The Classical Association in Northern Ireland

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QUB Centre for Public History

In our latest blog, Dr John Curran outlines the activities of the Classical Association in Northern Ireland:

In 2015, a new partnership between the ancient historians at Queen’s and the broader public led to the formation of The Classical Association in Northern Ireland/Cumann na gClasaicí i dTuaisceart Éireann. The Association seeks to bring a number of different constituencies together to explore and celebrate the history and heritage of Classical antiquity.


Already, distinguished scholars from Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have delighted audiences with lectures on a wide range of subjects from ancient Greek music to Rome’s trade with India. Poetry evenings have celebrated the unique interpretation of ancient Classical culture by Northern Ireland’s most distinguished poets Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney and provided a platform for the next generation of writers in Belfast and beyond. Film nights have featured Queen’s historians examining the…

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#OdysseyLiveBelfast Review

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Such was the success of our public reading of Homer’s Iliad at Queen’s University Belfast, that on Saturday 17 June, a little over six months after our first outing, The Classical Association in Northern Ireland were invited by the Ulster Museum to host a second public reading, this time of Homer’s other epic poem, The Odyssey.


Once again, the people of Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, England and Australia were extremely generous with their donations to MacMillan Cancer Research, the chosen charity this time around, and with their time, making sure that a considerable portion of the schedule was filled up even before we set out our stall in the foyer of the Ulster Museum.


Again, as with our previous outing, innumerable people, heading into the museum to take in its many fascinating exhibits, paused to donate and listen to the latest misadventures of Odysseus and his ever-dwindling crew, proving again that a great story is impossible to ignore.

Facts, Figures and Highlights (and Highlighters…)

A little after 10am, #OdysseyLiveBelfast began with Dr John Curran (QUB) introducing the event and our first speaker, local actor Jimmy Kearney, who drew on all his acting talent to project the open 95 lines of Book I.

That introduction initiated six hours of non-stop reading of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s Odyssean epic, with our most distant reader once again Heather Parsons, taking up the mantle of the opening of Book V from the sunny Antipodean shores of Tasmania.

With that, #OdysseyLiveBelfast was in full flow…


Our second talking head projected onto the wall was that of Laura Jenkinson, who contributed lines 1-151 of Book IX.

The eagle-eyed of you will notice that this is not Laura’s first appearance on the pages of the CANI website. Her fantastic contributions to the spreading of the Classics through @GreekMythComix have been blogged by CANI in the past – Playing Cards and Paper Dolls: The Trojan War As You Have Never Seen It

And not only did Laura donate her vocal skills to #OdysseyLiveBelfast, she also provided a tremendous amount of material both for advertising the event and for children of all ages to partake in some colouring-in on the day (and I must admit, on several evenings since).


The stages of the Odyssey, vases, cutting-out, felt-tip pens and Greek alphabet ‘lessons’ attracted people of all ages and abilities, providing a wonderfully creative and colourful aside to #OdysseyLiveBelfast. CANI cannot thank Laura enough for her generosity.

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And whilst this colouring-in session took place, Odysseus continued on his arduous decade-long journey home to Ithaca from Troy.


By the time Dr Curran brought proceedings to the close at 16:10 (a little ahead of schedule rather surprisingly!), Odysseus was home in his own bed with his wife Penelope; the anger of Poseidon, Helios and Zeus had been endured; the Cyclops blinded; Aeolus’ wind squandered; cannibals avoided; sailors turned into swine; Circe and Calypso abandoned; Sirens’ song survived; Scylla and Charybdis bisected; and suitors slain.


In total, there were 36 reading slots taken up by 34 different readers of all ages, geographical locations and academic backgrounds.

