Songs on Bronze: The Greek Myths Made Real

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A vivid, uninhibited retelling of the classic Greek stories

Songs on Bronze is the first major retelling of Greek mythology in half a century; a set of lively, racy, dramatic versions of the great myths, which, in a multicultural society, are recognized more than ever as stories without equal.

Most of us would like to know the Greek myths better than we do, and books like Seamus Heaney's Beowulf have demonstrated the power of ancient texts to ...

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A vivid, uninhibited retelling of the classic Greek stories

Songs on Bronze is the first major retelling of Greek mythology in half a century; a set of lively, racy, dramatic versions of the great myths, which, in a multicultural society, are recognized more than ever as stories without equal.

Most of us would like to know the Greek myths better than we do, and books like Seamus Heaney's Beowulf have demonstrated the power of ancient texts to enchant and enthrall us. And yet the modern translations of the Greek myths have sought to instruct, to edify, or to impart a personal philosophy. Songs on Bronze is different. With this book, Nigel Spivey--a young Cambridge classicist and rising star as a documentary host--gives us the Greek myths as the spellbinding stories they are. In bold, sensuous prose, he tells of Demeter and Persephone, of Jason and the Argonauts, of the wrath of Achilles and the travels of Odysseus, of Oedipus's crime and Orpheus's excursion into the underworld. In his hands, these stories are revealed anew as outsize tales of love and strife, of secret compacts and open rivalries, of lust and desire.

Songs on Bronze is a fresh revision of the classics that is likely to become a classic in its own right.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Psychological realism infuses Greek myths as reimagined by Cambridge classicist Spivey. Thus Herakles sounds as if he were confessing to a therapist when he explains his bravery: "It's an act, isn't it? The power of make-believe. The odd thing is... promise you won't laugh... I used to get fired up by believing that my opponent was some maniac-yes, a maniac-coming after my wife and children." Spivey's heroes, as a result, are emotionally accessible but divested of their frightening grandeur. Their adventures still make for rollicking good tales, of course, and Spivey is at his best when clipping his diction and telling it straight; neatly closing one story with Odysseus overcoming his reluctance to go to war, Spivey writes: "Odysseus shrugged. His forebodings told him otherwise. His armor was rusting on hooks in an outhouse. Yet he went to fetch it." Spivey's language is sometimes pleasingly epigrammatic: Eros is "zero's opposite." But too often he dresses up classical myths in togas of pop psychology. After Pandora's box is opened, for instance, we are told Prometheus and his brother "knew their world would never be the same." The Greek myths are formidable, but apparently they do have an Achilles heel: cliched English makes them go limp. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The classic Greek tales retold as smoldering, campy romance. Attempting to "visualize how legends were formed," Spivey (Classics/Cambridge Univ.; The Ancient Olympics, 2004, etc.) offers a glimpse of the ancient Greek characters straight out of Central Casting. He eschews the decorous depictions of Homer and stately comeliness of Ovid's shape-shifters in favor of a skirt-hitching Eurydice and cleavage-spilling Hera who jump off the page and into the reader's lap. The author picks and chooses from the mythological repertoire. From myths of the "early childhood of the world," marked by the chaos and violence of Kronos and Gaia's family drama, he moves to Hades' snatching of radiant Persephone while mother Demeter mourns. Then it's on to the great deeds of cracking action-figures Herakles, Theseus, Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, followed by the judgment of languorous shepherd Paris that precipitates the Trojan War. After an abbreviated account of the travels and hard-won homecoming of Odysseus, it all concludes spiffily with a wrap-up of the ghastly turn of the House of Atreus. Spivey takes tensely dramatic moments and renders them in laughable dialogue: When good-natured goon Herakles strides through the brambles on his way to tackling the Nemean lion, he notes, "I don't want any scratches"; after the sacking of Troy, Helen remarks to her waylaid husband Menelaus, hammering away at her chains, "I didn't know you cared-so much." Considering the alluring outfit of each of the three goddesses who vie for his favor-Athena clad in high-heeled hunting boots and "little else except for a military-style corselet"-Paris enjoys a Harlequin moment: "Aphrodite let the tip of her tongue flicker overhis earlobe. Paris shuddered. He knew what desire was." Entertaining stuff, granted, but is it necessary to so raucously redraft the ancient tales rather than direct readers back to the reliable original singers? A version better suited to young adult readers suckled on lots of telly.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374530372
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/30/2006
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 4.80 (w) x 7.46 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Nigel Spivey is the author of The Ancient Olympics: A History, among other books. A professor of classics at Cambridge, Spivey, born in 1958, will be the host of a forthcoming public-television documentary about the origins of art and how it defines us as human.
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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2005 Nigel Spivey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-26663-8

