly died. When a second child ran into him, Jesus cursed him and he also expired. The villagers protested to Jesus’ human father Joseph that his son was a dangerously disturbed juvenile delinquent. Jesus’ response was to have his accusers miraculously blinded.

Mary & Joseph needed Supernanny
When Joseph asked for a teacher’s help in disciplining his dysfunctional child, the five-year-old told his ostensible dad that he had been born ‘so that, father, I could teach you a lesson’.  Time for having pocket money withheld, if you ask me. Irritatingly precocious, Jesus taught himself the alphabet in order to show off at school. Time for Supernanny and the Naughty Step. But no. 

Unchecked by his baffled parents, Jesus then murdered his next, wholly sympathetic schoolteacher, just for under-estimating his IQ. A third boy called Zeno, with whom Jesus was playing on a roof, fell off mysteriously and died.
'Who needs a bucket with my magic waterproof cloak, mum?'

There were, to be fair, a couple of ‘good’ miracles.  The young Jesus carried water for his mother in a cloak and sowed a miraculously abundant harvest. But does that outweigh four undeserved deaths and a mass blinding? I would be interested to know what you think! I need cheering up after an unexpectedly medieval week, not in a good sense, of which more anon.

Friday 19 December 2014

Hubris and Hippocratic Healing

Mind the fat blister
I learned a very Greek lesson this week. I was happy on Monday* and boasted so to the world. I bought a leg of lamb to celebrate. On Wednesday at 1704 pm I checked on its progress in the oven. From a blister on its skin, a jet of scalding lamb fat spurted down the left side of my face. There ensued an evening in Casualty. Happiness evanesced. Hubris was punished.

The NHS treatment was ice-cold compresses and vaseline to keep the air away from exposed nerves. It still hurt. It occurred to me that the ancient Greeks must have suffered innumerable cooking accidents, since they roasted joints over open flames and offered smoke emitted by sizzling fat to the gods.  So I got out Guido Majno’s The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World (1975) to look for remedies.

"A Nile between my thighs"
An ancient Egyptian would have applied gum mixed with hairs from a ram, then intoned a charm over the breast-milk of a new mother of a son. The incantation is put in the mouth of Horus’ mother Isis when she heard her son had suffered burns: “Water is in my mouth, a Nile is between my thighs, I have come to put out the fire. Flow out, burn!”

If this means what I think it means I would have preferred to be treated by one of the Greek Hippocrates’ disciples. They knew the importance of sterile conditions to counter septicaemia in burns, and that burns victims became dehydrated. The Hippocratics gave them plenty to drink, and swilled their injuries with cool seawater (the salt prevented infection). In their textbook on ulcers they learned about ointments made of fat, oil and wax spread on clean cloth, like the vaseline gauzes which burn doctors use today.

But prevention is better than cure. From now on I will always wrap joints of meat in foil, and to hell with the crispy finish. The Father of My Children, to prevent me going anywhere near an oven, has booked us a pub lunch on Christmas Day. I may even go vegetarian again (last time was after being offered kangaroo stew in Australia). Quite a few of you out there will be roasting fauna over the next few days, so as I sport (I hope only temporarily) my Phantom of the Opera look, my heartfelt holiday message is simply this: COOK, BEWARE: Caveat coquus.**

*Because (1) two of my wonderful PhD students, Helen Eastman and Matt Shipton, had passed their vivas with flying colours; (2) the best Classics & Class film yet, Henry Stead’s brilliant mini-feature starring Sara Monoson on radical Aesop, was posted on the project website.
** Or, as Herodotus might have said, "Call no woman happy until the roast is safely on the table".

Saturday 13 December 2014

What would Aristotle say to the CIA?

 The main argument heard this week, in response to the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ programme, has been that it doesn’t work.  People since Aristotle have known that information extracted under torture is always questionable since, as he said in his guide to making legal speeches, 'those under compulsion are as likely to give false evidence as true, some being ready to endure everything rather than tell the truth, while others are equally ready to make false charges against others, in the hope of being sooner released from torture.’

I am as disgusted as anyone by the revelations, but think we should divert our moral energies from condemnation to considering alternatives. To use Aristotle’s distinctions in book 3 of his Nicomachean Ethics, if we are agreed on the legitimacy of the CIA’s end—to gain information about planned acts of terrorism—then what we need to discuss is the means.

