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The Pagan Man, by Isaac Bonewits

For years now we have assigned Isaac's book Real Magic as the basic primer on that subject to our students, albeit with some minor caveats: Isaac's sense of humor has to be taken into account in all things, and a happy thing it is to read a scholar who has one!

It is curious to realize that the Isaac who lived for a while in our basement has become even more of an authority on his chosen topics than he was then: for one has to remember that Real Magic was a book written when he was very young, and a few years have passed for us both. Isaac has moved into the specialty of Druidism, whereas your reviewer has moved into Hellenism.

Isaac has, however, remained involved in many aspects of the Neopagan community, and one would be hard put to find a person who has as broad an acquaintace with as many different traditions as he has.

Your reviewer was greatly honored when Isaac asked for a blurb for his new book, and here is what I wrote:

"Isaac Bonewits' new book, The Pagan Man, is a welcome addition to the dwindling stream of books for and about men and what they are. Now that the more general territory has been opened up, a book such as this, which explores a specific set of religious subcultures and what it is to be a man in those subcultures, is invaluable.

Though the primary focus of inquiry is the place of men in Goddess centered religions, the author does not limit himself to the familiar Wiccan models; nor does he reiterate attitudes that were prevalent ten or twenty years ago. Bonewits, possibly the best-known and most widely acquainted of living Pagan writers, provides introductions to Celtic, Druidic, Norse, Egyptian, Hellenic and other forms of modern Pagan practice, and how the differing polytheologies impact the individual male in the communities growing out of those practices.

As always, his fluent style is punctuated with a reverent irreverence by which the highly approachable author refuses to take himself too seriously. He presents his important material with a smile rather than a stern grimace, and the reading is much the better for it."

That is what I wrote, and some of it is quoted in the book itself; most of it, in fact.

That is a pretty condensed overview, but of course it does not say enough. One could write a lot more, but the point of a review is not to repeat what the author as said but to indicate to the reader what he or she may find interesting.

So: first the style. Isaac hooks you with a sentence or two, and he unfolds his topics gracefully. This is not a difficult book to read, and is one I recomment very highly. In some way, I think it might be a prerequisite to mine own book, Blindfold On A Tightrope, because it introduces the topic of men in Paganism in broad enough detail that one can then make better use of what I have written, enfolding it into whatever tradition one chooses to adopt.

Second of course is its breadth. Unlike the psychologists who cashed in on the brief-lived 'men's movement,' Bonewits has been working with Pagan religion for a very long time, and he actually knows actual men; as opposed to neurotics who are trying to relate to what it might be to become a man. Both Isaac and I have that advantage, and neither of us is the product of a giant promotion campaign to put a 'product' on the best seller lists.

Of course, you can help out by buying both books, his and mine, and if enough of you do so, who knows, we just might make it up there with all those $500 a weekend psychologists.

Yes, this book is highly recommended.

--Reviewed by Pyrokanthos

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The Pagan Man

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Blindfold on a Tightrope: Men's Myths & Men's Mysteries, by Ranfis S. Firethorn


Blindfold on a Tightrope: Men's Myths & Men's Mysteries, is a book exploring the nature of Manhood; what it means, and how it comes about. As it is by a member of the Lodge, a review might be embarrassing. If the topic interests you, we suggest you follow this link and take a look at the blurbs and sample chapter. This link will take you to the publisher, Xlibris, rather than to Amazon. The author makes a little more if you buy direct, but you can get it from Amazon as well, and Amazon has a couple of very favorable reviews posted.. 

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Four Greek Plays, Edited by Dudley Fitts


The copyrights on this volume are from 1936 through 1960. That would lead us to suspect a rather respected job has been done, and so it is. Respected and respectful of the materials: though the assortment seems a big peculiar from this reader's point of view.

I picked this up because I wanted the Alcestis of Euripides. It was not a play I had read (and certainly never seen!) and I wanted to know what Euripides had done before addressing Gluck's opera on the subject. It turned out to be another of those revelations which later critics hide from us because they simply aren't equipped to appreciate Art.

The four plays in the book are: The Agamemnon, by Aeschylus, translated by Louis MacNeice, The Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, translated by Dudey Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, The Alcestis, by Euripides, translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, and The Birds, by Aristophanes, translated by Dudley Fitts. --So, there is a trilogy of tragedies and a comedy, after classic fashion, though one might have chosen a more unified set.


The Agamemnon contains, right near the beginning, what I think may be the finest speech ever put in a play: Clytemestra's stunning description of the beacons she has arranged, carrying the news of the fall of Troy all the way around the Aegean at, literally, the speed of light. This translation does the play well, and as there is plenty of comment upon the play in other places on this website we need not amplify.

The Oedipus is a good translation, and the play is so familiar that one, again, need not comment further. This is, I think, the most frequently performed of the Ancient plays and the one which most influenced Twentieth Century dramaturgy. Even people who know nothing about Ancient Greece, or even theater, know about Oedipus. --He's like Scrooge or Tarzan, a character who exists independent of his source and who has attained an independent reality.

The Alcestis is, like all of Euripides, problematic. It is a tragedy with lots of comedy. It is bleak and funny at the same time. For it to work on the stage the director and actors must be remarkably sensitive to nuance, and able to manipulate their audience in such a way that the high tragedy behind the comic moments comes through clearly. The drunken Herakles is doing what Herakles always does, with no idea how painful it must be to his host. We must not only see how inappropriate his behavior is, we must see how dreadfull are his feelings when he finally understands what is going on around him.

But a little more is required to appreciate this play than an understanding of what is happening on stage. There is a mythological background here which the Athenians who first viewed it would have had in their religious repertoire, and it makes a difference. The relationship between Admetis and Apollon is more than casual: in fact, we may view it as unique.

Some modern scholars have argued that the God could not, in His time as shepard to Admetis, have also been the King's eromenos. It would just be too unseemly for a God to be the eromenos of a mortal.

Such thinking is, I fear, too much of all the social changes that have happened since Ancient times. The God is in service to the King as expiation, after all, and submission to social standards, of His own free will, is part of the circumstance. He certainly could not be erastes to the King, his master, after all!

And Admetis remains the only recorded erastes of Apollon, a truly unique relationship; for Apollon was certainly erastes of a great many other eromenoi.

Once one understands the deep love between the God and the mortal, the action of the play takes on a different slant. For Apollon to win a boon from the Moirae is quite an extraordinary thing: his determination to do it is fueled by his love for the man who was His master.

Fitts, in his introduction, holds Admetis to be rather shallow and self-serving with regard to the loss of his wife. But the nature of kingship is another case of remarkable personality requirements, and I think Euripides was commenting, not at all ironically, on the ways that persons of power must think and be concerned about relationships beyond the personal. Admetis is not just a man with a wife, he is a king with a people. Shakespear later comments, in King Lear, on what can happen when a ruler abdicates the position which has been entrusted to him for the sake of personal happiness.

Fitts also divides the sacred obligations of hospitality from the religious, failing to understand that hospitality is a religous matter, and one of the most important: not only among the Ancient Greeks but amongst all peoples, right up to the decay of human understanding in the Twentieth Century.

His observation that Admetis is a king is spoiled by his protofeminism and the attitudes of the times in which he wrote, seeing Athens as a Patriarchy and (understandably, given his times) ignoring the feminine viewpoint of Athenian society. His conclusion that we should not view Euripides as if he were Ibsen (a playwrite in whose works the female dominance of a more surely Patriarchal society is expounded from the knees) is more telling about the editor than it is about the Greeks.

Given that, the quaint conceit of Thanatos talking about Hell in the text is a small matter.

There are a lot of details that the Hellenic reader will find of interest, particularly with regard to funerary practice.

But all in all, the real treasure of this play is the deft way in which Euripides breaks our hearts with Herakles inept behavior and Admetis desperate attempt to honor the sacred obligations of hospitality in the face of overwhelming grief. Were it not for this relgious context (clearly delineated at the beginning by Apollon) then the play would descend to the idiot plot, wherein if everyone were not an idiot there would be no plot. Here there is a good and compelling reason why the important information is not transmitted, thereby allowing the events to proceed.

The Birds, by Aristophanes, suffers from much fooling around with the text, but then, to make a play replete with topical commentary intelligible to people 2,500 years later probably requires that. Fitts does okay and the play is pleasurable to read; though of course the compensations fall away as quickly as the originals.

The amazing thing about the comedies of Aristophanes is that that they work at all. Mark Twain's description of 'the damned human race' is sadly apt for the folly of the species, and if Fitts' translation is perhaps stronger with regard to things as they were when he translated, never fear: the damned human race will come around and make other parts of the text once again just as topical as they were in Ancient Times.

I was struck with amusement particularly in the matter of our protagonists leaving Athens, which had been such a lovely place until everyone became so litiginous! But then, during the writing of this review, I came across some data indicating that, despite the huffing and puffing of the Bush administration that the laws need to be changed to protect giant corporations from small lawsuits, the number of torts in the U.S. courts has been steadily diminishing for a while now.

Could it be that people are tired of sueing over so many small things? Naw! The little guys just can't afford the legal fees and the ruination of the rest of life that spending it fightiing in court entails.

All in all, if you are looking for any one of these plays, or all of them, you could do far worse. If you have not read any of them (and yes, it would be far better to actually see them, but video has not yet come to our rescue in that matter) then this might be a good introduction.

--Reviwed by Pyrokanthos

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The Hallowed Isle tetralogy, by Diana L. Paxson

Book One: The Book of the Sword

One would not think it possible to find a new approach to The Matter of Britain, i.e., the story of King Arthur; and indeed, one might wonder why one would attempt it, considering the plethora of Arthurian books that followed Marion Zimmer Bradley's "The Mists of Avalon." But publishers in America, bless their mercenary little (very little) hearts, find nothing so appealing as repeating what someone else has done successfully, and so Diana L. Paxson was prevailed upon to attempt what might seem impossible; and she achieved it.

Paxson is probably at her best when she is delving into divers conflicting cultures, and her technique in these four books is to explore the story from differing cultural viewpoints. Her gimmick is four magical weapons, the Sword (obviously Excaliber) the Spear, the Cauldron and the Stone. For the forging of the sword she takes us back to far more ancient times and magicks than Britain in an amazing prologue that conjurs all the dark sorcery of bladesmithing. She then brings us up to speed in 424 C.E. and shows us the fragmented Britain that is crumblinig further as the Roman Empire disintigrates and withdraws it protection, leaving a feast for carrion raiders of every kind and culture.

From the opening conjuration of the War God by priestesses to the final drawing of the sword from the stone, this is a thrill ride, and a very different experience than one finds in all those other Arthurian books. There is romance in the book, but it is not a Romance. You can certainly call it Magic Realism, for Paxson knows her stuff better than any other writer working the field. But what makes it special and particularly arresting is the way she shows each culture, its needs and personalities, and then throws those needs against one another with powerful result.

This is a war story, a story of incredible change, and in some ways it puts me in mind of the things happening in the Middle East now, years after it was written. People have to survive, no matter what happens to the great societies that are evaporating above and around them. When they unleash powers truly beyond their comprehension (always with the best intentions) they are stuck with the consequences; often consequences they cannot begin to understand.

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Book Two: The Book of the Spear

The conjuring that begins this second book is that of Odin's spear, a weapon based on words, breath, and oathes. It can be seen as a symbol for the agreed-upon laws by which Humankind lives. Here are the Runes of Power, and this is a very different weapon than the sword of the War God.

Immediately we are plunged into a Saxon world of brutality born of doom. Young Oesc lives on the non-too-pleasant sufferance of an old King whose lands are being eaten by floods, his only true friend the old wicce who posseses the Spear. When his father returns after years with an offer to take him to Britain, he makes the choice which Odin has prepared for him.

Eastern Britian, now a refuge for Saxons and Angles and Jutes and other tag ends of failing tribes, is not a particularly good place at the end of Roman rule. But, like the American frontier, it is better than what was left behind. And the wicce Haethwaege is brought over to be priestess to the tribes, so there is someone to connect Oesc not only to his grim past but to his ecstatic God.

We have moved back in time a little at the beginning of this book to a point before Uther's death; but Uther and the Britains are not central to what is going on here. It is only our understanding that the Saxon push for empire must inevitably come into conflict with Arthur that adds an immediacy not perceived by the characters. They are more concerned with the problems that Christianity has brought to their culture than with the ancient magicks that wait to conflict them in the West.

But then Merlin comes on stage, and conflicts from the previous book begin to weave into the action. When the young and gracious Arthur appears, and he and Oesc meet and bond, one almost imagines that things will go well; but that, as Arthur Miller once noted, is the prime quality of tragedy. It shows what might have been.

By the time of the terrible battle at the end of the book, a fully Shakespearn canvas has been painted, and the reader cannot help but weep at the way small bits of miscommunication lead to great and monstrous miscalculations. Paxson has written some truly stunning scenes in this one!

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Book Three: The Book of the Cauldron

The forging of the Cauldron at the beginning of this book is in contrast to the previous two conjurings, and it sets a tone that makes this book, of the four, the closest to MZB's "Mists of Avalon." That is appropriate, because this is a book about what is traditionally thought of as 'women's magic;' though we should not forget that the conjurings in the previous books, those concerned with war and violence, are also done primarily by women.

We begin with the Lady of the Lake, and the book takes us into the world of post-Roman Druidry, among other things. The Island of the Maidens is powerfully warded against the outside world, and it is here that both the cauldron and the temple of the Sword God reside. Thus we are linked to the first book, but taken in a new direction, and shown quite different cultural paradigms at work in a Britain that is at one both primitive and surprisingly cosmopolitan in its containment of diversity.

The Lady of the Lake is here Igierne, Artor's mother, and as we begin, in 487 C.E., we are once again ratcheted back in time, as Artor the young king and his companions celebrate Beltain and a sacred ceremony involving the cauldron. There is prophecy, fear, a possible consolation, and a lot of other mystical stuff; but the purpose of all this is to make clear that this book is about the Sacred Queen whom Artor must have as his priestess if he is to rule the land; and that, of course is Guindivar (Paxson is careful to use correct spellings for the times about which she writes) and that gives impetus to the book as a whole.

We are also introduced to Morgause, and that leads us to the cultures north of the Roman border, and yet more cultural diversity. What Paxson understands clearly is that there is more than one kind of Magick in the world and some of it is less tasteful to contemporary tastes than others: she does not shy away.

She also deals with some of the whys and wherefores of the myth; for instance, our Guinivere is, by half way through the book, only thirteen. Artor is, perforce and per prophecy, waitiing for a child to grow into a woman he can marry. There is an emphasis on the difference of ages that makes the alliance less than ideal, at least by modern standards.

And, to round it out, this is the book about the Quest for the Grail, handled rather well in resolving the What that goes with the Why and Wherefore. The picture of Camalot is fascinating, and the complex bedroom politics of the Age are even more so.

Guindivar is a more appealing, more substantial character here than in 'Mists,' and more likable. Morgause is even less likable than MZB's version, though she has some saving graces. She is certainly ne of the Great (Dysfunctional) Mothers of literature!