Chapter One


* * *

Once upon a time there was no Time.

It was a void without days, hours, or anything ticking by. No light shone, no dark fell, nothing moved-because there was nothing to move. Nowhere to go. It was the empty, ageless state of Chaos.

No one can tell when Chaos began to grow into form. But no one can doubt what came with the growth. It was Eros: zero's opposite. The same force that rocks us at the knees: Eros, the divine ignition of the world.

A shape appeared in Chaos. Smooth, solid, hugely calm, this was Gaia-Mother Earth. Above Gaia there stretched a broad, wide-shouldered form. It was Ouranos -the Sky.

As such they might have stayed there, Gaia and Ouranos, apart for all time-if Eros had not stirred, and loosed his darts.

Ouranos gazed on Gaia, and marveled at her loveliness. His heart drummed hard with desire. Ouranos lowered himself' down, on top of Gaia, and caressed her flesh. He made a gully where he could insert himself' into Gaia's pliant clay. Once he thrust himself inside, she was never so smooth again. Ouranos heaved and sweated there. He cast his seed and rolled away for slumber while Gaia stayed awake.

She yearned for her lover. He came to her again, and again, swooping as Eros ruled. Meanwhile Gaia swelled with the seed Ouranos left. Her belly grew and grew until, with a heaven searching howl, Gaia pushed out what was inside her.

It came out as a surge, rushing into eddies and waves, it was a burly, eager thing. It was the Ocean, and it showed its strength with a roar.

Ouranos looked down upon Gaia, nursing the noisy child. In the tides and tows of young Ocean, Ouranos glimpsed sinews of himself, which pleased him. But Ouranos was jealous too. He had folded Gaia in his arms. He had caused her to gasp and smile. Now she crooned over this Ocean playing in her lap. What was this splashy toy to her?

He puffed himself up. He descended again. "Love me," he boomed, gripping Gaia hard.

Once more Gaia was swollen with his seed. Once more she broke open, issuing forth a shiny, round faced thing, whose name would be Helios. Gaia fondled the golden creature, and again Ouranos was petulant.

"Give that thing to me," he demanded. "I made it. I want it." Ouranos gathered Helios up into his own high place in the sky, and kept him there.

Gaia moaned to see Helios gone so far from her. So long as she could see him, beaming, she felt comforted and warm. But if ever Hellos went out of her sight, then Gaia felt the ache of his loss. She would shiver and weep.

Gaia was placid and good. Ouranos, always around and above her, could lay himself down as he liked. So he did. But he no longer stroked her surfaces, nor whispered how lovely she was. He made his entry, left his sperm, and ignored her when she swelled. Gaia gave birth to Night, packed with dreams; to the Moon, Selene, who is Night's lantern; to the Hesperides, the swaying girls of twilight; and to Aurora, the Dawn, with her jug of silvery dew. Still Ouranos pounded, still the offspring increased. These last were large, lumbering figures, the Titans. Big strivers they were, roaming widely, full of ambition and grandiose dreams.

