Friday, December 4, 2015

JKBrickwork’s Kinetic Sculpture of Sisyphus


Everybody knows something about Sisyphus, it seems, especially that he spends eternity pushing a boulder to the top of a hill in the World of the Dead. Odysseus saw him there and told how every time Sisyphus nearly muscled the boulder to the summit, it would bound back down and settle in the plain. Odysseus did not, however, explain WHY Sisyphus is consigned to this eternal labor.
     Explanations about reasons for the Sisyphean punishment vary among mythographers in classical texts, both Greek and Latin. He cheated Death (Thanatos), some say, in arranging with his wife to leave his mortal remains unburied so that as a disembodied shade he could persuade the nether gods to allow his return to living; upon his return to our realm, Sisyphus ventured to abide among the living. Zeus, in another telling, frowned upon Sisyphus’ irreverence — for Sisyphus had told Asopus that the Olympian had abducted his daughter — and sent Thanatos to deal with the transgressor. Sisyphus bound Thanatos in chains, thus temporarily interrupting the need for mortals to die, until Ares intervened, freed Death, and sent Sisyphus to the eternal toil of pushing that stone ever upwards.
JKBrickworks, Jason's Kinetic Sisyphus:
     Since ancient authors touched upon Sisyphus’ labor — and it would surprise us if they were consistent entirely in the whys and wherefores — literary and other artists in all ages have written about the legendary trickster. My personal favorite is Ally Condie’s remarkable telling in her Matched trilogy of teen-directed novels (Dutton 2010-2012), where Sisyphus is shown to have undertaken his eternal push for purpose of wearing down a canyon through a ridgeline and thereby channeling a stream for subsequent ages to follow. Albert Camus’ 1942 articulation of the absurdity of Sisyphus’ task is itself a classic: “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, know the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.” And collecting occasional New Yorker cartoons playing with the Sisyphus myth, especially those by Chas Addams and Christopher Weyant, was for many years a welcome diversion for me.
    Now, a Lego engineer at named Jason has crafted a remarkable kinetic sculpture of Sisyphus pushing a boulder. Jason’s YouTube was picked up by Disney Research and forwarded to me by Abi Pettijohn, an attentive student in my Myth class. In ClCv 241, I hope to train students to look for interesting modern usages of classical myths. My hope is that the really interesting ones will spark further thinking. Abi has done her job very well indeed.
     The JKBrickworks Sisyphus can be seen in action on YouTube (use this link: Aside from the marvelous engineering on display, I draw attention to the mythological artwork explained by the engineer himself in the video. Jason introduces himself and his creation, but makes sure we understand the freize panels adorning the base upon which his Sisyphus moves. (Jason is a long way, in every measure, beyond any of the Lego fabrications I built when I worked in Danish brick!) Jason explains on the video:
So, before I explain how all the mechanics work, I thought I would show you the base of the model where I have depicted my interpretation of some of the scenes of Sisyphus’ life in this Greek relief style. On the front we have him in his chariot and horse attacking some of the visitors to his kingdom. [On the back panel:] This is actually Hades in the Underworld being chained up. He was actually intending to chain Sisyphus up, but Sisyphus managed to turn the tables on him. [On the opposite long flank:] Here he is hosting a dinner party and he was stabbing some of his guests. He really was a pretty evil dude. [On the short front flank:] This is Zeus who finally had enough of shenanigans and punished him by having him roll the boulder up the mountain. And of course Zeus cursed the boulder so that it would always roll back to the bottom when it got to the top.
      Jason is not pretending to offer up a scholarly discourse on Sisyphus. So, I gladly allow him his narrative. Moreover, the brickwork involved in his four remarkably skilful friezes (not to mention the stunning figure of his Sisyphus itself) gives this mythographer a bit of a free pass. However, the four narratives Jason offers are novel and unfounded in classical accounts.
       Jason’s Sisyphus is regarded as “a pretty evil dude” and is thus depicted killing guests at a “dinner party”. Gross violations of xenia are not part of customary, classical (if you will) narratives of Sisyphean criminality. The binding of Hades is similar to the Sisyphus’ binding of Thanatos, to be sure; and maybe a critic of Jason’s mythopoesis is going to far to make him split a hair distinguishing between Death and Hades, the god of the dead. I know of no classical myth that tells of Sisyphus trampling by chariot visitors to his kingdom. Corinth, Sisyphus’ kingdom, was known for many things in antiquity, but not primarily renown for its inhospitality. Nor was Sisyphus known among classical authors for dangerous treatment of visitors in general. Jason’s fourth claim, that “Zeus finally [tired] of Sisyphus’ shenanigans” is pretty much right on the money, even if classical authors give the cursing of the infamous boulder over to other gods at times.
      I write in response to Jason’s Kinetic Sisyphus not out of pedantry, not to mark the contents and explanations of his friezes as erroneous, but rather to welcome this remarkable contribution to the world of modern usages of classical mythology, that corpus of timeless narratives that continues to change and grow.
   RTM, with thanks to by Abigail Pettijohn

Some bibliography offered by Classical Tradition, comp. by A. Grafton and G.W. Most (Harvard, 2010), s.v. “Sisyphus” [G.B.]
B. Seidensticker and A. Wessels, eds., Mythos Sisyphos: Texte von Homer bis Günter Kunert (Leipzig 2001).
Also, see Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990s  (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Monday, November 2, 2015

George O'Connor's Olympians: Poseidon and the horse

G. O'Connor, Olympians: Poseidon, earth shaker
Neal Porter Books: New York, 2013
George O'Connor's graphic-novel treatments of Greek mythology caught my eye this weekend. I wish I had come to know them earlier! O'Connor attempts to work rather sophisticated questions about standard mythologies into a series he aims at a 9-to-14 year old audience. Though pitched at kids, grown-ups can probably enjoy The Olympians as well. This quick assessment of the series' fifth book Poseidon: earth shaker is supposed to convince the reader to look into the series as a whole.

