Womp Womp Womp: Orphean Operas

24 Jun

I love opera. I sincerely believe that the best Sundays are Sundays spent listening to Puccini. This interest started last autumn when I took an Art History class called “The Art of Spectacle in Baroque Rome” and one of these types of spectacles included the new musical form of opera.

Now where did opera start? With a misinterpretation of Greek drama! (Of course)

Before the development of opera, there was solo singing in a dramatic context with some pretty simple music, as well as performances of choral music without a real narrative. But during the revival and discovery of Greek dramas during the Renaissance, some musicians misinterpreted the “chorus” role as being sung, and some believed even the solo speaking roles were sung. So by combining narrative with music and singing was seen as a return to the high point of Greek drama.

With that, just as in the visual arts, composers turned to Greek and Roman narratives for their source material. Also, according to my professor from “Spectacle,” Baroque Romans and Florentines weren’t all that great as suspending their disbelief when watching people break out into song, especially when the people on stage were supposed to be just normal people. So within the narrative the roles needed to be 1. divine, half-God, full-God 2. Ancient or 3 somehow possessing a gift of music.

Guess which myth totally fits the requirements? That’s right: Orpheus and Eurydice.

So in case you don’t know the myth…

Orpheus kills at charming people with his music. Hermes invented the lyre, but Orpheus perfected the playing of it, but he also sang. He was taught the lyre by Apollo and the art of epic poetry by his mother, muse Calliope (see the song and narrative coming together…familiar?) He falls in love with Eurydice, a lovely oak nymph. He plays song and she dances, attracting the attention of a satyr. To avoid him, she falls into a pit of vipers. When Orpheus finds her, he is so overwhelmed with grief that he plays songs so mournful that all the gods and goddesses weep and they encourage him to go to the Underworld to retrieve her. He goes to the Underworld and plays music for Hades and Persephone and charmed them into letting him take Eurydice back. However, there was a condition. He was to walk in front of her and not look back until they were both on solid ground. But when he arrived at the upper world, he was so anxious that he looked back a moment too soon, and Eurydice is lost forever.

Orpheus and Eurydice by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein, 1806


Now as you can see, what not for a Baroque opera composer to love? 1. Amazing musical talent in the protagonist as a metaphor for themselves 2. Because it is myth there can be reinterpretations of it 3. DRAMA

The first surviving opera, by Jacopo Peri, was Euridice performed in 1600 for the wedding of Henry IV and Marie de Medici at the Palazzo Pitti. Beginning with the wedding of the lovers, it follows the myth pretty closely until the end: where Eurydice gets to come back to the upper world and everyone is happy! (I admit, this is a much better ending for an opera performed at a wedding ).

But the real Baroque masterpiece of Orphean opera is L’Orfeo, by Claudio Monteverdi. Peri did it first, but Monteverdi did it bigger, better and sadder, with foreboding choruses and the original sad ending.

This video shows Orpheus singing “Rosa del ciel, vita del mondo,” Eurydice singing “Io non diro qual sia neltuo gioir” and the chorus singing reprises of earlier choruses.

This is a different production from the last video. This one appears appears to be entirely on youtube in 12 parts, if you want to check it out. Definitely a little cheesy and overdramatic. But this scene includes with Orpheus looks back at Eurydice and a really frightening looking Hades.

But what if you hate Baroque opera? I know I am probably in the minority for liking it. Well how do you feel about folk music?

Folk musician Anaïs Mitchell staged a “folk-opera” of the myth called Hadestown in 2007 and then released the music on an album in 2010. It features Justin Vernon, beloved Bon Iver lead singer, in the role of Orpheus, Ani DiFrance as Persephone, Ben Knox Miller from The Low Anthem as Hermes and Mitchell herself as Eurydice. Mitchell’s voice, which sounds like a combination of Vanessa Carlton and Joanna Newsom, takes some getting used to, but the album as a whole is pretty great and an awesome interpretation of the myth.

“Wedding Song” from Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon

If you want to learn more about Orpheus, you could read Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Orpheus’s story appears or Orpheus: The Myth of the Poet by Charles Segal.

If you want to learn more about Baroque opera, you could read Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance by Gary Tomlinson or check out Agnes Scott’s collection of opera recordings including L’Orfeo by Monteverdi, as well as a selection more modern opera composers like Puccini, Wagner and Verdi.

