Friday, July 18, 2014

Yourgrau's Song of Jacob Zulu measured against Aeschylus' Oresteia

Tug Yourgrau mentions Aeschylus’ Oresteia among the sources that influenced his 1992 stageplay The Song of Jacob Zulu.[1] Born a white South African, Yourgrau bases his first stageplay upon the trial of Andrew Zondo, a young black man who confessed to killing four shoppers at a Durban mall by detonating a shrapnel bomb. Dozens of innocent people were also injured in the incident. Yourgrau’s courtroom drama engages issues of justice and atonement. It is called by some critics an oresteia.
Steppenwolf Theatre (Chicago), production of
The Song of Jacob Zulu (1992); from the Theatre's website.

Oresteias narrate the plight of the House of Atreus in its critical emergence from the Trojan War. The Rape of Helen precipitated the War; the murder of Agamemnon punctuated its conclusion. But closure could not come to the Atreidai until Orestes avenged his father’s homicide through matricide and endured humanity’s most gut-wrenching dilemma. One young man is obligated to atone for all the ills of all Tantalus’ posterity. It is the equivalent, in Greek mythological terms, of one individual’s reversal of the effects of Adam’s transgression.

Jacob Zulu is Yourgrau’s literary creation whose crime parallels Andrew Zondo’s. According to his creator, Jacob’s name recalls the protagonist of Genesis. The character’s parents are portrayed as god-fearing Christians, the Rev. and Mrs. Zulu staunchly advocating the value of righteousness and confession. Aside from the Reverend’s advanced social status, the elder Zulus would scarcely bear any resemblance to Orestes’ notorious parents, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. The social circumstances of young Jacob’s upbringing, we learn during the dramatized trial, have created an environment where the murder of innocents effects somehow a bright day for ending the human stain of Apartheid.

Yourgrau’s drama is conceived as a tragedy and constructed from tragic conventions, as well. A nine-man chorus is comprised of a vocal group complete with leader and choral responsion. Yourgrau overtly connects the play’s chorus to the iconic acapella ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The chorus participates at key moments throughout the play portraying the sentient activities of various groups throughout the action. They sing traditional South African songs as Jacob’s congregations, his high-school class, the guerillas of the African National Congress who indoctrinate him, and ultimately the courtroom spectators who must watch him hanged. Clearly Yourgrau heeds classical Greek tragic form. But two important external coincidences flow into the fictionalization of the drama:  Yourgrau had developed an emotional attachment to the music of Ladysmith before he wrote the play, and one of Ladysmith’s founders, Joseph Shabalala, had been murdered as a result of racial tensions connected to Apartheid.

Against this frightening social backdrop, Yourgrau casts the tragic narrative of Jacob Zulu as a young man who, though driven under the rigors of courtroom cross-examination, refuses to bear witness against the ANC who pressed him to his crime. Rather, Jacob puts his faith in Jesus. “If I could give part of my flesh to th[e survivors and their families], I would do it gladly.” But most importantly, he pleads for cessation of retaliation: “I hope that the South African Defense Forces do not retaliate for these deaths.” Jacob Zulu mounts the gallows expecting that his demeanor in the docket has warranted God’s full forgiveness.  “I am not sad, really, because my soul is going to glory. … And I hope that my life is a lesson to my brother Martin and to all the youth.”

Generous interpretations of The Song of Jacob Zulu conclude that “the Christ-like life and death of the Orestes figure brings about an end to violence.”[2] And the play’s choral epilogue articulates the same hope before the empty gallows. “This is the song of a young man called Jacob Zulu,” the Leader sings, “who suffered for the sins of South Africa. This is the song of those for whom the good news of the end of apartheid comes too late.” Chronologically seen, Andrew Zondo’s 1986 execution anteceded the negotiations by Frederik Willem de Klerk (1990) and Nelson Mandela’s eventual release and success in the 1994 elections. The Song’s 1992 premier announced the “end of apartheid” on the grounds of the 1991 official abolition of apartheid laws.

