Mark Williams: A look at Irish gods and their legacy

WilliamsAgeless fairies inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves; W. B. Yeats invoked Irish divinities to reimagine the national condition. Why have Ireland’s mythical beings loomed so large in the world’s imagination? In Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Mark Williams weaves together the fascinating stories of some of Ireland’s famous gods and goddesses, from the heroic Lug to the fire goddess Brigit. He explores the religious history in the myths, showing how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era. Recently, Williams took the time to answer some questions about Irish gods and their stories.


Apparently Ireland has a pantheon of native gods?!

MW: Yes! — though in many ways they are unique, and don’t look all that much like the pantheons of other peoples and places. They’re called the Túatha Dé Danann in Irish, or ‘The Peoples of the Goddess Danu,’ as it’s usually translated. They tend to be imagined as immortal, beautiful aristocrats, sumptuously dressed and eternally young. In many stories from medieval Ireland, they live in a kind of parallel world, which can be accessed via the hills and Neolithic passage-graves which dot the Irish landscape. Some of them have vivid personalities: there’s the Morrígan, a battle-goddess who sometimes takes the form of a crow, for instance, or the young and heroic god Lug of the Long Arm. My favorite is Brigit, the goddess of poetry, medicine and blacksmithing who also moonlights as Ireland’s most important female saint — or at least has been thought to.

What is unusual about the Irish gods?

MW: Across Irish literature, in both Irish and English, their major characteristic is ontological ambiguity: the nature of their nature, so to speak, is never wholly fixed. In the first place, it’s hard to simply identify them as gods, as they have only an uncertain and wavering link to the actual deities worshiped by the pre-Christian Irish. Ireland’s conversion to Christianity saw the jettisoning of the vast majority of deities the Irish had once worshiped, while a small number were ‘reincarnated’ as medieval literary characters. This latter process was in no way inevitable, and the Anglo-Saxons did nothing of the sort, for example: you don’t find versions of Woden and Thunor turning up as literary characters in secular story, whereas the Irish constantly worked former gods into their sagas and tales, often worrying about how to place them in a Christian cosmos. Serious suggestions included the idea that they were merciful angels, ‘half-fallen’ angels, demons, or a race of humans who had somehow escaped the Fall and so retained more-than-human powers.

That the old gods were remembered at all was down to the deep respect for the past, which was characteristic of the medieval Irish. The Anglo-Saxons knew that they had arrived from somewhere else in the relatively recent past, but the Irish — around the conversion period, at least — seem to have thought themselves to be indigenous to their land. They were deeply invested in their own nativeness, so that their landscape, culture, and ancestry were all bound up together. (A new story was developed later which asserted that they hailed from Scythia, via Spain). But literature and shaping of a literate culture were in the hands of a clerical intelligentsia, who felt perfectly at liberty to make major changes in the depiction of ancient, once-divine figures. It is very striking how much the multi-talented god Lug (or Lugh) resembles the biblical King David, for example — both are young, handsome, royal figures, both are skilled musicians and poets, and both kill a giant with a slingshot to the head in single combat. Though there is no question that a god named Lug (or Lugus) was part of Irish paganism, one wonders how much of his ancient character actually persists in the literary Lug. This kind of remodeling might have happened to any number of the divine figures in Irish literature; far from representing the ignorant interference of clerics in ancient traditions, it actually reflects an attitude of deep respect on their part, and underscores their investment in the patterns and personages of their island’s ancient past.

The second peculiarity about the gods is that they are often depicted as ‘fairies’ — the not very satisfactory English term for the Irish áes síde, ‘the people of the hollow hills’. It is the second of these two Irish words which was later anglicised as Shee — a term familiar to all aficionados of nineteenth-century Irish literature. Rather than being gods, in this guise they act as humanity’s idealized twin-race. They are beautiful, immortal, and gifted with magic powers, and their lifestyle is largely characterized by graceful ease. In many ways they are the forerunner of Tolkien’s Elves, but they are less solemn and remote. In this guise they balloon in number: they become an imagined people, not a pantheon.

The third factor is that towards the end of the first millennium AD the Irish developed a complex backstory for their island, and a place for the Túatha Dé Danann was found within this elaborate timeline. They were now imagined as only one of a series of invading races who had ruled Ireland in the deep past. The climax of this kind of ‘synthetic history’ (as it is known) came in the late eleventh century, with the creation of ‘The Book of Invasions.’ In this schema, the gods were imagined as human beings who had simply learned how to supercharge their abilities with magical knowledge. They were (the synthetic history tells us) the third or fourth race to rule over Ireland, before they were in turn defeated by the incoming Gaels, the ethnic Irish. This scenario is transparently a creation of the high Middle Ages, but it became the basic imaginative frame for Ireland’s native gods until the nineteenth century.

The upshot of all these variations on the ontology of the Túatha Dé Danann was that it was actually quite difficult for antiquarian writers in modernity — as they combed through the records of the Irish past —to spot that these literary figures had once been Ireland’s native gods. Considerable preparation of the intellectual ground was necessary, and here the newly developed scholarly disciplines of anthropology, philology, and comparative mythology all played important roles. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the idea really took off, and soon it became a cultural and scholarly commonplace.