Agnes Scott Library does not have Hadestown, but I still highly recommend it if you are into some epic folk music. Plus you can follow Mitchell’s interpretation of the myth on her website  by reading the libretto, as well as her personal history of how her interpretation developed.


Greek and Roman Fashion

19 May

It’s pretty simple right? TOGA TOGA TOGA!

Not quite.


Greeks didn’t wear togas. Who knew? Actually, they wore a chiton or a peplos and then sometimes various things over these items. A chiton was sewn or fastened, while a peplos was draped.

Young man in a chiton

Athena in a fancy pantsy peplos

These are the main pieces of Ancient Greek clothing, but they were by no means boring! Current perceptions of Greek clothing are based on statues like I showed above and they are all white because they are made out of marble. However, these statues were actually painted to reflect the colors of the clothing and the Greeks could be kind of gaudy!

The "Peplos Scene" from the Parthenon Frieze

Interpreting the Parthenon Frieze has been troubling to art historians since as early as the 15th century. The peplos scene is one of contention. Two intepretations of the frieze as a whole are that it is either a contemporary deciption of a festival where the goddess Athena is given a new, giant peplos (probably in purple and saffron no less!), which occurred annually, or a mythological narrative of the founding of Athens. This scene is important because of whether the girl on the right is giving the peplos to the man or is being given the peplos.  If she is giving the peplos, she is probably one of the arrhephoroi who spent nine months weaving it for Pallas Athena. However, if she is being given the peplos, then she might be donning the sacrificial peplos because she is about to be sacrificed to save the city from an early doom.


Now, Romans did wear togas. But not everyone could and they all didn’t look the same! We also know a lot more about dyes that were used in Rome and the fabrics (wool, silk, leather).

Until the empire began in 44 B.C, all free citizens could wear togas, including women. But then the toga became more of a social code. One example of this is women being forced to wear togas if they were adulterous or prostitutes. The toga also represented peace, as men who would be soldiers wore them in the government and they couldn’t wear the bulky toga fighting. Cicero (favorite!) wrote “cedant arms togae,” or “let arms yield to the togas.”

Some of the varieties of togas were:

Toga candida: The bright white toga wore by candidates for public office. The word “candidates” comes from “candida” which means “pure white” referring to the toga.

Toga praetexta: White toga with a purple border, worn by young boys, magistrates, and some priests.

Toga picta: This purple toga was also embroidered gold.  Worn by generals in their triumphs or by the emperor on very special occasions.

Toga Picta, circa 350 BC

So you want to dress like a Greek or Roman?

Well, you’re in luck. Greek and Roman fashion continue to serve as inspiration for lots of clothing styles today!

1. You could wear gladiator sandals and pretend it is 65 BCE (or 2007) like housemate Maddye! Though you may look more like an Olsen twin then a gladiator…

2. You could also show your self-importance by wearing purple and gold. Though don’t run into an emperor or a general during his triumph parade, he might not be too happy.

3.  Embrace your inner caryatid (a figure of a woman who replaces a column on a temple) and support your structurally weak neck with an intricately braided hair style!

Caryatid from the Erechtheion

4. Greek/Roman inspired clothes don’t have to look like a peplos or a toga. You could take inspiration from the art. This top from Anthropologie has detailing that looks a lot like Geometric pottery from the 9th and 8th centuries BCE.

So enjoy your summers with some fabulous Greek and Roman fashions. And remember to laugh at the inconsistency inherent in “Greek” toga parties.

Some Epic Women: 90’s Heroine Style

19 Apr

Greek and Roman literature gets kind of a bad rap sometimes as far as feminism goes. There are a few things in there that nearly everyone can agree are just bad (rape as valid form of procreation, or recreation, women being treated like property). But don’t discount the Classics yet! There is lots in there for the feminist in all of us.

In the post I wanted to give you a brief about some pretty epic women, some from myth, some from epic and some from real life. Also because we’re all about interconnectivity here at the theme house blog, I am going to place these awesome women in a context that I think most of us are pretty familiar with…90’s tv heroines. So with my brief, cursory and pedestrian description of the four Classical women I chose, I included a 90’s tv heroine counterpart.

So here goes our first film studies/Classics connection blog post!

Athena/Minerva-Nurse Carol Hathaway

Athena is the strong Classical woman. So strong, sometimes she makes you wonder if Zeus is really running the joint. And her origin myth supports this. Zeus swallowed her mom, Metis, so that her children wouldn’t become more powerful than he. But then Athena sprang forth from his forehead, and became his favorite daughter.

