Tag Archives: mythology

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.

referenced:

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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Battlestar Galactica and Sophocles’ Ajax

In case this blog isn’t nerdy enough, I thought I would up the nerd factor a little bit and write about not only classics, but Battlestar Galactica. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi anything, but people kept telling me to watch this show so I finally broke down and started it. Now I’m addicted. I should note here that I have just started the 3rd season and therefore I may be missing things and I will most likely not be spoiling much.  For the sake of this post not being incredibly long and unfocused, I would like to ignore some of the more obvious allusions to Greek mythology like the usage of Greek gods and even the less obvious use of the Pythia oracle. This post will focus on one (possibly accidental) reference to Greek mythology: The relationship between Gaius and Number 6 (also known as Caprica 6, but she shall be called Number 6 here).

Their relationship is definitely a large focal point for the show, but what got me really interested in it is that after only a few episodes I saw a parallel between their relationship and that of Ajax and Athena in Sophocles’ Ajax. In the Greek tragedy Ajax is continually manipulated by Athena who speaks directly to him. Some scholars have interpreted Athena as Ajax’s madness incarnate (well sort of since she’s a goddess).  Some theatrical interpretations and adaptations have shown Athena as only being seen by Ajax and being on stage the entire time to direct the events of the play. The use of deities as mental illnesses or madness in many of Sophocles’ plays has been contemplated by scholars. I enjoy entertaining the notion that Greek playwrights used the gods to portray what we today would consider internal working of the mind as well as mental health issues.

As I have not finished the series yet I cannot say what is going on between Gaius and Number 6, but when she is instructing him and manipulating him aboard Galactica while he is the only one who can see her, there is a striking resemblance to Ajax and Athena. I look forward to seeing how this plays out, if he is crazy, a cylon, or there is another explanation. No matter what though, there is no denying the similarities between the two relationships. I wonder if this was influence or accidental, but either way it is awesome.

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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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Dexter Morgan, Katy Perry, Theseus, and The Minotaur

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         In a couple of recent episodes of Showtime’s Dexter, title character, Dexter Morgan and Miami Metro Homicide are after a strange serial killer. The serial killer lures women into a labyrinth he has created where he chases them around with a mask and bull horns on his head. The scenes are terrifying, but, even better, are a clear reference to the ancient account of Theseus and the Minotaur. The use of the labyrinth at this point in the Dexter series in an interesting choice as the writers may be alluding to a parallel between this killer’s physical labyrinth and the mental labyrinth that Dexter is currently navigating due to problems in his personal life (I will avoid getting into these as I don’t want to be a spoiler). Since my goal in this blog is to point out references and educate readers on ancient sources, I will not go further into the Dexter side of the story.

                The story of Theseus and the Minotaur has been portrayed a lot in modern times. Theseus was the main character in the movie Immortals and the Minotaur has come up very recently in Katy Perry’s Wide Awake music video (an analysis of this video can be read at Music To My Eyez). In the time between these present references and the ancient origins of the story, it was also a great influence in the renaissance, as was everything classical; specifically it was the topic of an interesting sculpture by Antonio Canova. The ancient origins of this story are too hard to detect. It was most likely passed down through oral tradition and then adapted when it was written down. Plutarch and Ovid both give accounts of the myth.

                The myth is that King Minos of Crete, after the Athenians surrendered to him, forced Athens to send seven men and seven women to Crete every seven (or nine depending on the source) years as tribute. These tributes would be fed to the Minotaur which was stored in the labyrinth under the palace created by Daedalus (you may recognize this name from the fable Daedalus and Icarus, yes it is the same Daedalus). One year Theseus decided to go as tribute in order to kill the Minotaur. With a ball of thread to find his way out, Theseus entered the labyrinth defeated the Minotaur and returned safely to his home. Unfortunately he forgot to change his sails as he had promised his father and upon seeing the black sails still flying his father, King Aegeus, threw himself into the sea thus lending his name to the Aegean Sea.