Why are the Irish gods less famous than the Graeco-Roman and Norse gods?

MW: The classical gods were the divinities of two cultures which were deeply admired by later ages, and were inseparable from the literature of those cultures; the gods of Greece and Rome therefore became part of the universal intellectual and imaginative patrimony of Europe. In the Middle Ages and on into the Early Modern era, Christian intellectuals felt perfectly at liberty to adopt them as symbols, personifications, allegories, and rhetorical tropes. (Dante calls on Apollo, for example, right at the heart of the greatest Christian poem of the Middle Ages). And later, with the Romantic movement, the impulse emerged to take the classical gods down from their niches in literary rhetoric and reclaim them as images of divine power in the natural world, even as living spiritual forces. So the gods of Greece and Rome have never actually been away, and have been naturalized for centuries in literature in English.

It’s worth noting, however, that the classical gods had no specifically national dimension, precisely because they were so universal. The Norse gods were quite different. Like the Irish gods, they were associated with a vernacular northern European language and had starring roles in a splendid medieval literature. In modernity, they could be claimed as the ‘native’ gods of those areas of Europe in which a Germanic language was spoken. This meant Germany, of course, but also — because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage — England, which gave the Norse gods a ready-made audience and a role as the ‘divine machinery’ in many forms of quasi-nationalist creative expression. The classic example is Wagner, whose monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen brought the Northern pantheon to international attention as a family of archetypal figures on a cosmic scale, explicitly paralleled to the gods of Greece. The Gaelic gods, in contrast, were associated only with Ireland and with the poorest and most remote parts of Scotland, and so seemed vague and outlandish in comparison.

Why did someone like W. B. Yeats take an interest?

MW: Yeats, and his friend the mystic George Russell, are really the essential figures in the late nineteenth century recovery of the Irish gods, though they had important precursors. Yeats was well-placed to take advantage of the new scholarship which had retrieved the Túatha Dé Danann as Ireland’s native pantheon. In his early-career siftings of material, he was able to boldly assert the fundamental identity of the fairies of folklore, the Túatha Dé Danann of the medieval literature, and the gods of the ancient Irish. Here the occult acted as a crucial unifying frame; Yeats was deeply invested in occultism as a system of thought, and he used it to give meaning and context to the Irish pantheon. To use anachronistic language, he came to believe, around the turn of the century, that the native gods were the archetypes of the national

unconscious, and that it might be possible to retrieve and reactivate them, creating a system of hermetic ‘images’ with which to reimagine the national condition. To this end he attempted to establish the so-called ‘Celtic Mysteries’ — a hermetic order on specifically national lines which would invoke and stir into life these figures from the depths of the national psyche, persuading them to intervene in a conflicted present. He certainly didn’t succeed in the way that he expected, but—more than a hundred years later—more people have heard of Lug, and Danu, and Brigit than ever before, and indeed the Irish gods are the focus of several forms of renewed and reimagined modern Paganism. So who knows? They are certainly alive now.

Is Ireland’s Immortals meant to be funny?

MW: In places, yes, I hope so; the material seemed to demand it, but in two different ways. On one level, the ferocious weirdness of some of the medieval tales can be laugh-out-loud funny in a way that must have been intentional on the part of the saga-authors. My colleague at Oxford, Heather O’Donoghue — who’s written a wonderful history of Norse mythology — has remarked that myth tends to be the most surreal manifestation of a given culture, and I’ve tried to bring this dimension of the literature out. I dwell, for example, on a scene in a ninth-century saga in which the Dagda, the Falstaffian ‘great father’ of the Irish gods — the rough equivalent of Zeus — takes a very long time to relieve his bowels, before being spanked by a woman he is trying to seduce.

On another level, some of the activities of those involved in the gods’ retrieval in modernity — especially in what might be called the late-Victorian New Age — can’t help but raise a smile in a more cynical era. To me it’s fascinating that a connection can be traced between major political movements that affected the fate of nations on the one hand, and the activities of a clique of irrationalizing intellectuals, fired up by some pretty way-out ideas, on the other. That aspect of things seemed to demand a certain respectful wryness, because the idea of ritually awakening the archetypes of the national unconscious is an astonishing and beautiful one, even if the actual execution could be a bit bonkers. The only such person whom I couldn’t write about respectfully — to start with — was William Sharp, the Scottish writer who posed as a Hebridean seeress he named ‘Fiona Macleod.’ He was a plus-fours wearing six-footer with a big, red face, but he wrote all his most successful ‘Celtic’ work in the guise of this wafty, Enya-like figure. He probably reminds me a bit too closely of my own naïve, teenage forays into things Celtic — all mist-shrouded dolmens and dangly druidical tat — and the act of self-exorcism led me to be unfair to Sharp. I was taken to task — quite rightly — for being too nasty by one of the referees of the book, and in revisions I hope I’ve been more even-handed.

