LLR Books

Introducing the Ancient Greeks by Edith Hall, review: 'splendid and timely'

Tom Payne welcomes an engaging celebration of the Greek civilisation that manages to be both an introduction and a reassessment

By Tom Payne
Imagine if you were writing a history of Europe over, say, the past 600 years. There would be a chapter on Spanish domination, then French, then British, with a long, reflective look at the land that eventually became Germany. But then imagine you wanted to demonstrate that all these nations somehow represented a European character. Would we seem adventure-loving? Canny? Phlegmatic? Efficient? The question seems impossible to answer.
Edith Hall has set herself a question that’s a little easier, but only just. Can we identify characteristics that are quintessentially Greek, and somehow consistent from the time Mycenaean civilisation emerged on the mainland (in the mid-16th century BC) to the point of no return for the Christianity that had ousted the Greek gods by the end of the fourth century AD? Yes, argues Hall, and she goes further, by offering 10 traits: these Greeks were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic, inquiring, open-minded, witty, competitive, they prized excellence, they were articulate, and loved pleasure.
Then she gives groups of Greeks a moment on the stage, in chronological order, and each takes it in turn to demonstrate one of these qualities. So the Mycenaeans are the pioneering voyagers; the Ionians are the inquirers, because quirks of their geography, such as rivers whose silt kept changing the coastline of Asia Minor, gave them plenty of phenomena to explain; the Spartans represent the wit; Alexander the Great’s Macedonians, with their internecine courts and endless power struggles, reveal the Greeks’ competitive nature; and so on. The Athenians are special, it turns out – they demonstrate pretty much everything it means to be Greek.
She makes this new history of ancient Greece seem like a kind of concerto for orchestra, with different instruments picking up the big themes and handing them on to others. But Hall’s writing is too naturally engaging for the book to be stuck for long with essay-like treatments of sometimes arbitrary ideas. Yes, there are moments when she needs to make digressions – for example, Aristotle has to appear among the Macedonians, even though his writings can make him seem temperamentally Athenian – but the reader quickly comes to appreciate the sweep and scholarship of Hall’s project.
One thing Hall does splendidly is introduce less appreciated Greeks, and here, the search for the right souls to embody the characteristics can lead to rewarding shifts in emphasis. So she gives curmudgeonly Hesiod equal space alongside Homer; she throws a spotlight on the shrewd sceptic Xenophanes, about whom we read as much here as we do about Plato; there are 360-degree appraisals of Pythagoras, and the geniuses who were Eratosthenes (who was only 50 miles out when he calculated the circumference of the Earth) and Galen. These portraits are all the richer for the context Hall provides – it deepens like an Ionian coastal shelf throughout the book.
So Introducing the Ancient Greeks pulls off the trick of being at once a genuine introduction, of the sort students will avidly welcome, while also providing timely reassessments of the Greeks for readers who thought they knew the ancients. From the start she wants to praise Greek achievement without making them seem like the only civilised people in the Mediterranean world – and as the author of Inventing the Barbarian (1989) she is quick to credit, for example, the Babylonians with discovering Pythagoras’s theorem long before Pythagoras did.
One consequence is that the book is less beholden than others to the notion that we owe our own civilisation almost exclusively to the ancient Greeks. Indeed, her book closes with lines that end up in the mouth of the Delphic oracle, as if the gods are writing themselves out of existence: “Apollo has no chamber any more, and no prophetic bay-leaves, / No speaking spring. The water that had so much to say has dried up completely.”
It’s an unusual end to a book celebrating the ancient Greeks – it makes them seem like a wonderful episode from the past rather than pioneers who bequeathed us so much. But throughout, Hall exemplifies her subjects’ spirit of inquiry, their originality and their open-mindedness – she even finds good things to say about those artless murderous bastards, the Spartans. And in doing that, when the place of classics in our education system seems ever shakier, she reminds us of how civilising and humanising a study of the ancients can be.

306pp, Bodley Head, Telegraph offer price: £16.99 (PLUS £1.99 p&p) 0844 871 1515 (RRP £20, ebook £11.99). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk 

Review: It's All Greek to Me by Charlotte Higgins and Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day