Readers Collage

Time   Speaker
10.05-10.10 Introduction and welcome John Curran
10.10-10.20 Book 1 Jimmy Kearney
10.20-10.30 Book 5 Heather Parsons
10.30-10.40   Laura Pfuntner
10.40-10.50   Barry Trainor
10.50-11.00   Terry McLaughlin
11.00-11.10   Erin Halliday
11.10-11.20   Mearns Pollock
11.20-11.30   Mark McCahill
11.30-11.40 Book 9 Laura Jenkinson, Greek Myth Comix
11.40-11.50   Joanne Brown
11.50-12.00   Solomon Trimble
12.00-12.10   Marco Palone
12.10-12.20 Book 10 Janice Holmes
12.20-12.30   Michael Trimble
12.30-12.40   Lynn Gordon
12.40-12.50   Janine Paterson
12.50-13.00   Caroline Jones
13.00-13.10 Book 11 Peter Crawford
13.10-13.20   Ava Wilson
13.20-13.30   Katerina Kolotourou
13.30-13.40   Anita Greg
13.40-13.50 Book 12 Raoul McLaughlin
13.50-14.00   John Curran
14.00-14.10   Nicola Christie
14.10-14.20   John Ashe
14.20-14.30   Leslie Gilmore
14.30-14.40 Book 19 Helen McVeigh
14.40-14.50   Philip Halliday
14.50-15.00   Stephen McCarthy
15.00-15.10 Book 21 Stephen Strickland
15.10-15.20   Kerry Phelan
15.20-15.30   Matt Kirkham
15.30-15.40 Book 22 Selga Medenieks
15.40-15.50   Stafford Reynolds
15.50-16.00   Katerina Kolotourou II
16.00-16.10 Book 23 John Curran II

The Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to thank all of those who helped organise and promote the event, those who took part (first-timers or returnees), who donated to such a worthy cause, or just took time to listen in as they passed by. We promise that there will be sweets again next time!

However, there are a few ladies who need to be singled out for special thanks…

Firstly, to Clare Ablett and the Ulster Museum for being such enthusiastic and accommodating hosts. Here’s to a blossoming relationship between CANI and the UM heading on into the future.

Secondly, again, to Laura Jenkinson not only for her video appearance on the walls of the Ulster Museum but also for providing so many excellent activities for kids of all ages through her tremendous @GreekMythComix.

However, for all the gratitude due to members of CANI, friends and family, the Ulster Museum, Greek Myth Comix, and the numerous readers, there was one individual who deserves to be singled out for special consideration, praise and thanks: for again printing fliers, sending emails, organising the set-up, bringing together the rota, reading and devoting an entire day to overseeing the event (ably aided by Erin Halliday, Katerina Kolotourou and Naomi), Helen McVeigh again went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that the #OdysseyLiveBelfast was as big a success as its Iliad predecessor.

Thank you all.

For those of you wondering what might be in store for our next public reading, the idea to come to mind immediately was to finish the trilogy of works pertaining to the Trojan War and follow the survivors of Troy to their new home in Italy through Virgil’s Aeneid. That might be the safe option, but CANI are willing to take risks and another idea is floating around with regards to reading some of the plays of Aeschylus and Ariostphanes…

Keep an eye out for the publication of our 2017/2018 Programme of Events in the next few weeks to find out how brave we are and what other sure-to-be-fantastic events we have planned!

For more videos and photos of a great Classical day in Belfast, check out our #OdysseyLiveBelfast Gallery, with links to our Facebook albums and Youtube Channel, where you can see pictures and videos of not just our latest public reading but also our growing annual programme of events.

Classical Readings from Michael Longley and Peter McDonald

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Following the success of our own poetry evening last month, we are happy to point anyone interested in hearing more classically-inspired poetry from some of the best pens these isles have to offer in the direction of the upcoming Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry event this Thursday featuring Michael Longley and Peter McDonald

Thursday, 14 April, at 8pm in the Crescent Arts Centre


Michael Longley is a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, and his translations and adaptations from classical literature have garnered international critical acclaim. His most recent poetry collection, The Stairwell (2014) won the Griffin Poetry Prize.


Peter McDonald’s Collected Poems appeared in 2012, and a new volume of translations from ancient Greek, Homeric Hymns, has just been published by Carcanet Press, together with his most recent poetry collection, Herne the Hunter (2016).


Contact Details

2-4 University Road
County Antrim

Tel: (028) 9024 2338

Game of Thrones and Ancient History Ib: A Golden Crown

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In the previous entry we looked at the instances of “death by gold” reputedly suffered by Romans similar to that of Viserys Targaryen at the hands of Khal Drogo in S01E06 “A Golden Crown” and discovered that perhaps two of those three known instances, Marcus Licinius Crassus and the emperor Valerian, are perhaps apocryphal.

rs_1024x759-140403130129-1024.18game-of-thrones.ls.4314“A Crown for a King…” © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

index© Gautier Poupeau 2014 © http://www.cngcoins.com 2005

It is important to note, though, that even if the attributing of a “death by molten metal” to Crassus or Valerian is erroneous, the supposed perpetrators of these punishments – Shapur I, Orodes II and in the case of Aquillius, Mithridates VI – all shared a similar Iranian cultural heritage, in which the use of molten metals as a form of execution was prevalent. Shapur was Sassanid Persian king and Orodes was a Parthian king, meaning that both ruled the Iranian plateau, while the Pontic court of Mithridates had strong Iranian influences.

