April 17, 2017

A Father and Son's Final Odyssey

In the last year of my dad’s life, we retraced Odysseus’ voyage and learned what Homer teaches about life’s journeys and what it means to yearn for home.


October 10, 2016

"the oldest melody in existence"


The lyrics are very difficult to translate, but one academic has come up with this rendering of them:

‘Once I have endeared the deity, she will love me in her heart,
the offer I bring may wholly cover my sin, 
bringing sesame oil may work on my behalf in awe may I'

Gilgamesh and tyranny

Danielle Allen in the Washington Post:

The world’s oldest surviving text is about how to deal with a problem like Donald Trump. In the “Epic Gilgamesh,” which dates to 2100 B.C., the people of the city of Uruk in Mesopotamia lift their voices to the gods in complaint about their king, Gilgamesh. In David Ferry’s marvelous translation, the people of Uruk lament: “Neither the father’s son nor the wife of the noble is safe in Uruk; neither the mother’s daughter nor the warrior’s bride is safe.”

The people first try to protect themselves by seeking a double for Gilgamesh, someone who is in some important sense like him, who can contend with him and who can keep him in check. . . . In the epic, the double’s name is Enkidu, and it is Enkidu who finally blocks Gilgamesh from entering a bridal chamber ahead of the bridegroom. . . . In the epic “Gilgamesh,” the tyrant becomes a good king only when he comes to recognize that in his own mortality he is no greater than the lowliest peasant. Reflecting on death, he says, “And then I saw a worm fall out of his nose. Must I die too?” Assimilating this lesson, Gilgamesh is at last able to rein in his passions, develop virtues and become a beneficent king.

Scientists Trace Society’s Myths to Primordial Origins

Julien d'Huy in Scientific American:

The first version of the Cosmic Hunt, the ancestor of all the other accounts of the story of Callisto, reconstructed from three different databases, would have gone like this: A man is hunting an ungulate; the hunt takes place in the sky or ends there; the animal is alive when it is transformed into a constellation; and this constellation is the one we know as Ursa Major.

October 1, 2015


A newly discovered Gilgamesh tablet, with Humbaba -- and monkeys?

June 16, 2015

James Joyce Explains Why Ulysses Is the Most “Complete Man” inLiterature

"Hamlet is a human being, but he is a son only. Ulysses is son to Laertes, but he is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all. Don’t forget that he was a war dodger who tried to evade military service by simulating madness. He might never have taken up arms and gone to Troy, but the Greek recruiting sergeant was too clever for him and, while he was ploughing the sands, placed young Telemachus in front of his plough. But once at the war the conscientious objector became a jusqu’auboutist. When the others wanted to abandon the siege he insisted on staying till Troy should fall."
jusqu’auboutist is one who sticks it out to the end.

"Nausicaa," from Henri Matisse's illustrations to the 1935 edition of Joyce's "Ulysses." 

May 3, 2015

"Chekhov for Children"

This documentary recalls our kids' projects of creating and performing serious work based on complex stories: filmmaker Sasha Waters-Freyer "tells the inspiring story of an ambitious undertaking – the 1979 staging on Broadway of Uncle Vanya by New York City 5th & 6th graders, directed by the celebrated writer Phillip Lopate. Using a wealth of never-before-screened student documentary videos and dramatic super 8mm films from the era, Chekhov for Children explores the interplay between art and life for a dozen friends across 30 years."

Lopate wrote an essay on his work with this production.

View at Fandor or email swfreyer@vcu.edu to order a DVD

December 27, 2014

Why Homer Matters (review)