Trent Park POW hotel
The most successful information-extracting exercises in history were the ‘M’-room operations in World War II.  Ten thousand German POWs—submarine crews, Luftwaffe pilots, 59 generals—were housed in comfortable stately homes including Trent Park near Cockfosters, north London. They were wined, dined, and made to feel respected and comfortable.

The MI6 officer who ran the whole operation, Colonel Thomas Kendrick, invited the generals to sumptuous parties. They chatted freely, unaware that he understood German. Another MI6 man pretended to be a Scottish aristocrat called Lord Aberfeldy, and earned the Germans’ trust by buying them luxuries. The residences were electronically bugged and Jewish refugees from Germany (including Fritz Lustig who two years ago recorded this interview for the BBC World Service) transcribed the conversations. These revealed invaluable insights into the Germans’ strategies and weapon technology, including what was going on at Buchenwald and, crucially, the location of the V2 rocket site at Peenemunde.

Listeners on the 'M' (Microphone) exercise
‘M’ took a huge amount of work. The wiring of Trent Park took six months. Hundreds of secret listeners transcribed a hundred thousand conversations. But the effort and expense paid off. Perhaps the CIA need to learn foreign languages, build a luxury hotel on a Caribbean island, and start inviting suspected terrorists to beach parties. It would be less exhausting than operating a waterboard machine. And it would remove the suffering and moral degradation, i.e. truly ‘enhance’ the experience for both suspect and spy.

'Torture is the lazy option'
I always used to believe the British judge James Stephen, who wrote of torture in 1883, ‘There is a great deal of laziness in it. It is far pleasanter to sit comfortably in the shade rubbing red pepper into a poor devil's eyes than to go about in the sun hunting up evidence.’ But surely it would be even more pleasant as well as more effective to share a Michelin-star meal with your captive. Aristotle insisted that when deliberating means towards ends people could consciously choose either virtuous or evil means. I trust he would agree with me.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Vulcans Ancient and Modern

As an ardent teenage Trekkie, I became obsessed with Spock’s planet, Vulcan.  In the 4th century AD, while the Roman Empire fragmented, the Vulcans had subordinated their competitive impulses to cooperative ones, and built a reason-based communitarian society where humanoids’ basic needs were universally fulfilled.

Vulcan Collaborates (Dirck van Baburen)
Yorkshire Vulcan
Spock’s Vulcan has this week haunted my investigation of the shifting role of the Greco-Roman deity Hephaestus / Vulcan.  In antiquity he was the proletarian of Olympus, the ugly, lame god who had been brought up on a human island and trained to work in a forge as a manual labourer. He was the butt of Olympian laughter, although receiving sympathy when his wife Venus slept with the handsome war-god Mars. He made fabulous objects—the first robots and Achilles’ armour. But he acquired a reputation as a cowardly collaborator with the top gods, even obeying Zeus when ordered to shackle his own Titan comrade, Prometheus, to the mountain.

Yet Vulcan always had his fans amongst smiths and metalworkers, as a dapper Roman bronze Vulcan found in North Yorkshire implies. And exactly coincidental with the industrial revolution, a heroic, un-comic, non-lame, non-cowardly and inspirational Vulcan suddenly emerged. At first he was adopted by the owners of foundries, as in this cheque issued by Dowlais Ironworks in South Wales in 1813. On the right stands Britannia, but on the left, a near-naked, muscular Vulcan stands with his anvil and hammer in front of the works, leaning on one foot and modelled on the ‘Farnese Hercules’. 

Vulcan was soon adopted by the organised working class, appearing by 1825 on the membership tokens of Mechanics Institutes alongside Minerva (representing education) and Mercury (trade & communications). Vulcan also revealed his progressive face in the campaign to stop small children being forced up chimneys by lighted coals when Lemuel Wellman Wright’s mechanical brushes were marketed as instruments in the campaign against the use of children by adult sweeps: ‘Wright's Patent Vulcan Chimney Sweeping Machines: the only efficient supporters of the law against climbing boys’. Plural Vulcans appeared on Godfrey Sykes’ class-conscious adaptation of the Parthenon frieze for the Sheffield Mechanics Institute in 1854.