Further, Yourgrau’s intro, written June 1993 (in the weeks after the play closed on Broadway): “As I write this, news reports announce the setting of a date in early 1994 for free, democratic elections in South Africa. I wish deeply that this comes to pass — and with a minimal loss of life. Nine thousand people have died in political fighting in the three years since Nelson Mandela was freed. A new day may be dawning in South Africa, but the birth is traumatic, and it is still very possible that the labor pangs will kill the child. History, I am afraid, will claim many more victims before a free South Africa comes into being.”[3]

A confessed terrorist, Jacob Zulu’s “Christ-like” lifestyle may be questioned. And the assessment that Jacob’s confession and willing execution wrought “an end to violence” is the playwright’s narrative contrivance. History may not bear Yourgrau’s connection between cause and effect.

My critical sensibilities — whatever they are worth — resist too blithe connection between this narrative and the great Oresteia of Aeschylus. Yourgrau set out “to tell the story of a young man such as Andrew [Zondo] in the form of a Greek drama, but with an African twist: Aeschylus set in Zululand.” That intent notwithstanding, Stefan Tilg’s assessment goes too far when he refers to “Tug Yourgrau’s South African version [of the Orestes myth], The Song of Jacob Zulu (1993, a success on Broadway), in which the Christ-like life and death of the O[restes] figure brings about an end to violence.”

Orestes’ plight is thrust upon him by circumstances well outside his own actions. Fate has destined him for the role of avenger who must sully himself with matricide. Jacob Zulu was raised in a respectable family amidst circumstances that brought him into contact with murderous creatures. Peers of Jacob, as is true of Andrew Zondo, endured unthinkable oppression and hardship because of the color of their skin. In Yourgrau’s overarching assessment the bomber was “an innocent, bright boy whom the fates — in this case, the apartheid system — ground up and destroyed.” The tales, however, end differently: Jacob Zulu’s brilliant resolution comes about at some future time; Orestes’ absolution from blood-guilt is effected with great suffering and decisively in the lawcourts of Athens. That is the story of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, that critical third element in the great dramatic trilogy.

As conceived by Aeschylus, the tale of Orestes is not a tragedy, in that modern sense — a narrative of a protagonist who is ground up and destroyed. Rather, the classical Oresteia is a dramatic production that leads toward a remarkable sea-change. Within the narrative confines of Orestes’ dramatic experience, as it is played out for the audience in the theatre, Orestes endures a three-phase survival from catastrophic ruin. The cycle of human revenge is perpetuated while the savior is helpless to stop it in Agamemnon. That cycle brings him into active participation in Choephori. And finally, the tragic hero’s needful “suffrance into truth” snatches Orestes from the brink of personal catastrophe even as Athena’s ascendancy over Apollo rescues all mankind from the brink of cosmic annihilation.

Yourgrau’s play emerges hopefully from dark with an expression of hope, a prayer. Aeschylus instructs the audience that emergence from that darkness will necessitate cooperation of human endurance and extreme divine ingenuity.

The structure of Aeschylus affects Yourgrau’s play far more than the comparison of Orestes to Jacob allows.  Because of the disconnect, I do not think one can really call The Song of Jacob Zulu a “version” of the Oresteia. Stefan Tilg seems to be following the lead offered by Kevin Wetmore, who in his book The Athenian Sun in an African Sky (2002) saw Yourgrau’s play as such.  Yougrau admits that his play is structurally related to “the great Greek dramas, especially Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle” whence inspiration and guidance came. And there is the playwright’s observation that his tale of the Zondo trial is “Aeschylus set in Zululand.” Yet, if the cosmic magnitude of Jacob’s trial can be compared to Orestes’ trail at the Areopagus, that is if the critical impasse of Jacob’s guilty innocence is equivalent to Orestes’, then we must submit to the playwrights’ conclusions and forgive Yougrau for obliging his audience to connect the dots between his play and Aeschylus’.

Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu is not a great play in the magnitude of Aeschylus in Argos. The end of apartheid, however, may be as glorious a human event as the judicial intervention that ended the cyclic violence of the Tantalids. But, structurally, the glimmering optimism that races through the epilogue of The Song is a pale representative of the rigorous conclusion worked out by Aeschylus for his 5th-century audience. Had Yourgrau striven to the same end, I might be inclined to celebrate his literary accomplishment more energetically. As it is, The Song of Jacob Zulu resonates more as a version of Choephori than as a version of the grand collective, The Oresteia.