“Homer has become a kind of scripture for me, an ancient book, full of urgent imperatives and ancient meanings, most of them half discerned, to be puzzled over. It is a source of wisdom.” So begins the third chapter of Adam Nicolson’s highly accessible new book, “Why Homer Matters,” in which he compares his relationship with epic poetry to a form of possession, a “colonization of the mind by an imaginative presence from the past.” The world needs more Adam Nicolsons, unabashedly passionate evangelists for the power of ancient poetry to connect us with our collective past, illuminate our personal struggles and interrogate our understanding of human history.
For centuries, the study of Greek literature has been seen as the province of career academics. But Nicolson’s amateurism (in the best, etymological, sense of the word: from the Latin amare, “to love”) and globe-trotting passion for his subject is contagious, intimating that it is impossible to comprehend Homer’s poems from an armchair or behind a desk. If you’ve never read the “Iliad” or the “Odyssey,” or your copies have been collecting dust since college, Nicolson’s book is likely to inspire you to visit or revisit their pages.
According to Nicolson, a British baron who has written books on subjects that span the making of the King James Bible, the challenges and joys of farming, nautical voyages, and long walks through France, “you don’t acquire Homer; Homer acquires you.” Nicolson describes how he set out on a personal odyssey from the coast of Scotland to the gates of Hades in search of the origins of Greek poetry and Western consciousness. In all of this, he is most at home as a writer when describing landscapes, as in his depiction of Homeric Hades by way of the estuary at Huelva in southwestern Spain: “Flakes of white quartzite shine through the water between ribs of rock that veer from red to tangerine to ocher and rust to flame-colored, flesh-colored, sick and livid.”
As Nicolson relates, Homer, the blind bard of Chios who supposedly composed the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” may never have existed. Or, if he did, he most likely wasn’t the sole author of the epic poems for which he became famous. Instead, he may have culled, arranged and interpolated these foundational myths from within a living, oral tradition reaching back — through the Greek Dark Ages — to a primitive, preliterate era of Bronze Age wars and warriors sprawled across the Eurasian plains. “The poems,” Nicolson writes, “were composed by a man standing at the top of a human pyramid. He could not have stood there without the pyramid beneath him, and the pyramid consisted not only of the earlier poets in the tradition but of their audiences too.”
This is the central idea behind Nicolson’s book, which traces the origins of the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath — by way of the Minoan ruins of Knossos, the great library of Alexandria, and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — to a period 1,000 or more years earlier than the one suggested by what he defines as the reigning orthodoxy. Nicolson contends that the epic poems reflect “the violence and sense of strangeness of about 1800 B.C. recollected in the tranquillity of about 1300 B.C.,” though not captured in writing until roughly 700 B.C. And so he believes that whoever wrote the poems down belonged to “a culture emerging from a dark age, looking to a future but also looking back to a past, filled with nostalgia for the years of integrity, simplicity, nobility and straightforwardness.” 
It is difficult to assess Nicolson’s theory, which is based on a conjecture that the “Iliad” describes a pre-palatial warrior culture that seems to align well with the “world of the gold-encrusted kings buried in the shaft graves at Mycenae,” now dated to the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. But as a thought exercise, it is often gripping and, at times, electrifying. 
According to Nicolson, “Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: It is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time.” The purpose of epic “is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now.” 
The Romanian scholar of comparative religion Mircea Eliade called this basic human impulse — to connect our quotidian existence, through ritual and myth, with the lives and struggles of the great heroes of the past — the “eternal return.” In the telling and retelling of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” we imbue our insignificant lives with meaning, transporting ourselves to a mythical time, while bringing the heroic age into our own. Throughout the book, Nicolson describes moments when his own life has been elevated or illuminated by the epics — such as his sailing across the Celtic Sea with the “Odyssey” fastened to his compass binnacle, tied open to the story of the sirens — but also moments when harrowing experiences, including being raped at knife point in the Syrian desert, have revealed to him something powerful within the poems.
The Homeric epics are long, contradictory, repetitive, composite works, riddled with anachronisms, archaic vocabulary, metric filler and exceedingly graphic brutality. Over the millenniums, Nicolson asserts, they have been cleaned, scrubbed and sanitized by generations of translators, editors, librarians and scholars, in order to protect readers from the dangers of the atavistic world lurking just below the surface of the words. He writes that everyone from the editors at the Ptolemaic library in Alexandria to the great 18th-century poet Alexander Pope wished to civilize or tame the poems, “wanted to make Homer proper, to pasteurize him and transform him into something acceptable for a well-governed city.” Part of Nicolson’s objective is to follow the poems back to the vengeful, frighteningly violent time and culture from which they came, and to restore some of their rawness.
For Nicolson, the commonly held belief that the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” were products of the late eighth century B.C., a period of Greek resurgence and prosperity, cannot account for the heterogeneity of the poems and all they contain. He prefers the view that, instead of being the creation of a single man, let alone of a single time, “Homer reeks of long use.” Try thinking of Homer as a “plural noun,” he suggests, made up of “the frozen and preserved words of an entire culture.” Seen through this lens, the ancient poems appear as a bridge between the present and an otherwise inaccessible past, a rare window into a moment of cultural convergence around 2000 B.C., when East met West, North met South, and Greek consciousness was forged in the crucible of conflict between a savage warrior culture from the flat grasslands of Eurasia and the wealthy, sophisticated residents of cities in the eastern Mediterranean. 
“Homer,” Nicolson writes, “in a miracle of transmission from one end of human civilization to the other, continues to be as alive as anything that has ever lived.” Reading “Why Homer Matters” makes one yearn for a time, almost lost to us now, when many others shared Nicolson’s enthusiasm. 

