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Entries: Round XXVII

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One of the great tragedies of the ancient world was played out not upon the stage, but on papyrus: scroll after scroll worn, torn and eaten by bug or flame.

We know the playwright Euripides (d. 406 BCE) by virtue of eighteen surviving dramas. None is represented in a complete group of the four the Athenian originally submitted in competition to be performed at sanctuaries in honor of the gods. Such a body of extant work is rare. Of more than seventy documented plays by Aeschylus, all but seven are lost. Sophocles? Six. While Aristophanes (d. c. 380 BCE) gets the last laugh, submitting poor beleaguered Euripides to humiliation after humiliation as a character in his farce, The Frogs, the joke is on him. Merely eleven plays remain from his prolific career, most patched together from this source or that, with brackets around text that translators must approximate, based on their knowledge of Greek myth and the proclivities of the writer.

Therefore, it is with tremendous excitement that I am now able to share a discovery that has gone unreported for nearly two years, ever since the close of a special exhibition devoted to late Byzantium at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sewn into the binding of a thirteenth-century Psalter (Saint Petersburg, National Library, Ms. gr. 269), botanical fibers were noticed by a meticulous curator. Russian paleologists investigated further, ultimately excising fragmentary text written in the same hand of late fifth-century Athens on the front and back of well preserved papyrus. For further information about their findings, see Appendix I below.

For the reader's purposes, it is sufficient to know that classicists gain irrefutable evidence that Euripides had indeed composed a cycle of plays featuring the women Odysseus encounters on his voyage home from the Trojan War. The surviving passages foreground the titular heroine, Circe [Kirke], a goddess who breaches xenia, the Greek code of hospitality, by luring unsuspecting sailors to her palace, sating their hunger, quenching their thirst, and transforming them into swine. Aided by Hermes, Odysseus escapes the porcine fate of twenty-two of his men, and by ingesting an herb, proves invulnerable to her potion if not her other charms.

Food historians and students of popular culture will be startled by the degree to which these terse fragments anticipate the preoccupations of our own world, as if an oracle spoken to us across time, voice of the seer muffled since her mouth is full. What the contemporary reader will notice is a fixation on minutia that Freudians would be tempted to locate somewhere between the oral and anal stages of development. This is especially discernable in the exhaustive detail of description that is proto-photographic, if logocentric in nature.






Chorus of Swine


Mageiros, a cook


Various attendants of Circe & sailors (silent parts)

Scene: the Island of Aiaia. A sandy beach flanked by two palm trees stretches the entire length of the proskenion. Raised upon a platform directly behind the strand, the Palace of Circe commands the stage. Eurylochos, the sailor who delivers the opening lines, stands before a scarlet cloth draped across the colonnaded portico of the deity's home. Only the title character appears center stage, moving forward, once the curtain parts. All others enter from the wings.


I am called Eurylochos, son of Nireas

Who makes a divine fish soup worthy of the gods.

To all who rise in marble rows that spread before me,

As if borne upon a briny scallop shell

Within the sacred dark we share, I pray:

Tread upon these holy grounds with reverence!

Breathe deep the smell of incense,

Not that of goat roasted on the spit.

Hold hymns upon your tongue

And not, like me, the honeyed fig between your lips.

Beware that which you crave

For hunger seizes men and turns them into beasts.

I speak of more than hunger of the belly.

When revelers recline to feast

and late, throw down their bones and raise

their brimming cups to Dionysus,

Aphrodite is not far away, loosening her hair

Before the mirror Eros holds for his comely mother.

With every sip, a pin slips from her garments,

And as they fall upon the floor,

So shall you, soused, upon all fours.

As embers died amid the ruins of the house of Priam,

I set sail with the great Odysseus from the shores of Troy,

Bound for Ithaca, wandering home

Beneath the lying movement of the stars.

I could tell you of such marvels our crew has seen,

And epic misery we have endured, but must not,

For rules of classical drama confine the plot

To the events of a single day and I must conform

To earn the laurel and the honor that the playwright seeks.

Thus, nothing of the years, months, or even week

Prior to the calamity I report—

Nor of the lengths of leathery cod we ate night after night

With rings of barley bread and little else until each jug and pot

Rang clear, drained of water, so we did thirst

Tossed upon the fleur de sel of blackened sea.

