I think some reviews miss the point of Women of Will. This book is not an academic text written by someone who hasn’t “trod the boards” but by a produI think some reviews miss the point of Women of Will. This book is not an academic text written by someone who hasn’t “trod the boards” but by a producer, director and actor of Shakespeare’s plays who’s been engaging with the Bard for 40+ years, and who is presenting the insights she has gleaned from her experiences. And even more, it’s the author’s particular conclusions about Shakespeare’s relationship with women and how that came out in his plays. The reader can accept Packer’s interpretations as valid or not, depending upon their own reading (or acting) of the plays. What makes Packer’s interpretations so interesting is certainly not their academic rigor but that they’re made in the context of a firmly held belief that words can remake the world:
The actor Shakespeare could feel in his body the truth; the writer Shakespeare could record what he saw in the outside world and he gave to women the words to expose the dichotomy between what lay within and what was expected from without. And the only way to bridge the gap, alter, and bring it to a new relationship is through love. The women acknowledge the love and go on the journey. Creativity? It is the ability to see the world as it is, imagine what it might be, and step out with love (p. 299).
I’m not going to discuss the whole book. Packer looks at most of the plays over the course of 300 pages. To give you a taste, though, I will focus on two that I find personally interesting – “Troilus and Cressida” and “Measure for Measure” – and a section the author calls “The Plague Years,” where she imagines what Shakespeare was up to during the 1590s.
Packer’s readings of Shakespeare don’t exclude others. In preparing this review I pulled Mark van Doren’s Shakespeare and Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All off my shelves to refresh my memory about what they had written. Van Doren’s “Troilus and Cressida” essay dismisses Cressida in less than a sentence, “That Cressida is not worth all this does not damage it as rhetoric…” (p. 174). As Packer argues in regards to Troilus, van Doren too appears unable to empathize with Cressida. Garber’s essay is more academic. She does treat of the women in the play but even she has little sympathy to spare for the young woman. Regarding “Measure for Measure,” van Doren is close to Packer, though he is writing from a broader perspective. She would agree with his conclusion: “It is the permanent symbol for a city, itself all earth and rotting straw, with which Shakespeare at the moment can do no more than he had been able to do with the diseased bones of Pandarus’s Troy. All he can do is stir it until its stench fills every street and creeps even into the black holes of prisons…. The bank of dark cloud above her [Vienna’s] forehead is never burned away” (pp. 191-2). In Garber’s “Measure for Measure” chapter, here too she and Packer are closer in readings than otherwise, touching on many similar themes, though – again – Garber’s perspective is broader. Which is understandable. Women of Will is not about anything but Shakespeare’s representation of women. Packer is interested in what she believes were Shakespeare’s encounters with real women that allowed him to grow as a writer and create increasingly sophisticated and nuanced characterizations not only of women but of men.
“The Plague Years”
This section is a speculative romp through Shakespeare’s life from 1587-1594, where Packer believes that something extraordinary happened to him: he fell in love. Through that love, his perception of women fundamentally changed. “He wrote as if he were a woman. Embodying them. Giving them full agency” (p. 52). The woman he fell in love with was the Dark Lady of the sonnets, whom Packer believes was Aemilia Lanyer (née Bassano), daughter of an expat Venetian musician and an English woman, also a musician. Shamefully perhaps, I had no idea that this remarkable woman existed, though now I’m interested in reading her work. It’s from his relationship with Aemilia, which may have lasted for these few years or perhaps for the 20 or so they could have known each other before his death, that Shakespeare “finally got it about women” (p. 90). His engagement with Lanyer inspired him to create female characters like Juliet, Beatrice, Rosaline and Lady Macbeth, and influenced his male roles as well, lifting them from the near greats like Richard III to the truly greats like Othello, Hamlet and Lear.