A website created by the publisher promotes sales of the books. See

Horses are sacred to Poseidon. This puzzles O'Connor, and rightly so. The ancient Greeks prayed to Poseidon as "Pelagios, Asphaleios, and Hippios" (i.e. god of the sea, god of protection from earth-quake, and god of horses), according to Pausanias (Description of Greece 7.21.7). Poseidon's affiliation with horses in myth and in cult is ubiquitous. Poseidon is regarded as the direct progenitor of the horse in cults at Thessaly and Athens, where his semen spilt upon the rock engendered the first horse. The winged horse Pegasus is the direct offspring of Poseidon's mating with Medusa, born at the gorgon's decapitation. Pegasus lighted upon the earth with a prodigious hoofbeat and opened a fresh-water spring, Hippocrene, from which the Muses draw inspiration and fresh water. Appeasement of the gods at the end of the Trojan siege was effected by means of a horse. The human-voiced horse Arion is the offspring of Poseidon, sometimes in union with an earthborn Erinys and sometimes with the earth-goddess Demeter Erinys. It is Poseidon's essential characteristic as the god of the earth, the Earth Shaker, that associates him most naturally with chthonic entities such as the
earth-born horse.  (For more on this, see W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Harvard, 1985), 138 - 39.)
O'Connor, Poseidon p. 9, frm. 2

O'Connor's coverage of a broad set of Poseidon myths is impressive. Polyphemus and Odysseus, the
drawing of the Lots after the Titanomachy, Athena's contest for primacy in Athens, Arion's birth from Demeter, the Trojan Horse, how Theseus was both the son of Aegeas and of Poseidon, and so forth.

The audience of 9-to-14 year olds will not be too scandalized by naughtiness. No sexual nudity is explicitly drawn, though Poseidon throughout wears nothing more than a flowing loincloth. Ariadne is shown wearing one of those crazy topless
Poseidon's salt-water spring on
Acropolis, Poseidon p. 49 frm. 2
dresses that you might remember the "Minoan Snake Goddess" of Heracleion wearing in art history books; but O'Connor places captions and speaking-bubbles strategically throughout. If you are looking for such things, you'll notice them. Kids won't. Likewise, only very close scrutiny of some frames that depict naked youths running in a footrace reveals the depicted runners to be naked, and only then if you know what to look for.  The narrative of Aethra's unions with Theseus' two fathers is drawn (in the Poseidon part) as captionless silhouettes in a moonlight swim, unlikely to spark too many questions from youngsters. Still, O'Connor remains culturally correct in these moments.

Poseidon offers plenty of material for young geeks. I imagine my nephew poring over the genealogical tree inside the front cover. You can view it on the OLYMPIANSRULE site, also. The author's propensity to includes lots of myths in a linear narrative is appealing; plus it keeps them short. The amusing "Greek Notes" (note the strike-thru!) at the back of the book explain sometimes nuanced graphics within the narratives. I won't be surprised when so tired of seeing there!] It will be a welcome day when my students in the Myth class know their stuff from O'Connor and not from Rick Riordan's adaptations.
O'Connor, Poseidon p. 14 frm. 1
O'Connor starts showing up in footnotes of my college students' papers. [If only!... I'm

O'Connor's questions about the connection between Poseidon and the horse arise several times within his Poseidon book. He is clearly amused, but also intrigued. Several references to horses, visual and stated, recur in Poseidon. A discussion question (p. 74) asks "Why do you think the God of the Sea was also the God of Earthquakes? How about horses?" Several of the "Greek Notes" mention horses, e.g. "Page 9, Panel 2 [see panel at right, above]: Stallions. Poseidon really likes horses. More on this later."

According to O'Connor's "Bibliography" (p. 76), "without doubt, the single most valuable resource" for classical mythology is I heartily wish this clever purveyor of classical mythology were inclined to pursue more authoritative source materials than what is available on the internet. The author himself notes that is limited, in that "it's not quite complete, and it doesn't seem to be updated anymore." Still, it is delightful to see what results from O'Connor's  encounters. He does The Orphic Hymns (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013)! ISBN 9781421408828] I'd like to see future volumes derive authority from authoritative source materials such as Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts.
George O'Connor from
admit that he has struggled to find the Orphic Hymn to Poseidon, even though it "was very hard to find in an actual book". [Next time use A.N. Athanassakis and B.M. Molkow, transs.

O'Connor's recommendations for further reading range very very broadly, from good recommendations "for younger readers" like D'Aulaires' Books of Greek Myths to (under Odysseus' blurb on the facing page) a recommendation for Joyce's Ulysses as "widely consider to be one of the greatest books in the English language." OK. That's a broad range!

If I were recommending Greek mythological books for young readers — and in fact I was asked just this weekend by a family member — I would be really comfortable watching George O'Connor's Olympians continue to fly off the shelves. I ordered the set for myself this morning!

—  RTM

By the way... Horses and plate-techtonics came up on Saturday's Weekend Morning Edition: click here.