                While the labyrinths in Dexter are not as elaborate nor do they have an actual Minotaur, it was still very cool to see one of my favorite shows make such a blatant classical reference. Score more points for this amazing show. Dexter Morgan calls his urge to kill his “Dark Passenger” and I like to think that the labyrinth killer calls his urge “King Minos.”

Note: For a really nasty and interesting story, look into the creation of the Minotaur either through internet resources like Wikipedia or if you are interested in ancient sources, as you should be, my favorite account is given by Ovid in his Heroides, Phaedra to Hippolytus lines 55-68.

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Phineas and Ferb meet Greek Tragedy

Sorry I have been away, but this blog is back and up and running. This is probably my favorite post yet because I am truly a kid at heart.

I was recently watching the wonderful cartoon Phineas and Ferb. For those of you who haven’t seen it you must it is quite funny even for someone who is only a kid at heart. The show is about two kids, Phineas and Ferb, who are constantly building something or having some sort of adventure. They have an older sister Candace. Candace will be the focus of this post. Her role is as a stock character who is never believed, classicists reading this already know where I am going with it. She is always correct in her observation, especially when she is trying to show her mom what Phineas and Ferb are up to, but she is either not believed or whatever they are doing has magically disappeared by the time Mom gets there and she calls Candace crazy.

The connection to classics is the tragic character Cassandra. Cassandra was cursed with the gift of prophecy but the additional problem that no one will ever believe her prophecies. The most famous account of this is in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon where Cassandra gives the account of her curse herself.  She explains that Apollo came to her with desire and she accepted that she would be his if he would give her the gift of prophecy: “I promised I would be his, but I cheated him of that” (Agamemnon, 1208).  She goes on, “Once I had wronged him, I could persuade no one. They believed nothing” (Agamemnon, 1211). Due to this portrayal in Greek tragedy characters have been described as having Cassandra syndrome or a Cassandra complex (note: there is deeper psychology associated with this complex than I am giving here which has to do with the way relationships determine rationality).

While Candace, of Phineas and Ferb, does not see the future she is privy to a select knowledge due to her closeness to her brothers. This knowledge is often unique because others do not have access to it. In this way Candace is a modern adaptation of Cassandra and fits into the pantheon of archetypal characters which have been influenced by the ancient Cassandra.

To become further familiarized with the role of Cassandra you might turn to Homer’s Iliad, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and Euripides’ Trojan Women and Electra. For more information about the Cassandra complex in psychology you can look at studies by Melanie Klein and Laurie Layton Schapira.   

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Diana imagery in Grace Potter & The Nocturnals “Never Go Back”

This video provides a stark contrast between the civilized and the barbaric (interesting side note that the word barbarian comes from the Romans who claimed that anyone who couldn’t speak Latin just said bar bar bar bar). Roman writers especially historians and ethnographers, were obsessed with the contrast between their great civilized world and the barbaric tribes around them.  Authors including Caesar, Tacitus, Plutarch, Diodorus and many others wrote at length about the barbarianism of the Gauls and Germans. This video is designed to give a similar perspective.

The girl depicted represents what is pure. She is good and civilized, in her neo-classical home, playing classical music on her cello. Everything she does represents civilization and everything the barbarian children enter the home and do is anti-civilization. At one point a barbarian picks up a wine glass and looks at it in a funny manner then throws it. Tacitus might find this amusing as he described the terrible tribes of Germany drinking unmixed wine. Wine in the ancient days (Greek and Roman) was mixed with water sort of as an additive to water to purify the not so great stagnant drinking water (this is supported by a passage in Homer’s Odyssey but I cannot find the passage, if someone does please post it in the comments). The barbarians of the ancient days could not make music, music was poetry and they couldn’t speak Latin so that wouldn’t work. This is represented in the video by the anti-civilization act of throwing the cello over the balcony.