Athena loves who she loves, and hates who she hates, and there isn’t much you can do about it. Goddess of war, wisdom and civilization, the woman is pretty badass. She is also gorgeous, with her most common epithet being glaukopis or bright-eyed. She is also associated with the owl. Athena was the patron goddess of Athens. She beat out Poseidon for its patronage, and got to have some pretty awesome building named after her (maybe you’ll hear about some of them in my soon-to-written-and-then-published blog post “Guide to the Classical Orders: or Why Borromini Would’ve Given Vitruvius a Heart Attack”).

Her 90’s counterpart is Nurse Carol Hathaway from ER. This woman was THE smart, sassy nurse who was not going to let any male (or female) doctor get in her way of helping the patients, or even the doctors, with their problems. She’s the problem solver both in and out of the ER.  Also, Carol is extremely passionate and caring, entering a series of possibly self-sabotaging relationships. But she is also very strong, knowing that the most self-destructive relationship would be with Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney). So she doesn’t give him a sticking chance until he has matured and developed enough to match her awesome.

Also, Nurse Hathaway is extremely beloved, just like Athena. The character was supposed to die when she attempted to commit suicide in the first episode, but she was such a fan favorite they kept her around for six whole seasons.

If you want to know about Athena,  check out one of the many mythology books from the library, or even a translation to The Iliad or The Odyssey, as Athena is a major player in both.

Unfortunately, Carol Hathaway is our only 90’s heroine not currently featured on Netflix Insta-watch, but I’m sure once they understand the Classical implications of her plight, the people in charge will right this.

The Sirens – Ally McBeal

The Sirens make their most famous appearance in The Odyssey. They sing their sweet song and entice men to their deaths on their rocks. Everyone wants to be with them, but they never get happiness (at least from a man) in the end. They are controversial figures in feminism because they can be seen as flighty and dangerous, or sexually empowered. Sound anything like our favorite flighty lawyer with too-short skirts, whose life has the most repetitive soundtrack, and Billy, whose name I can’t remember, Robert Downey Jr., and and even Jon Bon Jovi wanted to be with her? So the Sirens are Ally McBeal; their voice get to be kind of annoying, but you have  to admit, it has got a really great soundtrack.

If you want to know more about the Sirens, you could either read The Odyssey or some modernist/imagist poetry because they love classical allusions, especially the Sirens and their connection to poetry/singing.

Ally McBeal is available on Netflix Insta-watch and I highly recommend it for a fun, nostalgic look at the nineties. But beware of season 5, it gets a little weird and choppy.

Boudicca-Angela Chase

Redhead? Check. Misunderstood by those in power? Check. Angst out the wazoo? Check. Mission failed too early, despite great participation/critical acclaim? Check. These four things link our next heroine and her 90’s fictional counterpart together.

Boudicca was queen of the Iceni in Britain and when the Romans tried to take her kingdom after her husband died, she was not having any of it. She rallied the forces and killed a lot of Romans, only to be defeated prematurely because the Romans had a whole lot of military strategy, while, face it, the Iceni had very little. But we don’t really know what happened to Boudicca afterwards, whether she died, or went back to her homelands or even assimilated into the Romans.

Angela Chase, of My So-Called Life, gave a voice to the angsty girls of the nineties. The anti-90210, on MSCL the teenagers talked and thought like teenagers and had real problems without ridiculousness, and it was okay for Angela to be angsty for no other reason other that Jordan Catalano did/did not look at her the right/wrong way. Without easy solutions or necessarily happy endings, Angela was just a teenage, who was super realistic and easy to relate to.

For Boudicca, I highly recommend either Decisive Battles: Boudicca: Warrior Queen or Warrior Queen: Boudicca, I can’t remember which one I’ve seen, or even if they are the same thing. But it is definitely by the History Channel and a weird (but awesome) reenactment documentary.

My So-Called Life…also on Netflix!

Penelope-Buffy Summers 

Penelope is another figure from the Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife to be exact. She’s cunning, beautiful and extremely loyal to her family. But she is more than just a housewife.  Oh yeah, she’s so clever that she can distract twenty plus suitors from eating all her food and stealing all her husbands stuff. My personal favorite 90’s heroine, Buffy Summers, specializes in fighting large groups of icky vampires and has the love of her life (Angel)* go on a nebulous journey of undisclosed time and mission. Buffy, the beautiful, fit, blonde, kind of vapid high schooler, proves herself to be more than the archetype, just like Penelope. Also she is really good at distracting said icky vampires with witty banter.