Artaxerxes iiArtaxerxes II, Achaemenid Persian King of Kings © Marie-Lan Nguyen 2008

The use of molten metal as a punishment is recorded for the Achaemenid Persians as well. For boasting about being responsible for the death of Cyrus the Younger during the Battle of Cunaxa on 3 September 401BC, an unnamed Carian was arrested by the Achaemenid Persian king Artaxerxes II and handed over to his and Cyrus’ mother, “Parysatis, who ordered the executioners to take him and rack him on the wheel for ten days, then to gouge out his eyes, and finally to drop molten brass into his ears until he died” (Plutarch, Artaxerxes 14.5).

The origin of this practice in Iranian culture seems to have been the religion of Zoroastrianism or earlier pagan beliefs. Iranian sources regarded molten metal, like fire, as an instrument of judgement not just for trial by ordeal and spiritual cleansing but also in a truly apocalyptic “End of Days” sense its prominence in Zoroaster’s vision of the Last Judgement (Griffiths (1990), 336, 348; Boyce (1996), 35; Ballesteros Pastor in Høtje (2009), 224).

This practice also appears in the writings of Judaism. Originally, the punishment of “burning” was a literal immolation as dictated by Leviticus 20:14, 21:9, but through the re-interpretations of and even rejections by various learned rabbis of that punishment, perhaps through Iranian influences, the instructions for “death by burning” became “forcibly open his mouth with a pair of tongues and the lighted wire (the molten lead) is thrust into his mouth, so that it goes down into his bowels and burns his inside” (Harris (1901), 170; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 52a; http://www.come-and-hear.com/editor/capunish_1.html). As the crimes leading to the punishment of burningall involve adultery or incest, perhaps we are hearing echoes of the purifying aspects of molten metal from Zoroastrian belief.

Such a punishment was (and surely still is) viewed as barbaric, so it is not exactly surprising to see the ‘savage’ character, Khal Drogo, employing it. Even less surprising is that the archetypal barbarian horseman who was likely the main source of inspiration for Drogo, the 13th century marauding Mongol, Genghis Khan, is also recorded using this punishment.

YuanEmperorAlbumGenghisPortraitGenghis Khan, Mongol Khan

His victim was the governor of Otrar, a city of the Khwarazmian Empire in 1219, who is only known to history by his title, Inalchucq – “Little Lord” or Qadir-Khan – “Mighty Khan.” His crime had been the accusation of Muslim merchants in Genghis’ employ as being spies and having them arrested, and probably then encouraging the Khwarazmian Shah, Mohammed, to execute not just the caravan, but also members of the embassy sent as a peace offering by Genghis. Such an outrage opened the Khwarazmian Empire to the full horrors of the Mongol hordes. After a stubborn defence at Otrar, Little Lord Inalchuk was captured alive and executed by having molten silver poured onto his eyes and ears (Man (2004), 155-156, 163).


The lead sprinkler

The use of molten metal also made its way into western medieval torture in the form of this device. At first glance it appears a little innocuous and you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a religious implement used to spread holy water. Indeed, you would in fact be partially correct in that thought. But instead of cold holy water, this was used for the sprinkling of boiling liquids – water, oil or metals; hence its name, the lead sprinkler.

As with the use of molten metals in Iranian and Jewish lore, there was a religious purification dimension to the use of the lead sprinkler. Not so cold comfort for the victims of this infernal device.

Such “deaths by molten metal” are not contained just to the Old World. Perhaps the most infamous use of such a horrific and symbolic form of execution comes from the New World, where the natives used it to punish the avarice of the Spanish Conquistadores.

