Happy New Year to readers of this blog! And to start the year off, I’m reviewing an exhibition I went to see over the Christmas break – the Ashmolean’s ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’ (which closes in just a few days, on January 12th; for readers not in Oxford, there are a few pictures of exhibits and a video at the link).
The exhibition is billed as ‘tell[ing] the story of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii’s love affair with food and wine’, and it features plenty of wonderful artefacts relating to that theme, many of them loaned from the Naples Archaeological Museum or from the site of Pompeii itself — from the pots and pans used to cook and serve meals, to depictions of food on frescoes and mosaics, to an actual carbonised loaf of bread. Continue reading “Last Supper in Pompeii at the Ashmolean”
On a recent trip to Oxford, I took in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation‘, mostly because I expected there would some nice multi-lingual manuscripts. I was definitely not disappointed about that – the display started off with some lovely texts like this codex from Mexico, written in Nahuatl and Spanish (left) and this Bible which includes multiple different versions in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (right):
The Iliad tells the story of the Greek hero Achilles’ anger after Briseis, a woman he’s taken captive as his ‘prize’ after sacking her city, is taken away from him by Agamemnon, and the disasters that strike the Greek army after Achilles withdraws from the fighting over this slight. Briseis herself doesn’t feature much in the poem; she’s only mentioned ten times, and only speaks once, to mourn the death of Patroclus, who, she says, was kind to her after her capture by Achilles (19.282ff). Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls (2018) gives us Briseis’ version of the Iliad: the story of the war told from the point of view of one of the many women who lose their homes, families, and freedom at the hands of the Homeric ‘heroes’. It’s a wonderful novel, beautifully written in mostly very simple language that manages to shift seamlessly in and out of near-translations or Homeric references when recounting key moments from the poem: Barker uses this to particularly strong effect when she recreates a Homeric battle-scene — a long list of men suffering gruesome deaths interspersed with small details about their lives or their final moments — then subverts it by giving the alternative version of their story: the one told by their female relatives after their death to their fellow-slaves. Continue reading “The Silence of the Girls – review”
“I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria” proclaims the subject of the British Museum’s current major exhibition, whom the stunningly-lit first object in the display shows in the middle of a lion hunt:
I’ve just had a review published by the Bryn Mawr Classical Review of Louis Godart and Anna Sacconi’s Supplemento al corpus di iscrizioni vascolari in lineare B (Supplement to the Corpus of Linear B Inscribed Stirrup Jars) – a collection of drawings, photographs, and transcriptions of all the Linear B inscriptions painted onto so-called stirrup jars (after the shape of the handles) since Anna Sacconi first published her corpus of these inscriptions in 1974.
An epigraphic corpus isn’t, I admit, the most thrilling thing to read cover-to-cover, but it’s vitally important for researchers to be able to access details of these inscriptions without having to trawl through several decades’ worth of archaeological publications, often in fairly obscure places, to track them all down. The ISJs themselves are also a particularly interesting, important, and problematic set of Linear B inscriptions since they’re the only large group of texts written in this script that aren’t written on clay tablets within a palace or other administrative centre – they’re produced all over Crete, probably written by the same people who made and/or painted the pots, and found in various places on Crete and the Greek mainland – not just in palaces, but also in places with no other known use of the Linear B script, and even in tombs. They’re the subject of all sorts of ongoing debates, from what the inscriptions were for (some say they’re marking the jars, and the oil or wine they contained, as gifts being sent from one palace to another; others, myself included, say they were used to keep track of production as part of the same administrative system as the Linear B tablets), to what they mean for levels of literacy in Linear B (to what extent could the people painting these inscriptions read/understand the signs they were painting?) For more information, you can read the review here, and also check out the article I wrote a few years ago about the ISJs, which is freely available here.
“We have always made monsters: in art, in myth, in religion; out of clay or bronze, pixels or hybrid flesh; from the stuff of human nightmares; by cursing women with bestial traits. This anthology brings together fiction and accessible academic writing in conversation about monsters and their roles in our lives—and ours in theirs.”
So says the blurb from the back cover of Making Monsters. A collaboration between Emma Bridges (Public Engagement Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies) and Djibril al-Ayad (a speculative-fiction editor and publisher), it’s an anthology collecting a mixture of short stories, poems, and essays about (mostly) classical Greek and Roman monsters and our responses to them. Medusa, as shown on the wonderful cover illustration, and Sirens seem to be the most popular of the monsters – and are used by many of the entries to explore the ways in which women in particular are viewed as monsters – but the Furies, Circe the sorceress, and Talos the bronze giant all make appearances too, and there are even some monsters from further afield like the Japanese tengu. It’s a wonderfully varied collection – some of my favourites are Megan Arkenberg‘s re-imagining of Danae as an inventor of living mechanical creations that I would have loved to have seen animated by Ray Harryhausen; L. Chan‘s “Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement”, in which a harassed Singaporean civil servant attempts to get a group of monsters to agree to relocate from the locations they haunt; and Margaret McLeod‘s poem “Helen of War”, putting a different spin on the mythological tradition that says that Helen of Troy never went to Troy at all. There’s definitely something for everyone in this anthology, and I’d highly recommend getting hold of a copy to anyone who likes mythology and/or speculative fiction!
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.