[1] Tug Yourgrau, The Song of Jacob Zulu (New York: Arcade, 1993), viii-xi. The play premiered in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in April 1992, and ran a peculiar course for seven weeks on Broadway in late Winter 1993. Bruce Weber, “Case of the Vanished Audience,” NYT 7May1993, C4. Weber attributes the play’s early closure not to artistic problems but to economic factors: discounted tickets to less affluent clientele undermined word-of-mouth publicity. Cf. B. Weber, “Author of Jacob Zulu faces unpleasant choice,” NYT 19 Feb 1993, C2.
[2] (S. Tilg), s.v. “Orestes” in Reception of Myth and Mythology, ed. by M. Moog-Grünewald.
[3] Yourgrau, Song of Jacob, introduction xii.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zeus chills with Ben & Jerry's Strawberry Shortcake GSFY

Ben & Jerry's Greek Style Frozen Yogurt comes in Strawberry Shortcake flavor. I wouldn't know this, except it was advertized recently in the Kings Cross/St Pancras station of the London Underground.
 Unilever USA offers on its "Brands in Action" website a highly amusing video that animates the vignette shown in the billboard above. Zeus chills on a strawberry top, a air-conditioner whirs in the firmament; outdoors enthusiasts ski and kletter on the yogurt-topped peaks beneath him. The detail of the video is extraordinary, as the image below shows: the Jovian reading material is titled, his chair-back features Heracles wrestling the Nemean Lion, and (not shown here) the thunderbolts hurled by the sky-god fly with Olympian determination.
Click the image for a link to the Unilever USA Brands in Action website.
Who deserves credit for this little moment of advertizing brilliance? I am able at the moment only to credit Unilever USA; but I would like to attribute it more precisely.

Narrative gain? Ben & Jerry's BSFY seems to originate on Olympus beneath the aegis of a jealous Zeus.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Arrested Flight: Icarus, Daedalus, and Buster in Arrested Development 1.3

          By Cassie Ball with contributions by RTM
Arrested Development (Fox TV, 2003 – 2006, 2013; created by M. Hurwitz) has attained cult-status for its maniacal devotion to one-off jokes, site gags, and obscure references. These jokes are extremely easy to miss, but often foreshadow important plot points or hint at crucial information. A classic — and classical — example is episode 1. 3 “Bringing Up Buster.” A fleeting reference to the Icarus/Daedalus myth throws the episode’s unifying theme into sharp relief.

Justin Bateman (r) plays Michael Bluth, Michael Cera
plays his son George Michael in "Bringing Up Buster"
At first glance, “Bringing Up Buster” appears to follow three disparate storylines with no real relationship to each other beyond the characters they feature. First, Michael Bluth is surprised and hurt when his teenage son, George Michael prefers to not spend his Saturday with Dad. Michael attempts to bridge the widening gap between them by taking time off from the family business and buying George Michael a new bicycle. Unfortunately for Michael, George Michael is more interested in pursuing a certain off-limits girl than in a paternal bike-hike.

Tobias Funke, meanwhile, becomes the director of his daughter Maeby's high-school play
Tobias Fünke is played by David Cross
because he, an ex-psychiatrist and aspiring actor, believes that she's using a shared interest in theater to get closer to her father. Tobias has surmised this incorrectly; but the issue becomes moot as he soon becomes distracted by the promise of acclaim and forgets all about paternal bonding with Maeby.
Finally, Lucille Bluth, tired of her youngest son Buster’s shenanigans, tries to push him onto Michael. Although Buster is thirty-two years old, he and his mother had, up to that point, enjoyed a creepily co-dependent relationship. Michael, because he dislikes his mother and finds her relationship with Buster disturbing, takes full advantage of the opportunity to create some distance between them. During his day with Buster, Michael finds many opportunities to malign their awful mother. Buster joins in with (apparent) enthusiasm, using long strings of words far too filthy for network television. This naturally leads Michael to believe that Buster is ready for a more independent adulthood.

Because he has no real marketable skills, Buster contributes nothing to the family business. Instead, Buster occupies his time with Michael building a new bike, ostensibly for George Michael. When George Michael doesn’t want the bike, Buster is invited to go on a ride with Michael in his place.  It is then revealed that while Buster built the bike for speed, he had neglected to build the brakes. This shortcoming emerges during the bike-ride, as Buster careens brakeless down a hill and into an off-camera obstacle.

