Tag Archives: TV

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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Happy Birthday Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Greek Tragedy

As Google animated so perfectly, today is Douglas Adams birthday. When I think about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I can only think one thing: DON’T PANIC! I remember my excellent Greek professor using this reference whenever he introduced a new grammar rule. “There are exceptions to the rule, but as The Guide says, ‘Don’t Panic.’” In Ancient Greek if you panic you are screwed. The whole system is based on exceptions. There is only one entirely regular verb and I say that hesitantly. The words “Don’t Panic” kept me going through many late nights with a Greek textbook, but enough of my nostalgia. The reason I am writing about Douglas Adams and this great work is because of the way he composed this work.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide from here on) was composed in a way which an Ancient Greek playwright would probably relish. At first Hitchhiker’s Guide was a series of six episodes for the radio. Later a second and third series were released. The work was rewritten many times from many view points and focal points. It was slowly adapted for several different media. This is the part that I find interesting. There are novels, movies, radio series, TV series, LPs. The whole story takes on so many forms and so many different episodes.  This reminds me of Ancient Greek plays. In most Greek plays the audience is given only a small episode in a very large story. The larger story is written episode by episode by different playwrights with different focuses.

Aeschylus was one of the earliest playwrights whose works survive. He wrote an Oedipus play of which very little survives, but Euripides and Sophocles also wrote Oedipus plays, the most famous being that of Sophocles. Euripides’ Oedipus is also a fragmented work, but it is known that there are some major differences like Oedipus being blinded before the truth is revealed that Laius is his father.

Another play covered by all three of these writers is Philoctetes. This compares perfectly to the way Hitchhiker’s Guide was written because Douglas Adams discovered that the central point of his series was the book while writing the first series. The hitchhikers guide comes out of a small plot point made in his original series about an alien looking for a special book. This very minute point was then expanded to become a huge work of its own. The same happened with Philoctetes. Philoctetes was a character mentioned in passing in Homer’s Iliad. Each of these playwrights expanded on the passing mention made by Homer to create a new story, and certainly borrowed from those who had written the plays before them.  It is also important to note that since the plays were performed at a yearly competition they were sometimes rewritten and performed again in order to gain better favor in the contest.

For commentary on the 3 Philoctetes plays see the writings Dio Chrysostom. Aeschylus and Euripides plays are in fragments and most of what is known about them comes from this source.

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Criminal Minds quotes Plato, or do they?

Criminal Minds was definitely one of my favorite shows for a while and sadly I only stopped watching new seasons because of time issues; unfortunately I can’t schedule my life around the TV schedule. I still watch the reruns every time I notice one is on, which is about every hour of the day if you use enough channels. I saw a rerun not too long ago and knew I had to write a post about it. It was season 2 episode 6 The Boogeyman. This is the episode after Elle gets shot and she misses her psych evaluation. The team is after someone who is murdering children in Texas.

One of my favorite parts about Criminal Minds is the quotation at the beginning and end of the show. I always try to catch these and I (nerdy, I know) would actually get mad if I turned the TV on just a minute too late. The quotation at the beginning of The Boogeyman episode is, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The narrator, Hotch, attributes it to Plato. This like many other quotations said to be from Plato is a misattribution. While the phrase is all over the internet and can be found on T-shirts, there is not one site that gives evidence of where the quotation came from. No one can state the book and line of Plato’s works from which this quotation was pulled. Don’t get me wrong I love the phrase and I think it has so many great meanings in it, but it is not from Plato. If anyone has or can find it, please let me know, but I have been over all of the works I have (which is most of them) and I have searched a lot of scholarly discourse and I still have not found it. Some sites attribute it to Socrates which would mean it is attributed to Plato since all of Socrates’ words are written by Plato.

Criminal Minds is a great show and the quotations add intelligence and depth to many of the episodes which aren’t exactly lacking in those categories anyway. You just missed the boat on this one, Criminal Minds. Research would have allowed you to step further into the light on this one and learned that it is a statement without a source.

