Sketching the classics, or, I want to be a stone mason

Today I spent an hour or so sketching in the Cast Gallery at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, which is just one of Cambridge University’s many fabulous free museums. Part of the Faculty of Classics, the gallery contains casts of statues and friezes from all over the classical world and is an amazing asset for Cambridge. I love to sketch, but in all honesty have done so only twice in the last twenty years or so that I can recall… What motivated this little excursion from my daily routine of teaching/ school runs/ wondering what to make for supper/ buying stuff to cook for supper/ laundry/ more laundry/ feeding kids their supper etc was that I am going to learn to be a stone mason!!

Or more truthfully, I am attending a long weekend course in September at which I will learn the techniques of stone carving and (hopefully) carve something half decent myself. The course was a Christmas present from my husband, so back in the early spring time I contacted the teacher, Lucy Churchill, and asked her advice on what I should be doing to prepare myself for learning to carve stone. She said ‘look at as much sculpture as you can’ and recommends sketching it too, thinking about what shape block you would need to start with and ‘how you would go about taking away the unnecessary stone in slices and checks’. She has a lot more information in her 15 page document for prospective carvers, but I am tantalised just by these comments.

What initially sparked my desire to become a stone mason wasn’t actually classical statues or friezes, but rather the incredibly intricate carvings found in the churches and cathedrals of England. Regular readers of my blog (are you out there?) might recall that I have been visiting cathedrals with my family with the aim of visiting all the Anglican cathedrals in England, but we have made a few other non-cathedral visits recently too, notably to St Mary’s, Beverley, and to Romsey Abbey which both contain stonework fascinating in itself and historically significant for Britain. For me, the showstopper so far, however, has been Southwell Minster. The attendant there could see my delight at the carvings and took time out from greeting at the door to show me some of the intricacies of the Chapter House — the hidden beasts lurking under stone fronds of oak, the hollow space behind more leaf work extending for several yards over the arched doorway, the master mason himself with his special master mason’s hat atop the serene face of one who knows he has overseen a job well done. I was left speechless and ecstatic by my visit to Southwell.

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The master mason in the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, identifiable by his hat

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The entrance to the Chapter House, Southwell. It’s hard to make out without a torch held under it, but the leaf work around these arches is hollow behind. Much of the stonework in Southwell Minster is too intricate to be adequately restored, despite being in grave need of restoration after water damage

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From underneath you can make out these two pigs snuffling for acorns in the Chapter House, Southwell Minster; they are hidden at eye level by the oak leaves

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The White Rabbit at St Mary’s, Beverley, was apparently inspiration for John Tenniel’s illustration to Alice in Wonderland

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Fabulous faces overseeing entry to St Mary’s, Beverley

But Southwell and Beverley are both a bit too far away to nip off to for a quick sketch, so I returned to the cast gallery in Cambridge. Then I had to decide what to sketch — so much choice! Not a human face — too tricky, certainly not a god’s face — too hubristic, not a frieze — too flat, aha! A lovely deer!

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Detail from Diana of Versailles

This young deer, apparently a companion to Diana, surely not an imminent victim (in her hand above its head is the remnant of a bow; her other hand reaches for an arrow, presumably for a different prey somewhere in the direction of her gaze), has all the serenity in its face, it is so graceful, and yet is so full of flow and movement in keeping with the whole composition. It is so slender of feature, so beautiful. I will not do it justice, but I will try!

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Diana of Versailles. The original in the Louvre, a Roman work from the 1st or 2nd century AD, is believed to be a copy of a Greek bronze by Leochares from the 4th century BC. A bronze copy was given to Charles I and is now in Windsor Castle

This being my first attempt at sketching in a lot of years, and never having done any art seriously at school, I found it fascinating to note how I looked at the sculpture, and how wrong I was in interpreting what I saw. I would look, then I would make a mark on the paper, then I would look again and wonder why what I had done looked so wrong. My line would, I realised, be going in the opposite direction from where it should have been going. I had looked and perceived all wrong! I did this a lot of times. Not to mention scale, proportion, perspective… However, I had a good go at it, but my time was up all too quickly and I had to leave to pick up my youngest from pre school. Looking at it later with fresh eyes I was pleasantly surprised to see what resembled a deer on my page. None of the serenity and flow of my sitter, granted, but a deer nonetheless, recognisable!