Jessica Walters plays Lucille Bluth
When Lucille hears about Buster’s lengthy potty-mouth rant, she is shocked and horrified  — although weirdly, she seems utterly unfazed by news about the bike accident. She demands that Buster return to her penthouse with her, but Michael angrily stands up for him, telling Lucille that Buster is his own man and should make his own decisions.  Buster surprises Michael by saying that he would like to go with Lucille. Their exchange ends with the following: 

Michael: "You were flying today, buddy." 

Buster: "Yes I was flying today. But a little too close to the sun."

To understand this reference, we first have to understand the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. On its surface, it’s a myth about a child’s hubris dooming him to death. As they flee from the Cretan labyrinth using wings made of feathers and wax, Icarus defies Daedalus’ famous
Tony Hale plays Buster
urging: fly neither too near the sun nor too close to the waves. Icarus’ disobedience causes the wax to melt, and effects his mythic fall. The arrogance of filial disobedience causes Daedalus to lose him forever. While it seems like a simple story, the true meaning of this myth extends far beyond a tale of a fatally disobedient child. A deeper reading shows that the myth is, in truth, about a paternal fears of filial independence. Icarus fall symbolizes the death of his childhood. And Daedalus’ loss is what every parent experiences when his child grows up and doesn’t need him anymore.

With this in mind, the brief conversation between Buster and Michael re-contextualizes the entire episode. Just like that, the theme becomes clear. Instead of a simple chronicle of the disjointed misadventures of a dysfunctional family, the episode’s tripartite tale becomes a unified examination of the different ways in which parents deal with their children’s burgeoning independence. 

— CB

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Greek Myth Meets Manga

Classical Mythology has unquestionably impacted the West, but in our cosmopolitan world it is beginning to blend intriguingly with the East as well. Japanese manga artist Zelda C. Wang has repurposed and expanded mythological stories in a remarkable series of comics.

Wang’s online MYth comics (found here) focus on the Olympians. While her iconography is for the most part consistent with classical versions, Wang re-envisions the gods in traditional manga style, generally making them more youthful.

Zeus with traditional oak, lightning,
and cloud iconography, but also with
a fresh, "manga" physique 
As Wang states on her website, “Since it's MY version, the storyline differs from the classic mythology.” MYth: My Seasons and MYth: Eternal Gift deal with the rapes of Persephone and Amphitrite respectively. The two myths emerge from classical myth differently: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is as canonical as can be, though Amphitrite's abduction by Poseidon is less broadly treated (cf. Hesiod Theogony 930). While Wang derives the plot from ancient sources, she feels no compunction at expanding drastically both backstories and characters' motivations in each graphic narrative. She also adds new critical elements to the story (such as earth goddesses dying if they have a child).

Perhaps the most innovative story is MYth: Sunny, in which the modern-day girl Sunny worships Apollo. When her childhood friend dies, Apollo removes the painful memories of the boy as an act of mercy. When Sunny learns what has happened and confronts the god, Apollo contacts Hades and restores her friend to life. The story’s themes of friendship and loyalty are certainly in keeping with the manga genre, but an original story about ancient gods raises some interesting questions.

Wang's youthful Demeter drawn in
typical manga style
 Classical reception normally deals with the repurposing of ancient stories to comment on modern ones. But what happens when an author writes an unprecedented story about the gods? Wang’s MYth: Sunny has no classical model, yet represents the gods in their traditional roles. It is not a re-telling, but rather an expansion of the classical tradition. Is this expansion of classical myths even in the same category as classical reception? Is the classical cannon closed? Or could an innovative writer like Wang create a sequel with the ancient stories as a starting point?  Perhaps mythologists in future centuries will include her story of Apollo’s charitable act alongside Ovid’s version of Apollo slaying of the Python. Probably not, but the idea is intriguing.

In any event, Wang’s art is enjoyable for those seeking mythical adaptation or manga. Those who appreciate her artwork can find more myth paintings here.

