Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
On this beautiful spring day, with the sun shining brightly outside my window, my mind races back to the Greeks, those great naked cavorters who celebrated the beauty of the natural world and the body. At the same time, the gloom and darkness of the underworld tugs here at my heart. The wonder of the Greeks is that in their literature—perhaps their polis as well—they were able to hold together these two tensions so marvelously. Recall for a moment those wonderful scenes in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata where the community of women are gazing lovingly at each other’s bodies and commenting on “how well tended their gardens” are while at the same time making a pact to withhold sex from their fighting men in an attempt to stop war. Recall at the same moment the revenge that Clytemnestra takes on Agamemnon for his sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, to gain favorable winds to sail to Troy in order to bring back his brother’s wife, Helen. As you’ll remember, almost everyone in Aeschylus’ Orestia ends up dead on the stage, all because of this one act of sacrifice. Of course, the bad blood between the House of Atreus and the gods lies behind the acts that Aeschylus narrates in his play. This summer, return to the cradle of Western culture by reading through Homer, the Greek tragedies, and the Greek comedies. While you’re at it, pick up these two great new books on Greek life and thought by two of the world’s eminent thinkers on these matters
With the same astonishing breadth of learning that marks his colorful epic of ancient history, The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, Robin Lane Fox vividly recreates the eighth-century Mediterranean world from which the rich Homeric epics evolved in his Travelling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer. Just as Homer’s mythical heroes traversed the seas and lands of the Near East, so, too, numerous individuals—Fox’s “traveling heroes”—migrated across much of the Mediterranean, taking with them a baggage of specific myths they already knew and encountering new myths in foreign lands from which they often drew new elements to add to their tales of conquest and adventure. Drawing deeply upon archaeological discoveries at burial mounds and at other sites, Fox points to the ways that certain rituals among the Greeks on the island of Euboea relate to aspects of Homer’s poetry. Achilles’ burial of Patroclus in the Iliad—which includes the cremation of several of Patroclus’ dogs and horses beside him on the pyre—closely resembles the finds at burial mounds on Euboea. In a brilliant stroke, Fox recounts the life and adventures of the eighth-century Greek warrior Hipposthenes and his wife, Anas, who, like the mythical couple Helen and Priam, traveled adventurously across the Mediterranean, uniting a life of valor and cunning. Fox masterfully demonstrates not only the depth with which the Homeric myths influenced the lives of ordinary eighth-century Greeks but also the ways that these stories migrated with various heroic individuals that traveled in the Near East and discovered for themselves other stories of gods, mythic heroes, and new worlds.
In this marvelously entertaining and erudite follow-up to his Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (Harper 1997), James Davidson has written the definitive study of the varieties of same-sex love in ancient Greece. In The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World he draws deeply on etymology, philology, archaeology, poetry, and philosophy as he disputes the standard view that Greek homosexuality is monolithic and practiced in the way same by all Greeks of every age in every ancient Greek town. Davidson observes that the various words that describe Greek love—from agape (fondness) and pothos (longing) to eros (driving love)—constitute an amatory universe in which a variety of feelings, longings, and sexual practices characterize relationships between individuals. While previous examinations of Greek love focused primarily on Athens and argued that pederasty was the primary expression of same-sex relations, Davidson examines the great variety of loves practiced across all ages and classes in locales such as Sparta, Crete, and Macedonia. Thus, it manifests itself differently when the lovers are Spartan women, gods and heroes (such as Zeus and Ganymede), comrades-in-arms, or master and slave. There is the sweet and playful eros of the lyric poets, the patriotic eros of Pericles’ funeral speech, the letters of Alexander that reject ill-conceived offers to send him the most beautiful boys in the world, and the same-sex sex acts that Plato wants to discourage in his Laws because they do not conform to nature. Davidson’s study is brilliant social history and a first-rate history of classical Greece.
So, get naked, pick up these books, and immerse yourself in this ancient world. Enjoy!
Books mentioned in this column:
Travelling Heroes In the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox (Knopf)
The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World by James Davidson (Random House)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.