Of course, the Dark Lady wasn’t the sole influence that made Shakespeare Shakespeare during these years. Packer imagines quite a bit in reconstructing them. Aside from his new-found insights into women, perhaps the most important of these were the contacts he made with the circle of men and women who were the leading literary lights of the period and their noble sponsors – in particular Kit Marlowe and the Earls of Essex and Southampton. Shakespeare realized four things (according to Packer): One, poets were the greatest truth-tellers because their poetry gave them perceptions others couldn’t have [justifying Shakespeare’s life]. Two, music and poetry induced higher levels of knowledge and consciousness. [Shakespeare’s work began to incorporate music and his words became more rhythmic; he became conscious of the harmonies in a well-crafted sentence.] Three, poets are inspired, perhaps by something outside of themselves (the Muse) or something deep inside (the unconscious). Wherever it comes from, this “frenzy” cannot be denied. And, four, poetry – and even more so, theater – brought everyone, from the meanest pauper to the wealthiest noble, to the same perception and consciousness:
[J]okes about bodily functions and elementary sexual acts make people laugh, so they let go of themselves and un-self-consciously inhabit their bodies, and that this, combined with the most sublime poetry, allows the full spectrum of man’s being. Theatre can do something poetry by itself could never do – it can give us all of humanity, all kinds of people standing side by side, building a community of understanding, empathetic understanding. And that connection in turn fosters the perception and language of God. Potent and regenerative (p. 68).
“Troilus and Cressida”
I like “Troilus and Cressida” because, of Shakespeare’s three great plays about star-crossed lovers [“Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” are the other two], this one seems to me to be the most honest. Which shows what a pessimist I am.
Packer unpacks “Troilus and Cressida” in relation to “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” and asks the question, “Why does this love fail?” Her answer is the unequal relationship between the lovers. Troilus is a prince of Troy, son of Priam. He has wealth, status, and the respect of family and comrades. Cressida is the daughter of a traitor and otherwise without family, status or wealth except for an oily uncle (Pandarus), whose situation mirrors her own. Her only asset is her virginity and she’ll be utterly vulnerable if she gives it up to Troilus.
But she does after both lovers pledge their undying love for each other in a scene worthy of the two more famous tragedies. But where Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra do die for each other, Troilus leaves Cressida at the mercy of Troy’s council, who have decided to trade her for the warrior Antenor. Abandoned and alone in the Greek camp, the teen-age girl’s spirit collapses and she throws herself on the mercy of Diomedes, a Greek warrior who seems sympathetic. Troilus, witnessing her from afar but unable to empathize with her plight, believes she’s unfaithful and abandons his love for the forgetfulness of violence. And so ends this love as one would expect it to in real life. The lovers don’t understand each other and fail to live up to the ideals they so readily espoused when their relationship was unthreatened; the relationship is destroyed; the lovers live on, though, and have to cope.
“Measure for Measure”
“Measure for Measure” doesn’t flinch from the fact that life is messy. Relying on a definitive recipe that answers all your questions, satisfies all your desires, and lets you get away with suppressing half of your identity leads to all kinds of trouble.
There are three protagonists: the Duke, Angelo and Isabella. Packer largely ignores the Duke as he’s peripheral to her intent. Angelo is a cold-hearted, supremely logical fellow who’s put in charge of Vienna to curb its carnal excesses. Isabella, arguably equally cold-hearted and logical, is a novice of the Order of St. Clare whose devotion to Christ is put to the test when Angelo threatens her virtue to save her brother. Both have walled themselves off form the messy business of emotions. When Angelo meets Isabella and argues with her over the fate of her brother, he recognizes a woman who can meet him on an equal footing and falls desperately in love with her. Unfortunately, he lacks the capacity to respond to her as an equal. He can only engage with her in debate or – in the end – by forcing her to accede to his desire. Isabella, for her part, is as constrained as Angelo. Unable, unwilling to admit to the possibility of love, she doesn’t recognize Angelo as a fellow soul. In the one moment when Angelo breaks down and opens the door to love, she refuses to walk through, instead threatening to expose him.
