Friday, 22 January 2021

Pandora and her container

 

 

Greek women are on a roll. No, not Arianna Huffington, Melina Mercouri and Irene Papas, but their counterparts in ancient mythology. We had Madeleine Miller's cracking Circe (her first book having focussed on the men - Achilles and Patroclus); Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (the sequel, The Women of Troy, will be out this August) and Natalie Haynes' A Thousand Ships, which all worked from the premise made explicit in Barker's title: that we know the women of Greek myths only through a male perspective.

At the same time, there has been a trend in presenting both myth and history as if they have to be funny in order to be interesting. I blame Horrible Histories myself. I have not always enjoyed Natalie Haynes on radio 4 because of this tendency, so approached Pandora's Jar with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation

There are jokes. Haynes can't help herself: she used to be a stand-up comedian. But there is also a great deal to illuminate and enjoy. Although she says at the end that it isn't "a scholarly book," her frame of reference takes in Stesichorus, Theognis and Diodorus Siculus as well as Hesiod, Pausanias and the Greek tragedians. There is no need for her to self-deprecate, although an index would have been nice.

But this is marketed as a book with popular appeal and the production is gorgeous. I want to give a shout-out to Swedish artist Petra Bӧrner for the beguiling cover. 

Let's get that business of Pandora's container out of the way. If asked, I would have said "box;" wouldn't you? That is the common expression but we get it from Erasmus in the 16th century who translated pyxis instead of pithos, which is a tall jar. So if we've got that so wrong, what else have we mis-believed about Pandora?

Well her name means "all-giving" as well as "all-gifted," according to Haynes, which certainly puts a new spin on her actions. She was created as the first woman, being given assets by the gods, and was then presented to Epimetheus as a wife. (He was the brother of Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus). In some versions, she brings the jar with her as a dowry. But in no ancient Greek source is she forbidden to open it; that has been tacked on by later re-tellers of the story, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Roger Lancelyn-Green. There isn't even agreement that the jar is full of evils. Theognis says Pandora released good things like self-control and trust, which flew away, explaining why they are so rare among men.

                                               Pandora - artist unknown (Wikimedia Commons)
 

Having sorted us out on Pandora, Natalie Haynes moves on to nine other women or groups, which are worth naming: Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea and Penelope.

After a discussion of their places in popular mythology and a look at Greek sources, Haynes goes on to look at more recent interpretations in a variety of art forms. It's a real shame she doesn't mention Stravinsky's short opera, Oedipus Rex, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau, based on Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos. It's true that Jocasta has no more prominence in terms of number of lines in that work than she does in Sophocles. But what lines and what music!

Oracula, oracula, mentita sunt oracula.

It's also true that "the fixation on Oedipus sucks all the light and air"  out of the story, as Haynes observes

Helen "of Troy" is probably the most famous of the women in Greek mythology in this book. She was abducted by (or went willingly with) Paris, prince of Troy, from her marital home and caused a ten-year war between Greece and Troy to restore her to her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta. But how many people know the alternative version in which an image of Helen was taken in her stead and the real Helen kept safe for the duration in Egypt? It is found in Euripides' play, Helen.

One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on The Amazons. How many Amazons can you name? Haynes says there are more than sixty names on depictions of them on Greek vases. I could summon up only Hippolyta and, at a pinch, Penthesilea. The great things about the Amazons, as Haynes make clear, is that they fought together. They are not interested in single heroic acts like the men in Greek mythology; there are no Amazonian equivalents of Achilles or Hector. Even when Penthesilea takes on Achilles after Hector's death, she brings another dozen Amazons with her.

One of ways in which they have been diminished is the example of describing Hyppolita's war-belt as a "girdle." In Pseudo-Apollodorus' Biblioteca, Haynes tells us, one of the Labours of Heracles/Hercules is to bring back the belt of the Amazon for a princess called Admete. This belt would have held weapons and been a broad, sturdy affair, nothing like a loose waist-tie to cinch in a flowing tunic. Still less like the barely functional adornment of a naked woman as in the 16th century Dutch painting below

The chapter I was most looking forward to was the one on Clytemnestra and I must here declare an interest: I have long found her a subject of much calumny and wrote a short story in her voice for an anthology called Bloody Women, which ended up mothballed. Maybe its time has come now? Haynes does make much of the fact that Agamemnon sacrificed his and C's oldest daughter at Aulis in order to get a fair wind for his ships to Troy. And that would be quite enough to make you hate your husband and have some defence for killing him.