— DD

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Classical Mythological Christmas: Slover's Christmas Chronicles

Aficionados of the reception of Classical Mythology can do no better in their Christmas reading than to read the engaging little novel by Tim Slover, The Christmas Chronicles: the legend of Santa Claus (Bantam 2010).  Slover, whose brilliant musical stageplay A Joyful Noise deserves to be part of everybody's Christmas and Easter celebration, has actually outdone himself in his mythological usage of the Lapithocentauromachy within his endearing treatment of how two newlyweds came eventually to be the father and mother of Christmas.

Smack in the middle of the narrative Slover inserts one of the more effective mythological allusions a
mythologist will ever witness. The mythological usage enlarges the character of Anna, Klaus the carpenter's zesty bride. Among other characterizing strokes, Slover uses mythological shorthand to render Anna as a character of passionate action. The novel's first-person narrator defines what Anna brings to her new marriage in terms of her perspective on the binary oppositions inherent between mythological opponents Lapiths and Centaurs. Anna's actions at one moment in the novel touch upon an overt usage of the myth, which allows the reader to see her more clearly as a character of decision.

Newlywed Klaus and Anna are lolling of an evening snug in their bed. "Anna was embroidering a scene of the bloody and drunken battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths onto a coverlet she had just stitched, and Klaus was polishing off the last of her rabbit stew with sugared almonds." (Chronicles, 61) However blissful their circumstances, Klaus is unhappy. His abiding discontent needs to be shared, and he finally tells his bride about his arch enemy Rolf Eckhof (now one of Christmas literature's most memorable creations). Without their knowing, Eckhof's existence had caused an unsettling effect on their world. Thus, in her embroidery, Anna "had just come to the part of the battle where a Centaur was smashing a well-aimed hoof into the eye of a Lapith, all purple and red and black threads, and it was hard to leave off there, but she did." With the explication of his nemesis Klaus introduces discord into Anna's world. Later in the novel Eckhof will devise her death; but the loving union of Klaus and Anna, opposite goods equaling more together, will abide beyond mortality.

Centaur vs. Lapith on a metope from the Parthenon,
one of the Elgin Marbles owned by the British Museum.
"Lapithocentauromachy" is a sesquipedalian term given to the brawl that ensued when the wedding feast of Pirithous and Hippodamia turned ugly. In short: "The Centaur guests at the wedding feast grabbed the bride, and the groom had to lead family and friends to the rescue," and ever since, says Antinous to Odysseus, "there has been conflict between centaurs and men." (Odyssey 21.303; Shewring, trans.) Pirithous saw his wedding day descend into unimaginable social chaos. For, centaurs are essentially civilization's fringe-dwellers, ever capable of ascending toward upmost civility or plunging toward appalling bestiality. Like individual Jekylls-and-Hydes, centaurs' misbehavior "strikes at the most basic rules of human society, the rules of marriage." (Beard & Henderson, Classics: a very short introduction, 84). But there is in them also potential for good. For instance, a Pholus or a Chiron; neoclassically, C.S. Lewis' Mr. Apollinax stands ever ready as pedagogue for rearing the next generation's greatest hero; at their worst, Nessus rapes Heracles' bride, and his kin bludgeon the Lapith Caeneus with uprooted fir-trunks and boulders. Spurred by a little wine centaurs revert to nothing less than unbridled roughhousing such as they let loose at Pirithous' wedding feast.

In Slover's novel Klaus dealt before his marriage with growing turmoil caused by Rolf Eckhof's dastardly opposition, and he learns empirically how to counter his adversary's incremental assaults on the good will of Christmas. Now, days before their newlywed Christmas, Klaus is stumped as to countering Eckhof's evil. "'I cannot think of a way!' Nor could Anna, at first. But then her eye lighted on the scattered skeins of thread [the elements of her Lapithocentauromachy], and she clapped her clever hands together, because suddenly she knew the answer." (Chronicles, 63) That answer: Anna was to join forces as helpmeet with Klaus's abundant good will against Rolf Eckhof, the embodiment of cosmic darkness.

