Friday 25 December 2015

The Ancient & Modern Woman in the Moon

I gazed at the last Christmas Full Moon, in 1977, from the window of a Swiss hotel where I was becoming radicalised, working a 20-hour shift as a waitress. More deserving of concerted efforts at memory was that mystical Christmas Eve of 1968, when I was as enraptured as all of us humans waiting for Apollo 8 to return from our species’ first ever flight round the dark far side of the moon. 

Ten orbits and a spine-chilling reading from Genesis broadcast to Planet Earth later, as an eight-year-old also waiting for Santa, the moon became associated for me with incredible excitement. Santa welded with the Man in the Moon, and my brain has confused his chariot with a NASA space rocket ever since.

Selene drives her winged horses

After handing in my notice in Switzerland (hard, because they confiscated all Gastarbeiters’ passports) I went to university and discovered one of the biggest cons of all time: the inhabitant of the moon whose face you can sometimes see is not male at all but female. Plutarch (who has had a moon crater named after him as reward) wrote a treatise with the catchy title Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon. It has been very important in the history of science, as an inspiration for Johannes Keppler in his early 17th-century Somnium, the first serious study of lunar astronomy. But Plutarch’s text quotes a Greek poet who saw in the moon ‘a maiden’s face, with moistened cheeks, which blush to meet the gaze.’ 

Selene with Crescent Moon hat
Long before the Greeks merely associated the moon with Artemis, Diana/Cynthia/or Hecate, they actually personified her as Selene, a disturbing, beautiful name of high antiquity stretching back to early Indo-European hunter-gatherer times. Selene, like Santa, had a chariot; sometimes she rode horseback. She had a great love life, since her boyfriend, the good-looking cowherd Endymion, was kept eternally young and asleep in a cave awaiting their next erotic encounter. She had exciting children including the Dew, the Months, and the poet Mousaios as well as the exquisite Narcissus and the dangerous Nemean lion.

"Honey, wake up. I'm ovulating!"

As a Briton I am proud that the idea that the goddess’s train of escorts were in fact green seems to have been the invention of the English showman Elkanah Settle, whose spectacular musical The World in the Moon (1697) included five green men dancing in Cynthia’s lunar court, to music by Daniel Purcell.

Lunar Crater 'HYPATIA'
But as a woman I am more impressed that according to the official Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature maintained by the International Astronomical Union, amongst the tiny proportion of moon craters named after women, the ancient astronomer Hypatia does at least feature alongside Plutarch and Aristarchus etc. 

Elfie begins her Lunar Escapade
And as soon as I have made the mince pies and finished trying to peer behind the clouds atop my wold to see the moon, which will be at its fullest shortly (11.11 GMT), I am going to return to Feminist Adventures in Lunar Lore. I am reading Frances Vescelius Austen’s Elfie's Visit to Cloudland and the Moon, partly based on Lucian’s thrilling moon-travel story in his True Histories. Austen’s novel antedates L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by several years, and thus may lay claim to feature the first female quest heroine in modern literature.
Dawn, Evening Star and Selene on a vase in St. Petersburg

Friday 18 December 2015

Boxing, Racism & Sports Reportage

Tyson Fury: What's Not to Dislike?
Which character in ancient Greek myth most resembles the British world heavyweight boxing champion, Tyson Fury, ill-famed for his invectives against females and gays? There were plenty of misogynist ranters in ancient Greece. The super-athlete Heracles was prominent amongst them. But he was attracted to beautiful youngsters of both sexes. Homophobia was not amongst Heracles’ vices.

Fury has Irish Traveller blood and has suffered from racism. But, paradoxically, he disgorges anti-immigrant abuse.  He would, I fear, have been urging on the bigoted crowd in the epoch-marking boxing match which took place near East Grinstead exactly 205 years ago, on 18th December 1810.