But few people take account that Clytenmestra's first husband, Tantalus and their baby son were both killed by Agamemnon before he married her. Haynes does mention this but doesn't give it the prominence I do. To recap: your sister is the most beautiful woman in the world and also semi-divine; your husband and baby son are murdered by an invading thug; you are then given to said thug as his bride; you buckle down to your fate and bear him three (or four) children; he murders the first child you bore him and goes off to war for ten years; you hear he has taken not one but two war-brides as part of his booty; he returns home, where you have ruled as queen for a decade, bringing a third war-bride with him. You then, with your lover, kill him. What court would not agree you have been provoked?

The trouble is that three great tragedians have written about this story and the focus is on Clytemnestra as the archetype of a bloodthirsty, vengeful wife, not a woman provoked to the limit of endurance by her murderous, unfaithful husband. Here I should have liked to know that Haynes was familiar with Richard Strauss's expressionist masterpiece, Electra. Not because it exonerates the queen but because it contains her fabulous aria about the nightmares she has about her son, Orestes, coming to exact bloody vengeance for the death of his father. Clytemnestra knows how differently women who kill are judged  from their male counterparts.

Of the remaining women in the book, only Medea has much agency. Eurydice, Phaedra and Penelope all seem to be women to whom things happen.

Eurydice, after being stung by a serpent, dies and goes down to Hades. Its eponymous ruler wants to keep her but her husband Orpheus has other ideas. Orpheus enters the underworld playing his lyre and the shades of the dead come to hear his music. Even Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog, stands gaping. Eurydice is handed back to her husband, they leave together, with the woman walking behind.

The prohibition on looking back is not mentioned in Virgil until after Orpheus has forgotten and broken it. It is made more of in Ovid, who doesn't tell us that Eurydice was fleeing from her would-be rapist Aristaeus when the snake bites. The common theme as in so many of this myths is that no-one asks the woman what she wants. 

 Haynes  is good here on later representations, citing Gluck and, briefly, Cocteau, even Philip Glass's "bonkers" opera (but not Harrison Birtwistle's equally bonkers The Mask of Orpheus). What they have in common is all taking Orpheus' point of view: how would a man feel if his wife died young? Only Carol Ann Duffy's poem in The World's Wife, shows Eurydice content in the underworld and relieved to be shot of a husband "who follows her round/writing poems."

Phaedra's story is one that bears fleshing out. Her sister Ariadne has already been betrayed and abandoned by Theseus when this "hero" marries her. Her fate, decreed by Aphrodite, is to fall hopelessly in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who has scorned the goddess of love in favour of Artemis, the patron of hunting. None of this has anything to do with Phaedra herself; she has to bear the tragedy of Aphrodite's pique.

In Euripides' play, Hippolytus, we see her almost dying for love of her stepson and, when she does hang herself, she leaves a note for Theseus that his son has tried to rape her. In Racine's play, Phèdre, the difference is that the queen's waiting woman has told the young man of his stepmother's passion and he has shown disgust at the idea. In both versions, the best known loci for Phaedra's story, Thesus curses his son for the alleged rape and the young man is horribly crushed by his own chariot. So Aphrodite gets her revenge and Phaedra is collateral damage.

Penelope is the last woman that Haynes tackles and again refreshes our image of the patient wife left waiting twenty years for her husband Odysseus (Ulysses), chastely rejecting other suitors - a passive figure. Firstly, Haynes makes it clear that Penelope is quite as clever as her husband; the wheeze of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law and undoing it every night is her idea. She has told the gaggle of suitors that she won't marry until it is finished and they are too dumb to twig her deceit. It it would be hard work too, as Haynes points out, not like undoing some knitting, where you just pull on one thread and the work unravels.

                                                       Athene watches Penelope "unweaving"

Penelope waits for Odysseus because, unlike his hundred would-be replacements, he is clever and therefore interesting. The story is taken from Homer's Odyssey but there is a modern version worth mentioning, Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad, which begins with the hanging of the slave-women by Telemachus after the suitors have been killed and I'm glad that Haynes knows it.

But the star of this book is Medea, the seemingly irredeemable wife of Jason, who killed their children. I'm not specially interested in the vaunted introduction to the chapter linking her to Beyoncé; You can read it perfectly well without that. Haynes reminds of of the parallels between Theseus and Jason, who abandon the women who help them in their quests. Theseus dumps Ariadne, who has provided him with a way to navigate to the centre of the labyrinth, so that he could kill her half-brother, the Minotaur, and rescue himself and all future young Athenians from the annual sacrifice to the monster in the maze.

