University of Calgary

The odd side of Ancient Greece

UToday HomeFebruary 19, 2013

By Heath McCoy

James C. McKeown, a professor of Classics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, will be giving a lecture at the University of Calgary on Feb. 22. Photo courtesy of James C. McKeownJames C. McKeown, a professor of Classics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, will be giving a lecture at the University of Calgary on Feb. 22. Photo courtesy of James C. McKeownSurely the bizarre stories of Ancient Greece relayed by Professor James C. McKeown — who will be lecturing at the University of Calgary on Feb. 22 — have to be regarded as the tallest of tall tales from antiquity.

Take, for example, the pugilist werewolf, who, it is written, was victorious at the Olympic Games, or, the account of the philosopher Pythagoras making his way around Ancient Greece on a flying arrow. Then there’s the story of the great tragedian Aeschylus, killed, it is claimed, when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head.

It’s all very absurd and entertaining. One naturally assumes that such tales — collected in McKeown’s book A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization — were concocted as fictional anecdotes or cultural jokes.

Not so, says the professor of Classics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who will be delivering his Feb. 22 lecture on behalf of the Calgary Society for Mediterranean Studies — a community group sponsored by the University of Calgary’s Department of Greek and Roman Studies.

“The Greeks told tall tales the same as everybody else, but I generally ignore those,” says McKeown, who stresses that the stories in Greek Curiosities are not plucked from the fantasia of the day. Rather, the professor of classics rooted out stories that seem to have been relayed “in all seriousness.”

“These stories were not stated as jokes,” adds McKeown. “I’m pretty certain they were believed by the people who wrote them down.”

A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities makes for a fine companion piece to McKeown’s similarly outrageous 2010 volume, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire.

“The approach is exactly the same with this book, but the Greeks were even more peculiar than the Romans,” says McKeown. “Hence, it was easier to write, and without me making any effort to be funny, it is funnier.”

While A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities attempts, says McKeown, “to maintain a certain academic integrity,” he also hopes that the book entertains and his lecture will take the same approach.

“It should be fun,” he says. “The only person who might not like it is someone who takes antiquity too seriously.”

Although McKeown didn’t set out to change the way Ancient Greece is viewed, he believes that the stories inside might do just that.

“There’s this cliché of Ancient Greece that they were all intellectual powerhouses that went around in long white garb having important thoughts,” McKeown says. He adds, with a hearty laugh: “There’s not much of that in this book.”

View the ticket prices, time and location of McKeown’s lecture.

 

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