When at last the mice grew thin from lack of grain,

And we, from lack of mice, our ship found port,

Here upon the island of Aiaia—home of Circe,

Goddess of Deceit, whose palace I turn my back

Upon with terror. Our hero sent us sailors ahead,

And thus we found ourselves enchanted by a lilting voice,

As if Melody danced with knotted kitchen twine

And cast her nets around our limbs, and pulling taut,

Drew us to these marble halls you see:

(The sailor pauses to replace aural experience with visual sensation. Orality becomes spectacle, and audience, viewers: a collective eye of reception whose sight writes text. Female attendants pull the curtain from the portico to reveal the palace interior. At the far right, shimmering silk upon a loom. Its wanton patterns invert the chaste purity of linens Penelope weaves as she awaits the return of her beloved husband, Odysseus. To the far left, a bed spread with a similar textile. Most prominent in the center, upon the bare polished surface of Cyprus wood, silver bowls of fruit, platters of sweetmeats, cheeses, eel glistening with oil. Beside swelling flasks painted with wide-eyed octopi, kraters for mixing water and wine. Couches for dining can be glimpsed to one side. While Circe has not completed the tablecloth upon the loom, you may purchase an exact replica of the finished item at the gift shop as you leave the amphitheater. Also check out the black-figure kylixes decorated with some of your favorite moments from tonight's performance.)

Pious Egypt holds the reverence of the gods most high,

We Greeks, the pact between the traveler and the host,

For home is where we have to take you in,

Bathe your feet and offer all the weary need.

A hut is but a hut, a palace but a palace—yet,

When you are there, every house becomes a home.

So as Circe, with her voice in song, threw out her arms

To bid us welcome, we threw down ours and entered

Without fear. And as our eyes beheld her beauty,

Our bellies growled like wolves who knew of danger

More than we had wisdom to, for the scent of thyme-rubbed

Meats urged our senses to the table where, as you can see

An osophagos like Callimedon would find much to be content:

The haunches of a fatted calf that Zeus would snatch if altar-placed,

Tuna seared with running blood to praise Poseidon,

Olives, purple, green and black, that I would cup

As gladly as the balls of boys with down upon the chin.

Poppy, sesame and all the seeds Demeter strew

Studded loaves of wheat, as yet upon the air, the swaying flute

Coaxed the servants in the kitchen kneading more.

O, to win a man through his stomach,

This was the art of the Sorceress!

Bothered not were my companions as, sprawled,

Barely propped up by their left elbows, they raised in toast

Kantaroi filled with wine unmixed, spiced and perfumed

With orange, cherry bark and just a hint of Attic clay

Thrown by Euxitheos circa 518 BCE,

And sealed with the skin of ram, slightly singed.

Had they but caught the eye of Circe—but no, their heads flung

Back, they guzzled like geese as rain announced Persephone's return.

They did not learn the source of the witch's smile until their cups

Shattered in chards upon the floor,

No longer grasped as fingers cloven changed,

Hands becoming hoofs, and balance lost as elbows fled

Accompanied by the definition of pecs, tapered thighs and fluted abs.

How they snorted in horror as, in short,

Bewitched, their bodies metamorphed to snouted pigs

And poisoned by Circe's drink, sullied, they

Lost the arête that grafts the physical splendor

That is Greek Man to his moral beauty.

I owe to Plato and to Socrates my austere tastes and thus my life.

Clear water in my cup, more than bladder could sustain,

My not being bovine.

I was just returning from Elysian fields, relief, when all this I spied.

I chant with panting breath not because this monologue

Is droning on and on, but because I ran back to shore

To warn Odysseus.

Why did he not believe me? I do not understand!

Look at me! Is this the face that launched a thousand lies?

At any rate, he approaches soon himself, aided by Hermes

Who intercepting him along the way, slipped him moly—

An herbal remedy—

To shield him from a fate suspended, cured and smoked.

(Exit Eurylochus. Enter from left and right, in grave dance, steps timed to the beat of the drum, the Chorus of Swine. Actors wear the shortened garments of slaves, hems slit in the back. Holding pig masks before their faces, as they turn, those seated close to the orchestra may glimpse stiff, bristly tails.)


You know, it's hard out here for a pig!

Routing around,

No truffles in the ground—

Sun beating down

No shade from the tree,

No shade from Hades

(That's The Odyssey Book XI, this is Book X)

Skin turning brown,

Turning crisp—Sniff!