Pedro_de_ValdiviaPedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia by Federico de Madrazo

Chronicler Pedro Mariño de Lobera records that the first royal governor of Chile, Pedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia, was killed by Araucanían Mapuche, who forced him to drink molten gold, possibly on Christmas Day 1553 (Pedro Mariño de Lobera, Crónica del Reino de Chile XLIII); however, as there are several other modes of death attributed to Valdivia by various other writers, including having his forearms roasted and eaten before his eyes and having his still beating heart removed, the chances are that all of them, including the “death by gold,” are apocryphal.

Theodor_de_Bry_78“The Indians, to satisfy their wickedness, pour molten gold in the mouths of the Spaniards” by Theodor De Bry Great Voyages Part IV, (1594)

Perhaps European audiences, hearing of the deaths of many Conquistadores and knowing of the amounts of precious metals pouring in from the New World, were projecting a suitable death for their own avarice, encouraged by the ancient texts containing the stories of Aquillius, Crassus and Parysatis’ unnamed Carian. Indeed, the similarities between the etching work of De Bry here and that of Coustau depicting Crassus in the previous entry might be evidence of such a proclivity.

The likely apocryphal nature of many of these storied “deaths by gold/molten metal” has not done much to assuage popular or even scientific interest in this mode of death. There have been experiments involving bovine larynxes to see how exactly the victim of such an execution would die, concluding that while the molten metal would rupture organs, it is more likely that it would be the steam and the damage it causes to the respiratory system that would be the cause of death (van de Goot, ten Berge, and Vos (2003)).

This is just a (metallic) taste of the depths of man’s inhumanity to man with regard to molten metals as an instrument of spiritual purification, painful torture or ironic vengeful execution. A quick search online might lead to more potential instances or anecdotes, factual or not. Let’s just say that mouths, eyes and ears are not the only orifices into which molten metals could be poured… I will just leave it at that.

Of course, in the mythos of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, had Viserys truly been “the dragon” that he was so proud of proclaiming himself to be, the molten metal should not have harmed him. Instead, it would be his younger sister, whom he had thought to barter away, threaten and generally overlook, who would seem to be the true heir of the Targaryen legacy.


Appian, Roman History (White, H. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1913; Gabba, E. translation, 1958-1970)

Cassius Dio, Historia Romana (Cary, E. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1914-1927)

Florus, Epitome of Roman History (Forster, E.S. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1929)

Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Bostock, J. and Riley, H.T. translation, 1855)

Plutarch, Lives (Perrin, B. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1923)

Pedro Mariño de Lobera, Crónica del Reino de Chile

Ballesteros Pastor, L. ‘Troy, between Mithridates and Rome,’ in Høtje, J.M. (ed) Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Black Sea Studies 9. Aarhus (2009)

Boyce, M.  A History of Zoroastrianism I: The Early Period. New York (1996)

van de Goot, F.R.W., ten Berge, R.L. and Vos, R. ‘Molten gold was poured down his throat until his bowels burst,’ Journal of Clinical Pathology (2003) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1769869/

Griffiths, J.G. The Divine Verdict: A Study of Divine Judgement in the Ancient Religions. New York (1990)

Harris, M.H. (ed.) Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala (1901)

Høtje, J.M. (ed) Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Black Sea Studies 9. Aarhus (2009)

Mann, J. Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection. London (2004)

Mayor, A. The Poison King The Life and Legend of Mithridates. (2010)



Have you got any questions for our contributors? Do you know of any other examples regarding the subject of any of our blogs? Or do you have an idea for a future instalment?

Please, do not hesitate to get in touch with CANI through our Facebook, Twitter or email.

And if you enjoyed it, please share it!

An Evening of Classical Poetry with Dr Halliday and Guests

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‘Re-voicing Classics: an evening of poetry’

Convened by Dr Erin Halliday

With readings by award winning Northern Irish poets:

Stephen Sexton and Ross Thompson

Wednesday 30th March 2016, 6.45 p.m.

The Canada Room, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University, Belfast

Happy New Year!

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We here at the Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to wish all of our friends and followers a Happy New Year! May Janus provide you with eyes on the past, future and present!


While we already have a programme set for the first half of 2016, rest assured that we are working on further events not just for the public but also for schools across Northern Ireland, which is a pivotal part of our mission.

So stay tuned for further updates and do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like more information, help promoting or running your own event or any ideas you think we at CANI could help with!

Thanks and once again, Happy New Year!