Like Wagner's Ring, this third part has an almost happy sort of ending; but with forebodings and stage settings of what is to come. There is plenty of action (for male readers), plenty of 'relationship' stuff (for female readers) and plenty of angst (for MZB fans).

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Book Four: The Book of the Stone

This book begins not with a magical conjuring by priests and priestesses, but with a conjuring by the author of geologic time, giving a sense of the eternity of Nature that is somehow comforting at the beginning of what we know will be a downer book. This prelude places the story in the epic of aeons rather than making the story the epic; and that is very useful, and also gives place and time to the stone that is central to the plot and construction.

The story begins in 502 C. E., when Artor is 42. And the story begins with Artor himself, alone when his horse has gone lame during a hunt, in the splendor of Britain's western mountains.

Medraut (Mordred) is now 15, and he has finally learned that he is truly the son of the king, that his mother is still alive, and that he is free to give reign to his hatred of her. He, too, is moving through mountains as we encounter him. And he has very good reason to hate his mother, though by now she has changed radically.

From the incredible scene with the three primary priestesses of the story, each representing a different culture and magick, to the inevitable tear jerking finale, this is a wonderful book, and Paxson manages to pull all her threads together into a fine fabric, a brocade of rich weaving that leaves us with the exact right feeling for what Artor was and did; and that feeling is precisely why we continue to read stories of Arthor, the Matter of Britain, over and over; and why, perhaps, those mercinary publishers and editors were not at all wrong to persuade such a unique talent as Diana L. Paxson to address it; which she has done with freshness and originality, despite the odds, and some twists and turns you definitely will not expect!

All in all, highly recommended.

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--Reviewed by Jon DeCles





BLOOD RED BLUES, by Julia Vinograd

Most of the poetic establishment of the United States consists of an Old Boy's Club, though there are Old Girls in it too. Most of the Club graduated from Harvard. Occaassionally this circle opens to embrance an alien talent too great to be ignored, but mostly it does not. Outside of the Poetic Establishment another circle extends, where persons of talent make sadly small ripples when they should be heralded and given laurels.

Then there is the Wasteland, where often great talents cry out with words painted in fire and blood, addressing concerns unknown to the aristocracy. Sometimes the poets of the Wasteland become widely known, even famous. They are always cherished.

In the 1950s the Library of Congress held a national symposium on poetry, and published the papers presented. Of note in particular were two papers, one of which addressed with rightious indignation the fact that America's best selling poet at that time, Alan Ginsberg, had not been invited. The other was by no less an illuminary that Robinson Jeffers, and it was his astute observation, in the face of all the elitist crap that was being put forth in those days, that everybody loves poetry. That if you go into a bar, with ordinary, working class people, every one of them will have some cherished piece of verse, either committed to memory or written in a wallet on a scrap of paper; just waiting for the Moment of Sharing.

In Berkeley, California, USA, in the 1960s, a remarkable woman appeared. At first everybody knew her as 'the bubble lady,' because she could usually be found blowing soap bubbles on Telegraph Avenue, adding an evanescent cheer to the lives of any who passed her way. She dressed in black, and she was only one of the many charming 'characters' that the 60s produced in Berkeley, which at that time was the stomping ground of left-over Beatniks and Flower Children alike.

But the Bubble Lady endured. When all the other colorful people went away, she was still there, still blowing bubbles, and writing poems. Poems which, unlike most of the firework flashes of the Telegraph Avenue Poets, endured.

And her reputation spread, far beyond the limits of 'the Avenue,' far beyond Berkeley, far beyond the Bay Area.

Her portrait, blowing bubbles, is included in the famed "People's Park" mural just off Telegraph, and her poems are available in a long and distinguished series of small books.

Despite the unliklihood of such a thing happening, Julia Vinograd has become an Establishment unto herself, and one would be hard put to find a serious student of Contemporary American Poetry who was without knowledge of her work.

The forty two poems in this collection deliver Vinograd at her wisest and most trenchent. From the opening lines:

"Maybe words can't save the world

but I'm sick of watching words destroy it"

she carries us through observations and meditations on a human condition that is both immediate and profound, of the moment and outside of time. In brief enlightenments she shows us the universality of common things, and then mirrors the moment by reducing enormous and cosmic concerns to the gnosis of the everyday.

In the wake of Ginsberg's poetry of image, a great many poets were washed away into a kind of laundry list style of ego-centeredness. Vinograd assimilated the use of image as poetic center, but has never let go of intelligence as a guiding principal. When she makes use of a poem to comment upon her own life, her commentary is infused with a sense of universality. It is not just her life that is the subject, but all that which is in common with hers.

Whether she is writing about a relationship with a white plastic clock (which needs her to wind it each day) or the sadness of not being able to get as much joy from a common stick as does a kitten, the metaphors are far reaching; and perhaps more important, completely clear.

One does not need a degree from Harvard to understand, and feel, Julia Vinograd's poetry.

When I read of her desperate plea for death to stop -- just stop happening! I am moved to tears.

A different kind of sadness comes when she considers the man-turned-animal on Circe's Island, and how sweet it is to contemplate not returning to the terrible, war-torn human condition.

This wonderful opening from "The Promised Land" returns us to an innocense that will eventually, always, be despoiled:

"All lands are promised

All promises are broken:

But mind is different.


When I was a child I lived in a house

And the countries lived in a map

And the map lived in school

And I didn't like school"


One would have to venture a long way to find such a simple, perfect evocation of a young and innocent and simple view of reality.


Or the elegant sadness turned inside out and made to be a paradigm that begins:


"I saw a wedding dress at the flea market.

The lace yellowed, the satin with as many fine cracks

as the glaze on a Classical painting."


I tend to quote these often sad lines, but one should not feel that Julia deals only in sadness. There is humor, and often the sharp thrust of a deadly pen to the heart of some matter that might need killing. Her work is wide-ranging, her response to a world in which she lives in contact with a reality suffused with possibiliites.

I keep wanting to set her poems to music, but so far, whenever I approach them I am baffled with their richness and paralyzed at the prospect of which one to select for a beginning.

Ok, it is really impossible to review poetry. The response is always, always personal. Poetry goes below the surface of the words to scratch at your bones.

I can only recommend.

The ISBN of this book is 0-929730-50-X. Whether you can get it online I won't know until I get to the website. But it was published by Zeitgeist Press, 4368 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA.,˙94611, USA, and it is well worth having on your shelf if you have any kind of poetry in your soul at all.

Reviewed by Jon DeCles

Blood Red Blues

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POODLE SPRINGS, by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker


When Raymond Chandler died in 1959 he left behind the first four chapters of a new Phillip Marlowe novel. Thirty years later the book was completed by Robert B. Parker, a respectable enough mystery writer on his own. The result is... Not bad.

Parker, like all of us who love Chandler, has done his best, and his best is a good book. But the opening of the novel is Chandler, and Chandler moving in a new direction. Marlowe is married to an hieress, living in a rizty new district, and not at all comfortable with the direction of his life. Can this married Phillip Marlowe be the same cynical knight errant that we have known and loved?

The big question, of course, is, where would Chandler have taken it on his own? The sense of invention, of twists and turns that seem to make no sense, but which reveal themselves ultimately as vital links in a net of dark interactions; these are things which were the peculiar property of Raymond Chandler and which no other writer has ever duplicated.

In a conversation this week I mentioned Chandler and the person to whom I was speaking got 'that look' and commented on the difference between the mystery novel as 'literature' and the 'popular, genre mystery,' a comment which kind of put the wind up me. Dorothy Sayers is all very well, but murder is frankly less likely to happen at a country estate than it is on the streets of Los Angeles. Good manners on the part of the participants is not a necessary quality in literature: otherwise we would lose Homer, Dante, Dickens and Charlotte Bronte in one swift elevator ride up the ivory tower.

Great writing does not have to have a stamp of approval from the National Library Association. Homer was sung around the dinner table and Dickens was published in the popular weekley press. The fact that Raymond Chandler originally appeared in genre magazines does not demote him from my shelf of literary greats, and it should not keep him away from yours.

If you like mystery novels, you will probabaly not be disappointed in Poodle Springs. If you have worn out all your copies of authentic Raymond Chandler with re-reading, then this is a wonderful opportunity to spend just a tiny bit more time with Phillip Marlowe. You won't have that divine katharsis that you had at the end of The Big Sleep, but then, even Chandler never duplicated that couple of pages.

It's no discredit to Mr. Parker that he is not Raymond Chandler. Neither is anybody else. It is very much to his credit that he did such a good job with the limited materials available to him,and that he has carried off the novel so well. It's a good book, and I do recommend it.

I understand that Mr. Parker also wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep. About that I have mixed feelings, but I haven't read it so I can't comment. But gee, how about a sequel to MacBeth while we are at it?


Reviewed by Jon DeCles

Poodle Springs

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GREEK RELIGION, by Walter Burkert


This is one hell of a book, and, next to Kerenyi's Religion of the Greek and Romans, belongs on the shelf of every serious Hellenist. In contrast to the previous book by Burkert which is reviewed in these pages, this is a serious work of scholarship rather than a prissy bit of academic infighting.

Though there are many points at which one may disagree with Burkert's interpretations, these disagreements are never a matter of evidence, or, as with so many other scholars, a matter of stretching the evidence far beyond any credibility. More, the author's footnotes, though copious, are always relevent to the matter under discussion.

(As more of an aside than a digression: it is all too common for scholars, anxious to shore up a tottering thesis with whatever lumber comes to hand, to attempt to dazzle the reader with sheer volume of background. This results in tomes that have more footnotes than content. Footnotes which, when pursued, reveal a lack of relevence to the subject matter, or worse, a complete contradition of the evidence as stated. Burkert's footnotes seem to avoid this nonsense, and mark him as a serious scholar rather than somebody fighting for tenure.)

Unlike previous assaults upon this titanic subject, Burkert steers a steady course, tying together the remnants of Minoan Religion, the evidence for Mykenean practices, and the materials revealed in Homer and Hesiod, to the social fabric of more documented historic times. He gives account of the Linear B materials from Pylos, provides clear and pretty objective descriptions of what is actually known, for sure, up to the time of his writing, and seldom resorts to the assumption that the Ancients thought and acted according to the same motivations and understandings as modern peoples.

The following quote may give some idea how much Burkert has attended to his work:

"Man must chart a course between numerous claims and necessities; piety is shrewdness and caution. This, of course, gives polytheism its ability to embrace a richly various reality without evading contradictions and without being forced to deny a part of the world. What is more, man is left a sphere of freedom beyond the satisfied claims; for this reason law and ethics could develop among the Greeks as human wisdom, free and yet in harmony with the god; wise sayings and law are engraved on temple walls, but they are always regarded as human endeavor, not divine revelation."

This paragraph certainly sets forth much of the attraction which the Ancient Wisdom holds for modern Polytheists; and also delineates some of the root values which have brought about the breakdown of the long-term monotheism which has dominated western culture to its ultimate detriment.

But Burkert is not writing on the behalf of Polytheism, he is writing about, really, the history of Greek Religion and the changes which contributed to the (unstated) rise of the dominance of monotheism. If the beginning and the middle of the book can be taken for its wealth of information, both pragmatic and theoretical, then the ending of the book can be taken as warning of directions which may prove unhealthy to the sustenance of this religion and its resultant culture.

If people are going to make reference to any one book on the topic of Greek Religion, this is likely to be the one; so you should have it on your shelf, you should have read it cover to cover, and you should be familiar with what is in it. You will likely have to deal with it in some way or another.

It is also exactly one eighth inch too tall to fit on my very normal-sized bookcase. Seems to me that it is about time the Academic world started having some standards!


Reviewed by Pyrokanthos


Greek Religion

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RIVER OF RED GOLD, by Naida West


It is very hard to recommend this novel, not because it isn't excellent but because everytime I try, the person to whom I am recommending it has already read it, and usually loved it as much as I did.

I suppose every writer dreams of just 'finding' a great story while digging around in the back yard. Naida West did just that when she discovered the remains of a Gold Rush period ranch while trying to get the climbing beans to leave her squash alone.

Some people would have dug through the old floor and continued the garden. Ms. West, a trained scholar and author of a number of works on historical subjects, went into high gear research, and the result is this dazzling novel, told mainly from the point of view of a Native American woman, of the tumultous period when the White Man came to California is search of shiny metal and destroyed perhaps more than was gained.

This is a sweeping, huge, novel. Though one's sympathy is first engaged by Eagle Woman, the initial protagonist, the other characters, emblems of the many conflicting cultures that converge on Northern California in a brief and painful epoch, are no less real, no less fully rounded and rendered. From the hopeless ineptitude of Sutter, whose Mill starts the Rush, to the tragic bravado of the man who may be Joaquin Murrietta, these are all flesh and blood people whom history has painted as heros or villians, but who had to go through their lives, day by day,without knowing that they would end up as legends.

Stylistically the book is marvelous; but what lifts it apart from other historical novels is the sense of a spiritual reality that suffuses the landscape. Coyote is not a mythic figure here but a real presence and personage. When Native American spirituality manifests in the story, it makes your hair stand on end with its veracity. I suppose you could decribe it as Magic Realism.

Though Native Americans tell me they think there is too much 'romance' in it, it is still a very popular book with the tribal people with whom I have spoken, and they are all looking forward to more of the author's work.

But: in trying to find comparisons which will mean something to the reader of this review, I find myself surprized to be compelled to offer Stephen King.

King is often shuffled to the side as a 'mere writer of horror tales;' but a close examination shows him to be, perhaps, the best stylist to come on the scene since Vladimir Nobakov. King's work bears close and scrupulous rereading for the dimension which it extends beyond its own confines.

Naida West works at the same level of mythic canvas, painted and stretched taut to the point of tearing. The supernatural element is present, to be sure, but it is the literary element of horror (and let us be precise here: horror (as opposed to terror: which is the fear of the known) is that fear of the unknown which permeates King's work, and which also permeates, in the same fashion, West's work. But in West the horror (and the terror) are not figments of the imagination, placed by the skillful writer to elicit reaction, but rather, elements of historical reality.

No scholar, detailing precisely the events of the Donner Party tragedy, has ever elicited in me the sheer, passionate horror that was endured by the children of the Donner Party as they were brought down from the mountains by their desperate rescuers. I wept uncontrolably with the pity and the terror of this scene, and then, when I had finished reading it, again with the hard realization that this was true, that it had happened!

It is for the rare genius of a writer like West to elevate for us the the most monstrous circumstances of history to the level of true Tragedy; that katharsis which purifies us of what we have felt to be terrible in our own lives, and allows us to rise out of our own miasma, back into the light by way of compassion.

I give this book my absolute highest recommendation. Many have attempted something like it, but nobody, in my experience, has even come near the achievement.