“Measure for Measure” examines the unconscious motivations present in all of us. Obviously, that’s not how Shakespeare would have put it but he recognized the relationship between repressed desire and physical violence. Once Angelo admitted to feeling a sexual attraction, he opened himself to myriad emotions that overwhelm his ever-so-rational mind: “Why does my blood thus muster to my heart, / Making both it unable for itself, / And dispossessing all my other parts / Of necessary fitness?” (2.4, 20-23)
“Measure for Measure” is listed as a comedy among Shakespeare’s plays. And everything does appear to work itself out in the end (as all comedies should) – Claudio lives and is reunited with Juliet, Angelo marries his fiancée Mariana, Lucio marries Kate Keepdown, and the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. But I can’t imagine any of these pairings being successful except for Claudio and Juliet’s, which is the only one that’s based on any sort of mutual attraction and equality, the factors that Packer has stressed throughout the book that are critical to a successful relationship. It’s often brought up that Shakespeare leaves it up in the air how Isabella responds to the Duke’s proposal. By this point in the play, she’s speechless – literally. Various troupes have interpreted the character differently. Some have her responding with joy; others with horror. I lean toward the “horror” crowd. If they could get over their psychological hang-ups, it’s Angelo and Isabella who should marry.
There is one final thing I want to highlight. In one of her digressions, Packer discusses Shakespeare’s quest to discover what is the “soul,” which paralleled his discovery of the “female.” I thought it was an interesting insight. It sums us why she’s devoted so much of her life engaging with the Bard, and I quote her conclusion in full:
So I think in the end where Shakespeare comes out is: The soul is a verb, not a noun. It is substantive but not material. It lives in every breath we take. Therefore, the potential to be open to life is there within our bodies in every moment. The soul is the ability to sustain love – real love, which renews itself in the creative act. It is the maiden phoenix, the bird of the spirit, which burns up itself (which is painful) and, out of the ashes, creates itself anew (which is often hard but ultimately joyful). It can join with another, or many. It fills the body, is deeply erotic, and generates new life (p. 107).
As should be apparent from my rating, I enjoyed this book. While some of her non-Shakespearean asides are cringe worthy, I found her Shakespeare-centered commentary stimulating and it made me see the plays in a new light. For example, her discussion of Goneril and Regan in “King Lear” revealed aspects of their characters that I hadn’t considered. They’re still not “nice people” but they’ve become more rounded individuals in my mind, and their motivations clearer.
Definitely recommended for Shakespeare fans, especially those interested in the insights of someone who’s directed and acted in the plays.
 Though Packer points out that Troilus’ language is more reminiscent of Romeo’s in regards to Rosalind, the woman he’s swooning for before meeting Juliet and whom he’s never actually met.
 Enough that I’ve ordered my own copy (albeit the paperback edition, which comes out next year (2016).
 As I write these words, I’m thinking in particular of her explanation of the Holy Roman Empire and the relationship between Emperor and Pope (p. 202)....more
Merlin is Robert Nye's irreverent, raunchy and often lyrical (Nye's a poet) take on the Arthur legend. Many scenes reminded me of John Boorman's "ExcaMerlin is Robert Nye's irreverent, raunchy and often lyrical (Nye's a poet) take on the Arthur legend. Many scenes reminded me of John Boorman's "Excalibur." To take one example: Arthur and Mordred's fight at their last battle:
Mordred in black armour rode to kill the king. King Arthur ran at Mordred with his spear so that the spear went right through Mordred's body and out the other side.
"Father! My father!" Mordred cries. He thrusts himself forwards along the spear that is killing him. He drags himself on. He crawls slowly, hanging by his wound. He hauls himself inch by inch to reach the king (p. 210).
If you've seen Boorman's film, that should bring to mind the very similar point where Arthur and Mordred meet in battle:
Which is not say that the book (first published in 1978) and the movie (1981) are at all alike. They are very different versions of the Once and Future King's reign.