Next task, to carve it in stone with a weekend’s tuition under my belt!

I am grateful for the advice to go and look at sculpture in order to figure out how to carve it, but the best advice in order to really look is definitely to sketch. Now, school holidays start tomorrow — do you think I will be able to get my kids to sit still and sketch with me, just for an hour or so?

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I forgot to take a rubber with me

I am also grateful to the Classics Faculty at Cambridge University for having such a wonderful and free museum.

My photos don’t begin to do justice to the incredible carvings both in stone and wood at all the places I have mentioned in this piece. I urge you to go and visit them for yourself:

St Mary’s, Beverley

Southwell Minster (it is properly a cathedral, but the name ‘Minster’ has stuck)

Romsey Abbey with its Saxon carvings and especially its rood

Should you wish to learn to carve stone with Lucy Churchill, her courses are booked nearly a year ahead. I will aim to write about my experience when I have something to show for it.

Here are some more images from Southwell:

And some more from St Mary’s Beverley:

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Did Homer invent robots?

Everytime I read Homer I fall in love a little bit more. Here I shall share some excerpts from one of my favourite passages from The Iliad (as translated by E.V. Rieu, in the updated version by Peter Jones with D.C.H. Rieu).

To set the scene, Thetis has gone to Hephaestus to ask him to make a replacement set of armour for her son Achilles. Most characters in Homer have a formulaic nick name — you’ve possibly heard the one about rosy-fingered Dawn — but consider also the wine dark sea, ox-eyed Lady Hera. These names indicate something of the appearance of the subject but not much more. We are left to make up our own minds on the defining characteristics from the behaviour of the individuals in question (though on the wine-dark sea, see this wonderful piece on colours by Caroline Lawrence). In the same way, the poet gives away nothing of the skill of Hephaestus in his nick name – he is merely ‘the famous lame god’. However, after these descriptions of the wonders of Hephaestus’ workshop, no one can be in any doubt:

Thetis found Hephaestus hard at work and sweating as he bustled about at the bellows in his forge. He was making a set of twenty tripods to stand round the walls of his well-built hall. He had fitted golden wheels to all their feet so that they could run off to a meeting of the gods and return home again, all self-propelled — an amazing sight.  (Iliad 18.370-379)

One wonders what the twenty tripods were up to at the meeting of the gods, and whether or not anyone saw them travelling there under their own steam… Anyway! Thirty or so lines on and we are offered this next marvel:

Waiting-women hurried along to help their master. They were made of gold, but looked like real girls and could not only speak and use their limbs but were also endowed with intelligence and had learned their skills from the immortal gods. While they scurried round to support their lord, Hephaestus moved unsteadily to where Thetis was seated. (Iliad 18.418-422)

Although it does not say that Hephaestus made them himself, the implication is clear: The famous lame god has invented robots, and hired the other gods to teach them useful skills, as well as compassion and general helpfulness.

Finally, in case any reader has glossed over those first miraculous creations, Homer offers us a third: Hephaestus also appears to have invented voice-controlled intelligent bellows to aid him in his work.

Hephaestus went back to his forge, where he turned the bellows on the fire and told them to get to work. The bellows — there were twenty of them — blew through the nozzles and gave healthy blasts from different directions, fast or slow to suit the needs of the busy blacksmith, depending on the stage the work had reached. (Iliad 18.468-473)

The famous lame god, indeed!

If you know of any robots from literature earlier than Homer, please do let me know in the comments.