Reviewed by Jon DeCles

River of Red Gold


$23, Bridge House Books, PO Box 809, Rancho Murieta, CA., 95683


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Mark Twain in Virginia City Nevada, by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)


With remarkable candor, the publisher makes clear up front: "This book consists of chapters excerpted from Mark Twain's famous classic book "Roughing It" with Contemporary Illustrations."

The back blurb states: "While in Nevada Territory Mark Twain reported on mining milling, claim jumping, speculation, fist fights, desperadoes, shootings and funerals."

That pretty well says it.

From a personal standpoint I will add that the idea of publishing just the Virginia City material, and selling it as a kind of souvenier for people visiting Virginia City, or Nevada in toto, or people who may not be 'into' Mark Twain but who want to know something of history; is a pretty good one. And, if one likes this part, one may go on to read the whole book.

The inclusion of a copious selection of excellent period illustrations is very much welcome to this reader. There is a charm to this sort of illustration that fits very well with the words and which gives an additional dimension to the words; which is what illustration in the period was supposed to do, in opposition to the modern notion that the written material is only a 'springboard' for the imagination of the artist, who is somehow not required any more to bother with correctness of detail or even any knowledge of the material being illustrated. (Publishers these days commonly forbid the artist to read the book being illustrated, and writers are just about always forbidden to communicate with the artists illustrating their works.) If for no other reason, I can recommend this book for the illustrations!

And the publisher has a purpose in excerpting these chapters which is intelligible! A very different matter from the editor who produced an edition of Roughing It in which the whole last part, the Sandwhich Islands material, was removed because he, the editor, did not feel it 'belonged' there.

I have been told that despite all the fame of his many other books, Roughing It remains the best selling of all Twain's books. It is not difficult to understand why, for there has never been a generally and specifically funnier book ever written; and, unlike modern books of humor, The Great Iconoclast was not averse to peppering his travelogue with moments of great and poetic beauty or homespun homily.

If you have ever planned to visit Virginia City, or any of the Nevada Territory, this would certainly be one of the most entertaining ways to prepare yourself for the experience.


It was published by Stanley Paher, Nevada Publications, Box 15444, Las Vegas, Nevada, 89114.


It is available in both cloth and paper.


Cloth: ISBN 0-913814-84-9

Paper: ISBN 0-913814-78-4


Mr. Paher gives a copyright date of 1985. Exactly what he is copyrighting I am not sure, possibly the form of the book; for surely all this material has long been in the public domain,despite Mark Twain's hard campaigning for copyright reforms.


Reviewed by Jon DeCles

You can get it from Amazon by clicking here:

Mark Twain in Virginia City Nevada


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Mark Twain in California: The Turbulent California Years of Samuel Clemens, by Nigey Lennon


While the book reviewed above about Mark Twain in Nevada consists of previously published material by Twain himself, this book is a loving piece of scholarship by a woman who simply loves Mark Twain. She is not writing to get academic cachet, she is not writing to make a lot of money, she is simply entranced with her subject and determined to enjoy the experience.

The result is a charming book that casts light on the time between Twain's leaving of the Nevada Territory and his farewell to the Barbary Coast.

Though there is a lot about that time that we will never really know, I found the book informative about a number of particulars which, after thirty years involvement with Mark Twain, I had not encountered. She has included the usual photographs, but also some which are not so usual. There is a helpful map of 'Twain Country' which shows us not only Lake Bigler (now Lake Tahoe) but the locations of places both extant and lost. --I have been through Marysville and Grass Valley, but not, to the best of my knowledge, to Red Dog or You Bet.

I have tried vainly to discover the venue where Twain spoke in Petaluma, but nobody in Petaluma seems to know.

Many details emerge about Twain's life that are not at all clear from his own writings. Nor do they need to be, for Twain's purpose was not autobiography but humor, and, inadvertantly,literature. Still, it is fascinating to know with whom he bunked in the gold country, and about the romantic competition between him and Brett Harte for the affection of Ina Coolbrith

One fascinating detail is the way Ms. Lennon draws together the threads of emotion that bind the beginning and end of his life, and the long-term embitteredness he felt about his dismissal from"The Call." I have depended on material from "The Call" for years in my stage performance, yet it had never hit me how hurt Twain was by this, the only time he was ever fired from a job.

This is not one of those big, authoritative tomes put out by a university to show how authoritative the university can be: it is a 125 page work of devotion to a man who is arguably the peak of American literary accomplishment; and the source of a great deal of our sheer fun.



Published under the auspices of The Literary West Series by Chronicle Books, 870 Market Street, San Francisco, California, 94102.


The copyright date is 1982, but I cannot find an ISBN number anywhere on the book.

Which is okay: more recent editions have been retitled.


Reviewed by Jon DeCles


The Sagebrush Bohemian : Mark Twain in...


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From the Loeb Classical Library


Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams




Translated by A. W. Mair and G. R. Mair


Having read so many references to Callimachus I figured it was time to read the author himself. For those who are adept at reading Ancient Greek, the Loeb library does the great service of printing the Greek on one page and the translation on the facing page, and the reader is left to decide how good or bad the translation may be; and those of us who have not yet mastered the ancient language are not left in the dark, whatever the merits of accuracy and poetic inspiration of the translators.

Callimachus was an Alexandrian, a librarian, and a writer with a huge output; of which, sadly, we have only 6 hymns and 63 epigrams, and some fragments.

While the notes provided with the translations are very helpful in understanding the texts, one often gets the feeling that the primary purpose of academic publishers is to see to it that nobody ever enjoy the works being published. People with less poetry in the soul than a discarded grapefruit rind feel quite competant to put down the talents of writers whose works have survived more than two thousand years; and survived not because somebody thought they belonged in a curriculum, but because somebody, before they invention of the printing press, found them worthy of copying by hand.

The translation at hand was made in 1921, and revised in 1955. It was supposed to appear in 1914, but there were obvious interferences on the part of History. It is therefore subject to the esthetics of Edwardian scholarship and taste, which may seem somewhat dry to the contemporary palate.

Yet withal, to the contemporay Hellene in search of an authentic utterance of ancient hymnodia, these pieces are invaluable, both for their praise of the Gods and for the details of the mythology which they provide.

The six hymns are: 1) to Zeus, 2) to Apollon, 3) to Artemis, 4) to Delos, 5) On the Bath of Pallas, and 6) to Demeter. They are of medium length, by ancient standards, and would make excellent readings in ritual, either in place of one of the usual Homeric Hymns, or as a 'response from Deity,' in a dromena where such is desired in the form of a text.

The epigrams are exactly what epigrams are supposed to be; small, trenchat bits of wisdom well-phrased.

The "Phaenomena" of Aratus is another kettle of fish all together. Imagine that Stephen Hawking had written all his books in verse!

Aratus has essentially produced a book on astronomy, in the form of an extended poem. But the poem is almost a hymn, beginning properly with Zeus and then going on to describe, in detail, the constellations of the heavens, and the way that the heavens are organized. It is a very neat text on astronomy as it was understood in his time, but told in such a way that a rhapsode could presumably memorize it and declaim it.

It would be lovely to imagine some great domed hall, like a planetarium, with all the heavens painted upon the interior, and some well-spoken poet/teacher declaiming this wonderful work to educate his students.

It is really a kick! But it will be of most value to those whom the Muse of Astronomy has made Her own, and who can follow the details in their minds or in the skies as they read it.

Lycophron's "Alexandra" (or "Cassandra") is an extended piece about Cassandra fortelling the doom of Troy. The translators describe it as a 'curiosity,' a source of obscure names and details.

It is in this piece that one is quite grateful for all the footnotes, for in fact there is a great deal of obscure reference in the poem.

But it has been argued that Culture, any culture, is a matter of commonality and self-reference; in essence, a great game of trivia. That which differentiates one culture from another is the detail which the members share in common. Thus, this poem provides a treasurehouse of Culture: the kind of details which people share, which can be 'referred back to.'

Whether Lycophron's audience would have got all the references is doubtful. Any writer tries to add more detail than he or she thinks the mass of the audience will note, in the hope that something will be present in the narrative for every member of the prospective audience. One can read James Joyce's Ulysses with a great deal of pleasure without the kind of handbooks which have become de rigour in universities. One does not need to know everything about a book to take pleasure in it. Yet still, all those details are there if one wishes to explore them. And many of the details would have been held in common by the larger audience of Lycophron's time.

"Alexandra" is therefore a not only interesting narrative, but a source of those references which provide the backdrop of Hellenic culture.

If, as Burkert suggests, 'to be a member of a people means to know its dances,' then "Alexandra" is a step-book with a great many more dances than any of us are likely to fully learn; and therefore useful as well as pleasureable.


Reviewed by Pyrokanthos

Callimachus Hymns & Epigrams Lycphrn...

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Life Among the Savages, by Shirley Jackson


I think it was Clifton Fadiman who said that Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" was the best single short story of the Twentieth Century. I would give him some arguement, and put next to it Jack London's "To Build a Fire," but that is me and him, not the works of either writer.

Because of "The Lottery," Jackson is thought of primarily as a writer of horror. Several of her novels are masterpieces of that genre, a curious thing because she was just about the only person working in the medium at the time she was writing them.

She was also, like Edgar Alan Poe, a deft humorist and a wickedly witty commentator upon the human condition.

Life Among the Savages is her memoir of moving to an old house in Vermont, with her husband, two children, and five thousand books. It is a splendidly funny book, and reminds one on the surface of both The Egg and I, and Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House. Or, for people who haven't read very far back, films like The Money Pit.

But if one loves Shirley Jackson's writing (and I do!) there is more here than the humor; there is a kind of subtle revelation. The old house into which the family moves is not a supernatural terror, like Hill House, but one can perceive how its curious layout and construction might work upon the imagination to produce Hill House. The family is not weird in any negative way, but the foibles of the family, given Jackson's fertile imagination, might easily turn evil and produce the quietly deranged folks in her other stories.

If you are not a writer or a scholar you can ignore the paragraph above. You don't have to approach this book with a master's degree; it should more likely be approached with a cup of coffee on a day when you need something to cheer you up and remind you that the world is not a terrible place at all, but kind of fun. That human beings don't always go wrong, and that troubles tend to pass with a little time and a bit more elbow grease.

This may not end up on the literature shelf, where just about all Shirley Jackson's work belongs, but it certainly should end up on the shelf in your home to which you turn when times get tough and you need a laugh or a smile in your soul.

Reviewed by Jon DeCles

Life Among the Savages

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Hermes, Guide of Souls, by Karl Kerenyi


I was communicating with somebody on the Internet, and that somebody was talking about this book. It was the week before Christmas and you must imagine my delight when my son's mother in law, with sublime intuition, gave me the book as a Christmas present.

What a Hermes sort of event!

The edition I received is the revised edition with a new preface by Charles Boer; I believe the same Charles Boer who did the translation of the Homeric Hymns which was my solace until the Athanassakis translation appeared.

What a small, Hermetic, world.

It is in the introduction by Boer that one finds: "A bigger joke: Robert Graves, desperate for bucks, had hastily put together two volumes of Greek Myths for the unsuspecting reader who did not realize that Graves made up some of he myths himself and faked much of the rest, including the references. (Anybody who even still cares about this collosal put-on should read Jay Macpherson's review in Phoenix 12 [1958])." --I have been wondering since I read it from whence this information got into my head!

There is also an earlier introduction to the book by Magda Kerenyi, the author's widow, which contains historical information and information about the author's views.

Well, it is a book about Hermes, and Hermes is the trickster; so that the book can keep evolving, long after the death of the author, should not be surprising.

Let me say that I think this is one of Kerenyi's better books, and that is saying a good deal. If Hellenic Paganism has a patron saint (yeah, mixing metaphoric icons: whatever) then it must be Karl Kerenyi. With Walter Otto, he is a voice crying in the wilderness of the grim Twentieth Century, recognizing the reality of the Gods in a world where They have been pretended into gauze.

Although at times Kerenyi swallowed contemporary theory (when it seemed to be justified by archeology), for the most part he stood apart from scholarly fashions and pursued his own path. He collaborated with Carl Jung on a book, and his students continue to be important figures both in mythology and in psychology.

Sometimes, because of linguistic difficulties in translation, he is hard to read. There is a feeling of surrealism that is, I am sure, not intended. But in this book the surrealism is deliberate and the technique is phenomenally well-suited to the subject matter. Kerenyi writes with a mercurial verve that relates ideas not only through intellect but through a very near gnostic sense of perception.

His thesis is to add to the Nietzschian dichotomy of Apollinic/Dionysian pathways a third possibility, that of the Hermetic path. There is no point in my going into detail here, as that is what the book is about. But it is worth remembering that Kerenyi was no home-grown prophet but a man of letters and the world. He was in correspondence with Thomas Mann and Frau Hermann Hesse, as well as working with Otto and Jung.

Perhaps more important, he considered himself an initiate into the Mysteries of Hermes; and given his insights over the years, one finds no difficulty in believing that about him.

For anyone considering work with Hermes, this is a very good book to have on the shelf. It is not the last word on the God; on the contrary, it is a very personal exposition; but it is one which should not be missed.

Reviewed by Pyrokanthos

Hermes : Guide of Souls (Dunquin Series,...

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Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens


If I were to have a tombstone (which I probabaly shall not, given the exigencies of the times in which I live), I think it should probabaly bear the incription: "He Wanted To Read All Of Dickens." Had my life not been so misspent I might very well have done it, but this late in the run I fear that I probabaly won't get the chance.

Nonetheless, in a rash of enthusiasm as I geared up to write the second book of mine own "Piswyck Papers," I spent the money and purchased the Oxford Edition of the Complete Works, and I have no regrets. There may be more elegant bindings out there, but there could surely be no better bargain. Until Tolkien, Dickens had the Best of Breed title all sewed up for the English novel; and given the small but magnificent output which Tolkien left to us, I don't think Dickens will be pushed off the shelf anytime soon.

Charles Dickens began as a court reporter, then became a journalist; and the training proved to be the making of his style. In the book at hand we can watch as he wanders the streets of London, observing not the stories that would catch the eye of the newspaper reader of his times, but the˙people who populated those stories, whose lives made the stories happen. Because we live in a literary atmosphere dominated by editors who desire 'character driven' tales, Dickens' early observations becomely terribly important to anyone who would seek to render truth through the medium of fiction. Nowhere in literature can we find more clearly and carefully distilled examples of character as total force of subject than in these brief pieces.

Nor can we find, I think, anywhere, such riotously funny examples of the foibles that combine to make up that thing which we call 'character' in writing. Examples which, for the most part, remain fresh and current. The manners and the customs may have˙changed, but the underlying traits by which human beings build themselves into types approaching charicature remain true.

What I find amazing about this book is its sheer populace, and the variety of that populace. I do not for a moment believe that the world in which we live has less variety than the confines of Dickens' London; but I would be hard pressed indeed to set down so many distinct persons, out of the course of my whole life, as Dickens managed to observe and delineate in this, which is really his first work.

To be exact, the first work was published when he was 21; late for Mozart, very early for Brahms: but then, Dickens did what he did much better than Brahms ever did anything.