I came across this book while perusing Merlin's page on Wikipedia. If you prefer your Arthur legends more respectful in tone and execution (and less sexually explicit, e.g., "Sir Gawain and the Sleeve Job"), then this book is not for you. However, I found it enjoyable and would recommend it....more
A Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate MythA Short History of Myth lives up to its title but despite its brevity is well worth reading. It’s an extended introductory essay to the Canongate Myth series, several volumes of which I’ve read: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, and A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, respectively, reinterpretations of The Odyssey, the Atlas myth, and the Viking Apocalypse.(1)
Armstrong asserts that myths are timeless stories that define what life is about. They answer questions such as why are we here? what is our relationship to the divine? where do we come from?, etc. They may arise from an actual event but aren’t bound by historical narrative. One of the examples Armstrong uses is Jesus Christ. As a man, it’s well established that Jesus lived in 1st century AD Palestine, claimed to be a messiah, and that the Romans executed him. As the Christ, his message became fodder for Paul’s mythologizing, transcending the historical fact of his existence. From this point of view, it’s not essential that Jesus existed. [But that’s a topic for another book and not central to what Armstrong is talking about here.]
Back to myths in general...
Myths are often characterized by a concern with death and our fear of (personal) extinction. They’re intimately connected with rituals, without which they become meaningless or (at best) entertaining stories (a la TV’s Xena). The most influential myths force their protagonists (and, thus, us) to go beyond their experiences. Myths also show us how to behave.(2) And, finally, myths reflect the higher reality of which we can only catch glimpses (in ecstatic trances or via drugs, for example). The “truth” of a myth lies in its effectiveness. As Armstrong writes, “[i]f it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth” (p. 10).
In the Introduction, Armstrong mentions modern society’s near total alienation from myth, which she’ll return to at the conclusion. In between, she divides mythological development into six periods:
1. Paleolithic (pre-agriculture) 2. Neolithic (agriculture) 3. Beginning of urban civilization (Sumer, etc.) 4. Axial Age 5. Post-Axial (up to the Reformation in Europe) 6. Post-Reformation Europe
Paleolithic myth(3) arose out of a desire to reconcile humanity with the violence by which they survived in the world – i.e., by hunting. Armstrong argues that in these earliest myths the “hero” was born. A person who faces the prospect of death and undergoes an arduous journey to return to his people with gifts and wisdom. She mentions Herakles and Artemis as most likely arising from this tradition. The chief divinity at this point, appears to have been a goddess figure (though this doesn’t imply that humans lived in a matriarchy, as some have argued).
Why should a goddess have become so dominant in an aggressively male society? This may be due to an unconscious resentment of the female. The goddess of Catal Huyuk gives birth eternally, but her partner, the bull, must die. Hunters risked their lives to support their women and children. The guilt and anxiety induced by hunting, combined with frustration resulting from ritual celibacy, could have been projected onto the image of a powerful woman, who demands endless bloodshed. The hunters could see that women were the source of new life; it was they – not the expendable males – who ensured the continuity of the tribe. The female thus became an awe-inspiring icon of life itself – a life that required the ceaseless sacrifice of men and animals. (p. 39)
The Agricultural Revolution didn’t displace the goddess but humans adapted their hunting myths to reflect a new understanding of their relationship with the Earth. The goddess assumed more maternal and nurturing aspects. She still represented – at times – the implacable and fatal aspects of life but she was now also a force of creation. Armstrong concludes her Neolithic chapter with the suggestion that humans were able to find a sense of optimism absent in Paleolithic myths: “The initiation at Eleusis showed that the confrontation with death led to spiritual regeneration, and was a form of human pruning…. [I]t could enable you to live more fearlessly and therefore more fully her on earth, looking death calmly in the face. Indeed, every day we are forced to die to the self we have already achieved. In the Neolithic period too, the myths and rituals of passage helped people to accept their mortality, to pass on to the next stage, and to have the courage to change and grow” (p. 57).
The advent of cities caused yet another fundamental change in myth. Humans were gaining ever greater (though still precarious) control over their destinies and growing ever more alienated from Nature. And the gods reflected that new distance. Myths arose or were adapted to celebrate and justify cities, writing, bureaucracy, and the other appurtenances of civilization. Another interesting development was the increasing prominence of human agents, as in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which challenged the traditional mythology of the Mother Goddess and asserted that it was best for gods and humans to remain apart.
The loss of the old certainties embodied in Neolithic mythology led to the spiritual crisis that ushered in the Axial Age (beginning around 800 BC). “[The Axial Age] marks the beginning of religion as we know it” (p. 79). In terms of myths, they became more introspective and often had an ethical cast. And the gods (or God in the case of the Jews) continued to become more remote. It became impossible to experience the sacred in everyday life; only through breaking down the normal consciousness could people contact the divine. In this section of the book, Armstrong reviews the varying responses China, India, Israel and the Greeks developed in response.