Some tattoos, ancient and modern

My daughter wants a tattoo. She’s three. The pirates in her sticker book have them, so does Charlotte at pre-school. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but Charlotte is a grown up, she’s your teacher. You have to be a grown up to have a tattoo.’ Abject disappointment.

My favourite reference to tattooing in the ancient world is by Virgil in his epic the Aeneid.

It’s an interesting reference because it subverts expectations. Aeneas in Book 4 is being likened to Apollo, a beautiful and generally well behaved god, but Aeneas is about to be poorly behaved. He is about to embark on an ill-fated love affair with Dido, queen of Carthage in North Africa, when he should be heading off to Italy where he will become the founder of the race of Romans. The subversive reference to Apollo describes a beautiful god striding across mountain ridges, but it uses language and imagery more usually associated with the much naughtier god of wine, dance and general debauchery, Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek). There is a line describing the peoples attending Apollo, ‘Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi’ which can be translated as ‘The Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar’. It is the tattooed Agathyrsians who first piqued my interest — it is for one thing so pleasing to say aloud — picti Agathyrsi: they were a tribe from the Black Sea coast, far away, with outlandish practices such as colouring their hair blue and tattooing their bodies. Annoyingly, however, ‘picti’ might not actually mean tattooed but just painted. At any rate, the reference is to a foreign, strange tribe, who do un-Roman things with their appearance. We should beware this lovely looking god-like man, then, for he is about to associate himself with an un-Roman liaison which will certainly not end well. Nothing associated with Bacchus ever ends that well, in fact people frequently get torn limb from limb by their own mothers. In short, Dido falls terrifically in love to the neglect of all else, but the gods remind Aeneas that he should be on his way. He leaves without so much as a by-your-leave. Dido, in a fit of rage, burns all his stuff, then throws herself onto the bonfire too. Aeneas sees the smoke from far out at sea and hopes all is well. So much for the association with Bacchus.

Sticking with ‘picti’, you may be thinking that this word sounds a lot like what we call the folk who lived in the north of Britain around the time the Romans were building Hadrian’s Wall, and you would be right. The Picts were the inhabitants of what we would now roughly call Scotland. However, once again, whether or not they were tattooed or merely painted themselves blue (blue again!) is a moot point. The word ‘picti’ comes from the Latin verb pingo, pingere, pinxi, pictum, meaning to paint, but also to embroider, embellish, stain or tattoo. It is a bit interesting to note that while embroidery and tattooing require different media for their colours, both require a needle to apply their colours. Again, the Picts of northern Britain were an outlandish people who so resisted Roman attempts to civilise them that a wall had to be built to keep them out of the way.

Another Latin word which has been taken to mean tattooed is ‘stigma’. In English we understand stigmatised as meaning marked with something somehow downgrading. Annoyingly, Lewis and Short (as mentioned in a previous post, THE Latin dictionary) only gives its meanings as ‘A mark burned in, a brand, impressed on slaves as a mark of disgrace… a mark of disgrace, a stigma…’. So not necessarily a tattoo at all. However, when we look further afield than Classical Latin, we find fourth century references to soldiers being tattooed with pin pricks after having proven themselves fit enough to join up, and also sixth century Latin recipes for tattoo ink, where the word ‘stigma’ definitely means tattoo. Hurrah!

What at all these references to painted, branded and tattooed bodies in the classical world have in common, however, is that the practice was most associated with foreigners, slaves and soldiers. Not suitable, then, for daughters of teachers and accountants, regardless of age. Sorry, Daughter Dearest!

Further Reading/ Viewing

Here is a link to a history of tattooing.

EDITED to include this link to a fascinating article by Sarah E. Bond on tattooing for religious reasons.

My very talented cousin Laura is a tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon; here is some of her beautiful work, just because I like it.

Ingo Gildenhard has written a study guide to Aeneid Book 4 which has a neat discussion of scholarship on the Apollo simile. Other booksellers are available.