The Parthenon Frieze re-imagined for Sheffield Steel Workers
But my favourite class-conscious Vulcan is Paul Lafargue’s revolutionary god who abolishes all labour in The Right to Idleness (1880). Lafargue demanded a THREE-HOUR working day made possible through modern machinery, and illustrated what he meant by Vulcan’s robots, so ‘when the weavers looms were weaving automatically, the master would not need assistants and the bosses no slaves.’ Whether or not Lafargue was actually an expatriate Vulcan, I can’t help thinking that the rational Mr Spock would have approved.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Lloyd George, Roman Britain, and Wales in WW1

Lloyd George, The New Caractacus 
The Old Caractacus
A workshop on World War I allowed me, with lots of help from Welsh-speaking friends,* to talk about one of Elgar’s most jingoistic extravaganzas, his 1898 oratorio Caractacus. Caractacus, or Caradog, was the male equivalent of Boadicea, a British king who led the Welsh tribe of Silures against the Romans. The historian Tacitus reports that he was betrayed by another Brit, captured, and delivered a rousing oration in the Roman forum. So the Emperor Claudius let him off. Caradog retired to a sunlit villa on the Tiber.

"Independence" "Calling the Bravest Man"
But what is the connection with WW1? Partly because of the popularity of Elgar’s work amongst amateur choral societies, from 1904 on there was a craze for Caradog plays, with druidic choruses, in schools such as Abergele County High in north Wales. I have just discovered an extraordinary set of photographs of this school's Welsh-language production. Such theatricals fostered patriotism and martial valour in the young of Cymru.

When the Germans occupied Belgium in 1914, the Welsh were invited to defend the independence of a ‘gallant little country’, as the propaganda put it, just like their own.  Coal mining, which took place in south Wales, was designated an essential industry, but in Welsh-speaking Wales, where the slate quarries had closed, there were thousands of unemployed youths all too easily persuaded to discover their inner Caradog and die at Gallipoli or Ypres.

Abergele County High School's performance (1904)
Welsh youths' identification with Caradog's defiance was made wholly irresistible by the popularity of David Lloyd George, the eloquent Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had passed the radical 1910 ‘People’s Budget’.  In 1911 he stage-managed the theatrical ‘investiture’ of the then Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle, stressing the Welsh origins, through the Tudors, of the crowns of Britain and the Indian Empire. This new Caractacus talked the British Empire into the war and in 1916 became the first Welsh-speaking, non-university-educated Briton to become Prime Minister.  If you contemplate the number of Welshmen who lost their lives 1914-1918, it is difficult not to weep after reading this little Caradog-themed song, used during the recruitment campaign in Lloyd George's homeland:

There were gallant little Welshmen long ago,
Such as Caesar and his stalwart warriors found:
They could then with steady courage meet the foe,
And for home and freedom boldly stand their ground.
Brave Caractacus for Britain fought his best,
And Boadicea, too, the British warrior Queen;
Their spirit lives, though they are long at rest,
Our love of freedom living ever green.
They have proved their ancient valour is not dead,
A foremost where the fiercest fight prevails,
For liberty their dearest blood is shed,
For no Cowards have been found yet made in Wales

'Tis defence and not defiance,
'Tis for freedom not for fame,
'Tis on right we place reliance,
Crying better death than shame.
When our Country calls us forward,
When the enemy assails,
There are loyal hearts to answer,
In gallant little Wales! 

Welsh National War Memorial, Cathays Park, Cardiff

*Lloyd Llewellyn Jones, Chris Pelling, Mai Musie, Suzanne Roberts' husband, Margaret Buckingham Jones: Diolch yn fawr!

Friday 21 November 2014

Ship Art Ancient and Royal Naval

It's dark by teatime and yesterday brought the first toe-crystallisingly cold  day. Time for a fantasy about cruising the turquoise waters of the winedark sea, the prow of my ship cleaving the white-topped waves. But what ship's figurehead should I choose? The Phoenicians liked horses’ heads, while the ancient Greeks imagined their prows as big-eyed boars charging through the undergrowth. But British sailors administering the empire round the seven seas named their ships after classical gods and heroes. Their ships' utmost prows featured carved simulacra representing the figure whose spirit was felt to animate the vessel. These were the images of classical figures most familiar to regular seamen and dockers.  There is an enchanting collection in Portsmouth Royal Navy Museum.