And their responses (including the later developments of Christianity and Islam) held true until the 16th century AD, when Europe entered the Modern Era, a chief aspect of which “was the death of mythology” (p. 119):
The Western achievement relied on the triumph of the pragmatic, scientific spirit. Efficiency was the new watchword. Everything had to work. A new idea or an invention had to be capable of rational proof and be shown to confirm to the external worlds. Unlike myth, logos must correspond to facts; it is essentially practical; it is the mode of thought we use when we want to get something done; it constantly looks ahead to achieve a greater control over our environment or to discover something fresh….
But logos had never been able to provide human begins with the sense of significance that they seemed to require. It had been myth that had given structure and meaning to life, but as modernization progressed and logos achieved such spectacular results, mythology was increasingly discredited. As early at the sixteenth century, we see more evidence of a numbing despair, a creeping mental paralysis, and a sense of impotence and rage as the old mythical way of thought crumbled and nothing new appeared to take its place. We are seeing a similar anomie today in developing countries that are still in the earlier stages of modernization (pp. 121-2).(4)
The loss of mythology has made it difficult for people to face the unspeakable, though not for want of trying. Art, music, drugs, films and more: all attempts to recapture the certitude and significance that mythology had formerly supplied. “But there is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and transformative” (p. 135).
In the last few pages of the book, Armstrong calls for new myths (or – as we shall see – myth-like stories) that will help us identify with our fellow humans, realize the importance of compassion, create a spiritual attitude that challenges individual selfishness, and venerates the Earth as something more than a resource to be exploited. As she writes, “unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet” (p. 137).
She also connects this extended essay to the purpose of the Canongate myth series: Using the novel as a means of achieving what myth had done for our ancestors. She likens the reading of a book to meditation since readers have to live for a while in a world outside of their lives and – in a good novel – find themselves a different person when the experience is over.
A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world (p. 149)
I would recommend taking a look at this book. It packs a lot into a small package, and there’s much that Armstrong can only assert without being able to back it up with extensive argument, but I think many of her points are defensible and much in her analysis of what’s wrong with our world, true.
1. My favorite is Weight but can recommend the other two as well. 2. This is not necessarily ethical behavior. The earliest myths are more concerned with ritual purity and preparing the listener for the afterlife, among other things. Morality – as we understand the term – would only become an integral part of mythology with the Axial Age. 3. I should mention that Armstrong’s focus in this short book is on West Asian mythology, though she’ll mention in passing other cultures. 4. I would say the “developed countries” are still attempting to cope with the modern world....more
I work second shift and so find myself driving home late at night most weekdays, where I often while away the commute by listening to “Coast to CoastI work second shift and so find myself driving home late at night most weekdays, where I often while away the commute by listening to “Coast to Coast AM with George Noury.” For those who do not recognize the name, George hosts an interview/call-in show that caters to conspiracy theorists, New Age gurus, cryptozoologists, (unfortunately) the occasional right-wing wacko like Alex Jones, ghost hunters, numerologists...you get the idea.
It’s fun. I’ve always been impressed by George’s ability to agree with whatever insane theory his on-air guest is propounding even though the previous night he was equally agreeable to someone whose ideas utterly contradict the current guest’s.
One of George’s favorite theorists is Zechariah Sitchin, famous for his Earth Chronicles books, which argue that humans were created by a race of aliens – the Annunaki – from the planet Nibiru. Nibiru orbits the sun every 1,600 years in an elliptical orbit, and every so often wanders into the inner Solar System. About a ½ million years ago, an expedition from that planet came to Earth and set down in the southern Mesopotamian plain. They created humans by combining their DNA with the local primates’, creating a slave-labor force that would help them mine minerals, esp. gold. Sitchin “proved” his hypothesis with a selective reading of Sumerian and other Mesopotamian writings as well as culling the Bible for “clues.”
