Thursday 29 January 2015

Syriza's Minotaur-Slayer

The saturnine new Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has a face like a gangster and the worked-out body of a fitness fanatic. His rhetoric is scathing, cogent, and graphic. He quotes Dylan Thomas and Aeschylus. He calls the austerity measures imposed on Greece ‘fiscal waterboarding.’ 

Varoufakis wrote the dazzling 2011 polemic The Global Minotaur. It equates the beast in the lair of world capitalism, the American banking system, with the insatiable man/bull of Minoan Crete to whom human tributes—the sons and daughters of Athenians—were given to devour every year. The Minotaur myth may originally have arisen as an expression of the imperial subjection of Mycenaean Greek communities to the Bronze Age Cretan monarchy. But the new, global Minotaur of economic imperialism was born in the 1970s, when vast sums of capital began to be sent to Wall Street from all over the world, creating unsustainable contradictions which precipitated the 2008 crash.
1974 cartoon on fall of Greek dictatorship

This Minotaur is dying, says our latterday Theseus, himself born in Athens: the imminent combat between him and the global Minotaur's lackeys at the European Central Bank is set to be an exciting spectacle.

Varoufakis is not the first polemicist to equate an opponent with the Minotaur. Martin Luther was compared to the monster by his leading Roman Catholic foe. And the Victorian reformer William T. Stead, who invented modern journalism in his 1885 exposés of London vice rings pimping girl-child prostitutes,  saw the rich men who demanded constant supplies of new victims as Minotaurs;  Stead’s series was called The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, and was written in prose as colourful as Varoufakis’s: 

William Stead,  Victorian Minotaur-slayer
This very night in London, and every night, year in and year out, not seven maidens only, but many times seven, selected almost as much by chance as those who in the Athenian market-place drew lots as to which should be flung into the Cretan labyrinth, will be offered up as the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. Maidens they were when this morning dawned, but to-night their ruin will be accomplished, and to-morrow they will find themselves within the portals of the maze of London brotheldom… The maw of the London Minotaur is insatiable, and none that go into the secret recesses of his lair return again.

Varoufakis, with hair, versus American Economic Imperialism
Stead’s lurid press campaign was instrumental in the age of consent being raised by the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 from just 13 to 16. The Minotaur of mass child sex abuse in London was slain. We shall have to wait and see whether the Greek election and the appointment of such an articulate economist as Varoufakis may similarly presage the demise of the 21st century's ravening Minotaur at the centre of the world banking shambles.

Friday 23 January 2015

Breasts from the Amazons to Page Three

Amazon Queen of Czechoslovakia
This week  starred  mammary glands and their role in matriarchy and patriarchy.  I thought I knew everything about matriarchal legends, but my trip to Eastern Europe introduced me to the two Amazonian warrior queens, Libussa and Valasca, who founded Prague and ran it as socialist feminists in the 8th century AD.

 Then my review of Adrienne Mayor’s thrilling  book on the Amazons appeared in New Statesman. It is a global history of mounted warrior women, skilled in archery. Many classical myths about Amazons turn out to have archaeological substantiation. In the Tarim Basin (north-west China), a mass grave of the second/first century BC contains the skeletons of 133 male and female nomads killed in combat. One trouser leg was discovered, amazingly, to be decorated with a centaur blowing a war trumpet like those blown by Amazons and Scythians in ancient Greek art.

Just about the only Amazon myth containing no truth is that they routinely cut off one breast; this was a false etymology of Amazones, a prehistoric Iranian ethnic term unconnected to the Greek word for ‘breast’, mastos or mazos.

Speaking of present and absent breasts, I can’t be certain whether the man who in 1970 invented the Page Three Girl would have encountered Greek etymology when he attended Rastrick Grammar School in Yorkshire, but exposure to Latin and thus to Camilla, the Amazon of the Aeneid, is likely. 

 Lamb (right) with Bob Maxwell
Did Camilla excite Larry Lamb?
Albert aka ‘Larry’ Lamb, later knighted by Margaret Thatcher for insulting miners, was the son of a coalfield blacksmith. Because his father died, Larry was forced to leave school at 16, and later admitted that he had ‘a substantial chip on my shoulder, on the grounds that I am not educated, and I should have been.’ If he had gone through sixth form and university, might he have learned enough about class, gender and race to change the history of British popular journalism (he also opposed the release of Mandela)?

David Phalakros Dinsmore
We will never know. Lamb is no longer with us. To be fair, in his memoir Sunset he confided that the Page Three Girl was probably a mistake. His view is not shared by the current Sun editor David Dinsmore, a demented-looking hairless Glaswegian  whom the Greeks would have called phalakros (‘penis-head’). Reports of the demise of the Page Three Girl earlier this week were on Thursday proved to be premature by Nicole from Bournemouth. Dinsmore is a graduate, of Paisley and Columbia, in Business and Management Skills. I hope it was in the USA, not Scotland, that he learned to be such a booby.

Saturday 17 January 2015

Tearing down the Iron (Stage) Curtain

As a child I was fascinated by the Eastern bloc. I took out a subscription to Soviet Weekly with my pocket money, to read exalted claims about factory outputs and stories with boy-meets-tractor plots. 

As a student in the 1980s, I contacted classicists behind the ‘iron curtain’, and discovered that they were neither monsters nor always victims of persecution. In fact, they were much better adjusted and presentable than most of their British counterparts. 

So this week’s conference in Warsaw has fulfilled a longstanding dream: Classics and Communism in Theatre has brought together experts on performances in Eastern bloc countries to illuminate what the ancient Greeks meant on eastern stages before 1989. I am one of a gang of just four occidentals here to stress that there were also committed communists using ancient drama west of the curtain, from the founders of the Provincetown Players to Cuba, C.L.R. James to Joan Littlewood. She was inspired by her production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to produce the socially engaged musical theatre most familiar from her Oh! What a Lovely War.

