Month: August 2017

131. The Hymns and Epigrams of Callimachus (c. 250 BC)

131. The Hymns and Epigrams of Callimachus (c. 250 BC)

My version is the Loeb Classical Library edition (no. 129) Callimachus, Lycophron and Aratus, translated by A. W. and G. R. Mair (ISBN 0674991435)

My thoughts:

It seems that the six degrees of separation theory can be applied as far back as Ancient Greece. Just as there were direct personal links connecting Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Menander and Theophrastus; likewise, my last four Greeks are connected. Aratus and Callimachus were students together under Praxiphanes, and Callimachus later taught both Apollonius and Eratosthenes. The work of Eratosthenes has only survived as annotations in Aratus’ work, while Callimachus and Apollonius became bitter enemies on both a personal and professional level over their disagreement on the merits of their respective writing styles : Apollonius in favour of the longer Homeric epic while Callimachus liked a brief polished style. The fact that Ptomley II awarded the Chief Librarian post at the Library of Alexandria to Apollonius over Callimachus would surely have added fuel to the pyre. After Apollonius, the Librarian post was given to Eratosthenes.

On to Callimachus’ work. It is believed he wrote 800 pieces, from which only six hymns and 64 epigrams survive intact. The hymns are not startling great prose but do provide extra details on the backgrounds of Zeus, Apollo, Artemis and Demeter. However the most intriguing hymn was addressed not to a God, but to the Isle of Delos, birthplace of Apollo, which was the only piece of land brave enough to allow Leto to rest and give birth, risking the enmity of Hera. It then became the custom of passing mariners to land on Delos and pay their respects by running in a circle around the altar and biting the trunk of the sacred olive tree with their hands bound behind their backs, to provide amusement for Apollo. Ah, the days before television and the Internet!

The hymn to Demeter was interesting too. I always think of Demeter as a relatively placid goddess, not warring or plotting like Ares, Aphrodite, Poseidon and Apollo. But in Callimachus’ last hymn, we see her in full vengeance mode. King Erysichthon of Thessaly wanted to cut down the trees in Demeter’s sacred grove to build a grand banqueting hall. Despite her warnings, he persists and she loses her temper and curses him with never-ending hunger. He eats all the food in his palace, his livestock, then his racehorses and even his cat, but nothing eases his hunger pangs – he is reduced to sitting at the crossroads and begging passersby for morsels. The story is retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Erysichthon finally eats himself.

The epigrams are brief two or three-line dedications at shrines or inscriptions on tombstones. Of particular fun was several marking the grave of Timon, who hated people and must have given instructions to have nettles and stakes planted around his remains to deter casual visitors. Also the step-son who was killed when the tombstone of his step-mother toppled over and struck him. It seems step-mothers have had a bad rap for a while.

Diversions and digressions:  Despite missing out on the top job at the Library of Alexandria, it seems that Callimachus was the first library cataloguer, creating a list of the authors of all the works held, so he can’t have been all bad.

Personal rating: 5/10 for content, but only 3 for style.

Also around that year:  Rome defeats Carthage in the First Punic War (264 to 241 BC).  Will read about this in coming months in Polybius’ Histories.

Next :  Jason goes in search of the Golden Fleece in The Argonautica, by Apollonius of Rhodes.


130. Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 270 BC)

130. Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 270 BC)

Plot: Aratus describes the constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere sky, their physical and rotational relationships to each other as a way of determining the time, month and season (particularly with regard to agricultural and maritime ventures)  and various other signs of foretelling the weather, including animal behaviour.

My version is the Oxford University Press volume Constellation Myths, containing both Aratus’ Phaenomena and Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi, translated by Robin Hard (ISBN 9780198716983)

My thoughts:  Aratus and Eratosthenes were not even on my radar until a recent and timely post on the excellent On Bookes blog.

Constellation myths are used to describe how figures or items from mythological stories became enshrined in the Heavens, and are often ‘tacked on’ to the myths. Sometimes Zeus or another god will commemorate some mortal by creating their image in the stars, and other times the myth actually suggests the hero is changed into the constellation. Either way, Aratus assumes the reader is up on all their mythological stories and spends the bulk of his poem describing the spatial arrangement of the various constellations.