by Philip Matyszak

Tom Payne finds himself immersed in the daily lives of the ancient Greeks
If you go into a university classics department, you should find that it's a world of its own. Not necessarily in the sense of Aristophanes' birds, who dreamed of setting up their own country in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, although that might well seem true enough.
No: you should find that you're surrounded by people who study everything - everything, that is, in an ancient way, because the ancients themselves studied everything. To take two examples from Charlotte Higgins's love-letter to ancient Greece: Aristotle came up with a theory about how a kind of dogfish reproduces, and nobody believed him until 1842, when a German ichthyologist called Johannes Müller discovered that the Stagyrite was right; and when Herodotus wrote about giant termites that mined gold, he was possibly not completely wrong. Last year, a New Scientist article showed that termites which burrow 30 yards underground do leave traces of minerals in their mounds. Still, the father of history might have been wrong in saying that they're bigger than foxes.
Because the ancients studied everything - maths, politics, history, philosophy, art, state-craft, philology, poetics, the cosmos - even the shortest of introductions to them should show that their world is limitless.
We can't reproduce that world, even in a volume so grand as the Oxford Classical Dictionary. (My favourite entry comes in the second edition. Look up "egg". It says "EGG (in ritual). Eggs play no great part in ancient ritual…".) But these two short books do an excellent job of staring at the ancient Greeks with wild surmise, and showing that their concerns were just as wide as ours, but in a totally different climate.
Philip Matyszak's companionable little guide to Athens narrows the parameters by taking us back to 431?BC, two years before the death of Pericles. The war against Persia is long won, the wars against Sparta are about to begin. Sometimes, the author finds this focus too great a constraint: he needs to flash forwards to tell us about Socrates's execution, or that the Parthenon will not always be as brightly painted as it is to the ancient tourist; and the colourful Alcibiades only makes a couple of name-checks.
But if you're happy to live with this prolepsis, you'll have an invaluable encounter with the Athenians. I can't wait for it to come out in paperback, not just because it will be easier to issue to teachers. (Don't be put off if I say it's ideal for school use - it treats grown-up areas in an approachable way, and in some ways is more illuminating than the available textbooks.) A paperback will also enhance its guidebook feel: it's portable, with glossy illustrations and maps. And, like a guidebook, it leaves you with a sense of what the Athenians might have been like. With their sense of cultural superiority, social structures, lovely buildings and politics that are radical until it comes to women, they come across here as quite like Parisians.
Charlotte Higgins, too, manages to make them seem sensibly different from us, and the attitudes towards women and slaves are high on her list of distinctive attributes. Matyszak is wryly detached, until he takes us to the Parthenon at dawn, whereas Higgins is openly besotted with the whole of Greek achievement. She's an acute reader of Homer, whose poetry provides the theme to all her chapters. These read like inspiring essays written to the broadest of briefs.
Where Matyszak can be sketchy in his accounts of Socrates's thought or the subject matter of Greek tragedies, Higgins delivers digestible précis and peppy plot summaries. She even makes the causes of the Peloponnesian War seem comprehensible. It's easy to sympathise with her hobby-horses - she's especially fond of Homer and Herodotus, and commendably fair about Plato - although she does return to certain scenes or episodes too reliably. Even so, she has some appendices that would make fine stocking-fillers in their own right, such as a who's who, a selective list of key quotations (helpful for the slacker undergraduate) and the stories behind some expressions from ancient Greece that are still in our currency.
It's telling that we still use adjectives such as "laconic" or "epicurean" with just a ghost of their original senses; it suggests we feel more at home than we should in a foreign place. If you finish these books and wish they were longer, as though you'd spent a long weekend when you could have done with a month, then keep exploring. (Charlotte Higgins's bibliography is up-to-the-minute and leads towards debates that are both relevant and scholarly.)

It's a world that's as big as ours, and sometimes familiar, but tourists must remember to mind the gap.

Alice Oswald: how to read Homer

The prize-winning poet Alice Oswald celebrates the bewitching strangeness of Homer