For Penelope, of course you should read The Odyssey, but you could also read the feminist retelling The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, or the Heroiades I, by Ovid which is a letter from Penelope to Odysseus, and just about some of the most feminist stuff you’ll read from the Classics.

Buffy Summers…also on Netflix! (is it clear where I get most of 90’s tv from…)

*I expect a rebuttal from Spike fan Jessie sometime soon.

Who is your favorite strong woman from the Classical world? And does she have an counterparts in contemporary fiction or television, whether they are a direct influence or not?

Tit for tit (or, a brief guide to common classical terms in modern use)

27 Mar

Tit for tit is not the expression...but it should be.

So we’re all about practical applications of Classics, right? I always see various abbreviations of latinate terms, and I’m not exactly sure what means what and when to use ergo versus ie. I decided to figure out the differences between these terms.

Hopefully all of you are fans of The Office (and more importantly Dwight K. Schrute), so you may get my many references. In the episode Diversity Day, Dwight uses the phrase “tit for tit,” which is a corruption of “tit for tat” (which is ALSO a variation of “quid pro quo”).

Ergo- “therefore”

I.e. (id est)- “that is”or “in other words”

Et cetera (etc.)- “and other things” or “and the rest”

MA (Magister Artium)- “Master of arts”

MO (modus operandi)- “mode of opertaing,” used in criminal profiling and police investigation used to indicate someone’s motivation for commiting a crime

per cent. (per centum)- “for every one hundred”

Cum laude- “with praise” and the better you get you may be magna cum laude (with great praise) or summa cum laude (with highest praise)

Per se- “by itself”

Ph.D. (Philosophiæ Doctor)- Doctor of philosophy

P.m. (post meridiem)- the part of the day that everyone loves

R.I.P. (requiescat in pace)- “may he rest in peace”

I'll send a S.O.S. to the world

S.O.S. (si opus sit)-  “if necessary”

Vs (versus)

Deus ex machina (ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός apò mēkhanḗs theós)- “god from the machine”, when some major problem in a play is resolved by a person or an event

Eureka (εὕρηκα, heúrēka)- “I have found it!”, we can thank Archimedes for this when he ran around Syracuse naked (also for noticing that he displaced an equal amount of water… good job)

Eg. (exempli gratia)- “for example” or “for instance”

Q.e.d. (quod erat demonstrandum)- “which was to be demonstrated,” commonly found at the end of mathematical proofs (which honestly is not all that common for me)

A.D. (anno domini)- “in the year of our Lord”

A.M. (anti meridiem)- we all hate being awake at this part of the day

Ad hoc- “for this,” designed for a specific problem or task

Bona fide- “in good faith”

Circa (c. or ca.)- “around”

Et al. (et alii)- “and others”

Habeas corpus- “you are to have the body”you cannot be jailed without reason, unless Lincoln says you have to

Ibid. (ibidem)- “in the same place”

Pro bono (pro bono publico)- “for the public good,” work undertaken by professionals (like lawyers) as public service

Per capita ( pro capite)- “for each head”

We all know Michael Scott would spend his per diem in one day to impress Jan Levinson (no Gould)

Per diem- “per day,” the amount of travel expenses an employee will get for a day of travel

Tabula rasa  (blank slate)- J ohn Locke used the term to desribe human beings as a blank slate at birth, shaped by their experiences and surroundings

Vice Versa- “the other way around”

Quid pro quo- “this for that”

In fide vestra virtutem, in virtute autem scientiam- “add faith to your virtue, and virtue to your knowledge,” Agnes Scott’s motto, which is something students may not be aware of!

Quid pro quo, Clarice

Also, I noticed while working on this that there are a decided lack of grecian terms (ie. Latin was waaayyyy easier to research, which was kind of weird).

And I thought this picture was necessary because I was watching Spinal Tap while I was working on all of this

Classics is super gay (in a good way)

26 Mar

So I just wrote this paper for my History 290 class about the exclusive nature of second-wave feminism (ie. how Betty Friedan, the woman whose book, The Feminine Mystique, is credited with sparking the whole movement, only defined women’s issues in terms of problems for white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual women). Freidan’s vision of “women” is the antithesis of the “woman-identified woman” described in 1970 by feminist group Radicalesbians.