Molineaux, robbed of his victory over Tom Cribb, 205 years ago
Tom Molineaux, a former slave from Carolina, was billed as ‘The Black Ajax’. The Greek hero Ajax was not in fact a boxer, but a champion wrestler; in Iliad 23, his bout with Odysseus is declared a draw because although he is physically stronger, Odysseus is his superior strategically. This makes the rigged defeat of the Black Ajax at the bare-knuckled fists of English heavyweight champion Tom Cribb, a former Bristol docker, even more painful. By the end of the match, wrote the eye-witness Pierce Egan, ‘you never saw two men so dead and yet alive, disfigured so bloody you could only tell ’em apart by their skins’.
Cribb was felt to be defending the honour of white men against their black brethren. Britons felt outraged at the ease with which the Black Ajax had that summer demolished two famous English pugilists, 'The Bristol Terror' and 'Tom Tough'.

Black Ajax laid out Cribb decisively in the 28th round. Appalled that the American was about to be declared victor, Cribb’s second accused him of cheating. This created a long delay which allowed Cribb to come round and get back on his feet. Molineaux, flustered by this stratagem, was  finally defeated in the bloodbath of the 35th round.

Yet Egan, the  father of sports journalism (he claimed that Homer was actually the first sports reporter though) and self-advertised expert on ancient athletics (his soubriquet was 'the Plutarch of Boxing'), saw through the racist trickery. In his genre-founding Boxiana: or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812), he insisted that underhand means and the crowd’s bias had robbed Black Ajax of a glorious victory: ‘It will not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, that it was Molineaux’s colour alone that prevented him becoming the hero of that fight.’

Molineaux’s career never recovered. He got drunk before the rematch and lost in 19 minutes. He died of alcoholism in Ireland just eight years later.  Until Tyson Fury began his outrageous public tirade against immigrants, the fixing of the Black Ajax’s defeat by Tom Cribb retained the dubious distinction of being the most shameful event ever in British sporting history.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Travails with the Letter "S" Ancient & Modern

The remainder of the current blog may create an odd effect, but I can’t currently make my mouth and teeth yield what would hit your ear like the alphabetic entity in my title.  I am therefore writing the way I declaim and pledge to avoid the relevant letter (bar the indented material quoted from other people below).

For I have today taken the orthodontic plunge and had metal put within my teeth to de-rabbit them.  The brilliant Dr Clare McNamara, of Cheltenham Orthodontic fame, warned me about the problematic letter.

On returning home I found an email from the British Broadcathting Pronunthiation Unit, which read, unbelievably,

Dear Professor Hall,
One of our broadcasters has asked us to research the correct pronunciation for some of the alternative names of Odysseus and I was hoping you were available to advise us today.
If you do happen to have some time, could you please help us with the pronunciations of the following names?
 Olysseus/ λυσσεύς
Oulixeus /Ολιξεύς
I’d be happy to call you if you send me a contact number and a convenient time to call.

I cannot tell you what a droll phone dialogue that would have been. Try reading the above email but  putting “th” or “f” in for every you-know-what and for every “x” too. I recommended another academic.

Dionythiuth of Halicarnatthuth
Ancient Greek oratory often avoided the letter I cannot currently utter. An expert on putting together language called Dionysius of Halicarnassus deemed the effect of the letter we are talking about “charm-free” and "repellent", but then, with that name, he had probably had enough of it.

Pericleth' Funeral Oration
The Athenian general [dammit! I can’t refer to Greek nomenclature without my alphabetic item!], of whom the name began with "P", a great orator, avoided it. The tragedian beginning with “E” liked the effect it made in the mouth of clever and angry people like Medea, often aurally catlike.

Another, anon. drama, of which we have a fragment, experimented with avoiding the letter altogether. Had the author been having dental work done? In it the Titan beginning with “A”, who held up the firmament on their neck, and the hero beginning with “H”, who performed many a labour, had a quarrel off Gibraltar. The aural effect will have been like hearing me in my current condition.