This is the Latin passage of the simile from Aeneid IV, lines 143-50, with my translation.

qualis ubi hibernam Lyciam Xanthique fluenta
deserit ac Delum maternam invisit Apollo
instauratque choros, mixtique altaria circum
Cretesque Dryopesque fremunt pictique Agathyrsi;
ipse iugis Cynthi graditur mollique fluentem
fronde premit crinem fingens atque implicat auro,
tela sonant umeris: haud illo segnior ibat
Aeneas, tantum egregio decus enitet ore.

Just as when Apollo leaves wintry Lycia and the flowing Xanthus and arrives at maternal Delos, he renews the songs and the Cretans, Dryopians and tattooed Agathyrsians roar as they mingle together around the altars; he himself strides over the mountain ridges of Cynthus and smoothes his flowing hair with gentle leaves and dresses it in gold, his weapons clang on his shoulder. Aeneas walked no less lightly, such goodliness shining from his beauteous face.

Wikipedia has an interesting discussion of the Celtic etymology of the word Pict here.

Why Latin? You’re asking the wrong question

I have noticed the question Why Latin? being asked a lot on social media lately and there are plenty of good answers out there. However, I put it to you that the wrong question is being asked. Since the people asking it are usually already engaged with Latin in some way or another, either as pupils, parents of pupils, school employees, politicians, people who were forced to study it and hated it, people who didn’t have the opportunity of studying it and hate that, they have an agenda in asking the question. The agenda may be to wind up the teacher, sound precocious to the rest of the class, squeeze more diversity into the busy school timetable, find funding for other worthy causes, just to be contrary. Occasionally the asker may even be asking with a sincere desire to know the thoughts of the person they are asking. It should be noted, in any case, that most of those askers already have a fair idea of the sorts of things their interlocutor might say.

This is why I am about to propose a radical new approach based on my experiences of chatting to people. Now, I like to chat to people — all sorts of people — and being a teacher I regularly get asked what I teach. I do not shy away from saying that I teach Latin and Classical Civilisations and I am not surprised when the reaction is a puzzled face. The follow up question is often, What’s that then? And I have to say, I far prefer this reaction to either of the other frequently reported reactions — ‘Urgh! I hated Latin’ and the rather happier exclamation of ‘Caecilius est in horto!’.

The reason I far prefer this question is because the answer comes easily. Latin is the language spoken by the ancient Romans, and in which they wrote poetry, history, love letters, shopping lists, graffiti, business letters, plays, death sentences, school lessons; it became the European language of religion, politics, science, law, medicine, philosophy, everything in any way academic — as well as plenty of things mundane; its literary output informed a huge amount of what we today consider important literature; in its spoken form it became French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. I could go on, but I have some self awareness and I don’t like to be too dull to friendly strangers who have consented to chat to me. I might sometimes pad my answer out, for the sake of sounding a little more down with the kids, with interesting facts about films like Gladiator or Harry Potter.

In any case, the next question is never Why study that then? Now, I hope this is not because they would prefer that I stop talking. In fact, I like to think it’s because that answer is obvious. All the other points about it being helpful in learning grammar, syntax, and so on become less immediately significant, though of course still entirely valid and appropriate. Depending on whom I am burbling on to I sometimes even add these points in myself, though if the person has never heard of Latin, I would probably leave out the word syntax.

And so to my conclusion! The next time you get asked Why Latin? change the question and answer instead What is Latin? I’d love to know how this goes down. Perhaps you have even tried this already — please let me know in the comments below.

Some books to inspire budding classicists

There’s really no need to force your budding classicist through Commentarii de Puero Inepto, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid recently translated into Latin — here are some of my favourite books with a classical or otherwise ancient theme to inspire classicists of all ages.

