Friday 29 December 2017

Five Ancient Greek Rings for the 5th Day of Christmas

The Five Gold Rings of the Fifth Day of Christmas were originally Jesuit ‘code’ for the Pentateuch, the first five Old Testament books. But snow has confined me to an AIRBNB flat in Leith, so I've here assembled Five Pagan Rings.

1] A rich Mycenaean’s grave, recently excavated near Pylos in the Peloponnese, contained gems engraved with astounding intricacy and this fine gold ring. Our Mycenaean may have raided it from Crete, because its bull-jumping scene, with its mysterious links to the Minotaur legend, is typical of Minoan art.

Theseus collects Minos' ring from Amphitrite on Ocean Floor
2] It was when sailing to Crete to kill the Minotaur that Theseus became star of my favourite ring-myth, told by an undervalued poet called Bacchylides. The sexual harasser King Minos tried to terminate Theseus. He threw his golden ring into the sea and ordered Theseus to retrieve it. This was silly, since Theseus was a champion underwater swimmer and the son of Poseidon. Assisted by friendly dolphins, he surfaced with the ring and a new outfit his stepmum Amphitrite gave him in her sea-floor palace.

3] Why do engagement and wedding rings symbolise fidelity? They often signified treachery and falsehood in antiquity. The most famous ancient ring belonged to Gyges. Plato tells the story while asking whether we would all misbehave if we could do so with impunity. 

Gyges was a shepherd who came across a ring of invisibility which enabled him to have sex with the queen, kill the king, and take over the throne.  It can be a good party game to get people to confess how they would use a ring of invisibility: I would reserve it for forcibly redistributing wealth and Bad Hair Days.

4] In Lucian’s dialogue Lover of Lies, a pathological liar called Eucrates describes how an iron ring, given him by a mysterious Arabian, allowed him to visit Hades. He inspected the River of Fire, the Acheron and Cerberus. He recognised his own dad because ‘he was still wearing the same clothes in which we buried him’.

Chaircleia, heroine of Heliodorus' Novel
5] The Fifth Ring belongs to Charicleia, the heroine of the novel An Ethiopian Story. Its gem is an Ethiopian amethyst, ‘more beautiful than those of Spain or Britain’.  The intricacy of the scene engraved on it is literally incredible. A shepherd boy supervising several pastures plays his pipe to his flocks. Lambs jump, climb rocks and dance in a circle round the shepherd. The youngest lambs try to escape but are prevented by a golden band representing a wall.

The dancing sheep are explicitly described as creating ‘a bucolic theatre’. This has excited historians of the ancient theatre who have used it as evidence for a genre of ancient pastoral drama. This is, sadly, to miss the point: the scene on the ring represents fiction’s power to write things into existence that are impossible in reality.

But there are times when I want to go with the more literal-minded amongst my academic colleagues. Having been appalled by the expensive mediocrity of Shrek: the Musical on Boxing Day, and since our TV aerial became detached in shock at the appearance of the new Dr Who, I would much enjoy a pastoral show with dancing sheep right now.  

Sunday 10 December 2017

New Wave Anti-Democrats, Aristotle, and Winter Snow

The first snow of winter falls as I hear evasive politicians talk specious rubbish about sovereignty and referenda on the Andrew Marr Show.  I have not watched Game of Thrones, despite my usual enthusiasm for ‘popular culture’, yet one line in it, ‘Winter is Coming’—I am told the motto of the wholly undemocratic House of Stark—has become emblematic for our political times.

Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has to sell her lovely hair and plunges into the last lap of her race to premature death, thus orphaning her little daughter, because she has no money in winter. ‘In winter there is no heat, no light, evening touches morning… Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man.’  

My own heart feels turned into stone because not one but four intelligent, educated and mildly famous individuals—a BBC Radio presenter, a young but celebrated theatre director, a Professor of Classics and an MP—have over the last few weeks all said to me privately that they are no longer convinced that democracy is A Good Thing. Two of them cited Aristotle, who says in his Politics that democracy can lead to tyranny. Yes, but democracy is also the constitution that he finds fewest faults with, and which he says fails when there is too much inequality between rich and poor.

Once the leftist-liberal middle class who lead the British thought-world give up on democracy as a system worth preserving, then winter for our sceptred isles may indeed be coming. What concerns me is that these people have never been crypto-oligarchs, like the Etonians in the Tory government, but sincere democrats. I now see that this was only because democracy was producing the results that they wanted. The minute the ‘masses’ start asking for things that such influential opinion-makers don’t like, the system which gives ‘the masses’ some form of say in how things are run must itself be brought into question.

"We can't have housewives deciding things"
All four acquaintances reminded me of Jean Rey, once President of the European Commission, who annoyed me when I was a teenager in 1974 by bemoaning the use of a referendum on EU membership in the UK: ‘I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives. It should be decided instead by trained and informed people.’
And the trouble is that our modern version of democracy, instead of meaning that the people (demos) gets real executive power (kratos), worked for such successful individuals as now criticise democracy only because it safeguarded the monopoly on most of the money, nice jobs and privileges enjoyed by their (and my) section of the population. There was always going to be a backlash, and in countries like the UK and the USA, creaking public education systems means that the backlash has sometimes been ill-informed.

The problem lies not in democracy as such, but in the ultimate failure of post-war democracy to stop large sections of the population being frozen out of basic necessities of life and a decent education.  Aristotle, who believed everything in nature had an objective, never answered to his own satisfaction exactly what purpose was served by rain and snow in winter. I feel I understand his bewilderment, at least on a metaphorical level.