Were the Ancient Greeks shameless?

Last week Mary Wakefield discussed the virtues of her ‘Victorian’ education, designed to stiffen the upper lip of the young and to ensure they understood that they were in second place to their elders and betters. She avoided the word ‘guilt’ and its associations with ‘shame’, which were taken to be the aim of such education. Ancient Greeks would have applauded her. Their word for ‘shame’ – aidôs – had very different connotations. The word plays an important part in Europe’s first works of literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For example, when Andromache, wife of the Trojan hero Hector, suggests he retreat from battle, he says he would feel aidôs

The bloody prequel: a triumphant new translation of the Iliad

There is an ancient comment (on the work of a grammarian with the terrific moniker Dionysius Thrax) that the performers of the Iliad and the Odyssey changed costume according to which poem they were reciting: a dark blue crown for the sea of the Odyssey, red for the blood of the Iliad. Emily Wilson, whose brisk and clear-eyed translation of the Odyssey became a bestseller, has now switched her sea-blue crown for her blood-red one. Even the covers of the two books – the Odyssey had a blue-dominated cover depicting the Minoan fresco of ‘Ladies in Blue’; the Iliad is red and gold, with an image of Thetis giving Achilles

The sleepless lives of great writers

To sleep or not to sleep – that is the question the French writer Marie Darrieussecq asks in her latest book, which explores the insomnia that has haunted her for 20 years since the birth of her first child. From that date, she writes, it ‘has attached itself to me like a small ghost’. Darrieussecq is best known for her surreal novel Pig Tales (1996), but Sleepless is an account of her search for a cure to insomnia and the solace she finds in discovering writers such as Franz Kafka (‘the patron saint of insomnia’), Marcel Proust, Georges Perec, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mahmoud Darwish, Haruki Murakami, Aimé

Was Penelope really a ‘silenced’ woman?

Problems about the misuse of history, especially on subjects such as race and colonialism, have been running for a long time. But when it comes to the ancient world, there are also problems about the misuse of literature. Dame Mary Beard’s ‘manifesto’ Women and Power (2018) contains an example of the problem. Her thesis is that women’s voices in the public sphere (my emphasis) have been ‘silenced’ by men ever since the West’s first literature (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) gave us our first access to ‘western’ thoughts, deeds, beliefs, hopes and fears (c. 700 BC). The problem exists in the first example of her thesis, to which she returns four

Singing to the gods: a millennium’s span of ancient Greek hymns, gloriously portrayed

We are experiencing a boom of popular books on Greek mythology: Stephen Fry’s Mythos; Natalie Haynes’s Pandora’s Jar; Liv Albert’s Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook, to name a few. Admittedly, Greek mythology has it all: love, sex, murder, incest, cannibalism, magical transformations, pirates, monsters, miracles. Surely some readers, though, will want to go even deeper, to tap into the ancient sources, incorrigibly plural and various. These sources include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s genesis and who-begat-whom of the gods, the Theogony. (Plus a chunk of ‘Greek’ mythology which we actually get via the Roman poet Ovid.) But much of the mythology concerning the Greek gods —

Homer is a hard read – made easy with earbuds

Mention Homer now and most people will picture yellow, rather than bronze. But Homer Simpson’s comic status as a modern anti hero only makes sense with a knowledge, however vague, of the heroes in The Iliad and The Odyssey.  They underpin the last three thousand years of western culture. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and Helen… these are the chess pieces that poets, painters and sculptors have been playing with ever since. Odysseus, the Trickster, is there at the dawn of classical literature – and then again, Romanised as Ulysses, at the dawn of Modernism. What a gift. Trust the Greeks. Still, there is a reason no-one reads them anymore – at