Along such lines, the Greeks thought productively with the centaur myth. Archaic and Classical Greek artists frequently depicted Lapiths mixing it up with Centaurs. The metopes from the Parthenon are best known now; but the François Vase, the west pediment of the Zeus Temple at Olympia, the frieze at Bassae's Apollo Soterios Temple, Micon's picture in the Athenian Theseum, and numerous vases famously manifest the theme. Centaurs indeed "were good to think with," especially because the exist largely as binary opposites to mankind, creatures who might become humane or the beasts we might become. The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs became the battleground for the opposite natures of centaurs and men.

The most colorful of written Lapithocentauromachies is Ovid's (Met. 12.210-535) — key for Ovid's literary programme is telling a love-story with the greater epic framework. This narrative foregrounds gruesome violence, ala Homeric aristeiai, such that Ovid apparently rivals Homer himself in narrative skill. All told, though, Ovid claims himself ever unequal to epic and manifests always propensity toward love-stories, his real knack. Thus, amid the hugger-mugger at Pirithous' wedding Ovid cherishes most dearly the parting of the centauress Hylonome and her slaughtered mate Cyllarus (lines 393-428), a tender scene that warrants Ovid's most careful anti-epic attention. Since even centaurs can love, and love truly, true love can humanize or, better, divinize mortal creatures.

In front of this rich mythological background, Tim Slover turns Anna toward the Lapithocentauro-machy. But to what end? The classical bipolarity of nature vs. culture is reengendered in Slover's pitting the archly evil Eckhof against the noble Klaus. Inasmuch as that rivalry had achieved new darkness, Christmas is not forfeited to Klaus' falling in love. Klaus thrives against Eckhof for many years. His bride, herself achieving new intuition by virtue of their marriage, comprehends the power of the adversary, an epic opposition of unending dimensions, and she manifests that awareness unwittingly in her handiwork. On a more tender level, though, Slover's application of the Lapithocentauromachy infuses Ovidian overtones into the tale, suggesting through the myth that truest love is created when opposites join in marriage. When one takes time and looks beyond the melee of conflicting worlds, the tenderness of Hylonome and Cyllarus remains.

— M
NB: This piece was written by me in 2011 for the ClCv 241 course and is drawn out of mothballs for the Mythmatters Blog this season.

Piero di Cosimo's disturbing painting of the Lapithocentauromachy, National Gallery, London, NG4890 = OGCMA0903NOTPirithousWedding_PierodiCosimo, deserves more attention. And David Backhouse's untitled sculpture depicting a lovely centauress with centaur in dance, at Whiteley's on Queensway until 2010 = OGCMA0905NOTPirithoutWedding_Backhouse, has sadly gone missing. Any information on its current whereabouts would be much appreciated!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Starbucks icon: seductress yes, siren no.