It is not entirely amusing. Indeed, one of the marks of Dickens' greatness is that, like Mozart, he could round out humanity by including the tragic in the comic and the comic in the tragic. His ruminations on Monmouth Street, a used closing district which he describes as the burial place of fashions, has a quiet charm to it that is absent from the lives of people today, innurred to throwing away garments bought at K Mart and meant to wear out as quickly as possible (though I do detect a return of the used clothing business in the big cities as people give up on attempting fashions that last weeks instead of years). His depiction of the room in the jail where the men awaiting hanging stand about, is grim with a quietness that one will seldom find anywhere.

But mostly the sketches are funny; and should be taken in the way that a sitcom is taken: not as a great moment in literature, but as a pleasant thing to pass the time and render a laugh or a smile.

This is not a book which most people will want to read though at a clip. Rather, it is an ideal book to keep at the bedside, or beside a chair, or better still, in the car, where you may find yourself waiting for someone who has run in to somewhere to do something while you... wait. You can pick it up and read one of the sketches, be entertained, perhaps by accident pick up some wisdom or insight, and not be bothered when the partner or children come dashing to the vehicle ready to rush to the next appointment, where you will once again wait... And have an opportunity to indulge in the guilty pleasure of joining Mr. Dickens in his people-watching.

And who knows? You might just find your partner, or your children... Or yourself... In this catalogue of human beings that is both ascerbic and compassionate at the same time.

Reviewedby Jon DeCles

Sketches by Boz : Illustrative of...

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Sparta, by A. H. M. Jones


The picture which most people have of Ancient Greece is pretty much the picture painted by the Athenians. If anybody doubts that the pen is mightier than the sword, then next to that adage ought to be carved in stone the one about the victors writing the histories! The Athenians left us a mass of well-written material. Yet Athens was not the only city state of power and prestige, nor was it dominant in the larger scheme of things. Thebes, Argos, Elis, Korinthe, and above all, Sparta, defined the polychrome mosaic that was Hellas; and to have any idea of what that world was like, we must look not only to Athens but to each of those places.

This small book does something to fill the void. It is primarily a glance at the political and military history of Sparta, but in rendering its topic it provides some valuable insight into the lives of the Spartans, and some illuminating details about the characters of the people who were the unquestioned military leaders of their times.

It is, in places, surprisingly funny. A nation with two heriditary kings, a ruling council to keep them in check, a social order in which men married, came home for conjugal visits, but never lived with their wives and families until retirement: can hardly be looked at without some sense of humor rising to the surface. A military establishment is always open to risibility, and these folks, in their dealings with each other, assumed the mantle of clown with remarkable ease.

What is missing from this book is any sense of the deep religious convictions of the Spartans; a dimension which infuses, and makes sense of, thier elaborate social structure and highly disciplined military culture. It was also written before (published in 1967) the Feminist reassessment of Spartan society, which points increasingly toward a matrifocal social order. The author does not ignore the egalitarian attitude of the Spartans toward women and girls, but neither does the author provide much information about the female half of Spartan society.

What the author does make clear; and this is important; is that when the Spartans stopped paying thier poets their fortunes fell. In a worldview in which arete is primary; in which the greatest gift which the Gods can give is the opportunity for glory; the absence of the opportunity to have that glory chronicled is terribly, vitally, important.

Lives will be risked for a place in an immortal song. If no one will sing, why fight?

If you have better and more complete and authoratative books on Sparta then this one will merely be adjunct. If you having nothing in your library, then this will make a very good introduction to these fascinating people; who, for all the bad things the Athenians had to say about them, had many virtues worth emulating in today's world.

Amazon carries a good many books by this author, but curiously, not this one.

It was published originally in 1967, and reprinted by Barnes and Noble in 1993. The ISBN is 1-56619-430-X, should you wish to seek it out at some other source. I am not at all sure where I got it.

Reviewed by Pyrokanthos

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Aesop: The Complete Fables, translated and presented by Olivia and Robert Temple.


This is the Penguin Classics Edition, and the one attacked in the media by fat and facetious right wing rich guy Rush Limbaugh. I have written about it extensively elsewhere, but suffice to say, it is the most complete edition I have been able to find. This ought to be basic in the library of anyone with aspirations of Hellenismos.

One fascinating thing I learned in it was that the translation of what is usually translated as 'cat' is incorrect. Only in a couple of the fables was the cat the correct animal. Cats were new (from Egypt) at the time of Aesop, and most of the fables refer to the more usual pet of the times, the ferret.

Reviewed by Pyrokanthos

The Complete Fables (Penguin Classics)

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The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler


Nobody but Raymond Chandler could write a whole first chapter to a novel without giving you a damned bit of information about the story you are about to read, keep you on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen next, and keep you reading. But, Phillip Marlowe is kept waiting to see the head of the perfume company on whom he is calling, and if he has to wait to see this ornery bastard, so do we. --Checking out the perfume bottles, checking out the cute little female answering the phones, and checking out the not so nice but very efficient secretary at the desk.

The book opens with descriptions, is full of descriptions: but Chandler can use descriptions to tell a story as well as most writers can use character to move it forward. The opening detail of the black and white rubber paving blocks in front of the building (being taken up and given to the government) tells us not only that the story is taking place during World War Two, it gives us an insight into a world which, because of that war, has pretty much vanished.

Who today would pave the sidewalk with rubber? In black and white blocks? Why was it done in the first place? --My guess is that rubber would be less slippery in the Los Angeles rain than cement or marble, and perhaps easier on the feet. The black and white would be part of the Deco world of elegance that came before the war, and the influx of Modernism, with its plainness masquerading as style.


But, in a mystery novel, the details are everything. Somewhere in the maze of the things noticed by the protagonist, there will be answers to the questions. Questions unavoidably about murder, and the reasons people have for committing it.

I believe that The Lady in the Lake was my introduction to Raymond Chandler. It was not the novel, but the movie, if I am right. If so, the occassion was the breakdown of my grandfather's '37 Chevy on the Pennsylvania turnpike. The turnpike was proverbial as a place where cars broke down, and we were stuck in a small town motel overnight. We went to the movies, and the film was called The Lady in the Lake. I have been trying to get that film for some time, to see if indeed it is the Chandler novel.

This all happened when I was about four, mind you. I think the novel was still new. Maybe I will discover this detail of my youth at some later date.

The above paragraph about my life and history may seem irrelevant to a book review. In Chandler's work there is a great deal that seems, at the time, to be irrelevent. Only it never is. The endless driving back and forth to the mountains, the connections that don't seem to be connections, the people who don't make up neat social sets; all of these details, clothed in Chandler's dazzling prose (so easy to parody, so impossible to imitate) are like threads in some enormous embroidery, seen from the back,where everything is tangled and meaningless.

Then Phillip Marlowe turns the cloth around and the picture appears, limned in colors that are sometimes brilliant, sometimes subtle, but always shadowed.

I think this is one of Chandler's better novels. But, with Chandler, most are 'better' novels.

One thing extra this book has for the reader is a look at America during World War Two; told in a matter of fact manner, for he was writing during the event, yet with a clarity that books 'about' those times seldom achieve. Because of his extraordinary ability to paint with words, showing both the exterior an interior landscapes through which his characters move, one is likely to learn a good deal more about the people and the times than one would ever learn from somebody trying to cobble together those times from the perspective of the (this!) distant future.

After the noir writers there was a kind of split in the writing of mysteries. One road took readers to what is almost a pure puzzle story, patterned for the most part on the Sherlock Holmes tales. Another was the ever-more-hard-boiled detective story, where the toughness and violence took precedence. Then there was the police procedural, where the technique of investigation was more important than the plot or the characters. Many other elements, such as background, faded to unimportance.

In Chandler we still have the mystery as novel of plot, character, and background, all balanced. And added to that is a prose technique that is spectacularly his own.

In case you haven't guessed by now, I am a big Chandler fan. If you haven't read him, this is a good place to start: but please, don't neglect The Big Sleep.

Reviewed by Jon DeCles

The Lady in the Lake (Vintage Crime/...

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Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, by Mark Twain


People often have trouble with Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. That is not surprising. Mark Twain had trouble with it himself. He wrote it, and rewrote it; carried it back and forth across the Atlantic with him several times; and finally figured out what the problem was, and turned it into the novel it is: which, like the Twins of the 'other' story, is quite extraordinary.

First off, it is a detective story. So far as I know, the first such story to make use of fingerprints. Second, it is satire: but terribly, awfully, brutal satire. Grim satire. Horrific satire. It is like some monstrous collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan and Edgard Alan Poe.


"I am the very model of a bricked up dying Montresor,

With each succeeding brick I have to shake my bells and what is more,

I'm really quite contrite because I criticised my friend's good taste,

And since there's no Amontillado, I'll die thirsty; what a waste!"


--Sorry about that, sometimes I get carried away.


If Huckleberry Finn attacks the evils of racism from the inside, by showing us the inherent goodness of Jim, no matter how much degradation a racist society may have heaped upon him, Pudd'nhead Wilson shows us the collosal stupidity of racism from the outside, on the one hand attacking the laws which casually skim across the surface of the issues and on the other delineating with an almost casual contempt the tragedies which can come about from the institution.

Though Twain once wrote that he did not believe it was possible for Negros to be truly bad, he is not naive about the extremes of character to which a corrupt social order can drive people; or, for that matter, the extremes to which even so nominally positive a trait as mother love can corrupt the individual. If we did not know that the society about which Twain was writing in this novel was real: had really existed: we would think he had gone beyond the bounds of believable fantasy in setting up such absurd relationships among human beings. But, sadly, we do know that this world was real, and Twain, without preaching, condemns it in every line of the book, right down to the ending, which is both funny and horrible at the same time.

Twain's problems with the book are conceptual and structural, and that is why Those Extraordinary Twins is bound together with it in this edition.

The story started as a simple comedy, growing out of his experience of seeing what today we would call 'Siamese Twins' exhibeted at a fair. That there is very little of this original tale in Pudd'nhead Wilson is fortunate. But in his introduction to this silly piece (Twins) we find Twain writing the kind of thing that scholars who write introductiions usually write: only with considerably more wit and intelligence. I can think of nothing better than to simply quote him. In discussing the character of Rowena he writes:


"I finally saw plainly that there was no way but one -- I must give her the grand bounce. It grieved me to do it, for after associating with her so much I had come to kind of like her after a fashion, notwithstanding she was such an ass and said such stupid, irritating things and was so nauseatingly sentimental. Still, it had to be done. So, at the top of Chapter XVII, I put a 'Calendar' remark concerning the Fourth of July, and began the chapter with this statistic:

'Rowena went out in the back yard after supper to see the fireworks and fell down the well and got drouned.'

It seemed abrupt, but I thought maybe the reader wouldn't notice it, because I changed the subject right away to something else. Anyway it loosened up Rowena from where she was stuck and got her out of the way, and that was the main thing. It seemed a prompt way of weeding out people that had got stalled, and a plenty good enough way for those others: so I hunted up the two boys and said: 'they went out back one night to stone the cat and fell down the well and got drouned'. Next I searched around and found old Aunt Patsy Cooper and Aunt Betsy Hale where they were aground, and said 'they went out back one night to visit the sick and fell down the well and got drouned.' I was going to droun some of the others, but I gave up the idea, partly because I believed that if I kept it up it would arrouse attention, and perhaps sympathy with those people, and partly because it was not a large well and would not hold any more anyway."


If a story about the difficulties of having a love life when you are physically connected to your twin seems perhaps insensitive in today's world of political correctness, so be it. Humor is seldom about being sensitive, it is about slipping on a bannana peel or trying to explain things that are not as they seem. There is nothing in the story nearly as course as any installment of 90% of the sitcoms being presented on TV these days.

The edition I have is from the Penguin English Library. It is fascinating to read the assessments of an admiring British scholar in the edition introduction, and see how America bulled its way into the grand halls of English Literature with a sense of humor rather than a deadpan seriousness.

Mark Twain is America, and he sees Americans in all their complexity and variety, both good and bad. What makes his observations bearable is that he tempers his rightiousness with humor, which, in the end, is our most human saving grace.

Reviewed by Jon DeCles

Puddnhead Wilson : And, Those...

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The Odyssey of Homer, translated into verse by Allen Mandelbaum


As the Twentieth Century ground to a close, and with it the Millenium, everybody who had the necessary scholarship and skills decided to translate Homer. I can't seem to walk into a bookstore without finding yet another translation, most of them of high quality.

Allen Mandelbaum has done something a little different from everybody else, however. Instead of attempting to match the hexameters of the Greek, or try for the poetic intensity of image in other forms, he has done his translation in a meter most sympathetic to English, that of iambic pentameter.

While this may bother scholars, it provides an especially felicitious experience for the reader who just wants to read the story, and who would like it in poetry rather than the deadening slowness of prose. Iambics read well and easily in English, and the result is an Odyssey that zips right along, as swiftly and as clearly as any adventure novel. This may seem like a paradox: that rendering the tale in verse rather than prose should make it read more like a novel; but it is really not. We English speakers are used to iambics, from Shakespear to Melville, and the meter fits the way our language sounds, and even the way we talk to each other. Thus this version is well suited to the casual reader, and is a good one to give to a friend who wonders what all the fuss is about.

There are problems, to be sure. There really is no basic English any more, with the result that sometimes the scansion just doesn't work as one reads along. How Mr. Mandelbaum speaks the poem will reasonably vary from the way it might be spoken in the different variations of the language that occur from place to place, cultural milleau to cultural milleau. It is to his credit and sensitivity that there are not very many of these cultural and linguistic stumbling blocks in the book; another factor that recommends it.

In short, he's done a good job, and not duplicated anybody else's recent effort.

It's a really good read.

Reviewed by Pyrokanthos

The Odyssey of Homer : A New Verse...

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 Greek Folk Religion, by Martin P. Nilsson


Though this book was published in 1940 and based on lectures delivered a little earlier, it remains one of the most valuable books for the reconstruction of Ancient Greek Religion available; not so much for its thesis, but for its coherent reference to detail of cultus practis. Each time I open it and re-read a passage I am struck by some thing which not so much provides an answer but which poses a new question.

The author's reference to the thargelos, the loaf of bread which is offered at the Thargelia, makes note that the Thargelia fell on the seventh day of the month of Thargelion, a time usually before the harvest. If the loaf is offered as 'first fruits,' then he suggests that it might be made of unripe grain; and then he notes that the Vestal Virgins of Rome did just that in preparing the mola salsa at the beginning of May.

One might also consider the prospect of the loaf being made with the last of the old grain, not a first fruits offering but a 'last fruits,' in keeping with the custom of using up the last of the stores before opening the new ones, as for instance drinking the last of the wine before opening the new jars. This 'leap of faith' kind of practice would not be dangerous at this point in the year because the harvest would be almost ready, and the last of the valued grain from the previous year would no longer be critical. In fact, that part which was vital would have already been sewn, and would be ripening even then.

Of course, a storm or other destruction of the new grain could only happen with the great anger of Zeus; and that would be understood as a sign.