by Adam Nicolson
Illustrated. 297 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $30.

December 12, 2014

My inspiration: Sarwat Chadda on Indian hero, Rama

Rama, hero of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, showed the author of the Ash Mistry trilogy what true heroism is: swords and magic armour aside, it means self-sacrifice, humility and defending the weak

Monday 8 December 2014 03.40 EST

I grew up reading the Greek myths. I loved Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus (many a rainy day spent drawing his epic battle versus the Minotaur) and the heroes of the Iliad. Time went on and I became a fan of the Norse Gods. Odin, Loki, Sif and the whole golden, brooding crew. Oh to have a pair of pet ravens!

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I really discovered Indian mythology. I travelled around the subcontinent and the Far East as visited places as awe-inspiring as anything out of a fantasy book. The palaces of Angkor Wat. The labyrinthine streets of Varanasi. The monasteries of Tibet. Why live in Middle Earth when you had places like this, for real?

The idea of writing a series sent in the East took almost 20 years to come to the page. The Ash Mistry trilogy takes a modern, British kid and hurls him neck deep into the war between the gods and monsters of Indian myth. I want to give the reader a taste of the magic of the Eastern world, take them on adventures beyond the now-familiar tropes of Western fantasy. The first book, Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is set in the holy city of Varanasi. The next in Kolkata and the last in Tibet and China. It’s about reincarnation, about destiny, and about making the ultimate sacrifice. It’s about becoming a hero. But I wanted my hero, Ash, to be based not on Thor or Achilles, but on an Indian hero. And the biggest of them all is Rama.

What Rama showed me is the universal nature of true heroism. Simply put, swords and magic armour aside, it means self-sacrifice. To put all others, loved ones and strangers, before yourself. To defend the weak. To be humble and generous in victory. Things that might be called “old-fashioned”, but I prefer to call them “classic”.

Rama is the hero of the Indian epic, the Ramayana. Reduced to its bare bones it’s the story of how a prince gives up his claim to his father’s throne, lives as a peasant in the forests with wife and younger brother, and how he battles against a demon king to reclaim his wife when she is kidnapped. The demon king, Ravana, is one of the greatest villains in literature.

Honourable in his own way, it is his pride that is his downfall. He will not bow to a mere man. Even a man like Rama.

Rama doesn’t want war. He is not a glory-seeker like Achilles, nor a boastful blow-hard like Thor. He is quiet, thoughtful, and devastating. Both a man of peace and god of war.

I think this duality is why, perhaps, Indian mythology is harder to access than more familiar and partisan myths of good guys and bad guys. But that’s what makes it so special and Rama one of the most human heroes of all.

September 9, 2014

Hear The Epic of Gilgamesh Read in the Original Akkadian!

From openculture:
gilgamesh sound
Long ago, in the ancient civilization of MesopotamiaAkkadian was the dominant language. And, for centuries, it remained the lingua franca in the Ancient Near East. But then it was gradually squeezed out by Aramaic, and it faded into oblivion once Alexander the Great Hellenized (Greekified) the region.
Now, 2,000+ years later, Akkadian is making a small comeback. At Cambridge University, Dr. Martin Worthington, an expert in Babylonian and Assyrian grammar, has started recording readings of poems, myths and other texts in Akkadian, including The Epic of GilgameshThis clip gives you a taste of what Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literature, sounds like in its mother tongue. Or, you can jump into the full collection of readings right here.