Jason simply could not have taken the golden fleece from Medea's father without her help. The two women help their boorish "heroes" because of being smitten by love. But here's a difference: Medea is a powerful witch and she is not to be scorned without a cost. She has been married to Jason long enough to have two young but not infant sons with him but then he decides to marry another woman, the daughter of the king of Corinth, and send Medea and their children into exile.

Euripides' play, Medea, gives her terrific speeches in which she gets the audience on her side as much as the Chorus she is ostensibly addressing. Medea is not going to go quietly. She manages to poison Jason's intended bride and her father the king. But then, believing that her children will be killed in revenge, she slays them herself. This is no less shocking today than it was in 431 BCE, when the play was first performed in Athens. We can't exonerate Medea but thanks to Natalie Haynes we can understand her a tiny bit better.

Pandora's Jar fulfils its promise to let us see these ten women afresh, to re-visit their stories by putting ourselves in their position rather than that of the men - and gods - who act upon them. Natalie Haynes' very readable text performs the same task as a picture-restorer or a mender of broken pottery; she allows us to see them without the ravages of the centuries, as believable women living in real time.

                                                          Natalie Haynes credit: Jamie Betts




 





Friday, 15 January 2021

Run Your Town Like a Roman - 12 tips from the past, by Ruth Downie

Human nature, it seems, has changed little since AD 91, when the emperor Domitian issued a set of laws for the town of Irni. Many of them made me laugh, because it was clear that the rules were designed to head off exactly the same sort of misunderstanding and mischief-making that still goes on today. Others were clearly based on a mindset very different to our own. Here are a few gems of advice from the past:

1 Everyone in town must know what the rules are. They must be engraved on bronze plaques and put up in the middle of town where they can clearly be read from ground level. There is to be no burying of bad news, hiding devilish detail in small print or placing plaques so high that nobody can read them without a ladder. 

Two people looking up at tall Roman building
"Did you bring the binoculars?"

 2 Remember that while mortal guardians sleep, the gods and the divine ghosts of emperors past are always on the lookout for wrongdoing. Everyone who holds office in the town must swear by Jupiter and the Divine Augustus and the Divine Claudius and the Divine Vespasian Augustus and the Divine Titus Augustus and the genius of the Emperor Domitian Augustus and the Penates that he will act in good faith.

3 There is to be no fake news. All decisions must be read out as soon as possible and council scribes are to make a public record of what’s been decided without entering anything false or leaving anything out, or else incur the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc.

4 Two men with equal authority should be placed in charge of the council. Ideally they will be so busy squabbling with each other that neither will pose any threat to the higher authorities. In order to get necessary business done even when relations are bad, some ground rules will be necessary – for example, nobody can make decisions about money unless three-quarters of the councillors are there to vote on them. And when one of the top men has called a meeting, the other one can’t demand that everyone abandon it and come to his own meeting instead. (Ordinary residents, of course, should not be allowed to hold large meetings at all. No good will come of it.)

5 Cheer everyone up by supporting the arts – as soon as possible, vote a budget for religious observances, games and public dinners.

Modern gladiators in the amphitheatre at Chester
Everyone enjoys the Games

6 Make it clear that the councillors in charge of drains, roads, etc. will have the help of municipal slaves to do the actual dirty work.

7 Are there still not enough willing councillors, despite the offer of free labour and public dinners? Have the names of every eligible man (obviously non-men are not eligible) written up in public. At ground level. Order them to nominate each other. You will have an instant rush of nominees.

8 Now you have the nominees - some advice on elections. Nobody is to do anything to prevent the election being held. Everyone seeking election can place a scrutineer by each ballot box. If two candidates have the same number of votes, the one who is married will be elected. If they are both married, tot up the number of legitimate sons each of them has. The one with the most sons wins. (For the avoidance of dispute, use the official points system to allow for any children who have not survived. If this still doesn’t settle the matter, draw lots.)

outline of ballot box
9 Get a grip on the grain supply and keep control of weights and measures and the retail sector. Ban hoarding and price-fixing. No-one is to corner the market in any one commodity - not even toilet rolls.

10 Tired of the endless grumbling from residents who demand that “the council ought to do something about…” x, y or z? Remind them that residents can be conscripted for five days each year to work without pay on major Council projects. This will test their resolve.