I have always found it hard to see the various figures depicted without the helpful drawing and join-the-dots efforts of more imaginative people. My favourite part is therefore the third section which describes the way to predict weather by the look of the sun and the moon, and the behaviour of birds and animals – much more my forte. Signs of bad weather include boisterous play from lambs, butting each other, springing up with all four feet in the air, and eating grass all the way home; cattle licking their front hooves, lone wolves howling, and mice squeaking louder than usual and dancing around. (You have been warned – ignore these signs at your peril)

His poem was actually used as a textbook in schools of the Ancient World, and accordingly survived the passage of the years. His successor Eratosthenes (more on him next week) did not survive as well, except as annotated copies of Aratus.

Diversions and digressions:

Catasterize : to set someone or something in the sky as a constellation (a real word – I kid you not!)

Personal rating:  4.

Kimmy’s rating: Kimmy sat politely in my lap and did not display any signs of approaching inclement weather, neither howling nor digging at the ground.

The sanity in between:  Murder on the Links, Agatha Christie’s second Poirot novel. Arrrgh, will I never solve one of her mysteries?!!

Next :  The poetry of Callimachus (305-240 BC), followed byThe Argonautica (Voyage of the Argo) by Apollonius of Rhodes, and finally, the companion to today’s post, Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi (Constellation Myths) to finish the literature of the Ancient Greeks.


129. The Holy Bible. The Old Testament. The Books of the ‘Minor’ Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

129. The Holy Bible. The Old Testament. The Books of the ‘Minor’ Prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi)

Contents:  The remaining books of the Old Testament, covering briefly the stories and pronouncements of the twelve prophets Hosea through to Malachi. I believe the adjective ‘minor’ is more to do with the length of the books as they are all comparatively brief, and not from any insignificance of the respective personages.

My thoughts:  Firstly overwhelming relief that I have finished the OT, which I found either OTT or duller than dishwater, but had to be endured to have even a small chance of catching biblical references in literature from now on.

Onto the books. I must confess that I didn’t find them easy or straightforward to read and understand at first look – no wonder people organize Bible Study classes to discuss them.

The first few books continue the theme of God’s retribution for His abandonment by the tribes of Israel as they preferred to worship stone and gold idols. In Hosea, they are compared to whores with many lovers who have abandoned their husband, while in Joel, God sends drought and an almighty army of locusts to bring starvation and death.

“A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains ….. the land is as the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them … like the noise of chariots on the tops of mountains … like the noise of a flame of fire that devoureth the stubble, … they shall climb the wall like men of war … they shall run to and fro in the city .. they shall enter in the windows like a thief. The earth shall quake before them; the heavens shall tremble; the sun and the moon shall be dark and the stars shall withdraw their shining.”                     Joel, 2:2-10

Also the familiar peaceful line from the Book of Isaiah is reversed, not for the better.

“Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears”     Joel, 3:10

Yet worse is in store for the people of Edom, descendants of Esau, in The Book of Obadiah, as they will be wiped out entirely for their violence against their brother’s descendants, the House of Jacob.

Finally, something familiar from Sunday School!   Jonah takes ship to Tarshish to flee from God’s direction to go to Ninevah and prophesy their doom, but a storm threatens to sink the boat. Jonah is reluctantly thrown overboard by the crew (at his own suggestion!) and is swallowed by a great fish and stays in its bowels for three days until he finally repents and is vomited onto the beach. On hearing his words, all the people of Ninevah actually repent, from the king down to the cattle, and Jonah is a bit miffed, until God points out his own inconsistencies. A far more straightforward story that shows a more sensible people and a more merciful God. Yet about one hundred and twenty years later, Ninevah is destroyed by God in the Book of Nahum (c. 625 BC)
I read on through the remainder : Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and lastly, Malachi. I have very little to say, except the “Great Day of the Lord coming” is referenced several times, and full of apocalyptic destruction. The last word of the OT is ‘curse’ and it seems to encapsulate so much of the contents, not the wonder it could have expressed.

Personal rating: These last few books I would have to give a 2, and even that feels generous. Over all the posts I have made on the Old Testament, only the Song of Solomon was pleasant to read, and without it, the rest was on average a 3, but as a whole I would rate the experience as 1/10.

The sanity in between: I also read Anne of Avonlea, the second in the Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery, and Doctor Sally, a very short work (adapted from his own stageplay) by the master P. G. Wodehouse (lots of initials this week). Enjoyed both immensely – I left 4 stars and 5 stars on Goodreads respectively. Good ol’ P.G. kept giving me a nudge because he used the phrase “minor prophet” at least three times in his modest 120 pages. I can usually take a hint after only two prompts!