But the youngest of these Titans staved close to Gaia. His name was Kronos. He was more thoughtful than the others, more ready with words; but weaker and punier too-a Titanic runt. Ouranos mocked Kronos as soon as he was born. The boy could do nothing that redeemed him in his father's eyes. Once, Ouranos found Kronos playing in a pit of sand that Gaia had given to the boy. Kronos had a fistful of grains, which he let trickle into a mound; he sat, gleeful, surrounded by such mounds.

"Look, Father," said Kronos, as the sand ran through his fingers. "This will make an hour."

"An hour?" Ouranos sneered. "What's an hour good (or?"

Scornful, Ouranos kicked and huffed the mounds of sand, spreading them as deserts across the globe. Thereafter, Kronos would hide himself whenever Ouranos bore down on Gaia's weary form. From his hiding place, Kronos saw how his mother was seized. He witnessed Gaia's wince and shudder, observed her sparse pleasure, and then her lonely distress. When Ouranos hauled himself away, Kronos would creep back to his mother's lap.

Mother and son plotted revenge.

"An hour," said Kronos to Gaia. "An hour is how long he sleeps down here. It will take less, much less, to do what he deserves."

Gaia dug down to what was needed for their plan: a jagged edge of flint. Kronos kept it hidden by his side. When Ouranos next dropped upon Gaia and began his straddling, Kronos lurked with this sickle in his grasp. When Ouranos gained his release, rolling off to rest by Gaia's warmth, Kronos sneaked forward. For a moment he looked, half-fondly, upon the face of his father, sprawled and snoring, wearing a satisfied smile.

But Gaia was not smiling. She had suffered too many hurts from this slumberous form. She nodded to Kronos, who raised his curving blade. He took one swipe, and another. Ouranos first jerked, still sleeping, then snapped stark awake in astonished pain. Shaking his head, Ouranos put his hand to his groin and gaped: it was a stub, pulsing black and red. Ouranos shrieked for what was gone. But Kronos was already sprinting away with his prize.

Where the hacked-off genitals of Ouranos dripped blood, that blood created crucibles of cosmic anger, the boiling volcanoes of the world. And as he ran, Kronos heard his father scream a curse that never left his ears. The curse damned Kronos, for all the endless hours there were, to live in fear of what his loins produced.

Ouranos retired to fade and die among the heavens that were his element.

Aghast and sickened, Kronos hurled the bloodied fragments of his father into Ocean's swirling waters.

It was an ugly act, deserved or not. But Eros triumphs over shame. Thrown into a cool deep sea, the testicle sacks of Ouranos fizzed with energy. Their store of sperm spilled out, and came foaming up like surf, as Aphrodite rose from the frothing seed.

What was left of Ouranos was Love.


* * *

So Kronos was saddled with a curse: that his own offspring would be the death of him. He took it seriously. By his partner, Rhea, he fathered several children, but as each one appeared, Kronos grabbed the baby in a welter of tears and rage, and crammed the newly issued body into his mouth; nearly choking, he swallowed them whole. He was unstoppable.

Or so it seemed. In her final pregnancy, Rhea contrived to deliver her child unseen, within the recess of a cave. The boy was Zeus, whom she left tucked up in a corner; meanwhile she took a small rock, swaddled it in rags, and emerged into the daylight cooing and cuddling the effigy to her breast. As she expected, Kronos tore the bundle away from her, and gulped it down. This time his stomach protested, and he began to retch.

"What else do you expect?" cried Rhea. "You castrated your father; you devour your children."

Disgusted with himself; Kronos vomited forth not only the stone but the other babies too. They came squirming out. Rhea, triumphantly, gathered them up, and made off back to the place where she had hidden the infant Zeus. There she nurtured her tenderlings upon the milk of deathlessness. They were to outmatch the Titans. They were to be divine.

