Month: August 2015

September 2015 titles

I have just started The Ramayana (a modern retelling this time by Ramesh Menon) and then if I have enough stamina, on to The Mahabharata. That should see me well into the start of September, which will continue with:

  • Aesop’s Fables
  • Theognis’ Elegies
  • The Homeric Hymns
  • The first 12 books of the Old Testament (Genesis to Kings)

13. The Upanishads

Content : Roughly translated as “lessons at the foot of the Master”, The Upanishads are spiritual lessons originally written in Sanskrit, mostly between 800 BC and 400 BC.

Although there are over one hundred recognized Upanishads in Sanskrit (some over one hundred pages long), my copy is a selection from twelve of the older Upanishads, translated by Juan Mascaro, and published by Penguin (0140441638)

My thoughts: Far more spiritual than the Rig Veda, The Upanishads are about seeking union with the Spirit (Brahman) and despite the existence of other God figures (Siva, Vishnu, Krishna) in this pantheon, the Lessons are  much more monotheistic – indeed, there is a strong idea that all gods/religions are really coming from one source. Instead of praying for worldly advantage, there is a strong emphasis on attaining perfection via good deeds, and glorifying and rejoicing in God/Brahman.  Indeed, freeing oneself from earthly desires and longings is crucial to becoming one with the omniscient, omnipresent Spirit of the Universe by moving to a higher state of Self and Consciousness.  Faith is valued above seeking knowledge and the concepts of karma and reincarnation arise.

“The soul is born and unfolds in a body, with dreams and desires, and the food of life. And then it is reborn in new bodies, in accordance with its former works. The quality of the soul determines its future body : earthy or airy, heavy or light. Its thoughts and its actions can lead it to freedom, or lead it to bondage, in life after life”  Svetasvatara Upanishad, p. 94

 Favourite lines/passages:  “thus they realize the ineffable joy supreme”  Katha Upanishad, p.64

“At the end of the worlds, all things sleep; he alone is awake in Eternity. Then from his infinite space new worlds arise and awake, a universe which is a vastness of thought. In the consciousness of Brahman the universe is, and into him it returns”    Maitri Upanishad, p, 101

Diversions/digressions:  Despite the religious theme of the work, a piece of scientific/anatomical knowledge slipped in which is quite accurate and surprising for its time, regarding the circulatory system down to capillary level and its role in carrying oxygen through the body:

“In the Heart dwells the Atman, the Self. It is the centre of a hundred and one little channels. From each one of them comes a hundred channels more. Seventy two thousand smaller channels branch from each one of these. In all these millions of little channels moves the power of Vyana [Air]”

Personal rating:  5/10

Next : The epic Ramayana

12. Poems and Fragments, by Sappho, c. 600 BC


Plot : The few remnants of Sappho’s poetry are largely love poems to young women of her society, with some bridal choruses, and mythological retellings. Of around one hundred examples, many fragments are only a few words long. Sizable sections have only survived from two or three poems.
My thoughts : The first named female author, Sappho of Lesbos gave her name to ‘lesbian’, but her poems are about desire and sadness in rejection as much as returned affection. My copy was the recent Cambridge University Press edition translated by Rayor and Lardinois (9781107023598)
Favourite lines/passages :
Fragment 31
To me it seems that man has the fortune
of gods, whoever sits beside you
and close, who listens to you
sweetly speaking

and laughing temptingly. My heart
flutters in my breast whenever
I quickly glance at you –
I can say nothing.

My tongue is broken. A delicate fire
runs under my skin, my eyes
see nothing, my ears roar,
cold sweat

rushes down me, trembling seizes me ,
I am greener than grass.
To myself I seem
needing but little to die.