Next : Getting starry eyed with Aratus’ celestial poem The Phaenomena.

128. The Idylls by Theocritus (c.270 BC)

128. The Idylls by Theocritus (c.270 BC)

Plot:  A collection of about thirty poems. The first dozen are mostly gentle competitions between shepherds and oxherds in song and music, set in the countryside, but later ones show more variety : mythological stories, praise for potential patrons, unrequited love stories, and comedies, some of which may not have been written by Theocritus. (More and more it seems that anonymous inferior works were attributed to famous authors to give them greater standing)

My copy is the Loeb Classical Library volume, Theocritus, Moschus, Bion, edited and translated by Neil Hopkinson, Harvard University Press, 2015 (ISBN 9780674996441)

My thoughts:  I have finally reached the the third century BC, after deciding to ditch Chuang-Tzu in mid-philosophize.

Theocritus is described as the father of bucolic or pastoral poetry, from which I immediately start picturing shepherds playing pan pipes and seducing milkmaids, which is not too far from some of these short poems. Unfortunately the first few fell a little flat, so I was pleased when the later examples were more interesting, notably the mythological retellings, which had much more detail than in some of my previous readings – for instance the tale of baby Heracles strangling the two serpents in his cradle describes the scene, the action and the aftermath of the event.

I also lingered awhile with the other two poets in this volume. Moschus wrote an amusing piece on Aphrodite creating a “wanted” poster for her errant son Eros, warning the public to be wary of his innocent appearance but dangerous touch, while Bion’s Lament for Adonis is almost Gothic in style, describing Adonis’ corpse bleeding on the ground and later laid out on his couch, and Aphrodite in such depths of misery and grief as is rarely portrayed for a Greek god.

Favourite lines/passages:

From Idyll 11, where the Cyclops Polyphemus bewails his love for the sea nymph Galatea

“There is in nature no remedy for love”             page 169


“Even if I seem rather too shaggy, I do have oak logs and undying fire under the ash, and in my burning love for you I would yield up my soul and my single eye. I have no dearer possession than that.”                                                                                page 173

Idyll 27 is a seduction between a young girl and her suitor, included this pretty but perhaps unconvincing encouragement:

“There is sweet pleasure even in empty kisses”          page 375

In Idyll 18, the bridesmaids of Helen sing outside her bridal bedroom, serenading her and Menelaus on their wedding night, but the reader knows from Homer’s Iliad that this joy will not last, and the editor points out that the Greek words for “comparison” (parisothe) and “cypress” (kyparissos), both used in this poem, contain the name “Paris” hidden within.

Diversions and digressions:

Bucolic : sounds more like a chest infection, but of course refers to beautiful countryside.

Halcyon : used now to refer to some time happy and peaceful in the past, but used here to name a mythical bird which made its nest floating on the ocean waters, charming the winds and waves.

Personal rating: Quite entertaining once I got into the flow. Overall a 6.

Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy showed some interest in the amorous billy goats but more fascinated by the plumber fixing our hot water system outside.

Also in that year:  Well into the third century BC, and Alexandria is now the centre of Western learning, with the Great Library and the Pharos Lighthouse built by Ptolemy I (who Theocritus tried to woo as a potential patron). Greek astronomer Aristarchus theorises that the Earth revolves around the Sun (!), while the rest of Europe begins to revolve around Rome, leading up to the First Punic War against Carthage in 264 BC.

The sanity in between:  The Girl in Blue, a late and relatively unknown P.G. Wodehouse comedy, not quite to his usual standard, but any Wodehouse is enjoyable.

Next : Let’s finish up the Old Testament with the remaining twelve Books of the Minor Prophets.

127. The Mencius by Mencius (c.320 BC)

127. The Mencius by Mencius (c.320 BC)

Plot:  The philosophical writings of the Confucian follower Mencius, largely dealing with the need for rulers to act with benevolence.

My copy was the Penguin classic translated by D. C. Lau (ISBN 0140442286)

My thoughts:  Much like Confucius’ Analects, these writings are largely analogies based on the actions of rulers and men which time outside China has now forgotten. There is some interest in the time of these writings, as the Empire was going through the Warring States period, and Mencius seems to have been a wandering philosopher and wise man visiting the various courts.