HMS Nutty Orestes
Cool HMS Apollo
Meet the figurehead from HMS Orestes, launched in 1824. Orestes suffered from madness, which may explain why this ship was notorious for the riotous behaviour of its dissatisfied seamen. The guardian deity of HMS Apollo (1805), on the other hand, luminously led his ship to success in both the 'Opium Wars' with China and the Crimean War.

Agitated HMS Eurydice
Imperturbable Minerva
Poor HMS Eurydice’s figurehead looks rather disturbed—unlucky in her ancient myth, meeting death before her time, her ship did indeed come to a sticky end, foundering in 1878.  Yet the gun-boat HMS Minerva survived wisely for decades and was used in Portsmouth harbour for operations even after her retirement at a grand old age.

Warrior figurehead of HMS Colossus
But be astounded by the 3-metre-high colossal warrior from HMS Colossus, wrecked off the Scilly Isles near Cornwall in 1798. The Colossus figure was discovered by an enterprising diver named Carmen Stevens in 2001. The Colossus ship's lost cargo included part of the amazing collection of ancient Greek and Etruscan vases collected by Sir William Hamilton. Some of them are still lurking on the Cornish sea-bed. Their images could change ancient theatre history. I am really annoyed that my dodgy retina means I’m forbidden to scuba dive for ever more. 
Vase with Hephaestus on ass recovered from wreck of HMS Colossus

Saturday 15 November 2014

Homeric Shaggy Dog Story

No Competition
With quite impeccable timing I am at a Homer conference in Slovenia on the day England is playing Slovenia at Wembley in the Euro 2016 qualifier. My own paper clashes with the kickoff. I have begged the conference convenor to shift things round so we can watch the match, but he is a serious intellectual who disapproves of ‘organised sport’ and says no. Slovenia being a tiny country (population: 2 Million), the conference is a sufficiently significant happening to feature on local TV. But I don’t think many Slovenian viewers will be  choosing Homer today.

'Did you remember to buy any dog food?'

Ironically the conference is all about European cooperation: it is a celebration of the translations of the Odyssey  into every official language of the European Union. The paper I shall be delivering as Wayne Rooney goes into action is about a medieval Irish version of the Odyssey called the Merugud (‘Wandering’) of Ulysses McLaertes. Seriously. It is morally an improvement on Homer’s  poem, since there are no suitors involved, not much sex and little bloodshed. 

Being an Irish version, Ulysses spends some time in a pub; since the Irish are obsessed with their hounds, the role of his dog is upgraded.There are no daft recognitions through scars or bedroom furniture: Penelope simply brings in the dog to see whether she (and it is a she) recognises her long-lost master. Delightfully, when the dog ‘heard the sound of Ulysses’ voice, she gave a pull at the chain, so that she sent the four men on their back through the house behind her, and she sprang to the breast of Ulysses and licked his face and his countenance.’ Bless.

The Irish Odysseus's dog version 1
The Irish Odysseus's dog version 2

One reason why this Irish text matters (or so I am arguing) is beecause it is the one that gave James Joyce the idea for his 1922 Ulysses, the foundational novel of both the Irish Republic and of Modernist fiction.  But it also matters because  the dog, who (unlike Homer's) gets to stay alive, is described in a detail missing from the Greek: '"Two shining white sides has she, and a light purple back and a jet-black belly, and a greenish tail," said Ulysses'. To illustrate my talk I am providing two provisional reconstructions copyright and courtesy of S. and G. Poynder respectively.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Children's Adventures in Greek Mythology

The dad who invented children's lit
Literature for children was invented simultaneously with the romantic conception of childhood, in 1805. A very particular child was involved, Mary Godwin (later to pen Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus), born in 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. When her mother died, she became the centre of her father’s emotional world, even after he married yet another Mary, Mary Jane Clairmont, with whom he set up the M.J. Godwin Juvenile Library imprint.

His daughter Mary Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Shelley
The Godwins' combined household contained no fewer than five children. They turned the task of keeping them entertained into a business. In 1805, when little Mary was 8, Godwin produced his exquisitely illustrated version of Aesop, Fables, Ancient and Modern under the pseudonym of Edward Baldwin. It transformed the terms of the debate on what  children should read by introducing the desideratum that it should stimulate their imaginative capacities:

The first real book for children?
Godwin wrote, “If we would benefit a child we must become in part a child ourselves. We must prattle to him...we must introduce quick unexpected turns which... have the effect of wit to children. Above all, we must make our narrations pictures, and render the objects we discourse about, visible to the fancy of the learner… I have fancied myself taking the child upon my knee, and have expressed them in such language as I should have been likely to employ when I wished to amuse the child and make what I was talking of take hold upon his attention.”

