"Nearly all men can stand
adversity, but if you want to test
a man's character, give him power."
-Abraham Lincoln

The Gods Must Be Crazy
The literature of Ancient Greece harkens back to a time when gods and goddesses underpinned society. The population found solace in surrendering unexplained events and their own personal fate to a dysfunctional family of immortals; a family that ruled with iron clad authority from their palaces on Olympos. For Grecian society, God was great indeed.

The Odyssey: The Story of Ulysses
by Homer
Random House, 1960
Translated by W. H. D. Rouse
.50, 287 pp

Hailed as the first adventure story, Homer wrote The Odyssey: The Story of Ulysses around 800 BC. It's a fine example of art and literature - once strictly reserved for religious purposes - coming into their own. While we don't know for sure that The Odyssey wasn't written with the intention of providing a written record of Greek myth for perpetuity (most likely it was), either way it remains the earliest example - apart from The Iliad (Random House, $16.00) - of literature valued foremost for its entertainment. Together, The Iliad and The Odyssey comprise the "poems" of the Epic Cycle, a quintessential record of Greek mythology.

Modern Problems
Within its pages, The Odyssey holds every element of the modern novel/adventure epic. There are lovers, star-crossed and otherwise; good rulers and bad. Battles, both mental and physical; pirates, treasure hunters, thieves and opportunists. It has omens, fate and destiny, their outcomes doled out by an immortal elite, while mortal man - even in the face of adversity - is ever mindful of the gods' awesome power over all. While celebrated for its adventurous plot, the real meat of The Odyssey lies in revenge. On conclusion of the battle for Troy, Odysseus (Ulysses) - a very rich man from Ithaca - sets sail for home. En route, they stop to find food, and are taken captive by a Cyclops. It looks like the end for Odysseus and his crew, 'til Goggle-eye (the Cyclops) is outsmarted and killed before he has a chance to eat them. What appears to be a reason for celebration, killing the Cyclops, instead incurs the wrath of Poseidon, who decrees that Odysseus should never see Ithaca again. Goggle-eye was Poseidon's son.

Narrated in the first-person, Odysseus' flight from Troy is told through a conversation with King Alcinoos of Phaiacia. Upon hearing the details of his travels, capture (he was held captive for ten years by Calypso, Poseidon's daughter) and escape, the good king gives Odysseus a ship and crew to replace his own which were annihilated at the hands of Poseidon. (Clearly the god has anger issues). Odysseus accepts ship and crew, and in short order is returned to Ithaca, where the real story begins.

With the intervention of Athena - Zeus' daughter and shape-shifter extraordinaire - Odysseus plots to avenge his wife and son. In his absence, they've been mistreated by the men of Ithaca, resolved in taking their earthly possessions. In disguise, Odysseus feels out the culprits, saving his big reveal for the inevitable bloodbath to come.

Greek to Me
Over the ages, translations of The Odyssey have painted its author in a variety of shades. The Elizabethans viewed Homer as a Renaissance man. Alexander Pope's translation (1726) presents him as an Augustan, while during Queen Victoria's reign he was leant a decidedly Victorian hue. It's no wonder then, that a twentieth century interpretation would present him as the father of the modern novel.

In defense of this choice, Rouse argues that Homer, like Shakespeare, had a deep connection with his common countrymen and thus wrote in language that appealed to them. Though Shakespeare's sentence structure sounds poetic alongside modern speech, it's not: it is only old fashioned. The bard wrote for the people; his finances depended on it. The more popular his plays, the more money he was paid, so he chose relatable language that included slang, and invented words to carry the day. So too, Rouse argues, it was with Homer.

      The Elizabethans viewed Homer as a Renaissance man. Alexander Pope's translation (1726) presents him as an Augustan, while during Queen Victoria's reign he was leant a decidedly Victorian hue.

Written in what's come to be known as Homeric Greek, Homer borrowed from Ionic Greek and a variety of dialects, creating an amalgam of the Greek language. His choices indicate he was writing for mass appeal, rather than a formal, institutional audience in which poetic cadence would be stressed. Thus, Rouse's interpretation doesn't balk at inserting slang and common expression into the master's story, giving it every bit the appeal Shakespeare carried in his day.

Few writers have impacted the future of storytelling as much as Homer. Through The Odyssey, he not only paved the way for modern story writing, but also provided the world a new dialect of Greek. Structurally, The Odyssey is so successful, publishers and screenwriters are imitating it to this day. But his influence doesn't stop there. Homer - through The Iliad and The Odyssey - gave us something else we tend to forget is rooted in the ancient past: the modern serial.

The Bacchae of Euripides: A New Translation with a Critical Essay
by Euripides
University of Nebraska Press, 1968
Translated by Donald Sutherland
ISBN: 0-8032-5194-7
$13.00, 142 pp

First produced in 405 BC, a year after the playwright's death, The Bacchae of Euripides won First Prize at the City Dionysia festival. One of a tetralogy, a quartet of plays featuring three tragedies and one satyr (a class of play featuring woodland deities, often part goat, whom tended to the god of wine), The Bacchae belongs to the former. In classic Greek form, characters pop in and out, followed by a chorus which moves the plot forward, while clarifying events occurring on stage and off.

The Bacchae is set in Thebes, a land ruled by Pentheus, and his father-in-law Cadmus before him. It takes place at a time when there is great social unrest, due to a new god on the scene, worshiped by the Bacchae, a mysterious cult of Oriental origin (likely Persian). The new deity is Dionysus, son of Zeus, god of wine. Pentheus acts quickly and arrests the priest tending to the ceremonious worship of Dionysus, for what we presume is blasphemy and fraud. In time, this arrest proves fatal, leading to the House of Pentheus' own destruction.

While The Bacchae is in itself wholly original, it's a story first written by Aeschylus (525-455 BC), the father of tragedy, retooled by Euripides. The play is wrought with familiar themes borrowed from other Greek tragedies. One, mistaken identity, looms large in the plot; a mistake made several degrees worse by Euripides' deft compounding of it, resulting in a tragedy that cuts in multiple directions. Like Oedipus Rex, the characters cannot see clearly - a classic failure to see the forest for the trees - and unintentionally fall upon those they love with fatal results.

Several pages - including the finale - of The Bacchae of Euripides have been lost to the tides of time. In the critical essay following the play, Donald Sutherland defends both his interpretation of and finale to The Bacchae, describing his course of study for interpreting the Greek, and reasons for writing the conclusion as he did. While the average reader may find much of it above their pay grade, as did I, they'll at least be satisfied the ending wasn't written in haste. However, he might just as well have called the gods crazy and left it at that.

posted 07/09/22