George O'Connor's Olympian pantheon, from

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Icarus Flies Again — Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

My favorite D.C. attorney, Christopher Meldrum, is a student of classical mythological reception. It’s great to see what one can do after graduating with honors in Classics from BYU! He shares the following observations on an interesting usage of the Icarus myth. Thanks, Chris!
Goltzius' Icarus is one of his
etchings of the Four Disgracers (Icarus,
Phaethon, Ixion, and Tantalus), 1588.
A performance by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a symphonic work entitled “Icarus At The Edge of Time” [OGCMA0593NOTIcarus_GreeneGlass]  ( The piece was originally commissioned and produced by World Science Festival (New York) with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and Southbank Centre (London) with the Royal Society. The Festival has the following blurb on the piece "What if Icarus traveled not to the sun but to a black hole? This 40-minute full orchestral work is a mesmerizing adaptation of Icarus at the Edge of Time, Brian Greene’s book for children. A re-imagining of the Greek myth, which brings Einstein’s concepts of relativity to visceral, emotional life, it features an original score by Philip Glass, script adapted by Greene and David Henry Hwang, and film created and directed by AL + AL."

The performance intermeshes music by Philip Glass, narration by astrophysicist Mario Livio, and a film into a STEAM-activated concert. STEAM activation equates to highly participatory opportunities for audiences of all ages, creative brainchildren of Annemarie Guzy of the BSO (cf. blog, Americans for the Arts.)

As the BSO blurb states
cover of B. Greene's
Icarus at the Edge of Time
, the multimedia piece itself is an adaptation of Icarus at the Edge of Time, a children’s book by Cambridge physicist Brian Greene (a proponent of Sting Theory who you might remember from the NOVA special An Elegant Universe).  Wikipedia says that it is "a science fiction retelling of Icarus' tale. It is about a young man who runs away from his traveling, deep-space home to explore a black hole." You can read additional information about the book, as well as an interview with Green about the book, on (

In the Q& A, two of the following are of particular relevance to the myth

"Q: Where did the idea to re-imagine the Icarus legend (set in outer space and involving black holes!) come from?

A: I recently told my two and a half year old son a bedtime story that involved space travelers moving near the speed of light. Within days he was telling his own animated stories of dinosaurs and monsters outrunning a new and wonderful concept--"the speed of dark." Which got me thinking. Storytelling is our most basic and powerful means of communication. We listen with a different kind of intensity--and open ourselves most fully--to a gripping tale. So why not allow some of science’s greatest wonders to be experienced not through pedagogy but through the force of narrative? Science in fiction, as opposed to science fiction. Scientific insights that are absorbed rather than studied. Icarus At The Edge Of Time is my first attempt to explore this terrain. Instead of a journey near the sun--a "light" star--Icarus heads to a black hole--a "dark" star. And then the wonders of Einstein's relativity kick in, warping the more familiar ending into a painful conclusion, to be sure, but perhaps one that's more hopeful than the original.

Q: The story of Icarus is a cautionary tale, what do you think it has to say when applied (as it is here) to the nature of scientific exploration of the universe?

A: Great scientists are great adventurers, boldly exploring unknown terrain--"anxiously searching" as Einstein once put it "for a truth one feels but cannot find, until final emergence into the light." Icarus's fearlessness fits this profile to a "T". But there's another side to scientific exploration. Scientific research has the capacity to reveal realms that turn the status quo on its head. And when this happens, we're often not prepared--as a society we're often not sufficiently mature--to take on the responsibility that such new realms can require.

From nuclear knowledge to stem cells, from global climate change to cloning, science not only opens up new vistas but confronts us with profound challenges. In this new version of the Icarus tale, Icarus's unrestrained explorations take him, literally, to a startling new realm--one in which the universe as he knew it becomes forever beyond his reach. We can imagine him maturing into his new life and experience, but we also feel the wrenching pain of his being torn from his familiar reality--and from his family--and entering a completely new world--the very process of maturation we collectively navigate as science rewrites the rules of what's possible."

— submitted by Christopher Meldrum


Monday, August 24, 2015

Electra, My Love

Miklós Jancsó adapted the stageplay by L. Gyurkó, Szerelmem, Elektra, into the 1974 film Electra, My Love. The film is very watchable as cinema ... for some viewers (to judge by the reviews!). As a usage of classical mythology it is quite remarkable. Its 71 minutes constitute one of my best Netflix rentals in an active year.

The narrative adapts the Orestes myth to the milieu of Soviet-occupied, post-1956 Hungary so as to incite in the audience’s minds active emulation of classical role models who risked dire consequences to revolt against pervasive tyranny. When Gyurkó wrote the play in 1968, a little more than a decade had passed since the failed revolution of 1956, which the Russians quashed. In the film's present, it has been fifteen years since Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon and now ten years since the queen herself passed away. Aegisthus rules a populace that proclaims felicity, and Aegisthus is a tyrant who willingly admits to Electra the necessity of bloody discipline: "Roads must be paved with skulls and walls plastered with cries. I don't like blood, Electra. But it buys order."

The film opens with an allusion to Sophocles' Electra. Chryosthemis urges Electra to forget and move on. Because Sophocles instituted the character of Chrysothemis, we expect the narrative to unfold along Sophoclean lines. The film, however, scarcely follows that anticipated path. For Sophocles' drama focuses on the psychology of a daughter who will kill her mother in the name of justice. Jancsó's telling has another directive to deliver. Revolution and regime-change are the message here, not the standard fare for an oresteia. Indeed, in Aeschylus' hands the message of the oresteia was all about reconciliation. With Gyurkó and Jancsó the last Tantalids are all about revolution. Neither sibling is actually capable of contriving tyrannicide alone; but, their dynamic combination achieves the necessary energy that eliminates Aegisthus and his cronies.