By Alice Oswald
There is a stag on Circe’s island, only visible for about 30 lines of Homer’s Odyssey, but it is very disconcerting. The stag comes down from the woods to drink. It is huge with high antlers. Odysseus shoots it, the stag screams, then Odysseus and his men eat it. Perhaps the eeriness of this short passage comes from the stag’s size – four times in 30 lines we’re told how huge it is. Or perhaps from its context – this is after all the island of a woman who turns humans into animals. But the fact is, once you’ve read it, something desolate and other-worldly gets stuck in your mind, as if you’d seen an animal’s eyes in the headlights.
People read the Odyssey for all sorts of reasons and it is infinite enough to supply everyone’s needs, but what draws me back is this bright strangeness, this sense of being looked at by otherness. I can’t help following trails in the language, trying to work out how it’s done, even though the poem, like the stag, is a fugitive thing. My most recent trail sets out not from Circe but from Alcinous. It is Book 11. Odysseus has swum up the river and is telling his story to the Phaeacians: “When he’d spoken, everyone fell silent, stunned in that smoky room as if under a spell… then Alcinous said to him: you’ve told your story like a trained poet. There’s a certain morphe about your language.”
This word morphe means something like “shapeliness” or “form”. (The translation above is mine.) Plato distinguished it from eidos (idea); Aristotle distinguished it from hule (matter); Ovid invoked its power as Morpheus, god of dreams; Heidegger, several centuries later, said: “What is intended is not spatial figure but the whole characteristic form impressed on a being from which we read off what it is.” It’s all very well reciting definitions, but I’d like to know what Homer, who had no dictionary, meant by the word. He only used it twice, both times in connection with Odysseus’ way of speaking: “One man might be plain-looking and yet god puts morphe on his words so that everyone stares at him delighted.” What exactly is he saying? What is the morphe of Odysseus’ language? Something gifted, crafted, inspired, bewitching, shapely – what is it that can throw a smoky room into silence?
There’s an oblique answer in the Iliad. Helen, on the walls of Troy, is talking to the old men, pointing out different Greek soldiers. When she identifies Odysseus, Antenor remembers meeting him before: “When Odysseus got to his feet, he just stood there with his eyes fixed to the ground, making no movement with his staff either backwards or forwards, but gripping it like an idiot. You’d think he was completely witless… but when he let the voice out of his chest and spoke words like a storm of snowflakes, then no one on earth could compete with him.”
“He spoke words like a storm of snowflakes” – to understand this phrase, you need to read it alongside the other snowy similes in the Iliad: “As when Zeus snows and shows his arrows to the earth, pouring them down and putting the winds to sleep, until the tops of the hills are hidden and the jutting headlands, the grassy plains, all the careful work of labourers…” and so on. The landscape is bewitched and stilled, just like Odysseus’ listeners.
I treat these similes as reading-guides to the Odyssey. The Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the conversations with the Dead, the lotus eaters, the Bag of Winds, the stag on Circe’s island – all those stories should affect us like snowfall, sweeping in and changing everything and then vanishing. Of course the irony is that Odysseus speaks in the same metre and style as Homer. In that speech by Alcinous, the poem seems, by praising Odysseus, both to praise itself and to offer us an image of what it is.
It is after all an oral poem, composed in performance, like snow, perfectly formed and ready to vanish. It is not a spatial text, but something temporal and sounded, which can only proceed as it were by melting. That was the crucial insight of Milman Parry, the scholar whose research in the Thirties transformed Homeric scholarship. The aim of the study, as his collague Albert Lord later described it, “was to fix with exactness the form of oral story poetry and to see whether it differs from the form of written story poetry.” Parry noticed that, without access to writing, singers had a different attitude to the stability of a song. They would learn its themes and then reproduce it creatively with the help of formulas, which he defined as: “a group of words which is regularly used under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea”.
Parry’s singers couldn’t always identify what was meant by a line of verse, but they could reproduce its tune spontaneously. This learnt skill must be a bit like skimming a stone: impossible to tell someone else how to communicate repetition to a stone, but anyone who has watched and practised will simply reproduce the formula without thinking. I can’t help wondering whether Alcinous, without knowing how to define them, was referring specifically to these oral verse patterns: “Odysseus, there’s a certain formula upon your language, you’ve told your story as if you were a trained poet.”
“Cloud-gathering Zeus”, “red-cheeked ships”, “all-giving earth” – these are some of the formulas used by Odysseus. Under Parry’s analysis, he would be varying these adjectives according to their case and place in the line, working from a repertoire of remembered metrical phrases, rather than from individual words. Sometimes, making his task even easier, he would be quoting whole lines. So for example, when he describes Dawn rising on the island of Aiaia, his line is one that occurs over and over again in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
It’s a brilliant insight, and does explain something of the strangeness of the Homeric poems. There is no doubt, as the American philosopher Walter Ong and others have maintained, that the passage from an oral to a literate culture represents a fundamental shift of consciousness and we should bear that in mind when reading the Odyssey. I just wish Parry hadn’t used a term so infused with chemical and algebraic and disparaging or powdered milk connotations, so that, in spite of his provisos, the word “formula” has become a kind of prescription for dullness. It’s as if you should open the curtains on one of these green May dawns and say, “Ah yes! That rising sinking formula!”
I often think about an old man who used to live next door to us. Every morning he’d be standing at his window watching the sunrise. He had no fridge, so the windowsill was always piled with food and his face would float over it watching and he never looked bored. In fact, he looked so anxious and enraptured as the dawn rose that I began to identify him with Tithonus. The story goes that Dawn fell in love with Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal but forgot to ask that he should keep his youth. So Tithonus grew older and older, while the Dawn went on being the same age and at last she locked him in a room, where he sat babbling to himself, waiting presumably, day after day, for the Dawn.
“As soon as Dawn appeared… pale hands… pink hands… petals… someone groping around… always the first awake… always re-beginning…” Homer’s line, which has so much melody in the Greek it can’t really be translated, offers the same dynamic as the Tithonus myth. Dawn goes on being erigeneia or early born; Odysseus, who has to endure 7,305 dawns between setting out from Ithaca and returning, is older at the end by 20 years. That pink-fingered or red-handed goddess, who has a reputation for carrying off young men (at least three of her victims are mentioned in the Odyssey), has carried off his youth.
The word “formula”, despite its usefulness, encourages a tired approach to the line, the assumption being that these ancient iterative forms are more limited than literature. I don’t think you can detect the scale of the Odyssey, its mighty open-endedness and the mystery of its creatures, until you’ve developed a sense of its different attitude to Time, as expressed in particular through this Dawn formula. You have to read its cyclical stuckness, its sideways movement, its minimalist music not just as a compositional aid but as something more like the neurotic patterning of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in which Dawn (a crimson human torso with spreading hands) is a point of contact between two worlds – a prayer.
Nothing in literature offers such an exact expression of the choric presence of the natural world. What we need is a more lively word to describe it, a more fleeting and self-replicating word than “formula”. I don’t know what that might be – something with the energy of a skimmed stone perhaps, or a storm of snowflakes, as in these lines from the Iliad:
“Like when the wind shaking the shadowy clouds pours thick snow on the bountiful earth…”.
“Like the smack of the north wind coming straight from heaven, when out of clouds the snow or hail flies cold…”.
Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a version of Homer’s Iliad, is published by Faber.
Join Alice Oswald for a Telegraph How To: Academy course on how to read Homer’s Odyssey on May 31 at the Telegraph offices in Victoria. To book, visit howtoacademy.com