Finally, I have to say that writing about Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930 story The Ecstasy of Angus — a steamy bit of erotica involving the hot-to-trot goddess Fand and the love-god Angus Óg — was an absolute hoot. As the couple get down to it, O’Flaherty actually brings on a chorus of fairies who prance about brandishing dildos. It was impossible to analyze with a straight face, though I hope I’ve made the case that the story does have a dark, politically serious dimension to it.

Why did you write the book, and what influenced it?

MW: I had various aims in mind. First, there was a gap in the scholarship: there was no up-to-date guide to the gods in medieval Irish literature, nor to their recuperation in the modern era. In the two parts of the book I’ve tried to tell both stories in a way that makes one dimension illuminate the other. I’d always wanted to do the project: my undergraduate training was in Classics and English, so I cut my intellectual teeth on reception history, meaning the afterlife and reworking of classical texts by later writers. So we would look, for example, at Milton’s reuse of Virgil and Homer, or at Shakespeare’s allusions to Ovid, or at the links between the end of the tradition of epic poetry and the genesis of the novel. One of the things this gave me was a predisposition to read culture in terms of wholeness and continuity, rather than fracture and disjointedness. But the relationship between Irish literature in English and medieval Irish literature is very different to that between later literature and that of Graeco-Roman antiquity. With the Irish material, ‘reception’ of this sort is problematic because everything is charged with the legacy of a contested and traumatic colonial history, so my impulse towards wholeness needed considerable modification. In 1981 Richard Jenkyns — later to be my Oxford tutor — wrote a splendid book called The Victorians and Ancient Greece, which I actually read at school, and that was a big influence: Part Two could have been subtitled ‘The Victorians and Ancient Ireland.’ Another big influence was the Norse expert Heather O’Donoghue, as — of course — were the works of Roy Foster: one of the greatest pleasures of the process was getting to know him. The biggest influence of all is Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol. I read his The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles when I was seventeen, and Part One of the book is in one sense a vast expansion of his chapter in that book on the Celts, ‘The People of the Mist.’ He has also written an elegant few pages about Yeats’s and Russell’s astral adventures in his book The Triumph of the Moon, and Part Two of Ireland’s Immortals handles the same material at book length.

One thing I hope for the book is that it might have the effect of freeing things up a bit for younger scholars in Celtic. Celtic Studies as an academic discipline emerged from various kinds of Romantic nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the legacy of that origin is only now really being assessed by scholars — we’re starting to get superb biographical studies of major figures, for example. But the most obvious consequence has been a massive counter-reaction in scholarship against anything woolly or mystical: Celtic Studies has evolved into a hard-headed and rather inward-looking discipline, focused on the production of critical editions and the analysis of the languages. Unfortunately, the field is currently undergoing a period of contraction: there are fewer places in the world where the languages are taught, and important Professorships—including that at my own institution—are under threat. I hope one thing the book might do is to say, look, as Celticists we can reach out, we can talk to colleagues in English and in intellectual history. People who work on Irish literature in English and those who work on literature in Irish hardly ever seem to talk to one another, with a few noble exceptions such as Declan Kiberd. I hope that one thing the book will do is to underline that there is genuine value in seeing the bigger picture from time to time. (That said — lest any colleagues reading this think me to be encouraging a hermeneutic free-for-all — I must say to any student Celticists out there: make sure you learn your paradigms.) But the literature — extraordinary, uncanny, and beautiful as it is — will languish in neglect until we get in the habit of claiming for ourselves significance and status.

Mark Williams teaches medieval Irish, Welsh and English literature at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, where he is the June Li Fellow in the Humanities and Tutor in English. He has also taught for Cambridge University’s Department of of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic. Williams is the author of Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales, 700–1700.

Top 5 Tips for Aging from Cicero

CiceroIn 44 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote a short dialogue on the joys of one’s advanced years called On Old Age. You can read it in translation in our edition, How to Grow Old, translated by Philip Freeman. In the meantime, take these nuggets to heart as time draws you inexorably onward.

  1. Those who are unhappy in their youth will be unhappy in their old age as well. Begin cultivating the qualities that will serve you best when you are young and you will have a pleasant winter of life.
  2. Nature will always win. Certain things are meant to be enjoyed at different times of life, and trying to cling to youthful activities in old age will lead to frustration and resentment.
  3. The old and the young have much to offer one another. In exchange for the wisdom and experience of age, young people give joy to the twilight years.
  4. Use your increased free time productively. Cicero himself wrote extensively. He expounds on the joys of gardening for older people. Find an interest and pursue it!
  5. Do not fear death. Your soul will either continue on, or you will lose all awareness. Either way, the best thing to do is make the most of the time you have left.

There you have it! Armed with this knowledge, you too can enjoy a fruitful old age. For the rest of Cicero’s thoughts, pick up a copy of How to Grow Old.

New Ancient World Catalog

We invite you to explore our Ancient World 2016 catalog:

 

Ober In The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece Josiah Ober tells the story of one of the greatest civilizations of the past, explaining that its rise was not an accident—it was in fact due to important innovations that enabled it to flourish.
Goetzmann Leading financial economist William Goetzmann sheds light on the role of finance from antiquity to the present, and how it has enabled cultures and cities to flourish in Money Changes Everything.
Cicero Don’t miss our edition of How to Grow Old, a translation of Cicero’s work by Philip Freeman. Its lessons continue to resonate centuries later.