Cinematically, too, the film is remarkable. 71 minutes are covered by about one ten principle shots, each about as lengthy as a mid-70's film processing could manage. [See listing below.]  Jancsó opens this film with a remarkable "oner" 11-minute shot. It sets the cinematic tone for the film. Essentially, Jancsó shoots each section of each act in one shot. Like paragraph markings in a book, or scenery changes on a stage, the cuts mark strophes in this elaborate orchestration. A tremendous amount of orchestration has gone into every single shot. More like an analogue ballet than an edited film, the Jancsó’s visual narrative involves tremendously precise blocking from sometimes hundreds of actors and not a few dozen wild horses. It’s pretty stunning. The first very long sequence constitutes orchestration of several dozen actors, two glimpses at the setting sun, the wrangling of a herd of wild horses, the choreography of a lean swordsman, three dwarves with cymbals, and about 40 lines of dialogue between Electra, Aegisthus, and his deputy tyrannt. The opening sequence will leave no doubt in any viewer's mind: we are definitely not in Kansas here. This is an artsy film.

You can get an appreciation for this blocking in Richard Brody’s New Yorker online clip from 24 August 2010, which shows about half the opening shot. (See the link on my OGCMA slide.)

A ministrel with a folk guitar constantly crisscrosses the film. He is a balladeer with a song about Orestes' epic return. Mind you, the hero is not named in the song. But the foreboding arrival of the revolutionary is going to be as monumental as it is going to be epic.  The minstrel sings:
Though cornered, he stayed alive.
A master at this game. 
Lost warrriors greet him. 

Stones ask me, grass implores me
People come to me crying
and shatter the rock of my wanderings.
Fiery steeds stand before the sun and the moon. 
I'll take their manes
to make a scarlet cloak
Swallows shoot the dawn
By the time I get my freedom.
the gate I'll open wide,
And break the wagon of bondage. 
The stranger is familiar
yet we know him not. 

We knew from afar it was him.  
We know his horse's step.
Lost warriors greeet him. 
See him alone on the plain. 
The people await him. 
D'you hear his horse's steps?
It can only be him.

The people await him....
It can only be him.

     Elektra, My Love is all about justice. But it is also about the politics of revolution. Electra's alter-ego is an attractive brunette in the sheer blouse (Mária Bajcsay) who administers the message of the party's leaders. Kikiáltó, "the Herald", is this character's name in the film's credits. She enters the film with reports of Agamemnon's murder, fifteen years ago. In an orchestrated account of local political history she chants the story of Agamemnon's demise. "Since then the people are happy." And  nobody would deny it — not openly, at any rate, given the iron-fisted support she musters. Men crack whips and long lines of the people voice their support, after Kikiáltó reminds them of dire punishments that await those who resist. This is the annual feast day of Agamemnon's death and Aegisthus' rise to power. And she presents Electra to the assembled people at the moment where the regime expects her to recant. When Electra proclaims, instead, the full truth of her belief in the regime's corruption, they stop their ears. Today will bring change, Electra vows; but it will not transpire before we behold the regime's lies.

You may not feel like watching it, because there is a good deal of female nudity in it (and some male nudity, as well). The nudity makes the film unusable in a BYU context, but it needn’t render the film unwatchable for a discerning viewer. For, the film's use of nudity is largely de-eroticized. The disclosure of the human body — primarily female in Jancsó's treatement — illustrates the depravity of the regime that fosters it. When the tyrants themselves are compelled to dance naked, their weakness is most overtly manifest. Electra, on the other hand, is fully covered in a dark dress throughout the film, wrists to neckline clothed in a dark dress.

       The Herald's quasi-erotic affinity for the Chief (Vezér; played by Lajos Balázsovits), the handsome young man in the linen frock. Though nude women appear  frequently throughout this film, one fully nude male only appears. After the regime change and under the administration of Electra, the Chief is compelled to serve naked and dance with his Herald. The nudity they earlier inflicted upon countless others now symbolizes the humility to which Electra so dearly subjects them. Later Orestes clothes them before administering his form of justice. Whether the Herald is also killed is left unclear, but the Chief certainly falls.

The concluding scene is kind of weird. Every talks about it. Reminiscence of a Euripidean deus ex machina is certainly there, when a red helicopter intrudes upon the a-chronistic landscape the director has contrived for the audience. Only a handgun had broken the illusion, quite late in the film. Besides that ... and the helicopter! ... Electra's collision with Aegisthus has occured in a world altogether devoid of machinery. The ending is all a bit jarring. As the revolutionary protagonists, Electra and Orestes, rise in a symbolic resurrection and the people sing a hymn of the Phoenix bird, the prospects of Soviet-style socialists seem to wane. By the film's last frames, Electra and Orestes exude a confidence and optimism that suggests their audience might someday succeed in rising above the tyranny that has held them down for so long.

Electra, My Love is distributed on DVD by Facets Multimedia. I might expect Criterion to have picked it up first. The disc would benefit from the inclusion of such historical commentary as Criterion might arrange.

If you get a chance to see Electra, My Love (1974, Miklos Jancsó = Szerelmem, Elektra) is an astonishing usage of classical mythology. And the Hungarian play from which the film is adapted would seem to warrant an English translation. I have located German and French translations, but no English published translation of the Gyurkó play.