I was given my first Asterix book when I was six and I decided it was too grown up for me, but it didn’t take me long to change my mind. The stories are entertaining, there’s a cute puppy named Dogmatix, and there are adventures featuring Roman soldiers with ridiculous names, magic potion provided by Getafix the Druid, there’s even a Corsican cheese so smelly it blows up a ship. My favourite adventure, Asterix and Cleopatra, contains one of the best puns ever, ‘We’ll be driven into the Nile! We’ll be annihilated!’, and also secretly educates the young reader about who built the pyramids, Julius Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra (JC is incidentally portrayed as balding and vain), and the existence of a library at Alexandria. Not a mummy in sight. Incidentally, the wife of Vitalstatistix the Gaulish chieftain is called Impedimenta, which, along with many other phrases and snippets of Latin, was a great help when learning Latin vocab in school.

The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence, first in her Roman Mysteries series, provide maps of ancient Ostia (surely one of the most under appreciated places in Classics classrooms in England), historical details of the time, religious practices around the empire (Jonathan, one of the main characters, is Jewish) and cracking good adventures. One pupil of mine, otherwise a fan of the books, found it a little patronising that the names of some characters are a direct Latin translation of their jobs, the slave dealer’s name being Venalicius, for example. This did not bother me at all. I think they are fab, and so does the BBC who televised two series for their children’s programming. There’s also a powerful female lead in the headstrong and fearless Flavia Gemina.

Harry Potter. In case I need say more, the spells are in Latin, or a kind of Latin. JK did Classics.

Children’s author Joan Lennon has created a wonderful, ginger heroine in the form of Slightly Jones, Victorian child detective. Her hero is Sherlock Holmes, she lives with her intrepid grandmother, and it is the house full of lodgers with interesting backstories who provide the mysteries for Slightly to solve, all of which are set in famous museums. I have a personal bias in choosing to recommend The Case of the Cambridge Mummy, set in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, but they are all jolly good reads. If you enjoy these, try Joan Lennon’s other series set in the medieval fenlands around Ely Cathedral with a young novice monk and his pet gargoyle solving mysteries together.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, for those who missed the recent blockbuster films, is set in Panem, a dystopian future America with privileged city dwellers served by the effectively enslaved inhabitants of the provinces. The entertainments for the masses (panem et circenses, bread and circuses, see what Suzanne has done there?) are provided each year by a televised gameshow fight to the death amongst the children of the outlying provinces. Katniss Everdene is another strong female lead. See how many classical allusions you can spot. Gripping.

I should have been revising for my history A Level when I read Donna Tartt’s A Secret History. I justified it because the title was similar to Procopius’ Secret History of the reign of Emperor Justinian and his circus performer wife, Emperess Theodora, to which I should have been paying closer attention. But I digress. A group of US Classics students have a dark secret. Their thrilling story is bound up with Bacchic ritual. One for older teens, perhaps.

Now, I know that textual criticism is a somewhat niche subject, but hey, if you’re reading this you’re pretty niche already, and that’s a good thing. Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice is the fabulous rip-roaring adventure of Victorian Scots Presbyterian twin sisters who teach themselves ancient languages, take themselves off to the Sinai peninsula, amongst other places, and discover lost texts of ancient Syriac gospels. They also found a college in Cambridge, set up academic journals and are awarded honorary degrees by universities far and wide (but not Cambridge, to its shame). Note the strong female leads again. Words like ‘palimpsest’ and ‘genizah’ abound. I did mention that it is a rip-roaring adventure.

Following the textual criticism theme, Jasper Fforde writes dangerously addictive comedy fiction about literary detective Thursday Next. I urge you to start from the beginning with The Eyre Affair, however, if literary criticism really is your bag, then you can jump straight into The Woman Who Died A Lot. It also features my favourite medieval monk, the Venerable Bede, in an utterly spurious cameo. Dangerously addictive, I tell you, and another strong female lead.

There are so many more and everyone will have their favourites. Please share yours in the comments section below. That would make my day.

Summer’s Here! Top tips for tip top revision

I am not about to tell you how to revise — some people stick colour coded charts all over their walls, others like flash cards — do whatever works for you, but I do have a few top tips to help you focus and stay focused.