Finally, we have three forthcoming paperback editions that we’re excited about: 1177 B.C. by Eric H. Cline, The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor, and Delphi by Michael Scott. If you overlooked these PUP favorites the first time around, now’s your chance to see what you’ve been missing!

If you would like updates of our new titles, subscribe to our newsletter.

PUP will be at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies in San Francisco from January 7 to January 10. Visit us at booth #106!

Book Fact Friday – The Few vs. The Many

From chapter 1 of The Birth of Politics:

The elites in ancient Greece called themselves hoi aristoi, or the best men. It is from this term that we get the word ‘aristocracy.’ They also called themselves hoi oligoi, or the few, as opposed to hoi polloi, the many. The assumption was that there would only be a few rich families and the rest of the people would be poor, an idea that we can see playing out today.

The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter
Melissa Lane
Introduction

k10422In The Birth of Politics, Melissa Lane introduces the reader to the foundations of Western political thought, from the Greeks, who invented democracy, to the Romans, who created a republic and then transformed it into an empire. Tracing the origins of our political concepts from Socrates to Plutarch to Cicero, Lane reminds us that the birth of politics was a story as much of individuals as ideas. Scouring the speeches of lawyers alongside the speculations of philosophers, and the reflections of ex-slaves next to the popular comedies and tragedies of the Greek and Roman stages, this book brings ancient ideas to life in unexpected ways.

Lane shows how the Greeks and Romans defined politics with distinctive concepts, vocabulary, and practices—all of which continue to influence politics and political aspirations around the world today. She focuses on eight political ideas from the Greco-Roman world that are especially influential today: justice, virtue, constitution, democracy, citizenship, cosmopolitanism, republic, and sovereignty. Lane also describes how the ancient formulations of these ideas often challenge widely held modern assumptions—for example, that it is possible to have political equality despite great economic inequality, or that political regimes can be indifferent to the moral character of their citizens.

What does the Ancient Greek economy have to say about the current debt crisis? Josiah Ober shares his thoughts

Ober jacketJosiah Ober, author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, has conducted groundbreaking research into the ancient Greek economy, showing that contrary to popular opinion, democracy and economic growth went hand in hand. But are today’s Greeks the “trained and knowledgeable democratic citizens” who built and supported the institutions that served as the foundation for Greek civilization? Ober says now is the time to stop pointing fingers and to think very seriously about the link between democracy and long-term economic stability. He recently discussed Ancient Greece’s answer to the financial crisis in The Daily Beast:

Ancient Greece’s Answer to the Financial Crisis

Greece’s real deficit? Knowledgeable citizens and accountable institutions.

The Greek debt crisis is playing out as if, as Henry Ford said, history is bunk. But if we look to history, we immediately see that the stakes are much higher and the problems are much deeper than either the current Greek leadership or the current EU leadership is willing to admit.

Just before the Greek people went to the polls to decide their future by voting in a miserably mismanaged referendum, George Katrougalos, Greece’s deputy minister for administrative reforms, announced that “The whole question has moved now from the field of economics to the field of democracy.” Meanwhile, the EU leaders, who apparently regard the Union as little more than an accounting device, seem incapable of thinking about the geo-strategic long term. But, like the United States of America, the EU is more than an accounting device. A democratic federation is an attempted solution to the problem of conjoining democracy, prosperity, and security in a dangerous, mutable world. America’s Founders knew that. Europe’s technocrats seem not to.

Read the rest here.

An excerpt from the book ran on PBS’s Making $ense blog yesterday, and Stanford ran a terrific feature on Ober’s research. His work has been cited in recent days by in Washington Post, Quartz, and New York Times articles that look to the Greek past to understand the current debt crisis.

Recently, Ober took the time to talk with us about his book and the reasons for Greece’s flourishing. You can read that interview here.

An interview with Josiah Ober, author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece

The period considered classical Greece (roughly the 4th through 5th century BC) had a profound effect on Western civilization, forming the foundations of politics and philosophy, as well as artistic and scientific thought. Why did Greece experience such economic and cultural growth—and why was it limited to this 200-year period? Josiah Ober, Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University and author of The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, took the time to explain the reasons behind Greece’s flourishing, and what its economic rise and political fall can tell us about our own world.

The Rise and Fall of Classical GreeceWhat was the rise of classical Greece and when and why did it happen?

JO: Basically, sustained economic growth lead to the rise of Ancient Greek civilization.

At the Early Iron Age nadir, in ca. 1000 BCE, the Greek world was sparsely populated and consumption rates hovered near subsistence. Some 650 years later, in the age of Aristotle, the population of the Greek world had increased at least twenty-fold. During that same period, per capita consumption probably doubled.

That rate of growth is far short of modern rates, but it equals the growth rate of the two standout societies of early modern Europe: Holland and England in the 16th to 18th centuries. Historians had long thought that the Greek world was impoverished and its economy overall static – which of course made Greek culture (art, philosophy, drama, and so on) seem that much more “miraculous.” But, thanks to the recent availability and quantification of a huge mass of data, drawn from both documentary and archaeological sources, we can now trace the amazing growth of the Greek economy, both in its extent (how many people, how much urbanization, and so on), and in terms of per capita consumption (how well people lived).