Greece’s Top Mythological Sites

by Ioanna Zikakou -

By Cliff Blaylock

The heart of the Mediterranean, Greece is blessed with many beautiful islands scattered about its coastlines. They often have glorious sandy beaches, fine cuisine and five-star resorts, but there is something about the Greek islands that sets them apart from many other holiday destinations across the globe; their mythology.
Many ancient societies had different beliefs and myths, but none are more prominent in modern-day life than that of the Greeks. Their creatures have become legends, their tales inspiration for great fiction and their gods immortalized through the continued retelling of their conquests and trials.

Matched only by the Acropolis of Athens, the ruins on the island of Delos are an unmissable location for anybody interested in ancient Greek culture. One of the best preserved examples of an ancient Greek civilization, the island is completely unblemished by modern architecture and as such, allows its visitors to delve deep into history. However, it is not just a site of great historical importance, but a mythological one too. It was on this island that both gods Artemis and Apollo are said to have been born. As a result, the island became a sacred place. Sanctuaries and temples sprung up across its hillsides as people from across Greece came to the island’s shores to worship the deities.

The Labyrinth
One of the most famous and exciting stories of Greek mythology is the tale of Minos, Theseus and the Minotaur. Minos was a powerful king, ruler of Crete and the son of Zeus, but after he betrayed Poseidon, he was cursed to raise a son with the body of a man and the head of a bull. Using this curse to his advantage, however, Minos built the fabled Labyrinth and trapped the Minotaur within it. He would then send victims to their deaths until Theseus, prince of Athens, ventured into the Labyrinth and slayed the beast.
While there are no Minotaur bones for you to see, there are two possible Labyrinths to explore. First is the likely home of King Minos, and therefore the most plausible home for the labyrinth, Kommos. Located along the southern coast of the island, Kommos is a great place to visit, with spectacular ancient ruins and beautiful ocean views. However, if you venture deep enough into the ruins of this ancient city, you will find many maze-like corridors and walkways that may have been the Minotaur’s home; or at least the inspiration for its tale. However, just down the road you will also find Gortyn, a site of great archaeological importance to Crete and another suspected home of the Labyrinth. Further away from Minos’ home, these ruins bear a much similar resemblance to the maze of mythology. Perhaps then, it is best to visit both and decide for yourself.

Ithaca, a well-known Greek holiday destination, is a place with a very interesting mythological past. Most notably, it was home to the legendary trickster Odysseus, the island’s greatest king and the brains behind the trojan horse. Odysseus was also the protagonist of Homer’s “Odyssey.” His decade-long struggle to return home after the war is the source of many of the most enduring Greek myths.

Cave of Zeus
Hidden away on the island of Crete is an extraordinary piece of Greek mythological history. Within a cave beneath Mount Ida, it is said that the King of Gods, Zeus, was born and raised. The Cave of Zeus is a beautiful location, with one entrance leading into a network of caves filled with stunning rock formations and underground pools. It does indeed seem a fitting place for the beginnings of the greatest god Greek mythology has ever known. However, it was not by choice he was raised here but by necessity. His father, the titan Cronus, was set on devouring all of his progeny to ensure that they could never contest his power. However, unbeknownst to Cronus, Zeus’ mother, Rhea, hid him within the cave so one day he could return to overthrow his tyrannical father; which, according to legend, he did.

Mount Olympus
Along the eastern coast of the Greek mainland, you will find one of the most well-known natural landmarks in the world; Mount Olympus. This legendary and iconic mountain is an awe-inspiring sight, however, there is more to it than meets the eye. In Greek mythology, Olympus was created after the gods defeated the titans in the battle of Titanomachy; otherwise known as the War of the Titans. Atop its peak they then built the Pantheon, where Zeus sat upon his throne as King of Gods and the rest of the deities would convene to discuss matters of the world below and survey the world of men.
Seeing all these incredible mythological sites can be tricky, unless you charter a course aboard Deep Blue Yachting’s luxury sailing boat, the Glaros. It is a private vessel, you can set your own course and visit every site on this list, all in one trip.

Good words to have

Nu: Interjection: Well; so.
Noun: The 13th letter of the Greek alphabet.
For interjection: From Yiddish nu, of imitative origin. Earliest documented use: 1892.
For noun: From Greek nu. Earliest documented use: 1425.
 “And nu, what happier ending is there than that?”

Nathaniel Rich; Save Us; The New York Times Book Review; Sep 30, 2012. 

Homosexuality in ancient Greece- myths and facts.