Hestia was one. Unobtrusive, demure, she grew to be the guardian of hearth and homeliness. Another was Hera, in time the mistress of fertile motherhood. Also Demeter, who was destined to be matron of all that blooms and thrives. Of Rhea's salvaged brood, however, most prompt to rise and jostle for seats of godly rule were three sharp-elbowed lads. First was Zeus, who chose the heavens for his realm, and took possession of all clouds that gather there; thunder is his anger, lightning bolts his weaponry. Second came Poseidon, who marshaled the seas, and all the songless tribes of fish that flicker through the brine. Last was Hades. Now, Hades was not like the others. Zeus was ample and open; for all that his temper could be fierce, he was by nature broad-minded and with a gaze that took in everything. Poseidon was impetuous, easily raised to shake the earth with his sudden fits of pride; but, equally, he might send breezes flowing round the torrid earth, and make halcyon days, when even the flashing kingfisher may float with her brood on the surface of the deep. But Hades-Hades kept a single mood: sullen, shadowed, chewing everything over. Hades had no sooner entered the world than he retired from it. He claimed his element down below, in the guts of the earth. He became lord of the land that is not land, ringed by black waters that have no source or end, the coiling River Styx. It is the Underworld-which is where, sooner or later, we all must drop: like leaves.

So the three boys of Rhea set themselves up. As for their father, they would have set upon and ousted him, as he had his own father; but Kronos saved them the trouble. He withdrew. Dimly it is remembered that he was granted a sort of mellow exile in the land of Italy, where mortals later worshipped him as Saturn, and his reign was acclaimed as a Golden Age for men and beasts alike. In any case, Kronos was gone. Now it was the self-appointed task of Zeus to settle the elements; to govern a cosmos that worked.

There are nipples on the earth that end in clouds. Zeus made his bastion on one of these, the snowy peak of Mount Olympus in Macedonia. Around him he mustered his company. There were his siblings, naturally. Of the women, Demeter was unstinting and goodwilled, and Hestia wanted no more than to Kindle universal happiness, so he could count on their support; but Zeus knew that his prickly sister Hera would not abide to be less than a queen. He proposed she join his reign, as consort; all honor to him should therefore be hers as well. Hera frowned, but she did not refuse.

This would never be an easy union. Zeus sought his passion elsewhere, while Hera kept up a pretense of married bliss. By other partners Zeus produced Hermes, swift purveyor of news; Apollo, the god who shines and sees afar; Apollo's twin, Artemis, the huntress who finds blood with her arrows and whip; and Dionysos, lord of ecstasy. The only son that Hera bore by Zeus was Ares, the bristling god whom no one loves. Provoker of clashes, spiller of blood, Ares forever carried with him the quarrelsome taint of his parents. His lullaby was nothing but shouts, yells, recriminations.

Once, to punish her husband, Hera coupled elsewhere. She gave birth to Hephaistos: an awkward but powerful boy who showed a rare gift for putting things together and taking them apart. Zeus regarded the child with suspicion at first. At the height of one quivering argument with Hera, Zeus seized Hephaistos and flung him through the skies. Hephaistos crashed heavily to earth. He came back not only awkward but markedly lame. Then Zeus took pity on his adoptive son, and gave him a place on Olympus: a workshop, a furnace, and whatever materials and instruments were needed to supply the marvelous creations of this ingenious youth. Still Hera smoldered, chiding Zeus for his lack of self-control. Zeus withdrew into a dark sulk, accumulating clouds around him. When he emerged he was clutching his head.

"Who, pray, shall soothe our noble lord?" asked Hera, cuttingly.

"Hephaistos," groaned Zeus. "Call him to me. Then see," he snarled to Hera, "how I control all things."

Hephaistos hobbled along, lugging his tool bag. Zeus was squeezing his temples in pain. "Now enjoy yourself," he said to Hephaistos with a grimace. "Go on, lad. Aim for the cranium. Strike it hard."