These last two paragraphs, I hasten to add, are me responding to Nilsson, not Nilsson. That is the wonderful thing about his book; it not only profers his views, it backs up his views with sources in a way that few other scholars do, leading one to question, to re-evaluate, to draw one's own conclusions, either in agreement or disagreement, but always based on the data presented rather than the conclusions presented.

There are problems, to be sure. The book was written before the decipherement of Linear B, and the authentican of Dionysos as a very old presence in Hellas (in contrast to the writings of the the Ancients themselves), so some of the material is outdated. On the other hand, the fact that it was written before the wholesale adoption of the Gimbutas Paradigm (only lately disavowed by general scholarship as flawed) means that it is not tainted by that particular massive assumption (as opposed to the solid archeology of Dr. Gimbutas, and without the politically motivated interpretations of the paradigm).

In all, if one is making a list of important books for Reconstructionists, I think this is right up there next to Burkert and Otto. The most amazing thing about it is that it is so short. The author manages to pack more sheer, useful information into this little book than other writers can fit into six times as much verbiage.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Pyrokanthos

 Greek Folk Religion

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The Jason Voyage, by Tim Severin


This is the first of Mr. Severin's books that I have read, but it is not likely that it will be the last. I must confess to being of that school of scholarship which believes that doing something is better than just reading about it; and Mr. Severin has made a career of doing the things that everybody else has been content to read about.

I suppose it is inevitable that Thor Heyerdahl will be cited as the great modern progenitor of this kind of hands on research; but Tim Severin is not assaulting major theories of migration or otherwise taking on the ingrained views of the academic establishment: he is merely setting out to test whether or not a thing which is attested is possible: in this case, the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts to search for the Golden Fleece.

Though the details may be argued, the facts of the voyage itself are clearly presented and the reconstruction of the ship and the voyage pretty well documented. Personally, I could have done with even more, but Severin's work is expensive and difficult, and at least a portion of the work has to be paid for out of the profits from the book which inevitably results.

That means the book must be readable and exciting, and in that the author has not failed us. From the moment of conception Severin carries us along breatheless as he attempts first to find out whether there is enough data, then whether or not it is possible to reconstruct a bronze age vessel of the type likely used by the Argonauts, then whether there is anyone who can actually build the ship.

Gathering a crew to make the voyage seems difficult enough. After all, the original crew was made up entirely of Heros, and yes, that is with a big H (in English, at least). Then there is the matter of politics. The book was written before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ship would have to sail into what was then Soviet Territory.

I loved the whole business of the boat builder who constructed the ship. Severin is able to render characters well in passing, and the lives of people who still build boats, who still provide the vessels for fishermen, and who still have the skills which apparently existed in the bronze age, is fascinating. Finding the same wood: what I take to be the divine intervention of the Gods in assuring that the Argo would be built; all this is really exciting reading.

And then there is the voyage itself.

There are not many Heros left in the world today, but Severin proves, if nothing else, that human beings are capable of rising to challenges which modern people tend to view as impossible. I am of the school which views impossibility as a learned attitude, and I am grateful there are people like Severin out there to put the lie to that attitude.

There are drawings and pictures of the voyage, including one stunning photo of the Argo next to a Tall Ship. That alone is enough to fill one with a sense of wonder at the courage of the mariners of the Heroic Age.

If I were many years younger and stronger and smarter, I would surely write to Tim Severin and ask to go along on his next voyage: provided, of course, it is not planned for cold weather.

Reviewed by Pyrokanthos


The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the...

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The Wolf and the Raven, by Diana L. Paxson


In this book, the first of the Wodan's Children trilogy based on the Siegfried story, Diana L. Paxson takes on a subject which most writers would be afraid to tackle. After all, Wagner's music drama has dominated people's thinking on this topic to the degree that the original, the Niebelunenlied, has almost dissappeared from the literary landscape.

Never mind. This is the same Diana L. Paxson who took on Wagner's romantic tragedy Tristan und Isolde and restored the original terms, and who had the fortunate temerity to go back to the same sources that Shakespeare used in retelling the tragedy of King Lear.

Her greatest strength is her academic training. She knows how and where to look when it comes to research. When her vision exceeds her grasp, she knows how to find someone who can help her fill in the gaps.

That notwithstanding, she is also the heir to Marion Zimmer Bradley's school of hard, dramatic storytelling; and her own work in mythology and poetry has given her a sense of style that rises above what is usually expected of a storyteller in today's marketplace.

All this combines to produce a singularly satisfying body of works, of which this book is a sterling example.

The story is primarily about Sigrid and Brunahild, but it begins with the stealing of the treasure which Wagner reduced to a single lump of gold. It continues through the childhood relationships of the protagonists, which are not only important but vital, as the protagonists will simply not live through the whole, monstrous epic.

There is a humanity rendered here which one does not usually associate with Germanic epic. The life long relationships of children are the seed stuff of lives that grow from willful girlhood and abused boyhood through character based disaster.

This book encompasses what in Wagner is three long operas; yet how much more detail it offers without what I am forced to think of as the 'encumbrance' of the music. We get to spend time with Brunahild as she devotes herself to the life of a Walkyruin, a priestess in a long and honored line of wise women; but one who has the unfortunate fate to be chosen by the God and thus expelled, ironically, for her excellence as a battle priestess. We also get to spend time with Sigfrid, last of a line of shape-changer kings, hunted and despised by enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy him. Forced into apprenticeship at smithing with Ragen, one of the remaining heirs of yet another people, he is not the lunkhead of the opera but a child whom destiny drives to extremes of forced innocence; and innocence is not always a good thing for the innocent.

Paxson makes Brunahild a niece of Atilla the Hun; this is in accord with the original materials, which are set in a roughly specific time and place, and in which Atilla figures prominantly. She also gives us the sweep of that distant historic era, letting us see the reality of the Burgunds, the Huns, and the always present reality of the still functioning Roman Empire. Wagner's operas are magnificent, but perforce they leave out all of this, only giving us the slightest glimpse of everyday people in Gotterdammerung, and offering humanity in mythic form without historical connection.

This is not a put down of Wagner, mind you. Only an observation that his use of the materials was to achieve a specific artistic purpose; which was not the re-telling of the story. Paxson's purpose is to tell the story as it was told, then to add to it her insights about history and humanity, both spiritual and temporal. Wagner and Paxson have different goals, and I believe that both achieve them.

For readers whose spiritual quests have never found any calling outside of Christianity, or the Abrahamic religions in general, it may be worthwhile noting that the painful ecstatic calling of the children of Wodan (Odin) has much in common with Anglican mystical views about the life experience. One wonders if perhaps the Germanic spiritual views might have made their way into Roman Christianity as it migrated north and east, to end up invested in the passionate severity of British Catholicism in contrast to the opulence of Roman Catholicism. One thing is certain: Bernanos' Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ would understand completely the mystical transformations through which Brunahild and Sigfrid must make their way.

The author does not, however, simply scrap Wagner. There is a musical quality to the work which plays as counterpoint to the prose, emerging finally with verbal quotations in the conclusion. Nor is Christianity, already a potent force at the time of the story, overlooked. The presence of both Roman and Arian priests still warring for theological dominance could, in the hands of a less sympathetic writer, have played as comic relief, but does not; though the humor of their situation is not overlooked either.

Like the works of Mary Renault, this book takes the spiritual beliefs of the people depicted at face value and seeks to render them intelligible for the reader. The result is 'magic realism' without the surreal.

For those who still equate 'adult' with sex, there is even some steamy stuff.

--Jon DeCles


The Wolf and the Raven

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The Dragons of the Rhine, by Diana L. Paxson


In this, the second volumn of the Wodan's Children trilogy, we come to the matter which first captivated Wagner in his reading of Germanic Myth: the Death of Sigfrid through the betrayal of Brunahild, herself betrayed by Sigfrid throught the agency of magical/medical manipulations on the part of the Burgunds.

In Wagner, Gunter and Gutrune, and their half brother Hagen, are dark and desperate figures. While Hagen is purely evil and bent on revenging his father and regaining The Ring, Gunter and Gutrune are lonely and unfortunate, pawns of Hagen and their own weakness. This characterization is more than adequate for the stage, with its limited time span, and Wagner's music imbues these characters with a nobility and depth which the text does not manage.

But in a novel we expect a little more, and Diana L. Paxson has given it to us.

She expands the cast considerably, as she did in the previous book, but she also expands the canvas. If we are to understand the whole epic, we must know considerably more about the people whom Sigfrid encounters; their background, their motiviations, and the beliefs and goals which drive them.

Frankly (to make a bad pun) the Burgunds are, to most people, ancestors of the wine, and the people who dance and sing in the background of The Vagabond King. Early Frenchmen in funny clothes. Paxson quickly disabuses us of any such comical illusions and plunges us into presence of a tribal people struggling to survive at a time when Rome was faltering but still powerful; and the Huns were on the horizon, an untrustworthy ally and available to the highest bidder.

More than that, we experience tribal peoples who are not neat and distinct, but bound to both friends and enemies by recent fueds and conquests. Their everyday reality is one of war and acquistion, for in a bad year they may have to seize the lands and foodstuffs of their neighbors in order to survive. And, they must honor oathes to possible enemies, even when such oaths seem (in the long run) meaningless.

Sometimes the complexities of the tribal politics become confusing. In a large family in which everybody has a name with a similar root, one can have a hard time telling the players without a score card; and though Paxson does, indeed, supply a score card, there are points at which one Gun-something gets mixed up with another, no matter how well she has differentiated their characters.

Both Gundohar (Gunther) and Hagano (Hagen) are, in Paxson's work, far more interesting and complex characters than in Wagner's opera. Their interior struggles are well set out, and their tragic flaws are intelligible. In Wagner, Hagen is closer to Shakespear's Iago than he is to Verdi's version. In Paxson's book he attains a nobility totally absent in Wagner, and, driven by the complex spiritual force of wyrd, understands fully and tragically the wrongness of his necessary acts.

Most stunningly, we meet Grimahild, the mother of the Burgand clan, a magic user who is committed to the survival of her people at all costs. There is a terrible irony in the fact that her relationship with Wodan is instrumental in the destruction of both Sigfrid and Brunahild, who are both seen as children of the God.

But it is Gudrun (Gutrune) who slowly emerges during this book at the character who dominates everything. The love which she has borne Brunahild during their girlhood is despoiled by Brunahild's anger over her marriage to Sigfrid; with whom she is absolutely and totally in love.

The only real flaw in the book is, I fear, one it inherits from the original materials; and one which it shares with far too much mythic storytelling. If anybody in these stories ever talked, ever compared notes, then all the personal problems could have been solved without nearly so much bloodshed. And though it is doubtful everybody could have lived happily ever after, their feelings for one another might have been very different.

This book basically covers the same materials as Gotterdammerung, for those of you keeping score: but at the end we find no overflowing of the Rhine, no meek Gutrune running off, no return of things to normalcy: oh no!

There is a very angry Gudrun onstage, outraged by the betrayal of her husband by her brothers; and there is Atilla the Hun waiting in the wings.

--Jon DeCles


The Dragons of the Rhine (Paxson, Diana...

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The Lord of Horses, by Diana L. Paxson


The title of this book, the final part of the Wodan's Children trilogy, refers to Atilla the Hun, who was called 'Lord of Horses.' The Huns were a primarily nomadic people whose skill on horseback was phenomenal and whose culture is very hard to research because they didn't leave a lot of physical evidence, save the evidence of their passage as they obliterated things.

Yet withal, from what we know there were some admirable things about their culture, and the author seeks to show it forth.

The story picks up with Gudrun and her daughter by Sigfrid, Sunilda, livig in the abandoned forest house of her mother, Queen Grimahild, and trying to cope. In a desperate attempt to protect the Burgands from getting on the wrong side of the Huns, Gundrun's guilt-laden brothers pursuade her to become one of Attila's wives, thereby cementing an alliance.

This marriage spreads the stage of the story from the lands surrounding the Burgands to much larger territory, including Eastern Europe and coming close to Rome itself; and it also opens the jaws of a trap from which the Burgunds, despite their best attempts and good faith, cannot escape.

In her introduction Ms. Paxson points out that to bards of the Middle Ages the story of Sigfrid and Brunahild was only a prequel, a set-up, for this, the truly epic part of the tale: the conflict between the khan of the Huns and the Burgund kings. Reading her novel that becomes intelligible. It also becomes clear why Wagner chose the part of the tale he did, for this is grand, enormous stuff, with a scope that reminds one of Tolstoy or Sholakov, or Margaret Mitchell.

It also moves the tragedy to an even higher and more intense level than the part of the story which Wager set.

It might be worthwhile here noting Arthur Miller's requirement that tragedy show 'what might have been.'

Bad choices abound in this tale, and if we have any sensitivity at all we should learn not only how inescapable they can be, but how sometimes they do not have to be inescapable. Human passions dominate human society, and often those passions could well be put aside for the welfare of all.

It is curious to note that Atilla, the very model of barbarian cruelty, is also the only member of the cast able to subordinate his feelings to his desires. He acts in accord with what he feels to be the right, rather than in accord with any feelings he has about the circumstance. Even his lovemaking is subsumed into technical excellence, a tool for the accomplishment of his goals.

And there is even an indication of his ability to know when and where to stop; a wisdom none of the other characters is able to master.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this novel is the ending. It is certainly the most wholeheartedly grim and horrible ending I have ever read in a book; and yet, Paxson manages, as good tragedy must, to wring something noble and positive from it, and that is quite an accomplishment.

In our modern age it is hard for people to see value in a noble death: the making of a good end. Yet death is one of those things that comes to all of us, and the way in which we die is really the final signature of our part in the play of life. There is a vast gulf between going weakly and going calmly, between making an exit with head held high and fighting, and being dragged off grovelling.

At the end of this novel we can see, no matter what the horror, that difference which so entranced the bards of the Middle Ages. --We can also see, however, that personal enlightenment of character which modern audiences demand in terms of character growth. We can see something survive and continue to grow, and something of improvement and of value.

In the long run, a noble death is easier than a long life trying to cope with guilt. Paxson somehow manages to tie both these things together, and elevate both to the plain of a spirituality which is badly lacking and much needed in our age.

Maybe her best novel to date.

--Jon DeCles


The Lord of Horses

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The Oresteia, by Aeschylus, translated by Richmond Lattimore.


I feel a certain sense of hubris in writing a review of Aeschylus, perhaps even more so than in writing about Homer. But it is worth remembering that the Ancient Hellenic plays are much talked about, much referred to, and seldom performed at all. A rare exception this last year was the Berkeley Repertory Theater's production of the whole Oresteia on the occasion of their opening of a new, second, theater; an occasion which was wonderful, but which highlighted some of the problems.