My favorite classical reference in this video is the girl herself, however.  The moment she pulled out the bow and arrow aiming it at the barbarians and then changing her civilized ways, was the moment I decided this needed to be posted. Whenever I see a woman archer especially one depicted as an innocent young girl I immediately think of the huntress Diana. Diana is virginal and protects children. She is the epitome of the chaste, civilized, innocent lifestyle. This video grabs me though as the image of the archer quickly turns to the means for her lack of civilization. She shoots the flaming arrow into the wall of the house lighting the house on fire and joining the ranks of the barbarian children. She sheds civilization.

Interestingly the song talks about never going back presumably to the man who was barbaric and wrong, but the girl in the video does. It seems to represent the ease with which we can return to dark things, but at the same time extols this lifestyle as a good way of living. The video ends as the girl runs off into the wilderness. This dichotomy is the perfect Diana comparison.

I see the girl in the video as a very Diana type figure. She has the class of a goddess, but the earthiness of the huntress. Diana held reign in the sky and earth. The girl in this music video holds reign over civilization to which she is accustomed, but when the opportunity presents itself she finds her place on earth among nature. More interesting yet is that Diana, according to Frazer’s Golden Bow, is probably one of the oldest deities coming from the Indo-European tradition which means she is present in both the civilized religion of the Romans and the barbaric religion of the rest of Europe.

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Statuary in Jay-Z and Kanye: No Church In The Wild

This video was brought to my attention by a friend who writes the blog musictomyeyez.tumblr.com. For a cinematic analysis of the video check out that blog, it is very well written; he does make mention of the classical references, but his focus is more on the film aspects. Here, I am just going to look at these references from the classical point of view.

My favorite reference is one that Matt also mentions, the use of a statue which is supposed to look like Bernini’s Rape of Persephone. This statue can be found in the Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy and is something that anyone remotely interested in art or mythology must see. I saw it while I was studying in Rome and it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The use of it in this video is great as the story behind the statue has a strong link to the message of the song. The story comes to us from The Homeric Hymn To Demeter. The myth is that Hades took Persephone out of the meadow she was playing in as a little girl and brought her to the underworld to be his queen. There are variations of this stories and varying theories about the willingness of Persephone to go, but it is commonly taken as a message of stealing youth and creating the sadness of Demeter which formed the four season year to which a lot of civilizations are accustomed.  The song, to me, is directly about the occupy movement and possibly the struggles in the Middle East and Northern Africa (at least the Jay-z parts are, Matt explains this). The link for me to Persephone, however, is that it is more and more the case that younger generations wish to stay young and protected longer. The occupy movement comprised mostly of recent college graduates is about security and protection in our political and societal system. The link to Persephone suggests that our society is stealing our youth. This is partly my personal bias as I watch kids give up sports, music, theater, and other childhood fun in order to get ahead in their field so they can secure a job in today’s economy.

There are many great uses of Ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses in this video, but I will focus on only a couple more. The use of Nike (goddess of victory) at 2:38 is very tentative as we have just seen an image of a car being flipped over, then a man is hauled down by police and held to the ground, and then back to a car which has been lit on fire by the mob. It is almost as if the question is being posed, “Which is truly victory?” At 3:32 the horses shown very briefly are, in my opinion, the chariots of justice. This is a statue which has been re-purposed all over the world. The video depicts only the horses which could be yet another question, “Who is pulling justice’s chariot?” Later at 4:26 a police officer is kicked off of the same statue which answers this question by saying the people are pulling the chariot and maybe even the people are the chariot of justice. Matt also analyzes the use of Athena so I will not do that here except to add that Athena is often accepted as a goddess of only defensive warfare and therefore she is a better image of this protest because protests are often about maintaining rights not taking them. This image shows that the people are being attacked and simply defending themselves from the brutality of the police. Overall, these references are a great use of Ancient Greek Mythology and Art to convey a modern message.  Huzzah for the survival of the Classics.

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