The point was that aside from being RUDE to the max, Friedan’s contributions to the movement are rendered purely historical as they are contradictory to the objectives of mainstream third-wave feminism and her rhetoric can’t be applied by modern women who strive for equality and freedom from oppression for all women.

Desperate housewife and hater of lavender menace, Betty Friedan

So what does this have to do with Classics? Well, it got me thinking.

The paper focused mostly on the perspective of lesbians (since I am choosing to sketch women’s and lesbian history for my class – apparently I am also trying to test how many papers a student can write on lesbians in one semester). While my focus is narrowed to the experiences of queer women in American history, I realized that lesbians in the ancient world are not only rather unique, but studying them could help my shape my view of women’s history overall.

What do we know about lesbians in the classical world? Admittedly, not very much.

While the scholarship on male homosexuality – specifically in Greece and Rome – is abundant, only sparse records exist regarding love between women. This still seems to be the case. The only place where women’s history/lesbian history seems really important  is in spaces that cater specifically to women.*

Sappho loved the ladies.

The go-to source for lesbianism is Sappho, who wrote on love for both men and women (and whose home on the island of Lesbos gives the root for the word “Lesbian”), and even her works are too little to be heavily-relied on. The result is an incomplete portrait for women.

Although I don’t think that using Sappho as a model for all women who loved other women in ancient Greece is very productive, it’s basically all we got. So what can we conclude about lesbians based solely on the life of Sappho? Why does this matter?

As a member of a thiasoi (a community of Greek women who were allowed a limited education), Sappho writes of same-sex relationships between students and mistresses. I’ve been studying women’s colleges in the nineteenth century as a part of my research. They followed a similar model – elite women gained some education and intimate relationships (referred to as “romantic friendships”) formed between these women. Romantic friendships in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuriesoften led to “Boston marriages”, in which two women co-habitated in lieu of getting married and used their freedom from a male authority figure (whether it be husband or father) to further their education and form a career. Famous examples of romantic friendships include suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Mary Peck (who lived together for several years until Catt’s death) and Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok (who, although they did not live together, both were prosperous career women whose correspondence seems indicative of a physical and romantic relationship).

The similarities between Sappho’s thiasoi and early women’s colleges allow me to pose questions that apply to both of them: Were these women naturally attracted to other women, or did the environment facilitate these feelings? Did they prefer the company of women, or was this a political choice aimed at gaining a small amount of agency?

I know this is ramble-town, but my point is that drawing connections between ancient Greece and the United States in the nineteenth century, I am able to see trends and form a more complete picture of intimate relationships between women. Pretty cool, huh?


For more on gay and lesbian issues in the ancient world, take Dr. MacEwen’s Gender in Antiquity class. It’s super awesome.

Link to Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman”: http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/wlm/womid/

Link to selection of poems by Sappho: http://www.shigeku.org/xlib/lingshidao/waiwen/sappho.htm

Recommended reading: Love, Sex and Tragedy by Simon Goldhill (this book not only answers the question of why classics is important, but highlights problems within modern conceptions of classics – warning: lots and lots of penis)

*WARNING: TANGENT! but here’s a fun experiment: try visiting OutWrite bookstore on Piedmont to see how well women are represented. Even though its first and foremost a queer bookstore, you will find that their inventory is incredibly biased towards gay men. Not that I’m bitter, but it  just seems that whenever there is a separation of male and female identities, men get a priority. Don’t even get me started on the lack of trans material in that store. If you’re frustrated by OutWrite, take a trip to Charis Books in Little 5, which is the bee’s knees.


22 Mar

Welcome to the Interconnectivity and the Classical World Theme House Blog!

We are a theme house for the 2011-2012 academic year that seeks to examine the impact the classical world has had and continues to have on various disciples of study. Our purpose is to educate the Agnes Scott community about Classics (what it is, why it is useful, how it relates to modern society) and spark students’ interest in a new subject and to help them consider their major from a different perspective.

House members will use this blog as a means to share their interactions with Classics as well as sassy anecdotes and embarassing Black Cat photos.

Even though we don’t move in to the house until August, we will try to update this blog as we experience Classics over the summer. We look forward to seeing you all next year :]