Mens sana in corpore sano, or, as I like to say, Healthy body, healthy brain¹

Looking after yourself during stressful times is very important. Firstly, have a proper breakfast to set yourself up for the day. Eat whatever makes you happy, be it porridge or bacon and eggs, just have breakfast!

Secondly, remember to take brain breaks. Stop working and get some exercise, even if it’s just a stroll in the fresh air. Moving your limbs will get everything flowing again, taking deep breaths of fresh air will relax you and if it’s sunny you get your healthy boost of vitamin D too. You will work better if you take a break and come back to it.

Multum in parvo — less is more²

If you are trying to learn lots of vocab or lists of facts, quotations, whatever, little and often is best. Work in short bursts and come back to it. The more often you return to a topic, the better. As above, however, remember not to overdo your studies but take brain breaks.

Varietas delectat — variety is the spice of life³

You might have one subject that you love, but you will have others that need time as well. Equally, you might have one subject that you feel needs lots of time spent on it, but you mustn’t neglect the others. Mix it up. You will benefit from the change of topic and change of approach that different subjects often require.

Finally, good luck in all those exams!

¹ Literally, mens sana in corpore sano means ‘a sound (or healthy) mind in a sound (or healthy) body’. It comes from Satire X of the Roman poet Juevenal, in which he lists what one should desire in life. He apparently felt that ‘virtue’ was the thing. Go on, look up Juvenal’s Satire X.

² Literally, multum in parvo means ‘much in little’ or ‘much in a small space’. It often refers to conciseness, but is also, delightfully, the motto of Rutland, the smallest county in England.

³ The Latin reads ‘variety delights’. My loose translation is in fact a misquotation from the English poet William Cowper, who wrote in his lengthy poem of 1785 entitled The Timepiece, from The Task, Book II, ‘Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour’. Cowper was also famed for his translations of Homer. Cool, hey?

Stop sniggering at the back! Rude words in the classroom

Every child loves a rude word. ‘Banana pants!’ This is my three year old daughter’s current favourite joke. She has us in fits of giggles with this exclamation every time. It is little different with Year 7, or 8, 9 or 10, for that matter. Here are some words which crop up in pre-GCSE Latin which never fail to amuse.

Bottoms

‘anus’ This is a feminine noun meaning old woman. No really. It crops up in Book II of the Cambridge Latin Course. What were they thinking?!  “I know! Let’s use ‘Marcia anus erat’ in the first line of a translation to be used commonly by Year 8 and 9 pupils.” Genius!

Kinky sex

In my first school Villa! Villa! was a favourite end of term game — Latin bingo! And to play bingo you need to know numbers. This is a fantastic opportunity to teach your earnest young students about kinky sex. Watch their faces as you recite ‘unus, duo, tres, quattuor, kinky sex, septem, octo, novem, decem’. Okay, so it is a slight mispronunciation (‘quinque’, in reality) but they will never forget it, and Latin instantly became more fun.  Oh, and don’t forget that a good Latinist never declines sex. Good to know for those prose composition lessons.

More bottoms

It seems unfashionable to teach principal parts these days, but they are so helpful, part of the rigour which increases confidence. Before I start sounding dull, I should just say ‘rectum’. It means ‘having been ruled’. Stop sniggering at the back!

Front bottoms

There is a translation which I have used every year I have taught — and remember doing as a student — which involves a duplicitous inn-keeper murdering a guest with another guest’s sword, ‘gladium’. I quote from Cicero, ‘gladium prope appositum e vagina eduxit et illum alterum occidit, nummos abstulit, gladium cruentum in vaginam recondidit’*. Thankfully, ‘vagina’ is a feminine noun meaning a sheath for a sword. It should be pleasing that students generally know ‘cruentum’ to be ‘bloody’, though some better application of adjectival agreements would make for less disturbing marking.

Have you got any other stories of rude words in Latin? Please share below.

* He took the sword that was lying nearby from its sheath and killed the other man, stole the coins and returned the bloody sword to its sheath.