Ten bizarre moments in Ancient Literature

When we think of Ancient Greece, we see a society of culture, dedicated to the highest forms of art. There are the great philosophers like Socrates and Plato, or great tragedians such as Sophocles and Euripides. The ‘Golden Age’ of our time, the people we aspire to be like. However, there are some scenes in the so called ‘great’ pieces of literature that aren’t exactly, shall we say, so refined. As a classics student, this is clearly a subject that I adore and what better way to share that love than with a fun list?

  1. Medea’s exit

Euripides’ Medea is one of the most well-known tragedies. Studied in schools, cited by scholars, revived in modern theatre – this play is a perfect example of how these ancient pieces of work still permeate our everyday lives. The Medea is known mainly for our central character, the bitter Medea who is known from another great work, Jason and the Argonauts. This is one of the only plays that has a female character as the central one, and it’s easy to see why. We follow her throughout the play, plotting her revenge against Jason, who has chosen to marry someone else – and a Princess at that – despite all that Medea has sacrificed for him. In true stereotypical jealous woman manner, Medea exacts her revenge, which ends up killing not only his fiancée, but so that he is utterly destroyed, she kills her two children. This is the part of the play that most of us can recall – ah, yes, the woman who killed her children to ‘get back’ at her husband. Well, there is one detail that is often left out and that is Medea’s uncommon exit. Just as she’s killed her children and laughs at Jason’s despair, she proceeds to exit on a chariot pulled by dragons. I’m sure many of us would like to know whether this was just accepted by the original ancient audience or laughed off.

  1. Ajax’s blind rage

Sophocles’ Ajax recounts the demise of the great, notable Ajax, a warrior who was present at the Trojan War, second only to Achilles. In Sophocles’ play, we see the great warrior enter a fit of rage over Achilles’ armour, gifted to Odysseus instead of Ajax, and so begins our tragedy. Ajax is known for entering this fury, only to end it by symbolically killing himself with the sword of Hector, the Trojan Prince. There are a few more details that need to be added to this common knowledge, however. First of all, Ajax’s rage incited him to murder some of the generals and soldiers of the Greek camp, but he is stopped by the Goddess Athena who adds a certain ‘blindness’ to his rage. Ajax so turns his bloodlust not to his fellow men but, and here’s the kicker, some sheep. Yes, we have a tragedy where the central killing is that of a flock of sheep, who Ajax believes to be men. There is even a scene where Odysseus and the Goddess watch as Ajax tortures a sheep, believing it to be Odysseus.

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  1. Aristophanes’ Frogs

Ancient comedies are known to be pretty vulgar, what with the giant phalli and poor slapstick comedy. Aristophanes is one such playwright that we have several works from, and one of the well-known plays is his Frogs. Already we can anticipate the nature of the play and shouldn’t be surprised that there is a chorus of, you guessed it, frogs. However, there is one particularly odd moment in the play that really deserves a mention. In the Underworld, we are with the God Dionysus and his slave Xanthius and, in true comedic fashion, they have encountered a spot of trouble. Naturally, the issue is proving themselves not to be a God and, as we all know, Gods do not feel pain, so they are whipped (most likely on their bottoms) to determine who is the God. The height of comedy does, indeed, come down to a spanking.

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  1. Aristophanes’ Frogs 2

It’s not surprising that there is another instance that deserves a mention in Aristophanes’ Frogs. This is at the beginning of the play, where we see conversations between Dionysus and Xanthius. Dionysus, the God of Theatre and Wine, is shown to be cowardly and not the brightest bulb in the box, whereas Xanthius his slave is the sarcastic, intelligent slave who often outwits his master. One truly enlightening scene to their characters, and why this has made the list twice, is when Xanthius tries to scare his master, yet his plan backfires. As in, Dionysus literally backfires. There you are, watching something by ‘masterful’ playwright, and in true slapstick fashion, a character opened his bowls over the stage.

 

  1. Women in charge

At this point, we can gather that women are not exactly given the best light – unsurprising with the background of Medea killing her children and the adulterous Helen causing the Trojan War. However, Aristophanes earns a third and final mention with his Lysistrata. This is a comedy about the lengths women go to in order to stop the Peloponnesian War. The central plot of the play, which is what most people remember, is the women withholding sex from their husbands until they stop the war – this, naturally, works, and succeeds in insulting both genders. As if this were not bizarre enough already, there is the dialogue that litters the play. Among the usual innuendoes such as ‘big and meaty’, we have discussions of the ‘lioness on a cheese grater position’ and women’s own personal pleasure with ‘big, black, leather jobs’.

 

  1. The Swan Child

There are many odd moments in Ancient mythology, but this one is a personal favourite. The God of Gods Zeus is known for having a large sexual appetite, and one day he decides that he wants the beautiful Leda. To do this, Zeus decides to turn himself into a swan and to rape her in that form. This act then produced, as it is want to do, a child – a swan child, if you will. This child is of course the beautiful Helen, who runs away with Paris and starts the Trojan War.

  1. Aphrodite’s birth

Many people can tell you that Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty – there is even some very poor modern literature out there where female leads are called Aphrodite. However, her birth, her ‘origin story’ if you will, isn’t exactly what you would call beautiful. Cronus, the son of Uranus and Gaia, ends up chopping off his father’s testicles and throws them into the sea. Foam begins to foam around them and it is from this foam that the wonderful Aphrodite is born.

 

  1. The Rock

The reasoning for hacking off his father’s genitals is due to Cronus wishing to help his mother Gaia, whom his father Uranus torturing by forcing their children back up her womb. (Suspension of belief is important for these stories, if you hadn’t already gathered). Cronus, however, also did not have a good reputation with his children as it was foretold that he would be overthrown by one of them. This then causes him to swallow each baby after it was born. In retaliation, Gaia hides one of the babies – the notorious Zeus – and instead hands Cronus a rock instead of a child. Cronus, the clever god that he is, does not notice and swallows the rock. Zeus ends up growing up and eventually frees his brothers and sisters, who are miraculously still alive. That’s mythology for you.

  1. Elpenor

We go back even further now to The Odyssey, the great Homer, the foundation of all Ancient Literature. Many of us know the tales of Odysseus, how he faced the Cyclops, slept with lots of women but still remained ‘faithful’ to his dear wife Penelope. We know all about the wily, cunning Odysseus, but it turns out that he isn’t always the smartest man around. This is shown when one of his men, Elpenor, gets slightly intoxicated, falls off a roof, and dies. As is usual in the ancient world, when you die you go to the Underworld. Back to the living, Odysseus decides to travel with his remaining men to the Underworld for certain reasons and, unsurprisingly, bumps into Elpenor then. It is at this moment, that Odysseus questions how Elpenor managed to beat them to the Underworld because, indeed, how could have his dead comrade reached the Underworld before him? A puzzling one, that.

 

  1. The Beetle’s entrance

I feel it’s only fitting to once again mention, and now end, with another classic moment from one of Aritophanes’ plays, Peace. The bizarre moment in this place – well, at least my favourite one – occurs right at the beginning. You meet two slaves who are gathering excrement to feed a dung beetle – not too out of the ordinary at this stage – who is owned by their master, Trygaeus. Moments later, Trygaeus enters the stage. Unlike Medea, Trygaeus clearly likes to make a dramatic entrance – but this time, it is not in a chariot pulled by dragons. No, Trygaeus enters the stage flying on top of a giant dung beetle and flies upward to visit the Gods. There is also a demand from him to the audience, requesting that they do not fart or poo so that they might not distract his mount.

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It’s safe to say, it’s all Greek to me.

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