Book review: Colm Tóibín, House of Names

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I’m always interested to see how contemporary writers retell stories from the ancient world. When it’s done well, it can lead to a fascinating interplay between the ancient and modern versions of the stories – for instance, see my previous review of a wonderful collection of short stories based (loosely) around the Odyssey. I had pretty high hopes when House of Names, by the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, was published in 2017. The book is based on the myths of the House of Atreus, as told in various Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia on his departure to the Trojan War; his murder, and that of the Trojan princess Cassandra, by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus on his return; her subsequent murder by her son Orestes, encouraged by his sister Electra). Plenty of scope for a novelist of Tóibín’s talents (his novel on Irish migration to America, Brooklyn, won the Costa Book award and became a bestseller, and I can definitely recommend it) – and also, I have to say, an excellent cover, with the swallows from the Spring Fresco of Akrotiri.

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Epigraphic explorations of Athens

Being an epigrapher – someone who studies inscriptions – definitely means that I pay a lot more attention to the different kinds of writing that I see as I walk around a city, and that happens even more when I’m learning a language and so trying to practice reading as much as possible. While walking around Athens during my recent stay there, I found myself thinking a lot about the similarities between the kinds of inscriptions I was seeing and classical Greek and Roman inscriptions — particularly when it came to graffiti, which is something that Athens has a LOT of, and of which quite a lot of ancient examples also survive, mainly from the Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. Here’s one of the nicest (most optimistic) graffiti messages I saw in Athens, which reads “Αθήνα η πόλη της τέχνης και της ελπίδας!!” (Athina i poli tis tehnis ke tis elpithas) — “Athens, the city of art and of hope!!”

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On learning (modern) Greek

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A couple of years ago Johanna Hanink, a classicist at Brown University, wrote an excellent essay entitled ‘On not knowing (modern) Greek‘, discussing the fact that very few scholars of ancient Greek ever learn modern Greek; the average classicist studying ancient Greece is more likely to study French, German, and/or Italian than to learn the modern language of the country they study. Hanink argues very persuasively that this privileging of other modern European languages over Greek is effectively a continuation of 19th-century colonialist attitudes towards contemporary, as opposed to classical, Greeks:

…why does Modern Greek still not have a seat at the classicists’ table?

This is, bluntly put, largely because our discipline continues to take a colonialist view of, among other things, Greece, Greeks, and (Modern) Greek. Historians and anthropologists who work on Greece have been much more willing than classicists to acknowledge the country’s legacy of metaphorical colonization: not by the Ottomans, but by the early European antiquaries and travelers who planted their flags in the ruins of Greek antiquity…Viewed through the lens of the present, the people who undertook this more “symbolic” colonization of Greece look a great deal like early versions of classicists.

One of the story’s many legacies is that classicists trained in the “Western” classical tradition tend to disregard Modern Greek as a scholarly language, while Greeks who want to participate in the tradition — to have their voices and ideas heard abroad— earn degrees in other countries and publish their research in English, German, or French. Granting Modern Greek a more valued place in the professional conversation would be a positive step for a field that, on the point of colonialism, has a lot to answer for.

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Archaic statues and Eleusinian mysteries at the Acropolis Museum

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The Acropolis from the top floor of the museum

Athens’ Acropolis Museum is, naturally, best known for its display of sculptures from the Parthenon (in a mixture of originals and casts, many of the originals being, controversially, in the British Museum). Stunning though this top-floor display is, with views straight across to the Parthenon from the galley (see photo, unfortunately taken on a rather cloudy day), it’s not actually my favourite part of the museum – that prize goes to the first-floor display of the older archaic sculptures, dating from the 7th century to the early 5th century BCE (the Parthenon was built in the mid-5th century). Some of these sculptures are from the pediments of earlier temples on the Acropolis, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 480/479 BCE; others are freestanding statues set up on the Acropolis as dedications to the goddess Athena. (I can’t post photos here as you’re not allowed to take photos of the collections, but there is a nice selection of pictures available on the museum’s website). Continue reading “Archaic statues and Eleusinian mysteries at the Acropolis Museum”

New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’

Pylos labyrinth tabletI’m very pleased to say that an article of mine has just appeared in the journal Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici (‘Mycenaean and Aegean-Anatolian Studies’). Although the article is called ‘The mystery of the Mycenaean “Labyrinth”‘, it’s not about the mythical Labyrinth in which the Athenian hero Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of the Cretan princess Ariadne, or even the possible links this myth could have to the real Bronze Age Cretan palace of Knossos (which I’ve written a bit about before when I made a Labyrinth cake, pictured on the right). Rather, it’s about the Mycenaean Greek word for ‘labyrinth’ and what this can potentially tell us about the value of particular signs of the Linear B script (hence the subtitle: ‘the value of Linear B pu2 and related signs’). Continue reading “New article: The mystery of the Mycenaean ‘Labyrinth’”

Monumental finds on Keros Dhaskalio

Exciting results from excavations carried out on the Greek island of Keros by archaeologists from Cambridge, Greece, and Cyprus: in the Early Bronze Age (the 3rd millennium BCE) the promontory (now an island) of Dhaskalio was almost entirely covered in monumental buildings made of imported marble. Not only that, but this ritual centre was also home to two sophisticated metalworking workshops and a drainage system. You can read the full report from the British School at Athens here.

 

A CREWS-themed display at the Fitzwilliam Museum: installation day

For anyone who enjoyed the Codebreakers and Groundbreakers exhibition – or who’s still planning to go see it – here’s another ancient writing display at the Fitzwilliam Museum!

We have been dying to tell you all about a new display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, focusing on some of the writing systems we are working on in the CREWS project. It started today (Tuesday 16th January) and will run until Sunday 10th June, which gives you plenty of time to come and see it! Here is the Fitzwilliam’s web page on the display: Writing in Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean.

The objects in the display are written in a number of different ancient writing systems, with Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Demotic, Babylonian and Ugaritic cuneiform, Cretan Hieroglyphic, Linear A, Cypro-Minoan, the Cypriot Syllabary, Phoenician and the Greek alphabet.

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