It is with enjoyment that I turn from books like Sitchin’s to those written by people who’ve actually worked on Mesopotamian sites, and there discover how much more interesting the actual story is compared to the fantasy. Such is the case with Susan Pollock’s Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Pollock is an associate professor of anthropology at State University of New York at Binghamton (or she was when the book was published in 1999) and has done fieldwork in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and has here produced a brief introduction to the earliest civilizations of the Middle East.
The book’s time frame stretches from 5000 to 2100 BC – technically the Ubaid (5000-4000), the Uruk (4000-3100), the Jemdet Nasr (3100-2900), the Early Dynastic (2900-2350) and the Akkadian (2350-2100) periods. Pollock marshals evidence showing how urban civilization developed and spread from southern Mesopotamia, organically and without the aid of aliens or divine interventions.
The book’s audience is not the general reader, even ones interested in history/archaeology, but rather a beginning student. There are pages of graphs and charts comparing things such as animal bones and sizes of sites, for example. Though, I’m not studying to be an archaeologist, I found the book fascinating so what follows is a summary of the main points I gleaned from it.
The first chapter after the Introduction, “Geographic setting and environment,” makes two chief observations. The first is that Mesopotamia is a dynamic landscape. Neither the Tigris nor Euphrates rivers are as reliable as the Nile: the periodic flooding usually occurs at the worst time of the year from a farmer’s point of view and the rivers (and tributaries) regularly overflow their banks and change course. Human intervention – deforestation and salinization, primarily – further alters the region’s ecology, causing agricultural expansion/collapse cycles. This dynamism, along with the second observation – the lack of significant stone and metal resources – were important in the development of urban centers and large-scale states.
“Settlement patterns,” the next chapter, presents evidence for the increase in the number of permanent settlements and the growth of urban centers at the expense of smaller, rural villages over time. Pollock also suggests that people shifted from sedentary lifestyles to more mobile ones relatively frequently in response to that dynamic landscape mentioned above.
“Making a living: tributary economies of the fifth and fourth millennia” and “A changing way of life: the oikos-based economy of the third millennium” track the development of a tribute-based economy where most productive activity still occurred in individual households to an oikos-based one:
In the tributary economies of the fifth and fourth millennia, political and economic leaders strove to control the distribution of goods; direct control over production of most goods…appears to have been limited. In the oikos economy, by contrast, many forms of production as well as distribution were controlled directly. Control over production was ensured by the concentration of the means of production…in the hands of the oikoi rather than the producers (p. 147).
Increasingly, production was divorced from its formerly domestic context, and producers lost control over their output.
“The growth of bureaucracy” takes up the origins of writing:
For ancient Mesopotamia as for many other parts of the world, it has become increasingly clear that writing was not the primary catalyst for major social, political, or economic change. Rather, the invention of writing was a response to other changes that...required a more flexible system of accounting and record keeping. Although...scholars continue to debate the extent to which writing developed directly out of tokens, there is no doubt that writing originated in the context of a growing bureaucracy (p. 172).
In “Ideology and images of power,” Pollock looks at the roles religion, monumental architecture and sculpture took in enforcing and justifying the status quo, and shows how ideology changed over time. Each era had its own “flavor”: The Ubaid period tended to mask inequalities and promoted communal unity. Uruk identified the social order with the natural order. Later periods built on Uruk’s model but introduced local and interregional competition between city-states and larger polities like Akkad and Elam.
“Death and the ideology of community” continues the theme taken up in the previous chapter and relates it to death: “Mortuary practices are the deliberate, meaningful expressions of people’s views about themselves, other members of the society, and/or the world as they perceive or wish others to perceive it” (p. 216). Over time, the Ubaid-era emphasis on community and “all are equal in death” gave way to increasingly differentiated burials, expressing the decedent’s status while alive.
I want to digress and mention how different this is from the ancient Egyptians’ attitude about death and the afterlife, to which I’ve recently been exposed having read Toby Wilkinson’s Lives of the Ancient Egyptians and Genesis of the Pharaohs. Where the typical Sumerian saw death as “the House of Darkness” where “those who dwell do without light, where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay” and “light cannot be seen,” the Egyptian expected to pass his time in a more perfect – definitely sunnier – place than he occupied in life. An essentially optimistic view.