So the rise of the Greek world was predicated on sustained economic growth, but why did the Greek economy grow so robustly for so long?

JO: In the 12th century BCE, the palace-centered civilization of Bronze Age Greece collapsed, utterly destroying political and social hierarchies. Surviving Greeks lived in tiny communities, where no one was rich or very powerful. As Greece slowly recovered, some communities rejected attempts by local elites to install themselves as rulers. Instead, ordinary men established fair rules (fair, that is, for themselves) and governed themselves collectively, as political equals. Women and slaves were, of course, a very different story. But because these emerging citizen-centered states often out-competed elite-dominated rivals, militarily and economically, citizenship proved to be adaptive. Because participatory citizenship was not scalable, Greek states stayed small as they became increasingly democratic. Under conditions of increasingly fair rules, individuals and states rationally invested in human capital, leading to increased specialization and exchange. The spread of fair rules and a shared culture across an expanding Greek world of independent city-states drove down transaction costs. Meanwhile competition encouraged continuous institutional and technological innovation. The result was 700+ years of of world-class efflorescence, marked by exceptional demographic and per capita growth, and by immensely influential ideas, literature, art, and science. But, unlike the more familiar story of ancient empires, no one was in running the show: Greece remained a decentralized ecology of small states.

So what about the fall?

JO: There are two “falls” – one political and one economic. The economic fall is the decline of the Greek economy from its very high level in the age of Aristotle to a “premodern Greek normal” of low population and near-subsistence consumption levels with the disintegration of the Roman empire. That low normal had pertained before the rise of the city-state ecology. After the fall, it persisted until the 20th century. But we also need to explain an earlier political fall. Why, just when the ancient Greek economy was nearing its peak, were Philip II and Alexander (“the Great”) of Macedon able to conquer the Greek world? And then there is another puzzle: Why were so many Greek city-states able to maintain independence and flourishing economies in the face of Macedonian hegemony? The city-states were overtaken by the Macedonians in part because human-capital investments created a class of skilled and mobile experts in state finance and military organization. Hired Greek experts provided Philip and Alexander with the technical skills they needed to build a world-class army. But meanwhile, deep investments by city-states in infrastructure and training made fortified cities expensive to besiege. As a result, after the Macedonian conquest, royal taxes on Greek cities were negotiated rather than simply imposed. That ensured enough independence for the Greek cities to sustain economic growth until the Roman conquest.

What does the economic rise and political fall of classical Greece have to tell us about our own world?

JO: The new data allows us to test the robustness of contemporary theories of political and economic development. In the classical Greek world, political development was a primary driver of economic growth; democracy appears to be a cause rather than simply an effect of prosperity. The steep rise and long duration of the city-state ecology offers a challenge to neo-Hobbesian centralization theories of state formation, which hold that advanced economic and political development requires the consolidation of centralized state power. The comparatively low rate of ancient Greek income inequality, along with the high rate of economic growth, suggests that the negative correlation of sustained growth with extreme inequality, observed in some recent societies, is not a unique product of modernity. Finally, the history of the ancient Greek world can be read as a cautionary tale about the unanticipated consequences of growth and human capital investment: It reveals how innovative institutions and technologies, originally developed in the open-access, fair-rules context of democratic states, can be borrowed by ambitious autocrats and redeployed to further their own, non-democratic purposes.

How did you get interested in the topic of rise and fall – was it just a matter of “Edward Gibbon envy”?

JO: Gibbon is amazing, as a prose stylist and historian. But the origin of my project actually goes back to a quip by a senior colleague at the very beginning of my career: “The puzzle is not why the Greek world fell, it is why it lasted more than 20 minutes.” Twenty-five years ago (and fifteen years after my colleague’s quip), the historical sociologist W.G. Runciman claimed that classical Greece was “doomed to extinction” because the Greek city-states were, “without exception, far too democratic.” True enough: the classical Greek world eventually went extinct. But then, so did all other ancient societies, democratic or otherwise. The Greek city-state culture lasted for the better part of a millennium; much longer than most ancient empires. I’ve long felt that I owed my colleague a solution to his puzzle. This book is an attempt to pay that debt.

Josiah Ober is the Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University. His books include Democracy and Knowledge, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, The Athenian Revolution, and Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens (all Princeton). He lives in Palo Alto, California.

 

Spotlight on…Ancient Times

The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor

The Poison King
by Adrienne Mayor

The ancient world presents formidable challenges for any biographer. In contrast to the wealth of documentation surrounding the careers of modern statesmen and thinkers, we often have only the most fragmentary information about their counterparts in the ancient world. The main sources are often writers who put pen to parchment decades or even centuries later. Our only knowledge of the words of Pericles come from three speeches recorded by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War, but Thucydides was working from memory, and it is often suggested that he sought to present Pericles’ oratory in a suitably heroic register rather than give a verbatim account. Despite the obstacles, an enduring fascination with ancient Greece and Rome has led many biographers to take up the challenge of putting a convincing picture together from the handful of pieces available.