By Gelanna Stathopoulou in LGBT

 Homosexuality has been a subject of discussion and of challenge for centuries now. Only lately, society has started changing its views towards this matter yet there are still millions of people who believe that this is something unnatural and that it should be treated as a ‘disease’.
When I am asking people what they believe about homosexuality back in ancient Greece, the answer was always this: ‘there were definitely homosexuals, I have read it in books as well’ and it made me wonder. So I did my own research and came to some conclusions, there are some myths some facts and some questions upon this matter.
There is no doubt that homosexuality existed even in ancient Greece. However, anything that has been written upon it, supporting that homosexuality was publicly accepted because there were indications that the teachers had intimate relationships with their students - something that ancient Greek texts present in a particular way - is unfortunately misled.
The laws of ancient Greece were extremely strict and there were very harsh punishments to whoever disobeyed them. Truth is that nor the philosophers or the laws encouraged homosexual activities, they condemned them and considered homosexuals to be criminals.
Plato writes in his Laws: ‘the crime of male with male, or female with female, is an outrage on nature and a capital surrender to lust of pleasure’. He continues by saying ‘I said I knew of a device for establishing this law of restricting procreative intercourse to its natural function by abstention from congress with our own sex, with its deliberate murder of the race and its wasting of the seed of life on a stony and rocky soil, where it will never take root and bear its natural fruit, and equal abstention from any female field whence you would desire no harvest’ clearly not supporting the idea of homosexuality.
Solon on the other hand, a law creator, mentioned in his laws that whoever is suspected of homosexuality, will be stripped off all his rights as a citizen – something that was the worst punishment for a citizen of Greece, to be unable to be part of the community. On top of that, whoever confessed of being homosexual could even be sentenced to death. What makes things complicated upon this matter is the work of philosophers that whenever translated from ancient geek to Modern Greek and any other language, the actual meaning is getting lost in translation.
Moving on to the mostly discussed topic, the relationship between the student and the teacher, which is actually misunderstood. It is true that they had a different, closer connection but it was never sexual. The word ‘lover’ or ‘erastis’ in Greek had a completely different meaning than the one it has today. Teachers wanted to pass their knowledge to students and provide them with all the important information and the proper education in order to become a citizen. In their effort to do so, they were coming closer to their students, not to seduce them but to make them fall in love with the Truth, with knowledge and wisdom.
However, there are not many references to the women of that time, mainly because they had no rights, they were not allowed to have any other sexual activity outside their home and they were not really considered as part of the society. There were rumours about intimate relationships between females and people referred to them as ‘lesbians’ which is the ancient Greek word for ‘lesviazein’ which means ‘to perform oral intercourse’ something that could be applied to both sexes.
A fact that should be questioned is the following: what were women doing while men were at war year after year and they were left behind to raise their children? Could have they have been indulged into homosexual activities?
There are many theories and misunderstandings regarding homosexuality in ancient Greece and no one can be completely sure of the facts or the myths. However, the laws were strict enough to indicate that such a behaviour would definitely be punished. This at the same time does not mean that homosexuality did not exist, just because it was not obvious does not mean it was not happening.

Before anyone jumps into conclusions from what they read about ancient Greeks, it is important to understand the foundations of ancient Greece’s laws and shape of society. Greece had a very complicated system of justice that sometimes it became unjust considering the limited amount of personal freedom. Now that societies have evolved, people should be guilt free, to choose with whom they want to live their life.

Ancient Greeks and Their Weather Knowledge

by Ioanna Zikakou -

Ancient Greeks, as well as other civilizations of that time, often attributed weather changes and natural phenomena to the gods. For example, lightning was a way for Zeus to show his anger, just as Thor in ancient Nordic mythology.
Ancient Greek mythology is an example of how early civilizations tried to explain the unexplainable at the time forces of nature, weather and astronomy. Many ancient Greek gods and goddesses were elements of weather and seasons personified.
Ancient Greeks also believed in Poseidon, god of sea and earthquakes, Helios, god of sun, Selene, goddess of moon, Hephaestus, god of volcanoes, Chione, goddess of snow, Zeus, king of all gods and god of sky, thunder, lightning and rain. All occurrences of favorable or poor weather were thought to be a direct result of godly intervention.
However, thanks to their continuous observation of nature, ancient Greeks had a great understanding of weather and climate in general. It may not have been as advanced as modern science but their basic knowledge helped them to better understand weather changes and find ways to benefit from them.
The word “climate” stems from the Greek word “klima” meaning inclination and referring to the climate conditions created by the Sun’s angle. Moreover, ancient Greeks invented the term “meteorology,” the study of atmospheric disturbances. Aristotle is considered the founder of meteorology. He tried to explain the weather through the interaction of the four elements: earth, fire, air, and water. Aristotle’s student Theophrastus produced the first book on weather signs, listing observations used to forecast weather, many of which are still used to this day.
In ancient Greece people used their knowledge to their advantage, focusing on the air’s movement, commonly known as wind, as well as the significance of the Sun and Moon positions in the sky in order to forecast phenomena such as tides and improve everyday tasks involving agriculture or sailing.

