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Review of the book I read Tuesday, July 19th.

So apparently, although I didn't know this before reading the book, the Getty museum is set up as a replica of a Roman-era dwelling, complete with garden layout swiped from Pompeii. As a result, they've put out this book about the ancient associations and references of the herbs growing in their (extremely accurate) gardens.

This is a really good sourcebook for information about herbs in Greece and Rome. You get the name of each herb in Greek and Latin, the current taxonomy, the current English name, a lovely water-color showing any distinguishing features, and a list for each herb of references from classical texts, including medicinal, magical, honorific, and culinary uses. There are sections from stories and poems, discussion of which authorities believed what about which herb, analysis of the difference between Greek and Roman beliefs and usages, and a few recipes.

And there is stuff in here I've never seen anywhere else. Parsley apparently had an association with the underworld in Greece, for instance; it was supposed to descend to the underworld nine times before it sprouted, and may have had some use at the Eleusinian mysteries. Consequently it was not widely eaten. The Romans, on the other hand, though they also thought it was a little unworldly, appear to have eaten it with bread as a standard breakfast. Plautus hated garlic. And mustard. Knowing Plautus, somehow this does not surprise me. Garlic actually is an antiseptic, and its uses as one were known as far back as anyone can tell; Galen also suggests that it will keep off dangerous beasts if eaten (and possibly anyone else, too). There's an attempt to deduce the flavor profile of the now-extinct silphium from the things people compare its flavor to in cookery texts, and I conclude that I would have hated it, as the description they come up with is 'kind of like onions, only very bitter and with an aftertaste rather like mint'. Well, these are the people who put garum on everything (a strong fermented fish sauce-- you can kind of approximate it today with Vietnamese fish sauce, but garum was much stronger, smelled rather impressively, and was used about how people now use ketchup).

There's discussion about the immemorial confusion between oregano and marjoram, which apparently dates to before Hesiod and is not helped at all by the fact that the two crossbreed. There's mention of how the Greeks knew about ten species of thyme and had them in a hierarchy. It's interesting to see which names have come down: basil does come from basileus, which is ancient Greek for king, and it's yet another of the plants sometimes used as crowns for victors in battle. (They had what we would now call ordinary basil and what we would now call holy basil, but not any of the more esoteric ones.) You get things like a mention that asparagus water seethed with basil and garlic was meant to be an aphrodisiac. I doubt it.

In short, do not be put off by the museum-related nature of this book, because it's a very nice collation of material that one could otherwise go through an entire reference library to seek out. And a fine bibliography. And you don't have to read Greek or Latin, though it would help. I only wish it were longer, and maybe referred more to the Babylonians and Sumerians, because there are tiny smatterings of that material and it interests me, though I understand that that was not their focus.
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Yesterday's review. Via [personal profile] rachelmanija.

This? Is lovely.

It's a short novel that's a prose translation of a poem originally composed in Telugu sometime in the second half of the sixteenth century. The author comes from what is present-day Andhra Pradesh. This piece, the Prabhavati-pradyumnamu, is one of his several extant works; its story is taken from the Hari-vamsa, an ancient compilation of stories related to Krishna. I know nothing about the history of Telugu literature, but the translators make an interesting argument that this is one of the first pieces in that linguistic tradition to use novelistic ideas of individuality and interiority.

But honestly you want to read this for the talking goose.

Her name is Sucimukhi and due to family connections she was tutored by the Goddess of Speech and given the title of 'Mother of Similes and Hyperbole'. She is both an extremely good poet in the best classical tradition, and, as far as I can tell, a ninja. I mean, the book would not go any differently if she actually were. There is an amazing scene where she wrestles a parrot.

Anyway! There is a demon, Vajranabha, who has obtained from the Creator, Brahma, the gift that no one, not even the wind, can enter his city without his permission. With this as his base of power, he challenges Indra for supremacy over the gods. Indra's best idea is to go to Krishna, and Krishna suggests that his son Pradyumna could sneak into the city disguised as an actor. If only he had some motivation to do so. And hey, Vajranabha has a daughter...

Enter one matchmaking goose and a whole lot of running about that teeters on the edge between sitcom, irony, and genuinely sweet and erotic romance. The young couple actually work well together and their courtship is continuously interesting. The bit I laughed hardest at: Pradyumna is a mortal incarnation of the God of Love, Manmatha. At one point he is pacing back and forth, racked by angst, and shouts "The God of Love is tormenting me! Right, that's me. But still, the God of Love is tormenting me!" *facepalm*

The translation, by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, moves neatly between the poetic and the prosaic, and is a nice blend of present vernacular with vaguely archaic-- a trick usually so difficult I don't recommend anyone attempting it, but it works here. All of the academic stuff you could possibly hope for is here, in preface and afterword and endnotes, but the text itself is intentionally designed so that you can just sit down and read it-- and highly readable it is. The translators have apparently done something else of Suranna and I will have to look it up.

In short, if you only read one sixteenth-century Indian poem this year, I can highly vouch for this one.

Also, if you put it in a blender with Longus' Daphnis and Chloe, a book from second-century-AD Greece that in some ways reminds me of this one only with pirates, you would in fact get THE BEST ROMANCE NOVEL OF ALL TIME. It is actually incredibly tempting.
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A useful primer to what is known about the Etruscan language, i.e. not actually all that much. The longest surviving inscription in Etruscan is one thousand two hundred words long; I suspect these book reviews of averaging longer than that. And we've no literature at all, it's entirely inscription and this one segment of devotional liturgy that was found on some mummy wrappings.

And apparently the grammar is sufficiently theoretical that Bonfante can remark that as of 1975 a complete Etruscan grammar was 'entirely conjectural', which if you have spent much time with the classics you know means 'OMG STOP MAKING SUCH WILD SPECULATIONS'.

I had known pretty much nothing at all before reading this book, though, which is rather sad considering my fields of study, so nearly nothing is better than nothing. I had not known, for example, that Etruscan is not an Indo-European language. It's a complete isolate unrelated to anything except maybe an obscure dialect from Lemnos, which has caused some difficulties in interpretation (/understatement).

I had also not had a good list of Greek words that shifted into Etruscan, Etruscan words that shifted into Latin, and, importantly, Greek words that shifted through Etruscan into Latin. The alphabet itself shifted through Etruria from Greece into its Roman form, apparently, and the Etruscans added a letter for f (as opposed to φ, which this book takes as p-aspirate) and started that Latin habit of differentiating k-in-front-of-u as q. Also Etruscan had no long vowels at all, which does a lot to explain the Roman macron system to me as it is not logically descended from the Greek.

Good discussion here too of the context of the inscriptions and dedications we do have, which are focused around mirrors, seals, gems, and funerary offerings; some of the mirrors are quite lovely and also have very mythologically interesting carvings, and the names of the gods do some impressive phonetic shifts. As in, the Etruscan equivalent of Greek Dionysus and Latin Bacchus is Fufluns, which amazes me.

I think my favorite Etruscan-to-Latin derivation is cera, wax, which of course has come into English via the Latin sine cere, 'without wax', i.e. this pottery has not been patched back together in a fraudulent fashion and is therefore sincere. So there's your daily Etruscan.

All in all a very useful little book. It even has an article on Oscan, which was the principal Indo-European non-Latin dialect of central Italy, has its own alphabet, and about which we know even less. Extremely handy reference as a starting point for looking into Etruscan versions of classical mythology, which is probably the direction I'm going with it.

Oh, and they weren't Etruscans. They were Rasna, or Rasenna. Etruscan is the Roman name. But so it goes.


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