Co-written with sister
Godwin’s next children’s books were The Pantheon; or, Ancient History of the Gods of Greece and Rome (1806) and History of Rome: From the building of the city to the ruin of the Republic (1809). More importantly, he commissioned from Charles Lamb a retelling of Shakespeare and the extraordinarily influential Adventures of Ulysses (1808), through which, along with a thousand imitations, generations of children, including James Joyce, have been entranced by Homer.

Norbury Rabbits & Badgers, Experts on the Greeks & Romans!
Lamb co-wrote it with his sister, whose name was—wait for it—Mary. She had stabbed their mother to death and was only allowed out of the lunatic asylum because her (alcoholic) brother had promised to oversee her. Despite (or perhaps because of) their emotional states, they really caught the magic and pathos of the Odyssey. On Tuesday I was completely uplifted by re-experiencing the effect Greek legends can have on seven and eight-year-olds at Stanford School in Norbury, on the invitation of their incredible teacher Fiona McGrath.  Thanks, Badger and Rabbit classes! You made my week!

PS: The version of Greek myths and of the Odyssey our own children loved most were the bittersweet strip cartoons by Marcia Williams. 

Friday 31 October 2014

Childbirth, Rhubarb and Ancient Papyri

It's not your drama, Robbie!
I have never been a fan of singer Robbie Williams. But I will never forgive his self-publicising performance this week while his poor wife struggled to push out their child. He sang the execrable ‘Candy’, which reduces women to ‘mad mare’ status,[i] while she writhed and screamed, psychologically alone.

No mention of rhubarb!

Previously, the worst ‘insensitive husband of parturient woman’ story I had ever heard was this. One day in 1959, Walter Burkert (aka the world expert on ancient religion) told Hugh Lloyd-Jones (about-to-be Regius Prof. of Greek at Oxford) and Reinhold Merkelbach (Prof. at Erlangen) that he couldn’t attend their textual-critical summit on an (absolutely hilarious) newly discovered papyrus text of the ancient Greek comedian Menander about a grumpy misanthrope.  Burkert’s reason was that he was about to become a father, and vaguely felt he should remain at home near his wife. Lloyd-Jones later recalled, in print:  "‘All right,’ said Merkelbach, ‘then we meet in your house!’, and we did meet there and finished the play, poor Frau Burkert sustaining us with an agreeable dish of rhubarb.”

A Wife's True Duty

Did Frau Burkert actually give birth while they deciphered the papyrus under her roof and then COOK RHUBARB FOR THEM? I like to think that she later took revenge by throwing rhubarb, baby and indeed Papyrus Bodmer IV (i.e. the fourth chunk of ancient paper purchased by a man called Martin Bodmer, which resembles this other Bodmer bit of Menander)  at her learned husband.
No rhubarb on this page

As a much-needed antidote to Robbie Williams, and Professor Burkert's rhubarb pie, this week I chaired an inspirational debate at the Oxford Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, a research outfit I co-founded in 1996. The event opposed Professor Peter Parsons (who knows more about texts preserved on ancient papyri than anyone, ever, in history), and  the omniscient Professor Richard Hunter from Cambridge. The topic was an amusing farce discovered on a papyrus in a rubbish dump in the Greek city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. It involves sex, violence and cooking. It was performed perhaps in the fifth century AD, when Christian sensibilities are incorrectly supposed to have had theatre banned centuries before. 

Progress has been made since 1959. I don’t know how they feel about rhubarb, but Profs. Parsons and Hunter are nice to women and also incredibly funny. Prof. Parsons illustrated his talk with classic ‘biff!’ 'pow!' cartoon violence, while Prof. Hunter discussed Australian-rules show wrestlers. Both are true gentlemen who would never, ever try to upstage a poor woman in labour. Robbie W. take note!

[i] I was there to witness
Candice's in her business
She wants the boys to notice
Her rainbows, and her ponies
She was educated but could not count to ten
Now she got lots of different horses
By lots of different men