Philoxenos and his wife Philoumene

Marble gravestone of Philoxenos and his wife Philoumene, Greece, circa 400 B.C.: “Philoxenos, a warrior with armor and shield, solemnly shakes hands with his wife Philomene on this stele, or gravestone, from Athens. Their names are carved above the figures’ heads, and the figures were originally elaborated with painted details. The handshake was a symbolic and popular gesture on Classical gravestones: it could represent a simple farewell, a reunion in the afterlife, or a continuing connection between the deceased and the living." (Getty Museum)

The 13 Greatest, Craziest and Most Badass Monsters In Greek Mythology

Rob Bricken

The heroes are the best-known part of Greek mythology, but what makes a hero? Having monsters to fight, that's what. Luckily for the heroes, the Greeks had the strangest, coolest, most terrifying monsters mythology had to offer — here is a baker's dozen of the best.

1) Cerberus
Most people know Cerberus as the three-headed dog who guards Hades — both keeping the living out and the dead in. While the idea of hell's guarddog by itself is pretty badass, most representations forget that Cerberus (like so many mythological Greek monsters) is a hodgepodge of other animal parts: He has the the claws of a lion, a mane made out of snakes, and a serpent's tail. Cerberus was the offspring of Typhon and the Chimera, which are both worthy entrants on this list. A few living people managed to sneak past Cerberus, with help from magic music or drugged food, but only Hercules straight-up defeated the beast.

2) Empousai
Empousai was an evil goddess, daughter of Hecate, who spent her evenings drinking the blood of young men while they slept. Over time, she was downgraded from a goddess to an entire species of monster who devoured travelers late at night. A transportation-based vampire is pretty freaky, but the Empousai also had one bronze leg and one goat leg for some reason, which makes them even freakier.

3) Gorgons
Perhaps the most well-known monsters of Greek mythology. These three sisters — Medusa, Stheno and Euryale — of course had hair made of living and extremely poisonous snakes, which seems a bit like overkill when just looking directly at their faces would also immediately petrify you. Often, the two non-Medusa sisters were also immortal; less occasionally, all three had giant fangs, like boar tusks. Of course, Medusa was defeated by the hero Perseus, but he needed help and equipment from Athena to do so. Otherwise there would have just been one more heroic-looking statue in the Gorgons' den.

4) Stymphalian Birds
Birds that attack people are generally considered scary on their own; Alfred Hitchcock proved that pretty effectively. But these birds, another monstrous species only Hercules could defeat, very specifically liked to eat people, which is terrifying; however, the real problem is that the birds' feathers were made of bronze, razor-sharp, and they could shoot them at people. These were not birds you shoo away, unless you also wanted your hand shredded into bloody flesh confetti. Again, Hercules had to deal with these guys as the sixth of his Twelve Labors, with help from a rattle made by the god Hephaestus, which scared them into taking off from the swamp they lived in, allowing Herc to shoot them down. Hey, they were deadly birds, but they were still birds.

5) Chimera
One of the most fascinating mix-n'-match monsters of Greek mythology, the Chimera had three heads, but only one of them was on its neck. The torso and main head was that of a lion. Then for some reason there was goat's head sticking out of its back. Then, for a tail, it had a snake — no, not a snake tail, just a snake, with its head as the tip. Also, it breathed fire, because why not. It was this strange ability that actually did it in; the hero Bellerophon threw spear with a tip of lead into its mouth; when the Chimera breathed its fire, the lead melted it inside, killing it. Just seeing the Chimera was an omen of some kind of horrible disaster, most often some sort of volcanic eruption.

6) Ichthyocentaurs
You know centaurs, obviously — the half-men, half-horse people who populate countless Greek myths. These guys were built like centaurs, except the back half of the horse part was actually the back half of a fish. They were like mermaids that had part of a horse grafted into the middle of them. They were actually pretty chill horse-fish-men, especially compared to their wild, hotheaded centaur brothers. They also pretty much had the powers of Aquaman, so that's cool.

7) Typhon
The big daddy of mythological Greek monsters — literally! It was literally the father of most of them. The last child of the primordial goddess Gaea, Typhon was as tall as the stars and his arm-span was from "east to west"; sources differ as to whether Typhon had a hundred dragon head on his neck or one giant human head (and dragon heads for fingers), but most agree that his body was covered in dragon wings and had hundreds of serpents for legs. Typhon could throw mountains at people he didn't like, and one person he didn't like was Zeus, the king of the gods. Typhon was so powerful he defeated Zeus and ripped out most of his muscles; Zeus only recovered because Hermes stole his muscles back later.

8) The Minotaur
Compared to some of the monsters on this list, the Minotaur is practically boring — it's a dude with a bull head. Not exactly hard to wrap your mind around. But there's a reason the Minotaur has always been one of Greek mythology's most famous monsters, and that's because it was an instant classic — a hideous monster, hidden away in a labyrinth, whose sole purpose was to kill the sacrificial children that got dumped in there as a yearly tribute. The fact that the Minotaur was born when his mother, Queen Pasiphae, wanted to have sex with a bull so badly she made a metal cow costume she could hide in that the bull would mount, well… that's just the salacious icing to monstrously classic cake.