11 Ambassadors. Being sent away to represent the town’s views (whatever you think of them) is not always a popular job, so any man who claims to be ineligible because he is ill, or over 60, should be made to swear it in front of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc. If he is later found out to be lying, he will suffer not only the wrath of Jupiter, the Divine Augustus, etc., but also a fine of 20,000 sesterces. This is enough to pay 16 legionaries for a year, so if a modern army private in the UK earns about £20,000 a year, set the fine at £320,000.

Bust of the Emperor Domitian - Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The emperor is running out of patience.

12 And finally – the laws end with a special letter from the emperor Domitian himself. Its meaning is now lost to us, but if, in the light of recent legislation, you are concerned about the hasty marriage (?) that you contracted, this is for you. The emperor wants you to know that he is prepared to overlook the past, but he is now running out of patience. Don’t do it again.

The Lex Irnitana, the statement of law for the southern Spanish town of Irni, was discovered on bronze plaques in the 1980s. I’m immensely grateful to Paul du Plessis, who originally drew my attention to it, but who shares none of the blame for what lies above. Anyone wanting to make a serious study of it should consult:

The Lex Irnitana: A New Copy of the Flavian Municipal Law Author(s): Julián González and Michael H. Crawford Source: The Journal of Roman Studies , 1986, Vol. 76 (1986), pp. 147-243 Published by: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/300371 JSTOR

Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, and featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. www.ruthdownie.com 

Photo of Domitian - derivative work: Steerpike (talk)Domitian_capitoline_profile.png: Steerpike, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons








Friday, 8 January 2021

Basketry by Janie Hampton

Bronislava and Jan Madejscy with their kablacok willow baskets, are part of the Slow Art in Poland movement, in Lucimia Village which is on UNESCO’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’ list. © Paulina Adamska, Serfenta Association, 2009.
Baskets have been part of our lives ever since humans first gathered fruit to eat. Since then, basketry skills have been used to make hats, water carriers, coffins, boats, furniture, lampshades and designer handbags.
Despite much speculation, the origin of the word ‘basket’ is obscure but is assumed to be from the early 13th C Anglo-French bascat. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest source is Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor published in 1602: ‘Look, here is a basket…. he may creep in here.’
Because baskets are used until they fall apart, and are then either burned or decay, they rarely feature in archeology. The earliest known baskets survived through chance – in fish-traps left behind in waterlogged ditches; in permafrost; or in desert caves.
Baskets have been found in Turkey from the neo-lithic period of 7500-5500 BC. They left only impressions in the mud after they were wrapped around the dead. In Fayum, near the Nile Valley in Egypt, there are no traces of dwellings left, but over 100 grain storage pits made between 5000 and 4200 BC reveal patterns from baskets made from wheat straw. One whole boat-shaped basket with colours and fine patterns was found in a grain pit in 1924. Its discovery raised the question: ‘Does its quality indicate that the value of grain was very high? Or was it first used for something of higher status, and then when it was half worn out, recycled as a grain scoop?’
Early 20thC basketmaker in Kent.  © Mary Butcher
Humans have always been good at adapting whatever they can find, to live more comfortably and safely. In the Peruvian Andes, the Spanish Conquistadors were astonished that the only way across deep gorges was by bridges made from rope. Designed over 500 years ago during the Inca Empire, the bridges were made entirely of grass. One keshwa chaca still survives, spanning the Apurimac River (‘The Great Speaker’). Only humans and llamas can cross it, but the tradition and skills are so important to the people that it is rebuilt every year using the same local qqoya grass and methods passed down to each generation. The grass has to be soaked and softened, then pounded by children, and spun into cords by women. Each household produces 40 arms-length of rope. Once about 7 kms of grass cord has been made, the men twist bunches of 24 cords into ropes. Old men then braid the cables, while the young ones stretch them across the channel. The bridge is completed with a deck of brushwood matting. The combination of grass - a material with little strength on its own, community effort, and the design of the keshwa chaca is a wonderful example of engineering friction, social cohesion and human ingenuity. As Ian Ewart writes, the process is ‘a nexus of social regeneration and reinforcement.’ 
Nassa fish traps from Gozo in the Mediterranean Sea,
made by the late Salvo ta Bertu from split Mediterranean cane
and a grass similar to esparto. © Geraldine Jones. 