—— RTM

The oners:
11:15 - 20:25
22:45 - 32:00
40:50 - 42:00 (electra smiles at the camera)
42:00 - 43:30 horses in twilight — regime change
43:30 - 46:25
46:30 - 54:00 the ballet of the Herald and the Chief, approach of the ball pushed by horses, discussion with Orestes, arrival and song of the minstrel
54:00 -  1:01    Begins with Aegisthus on a gigantic ball, execution, "This story is at an end", piano music, Orestes and Electra wander away from the camera zigzagging, numerous corpses strewn on the field, , Our story's just starting", starting each day anew, they are covered by a shroud,
1:01 - end epilogue: Orestes and Electra are up and walking, smiling, embracing, arrival of helicopter — discussion of the firebird and its fomenting of revolution

Monday, May 11, 2015

Petersen's Troy scrunches the denouement

Achilles died at Troy, shot by Paris’ arrow precisely in the critical spot. Apollodorus gives half the credit to Apollo: “Achilles was shot in the ankle by Alexander and Apollo at the Scaean Gates.” (Bibl. Epit. 5.4) This scene is set outside the Trojan walls (πρὸς ταῖς Σκυλαιαῖς πύλαις). Apollodorus’ concise narrative entails several intervening phases between Achilles’ death and the construction of Epeus’ Horse (Epit. 6.15-17).  In Apollodorus’ conglomerate account, the Trojan War hardly comes to a close at Achilles’ death. Until Wolfgang Petersen told the story (with David Beniot’s screenplay), it hadn’t occurred to me that Achilles might have gotten inside the city. And, if
he had penetrated the citadel, what might me have done?

Homer’s Iliad focuses all the events of the Trojan War, of course, on the development and cessation of Achilles’ rage. Sown in the quarrel with Agamemnon over Briseis in Book 1, the persistent wrath of the godlike hero is abated in the Homeric masterpiece-scene of Book 24. Once Priam receives Hector’s brutalized corpse, the great epic narrative closes quickly. And details of Achilles’ own fate mix into a quick narrative close. Achilles’ ill disposition is satisfactorily but summarily concluded without further narrative development. It has all come down to this.

Extra-Homeric classical tradition attributes three major events to the life of Achilles after the critical moment of ransoming Hector’s body.  Penthesileia still has Achilles’ heart to win. Thersites will still perish for his mockery of Achilles’ abiding infatuation with the Amazon. And Memnon will still fall to Achilles’ prowess. Nor does Homer take time to narrate the collective reaction to Achilles’ death, the funeral games, the burial beside Patroclus on Leuke, the contest for Achilles’ armor. These elements of the epic tradition are fully outside the scope of Homer’s Achillean narrative, which effectively closes down at Il. 24.675. Once Achilles sees Peleus in Priam, the world instantly changes, and the brutalizer becomes humane.

Homer’s final glimpse at Achilles has him lying down to sleep with lovely Briseis inside his tent. Priam retires outside but beneath the tent’s awning. Homer pays no attention to Achilles’ reaction to Priam’s furtive departure in the night. Was he going to order a Myrmidon’s breakfast for Priam in the morning? We never know. Instead, Homer’s Priam, safely conveyed, tacitly oversees the burial of Hector that it proceed as Achilles had provided (24.650-58). And within about 100 lines of Priam’s departure from Achilles’ tent, the great epic closes tersely with one line: “Thus they performed the burial of Hector breaker of horses.” (24.804) Just 150 lines earlier, one might not have anticipated that outcome might never transpire.

The Ransom’s powerful denouement can scarcely be understated. Narrating the Ransom’s conception, planning, execution, and effect fill the entirety of Book 24. Apollo’s urging begins the events that reverse the impasse that has pertained since the epic’s outset. The Ransom occupies the space and pathos commensurate with its narrative importance. Achilles has descended to beastial conduct; he emerges as the Greek alliance’s true king. And Homer’s rhetorical approach leaves the poet with nothing further to tell.

About 20 minutes remain in Petersen’s film when Priam enters Achilles’ tent by night. Repeated viewings find me asking myself whether the scene resonates only because it’s Petersen’s truest re-creation of a poignant Homeric moment. It succeeds because the scene’s internal elements correspond quite closely to the narrative in Iliad 24, but perhaps there’s more. The interlocutors say less here than they do in Homer.

Priam:    I cannot change what happened. It is the will of the gods. Give me this small mercy.
Achilles:    silence
Priam:    I loved my boy from the moment he opened his eyes until the moment you closed them. Let me wash his body. Let me say the prayers.  Let me place two coins on his eyes for the boatman.
Achilles:    silence —  If I let you walk out of here… If I let you take him, it doesn’t change anything. — You’re still my enemy in the morning.
Priam:    You’re still my enemy tonight. But even enemies can show respect.
Achilles:    silence — I admire your courage. Meet me outside in a moment.

Besides merely ransoming Hector’s body, Petersen’s cinematic scene narrates a three-fold expansion beyond Homer’s: Achilles’ expression of affection for Hector (“my brother”), the relinquishment of Briseis to the Trojans, the parting shot that Priam is, in Achilles’ judgment, “a far better king than the one leading this army.” Homer needed the scene to do one thing. Petersen/Beniot require it to do three.

That indirect jab at the absent Agamemnon plays upon Petersen’s primary theme in the film, that unworthy kingship is ugly. Accordingly, the film’s narrative hinges on Achilles’ barb and cuts immediately to the face of Agamemnon’s outrage: “What business does Achilles have cutting deals with the enemy?!”  Agamenon’s impiety is matched only by his Gulf-War military mismangement: “Even if it costs me 40,000 Greeks, I will smash their walls to the ground. Hear me, Zeus! I will smash their walls to the ground.” Coming from a man who throughout the film has manifest nothing but irreverence for the gods, this oath is scarcely reverend.