9) The Furies
When the Titan Cronus castrated his dad Uranus and tossed his penis into the sea, like one does, the droplets of the blood that hit the ground became the Furies. Being born of severed genitalia blood, you could reasonably expect the Furies were not in particularly good moods; they spent their time finding people who had done wrong and tormenting them until they died horribly, primarily by whipping them repeatedly with their scourges. Admittedly, the Furies are more goddesses that outright monsters, but given that many stories depicted them as having dog's heads, snakes for hair, back wings and "coal black bodies", I was willing to make an exception.

10) The Hydra
Perhaps the most famous monster Hercules ever battled, and for good reason — defeating a dragon with nine heads would be memorable on anybody's list of achievements, but a dragon with nine heads who grew two heads every time one was cut off? Oh, and one of the head was immortal, but you didn't know which one? That's impressive. Besides all that, it's breath and blood were both insanely poisonous — even stepping in the tracks it left could kill you. That'sinsane. Hercules defeated the Hydra as only the second of his 12 Labors, cauterizing the neck stumps of the heads he cut off, before new heads could grow back. The immortal head? He just put a big ass rock on it.

11) The Sphinx
With the body of a lion and the head of a human being, the Sphinx is best known for asking riddles. We tend to forget that if you failed to answer the Sphinx's riddle, it would eat you alive. The Sphinx was more cruel than enigmatic, and in Greek mythology, it also had the wings of an eagle and a serpent for a tail, meaning it was yet another of Typhon and Echidna's horrible children. The Sphinx guarded the city of Thebesm which must have been a big problem for its tourism industry, until Oedipus finally answered its riddle and the Sphinx, in what was one of the greatest cases of sour grapes in history, either threw itself off a cliff or ate itself in bitterness at its defeat.

12) Manticore
The Manticore is very similar to its sibling monster the Sphinx; it has a human head, a lion's body, and wings — bat wings instead of eagle wings, but still. What it lacks in riddle-asking it makes up for in having a scorpion's tail that can shoot poisonous spikes at people, like it's a boss in an ancient Greek videogame of some kind. Most terrifyingly, the Manticore had three rows of teeth in its human-like mouth, which frankly disturbs me to even write. But kids or no, you probably wouldn't want to mess with Echinda; Hesiod described her as "half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin", who "dies not nor grows old all her days." Especially during family get-togethers.

13) Echidna
Compared to the other monsters on this list, Echidna sounds pretty normal — she was a snake woman. But since she chose Typhon has her lover, she had the distinction of giving birth to the most terrifying, horrible and dangerous monsters in the ancient Greek world, including Cerberus, the Hydra, the Nemelan Lion, Chimera, the Sphinx, several dragons, and even the eagle that Zeus set to eat Prometheus' liver every day in punishment for giving the gift of fire to humanity.


Ascetic: Practicing severe self-discipline or self-denial. From Greek askesis (exercise or training), from askein (to exercise or work). 

..and that's where that comes from

Stentorian   \sten-TOR-ee-un\ extremely loud
The Greek herald Stentor was known for having a voice that came through loud and clear. In fact, in the Iliad, Homer described Stentor as a man whose voice was as loud as that of fifty men together. Stentor's powerful voice made him a natural choice for delivering announcements and proclamations to the assembled Greek army during the Trojan War, and it also made his name a byword for any person with a loud, strong voice. Both the noun stentor and the related adjective stentorian pay homage to the big-voiced warrior, and both have been making noise in English since the early 17th century.

Bibliogony  (bib-lee-OG-uh-nee)  The art of producing or publishing books. Also known as bibliogenesis.  From Greek biblio- (book) + -gony (origin). Earliest documented use: 1835.


“Were there lovers in the lanes of Atlantis:
Meeting lips and twining fingers
In the mild Atlantis springtime?
How should I know
If there were lovers in the lanes of Atlantis
When the dark sea drowned her mountains
Many ages ago?
Were there poets in the paths of Atlantis:
Eager poets, seeking beauty
To adorn the women they worshipped?
How can I say
If there were poets in the paths of Atlantis?
For the waters that drowned her mountains
Washed their beauty away.
Were there women in the ways of Atlantis:
Foolish women, who loved, as I do,
Dreaming that mortal love was deathless?
Ask me not now
If there were women in the ways of Atlantis:
There was no woman in all her mountains
Wonderful as thou!”

