Gentle reader, I’m pleased to announce that we’ve been celebrating the Bank Holiday here with an event that’s not susceptible to the weather. Kindly join me in welcoming the first ever guest to the blog, Vicki León!
Vicki is the author of the popular Uppity Women series and most recently of the wondrously-entitled ‘How to Mellify a Corpse’, in which she lifts the lid on the classical world’s weird and wonderful, ranging from solar fountains and surround-sound to lethal lipstick.
I was always drawn to it, even when ignorant of it. As a child/teen, I adored all things Egyptian, later going mad for Greek and Roman as well. Raised in the Pacific Northwest, it wasn’t until I went to live in Spain and I got a whiff of Mediterranean culture that I said, “Ok, now I’m home!” I have an ancient Med soul; not sure why but guess I got left on a doorstep in Oregon by mistake.
Eventually I was fortunate enough to live for months at a time in Greece, Israel, and other Mediterranean countries. And to pursue archaeology as a volunteer. When as a distinctly older student I went to college, I made a beeline for the Western Civ and languages departments—again lucky enough to draw really brilliant teachers, who gave me the necessary grounding in the rudiments of historical research and primary sources. I do think, however, that through my serendipitous “field work” and “soaking up the ambiance” years I gained a priceless sense of deep time and ancient settings.
If you had to live in one of the countries and eras you write about in ‘How to Mellify a Corpse’, which would it be and why?
There are three places/eras I would give anything to experience firsthand: (a) to be a student of philosopher Empedocles on his native island of Sicily —noted for its gourmet cookery, its marvelous Greek theatre performances, and the divine Mt Etna.
(c) to hang out with Pliny the Elder as he wrote Natural Histories, his encyclopedic work–and then get to see the eruption of Mt Vesuvius with Pliny’s nephew, who survived it!
What would you do for a living?
(a) I’d be a disciple, and steep myself in Empedocles’ belief system—a gentle mix of early ecology, reincarnation beliefs, and farsighted insights into science and medicine.
(b) I’d run an early Greek ‘taverna,’ get to hear the music of the time, and get to see firsthand the antics of cynic philosopher Hipparchia and other Athenian characters;
(c) I’d be one of Pliny’s scribes, and a ‘fly on the wall’ among his circle of Roman and Greek friends; or another sort of fly on the wall as the foodtaster among the paranoid Roman nobility.
What’s the thing you would miss most about 21st century life?
What has surprised you most about the ancient world?
How unquenchably alive and curious the ancients were; how men and women took childish delight (and fear and astonishment) in the smallest things, like magnets and portents, dinner parties and griffins, the dawn sky and the night sky. How very human they were, and aware of their flaws and defects; how very much they longed to be remembered and how accepting/unflinching they were in the face of hardship, tragedy, and death.
Maybe I am romanticizing but I do base part of my belief on the Greeks and Romans and Mediterranean folks with whom I’ve mingled over the years; and the Zorba spirit of the ones who currently live there.
Have you ever been tempted to try any of the skills or cures you’ve discovered?
I’d love to see one of the Great Comets that appeared over the skies of Italy, such as the one in 44 BC, and have a sage interpret it for me; or to hear a prophecy from the lips of the Pythia of Delphi, or to see an entrail reading up close.
I’d love to be on the wharf and see one of the great superships of antiquity pull in, or spend a week with an alchemist like Mary Profetissa of Alexandria. And of course I’d adore seeing just how Alexander the Great got embalmed in honey!
In what ways do you think we’ve made progress over the years? (Or have we?) What have we lost?
What we’ve gained is of course an awareness of individual dignity and liberty; being born a slave or a woman would have been a chancy, often heartbreaking life, two millennia ago.
One of the things we’ve lost: the Greeks really understood the art of creating communities of an almost-perfect Goldilocks size—intimate yet vibrant.
All too frequently, people in the media make a fuss about “new” pronouncements and theories about headliners such as Cleopatra. As you and I and other writers and researchers and historians know, there are thousands of Greco-Roman items from ancient times still unidentified or miscategorized in museums around the world.
I’m in awe of your ability to garner huge amounts of information and not lose it down the back of the desk/in a computer crash/in the recesses of a busy mind. Are you very organised?
I don’t think of myself that way. My home office is a study in chaos but visitors are awed (or perhaps just confused) by my colossal numbers of files and file cabinets.
Three different summers in the 1990s, when I went to the Stanford Professional Publishing course, I was told we would ‘soon’ live in a paperless society. Now, eighteen years later, I find that I have Mt Etnas of paper documents along with a frightening virtual Etna of electronic files. What happened?
What’s the question you wish somebody would ask in an interview but nobody ever does?
And what’s the answer?
It’s on pages 72 – 76 of Mellify, the story of the valiant citizens of the island of Rhodes who fought off a great bully and his vicious siege—then turned the enemy’s abandoned war weapons into something beautiful for the ages. Instead of swords into plowshares, they created the Colossus of Rhodes, a shimmering 120 foot statue of their patron, Helios the sungod.
It became one of the seven World Wonders; even after an earthquake broke it off at the knees, the Colossus remained a global attraction. The French sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, who was grounded in the classical tradition, used many aspects of the Colossus of Rhodes in our own welcoming beacon.
Today, others are emulating the Rhodians by turning some of the world’s most deadly weapons into something peaceful and beautiful. How grand if we could all be inspired by their example.
That’s a great place to close. Thanks, Vicki.