Can you smell me roast?

Like a sacrifice to the gods,

This island, an altar,

Our ship, the pilgrim who deposits his gift

In the open air.

Here, the temple is cursed.

The goddess has no mercy.

Koi-koi! Koi-koi! Koi-koi! Koi-koi!

Anointed by greed, I hunger! I burn!

(A falsetto weaves through the sky, rising and falling, lapping like waves upon the shore, like the tongue of a lion upon a carcass, as Circe moves from behind the loom to take position center stage and the chorus parts.)


Here piggy! Piggy! Souie! Souie!


Koi-koi! Koi-koi! Koi-koi! Koi-koi!


Why the lament? Did I not feed you just before mid-day? Is there not deipnon e'er long?


Same old, same old. Nothing but acorns. Grouts sprinkled on mud in our sty.


Is that not the fare of the Ideal Republic? Is sitos not the essence of life?


In Plato, Glaucon taunts and asks if such food is better for fattening a city of pigs.


Well, you're not exactly spring chickens, are you now?


In Plato, barley was laid upon fresh leaves. Men feasted on couches of myrtle.


Did not my swineherd set you loose upon the fields today? You are free-range.


In Plato, symposium follows dining. We want our women, wine and song!


So in mating you create squealing little [spare ribs]? Was not drink your undoing?


We were drugged! Hating math, you have us eating like Pythagoreans, strictly vegg.


Would you like a little ham with your barley? Beer to make you wiggle, nose to tail?


Koi-koi! Koi-koi! Koi-koi! Koi-koi!

Trapped upon a ship for years, we longed for land!

Now trapped within a pen, we long for the ocean and for home!

O Athena Gray-Eyes! Look across the wine-dark sea and take pity

On poor Odysseus, father of Telemakos, husband of Penelope!

You who shaped the Horse from clay and gave it to the Greeks,

Reform us muddy beasts, whole:

Men again, that we might sip the wine

That makes us who we used to be, not with our muzzles:

With lips pressed moist upon kiln-blackened rims,

Adrift only in a sea stirred by Dionysus and the vine!

* * * *

Unfortunately, it would appear that the scribe to whom the text was dictated must have paused and gotten a little too inspired by all the talk of drink, for the writing becomes difficult to decipher. I have had to send the little that remains to a colleague since my skills in reading what seems to be a second-century commentary below the original text are rather limited, I confess, and besides, my own duties in hospitality call now that the cherry blossoms are in bloom and friends journey from afar.

Because there is only one small fragment of papyrus, the entire play does not survive. The Russians are rather reluctant to share the juiciest bits--fragments of a dialogue between Circe and Odysseus in bed--understandably, since their scholars wish to publish an analysis of the most evocative and provocative language first. I beg your patience, first for reading all of this, but second since the appendix will have to wait. A glossary will follow shortly with a brief description of the final snippet of text should it be of interest.

Edited by Pontormo (log)

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Since my entry above was the only submission posted here and the deadline has passed, instead of furthering the fictional context in which it is offered, I'd like to supply a little background and a glossary.

In trying to respect the terms of the challenge as faithfully as possible, I decided that there are certain parallels between blogs and drama. I figured that in Ancient Greece, the closest parallel to eGullet members showing and telling their culinary world online would be actors addressing an audience on stage. The major liberty I took was to write a very self-conscious opening monologue in which the actor winks knowingly at the audience, letting on that he's fully aware that this is only a play. That kind of discourse is associated most strongly with the modern era and with Luigi Pirendello in particular. I don't think it something Euripedes does, though some Greek comedies may provide parallels.

The story of Circe seemed promising since I didn't think being funny about cannibalism in the House of Atreus would be easy. Besides, eGullet is obsessed with pigs.

Euripedes was chosen since many of his tragedies take the names of women as their titles. Like Aeschylus, he begins plays with a monologue that provides exposition even though the audience knows all the stories very well; the point is to tell them well. He also likes to change the rhythm by writing lengthy dialogues in which each line is one short sentence long—sort of the classical counterpart to snappy repartee in Film Noir. I tried to imitate that practice, mixing in a little Aristophanes when presenting the Chorus of Swine since the refrain "Koi-koi…" could be viewed as a predecessor to the animal sounds of his Chorous of frogs. By the way, if go to the Web site of The Kelsey Museum, you'll find that Ancient Greek pigs did say "koi-koi, koi-koi…" and not "oink."

