Tag Archives: myth

Origins of Romeo and Juliet: No not Shakespeare

This weekend I saw the latest adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by the Italian director Carlo Carlei. It was a well made film up until the end when he decided to go a little off script. The dialogue was not the original dialogue, but stayed true in some spots and was still quite poetic. Having already mentioned these things to my date as we were coming out of the theater I fought for something else to add to the discussion of the film. Suddenly it struck me that I knew the origin of the plot made so famous by Romeo and Juliet.

The plot is not originally Shakespeare’s idea even though when anyone thinks of forbidden love they immediately think of this play. The origin of this story is actually one of my favorite parts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Pyramus and Thisbe, a myth that also appears in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is about a young man and a young woman who speak through a crack in the wall that their houses share. They come from feuding families and must keep their love for each other secret. One night they decided to sneak out of the house to meet and runaway together. Thisbe gets to the meeting point under the mulberry tree first, but seeing a lioness she hides nearby. Pyramus arrives next and sees the lioness with Thisbe’s veil and assumes that the lioness has eaten Thisbe. Pyramus kills himself and when Thisbe finds his body she kills herself with the same sword. That’s the short version. Ovid tells it better so read his, please.

The point is that the plots are the same and I am still waiting for the day when someone does a Romeo and Juliet adaptation that in some way acknowledges the origins of the plot. The metamorphosis in Ovid’s telling is the explanation of why mulberry trees have reddish/purple berries, because they were stained by the blood of the young lovers. I would love to see someone simply add the mulberry tree. With how much Carlo Carlei added to the ending of his film (a wild and crazy change that made me, I must say, believe at one point that he was going to allow Juliet to survive) I think he could have added a small acknowledgement of Ovid and his story.

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Classical References in Lady Gaga’s Applause

Lady Gaga’s new video has hit the scene and it is as weird as ever. I’m a fan of some of Lady Gaga’s music, but I am really not for the whole over-the-top, attention seeking, randomness that is found in her videos or her VMA dresses. This isn’t a blog about Lady Gaga, though, it’s about Classics. I watched the video because I have friends who are huge Gaga fans and because let’s be honest all that attention seeking really works. I immediately picked up on two classical references. I read the Buzzfeed article and don’t know that I believe all of the references that sight pulled out of this video, but I do agree with the two classical ones. They are the myth of Icarus and the myth of Venus’ birth.

In short summary, Icarus was the son of the inventor, Daedalus. Daedalus invented wings made of wax so that they could fly, but warned his son that if he flew too high the wax would melt and he would fall to the sea. Icarus flew too high, the wax melted, and he died. I liked Buzzfeed’s explanation for the reference to Icarus saying that maybe Gaga became “too consumed in her own art.” The problem with this is that they are not taking into account what the song is about. The song repeats over and over that Gaga lives for applause. That is why she chooses the use of Icarus. He flew too close to the sun and she is saying that she may be doing the same. She lives to fly higher and higher and be more and more loved by her fans. Gaga who we know is obsessed with duality, as mentioned over and over in her career, knows that wanting to more love from her fans constantly and being addicted to that fame is a catch 22. There are good and bad things about fame and flying high.  Gaga, clearly, loves the stage, the show, the attention, and she craves all of these things. That’s what the story of Icarus is about. When it comes to a good thing, don’t get greedy.

Now Icarus was not fortunate enough to be reborn the way Gaga is in her video. Her birth is very obviously a reference to the goddess Venus. Of course, Venus, is all about love and sexuality. These are not uncommon themes in Lady Gaga’s music or videos so it’s no surprise that this is the goddess she chose to be reborn as. Venus was born from the sea which some people take as a purifying experience, however, the creation myth of Venus/Aphrodite most commonly accepted in the classical world is that she was born from Uranus’ sea foam when Cronos cut off Uranus’ genitals and threw them into the sea. That’s a myth twisted enough for Lady Gaga.  Her rebirth as Venus might be simply a reference to the sexuality for which Venus is known or if I’m going to take things as deeply and reach a little the way Buzzfeed has, it might be her return to love and passion for her music and her art which the Icarus reference has shown us has gotten away from Gaga a bit.

Not my style when it comes to videos, but I am happy to point out the classical references and even more happy that they are there. Classics is thriving in popular culture as much as ever. In this case Lady Gaga, surely, knew what she was doing when using them. In other cases they pop up inadvertently because these myths and themes are more ingrained in our world than most of us realize. For more about these references keep an eye out for more posts. As always comment with your thoughts or suggestions for what you want to read about.