— by Rebecca Barr with contributions of Roger Macfarlane

The Starbucks "Siren" seduces customers worldwide. The coffee dynasty’s marketing team purposefully developed the logo believing that “there was something about her — a seductive mystery mixed with a nautical theme that was exactly what the founders were looking for.”[1] Yet, technically, the twin-tailed figure departs iconographically from classical definition of the
the "new" Starbucks logo debuted in 2011
            The Starbucks marketers equate the “16th-century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid” to a Siren. The earliest account from Homer, Circe advises Odysseus that “they bewitch any mortal who approaches them. If a man in ignorance draws too close and catches their music, he will never return.” (Od. 12.40-64) The song of the Sirens is famously seductive. “Come hither, renowned Odysseus, hither, you pride and glory of all Achaea!” Perhaps each man may insert his own name here. And his own proclivity here: “Pause with your ship; listen to our song. Never has any man passed this way … and left unheard the honey-sweet music from our lips; first he has taken his delight, then gone on his way a wiser man.” (12.184-91) The several dozen Homeric usages of this verb τέρπειν (“take delight” in Shewring’s translation) do not suggest any specifically sexual overtone. For the Sirens’ destructive threat is no respecter of inclination. They do not admit openly their song’s ruinous effects, even if they claim its universal appeal.
Beyond their veiled threat to a man’s homecoming (nostos), Homer provides no information about their physical appearance. In classical depictions they were avian creatures with women’s heads.[2] Their habitation of rocky Mediterranean coastline was the essence of their threat. For the Sirens lure mariners onto their shoals and reefs, but they are not technically marine creatures themselves.[3] Although similarly respected for their powers of seduction, Sirens are not mermaids.
            The Greeks had the conception of lovely marine girls who attract and sometimes cavort with sailors. The most famous of the nereid sea-nymphs is Galataea. (Theocrit. Id. 11) Homer identifies the benign Leucothea, who rescues the shipwrecked Odysseus. (Od. 5.333ff.) And Peleus the Argonaut fell for the lovely Thetis while she and her sisters bobbed seductively in the ship’s wake. (Cat. 64.12-21) He pursued and eventually wrestled with the prodigious girl until he overcame the wiley shapechanger. (Ov. Met. 11.217-65) Thetis and her piscinesque peers might certainly stand as forebears of what we would recognize as mermaids. But nereids are not Sirens.[4]
            Greek mariners thought enough about the Sirens that they identified them by name: Ligeia, Leucosia, and Parthenope. This last lived on the rocky outcropping within the Bay of Naples, where the stood city once named Parthenope after her. Legend has it that when she failed to waylay Odysseus, she flung herself despondent into the sea and — unaccustomed to the water, presumably, for she was not a marine creature — she drowned and washed up on the reef at Margellina beneath Posillipo.
            Irony characterizes Starbucks’ application of its Siren’s destructive seductress. “She is at the heart of Starbucks.” (Steve M.) For, overtly admitting seduction in their marketing, the company achieved an icon that depicts an attractive force that pulls customers (against their better judgment?) into their stores. Aware of the potential disaster, Odysseus bade his men to bind him “with galling ropes as [he stood] upright against the mast-stay”, as the Sirens enticed him to ruin by their lovely voices. Lest they themselves succumb, Odysseus had his crew deafen themselves with waxen ear-plugs. The Seattle dynasty links its success to its having seduced global society into real or perceived addiction. Whether the societal impact wrought by these caffeine dealers wrankles as physical or environmental or merely fiscal exploitation, the marketing that literally leads every customer under the seductive image on the shingle outside is stunningly brazen. “She is urging all of us forward to the next thing. Who can resist her?” asks the company’s website. Each customer is invited openly to consider the seduction and presumed (?) danger of the transaction beyond the lovely young temptress who beckons.
            Starbucks’ search for the classical mythological figure for ruinous seduction is remarkable. Not quite a home-run, the usage gets complicated when you figure that mermaids sing a different tune.

[1] Steve M., “So, Who is the Siren?” posted 5 January 2011 at (accessed 25 November 2013).
[2] M. Morford et al., Classical Mythology, 9th ed. (OUP, 2011),  530
[3] Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, s.v. “Odysseus” [O. Touchefeu-Meynier].
[4] OGCMA, s.v. “Nymphs: Nereids and Oceanids” clarifies; cf. Morford & Lenardon, 166.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Boys, Don’t make passes at goddesses in glasses! Ross MacDonald cools up the Greek gods

Ross MacDonald illustrates the cover of Penguin's edition of
Graves' Greek Myths (2012).
Ross MacDonald has made Greek mythology even cooler with his illustrated cover of Graves’ Greek Myths (Penguin Deluxe Classics 2012). The original comic strip narrates an amusing history of the gods from Gaia and Ouranos right through to our present. With a few learned, but decidedly stylized strokes, this master of modern satirical comicbook-illustration steals the show from a blockbuster reprint that delivers Robert Graves’ lapidary classicism behind a splashy cameo by Rick Riordan. MacDonald’s contribution is the most rewarding element of this marketing flash.

Robert Graves (1895 – 1987) filled the middle of the Twentieth Century with literary classics such as I, Claudius, love poems, and translations of Apuleius and Suetonius for Penguin. His encyclopedic The Greek Myths, appeared first in 1955, “the first modern dictionary” on the subject. Though it was set in a two-volume format, Graves’ Mythology packed even more learning into subsequent editions that soon followed in 1957 and 1960. The current Penguin version weighs in with nearly 800-pages and includes each of Graves’ introductions. The Graves collection is the peerless English account of all those myths and offers a truly stirring array of most variants for all those variegated myths and collects all the documentation to assure that you’ve got all the material to back them up. Did I say "all"?