I was also inspired by an introduction that Emily Townsend Vermeule wrote to her modern translation of Electra: "At first reading, many points of style and content seem so deliberately in bad taste that one suspects an entire parody of tragedy in the high style." I just decided that instead of waiting until later periods of Ancient Greek history when comic playwrights become obsessed with food, write about boastful chefs and so forth, I would fudge the chronology a bit.

The pedantic tone was intended in the submission, though not here where I just can't help it. With that in mind, I'll just add a glossary and selected bibliography:

Lattimore, Richard, ed. Euripedes V. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1959; first paperback edition, 1968.

Davidson, James. Courtesans and Fishcakes. The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

(Brilliant, fascinating book that provided most of references to Ancient Greek food. Also consult reviews and online excerpts of The Philosopher's Table by Francine Segan and The Boastful Chef by John Wilson.)

Hoffman, Susanna. The Olive and the Caper. Adventures in Greek Cooking. New York: Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2004.

(Somewhat frustrating and overwhelming in presentation, but a tremendously well-researched and passionate cookbook that provides a great deal of culinary history along with beautiful photographs and tempting recipes.)

Further information about Ancient Greek literature, culture, art, drama and even the names of each day of the week (which I was going to use for a grocery list and diary of a second-century commentator) can be found in various online sources such as WWW.perseus.tufts.edu and books near you.

Proskenion—Root word for "proscenium," the stage in an Ancient Greek amphitheater set before elaborate backdrops of sorts. It is separated from the audience's raked rows of marble benches along the side of a hill in a sanctuary (sacred precinct that also includes a major temple) by an orchestra and central altar.

Dionysus—Bacchus in Rome. God of wine.

Aphrodite—Venus. Goddess of sexual love and therefore beauty.

Eros—Cupid. Mamma's Boy Love.

Priam—Troy, Ithaca, Odysseus, etc. These are allusions to the Battle of the Trojans and the Greeks, a story that served the basis of much Greek literature, art and drama, including Homeric epic.

Kylix—shallow drinking cup, often decorated on exterior and interior (sort of like those "see the kitty" cups used to get children to drink their milk).

Osophagos—this Ancient Greek term is the center of much clever debate. Davidson takes it as a theme, translating it first as fish-lover. He then explains that Greeks divided food into three basic categories: sitos—the staple: bread and other grains; opson—everything else, or the "relish" and "potos"—drink. The opson-lover is the foodie who eats for eating's sake, loves variety…especially eel.

Circe—'s sister, Pasiphae mated with a white bull to produce the minotaur. Their father was Helios, the sun, their lineage traceable to the titan, Ocean. Therefore, she could be seen as an ultimate osophagos, lover of fish, dried fish, beef, pork and the kinds of rich dishes that snooty Greeks associated with Sicilians.

Zeus's calf—Meat was the center of sacrifice, especially cows for the supreme god. Tuna was the exception, for the god of the sea, since it bled a lot.

Demeter—One of several deities connected with agriculture, grain in particular.

Kantaroi, etc.—wine goblet. Wine usually mixed with water to drink…with the exception of one drink at the symposium: a drunken feast that takes place among men only (well, as diners; female slaves had to join in some of the activities) after they've eaten and thrown scraps from the meal on the floor as offerings to the gods. Wine was described as it is today, using words that evoke fruit scents and containers.

Socrates & Plato—reference is to The Republic, a text that Circe and the Chorus of Swine play with later. They're not like Callimedon and preferred austere diets.

Shade from Hades—A ghost from the Underworld. Circe tells Odysseus where to find the door to Hades. There a ghost tells him how to avoid a difficult passage and aids his journey once he and Circe produce two sons.

Falsetto—all actors were male and wore masks. Song & dance was part of drama.

Deipnon—Dinner. The main of two daily meals, the other being late breakfast/early lunch.

[spare ribs]—Greeks didn't butcher meat for different cuts, they just tore it up for sacrifice, distinguishing offal from the flesh.

Pythagoros—The mathematician really was a vegetarian.

Beer—As Davidson puts it, barbarians were barbarians because they drank beer instead of wine, the nectar not just of the gods, but the sign of true civilization.

Edited by Pontormo (log)

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