Achilles, on the other hand, comes away from the Ransom a sincerely changed man. This is true both in Homer and in Petersen. In the film, though, the hero now kisses men, living and dead, on the cheek and on the forehead. He decides to withdraw the Myrmidons from the war’s finale.  “I don’t want the men to be a part of this.” We know they have twelve days to get out of Troy, the timeframe dictated by the moratorium Achilles unilaterally offered as king to King Priam for Hector’s funeral rites. Petersen’s Achilles, further, maintains an inclination to abide Troy’s sack so that he can protect virtue to the last. One final beheading of a Greek, one last kiss for Briseis, and he’s gone. Had he merely slipped away, Petersen’s Achilles would not have perished.

This resumes the first matter I mentioned at the outset. Why does Achilles stay at Troy, if he doesn’t want his men to “be part of” the sack of Troy? In Petersen’s film, Achilles charges into the heart of burning Troy in order to save Briseis from Agamemnon’s ravishment and (maybe) death. In the end  
(of Agamemnon), Briseis shows that she has learned a thing or two from her Thessalian lover, but Achilles himself is also needed for her full extrication. Their final dialogue ends the film.

Achilles: It’s all right. Its’ all right. Fondling Briseis’ hair, as Paris comes closer for the kill. You gave me peace in a lifetime of war.
Paris:        Briseis, Come.
Briseis:      No
Achilles:    You must. Troy is fallen. Go. Begin anew. … It’s alright. Go. They kiss. Go. She departs with Paris. Achilles dies peacefully. The POV rises upward to long crane shot tracking his soul’s POV, to contrast the grassy lawn where Achilles's body lies with the burning houses of Troy. — Cut to Odysseus’ ponderous lighting of Achilles’ funeral pyre inside the Trojan citadel.
Odysseus: places coins on Achilles’ eyes. Find peace, My Brother.
Odysseus: voice over: If they ever tell my story, let them say that I walked with giants.  Men rise and fall like the winter wheat; but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Hector, breaker of horses. Let them say I lived in the time of Achilles.

Because I promised — and tried to teach my class sincerely — that I would not be distracted by Wolfgang Petersen’s narrative “inauthenticities” in Troy, I will gladly grant the poetic license the film’s direct uses throughout the film. I bite my tongue, rather than gripe, that Achilles dies after Priam in the sack of Troy. For Aeneid 2 to work, Neoptolemus’ father Achilles must already be among the shades at the moment he kills Priam. Vergil’s chronology always makes me uneasy, anyway. But I still think that Vergil’s a great poet than Petersen, even if they do work in different media.

Traditional tellings of the Iliupersis have Achilles involved as agressor to the end, storming Troy’s citadel and stirring it up to the last. Homer, of course, doesn’t go this far. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dwayne Johnson as Hercules is not at all bad.

The first 5 minutes of Brett Ratner's 2014 Hercules (I) conveys a remarkable point succinctly: This is not an entirely conventional Heracles narrative. A handful of divergences begin to flow quickly by. The Radical Comics graphic novel by Steve Moore clearly deserves closer inspection. Where the screenplay diverges from Moore's creation will reward analysis; in this quick blogpost I focus on details in the screenplay by Ryan Condal and Even Spiliotopoulos directed by Ratner.

OGCMA0551NOTHeracles_Ratner: Hercules (aka son of Zeus) is flanked
by Iolaus and Atalanta.
     The Maecedonian Coast in 358 B.C. is an extraordinary time — if not also place — to set a mythic narrative. The year 358 B.C. is well within the frame of history, half a century after the demise of the Athenian Empire and well within the period of Maecdonia's meteoric rise under Philip. It is hardly the period one might assign, if one had to, to the time when a demigod roved upon the earth.

The film opens with a partial explication of the Heracles' canonical labors. Three alone are needed to get Ratner's narrative under way. And the three are told in a rather inverted sequence with dramatic crescendo: Lernean Hydra, Erymanthean Boar, and the Nemean Lion. Typically, in Classical mythology, the Lion that roves the hills above Tiryns near Nemea comes first, the Hydra bred in the swamp of Lerna comes second, and the Boar on Mt Erymanthus is the fourth canonical Labor. 

We soon learn that the three labors are being narrated by a young captive, who is presently afflicted with a bit of hero worship and the vicious designs of his captors. This narrator will turn out to be none other than Iolaus, a nephew of Heracles who canonically helps Heracles slay the Hydra (but not here).

Before Iolaus' identity is learned, though, the most remarkable element of Ratner's Heracles narrative comes clean: this brawny hero is accompanied by a cast of super-heroic sidekicks. The team is a remarkable hybridization from the myths that deal with the generation before the Trojan War.

Autolycos — played with deft comic timing by Ian McShane, Autolycus is mythologically the maternal grandfather of Odysseus; by some later accounts he is the son of Hermes; in Homer he outstrips all mortals in "thievery and (ambiguous) swearing" (Od. 19.394ff) and one perpetrated a memorable theft (Il. 10.367).

Atalanta — brings a strong female to Heracles' supporting team, Atalanta is mythologically a veteran of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, the defender of her chastity against the advances of centaurs Rhoecus and Hylaeus whom she slew, and sworn to perpetual virginity as hunting companion of Artemis. If I have seen Ingrid Bolsø Berdal in a previous film, I have not notice her.

Amphiaraus — a participant in the Seven Against Thebes expedition, Amphiaraus is a rather shadowy character in classical mythology. He was bribed by Polynices with the necklace of Harmonia to march against Eteocles' Thebean defenders; other myths have him killed by Zeus' thunderbolt and swallowed with his chariot into the gaping earth. Since Rufus Sewell plays him in this film, people will notice him closely.