Ross MacDonald starts his theogony with
Gaia and Ouranos taking a Hollywood dip.
Don’t judge this book by its cover. MacDonald’s 10-frame strip belies the tome’s stolid, rechercée interior dustiness. Gaia and Ouranos fill the first frame, headlined by the caption “With Incest, Betrayals”. A couple embraces: he clothed in stars, all square-jawed, Bryl-creamed and darkling. Iconically, the image of the ringed planet Saturn holds his cape on his pecs. He dips his dreamy lover back in a moment of passion; she, in a verdant plunging gown, coos from her in the speech balloon “Ooh, Son…” Never mind the apparent confusion between Cronus (Saturn) and his father Ouranos (Uranus). Open to Graves 6.a to confirm that “Uranus fathered the Titans upon Mother Earth.”

MacDonald’s cover tells quickly how the gods came, affected humanity, and then abandoned us once. The graphic myth riffs on Marvel and DC prototypes. The gods “all seemed to just … vanish!” In frame seven, astonished Gothamites in circa-1945 suits and fedoras look longingly into the empty skies above their metropolis, and only a winged oxford of a departing Hermes leaves at super-heroic speed the cloudy blue globe far below in frame eight. Frames nine and ten bring the double perspective tableaux, as a caped-crusader Ares ponders dusk-lit skyscrapers, “waiting” like the Dark Knight himself to descend and resolve human ills once more. The gaudy
Ross MacDonald's Ares broods
over the Gotham-dämmerung.
colors, the capes and boots, the comic-book blocking all help MacDonald reshape his theogony into an exciting fresh perspective.

For me the image of Artemis on the front flyleaf is the most clever of all the mythological vignettes here. Is it the virgin-huntress’s icy-blue skintone? Is it that pesky bustier, or the subliminally fertile crescent moon on her brow that attracts? MacDonald imagines Artemis in eye-glasses, like a co-ed from Barnard. She of the winsome smile and a quiver-full of lethal darts. Caveat Actaeon! The ingeniously bespectacled Artemis is the best moment in this cleverly divine apparatus. The back flyleaf has Perseus and Medusa and Andromeda in no apparent interaction; amongst them Icarus incongruously skirts super-heroically near the sun. Open Graves 73.k to read of the connection between Perseus, Andromeda, and the Gorgon, then his note to learn how it’s all related to Marduk and Isaiah and Astarte the
Ross MacDonald's Artemis of Morningside Heights?
lecherous Sea-goddess (230 – 31). But, close the book…. and we’re relieved to be back out on the cover, where MacDonald’s four Olympians bring their essential attributes to their co-starring roles. The cover’s lower margin promises an “Introduction by … the author of Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.”

Riordan’s contribution to this whole enterprise deserves attention. Penguin won’t let us overlook it. It’s even billed on the book’s spine. The seven-page introduction tells the warmly familiar story of how Riordan came to write the Percy Jackson series to help his son cope. Graves’ Myths were reportedly instrumental. And since Riordan’s days in the middle-school classroom, Graves informed his mythological research. So, here is the apprentice’s homage to his venerable forebear. I can’t help thinking, though, that the best thing about the Percy books is their modulation of classical myth to our normalized world. How unlike Graves they actually are. Haley Riordan, Rick’s son, was blessed by his father’s creative adaptation of classical myths to the world he was learning to endure. Thumbing the nose at stodginess of classical narratives, Percy and his creator have ridden the elevator to the top of the heap. The result, Percy Jackson and 33 million copies sold. Tables turned, Penguin now uses Riordan to market Graves.

I’ll keep using Graves. The marketing sleight of hand won’t put me off. I hope, however, that Penguin does not confuse the market and undermine the availability of its more nimble handbook, The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology by P. Grimal, ed. by Stephen Kershaw from A.R. Maxwell-Hyslop’s translation (Penguin Reference 1991). [My current copy is a 2009 reprint.] That's where I'll send my students for a paperback dictionary of Greek myths. The Grimal/Kershaw Dictionary goes so much more easily into the backpack and delivers the information you need for most myths without Graves’ hit-and-miss speculation on the origins of all things. Save Graves for the library; take Grimal/Kershaw into the field.

And Ross MacDonald’s comic book theogony? Though utterly out of place on this book, MacDonald has produced a genuinely amusing addition to the modern reception of classical myth.

— M