Vincent Azoulay’s Pericles of Athens is a comprehensive reassessment of the life and influence of perhaps the greatest leader of the city-state that was the birthplace of democracy. Despite his success in steering the Athenians through two wars with Sparta, their rival for domination of the Greek world, even in his own time Pericles was a controversial figure. As leader of the Democratic faction in the Athenian assembly, Pericles pursued a policy of limiting the power of the elites and opening up public office to poorer sections of the citizenry. He has been accused of sowing the seed of the decline of Athenian democracy into populist demagogy and corruption, while others praise him for giving the state the broad base which allowed it to survive for another century after his death.

Aristotle. the leading philosopher of his age, left a substantial written legacy extending to nearly fifty volumes. Yet what survives is only a fraction of his work (perhaps as much as a third) and may largely derive from the notes of Aristotle’s students on his lectures. In Aristotle: His Life and School, Carlo Natali weighs up the often contradictory sources to give an account of a remarkable life that took Aristotle from his studies under Plato at the Academy to the court of Philip of Macedon where he was tutor to the young Alexander the Great.

Born in 120BC, two centuries after the death of Aristotle, Mithradates VI of Pontus was one of the most dangerous military opponents that the Roman Republic faced. In the course of three wars against Rome he expanded his Black Sea kingdom across modern Turkey to the Greek archipelago, before a Rome riven by faction and civil war ultimately defeated him through the brilliant generalship of Pompey. Adrienne Mayor’s gripping biography of Mithradates, The Poison King, takes its name from a practice that has become legendary. Having attained the throne of Pontus on the murder of his father through poisoning, Mithradates later built an immunity by consuming small doses of every known poison, and survived his own attempted assassination because of it.

The latest in classics and ancient history

Be among the first to browse and download our new ancient world catalog!

Of particular interest is Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. Mayor tells how amazing new archaeological discoveries of battle-scarred female skeletons buried with their weapons prove that women warriors were not merely figments of the Greek imagination. Combining classical myth and art, nomad traditions, and scientific archaeology, she reveals intimate, surprising details and original insights about the lives and legends of the women known as Amazons. Provocatively arguing that a timeless search for a balance between the sexes explains the allure of the Amazons, Mayor reminds us that there were as many Amazon love stories as there were war stories.

Also be sure to note 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. A compelling combination of narrative and the latest scholarship, 1177 B.C. sheds new light on the complex ties that gave rise to, and ultimately destroyed, the flourishing civilizations of the Late Bronze Age—and that set the stage for the emergence of classical Greece.

More of our leading ancient world titles can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. (Your e-mail address will remain confidential!)

If you’re heading to the annual Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies meeting in New Orleans January 8th–11th, come visit us at booth 406. We’ll be holding a raffle for a signed copy of 1177 B.C. See you there!

Boris likes fairy tales, too!

The Brothers Grimm can now count the Mayor of London among their growing list of fans. At a recent book signing in Oxford, Boris Johnson proclaimed that he had heard good things about The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, which came out in November and has proved a popular choice for Christmas. In fact, the Mayor of London said that he would be giving a copy of the book as a Christmas gift himself, although the identity of the lucky recipient remains a mystery!

Boris

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is the first ever full translation into English of Jacob and Wilhelm’s original versions of their famous tales. Gory, dark, disturbing and, yes, grim, the originals were first published in 1812 and 1815 and have since been overshadowed by the later versions of the stories that we know today.

Aristotle Goes Digital

aristotle
Praise for the previous edition:

“A splendid achievement.”–Times Higher Education Supplement

“This new edition makes a landmark of scholarship available in a very usable form.”–Library Journal

If Aristotle is quoted as saying that a “friend” is a single soul dwelling in two bodies, then what is “brilliant”? How about two complete volumes of Aristotle’s work dwelling in one digital edition.

Princeton University Press is excited to bring you a digital edition of The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, which combines both print volumes of Aristotle’s complete works for the first time. This digital edition’s 2,510 pages contain:

  • the substance of the original translation, slightly emended in light of recent scholarship
  • new translations replacing three of the original versions
  • a new and enlarged selection of fragments

The Oxford Translation of Aristotle was originally published in twelve volumes between 1912 and 1954. The original two volumes of The Complete Works of Aristotle are universally recognized as the standard English version. The aim of the translation remains the same: to make the surviving works of Aristotle readily accessible to English-speaking readers.

Check out The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, One-Volume Digital Edition for yourself through these online vendors.