Tydeus — a berzerker with a menacing headwound, in this film, and a propensity for dog-like behavior, Tydeus also — as the others here — technically antedates the Trojan War. The father of Diomedes in myth (not overtly in this film), Tydeus is so bloodthirsty that he slew Ismene (Aesch. Septem 377ff.) and impiously devoured the brains of Melanippus. Aksel Hennie plays this character with convincingly crazed demeanor.

and Iolaus — the boy here who strives to be like Hercules is in mythology the nephew of Heracles who assists in one Labor (the Hydra) but forebears from assistance when Eurystheus disqualifies any of Heracles' tasks that include assistance. Reece Ritchie is amusing in this part.

Why the side-kicks are so intriguing to me may be summed up in one particular observation pertaining to Heracles' canonically assigned Second Labor, the slaying of the Lernean Hydra. According to Apollodoros Libr. 2.5.2, "Eurystheus ordered Heracles to kill the Lernaean Hydra, a water creature bred in the swamp of Lerna, which invaded dry land destroying livestock and ravaging fields." Though heroically successful in "overcoming the growing heads, then cutting off the immortal one", Heracles' effort was disqualified by Eurystheus who said that Heracles "had not conquered the Hydra alone but with the help of Iolaus." From that moment forth, Heracles always acted as a soloist. In classical mythology it is typically the far inferior hero Jason who assembles a dream-team of helpers to foster his great quest.

So, where does this leave me? I'm at the "that" part of my consideration of this compelling film. It's clear that the narrative belonging to Moore, Spiliotopoulos, Condal, and Ratner is aware of classical mythological ancestry. The development of a hero-with-sidekicks narrative seems right for the comic-book age. I need to turn the corner and explain now the "why" of all this remarkable alteration. And especially intriguing will be answering why Hercules now in a sceptical post-9/11 age needs helpers and why these helpers especially come to the fore.

—— RTM

Monday, March 30, 2015

CAMWS scholars present numerous papers on mythological usages

The CAMWS (Classical Association of the Middle-West and South) annual meeting 2015 took place this last weekend in Boulder. Four full sessions on the first day of papers treated the reception of classics kept me busy for a very instructive day. The next day featured two further sessions, nearly four more hours!, in the afternoon. While not all paper-topics in these sessions pertain to the reception of classical mythology, every one taught me something new. The papers that fit into the scope of the MythMatters blog receive here some commentary, even if they deserve much more. The abstracts for the papers are published at

Meredith E. Safran (Trinity College) talked about “The Heraklean and Promethean Protagonists of Supernatural (2005-2015).” I learned from Safran to regard Supernatural as a “post 9/11 narrative”. Having watched a grand total of one episode of the CW series, I could still follow Safran’s detailed explication of how characterization of the one Winchester brother manifests systematic allusion to the traits of Heracles from Greek mythographical sources. The classical Heracles’ famously voracious appetites for food and sex play subtly into the character of the monster-slaying protagonist. Numerous details were presented in Safran’s compelling treatment. All the way from his near-miss brush with death in the cradle to his consumption of ginormous sandwiches, according to Safran, the character is drawn with intentional similarity to Heracles. Prometheus got somewhat shorter schrift; but, I quite enjoyed learning about the numerous characters in Supernatural whose attributes involve the great Titan’s willful recalcitrance.  Even though she presented less information about the one episode of Supernatural I know — I watched “Remember the Titans” (season 10, ep. 13) for its Prometheus content, because current myth student Danielle Orrock’s spectacular paper— Safran dealt with this particular episode in Q&A.

Polly Hoover (Wright College) read a paper about “Theo Angelopoulous’ The Traveling Players and the Transformation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia.” This is a film I have never seen, but its usage of the Orestes myth was presented in an engaging way. The play-within-the film, a traveling production of a drama called “Gorgo the Shepherdess”, brings together several elements of an oresteia, and the film’s narrative frame has only one character named after the mythological Tantalids. Others assume roles like unto Aegisthus, Agamemnon and so forth.

Yasuko Taoka (Southern Illinois University) treated compelling questions of mythological reception in her paper “Reception and Pastiche in Peter Milligan’s Greek Street.” Taoka showed that the creator of the graphic novel Greek Street raises matters of reception in a rather sophisticated way. As gritty and off-putting as Milligan’s unpleasant style may be, the narrative includes characters who know their classical mythology. And Taoka left the audience reconsidering whether a low-brow façade can front a useful mythological reception. One wonders whether the reader to whom the cartoon’s sleaze and gore will appeal most is going to care about the high-brow ideas Taoka introduced today. I think she is raising serious question about the groundrules for reception studies. Whether I will dig deeper into the Greek Street narratives, I have to admit that today’s paper made me think.

Summer Trentin (Metropolitan State University of Denver) walked us through Raphael’s fresco cycle on Cupid and Psyche in the Chigi Villa Farnesina. “Apuleius and Intellectualism in Raphael’s Loggia of Psyche” was a well illustrated talk. Even if Trentin’s pictures were primarily available in public domain online, it was still delightful to walk virtually through the Psyche cycle with a trained expert. Q&A brought out some detail pertaining to the specifically named Neo-Platonism that the presenter had grouped into the rubric of “intellectualism” during the paper.

      I regret that another commitment kept me from hearing Sarah G. Titus (University of Washington) discuss “Socrates, Fénelon, and Kauffman: negotiating identity through common experience”.  It was reported as a very fine paper.  
       The 1699 didactic prose work Les avantures de Télémaque by François de Salignac De La Mothe-Fénelon was tremendously influential in the 18th Century in Europe and then secondarily in 19th-century America. It is a myth built neo-classically into the narrative space Homer and the classical tragedians left wide open, namely the experiences of Telmachus after the Odyssey’s conclusion. Familiar faces from Homer are there: Idomeneus, Nestor (again), Athena (though called Minerva, of course), the Sirens, and many others are all here.

