Great Reads From the Ancient World

This blog is supposed to be about great reads for a quarter, and I keep cluttering it up with stuff about my life, which has actually become rather interesting lately, but I have to come up with a bunch of really great reads that you can find at almost any flea market or tag sale.

That’s easy: three Greek tragedians — Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. With these three guys you can’t go wrong, if they are rendered well, or even if they are rendered half decently.

Remember, when a character starts talking in a “hick” kind of dialect, the translator uses some “hick” dialect from his own time, and that might not be our time. If you get bogged down with some Victorian blatherskite, or a modern scholar who believes she or he can fashion a brilliant poem in English — don’t waste your time.

If it’s written in plain English, but it sounds kind of awkward… Bingo! You’ve got your entree into the ancient world. Languages are different. They should sound awkward in translation.

It’s no coincidence that Freud named the Oedipal Complex after a character in a Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy encompasses the entire human psyche.

We read these three great tragedians as if they were typical of the plays presented at the Bacchanalian festivals, but they weren’t. They were the greatest of hundreds, even thousands of plays. These three authors were masters of their art and they are great fun to read once you’re able to “see through” your translation.

Here’s a tip: get two or three different translations of the same play; you’ll find out a lot about the play and about the process of translation. And I always read the introductions. They give you a lot of information that’s helpful in understanding the play, and they give you the editor’s approach to the work’s presentation.

So why read Greek tragedy? Let me give just one example, The Bacchae by Euripides. The dictator Pentheus is investigating this new cult of Dionysus or Bacchus (god of wine) and witnesses some rituals he’s not supposed to see, against the advice of the seer Tiresias.

He actually arrests Dionysus, who has taken human form, and questions him. This passage is lifted word for word from the New Testament interview between Jesus and Pontius Pilate (a neat trick in 400 B.C.). Pentheus asks Dionysus if he is the son of a god and Dionysus replies, “It is you who says this.” (“Thou sayest it.”)

So what happens to Pentheus? Well I’ll tell you. He is torn limb from limb by his female relatives who, in a Bacchanalian frenzy, believe him to be a lion that they have slain. His grandmother marches through the main street of the city holding his head on a stick. How cool is that?

Then she wakes up and, looking at the head, does a classic double take.

Don’t you hate it when that happens? You go off on your women-only Bacchic spiritual retreat, you’re having a great time, the hunting is fantastic, and you wake up on the main street of town with your grandson’s head on a stick.

People have such bad luck when they drink.

And that’s just a sample. The Greek tragedians were committed to putting on a good show, and that translates into a great read. Just find a translator who respects the original and doesn’t purport to be a great poet.

The heirs of Sophocles once decided he was senile and they wanted their inheritance and they took him to court. Sophocles read a few choruses from a play he was working on, “Oedipus at Colonus,” and the jurymen drove the heirs from the courtroom with thumps and blows.

Literary talent was worth something in those days.