Yet all must be endured, since …

Fragment 52
I don’t expect to touch heaven …
Personal rating 5/10, which might have been higher if more writings had existed to enjoy

11. The Spartan Creed [elegies] by Tyrtaeus, c. 650 BC

Plot : Poems glorifying war to the native Spartans from an unprepossessing yet effective source
My thoughts : By ancient reports, the Spartans were given a sign that they needed to recruit a general from the Athenians to support their war with the Messenians. The candidate selected was an old lame teacher called Trytaeus who, despite appearances, marshalled the Spartan forces by means of stirring war poetry which was read to the army leaders and troops before battles and led to their victory.
Only three sizable poems remain, but they are alike in gloryifing the brave warrior and berating the coward. I read the Tyrtaeus chapter from the Loeb Classical Library’s Greek Elegiac Poetry (0674995821) but at least one of the poems is included in The Norton Book of Classical Literature.
Personal rating 4/10
Next : Make love, not war (particularly with other women) according to Sappho of Lesbos.

Odes, epics and elegies : its all Greek to me!

To represent the next few authors (Trytaeus, Sappho, and later Theognis) there are only a few remaining poems or fragments; and the terms ‘elegies’, ‘odes’ and ‘lyric poetry’ start to crop up. Before I start, it might be wise for me to investigate these various terms, as I didn’t understand the difference between them. (The following is pulled together from several sources)

  • Epics are long poetic tales, often heroic in theme and apparently tend to use an elevated style of language.
  • Lyric poems are shorter and do not tell a long story. They were often sung and accompanied on the lyre, and tended towards the emotional state of the poet, and are more in keeping with what I think of as modern poetry. Subcategories of this style of poetry include elegy, ode, and sonnet.
  • A definition of ‘elegy’ is a little harder to pin down. Narrowly defined as a formal lament for the death of a particular person – more broadly defined, its subject matter in practice can consist of almost any topic, including celebrations or philosophical matters. Trytaeus’ military calls and praises, and Theognis’ emotive poems are elegies.
  • An ode is a long lyric poem with a serious subject written in an elevated style.
  • The sonnet was originally a love poem which dealt with the lover’s sufferings and hopes. It uses a single stanza of fourteen lines and an intricate rhyme pattern.

So literature buffs separate poetry into epic or lyric poetry, with the latter further divided into odes, elegies, sonnets, etc. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and perhaps to a lesser impact, Hesiod’s poems, are definitely epics. Hope this helps 🙂

10. Works and days, by Hesiod c.700 BC


Plot: Mostly a string of advice from the Poet to his wastrel brother Perses, on the ethical and practical benefits of hard work and honesty, in various spheres of life, including city life, farming, seamanship, marriage and social behaviour.

My thoughts : Apart from some mythological examples near the beginning, the bulk of the poem is a list of advice which became as tedious to me as it must have to Perses, who probably ignored the lot.

Like Homer, there is some doubt over whether Hesiod was the author of both The Theogony and Works and Days. While they are different in style and content, they do share some similarities, notably the poor opinion of women, sent as a curse by Zeus to punish Prometheus. This doesn’t stop the Poet from recommending marriage towards the end of the poem. Actually, if I was to have an opinion on authorship, I would be tempted to say that the first half of Works and Days could have been written by Hesiod, but the latter half is not as engaging and could have been tacked on from another author.

Favourite lines/passages

“By day, men work and grieve unceasingly; by night, they waste away and die”

but more cheeringly,

“Exhausting summertime has come, The goats are very fat, and wine is very good.

Women are full of lust, but men are weak, …. But at this time I love a shady rock, and Bibline wine,

a cake of cheese and goat’s milk, and some meat of heifers pastured in the wood …

Then may I sit in shade and drink the shining wine, and eat my fill, and turn my face to meet the fresh West Wind… “

Diversions/digressions : The brief mythological stories at the beginning mention Pandora as the woman who curses mankind by releasing all the troubles, worries and diseases. My children and I were very fond of the Japanese anime Cardcaptor Sakura which was a magical girl story loosely based on the Pandora myth. Mmmm, maybe I should have done an animation blog instead! 🙂


Personal rating : 2/10