Buzzfeed http://www.buzzfeed.com/azafar/every-cultural-reference-you-probably-didnt-catch-in-lady-ga?bffb

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Game of Thrones Red Wedding and Ancient Greek Xenia

WARNING MAJOR SPOILERS: If you have not watched Season 3 Episode 9 and care about being surprised, do not read any further!

So I’m a bit of a Game of Thrones fan which is probably no surprise being that it draws some influence from the classical world, although probably more influence comes from the northern myths, stories, and legends. I found myself spending the last few days watching reactions to the last episode because they are completely hilarious (clip above).  I usually don’t write about obvious evidence of classical influence, but this particular episode brought up a very important theme in ancient literature and epic. This theme is known in Greek as xenia. Xenia is a common rule in ancient cultures of guest-friendship meaning that there is a certain expectation of safety and hospitality among travelers, guests, and hosts. There is also a cool small souvenir and novelty shop in Philly called Xenos (guest/foreigner) but that’s another story.  In Game of Thrones this custom was clearly not upheld as just about everyone who was a guest at the wedding was killed.

Breaking the customs of xenia has a tradition in ancient literature of leading to terrible things and usually huge wars which kill far more people than those involved in the original dispute. I have no doubt that this will be the case in Game of Thrones. This blog is not about my predictions for HBO television shows so I won’t go into them more than that, but what I know from reading ancient literature is that once the rules of xenia are broken, Pandora’s box is opened because those customs of trust are what made travel possible in the ancient world and were necessary to a functioning civilization. Once one side breaks the rules, all sides break the rules. This was so important that to violate xenia was actually insulting Zeus.

Side note: The documentary Craigslist Joe is an experiment in modern American xenia.

Some examples in Ancient Greek literature of breaking these rules are as follows.

  1. The Trojan War- Yes the Trojan War started as a result of a breach of hospitality. This was opposite of the Red Wedding though in that the guest was the perpetrator. Paris stole Menelaus’ wife while he was a guest at Menelaus’ house; whether Helen went willingly or not has always seemed irrelevant to me.
  2. The Odyssey- Xenia is all over this story as it is basically an epic of travel. The most important in my mind is that of Odysseus’ house in which the suitors were demanding things beyond the custom; this doesn’t end well for them.
  3. Euripides Alcestis– This entire play is based on the importance of xenia. Alcestis’ husband Admetus was such a great host that Apollo convinced the Fates to allow him to live past his given time of death.  Ademtus is so devoted to the custom of hospitality that he betrays the last wishes of his dying wife in order to be a good host to the famous Heracles.
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Magic in the Woods: Disney Princesses, Once Upon a Time, and Rex Nemorensis

                I recently saw a meme about Disney Princess and it said something like “I need to spend more time in the woods because that’s where all of the good men are.” I thought this was funny because I am a bit of an outdoors man and spend a lot of time in the woods, but then I thought about it and realized that most of the Disney Princesses do find their magic in the woods. This is not a theme only in Disney, however. Since ancient times magic has been found in dark wooded areas and often under great sleep deprivation. Some scholars believe this is due to the effects of sleep deprivation or hypothermia like hallucinations causing people to actually believe they experienced things beyond the realm of daily non-magical life. The following are a few classical examples of this phenomenon some of which you may find to be related.

                The first, and probably most obvious, is that Vergil’s character Aeneas had to go deep into the woods and search for a golden bough in order to gain entrance into the underworld. I have been in the cave in Cumae, Italy that is said to be the entrance to the underworld (my prof kind of ruined the magic for me by saying it was most likely a military defensive establishment to guard the temples at the top of the hill). It is easy to see when on sight that this would be a very dark place and in ancient days would have been surrounded by dark forests.

                A fundamental myth of the forest is the story of the Rex Nemorensis (king of the forest). This tradition, according to Sir James George Frazer, is the basis of many myths (note: some scholars argue strongly against his views). The myth has its roots in Nemi a small town with a very dark lake surrounded by dark forests. The area is sacred to the goddess Diana who has been mentioned before in this blog. Anyway, the tradition is given by Frazer as follows:

“In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or craftier” (Frazer, Golden Bough, p. 1).

While this story is not exactly magical, it has been transformed into many magical myths and shows the roots of our modern obsession with magic taking place in the woods or with characters deprived of sleep. This story is also visited in the show Once Upon a Time as Rumpelstiltskin gains his power from the dark one in a tale almost exactly the same as this one.

                The point is that we often see today, especially in Disney and fairy tale type movies, that magic takes place in the forest. Even the princess from the Princess and the Frog finds her magic and her love in the depths of the woods. This is not a modern invention, but instead a theme that runs deep into ancient times. I hope that having read this, you will look for this theme in a variety of movies and shows and comment on this post with the many examples that exist in today’s pop culture.

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