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TV’s Bones, Steel, and Urine?

I was watching a wonderful Bones marathon on TV (this show is great for its intelligent jokes about art and the ancient world) and noticed this great little tale about steel in Ancient Rome. One of the scientists says that a certain instrument was made in Ancient Rome because it was fashioned in a peculiar way. He claims that the Romans believed if a red-headed boy urinated on heated up iron it would turn to steel. Obvious it is the chemical properties that make this change possible, but it makes for a great story of accidental science. Something interesting about this story is that it is another example of urination as a tool in the ancient world. The Romans had great uses for urine, my favorite being laundry detergent.

                In Ancient Rome urine was used to make togas whiter. The ammonia in urine has great cleaning properties; ammonia is still a common cleaning product today.  The people who did the laundry were called fullones. Outside the workplace of the fullones sat large containers which served like a public urinal. The people passing by would urinate in the containers and the fullones would have free detergent.    These pots could also be found around town and may be collected by fullones who needed more supplies; they even chose different places because better urine was usually found there. This phenomenon can be seen best in Pompeii where these workplaces and pots have been preserved and displayed in a natural setting. There is also a great deal of graffiti all over the town and some is surprisingly about this process.

                So next time you are out of your favorite stain remover maybe pee in the washer and see what happens. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t do that, but know that it has been done and that urine was a very important part of life in Ancient Rome.

For more reading on the specifics of this process see this paper: http://www.classics.uwaterloo.ca/labyrinth_old/issue89/Pee.02.09.pdf

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The Riches: A Modern Petronius?

                I have recently started watching the show The Riches because I am out of great shows to watch. Unfortunately this show was canceled after two seasons and so when I get to the end I am sure it will be incomplete and leave me frustrated, but until then I will continue to watch and get sucked into this family’s story. It doesn’t have to be the best show ever to get me hooked; in fact it takes only a small event or connection in my mind to keep me entertained. For The Riches the hook was that I almost immediately connected it to Petronius’ Satyricon.

                The Riches is a show depicting a family of “travelers” they are essentially cons, who after a series of strange events assume the lives of an upper class family living in a wealthy gated community. It is a dramatic series with some comic relief which often comes in moments when they make mistakes which “honest” upper class families would not make. They don’t understand the school system and the price of tuition, the husband impersonates a lawyer and doesn’t know such ordinary things as eminent domain, and they heat up boxed cookies in the microwave to make them seem homemade. In comparison there is a chapter of Petronius’ Satyricon in which a freedman attempts to act as though he is an aristocrat and throws a dinner party (Cena Trimalchionis: Trimalchio’s Dinner). While he is in fact wealthy, he is not old money and does not understand the customs of the upper class. He makes multiple mistakes which make it very clear to the reader (at the time of release the only readers would be aristocrats themselves) that he is not from a long line of wealthy men. In the entrance to his home there are scenes of himself instead of the norm which would be to have pictures of his ancestors. All of these paintings depict Trimalchio with a different divine spirit helping his assent to wealth, a sign to the reader, and possibly his visitors, of his questionable past.

                The process of providing a social commentary through the lens of a lower class character who finds himself among the upper class is shown through both this ancient work and this show. The Riches modernizes this old commentary showing the seedy underside of the wealthy. Petronius contrasted the meek existence of the illiterate lower class with the ostentatious ways of the upper class. The Riches instead shows that rich people are just poor people with money. There are drug problems and marriage problems among the rich. The high class neighborhood consists mostly of “legal” criminals. In fact the traveler life that this family left is not much different than the life they landed in. Through time the problems seen in the stratification of society change, but there are always problems to be displayed. Whether it be Petronius or Eddie Izzard, it is nice to see that the problems aren’t being ignored. Classicists, I suggest watching this show just to see the connection. For those who are fans of the show, I suggest reading Petronius (at least the Trimalchio chapter).

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