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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Isocrates on Helen

Isocrates makes an interesting argument regarding Helen's beauty which I think is worth sharing:

Helen of Troy16. [...]While most of the demigods owed their existence to Zeus, she was the only woman of whom he condescended to be called the father. While he took most interest in the son of Alcmene and the children of Leda, he so far showed preference for Helen over Heracles, that, having granted such strength to the latter that he was enabled to overcome all by force, he allotted to Helen the gift of beauty, which is destined to bring even strength into subjection to it. 17. Knowing, further, that distinction and renown arise, not from peace, but from wars and combats, and wishing not only to exalt their bodies to heaven, but to bestow upon them an everlasting remembrance, he ordained a life of toil and danger for the one, while he granted to the other beauty that was universally admired and became the object of universal contention.

Basically, he says, Zeus gave Helen the ABSOLUTE most powerful gift, raising her up over Heracles, because even strength is helpless in the face of such beauty as Helen possessed.  And not only that! But as further proof of his favor, he made sure Helen would NEVER be forgotten, because, basically, she would be fought over forever by everyone.

But the thing Isocrates fails to take into consideration is this: Heracles can choose where to leverage his strength. He can decide to ransack a city, or kill a lion with nothing but a club and his bare hands. He has CONTROL over his strengths, for the most part -- unless he's being directly manipulated by the gods, or else has flown into a rage (possibly because of direct manipulation by the gods.)

Helen, on the other hand, is given this incredible gift, this incredible beauty, but left with no control over it. None. And to add insult to injury, she is BLAMED and held solely accountable for the results. She is cursed for causing the Trojan War, cursed for betraying and abandoning her husband and daughter. All the blood of all the men who follow her to Troy, and all the men who fight for her right to remain there is on her hands, all that death on her head, and her head alone.

Yes, Helen was remembered. But not as a hero. Unlike Odysseus, and Heracles, and Theseus, Helen is not famous for her noble deeds.

She is infamous for her lack of virtue.

If that's how Zeus treats his favorites, I'd rather be overlooked altogether.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Women and the Megaron

In researching the Mycenaean Palaces of the Greek Bronze Age, I came across a paper discussing the purpose of the megaron (by Jarrett Farmer), primarily arguing that it was less a throne room, and more a center of ritual -- in spite of evidence suggesting a throne -- and only an occasional space, rather than one in every day use as a political audience chamber. His theory is based on a number of things, from the wear of the floor tiles to the limited access to the physical space itself, but one part of the argument is the real dearth of imagery of MEN sitting upon thrones of any kind:
Rehak compared images of seated figures from frescos (Fig12), sealings (Figs 13, 14), rings (Fig 15), and sealstones to the fresco motifs in the megaron, and put forward the startling observation that almost all seated figures of identifiable sex in Aegean art are female.

07Mykenischer Kopf01
Female Portrait, wiki commons
In particular there's discussion of a few processional images, in which men are carrying cups toward a seated woman on a throne, and how these images are most often interpreted as goddesses receiving honors or offerings. But, Farmer says, why couldn't they be reflective of just the standard operating procedures of ritual at the time? Why COULDN'T the throne in the megaron have been meant for a woman? Especially if the space was NOT in fact a throne room for the king, but rather, a ritual/cult/religious space?

Well, for that matter, why couldn't women, as priestesses, have been running the place -- but okay, maybe there isn't a lot of support for that in the linear b tablets, so I can see why no one would want to make that claim.


It does, perhaps, put a slightly different spin on the whole "Helen's husband would become King of Sparta" element of the mythology, doesn't it? Because what if Helen weren't just a princess -- what if her role was something greater than that? Something related to the megaron as a ritual and religious space? What if that throne in the megaron was going to be hers?

And not just the myths involving Helen, either, but also the story of Ariadne and Theseus -- Ariadne, the princess of Crete, daughter of Minos. The woman who helped Theseus escape, only to be abandoned on Naxos and made a goddess by Dionysus. Dionysus, who himself may or may not have been related, at that time, to the hearth and the fire and the ritual drinking taking place in the megaron. A priestess Ariadne as the consort of such a god makes an incredible amount of sense.

I'm not sure we'll ever really know one way or the other what the roles of women were in Mycenaean Greece, but theories and discussions like these definitely provide some food for thought.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Fantastic Talk on Greek Bronze Age Art and Restorations

The Met apparently had an exhibition last year highlighting the reproduction and restoration work of Gillieron and son from Evans and Schliemann's excavations of Mycenae and Knossos, among other Mycenaean and Minoan finds. The talk is pretty great, and discusses the most famous reproductions and their worth to historians and museums.

I highly recommend it to anyone looking for more information on that period and the reproductions of the frescoes that were found.  Personally, I am huge fan of the copy of the Octopus ornament, but the fresco stuff is the most valuable to me in adding details and atmosphere to my Greek Bronze Age settings.

The Met has an incredible gallery of Classical Marbles that I wish I could have camped out in, because it was impossible to drink it all in during the short time I had at the museum. There's just so much there, even outside of the marbles, which are obviously much later art, but walking through the galleries and seeing glass beads and artifacts dated back to the Bronze Age just makes it all feel incredibly real in a way that reading about it doesn't quite capture.

But check out that talk! The part I found the most enlightening was the idea (only mentioned in passing, sadly) that there might have been a marriage between the Minoan and Egyptian Royal Families. These little nuggets of thought are what I love about history.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bathtubs and Cleaning Solutions

I'm a modern woman. I'm so modern, in fact, that el husband cleans the bathroom more often than not, and is usually responsible for scrubbing the floors, too. I go shopping for household cleaners by name brand and more often than not I go with whatever it is my parents used growing up, because well, it worked then, didn't it? But even with my short foray into chemistry on my way to a wildlife biology degree (I was waylaid by Classics and I don't regret it), I didn't absorb enough to really understand what chemicals do what, and which solutions are in which  cleaner, outside of "oh, this says it has bleach." I've got a pretty firm grasp on acids and bases, and I enjoyed drawing out molecules just because it was kind of fun to give shape to something beyond what we can see on our own, but that's about everything I carried forward.

So when I research the bronze age, I find myself asking a lot of questions I wish I didn't have to think about: how does bronze react to water? And how did Bronze Age heroes keep their bronze armor, swords, and spear tips from oxidizing? What's the proper and historically accurate cleaning solution for frescoes? What about limestone set into plaster? Did they use glazed or unglazed terracotta, because it looks pretty unglazed to me now, but how did that work out for their bathtubs, exactly? Did they paint terracotta? If it's painted, will the paint stick even if the finished product is submerged in water? What about dyes?

Bathtub of Nestor
Basically what it comes down to is: How does it all work? And when we live in a society today that is so specialized we don't really even have the working knowledge for the things we use everyday, it makes it all that much more complicated. And the stuff I do know and understand -- most of the time, the mechanics do not apply to the bronze age.

I mean, honestly. How would you go about cleaning a terracotta tub? Don't forget, we're living in the land without artificially produced scouring sponges, too.

Frankly, I'm just glad that it isn't my character who has to worry about the details of how to scrub it. Yet. But it doesn't stop me from wanting to know.

Although, it's entirely possible that the time I spend researching the answers is just one more way I can excuse myself from mopping the bathroom floor...