Princeton University Press’s #NewBooks for this week

Books released during the week of October 6, 2014
The <i>Bhagavad Gita</i>: A Biography<br>Richard H. Davis The Bhagavad Gita:
A Biography
Richard H. Davis


“This is an exciting book about an exciting book, namely, the Bhagavad Gita, a text in which Hinduism comes closest to possessing a universal scripture. Davis traces the varying course of its semantic trajectory through history with erudite clarity. A must-read for anyone interested in the Gita.”–Arvind Sharma, author of Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography
Biomolecular Feedback Systems<br>Domitilla Del Vecchio & Richard M. Murray Biomolecular Feedback Systems
Domitilla Del Vecchio & Richard M. Murray


“This is an excellent compendium of the most important techniques and results in the application of feedback and control to biomolecular systems. Biomolecular Feedback Systems is very timely, and a must-read for students and researchers.”–Ernesto Estrada, University of Strathclyde
Birds of New Guinea: Second Edition<br>Thane K. Pratt & Bruce M. Beehler<br>Illustrated by John C. Anderton & Szabolcs Kókay Birds of New Guinea:
Second Edition
Thane K. Pratt & Bruce M. Beehler
Illustrated by John C. Anderton & Szabolcs Kókay


Praise for the first edition:”This book is not only indispensable to any bird-watcher visiting New Guinea and the adjacent islands, but, owing to the wealth of its information, it will be of great interest to anyone who is seriously interested in birds.”–American Scientist
Birds of Western Africa: Second Edition<br>Nik Borrow & Ron Demey Birds of Western Africa:
Second Edition
Nik Borrow & Ron Demey


Praise for the first edition:”Invaluable for serious birders and scientists working in or visiting the area. It would also make an excellent addition to a collection of field guides for home or office use.”–Condor
The Birth of Hedonism: The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life<br>Kurt Lampe The Birth of Hedonism:
The Cyrenaic Philosophers and Pleasure as a Way of Life
Kurt Lampe


“The Cyrenaics were the earliest philosophical hedonists. Evidence for their views is limited, but Kurt Lampe combines expert historical scholarship and imaginative sympathy to offer a compelling account of what they believed, what it might have been like to inhabit their worldview, and why it matters today. His itinerary takes him in the end to Walter Pater, who offered late Victorians the profound experience and attractions of a ‘new Cyrenaicism.’ This is a learned and important book, in which Lampe, like Pater, brings aspects of a lost Greek philosophical past to life.”–Charles Martindale, University of Bristol and University of York
Change They Can't Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America<br>Christopher S. Parker & Matt A. Barreto<br>With a new afterword by the authors Change They Can’t Believe In:
The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America
Christopher S. Parker & Matt A. Barreto
With a new afterword by the authors


“A scathing analysis of the Tea Party movement, linking it in spirit to the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society. Taking today’s conservative populists to be dangerous and their ideas self-incriminating, the authors speculate that Tea Party supporters may perceive of social change as subversion. Based on research and interviews, they suggest racism, desire for social dominance . . . drives the Tea Party.”–Publishers Weekly
The Fourth Pig<br>Naomi Mitchison<br>With a new introduction by Marina Warner The Fourth Pig
Naomi Mitchison
With a new introduction by Marina Warner


“At her best, Naomi Mitchison is forthright and witty, writes with brio and passion and lucidity, and conveys a huge appetite for life, for people, for new adventures, and for breaking through barriers.”–From the introduction by Marina Warner
Genealogy of the Tragic: Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy<br>Joshua Billings Genealogy of the Tragic:
Greek Tragedy and German Philosophy
Joshua Billings


“There is no body of work as important for understanding the idea of the tragic as German Idealism, which fundamentally changed modernity’s notions of tragedy. I can think of no better guide to these formidable writings than Joshua Billings, who takes the reader through them with clarity, deep knowledge, and revelatory exposition. A great achievement, this is a book that scholars and students of tragedy have needed for years.”–Simon Goldhill, University of Cambridge
The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy<br>Michael Pettis<br>With a new preface by the author The Great Rebalancing:
Trade, Conflict, and the Perilous Road Ahead for the World Economy
Michael Pettis
With a new preface by the author


“[Michael Pettis is] a brilliant economic thinker.”–Edward Chancellor, Wall Street Journal
How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method<br>G. Polya<br>With a foreword by John Conway How to Solve It:
A New Aspect of Mathematical Method
G. Polya
With a foreword by John Conway


“Every prospective teacher should read it. In particular, graduate students will find it invaluable. The traditional mathematics professor who reads a paper before one of the Mathematical Societies might also learn something from the book: ‘He writes a, he says b, he means c; but it should be d.'”–E. T. Bell, Mathematical Monthly
Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam<br>Jon D. Levenson Inheriting Abraham:
The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Jon D. Levenson


“[T]he figure of Abraham has more often been a battleground than a meeting place. This is the brilliantly elaborated theme of Levenson’s book, which retells the Abraham story while examining the use made of Abraham in later Jewish, Christian, and (to a lesser extent) Muslim thought.”–Adam Kirsch, New York Review of Books
Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America's Largest Church<br>Timothy Matovina Latino Catholicism:
Transformation in America’s Largest Church
Timothy Matovina

“Matovina gives a detailed examination of the different pastoral approaches that have been adopted to deal with the influx of Latino immigrants, with some advocating the need to assimilate quickly to American ways and others preferring to focus on preserving the religious and cultural heritage that the immigrants have brought with them. . . . Matovina’s book should be mandatory reading for all bishops, clergy, and lay leaders, and for anyone else who wants to understand the future of American Catholicism.”–Michael Sean Winters, New Republic
The Life of Roman Republicanism<br>Joy Connolly The Life of Roman Republicanism
Joy Connolly