"Let's perform a Greek tragedy, Tovaritch!"
The quality of the delivery and of the content of the papers is staggering. The delegates all speak better English than we do, and assume a grasp of cultural theory so sophisticated that it puts me to shame. The revelations have been spine-tingling: the censoring of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes in East Berlin just after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Red Army, bizarrely, performing Euripides’ uncheerful Hippolytus in a Bolshevik celebratory pageant on May Day 1920.

There have been some mirthful moments. One eminent Polish archaeologist reacted to footage from  Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, starring a very overweight actress as Clytemnestra, yelling ‘Eat less!’ across the auditorium. We heard about the side-splitting pranks played on Slovenian bureaucrats by a rebel playwright/classicist in the late 1940s. We were petrified by a Russian Professor who complained about the (excellent) facilities, ran FORTY minutes over time and interrupted every interlocutor--all this at a conference where Russian imperialism was the underlying context.

We’re planning a repeat meeting in a couple of years, maybe on our different national/ideological experiences of classical themes in history painting: perhaps I’ll bring all my new friends over to London next time.

Friday 9 January 2015


Tony 'the Hoodie'
If the earliest Greeks invented satire, it was the Greeks of Alexandria in Egypt who kept the vital practice alive under the Roman Empire. The Greek historian Herodian reports how the Emperor Caracalla murdered thousands of Alexandrians just because they had used laughter to criticise his regime.

Caracalla’s real name was Antony (his nickname was taken from the distinctive hoodie he wore). After murdering his brother Geta, he became sole ruler of the empire in 211. In 215, exactly eighteen centuries ago, he decided to visit Alexandria. This was ostensibly to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great, but (according to Herodian) he had another motive:

caracalla: a Gaullish tunicwith a hood
“While he was still residing in Rome, both while his brother was alive and after he was murdered, reports came to Caracalla that the Alexandrians were continually poking fun at him. The Alexandrians are naturally inclined to mockery at the expense of those at the top of the tree. Although these clever jests may seem very funny to those who produce them, they inflict severe pain on those who are ridiculed.

“The most acute pain is caused by jokes which expose one’s defects.  So they cracked jokes about the emperor murdering his brother. They called his elderly mother 'Jocasta' [because Julia Domna was old enough to be, as Oedipus’ wife Jocasta actually had been, her children’s grandmother]; they mocked him because, despite his own short stature, he aspired to be like the most courageous and tallest heroes, Alexander and Achilles.”

So the short, humourless but “naturally brutal and irascible Caracalla” invited all the young men of the city to a military festivity, and had his own troops systematically execute every single one. The Nile ran with their blood, but still Caracalla’s malice was not assuaged, and he slaughtered thousands of the other citizens.

Caracalla  Tramples Crocodile representing Egypt?
Two years later Caracalla was himself assassinated, while urinating beside a Syrian highway, by his own bodyguard. But neither the shortness of his life, nor the ignominy of his undignified death, will have been any comfort to the Alexandrians. They had not only lost innumerable family members, but had suffered this blow simply because of their their skill at expressing themselves freely about abusive practices, as a proud citizenry “naturally inclined to mockery at the expense of those at the top of the tree.”


Saturday 3 January 2015

Ancient Cats and Modern Moggies

RequiesCAT in pace, Poppy
A TV round-up of ‘major events' in 2014 reminded us all of the momentous death at the age of 24 of the world’s oldest cat (according to the Guinness Book of Records), Poppy the tortoiseshell from Bournemouth. While I am sceptical, to say the least, that there are not older living representatives of the species felis silvestris catus or felis domesticus, I am now staking a claim to the world record for my parents’ cat Sheba, born early in 1992. She was once our own cat, and her real name is Gas Board (her sadly deceased sister was called ‘Lecky’, or ‘Electricity’).

Gas Board, the oldest cat alive?
The ancient Greeks had much to say on the subject of dogs, but information about cats is much harder to find. The word for cat, aielouros, probably means ‘twisting tail’; my future as a Professor of Greek was probably determined when I was eight and asked my father why our tabby was called Ailoura.

Cambyses, the felines' foe
The most famous cat story in ancient authors is not about Greece at all: it concerns the Persian emperor Cambyses insulting the people of an Egyptian city he was besieging. Cambyses did something unconventional with cats, which the Egyptians of course believed to be sacred: he probably did not use actually use them as missiles, as some artists have suggested, but may have carried them in the ranks or painted them on his men’s shields.

Artemis' Avatar at Vravrona
In one Greek comedy, the Acharnians of Aristophanes, a pedlar arrives in Athens from central Greece  to sell edible flora and fauna, including ‘geese, hares, foxes, moles, hedgehogs, CATS, martins, otters and eels.’ When the satyrs in another play are asking about the newly invented musical instrument, the lyre, which they have heard but not seen, they ask the nymph of the mountain whether it resembles a cat or a panther.

But the untold story of cats in ancient Greece I am convinced has much to do with temple sanctuaries, especially those of Artemis, deity of small furry mammals. When I visited the Athenians’ dazzling sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron (Vravrona), I was met at the gates and escorted all round it by the vocal young female, the goddess’s avatar, in the photo above. And then when I researched vases illustrating Artemis’ Black Sea temple at Sevastopol for my book Adventures with Iphigenia, what did I find but a cat involved in sacred rituals? But nobody has ever explained exactly what the man holding the cat is doing. Suggestions in the comments section, please!