The concluding chapter touches on why Sumer and later Mesopotamian cultures developed the way they did:
Mesopotamian civilization…emerged in an inhospitable environment, with a harsh and unpredictable climate and limited natural resources. The unpredictability and ever-present risks associated with agriculture…played important roles in the particular social, economic, and political forms taken by Mesopotamian societies. Institutions or cooperative groups that pooled resources and risks were preferred.... Chronic tendencies toward soil salinization and the availability of large tracts of arable and pasture land encouraged frequent movements of settlement.... The importance of microenvironmental differences for agricultural success in Mesopotamia, the necessity of irrigation, and the instability of the Euphrates River regime all contributed to the unequal growth of settlements and, ultimately, urbanization (p. 219).
The author ends by calling for greater in-depth study of how ordinary people lived. Pollock’s focus in the preceding pages has been on such research; she rarely mentions specific individuals (like Sargon of Akkad or Lagash’s Urukagina), focusing instead on the “boring” evidence of how societies functioned day to day. But continued research is necessary. She also asks for a focus on gender-related research. The roles men and women (and children) played in economies and politics are not well understood. Class, wealth and religious belief, for example, all factored into relative status and power, and it is difficult – not to say, ill-advised – to make generalizations.
I can’t recommend this book for everyone. As I mentioned above, its audience is not the general reader, who’s probably more interested in reading about the historical origins of Gilgamesh or the Flood myth and would prefer a narrative history. But if you have a deeper interest in and not too much familiarity with the subject of (really) ancient Mesopotamia, then I think this is a good place to start. The 21-page bibliography provides ample fodder for further reading.
 The same can be said for authors like Toby Wilkinson, whose books on Egypt I’ve enjoyed for the opportunity to glimpse an admittedly “alien” but thoroughly human world.
 Though not discussed in this volume, I have read elsewhere about the roles climate change and ecological collapse have played in the rise and fall of empires.
 A tendency one still finds in politics and economics today, unfortunately....more
This isn't a bad book about the period but I can't really recommend it. The writing is often awkward and repetitive (particularly in the first 1/3 orThis isn't a bad book about the period but I can't really recommend it. The writing is often awkward and repetitive (particularly in the first 1/3 or so of the book). It's as if the author wrote a series of papers on each of the topics he addresses but didn't polish a final draft, removing material already covered.
And despite the subtitle, there's little in the way of "people's" voices. I understand that peasants, soldiers, women didn't leave much in the way of written sources but there's a wealth of data from other sources that could have informed his chapters on each of these groups; and it's not as if he's unaware of them. Several times he raises potentially fascinating topics but goes nowhere with them. For example, in "Women and War: Power and Persecution," Green mentions the growing economic and social power women enjoyed in the first half of the 15th century (only to lose it in the second) but drops it to focus on Joan of Arc's meteoric career, though he concedes that she was in no way representative of a typical woman of any class.
Green does provide a nice, 20-plus-page bibliography that could be mined for further reading....more
The problem with books of this nature is that either the "death of an idea" is such a no-brainer that it doesn't deserve an essay or it's the bete noiThe problem with books of this nature is that either the "death of an idea" is such a no-brainer that it doesn't deserve an essay or it's the bete noire of the author. For example, in this volume one can find essays that call for the final interment of String Theory alongside others that as vigorously defend it. Or materialists who deny that consciousness persists after death alongside others who argue for the opposite.
The best essay in the collection - and what makes it worth reading - is Ian McEwan's, "Beware of Arrogance! Retire Nothing!"
A great and rich scientific tradition whould hang onto everything it has. Truth is not the only measure. There are ways of being wrong that help others to be right. Some are wrong, but brilliantly so. Some are wrong but contribute to method. Some are wrong but help found a discipline....
We need to remember how we got to where we are, and we'd like the future not to retire us. Science should look to literature and maintain a vibrant living history as a monument to ingenuity and persistence. We won't retire Shakespeare. Nor should we Bacon. (pp. 256-7)