I tried very hard to stay interested, but I’m afraid Chinese philosophy is not for me, any more than Greek. So what I can share with you?

Favourite lines/passages:

“From biased words, I can see wherein the speaker is blind; from immoderate words, wherein he is ensnared; from heretical words, wherein he has strayed from the right path; from evasive words, wherein he is at his wits’ end.”    Book II, part A.

“Mencius said to King Hsuan of Ch’i, ‘Suppose a subject of Your Majesty’s, having entrusted his wife and children to the care of a friend, were to go on a trip to Ch’u, only to find on his return, that his friend has allowed his wife and children to suffer cold and hunger, then what should he do about it?”

“Break with his friend”

“if the Marshall of the Guards was unable to keep his guards in order, then what should be done about it?”

“Remove him from office”

“If the whole Realm within the four borders was ill-governed, then what should be done about it?”

The King turned to his attendants and changed the subject.              Book I, Part B.

Personal rating: 3
The sanity in between:  Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to his much better work, The Shining.  Entertaining but not brilliant.

Next : One last try with Chinese philosophy, the Inner Chapters of Chuang Tzu (sometimes written as Zhuangzi)  Nope, a few pages in and I know when I’m beaten. Its back to the Greeks and the Idylls of Theocritus.


126. The Old Testament. The Books of Ezekiel and Daniel.

126. The Old Testament. The Books of Ezekiel and Daniel.

The Book of Ezekiel focuses on the multiple warnings from God to the peoples of Israel through the visions of Ezekiel, to repent from their idolatory, usury, violence and adultery, and follow His statutes, lest He consume them with the fire of His wrath : pestilence, war and famine, with the merest handful surviving to be restored to His favour.

The Book of Daniel describes Daniel’s visions and miracles at the Babylonian court under the reigns of Nebuchanezzar, Belshazzah, and the Persian kings Darius and Cyrus.

Reading from the Authorised King James Version (Collins, 1934)

My thoughts: 

A reminder that my comments and opinions on my reading of the Bible are in terms  of it as a work of literature and a reading experience only. No comment is made on the religious significance or validity of the Books.

Again, the Book of Ezekiel shows a lot of repetition of phrases within and across verses and chapters – the sort of writing which may have acted as an aide memoir for oral retelling . On the written page, this quickly becomes tiresome. Later chapters use parables to describe their fate, which are more interesting (particularly the lioness’ cubs representing the Israelites, captured first by the Egyptians and then the Babylonians) and distressing (the cities of Samaria and Jerusalem as sisters whose lewdness and whoredom with neighbouring countries brings about horrific retributions).

And here I think I realised why this is such an unpleasant book to read : it is not the promise of death and suffering that carries over from Lamentations, but the anger of the Lord for these, His chosen people. Yes, they have blasphemed and transgressed and done all manner of vile things, including sacrificing their own children, but the sheer fury in the messages from an All-Powerful being is equally disturbing, and reinforces the view of the Old Testament God as an extremely  harsh and jealous overlord.

The Book goes on to promise destruction on the surrounding civilisations including Egypt again, before returning to provide future blessings for the remaining Israelites, scoured clean of their sins. God gives Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones which He causes to be made into living people again and states that these are the Israelites brought back to life, which also made me feel a real sense of horror, although I don’t know if that is the intended impact.

Leaving Ezekiel there, I went on to Daniel which is a more linear story  describing the fate of Daniel and his companions at the Babylonian court after the siege of Jerusalem. The first half includes the familiar story of Daniel in the Lions’ den, but then returns to visions and prophecies and soon lost my interest.

Diversions and digressions:  My attention was drawn early on by the description of the Cherubim attending the Lord in Ezekiel’s visions. Not the rosy-cheeked Cupid-like little boys as painted by Rubens, but

“four living creatures … the likeness of a man, … four faces, and everyone had four wings …. The sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot, and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass … the hands of a man under their wings …. As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion on the right side, and they four had the face of an oxen on their left side, and they also had the face of an eagle…”                                          Ezekiel 1: 5-10

Personal rating: Lifted to a 3/10 by the stories of the miracles of Daniel and his companions.

Next : The Writings of Mencius, a Chinese philosopher, apparently second only to Confucius.