Materials for baskets come from plants - trees, grasses, cacti, heathers – whatever grows near the maker. In the islands of northern Scotland, there are stones to build houses, but few trees to use as rafters to hold up the rooves. But there is plenty of heather, which can be twisted into ropes to hold the thatch, made of more heather. 
The first Girl Guide uniforms in 1910 included a wide brimmed hat woven from rush.
This was made by Jean Francis for Salt Cellar Workshops in Cornwall in 2019. 
During World War One, baskets were so important for transporting carrier-pigeons and medical supplies, and for observation-balloon baskets and even aeroplanes, that basket-making was a ‘reserved occupation’ and the War Office appointed a National Willow Officer. Mary Crabb relates that the artillery-shell basket had ‘a curious, slightly sinister cyclic quality about it. Woven to offer protection to objects of death and destruction – those injured by the shells were then taught to weave baskets as a means of therapy and rehabilitation.’ Basket making was found to be a therapeutic activity for shell-shock, requiring meditative repetition, hand-eye coordination and creating a sense of purpose with the finished product. The materials were cheap, and when imported cane ran out, wild roses and brambles were available in hedgerows. Also, it could be done in bed or a wheelchair. 
Basket weaving therapy at Seale Hayne Military Hospital, 1919.
Seale-Hayne Archives. © Margaret Rose Preston Estate. 

Angus MacPhee was a Gaelic speaker brought up on South Uist – a remote island on the Outer Hebrides. During the 1940s he developed schizophrenia and was sent to Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital in Inverness. An elective mute, he worked on the hospital farm where he invented his own therapy. He twisted and twined grass into yarn and then using only two pieces of broken fence wire, he looped, netted and stitched. He made coats, trousers, hats, boots and pouches, often interwoven with wild flowers and sheep’s wool from fences. Twice a year the hospital groundsmen tidied up his artefacts and burned them. He would watch apparently undisturbed, and make some more. A few pieces survived him, and basket-makers recognized the same looping techniques as used in 12th C socks found in a cave in Arizona, in Norse cultures, and by indigenous people of Australia today. 
A typical English fruit basket from the 1950s, designed for
occupational therapy and made of easily-manipulated cane. 
Basket making gained a bad name after the derogatory term ‘basket-case’ was coined in 1919, meaning someone who had lost both their legs in war and was now ‘useless’; and by the mid-20th century basketry’s association with the disabled and mentally ill meant its reputation declined. Recent research has shown the beneficial effects on brain injury and trauma that basketry can contribute to improving brain plasticity with sensory and motor signals, sequencing, recognition of mistakes and decision making.
Baskets have a protective role of containment and holding. ‘We are, after all, ’writes Hilary Burns, ‘nurtured in baskets from cradle to grave, literally from crib to coffin.’ 
Boks baskets from Vanuatu in South Pacific embody a rhythmic 
sequence of pandanus (pine palm) ribbons, passed down the generations. 
Whereas ’found materials’ or rubbish were originally used to make baskets for economic reasons, now basket makers use them to create political messages about sustainability. Lois Walpole used to buy rattan, until she realized the huge carbon footprint of transporting it across the world, and then dyeing it. Now she consciously uses only found materials such as disused packaging and ‘ghost gear’ – flotsam and jetsam from beaches- to make colourful, beautiful baskets and furniture. In the Shetland Isles she taught children to appreciate ‘ghost gear’ and not see it as ‘undesirable and untouchable but as something they could profit from as their forebears would have done [with grown materials]’. 
‘Ghost gear’ on Breckon beach, Isle of Yell. © Lois Walpole 
As more people buy plastic or factory-made baskets, the skills of different methods, knots, weaves and styles are dying out. In many places, only the oldest people still know how to make traditional baskets. A few basket historians, such as Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond, have sought out these basket-makers in places like Malta, Cornwall, The Azores and Northern Spain.
We take basketry for granted but now historians, artists, anthropologists and mathematicians are revealing stories, structures and skills in basketwork. The Material Culture of Basketry: practice, skill and embodied knowledge is a beautifully produced book which will inspire anyone interested in the interdisciplinary history of crafts, knots, plants. The book’s 36 authors remind us that baskets are not just craftily-made containers, but also holders of knowledge, history and design; and the textures, patterns and geometric forms in basketwork express maths, art, culture and engineering. 
Geraldine Jones of Basketry & Beyond made this stainless-steel wire ball
following the mathematical pattern of a sepak raga football from Malaysia,
 usually made from split bamboo. © Geraldine Jones

The Material Culture of Basketry: Practice, Skill and Embodied Knowledge, Stephanie Bunn and Victoria Mitchell (Eds), Bloomsbury, 2020.

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs © Janie Hampton