The Nineteenth Century settled on Sophocles as its ideal of theatrical craftsmanship, and the Twentieth Century maintained that model until the 1960s, when some of the mold began to be broken. Yet is has taken until the present for audiences to once again embrace the lyric drama of Aeschyles with its destruction of time and its headlong sweep of character generated action. Television developed formulas for pseudo drama in the 60s, with sets of characters involved in small scale emergencies, when the hacks of television writing lost the ability to plot; but by the end of the 90s, those rudimentary techniques had flowered and a new generation of writers had managed to move back toward the lyric drama. Shows like ER were able to use the high energy emergencies of a hospital emergency room to highlight long term character developments and conflicts in a way that Aeschylus would have understood, and possibly even admired. Of course the poetry, the beauty of language is missing, but...

It is this wonderful sense of multiple focus that so characterizes the plays of the Oresteia. Klytemestra is not the monster that other playwrites provide: she is admirable, tough, intelligent and beautiful. She is embattled not only in the conflicts within her family, she is set against a society which holds that she, as a woman, cannot possibly live up to the demands of rularship at the same level as a man.

Surely there is no more exciting thing in theater than her description of her device for gaining knowledge of the war at Troy and its outcome. In the hands of a good actress, this is a thrilling moment. When we meet her she is fighting, and she remains so right up to her end.

Nor is Agamemnon a monster, however he may have let his ego get in the way of his common sense on the plain before Troy. It should be remembered that he has done everything in his power to avoid the sacrifice of his daughter: the primary action which drives Klytemestra's smoldering hatred for him. Here we see him, coming home, attempting to avoid the traps which will flaw his piety, desperate to get back to a simple and happy life with his beloved wife, and doomed by his bad choices, of which there have been too many for too long a time.

Aegisthus, little more than a buffoon in many versions, is here given full dramatic range. The whole background of the story comes forth in his character, who is neither stupid nor helpless, but a man intent on revenging what he sees as too many wrongs in need of righting.

Cassandra: mad, ravaged, brought down from a priestess and a princess to being a bedwarmer for the enemy king; is nonetheless a figure of power and finality, coming to terms with what she knows will be her end and making a good ending despite all this. She could be merely pitiful: Aeschylus makes her marvelous and noble.

And then there is Elektra, here, in the first play, a total innocent who must witness the horror we know is coming. She, too, is given more dimension than Sophocles provides.

All this is still in the first play, Agamemnon, which, with that destruction of time which the author manages convincingly, encompasses both the end of the Trojan War and the time when the supreme commander of the allied forces returns home.

Now, for a modern audience this play, by itself, would normally provide a full theatrical experience. But in Ancient times one usually saw a trilogy, i.e., three plays connected by subject matter. And the subject matter was mythic, providing the author with a wide range of topics and connections. This is essentially the technique being used in television today to provide continuity, and what the tv people are calling a 'plot arc.' Perhaps its most notable usage has been in the far reaching interconnections of plot and character in the nine year run of The X Files. But it has grown as a technique of importance from the time of the original Star Trek and the heyday of the nighttime soaps to its present status as a given.

And there is remarkably little difference between the practice of having characters from one tv show appear in the plot of an unconnected tv show, and the Ancient technique of introducing charcters from one mythic cycle into plays concerned with another mythic cycle.

The whole thing is really quite incestuous!

Meanwhile, back in Argos, time passes and we move to the second play, The Libation Bearers.

One understands why actresses love the Sophocles version: it is a star turn with lots of gnashing of teeth and it is bloodthirsty as all Hell. But the Aeschylus version is for me more satisfying because it is precisely not a star vehicle. Everybody in it has great moments. Moreover, it contains a far more realistic depiction of what it might be like for two children to have to come to terms with what they see as the inevitable necessity of murdering their mother. And again, Klytemestra is not a monster, but a woman beseiged by her own choices, and willing to stand by them even if it means her death.

People in the Ancient plays, unlike people in Modern plays, are aware that everybody eventually dies. There is nothing tragic about dying: it's what happens at the end of life. What can be tragic how one has lived one's life, or how one ends up dying. The Ancients did not sit around hoping to avoid death, they embraced life and took chances, and tried desperately to make the right choices as often as possible.

What I find truly wonderful about this play is its virtually musical quality. The dialogue between Elektra and Orestes flashes back and forth like some passionate operatic duet, yet there is no need for music to underscore the emotions. They are out front, raw, and we watch as the decisions are made and the actions inevitably carried out.

In Aeschylus, both Elektra and Orestes are clearly young: teens, perhaps barely that, forced into a world where adults commit monstrous acts. They are also idealistic, as only the young can be, and when their role models do things which they would not wish to do, they feel impelled by morality to do things just as awful. The confrontation between the 'kids' and their mother, Klytemestra, is perhaps the primal example of that moment when children and parents come to conflict, and the dominance of parent over child is broken. If this case, really, really broken.

And unlike Sophocles, Aeschylus does not leave the future rosy and vague. Orestes is struck at once by the horror of his actions, as indeed one would expect him to be: and we are thus propelled forward, into the final play of the set.

The Eumenides is a play which pretty much requires some sense of Hellenismos to make sense. Here we confront the reality that without some supernatural, spiritual element, life is no more than violent chaos. Given the history of this bloody family, one could well be tempted to think of Sarte or Camus; but the Ancients rejected a meaningless life as a meaningless concept, and through a solid polytheism drew substance from even the most abominable of human actions.

Here the Gods come onstage. Here the ghosts come out to accuse, and the horrible and morbid substance of endless vengence is confronted, not only in divine but in human terms; and found wanting.

This play celebrates that moment in human history when people come to understand that they must make their own solutions to problems and stand by them, for good or ill. That one cannot either run to tradition or call on the Gods for every contingency. That sometimes people (or Gods) have to make new responses to old problems.

In the context of this play neither mortals nor Gods can solve the thorny ethical problems, and so Athena invents the Jury; a group of radomly chosen ordinary people who are left to examine the evidence and rule one way or another for the right or wrong.

What is absolutely fascinating, stunning, about this play is that˙while it extols the virtues of the jury system, it also provides outrageous warning of the abuses of that system. Athena, as the First Lawyer, wins her case with an arguement that is patently absurd on the face of it. Aeschylus is laying it on heavy here, making clear that a lawyer's delivery can sway a gullible jury no matter how silly the proposition. But he is also telling us that sometimes the only solution to a problem is one so absurd that if it were described we would gasp that anyone would suggest something so audacious.

This play is about offering compensation rather than continuing endless blood fued and blood guilt. It is one of the demarkations of civilization that this becomes possible.

But Athena is careful in her offers to the Furies of a measure of worship, like any other deity, to make sure that those dark Goddesses do not abandon entirely their punishing ways, for without them lurking at the ready, law might have no force at all.

Of course the problem with the play for a modern audience is that winning speech that Athena gives. I am really astonished that so few people see what the Goddess is doing: but, it seems, political correctness does not allow them to: and that leaves the actress playing the part attempting to make the speech dead serious, with no underlying context of agenda, ignoring the tricks of rhetoric, and not believing what she is doing: which is deadly onstage.

Richmond Lattimore's translation is up to his usual excellent standard: he is a scholar, and more important, a poet in his own right. I cannot say that this is the best translation yet made, but I think, particularly in The Eumenides, that he is a tad better than Robert Fagles: largely due to the dramatic thrust of the final scenes of The Eumenides. But, of course, the Fagles may play better with an actress who understands what the Goddess is up to. I keep hoping to see one.

For those of you interested primarily in the religious content, I think you will find this translation to be of great value.



Aeschylus I: Oresteia (Agamemnon, The...

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Iphigeneia in Taurus, by Euripides, translated by Richmond Lattimore.


I have read in more than one place that the title of this play is not correctly translated. That there was no place called Tauris, but rather, a people called Taurians. Thus the title should be Iphigeneia Among the Taurians. In fact, those authorities who say this also note that the title would have been understood thus by the Ancients, not understood as we would understand it today.


This may seem like a minor point, but it is the sort of point that becomes important with regard to a play like this: a tragedy with a happy ending.


Our idea of tragedy is one we inherent more from the Middle Ages than from the Ancients. To the Ancients, a tragedy was a play constructed on mythological subjects, made with certain kinds of meters, according to certain kinds of structures, using certain kinds of stylized costumes, etc.. Whether the ending was happy or not was irrelevant.


That this particular play is not done much has, I suspect, more to do with current politics and attitudes than it does with the play itself. It's a pretty good play, exciting, full of surprises, and it has enjoyed populartiy in 'modern' times. Gluck wrote an opera on it, much as he did with Orpheo.


But it does end happily...


Well, we have to remember that the story of the House of Atreus is sort of ended by the decision of the Jury in The Eumenides. Orestes is found not guilty, and Athena arranges for a temple to the Furies so that they can get a little rest between pursuits of the guilty.


But in this play we learn that not all of the Shining Ones went along with Athena's offer. Some of them stick the the Old Ways, and continue to pursue Orestes: who, freed of at least part of his anguish, has devoted himself to finding his sister, who (as you may recall) was carried off by Artemis at the moment when she was being sacrificed. (Klytemestra didn't see her carried off and so assumed this was just a tale designed to assuage her anger, and so she... Well, you know about that..)


In practical terms, Orestes is looking for his sister everywhere, accompanied by his cousin and 'close friend' Pylades and afflicted with epilepsy. His seizures are rather well described and easily recognizable as that malady, accompanied perhaps by hallucinations due to his feelings of guilt. I don't whether the original language made use of the words ouremenos or erastes with regard to Pylades, but their relationship seems to fit that Classical pattern.


Meanwhile, Iphigeneia has been set up as priestess in a temple of Artemis where her chief duty is consecrating strangers (particularly Greek strangers) for sacrifice to the Goddess. She is much appreciated by the Taurians and their king, Thoas.


Now, if that isn't a straightforward piece of plotting I can't imagine what is.


Of course Orestes and Pylades are captured, of course they are doomed to be sacrificed, and of course there is some difficulty in recognition between the siblings. Orestes was just a child when his sister was carried off to be offed, and lots of things have happened since. At least three other plays have happened!


If tragedy were what we moderns expect it to be, then the rest of the play would be about the people trapped in their lives and coming to terms with it. But that is not it, and in this play, people show their resourcefulness and work hard to get out of their bad circumstances; and they succeed, with a little help from Athena.


(Yes, I am imagining Orestes getting up at the Ancient Greek Music Awards and saying: "I'd like to thank Athena for the success of my latest album, and also for getting me out of a lot of hot water along the way...")


There are some wonderful details of cultus practice in this play, and one can just imagine the shudder of horror that the Athenians felt when contemplating the familiar sacrificial rites being centered on a human being rather than an animal. It would make a great B movie, complete with barbarians, battles, and supernatural apparitions. One would not need to do any re-writing: just add the obligatory filler scenes of people skulking, sneaking, dashing and dancing. What is described in the play could be seen on screen, and then described as well, giving the audience more with which to work.


Lattimore's translation is as impressive as usual, and his notes on time of production and similarity of structure are most interesting.


It's a pity so many people are wedded to the politcally correct notion that Iphigeneia really did get sacrificed by the Evil Patriarchy. Euripides has given us a portrait of her as a grown woman, still noble of spirit, still fascinating of intellect, and still fully self-actualizing and in control of her own destiny when she has even the slightest chance to seize it.


It may have a happy ending, but I like this play and I would love to see it done by people who appreciate it.



Iphigenia in Tauris

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The Suppliant Women, by Euripides, translated by Rosanna Warren and Stephen Scully.


There is a directness to this translastion that is admirable, though at times less flowing in its poetics than it might be. That's not really a problem, because the play is full of jarring contradictions and is not nearly so flowing as many other plays; but for followers of Hellenismos, it is an important play, and one deserving of much attention.


It is peripherally part of the Oedipos cycle, and about that moment when the women of Argos petition the Athenians to aid them in retrieving the bodies of their fallen sons from Thebes. As you will recall, the King of Argos joined the Seven Against Thebes in their war to take back the rights of Polynikes, son of Oedipos, from his brother who had seized the presumably shared throne for his own.


What is at the core of this play is divine law, which gives anyone, good or bad, the right of burial. In the Antigone we see the results of Kreon's decree, aimed at bringing peace to a ravaged Thebes but in defiance of that law. Here we see what the Athenians held to be one of their finest moments: their decision to aid the agrieved Argives in accordance with that divine law.


But the play opens at Eleusis, where Aithra, mother of Theseus, King of Athens, is making sacrifice on the occassion of the Proerosia.


The translators interpret this as a first fruits sacrifice, but that is clearly a lack of knowledge of agricultural cycles in Hellas. We might better interpret the burning of cakes on the altar as a sowing festival, as late October would be the time of sowing the winter wheat. Whether the stage directions suggested are based on internal materials I cannot say, but dressing the women in white rather than Demeter's blue also seems a little odd. --In any case, we have here a scene which includes elements of sacrifice at Eleusis, about which Euripides clearly had first hand knowledge.


While the translators make note of many dichotomies in the structure of the play, the manage to ignore what is perhaps the most important one: that between divine and human approaches to problems. Aithra, as mother and priestess, stands in for Demeter as representative of the divine. Theseus, as son and king, stands in for Athena, as representative of the practical and political manifestation of the divine in everyday life. (Athena Herself will close the play, with very strict directions about human treaties sealed with divine oaths). The play thus provides us with a dialogue about how divine law interacts with human law in the conduct of life.


But aside from the abstract underpinnings, it's also an excellent play, one full of action and conflict, one in which characters have their own views, their own moral understandings, and in which characters change under the influence of both arguement and event.


In the opening we see Aithra interrupted in her sacrifice by the approach of the suppliant women of the title, the mothers of the slain warriors. This could lead to polution, but Aithra, careful not to violate the ritual, is moved by their supplication. Her wish is to help them in their need. But her son, Theseus, has to deal with practical reality, and he is equally careful to examine the legal and political ramifications which helping the Argive mothers involves. It is, after all, a matter of war.


Eventually divine law takes precedence and the Athenians deliver the aid, make war, and retrieve the bodies. But not without first attempting every possible diplomatic alternative.


It should be noted here that in contrast to the usual simplistic views of how things work, it is Aithra, the mother, who urges what must become a military conflict, and Theseus, the son, who attempts by every means to avoid it. We might well reflect on, and learn from, the fact that it is the peaceful, agricultural deity Demeter who, in Her primal myth, is willing to destroy humanity in order to get what She wants; and Athena, Goddess of battles and warcraft, Who keeps on seeking alternatives to the horrors of war that do so much harm to humanity.


If we examine the play in terms of simple plot, then the victory of the Athenians over the Thebans and the retrieval of the dead must surely mark the end of the story. The problem which began the play is solved, period. But is that simple problem really subject of the plot? It would appear not, for, rather than rejoicing at the victory the characters are plunged into even deeper despair. The real plot of the play, the problem to be solved, is not the Good Versus Bad plot, but the Story of Ethics plot.


War has consequences, and they continue long after the battles are finished and the dead counted. If divine law is violated, and the dead not buried, then the war is still on. But even when the bodies are retrieved and the funeral is underway, grief still makes a shambles of human order. America has had to deal with the legacy of Viet Nam, and in this play the Athenians have to deal with that legacy of grief on stage.