         The panel on recent literary reception of the classics capped the afternoon quite nicely, with a session of five good papers. Catherine M. Schlegel (University of Notre Dame) explicated “Auden’s Homer: ‘The Shield of Achilles.’” Sarah H. Nooter (University of Chicago) read “The Loss of telos: the Oresteia of Athol Fugard.” This paper left me thinking that I will have to examine connections between Fugard’s play and Tug Yourgrau’s Song of Jacob Zulu, which I addressed in an earlier Mythmatters blogpost. Though Sarah Ahbel Rappe (University of Michigan) was unable to attend, her paper was read in absentia: “Teaching ‘Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition’ as a Course in the State Prison System” is a personal experience of Rappe’s reading classical tragic texts with convicted felons in the Michigan penal system. Remarkably, many of these women have experienced first-hand the very unspeakable crimes that the classical tragedians narrate. Especially because a student in my myth course last week told me that Medea-like crimes “statistically never happen,” Rappe’s account was personally moving for me.
Finally, the afternoon’s most passionate paper was delivered by Carolin Hahnemann (Kenyon College): “Translucent Transplants: on the sublime similes in Alice Oswald’s Memorial.” Hahnemann demonstrated intimate familiarity with the formidable 2012 poem. Because Oswald’s poem focuses on the mythological elements of Homer’s Iliad, the poem deserves to be included in the OGCMA’s next edition. Hahnemann has been lecturing much on Oswald’s rather innovative reception of Homer and the Troy War myth. Let’s call it OGCMA1047NOTTrojanWar_Oswald.

On Friday, an entire session treated classical reception in music. And the topics were broadly divergent. Byron Stayskal (Western Washington University) presented on “Innovation and Tradition: Charon in the Libretto of Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo.” Robyn M. Rocklein (Ringling College of Art and Design) treated “Distortions of Dejanira: visions of female virtue in Handel’s Hercules (1745). And David T. Hewett (University of Virginia) introduced me to the remarkable mythological depth of the band Genesis during the 1970s especially: “Forever to Be Joined as One: Genesis’ ‘The Fountain of Salamacis’ and Ovid.” Other songs by the band in their formative years manifest classical mythological sophistication. Educated schoolboys knew their myths and worked them into their albums and stage shows.

Friday’s session of papers on reception in film had a surprisingly small audience, perhaps because the springtime weather was so fine. Chris Ann Matteo (Fairfax County Public Schools) argued from an anthropological interpretation that Baz Luhrmann’s treatment of Orpheus reenacts the Dionysiac sparagmos (ritual dismemberment of the poet). In “Dissecting Orpheus in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!” Dr. Matteo considers the songs of the film’s soundtrack as artistic dismemberments of their originals, wrenched from their original contexts and significantly altered in style or intent.

In another paper Scott A. Barnard (Rutgers University) sought to rehabilitate the reputation of the filmmakers, who have been for a decade now the target of narrow-minded classicists’ pedantry. The author looked for and provided evidence of truly Homeric details in “Authentic Inauthenticity: Homeric resonance in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004).”

O Brother, Where Art Thou has taken on new meaning for me, because of the paper by Ryan C. Platte (Washington University in St. Louis) called “Scholarly Feedback: homeric studies and American song culture in Coen Brothers Films.” He argues that that film narrates the musical event called the first folkmusic revival. Homer’s historical bearing, at the transition between oral and written culture, makes his Odyssey narrative especially apt for the vehicle for telling it. Likewise, in another Coen Brothers film, matters of folk music are addressed and, again, the Odyssey is the narrative frame. Platte’s paper now has me looking for all manner of electrical innovations that populate the visual landscape of Coen Brothers’ sophisticated film. But his interpretation of the “stringing the bow” episode is for me the most persuasive part of Platte’s paper.
Rocki Wentzel (Augustana College) offered commentary on a less-than-obvious mythological paradigm in one of my favorite mythological films in “Beyond Pygmalion: the writer as Narcissus in Ruby Sparks.”

And in “Politics and Violence in Jorge Alí Triana’s Edipo Alcalde,” by Prof. Annette M. Baertschi (Bryn Mawr College) the remarkable Chilean film was analyzed in a sensitive treatment of the film’s violence. The paper was more about Creon, perhaps, than about Jocasta’s incest. [The Mythmatters reader(s) may recall my blogpost about Edipo Alcalde’s gut-wrenching Jocasta narrative.] For me the most valuable part of Baertschi’s paper, the detail I will anticipate most eagerly prior to publication, is her documenttion of Nobel-laureate screenwriter Garcia Marquéz’ preoccupation with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex throughout his career and correspondence. The film is absolutely worth further study, and Baertschi’s interpretation will play an important role in classicsists’ understanding it.

Finally, the conference ended on a reception high-note, when George Frederic Franko (Hollins University) offered a paper that seemed to me more about Shakespeare than about Ovid. “Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe: lamentable new comedy,” was a highlight of the conference for me, especially because Franko has clear control of the Sahkespearean context as well as the Ovidian text. Because I was presiding as the session where he spoke, I was able to tell Prof. Franko how much I enjoyed his insightful paper. in the blogpost, I can only encourage the reader(s) to go and consult Franko’s abstract, and all the many others, at

—— RTM, 29 March 2015