—         Song at Santa Cruz - Francis Brett Young

The truth about sex in ancient Greece

James Robinson Senior Lecturer in Classics at The Open University

A new exhibition at the British Museum promises to lift the lid on what beauty meant for the ancient Greeks. But while we gaze at the serene marble statues on display – straining male torsos and soft female flesh – are we seeing what the ancients saw?
The question I’m asking here isn’t a philosophical one, but rather it’s to do with our expectations and assumptions about beauty, sex appeal and sex itself. The feelings that beautiful faces and bodies rouse in us no doubt seem both personal and instinctive – just as they presumably did for the ancient Greeks who first made and enjoyed these artworks. But our reactions are inevitably shaped by the society we live in.
Greek attitudes towards sex were different from our own, but are all those myths about the sex lives of the ancient Greeks true? And how does this affect how we view the art?
Here are the facts behind four commonly held beliefs.
Greek men were all bisexual
It was certainly the norm in ancient Greece for a man to find both sexes attractive. But the private lives of men in classical Athens – the city we know most about – were very different from anything that a “bisexual” man might experience today.
Relationships between men of the same age were not at all common: rather, the standard same-sex relationship would involve an adolescent boy and an older man. Men also used female prostitutes regularly: sex could be brought cheaply in a city that was home to countless brothels, streetwalkers and female “entertainers”. As for marital relations, men seldom married before the age of 30, and apart from the wedding night, it was common for married couples to sleep apart.
These different sexual relationships are captured in classical vase painting in strikingly different ways. For same-sex relationships, the focus is typically on the courtship; for prostitution, it’s on the sexual act; for marriage, it’s on the moment when the groom leads his new wife home.
Greek women had arranged marriages
This is largely true. A girl’s father traditionally saw it as his duty to find a suitable husband for his daughter and, importantly, would generally have played a role in finding a wife for his son as well. In Athens, a girl generally got married at about 16 – typically to a man twice her age, often a paternal uncle or an associate of her father’s.
Click to enlarge
These arrangements might be expected to lead to unhappy marriages, but we do find examples of loving couples. In terms of art, what I find particularly touching are the tender portraits of wives on tombstones, where women are characteristically displayed as faithful, loving mothers.
Interestingly, the bride becomes a figure of intense erotic interest in 5th-century BC Athens. Vase paintings often depict young women putting on clothes and jewellery ahead of their weddings or being led by the hand by their groom, with a winged Eros floating nearby.
The Greeks liked their boys young
Just as young brides were sexy, it was as adolescents that males were found attractive by other men. A boy’s sexual allure began to diminish the moment he started to grow facial and body hair and this short window of attractiveness perhaps explains the ecstatic reception that poster-boy youths like Charmides received. According to Plato, everyone at the wrestling school gazes at Charmides “as if he were a statue” and Socrates himself “catches fire” when he sees inside the youth’s cloak.
For all that Charmides and other hotties – both male and female – are described as “beautiful” and “pretty-faced”, Greek authors rarely mention specific facial features. We have little idea what eye-shapes or lip-shapes were found attractive, for instance. Is there a connection to be made between this lack of interest in faces and the serene – some would say, blank – expressions we find on many classical statues?
In addition to gym-fit, smooth-skinned youths, Greeks also admired the physique of adult men – as the statues of athletes, gods and heroes in Defining Beauty show. Athens’s answer to Miss World was a male beauty contest, the Euandria, a contest of “manliness” where contestants were judged on their bodily strength and ability as well as their looks.
The Greeks knew how to party
The symposium (an all-male drinking party) was one occasion when Greeks would let their hair down. This was an opportunity for men and older youths to bond and was highly erotically charged. Guests would flirt with each other, with slaves pouring the drinks, and there would be female prostitutes hired as “entertainers” for the evening.
The cups from which diners drank at these events are often painted with erotic scenes, ranging from lingering glances to full-blown orgies. But whether these scenes reflect the real goings-on at these parties is another matter. Disappointingly for anyone who likes to think of the ancient Greeks as free from sexual hang-ups, these depictions of orgies may just be an erotic fantasy or a tongue-in-cheek warning of the consequences of drunkenness.

The British Museum’s exquisite statues are a world away from these erotic images. Defining Beauty shuns the symposium’s tangle of limbs in favour of a more refined, other-worldly aesthetic. But taut flesh is still in evidence – and whether the beauty on display is still found sexy ultimately lies in the eye of the beholder.

and that's where that came from

a period of physiologically enforced dormancy between periods of activity
Diapause, from the Greek word diapausis, meaning "pause"

Mercurial  (muhr-KYOOR-ee-uhl)
1. Fickle; volatile; changeable.
2. Animated; quick-witted; shrewd.
3. Relating to the metal, planet, or god Mercury.

ETYMOLOGY: After Mercury, Roman god of commerce, thievery, eloquence, communication, etc. The planet is named after the god and in ancient astrology those born under the supposed influence of Mercury were ascribed his qualities. Earliest documented use: 1300.

jovial (JOH-vee-uhl) 
adjective: Cheerful; good-humored.
From Latin jovialis (of Jupiter), from Jov- (Jupiter). The word Jupiter is from Latin Jovis pater (father Jove). The planet Jupiter is named after the Roman god Jupiter and those born under the influence of this planet were supposed to be good-humored. Ultimately from the Indo-European root dyeu- (to shine) that is also the source of diva, divine, Jupiter, Jove, July, Zeus, and Sanskrit deva (god). Earliest documented use: 1590.