We have all been to funerals where the orations in praise of the departed seem to be descriptions of people we have never known. Even the worst bastards start to glow and acquire halos as they are described after death. In the human heart there is an instinct to try and redeem and bless, making better in death what was not so hot in life. In fine, we work hard to make the world a better place, even if it is in retrospect, where it cannot be altered by reality.


In the funeral of this play all the confusions we still witness at these occassions occur. People weep in uncontrolable grief, then stand up and makes speaches praising people for the very virtues which they lacked. And they come unglued.


But the occassion of death is also a time when the usual forms fall apart; and death due to war breaks down the forms even further. In this play Theseus usurps the usual rights and duties of the women to bathe and prepare the bodies of the dead, and performs these functions himself; partly to spare the berieved the grimeness of the mutilated bodies, and partly to cement the status of the dead into civic cult for the Athenians.


And then, at the moment when the funeral pyres are burning, we get the entrance of Evadne, wife of the hubristic Kapaneus, who, after an impassioned speech, and despite her father's pleas, throws herself off a cliff and into the burning pyre of her husband; one of the very rare onstage deaths in the literature.


Euripides sure knows how to tighten the screws.


But it gets worse. When the ashes of the dead are brought in, and the expected weeping and moaning ensues, the sons of the dead (who have been silent all this time) finally speak; and the first words out of their mouths are vows of vengeance, more war, more bloodshed. The words of the broken Argive king, Adrastos, have fallen on deaf ears. The pleas of the mourning mothers for peace are as naught. The very lessons which breed moral virtue, courage, and the defense of the good, also seem to body forth the desire for the violence from which these things seek to protect us.


Euripides understood that there are no easy solutions. The writers of later ages have been slow to learn that.


Well, now you would think it is over, but it's not. Even as the two kings pledge undying friendship between their cities, and everyone is heading off as happy as one can be at the end of a funeral, Athena appears. Divine wisdom, as at the beginning of the play, is central to this plot. Athena demands no casual friendship between Athens and Argos, but formal treaties and bonds sealed with sacrifices. She knows how easy it is for people to forget the favors done them, and She seizes the opportunity to forge an alliance that will, hopefully prevent future aggressions from either people.


Once again we see this odd but terribly true paradox, that peaceful agriculture can be a source for war, but that military strategy, and its offspring, diplomacy, can be a source for peace.


If this play is not much appreciated in modern times it is because we have put into place some neat, pat, ideas about how things work: ideas that not only ignore reality, but which have not worked for us any more than they worked when the Ancients tried them. Euripides tests the limits of such concepts and provides a more intense story about war and its consequences than we are likely to see on the silver screen. His solutions are not great ones; they don't work much better than the purile notions they replace: but, as real people in real political situations understand, they work a little better.


This play has a huge cast, so I despair of seeing it any time soon. But it would make a great film!



Suppliant Women (Greek Tragedy in New...

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The Pheonician Women, by Euripides, translated by Peter Burian and Brian Swann.


When people attempt to pin down the 'correct' content of mythic materials they do pretty much what a lepedoptrist does when he or she sticks a pin through a butterfly: kill it. Myth is not about data, it is about wisdom. Thus it is subject to malleability. The Athenians understood that, and so did their playwrites.


Modern audiences are likely to talk about what 'happened' in the story of Oedipos, and conceive of it as a series of solid, definable and describable events. Not so the Ancients. For them the Theban Cycle was a skeleton, a shape with which everyone was familiar, and the poet was free to dress it in flesh and clothes of whatever shape might aid the accomplishment of the play.


The Phoenician women of the title of this play are a band of pilgrims on their way to Delphi. They are distantly related to Cadmus, the Phoenician who founded Thebes, and thus the city is a good place for them to stop over in their journey. Unfortunately, they have been caught there by a war, and thus are available to stand as a chorus; perhaps better qualified for the job than the locals because they are outsiders, and can therefore comment with less involvement. They can also reasonably relate to us a great deal of history relevent to the play, which is mighty convenient.


The war in question is the one prosecuted by the Seven Against Thebes. The bitter battle for rule of the city between Eteokles, who has taken control, and his brother Polyneikes; both of them the sons of Oedipos.


For this outing, Euripides has kept everybody home and alive. Oedipos is blinded, but still in the house, despised by his sons. He and Jocasta are still hanging out and companionable, despite their family problems. Antigone is very young and very sweet, and just coming of age enough to understand what is going on. Kreon has not yet screwed himself, but he will; oh, he will. And Teresias is still giving out good advice that nobody wants to hear, and against his will.


At the center of the drama is Menoikeus, a son of Kreon who is so minor in the literature that he is virutally invisible anywhere but in this play. But here he shines as the only person who is capable of doing anything right, if only by his death.


It really is no wonder that people love going to war young and dying for their country. Such a course avoids completely the ambiguity which staying alive and risking bad choices imposes on a long life. Menoikeus and Iphigeneia manage to become really noble and admirable by the simple device of dying.


What a convenient way to keep one's hands out of the muck!


The rest of the characters presented here don't have it so easy.


Eteokles is power mad and completely unashamed of it. He gets the wonderful line which the history books tell us that Julius Caesar loved to quote: "This one thing makes wrong right: power!" His brother Polyneikes isn't any better. If he can't get his rightful position of part time king, then he is willing to sack and destroy his home town.


Euripides keeps Jocasta alive so that she can try and manage a truce between her two warring sons, but she fails and dies after seeing them kill one another. One of Euripides favorite themes is the failure of diplomacy under the weight of human obstinance. This play also contains another wonderful line, on just this subject: "The war is words no more!"


There are strangely charming passages in this bloodthirsty saga. Antigone and her teacher on the roof, so that she can see the battle, provide a kind of innocent pastoral as the carnage is described. Menoikeus offers up a youthful duplicity as he understands that he must lie to his father in order to do what is right and necessary to save the city. And one is touched by Kreon's willingness to betray everything he believes in, without batting an eyelash, in order to save the life of his son.


If academics criticize the play for not really having a central character, then I am afraid they are full of their own importance. John Dos Passos doesn't offer us a central character, and neither does Tolstoy in War and Peace. This is play as epic, not character drama.


Those same critics tend to miss the marvelous arch shape of the play, which begins in gloom, builds toward a bright and heroic act in its center, then declines back toward the tragic realities of the majority of human life. One is tempted to think of this as a 'cinematic' work in terms of its sweep and scale. Euripides uses the well established techniques of his craft in new ways to open up his drama for a greater scale than one expects in the confines of a stage. Its pretty cool, and it leaves Sophocles in the dust!


I think this would play particularly well for young people. The jerks and shifts of character and plot would not likely phase those who have grown up with contemporary cinematic technique. It is a kind of Ancient MTV storytelling, and if done by a director sympathetic to the technique (maybe Baz Luhrman?), instead of someone trying to make it fit a theatrical mold developed in a later age, it should work brilliantly.


Of course, one would have to let go of the stuff 'everybody knows' about the Oedipos cycle; but those who have not seen the Sophocles Oedipos ten times (because there wasn't anything else available) should really enjoy it; and those who have, may also.



The Phoenician Women (Greek Tragedy in...

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Pagans and Christians, by Robin Lane-Fox


This is a huge book but one that is well worth reading. I think it is of more value to Pagans than to Christians, but that is undoubtedly my personal prejudice rather an opinion likely to be wide-spread in academia.


Let me first set out my thoughts on the Christian parts.


Lane-Fox provides an enormous amount of information on Christian development during the period covered by his subject, but it seems informed largely by a Western Christian viewpoint. He does cover some of the material of Eastern Christianity, which during that period was not so completely separated from the Western, but the attitude underlying his statements seems to indicate a typical Western view that the Western viewpoint is the 'correct' one. He provides more information on Mani than one usually finds in a Western history of Christianity (albeit couched in the most negative and contemptuous language), and he gives some lip service to Arius, and indeed presents more material about him than one is likely to find in any but specialty publications; but there is no indication of the general dissatisfaction with the growing power of Rome that led to the fracture of the Church after the consolidation of Roman Church power at the Council of Nicaea.


What is most interesting about his commentary on Christianity is the speculative detail about Constantine, his motives, and his particular utterances and decrees. His theories about when and where which speeches were initially delivered is absolutely fascinating; as is his recounting of the attitudes of Pagans toward the Christians: far more positive than later Christian literature would indicate.


His general accounting of the persecutions is of equal popular importance to the recent reassessment of the witch persecutions of the Renaissance.


That much said, the rest of the book; essentially the first half; is rich in detail and wide spread in evaluation. He convincingly depicts a Paganism of great vigor and diversity which, in contrast to the propaganda of the later Western Church, was not at all in a state of decay but rather in a state of revival and growth right up to the time that Christian emperors leveled a total war against it.


There are many wonderful examples of oracular faith, and more important, details about many more oracles than the well-known one at Delphi. Material about how the persons selected to act as oracle were chosen in different places, and some indication of what their training might have been, are invaluable.


Differing techniques of divination are considered, as are differing cultus practice in different places; though frankly, he could have expended a lot more space on this. Clearly he has the knowledge, and just as clearly much of this material is not available elsewhere in one place; and especially not in English.


His bibleography is gigantic, but alas, it is so sub-divided and cross-referenced that at times it is unintelligible. I'd rather have paid for an extra thirty pages than have to go first to the footnote, then to the footnote that tells me which book the footnote is taken from. --I am NOT a fan of abbreviations ad infinitum, and of this literary sin Lane-Fox is heavily guilty. Never mind academic precedence: this sort of constant page-flipping is a damned nuisance! Any book that requires more than three bookmarks to follow a reference is an obfuscation, not an explication.


Given the work of excellent scholars like Burkert, it comes as quite a surprise how much flesh Lane-Fox puts on the bare bones of theoretical religious studies. It seems to me just as important to offer material as to how as it is to offer material as to what. Telling us that there was a temple to Asklepios in a particular city is not of nearly as much value as telling us what kind of activities were conducted there: and it is in this sort of detail that Lane-Fox excels.


For all my complaining about the flaws, I really believe this book to be one of the absolute essentials on the shelf of the serious Hellenic Polytheist, right next to Burkert, Otto, Nilsson and Kerenyi.


Unless you are the sort who delights in Academic Prose, don't even try to read it right through. At times Lane-Fox rises to the level of style, but mainly you will be in danger from rapid attacks by Morpheus. Rather, put it by the bedside and read it in bits, savoring the revelations that emerge from pedestrian words to provide lustrous illuminations.


Highly recommended.



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The Children of Herakles, by Euripides, translated by Henry Taylor and Robert A. Brooks


This is one hell of a good play, and one which is even getting done on occassion these days. I read this right after the September 11th attack on the World Trade Towers, and I wanted to put it right into production. The issues with which it deals remain current, constant, and are surely the sort of repeated warning we need over and over.


The action takes place before the temple of Zeus at Marathon, where Iolaus, the eromenos of Herakles, now an old man, has come with the children of Herakles and Herakles' mother, Alkmene, seeking refuge. These are classic refugees, driven from pillar to post and hunted relentlessly by the (no question!) evil Eurystheus, King of Argos: a city of which Herakles should have been king but for a trick on the part of the Goddess Hera. (We might want to note that had She not played that trick, and had Herakles not been subject to so much persecution during his life, he would likely not have had the chance to develop his arete to the degree that ultimately moved him from demigod to God.) Now they sit at the altar, their absolute last refuge, a place where divine law dictates they may not be assualted.


No sooner do we learn all this than Kopreus (literally, 'shitman') the herald of Eurytheus enters with the intention of seizing them all, dragging them back to Argos, and stoning them to death. When old Iolaus refuses to go, Kopreus grabs him and drags him away from the altar, knocking him down. This is about as brutal as sacrilege can get short of murder.


Iolaus yells for help, the people of Marathon arrive, and Kopreus is prevented from his purpose. He warns the folk of Marathon that anybody would be crazy to oppose the power of Argos, and demands that they surrender the suppliants, but the people stand fast against his threats, citing divine law. At that point Demophon and Akamas arrive, the sons of Theseus and rulars of Athens and the surrounding country.


After considerable argument Kopreus commits sacrilege and tries to seize one of the children; and Demophon threatens him with his staff: but the people stop the violence, noting that the person of a herald is sacred, and cannot be harmed. Kopreus leaves, promising to return with an army of ten thousand, and the stage is set for war.


Pretty good opening, huh?


Both sides prepare for war, but then, the oracles announce that Demophon is supposed to sacrifice a noble virgin girl to Persephone. Demophon notes that a man would have to be crazy to kill his own child. He will not sacrifice his own daughter, and he will not compel anyone else to do it either. He asks if anybody has a solution, and nobody has any ideas: it's a moral stalemate until Makara, the daughter of Herakles comes out of the temple to find out what's up.


Apprised of the situation she sensibly notes that the people of Athens have been willing to risk their lives for her family's sake, and offers herself as the willing sacrifice.


At this point a servant returns with the good news that Hyllos, Herakles' eldest son, has returned with a large military force behind him. The servant calls out Alkmeme, the mother of Herakles, to give her the good news and tell them all that the battle is about to begin.


Now old Iolaus decides to join the fight. Everybody thinks this is a bad idea; he can barely get around, much less fight: but he prays to the Gods to give him back the strengh he had when he fought beside Herakles in the taking of Sparta, and he hobbles off.


The people pray to Zeus and Athena in a particularly beautiful way, and then a servant of Alkmene comes with the news that the battle is won. More, that a miracle has occurred. That Iolaus has been made young for the fight, and that Herakles and Hebe have descended on the chariot horses as balls of light to assure the victory.


Thus far, one might note, this play is a perfect example of what a modern play should be, with everything moving upward toward the end of the first act.


It is in this stunning Messenger speech that one of Euripides' most famous lines occurs:


"No human fortune lasts. Glory dies, greatness fades.

Call no man happy until he dies."


But Alkmene is horrifed to discover that Iolaus, rather than killing Eurystheus outright, has taken him captive.


The Messanger assures her that this action was taken so that she, the Mother of Herakles and victim of the villian's endless persecutions, should see him prisoner, in chains. The servant also reminds her that she promised to free him from slavery, and withdraws.


Everything has been bright and upward up to now, but now the darkness begins to gather.


Alkmene has been speaking her anger against Zeus for all the suffering she has endured. When Eurystheus is delivered to her, her hatred boils over and she announces his death to him.


But the people of Athens tell her that she cannot have him killed. He is a prisoner of war, and Athenian law forbids th ˙killing of such prisoners.


From here on the play plummets down into darkness. In her rage Alkmene pursuades the people of Athens to go against their own laws and kill the captive. But Eurystheus offers them, in return for a decent grave and proper burial, an oracle telling how he will someday defend them against the descendents of the children of Herakles when they march against Athens.


The play ends with the citizens taking Eurytheus off to kill him, confident that at least their leaders will be free of the guilt.