Hephaistos looked to Hera, who only shrugged. Zeus sat on his throne, and gripped its gleaming lion's paws. "Get on with it!" he barked. Hephaistos selected a mallet, measured his distance, and dealt a sharp emphatic blow. For a moment Zeus fell forward with the force of the crack; then his head tipped back-a smile of relief spread across his face. His skull was split, but without mess or pain. Instead, what issued forth was a goddess. She rose tall and imperious, brandishing a spear; with one leap she was in the lap of Zeus. His wound healed immediately, and he lost no time in crowing to his wife.

"To Zeus," he declared, "by Zeus, from Zeus: a daughter. Zeus gives her strength-with softness; wisdom-with docility. Zeus names her: Athena."

Hera turned on her heels. She would not be beaten for long.

Meanwhile, Zeus had other battles on his hands. There were Titans at large in the world. Most were dull-witted, and Zeus soon had them under control. One was called Atlas; Zeus merely harnessed that Titan's enormous shoulders to hold up the weight of heaven. But others were more wily, and taxed the mind of Zeus-none more so than Prometheus.

Prometheus was born of Gaia, Mother Earth. He was witness to the triple division by which Rhea's boys had as signed to themselves the skies, the seas, and the somber underground. Prometheus settled for less-a continent or so. He lived there quietly enough with a simpleton brother of his called Epimetheus, the two of them foraging day by day. Still, Prometheus tinkered with making a realm of his own. One day, delving in some riverbeds, he came across a strange and mobile sort of clay. He grabbed a lump and began to knead it into a shape. Legs, arms, joints, and all. There-a fan of nimble fingers. There-a bobbing head. And there-a phallus craving friction. It was a manikin, a toy, but it was immediately endearing to Prometheus. He lifted it up, and crooned his breath into its bold little torso. The trick worked: Prometheus set his figure on the ground, and watched it toddle, run, scamper, and hide. In a similar way he amused himself by molding other small things to scuttle and rove around-things with snouts and trunks and spikes and humps, all sorts of company for the tiny man. His brother Epimetheus was delighted at how these creatures moved and busied themselves, yet Prometheus was not quite satisfied. He gave his manchild an affectionate poke.

"Now, what you need," he said, "is something more. Some element that sets you apart, that gives you an edge above the rest."

Prometheus knew just what he wanted, and where he could find it. Grasping the hollow stalk of a giant fennel plant, he crept up to Olympus one afternoon when Zeus was out adventuring. And there it was, lodged in the misty heights of the home of Zeus: a scalded cauldron, filled to its brim with lightning bolts. Quick-as a flash-Prometheus snatched up a single electrified strand, slid it into his fennel tube, and made away, blowing his fingers.

Prometheus was halfway down the slopes of Olympus when he met the returning Zeus.

Wise Zeus looked him up and down.

"Out for a hike in the hills?" he inquired.

Prometheus nodded hastily. Behind his back, the fennel wand glowed in his hands.

Zeus sniffed the air.

"Odd," he said. "Faint smell of burning. You notice it?"

"Not at all," said Prometheus. "Excuse me," he coughed. "Must be pressing on."

It was a relieved and blistering Prometheus who reached his home camp with the stolen fire. Straightaway his brother and the little man began to gather brushwood and twigs. Soon smoke was rising up from the land of scuttling things.


Excerpted from SONGS ON BRONZE by NIGEL SPIVEY Copyright © 2005 by Nigel Spivey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prelude : Orpheus in love 3
I An early childhood of the world
Out of chaos 9
Prometheus and Pandora 13
Demeter and Persephone 27
II Heroes in the making
Herakles 41
Theseus 69
Perseus 85
Jason and the Argonauts 105
III War about Troy
The judgment of Paris 133
The wrath of Achilles 141
Troy taken 163
IV A hero's coming home
The travels of Odysseus 185
V The stuff of tragedy
The house of Atreus 221
Oedipus 233
Unending : Orpheus in the underworld 247
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