The technical name for omitting one letter throughout a work = (ha! You thought you would catch me out with conjugating the verb “to be”!) LIPOGRAMMATIC.  I offer you here a very rough Anglophone rendition of the mediocre ancient Greek lipogrammatic dramatic dialogue chunk with A  and H. I am too tired to bother imitating the effect of the lack of the naughty letter here, and drop it in liberally. But I would love to hear from anyone feeling up to the job.

Atlas         I promised to bring apples here. Here they are. Take them. I didn’t promise anything else. I have kept my promise.
Heracles   I have been deceived. Perfidy! Infamy! I call upon heavenly Themis [goddess who protected people who’d had oaths sworn to them] to witness that Atlas has been dishonest with Heracles, although immortal by birth. I shall pursue him, even though I am a human on my mother’s side, since Zeus is my true father.
Atlas         Go and scare others, not me. Mother Earth is proud that she bore me first among the Titans, blood relatives of Cronus. We ruled with him on Mount Olympus.

Heracles   Justice, who supports the gods, has given a fierce look, even though she lives far away. [From Bodmer Papyrus 28]

Friday 4 December 2015

Democracy vs the Iron Law of Oligarchy (Again)

The most irritating rhetoric spouted in the British parliamentary debate on Wednesday entailed the phrases ‘pinpoint accuracy’ and ‘precision laser targeting’ to produce ‘maximum lethality’ by ‘highly trained professionals’. The MPs getting high on language they found on the RAF website have clearly never been inside the cockpit of a Tornado (I have). 

This model of fighter aircraft needs to be pensioned off. It has been in use for more than four decades. Rather than computer screens, it uses 1980s dials. Compared with the new Typhoon, it is notoriously difficult to manoeuvre, except in a straight line, and contains so many sensors that even crew admit they are hard to operate.

When a democracy decides to go to war, the people making the decision, in my view, should be informed about the military equipment available to them. They should also be prepared to fight, or send their own children to fight, in person.

Athenians had to Walk the War Walk as well as Talk the War Talk
This was the case in the ancient Athenian Direct Democracy, in which the citizen mass (demos) wielded executive power (kratos). Of course each citizen—let’s call him Hilarios Antonides Bennos—could go along to the Pnyx Hill People’s Assembly to a ‘shall we go to war?’ debate, and get excited about ‘Standing Firm with Our Oldest Allies’ or ‘Attic Values’ or ‘Precision Hoplite Combat’. But if Hilarios Antonides did vote  that way he could personally expect to be standing on the front row of the phalanx, with a 50% chance of survival, within weeks.

I was fascinated by Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to bypass the ludicrous limitations of Representative Democracy by asking what his party members thought. He emailed all of us and requested our views.  This is not Rocket, or even Fighter Jet Science. It is a leader taking seriously his responsibilities to the people who elected him .

It was as long ago as 1911 that a German political theorist called Robert Michels pointed out that representative democracies inevitably deteriorate and turn into oligarchies (‘the iron law of oligarchy', das eherne Gesetz der Oligarchie). Those sanctimonious parliamentarians 'representing' us actually constitute an oligarchy or ‘rule by the few’.

Which leads me to the most toxic sentences in the history of British democracy, constantly cited by MPs to justify misrepresenting their electorate. In 1774 Edmund Burke contested the parliamentary seat for Bristol. His opponent had argued that if he were elected he would regard his own opinions as subordinate to those of his constituents. Burke belligerently asserted the opposite—the transcendent right of (self-evidently intellectually and morally superior) MPs to vote any way they goddam liked:

Edmund Burke Still Haranguing on Bristol Quay
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents... But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

The Bristolians, unfathomably, voted for this self-obsessed burk, who was so confident in his own mature judgement, enlightened conscience etc.  But that is any reason why, 239 years later, we should still tolerate such arrogance in our elected representatives?