“As a demonstration of how reading Roman literature becomes absorbing political argument, this book succeeds brilliantly. Joy Connolly possesses a keen mind and her approach is informed by an astonishing stock of contemporary intellectual perspectives. She is also a deeply imaginative reader with a gift for explaining complex ideas lucidly and compellingly. I learned a great deal from this book: about Hannah Arendt and Philip Pettit as well as about Cicero, Sallust, and Horace.”—Andrew Feldherr, Princeton University
The Meaning of Relativity: Including the Relativistic Theory of the Non-Symmetric Field (Fifth Edition)<br>Albert Einstein<br>With a new introduction by Brian Greene The Meaning of Relativity:
Including the Relativistic Theory of the Non-Symmetric Field (Fifth Edition)
Albert Einstein
With a new introduction by Brian Greene


“A condensed unified presentation intended for one who has already gone through a standard text and digested the mechanics of tensor theory and the physical basis of relativity. Einstein’s little book then serves as an excellent tying-together of loose ends and as a broad survey of the subject.”–Physics Today
Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine<br>Lital Levy Poetic Trespass:
Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine
Lital Levy


“This is a work of immense accomplishment dedicated to understanding what it means to write in two languages about a condition of life that is, at once, both shared and separate. Lital Levy’s critical speculations are careful and courageous as her beautiful prose moves back and forth across the borderline of Israel/Palestine, forging a way of moving toward a solidarity built of sorrow and survival, failure and hope. Read Poetic Trespass and reflect anew on the ethical and poetic possibilities of a translational dialogue in a star-crossed region.”–Homi Bhabha, Harvard University
Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest<br>Andrew Needham Power Lines:
Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest
Andrew Needham


“Rarely does a work of history unite so many seemingly disconnected fields of inquiry in such new and exciting ways. Masterfully interweaving urban, Native American, and environmental history, Power Lines is a sobering assessment of Phoenix’s expansive postwar development. The legacies of the region’s coal-powered history continue to shape contemporary politics, spaces, and our shared environmental future, making Power Lines as timely as it is insightful.”–Ned Blackhawk, Yale University
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter<br>Richard P. Feynman<br>With a new introduction by A. Zee QED:
The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
Richard P. Feynman
With a new introduction by A. Zee


“Physics Nobelist Feynman simply cannot help being original. In this quirky, fascinating book, he explains to laymen the quantum theory of light, a theory to which he made decisive contributions.”–The New Yorker
The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction<br>James M. McPherson<br>With a new preface by the author The Struggle for Equality:
Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction
James M. McPherson
With a new preface by the author


“Must surely be assigned an important place in the literature of the history of ideas and of race relations in the United States.”–The Times Literary Supplement
Theories of International Politics and Zombies: Revived Edition<br>Daniel W. Drezner Theories of International Politics and Zombies:
Revived Edition
Daniel W. Drezner


“Drezner . . . comes up with an intriguing intellectual conceit to explain various schools of international political theory. He imagines a world overrun with zombies and considers the likely responses of national governments, the U.N and other international organizations, and nongovernment organizations (NGOs). . . . This slim book is an imaginative and very helpful way to introduce its subject–who knew international relations could be this much fun?”–Publishers Weekly
Theory of Stellar Atmospheres: An Introduction to Astrophysical Non-equilibrium Quantitative Spectroscopic Analysis<br>Ivan Hubeny & Dimitri Mihalas Theory of Stellar Atmospheres:
An Introduction to Astrophysical Non-equilibrium Quantitative Spectroscopic Analysis
Ivan Hubeny & Dimitri Mihalas


“This eagerly anticipated book is an excellent guide for anyone interested in radiation transport in astrophysics, as well as for those wanting to make detailed analyses of astrophysical spectra. Comprehensive, lucid, and stimulating, Theory of Stellar Atmospheres is ideal for students and scientists alike.”–Bengt Gustafsson, Uppsala University
Told Again: Old Tales Told Again<br>Walter de la Mare<br>With a new introduction by Philip Pullman<br>Illustrated by A. H. Watson Told Again:
Old Tales Told Again
Walter de la Mare
With a new introduction by Philip Pullman
Illustrated by A. H. Watson


Praise for previous editions: “Walter de la Mare has given the familiar old tales so much sparkle and humor and romance that they are like new stories.”–Horn Book Magazine
The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future<br>Richard B. Alley<br>With a new preface by the author The Two-Mile Time Machine:
Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future
Richard B. Alley
With a new preface by the author


“Although not all scientists will agree with Alley’s conclusions, [this] engaging book–a brilliant combination of scientific thriller, memoir and environmental science–provides instructive glimpses into our climatic past and global future . . . “–Publisher’s Weekly
Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman<br>Jeremy Adelman Worldly Philosopher:
The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
Jeremy Adelman


“[A] biography worthy of the man. Adelman brilliantly and beautifully brings Hirschman to life, giving us an unforgettable portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary intellectuals. . . . [M]agnificent.”–Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker

Book Trailer for The Amazons by Adrienne Mayor


bookjacket The Amazons
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor