Sunday, August 11, 2013

On this Day: Classical Legends and the Perseid Meteors

In 30BC, on this day, the last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, committed suicide.  Her name was Cleopatra VII Philopator, who famously ended her life with the bite of an asp.  It is also the first day of the Perseid Meteor Shower, which happens – obviously - in the constellation of Perseus.  Perseus was the killer of the Gorgon, Medusa, who had snakes instead of hair, and it was said that asps came from the drops of blood that rained down as Perseus carried her head to Olympus.
When I think of the Greek myths, I think of my prep school Classics teacher, Mr. Field.  He was an Old Peterite, and had come back after retirement to help out with the teaching.  He was supposed to have fought in the First World War, and to have a wooden foot.  School myth had it that some boys had crawled under his desk while he was talking, and untied his laces. 

His lesson usually started with him asking us where we had got up to in the particular story: the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, Alexander’s campaigns, Romulus and Remus.  Someone told him, and then he would stand unsteadily, and draw a map on the blackboard with white chalk.  He seemed to draw almost from touch rather than sight.  The he would sit and would not stand up again.

In year two, we started with the birth of the gods, and moved slowly forward as you graduated from up to fifth form: Greek Myths, Greek histories, then onto the birth of Rome, and the history of the Republic right up to the invasion of Britain.

Whenever I think of Mr. Field, he is drawing the map of Greece, but he could do Asia Minor, Sicily, Rome, and even Gaul as well.  His lesson was pure storytelling: and there was something timeless about it.  We were snotty little boys in the early 1980s, and he was an old man with gummy eyes and few teeth all sitting in a Victorian era classroom, with sash windows, and rugby fields outside.  But we could have been in a Victorian parlour, lit with gas lamps, or even a thegn’s hall with the light of the fire on our faces.  Those lessons were magical, and of course would never be allowed now!  But there’s something to be said for story-telling to be crow-barred into the curriculum.

Although it seems something of a shame that these classes talked of Mediterranean blue skies, rather than our own Northern ones, and the legends of Beowulf or Ingeld, or the adventures of Harald Hardrada.    

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