Does your reviewer see a warning here? Are we poor mortals ever in danger that our good and just laws will be corrupted by the rightious anger of the moment? You bet he does!


If we do not uphold our laws against what seems expediency, our freedom, our democracy, just like that of the Athenians, is in danger of toppling down as totally as the Trade Towers. And if we, the citizens, allow ourselves to be led by the anger of demagogues, no doubt our leaders will appear just as blameless as did the Athenian princes whose high morals were undermined by an easily swayed citizenry.




As I said, I read this right after Nine Eleven. The picture came into my mind how easy it is to proceed rightly, and yet, in the passion of the moment, to drop the mantel of right proceeding and fall into corruption, destroying the very moral imperative that one has defended so staunchly.


A brief moment of rhetoric, stabbed out when everyone is vulnerable after the battle, and the careful ediface of law becomes eroded. The danger was there for the Athenians, and eventually they succombed to it. The danger is there for us as well, and it is just as important that we stand fast and not let our enthusiasm for revenge cost us the freedoms for which we have always stood.


But please, don't just read my incompetent summary of the play, and my personal reaction: read it the way Euripides wrote it, which is much better than I could ever hope to write anything.



The Children of Herakles (Greek Tragedy...

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Fire From Heaven, by Mary Renault


If one is seeking to get some idea of what it was like to live in the Ancient world of Hellenic Polytheism; of how people experienced the Gods in Ancient Historical Times, as opposed to the Mythic Times of Homer and the Tragedies, then for our age the author of choice is Mary Renault. In the works of no other writer does one find such authenticity of detail matched with such complete emotional conviction.


While archeology has added to our illumination somewhat since her death, those recent additions to our knowledge have not changed the sense of piety that suffuses her characters and their relationship to the divine. Whatever we may learn in particular, about particular usage, the attitude of her characters is likely to remain consistant with the material added to our knowledge.


In this, her first book about Alexander, she takes on the youth of a man who might very well have been the most charistmatic person in history; and she paints a portrait that gives us some idea what necessities of character might be necessary to rise to that level of charisma.


From the very beginning of the book, when the child Alexander awakens with a large snake next to him in bed, we follow his feelings, his intuitions, and his ever-awakening intellectual awareness of the world into which he has been born. A human world, filled with human faults to which he must respond and above which he is determined to rise.


His devotion to his mother and his dislike of his father (as seen from his mother's perspective) are both things which he must grow through. In this he is a subject of identification for modern males throughout today's world. It would have been easy for the author to show us the conniving of the mother and the brutality of the father through their actions alone, but Ms. Renault instead provides us with a genuine gnosis of what Alexander feels about these things, and how he manages to rise above them.


The phrase 'rise above' keeps popping into my mind as I think about Renault's Alexander, for in every aspect that is how he responds.


While his father treats tribal hostages as no more than political pawns, Alexander holds them to be 'guest friends,' a primally important concept. By his scrupulous demand for the honoring of vital religious precepts that others honor in name only, he wins, while still a youth, the respect and loyalty of both the militia and the tribal peoples his father, Phillip, has conquered.


His skillful, instictive negotiation of the maze that is the war between his parents and the labrynthine machinations of a court that would have put the Borgias and Medici's to shame, wins not only the respect of the characters in the book but that of the reader as well.


As always, Mary Renault treats of the sexual mores of the times with honesty and with consumate taste. Alexander's relationships with men and with women are clearly stated but never rendered graphically. What is rendered graphically is love, that complex emotional state which varies each time it is experienced and which can be such different things for different people.


The honesty and completeness of Alexander's love, as depicted, make him an easy character for both women and men to fall in love with. But, as necessary concommitant to his passionate devotion, he is not a youth whom one may betray in any wise without dire conseqences. He will defend those he loves with absolute committment; but woe to one to whom he has given his love if that love is betrayed.


Some will complain that Renault's Alexander is just too good to be true. But history does show us a man who conquered the world pretty much on the basis of the devotion shown him by his followers.


If Alexander's love for those around him is purer and more wonderful than the love most of us experience in life, just so is his piety and love for the Gods more straightforward and honest than that which we normally experience. His relationship with the Divine is of a substance with that of the saints or the prophets of other religions. If Jesus had not been a pacifist, might he have been like Alexander? If Mohammad had been a nicer, more attractive guy, might he have spread his faith even further? Of course, Jesus was past thirty when he started his ministry. I am not sure how old Mohammad was. But Alexander was just a kid, and he was dead before those guys even got started!


It's a wonderful read, altogether. Whether your are interested in Ancient History, Hellenic Polytheism, or just want a hell of a good book to curl up with, this is it. I could not recommend an author more highly than I recommend everything I have thus far read by Mary Renault. If you have not read her, then this is a really good starting place. Perhaps not quite as devastatingly perfect as The Last of the Wine, but certainly 90 points above anything else anybody has been writing for the last fifty years.

-Jon DeCles



Fire from Heaven.


Fire from Heaven

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Fire from Heaven

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The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault


As usual, Mary Renault does something completely unusual and at a tack nobody else would have taken. In Fire From Heaven she told us the story of Alexander's youth. Rather than picking up where she left off in that book to finish out the tale of his life, she here tells us the story of Bagoas, the slave eunach who was to become Alexander's lover.


That gives her the opportunity to show us Alexander from the outside, and more than than, from a completely different cultural perspective; and in so doing, illuminate even further the reasons for his followers' devotion, and at times enmity.


Bagoas is a well-born youth from a good family; but in the corrupt atmosphere of the Persian Empire (which makes Phillip's Macedon look like a kindergarten) it is not surprising that his father is promptly betrayed and murdered and the child carried off, castrated, and sold into slavery.


Not a happy beginning, but it does give the author the˙opportunity of showing us the Persia of Darius, a culture refined to a great degree but constipated by over-refinement and dominated by an effete king who would like to be noble but who just doesn't have it in him. Despite its heavy veneer of civilization, Persia is a land of unspeakable brutality and cruelty, caught in the trappings of its past and weighed down by ceremonial that ultimately means nothing with a coward at its pinnacle.


Bagoas is a Persian to the core, and his values are the values of Zorastrian Persia; which are good values in the main, but not carried through by the nation which holds them without bothering to honor them. When, a good way into the book, he finally encounters Alexander, it is like a dash of cold water in the face of a musty old whore. The makeup doesn't run completely, but the youth is faced with ideas that challenge not only his whole life's experience, but the value of the empire of which he is a kind of cultural heir.


Alexander has, by this time, pretty much conquered Persia; but he honors Persia for its glory, and instead of crushing it he seeks to enfold it, taking to himself its leadership and giving courtesy where Persian kings would have given torture and death. He has treated the mother of Darius with honor, and the result is that the Queen mother has renounced the coward Darius and taken Alexander as her son.


Bagoas is obsessed with a monogamous paradigme (which is odd in a land with royal harems) and he has a really hard time understanding that Alexander really loves him, despite the fact that Alexander loves Hephaestion as well. When Alexander conquers the area which is today Afganistan, and takes a wife, the poor boy has a really hard time of it; especially when the wife, Roxanne, tries to poison him. (Reading the papers, and talking to merchants who've dealt with them, the Afganies don't seem to have changed a lot since Alexander's time; they will really have to work on their image). Bagoas thus offers us the perfect foil for seeing Alexander's faults and excellences from a perspective that is intelligible to us in contemporary terms.


He also gives us a position from which to view Alexander's piety, Hellenic piety, from the outside: and Alexander's increasing mystical and mythical identity with the Gods. But, as is proper, we are not made privilege through speculation to Alexander's communications with those Gods through the oracles.


The book only covers the last seven years of Alexander's very short life, but the expanded canvas of Alexander's campaigns shows us a world of great diversity, a world which betrays the feeble and constricted image so often given school children when they study this period. This when a time when Greece had developed democracy, when Persia was old but heir to older high civilizations, and when India, so very old, was flourishing at a very high level indeed. It was not an insular world of cultural pockets, but one of interaction, of travel, and of trade. Though Alexander built cities everywhere he went, he understood the centrality of Babylon, and was busy revitalizing 'the old whore' when he died.


The harshness of some of Alexander's acts is here made explicable. Further, his devotion to those who were loyal to him, and his implacable severity toward those who betrayed his trust, also becomes understandable.


Bagoas is not so totally admirable as Alexander: I guess in the long run, nobody could be. But he is a wonderful character, and there is a curious sense of his respect for the reader as well as the real people around him. Characters like Ptolemy and Hephaestion emerge in ways that provide us with understanding of their significance, and Bagoas, too, learns to respect these strange Macedonian invaders in all their difference.


Hey, its a great book, what can I say? There is even an explanation for the peculiar ends of some of the characters; and the picture of Babylon under Alexander is amazing, just for itself.


Again, a highest recommendation. Mary Renault rules!

--Jon DeCles



The Persian Boy


The Persian Boy

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Persian Boy

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On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers


I met Tim Powers before I had read anything by him, and I liked him right off. He is a very cool guy, and he actually thinks.

Thus, when he takes off into the realm of imagination, he does so with a sense of intelligence as well as well as a sense of wonder; both qualities woefully lacking in the majority of the recent overflowing of fantasy fiction.


This book is about pirates. The simple, and straightforward, premise is that the New World has not yet become immune to Magic, and that the Vaudau practiced in the Caribbean is available to anybody who wants to use it. So, yes, you have Pirates practicing Vaudau against uptight Europeans who haven't got a clue.


Enter our hero, a former puppeteer out to avenge his father's death through the strictly legal means of calling his uncle on the carpet in Haiti for the larcenous theft of the father's portion of an inheritance. (Okay, so 'larcenous theft' is redundant. --But it does sound Seventeenth Century, doesn't it?)


But of course it doesn't work out as planned. There is an aging mad scientist, his beautiful daughter, a wicked magician, Blackbeard the Vaudau Master Pirate, and a trip into another dimension at the Fountain of Youth. There's a ressurection spell that calls to mind the filmic Mummy, and of course lots of sea battles and marrionette shows.


And cooking!


In the hands of a less talented (or competant) writer, this hodgepodge of materials could have been a silly mess with some humorous value but not much else. Powers is rigorous in his plotting, elegant in his myth making, and has the ability to stretch his slapstick to the edge of breaking in the middle of the action: a thing which those of you who have read mine own work know that I admire greatly.


I would have preffered a little more attention to language. At times the consistent use of the modern vernacular becomes intrusive. I am not suggesting that he should have made use of Forsoothly, but when he does spice the text with nautical and pirate slang he does it very well indeed, and I could have used a little more of that and a little less of what made me conscious that I was reading a book rather than having an adventure: which is what I always hope for in a book like this, and what Powers delivers 90% of the time.


This is a fantastic adventure with occassional comic elements and it is a great read. Powers is not prolific, and the attention he pays to each work really pays off for the reader, so if you like anything he has done, you should not miss anything else that he has done. As he chooses settings and backgrounds of great diversity, and plots of considerable originality, you won't get bored by the same old same old that so many writers produce.


Huge fun, do read it!

--Jon DeCles


On Stranger Tides

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The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities, by Stanley Coren


Considering that I have lived my life for the past couple of decades in the company of that Vastly Superior Creature, the Dog; and that this book was a gift from a dear friend who also loves dogs; one would think that I could have got around to reading it sooner. I didn't, life kept interfering, and I regret it.


This is an awfully interesting book, full of information and not the least bit dry. The author, a professor of psychology (I don't fault him that, there are some sincere psychologists out there), has used his expertise to analyse a topic which has had peculiarly little attention considering the omnipresence of canids in human culture; and he has done a pretty good job of it.


He explains his criteria, goes into the difficulty of getting an adequate sample for study, how he overcame the challenges, and then presents his conclusions. If his analysis is a little skewed in favor of pure bred dogs, well, that's what kind of data are available. He compensates somewhat by noting later in the book what can readily be assessed in terms of mixed breeds despite lack of study.


I was really impressed by his story about the Russian scientists who bred silver foxes to be more lovable, and who, in only ten genrations, got a fox that was pretty much like a dog in temperament; only to find that temperament was genetically linked to coat color, and that the new, more tractable foxes were no longer colored for the Silver Fox fur market.


Well, in general, real people wear fake fur. Seems to me that pet foxes would be a far more marketable product that dead fox coats, though perhaps less profitable per unit of greed. I always wanted a pet fox, but the poor little things are so skittish and shy that it doesn't usually work out for them to be pets. I wonder if the Russians have found their new market yet? --I'm not likely to be a target market, by the by, as these days I do the best I can to rescue abandoned dogs from the clutches of the Humane Society: which in many places still equates 'humane treatment' with killing the dogs and cats.


I understand they've been volunteering their help with the adoption problem in Homo Sapiens as well.


(But that has been changing in a positive manner in many places.)


Meanwhile, back at the book, after examining the history of canid-human interaction, and noting that our practice of agriculture may stem from observation of, and teaching by, the wolves in terms of herding, Dr. Coren goes on to give us quick course in canid language and body language, as best we humans can understand it.


How I wish I had read this thirteen years ago, when my dogs were still pups!


I have lived with these marvelous people their whole lives, but never understood their language. They have worked hard to understand mine, but they cannot speak it, try as they might. How much communication we might have had, how much easier things might have been! It is such a simple, rudimentary language; how could I have not managed to pick up more than I did?


There is a table giving the comparative intelligence of the various breeds of dogs, and boy, was that a surprize!


Long ago we had a Brittany Spaniel. He wandered in as a puppy and we raised him. He was wonderful and lovable, but we didn't place much stock in his brightness. Part of it was that Brittanies are sight hounds, despite being bird dogs and Spaniels. They don't sniff their way home very well, and he was always getting lost.


We went to the Dog Show, where there were some sixty Britanny breeding kennels listed, in hopes of learning more.


Only two of them had managed to get their paperwork in on time, and thus there were only two kennels showing.


We never, ever met a Brittany who was not lovable in every aspect; and the people with them were always nice folks. But we came to the conclusion that the owners picked up the scattered ways of their dogs; and how wrong we were!


Turns out, based on the data on obedience trials, that Brittanies are in the top twenty in terms of intelligence. Smart as you could ask when you bother to ask.


It is the dogs who pick up the scattered ways of their owners, not the other way around. It is only Divine Providence that allows these bumbling people to hook up with intelligent dogs who will tolerate them.


I hasten to add that these low opinions of the so-called Human Race are mine own, not those of Dr. Coren: though as a psychologist I would suspect that he ought to share them.


There are tests in the book for assessing the intelligence of the dog with whom you already share your life, or of dogs with whom you might want to share your life. Perhaps more important, there is some very sage advice about how smart a dog you might want to have in your family; the whys and wherefores, in detail, of the virtues of smart versus not-so-smart canids. Most people think of intelligence as a plus quality, but it is not always so. What a dog provides far better than any human is love, and that is a matter of heart, not head.


Perspicacious people seeking partners have learned that about marriage, and they ought to learn it about pets as well.

--Jon DeCles


The Intelligence of Dogs: A Guide to the...

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