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Bound orgies

Vicki LeÃ'³n writes about orgies, funeral clowns and other ancient professions

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Vicki León has gotten good at making work fun.

In her latest paperback tome, “Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World” (Walker & Co., 313 pages, $16.95), León gallivants into Greek and Roman times, gleefully lifting the veils of history to reveal similarities between modern occupations and those of the very bad old days.

Take modern wedding consultants and ancient orgy orchestrators for example.

“The first orgies were meticulously planned,” says León. But alas, like a lot of today’s jobs, orgy planning sounds like more fun than it was. “When you‘re responsible for the debaucheries, you can’t really let yourself go,” says the author. “You had to worry about the gladiators not showing up” and other snafus. Oh, and if you screwed up and fell out of favor with a fickle emperor such as Nero, you’d be forced to commit suicide.

León, 65, lives in the central California coast town of Morro Bay. She’s touring the Pacific Northwest in a carbon-conscious fashion, taking Amtrak and ferries instead of jets and cars.

After two years of study for this book — plus many more researching her “Uppity Women” series about proto feminists of ancient times, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this historian brims with juicy bits gathered on jaunts to Greece and Italy.

The word orgy, she tells us, comes from the Latin orgia, which referred to a secret rite during which you immersed yourself in the mysteries of a given religion. The Romans’ bacchanalia, she adds, were about “getting out of your body and losing control.”

The workers of the ancient world needed such events. “They had a lot more festivals and holidays than we do,” León says. Such bashes started as pagan rituals, and were later discovered by organized religion and made into saint’s day feasts.

In short, often sassy vignettes, León’s book peeks at scores of jobs from the nice to the nasty. Among the tasks the author found most wretched was that of fuller, the guy who scrubbed and wrung the Romans’ 10-by-20-foot togas. The wearers washed their bodies with olive oil, so the fuller had to use urine, potash and sulfur to cut the grease on the garments. “The good thing about it,” León says, “was they did this work to live music,” since musicians were hired to play for such workers.

Another “IX to V” job: beast-elevator operator. In the labyrinth of chambers below the Roman coliseum, this guy contended with caged animals, using lifts and pulleys to send them up to the arena at circus time — but he didn’t get to see the show.

We also are treated to savory facts about life in ancient Athens, such as this about olive oil: “Useful as food, cooking oil, medicine, sunscreen, lighting source, laxative, cleansing lotion and a halfway decent contraceptive, (it) became the city’s hottest export.”

As today’s foodies know, the green stuff has made a comeback, and is revered as the tastiest, healthiest way to flavor one’s daily bread.

Writing this book taught León “how alike we still are to the men and women of long ago. We have the same hopes and dreams and gripes about taxes, about bosses from Hades,” she says. “In our society, with extreme sports and our fixation on spectator sports, we tend to emulate some of the more brutal aspects of ancient life.”

León also discovered ancient customs she’d like to see modern leaders consider. The wealthiest Athenians, for example, competed for a privilege then called the liturgy: a civic project to be completed in one year. One of the most sought-after liturgies was underwriting all of the city’s art, music and drama festivals.

“That’s how the marvelous festivals were put on,” León says. “And these fat cats would do successive liturgies,” funding all of the gymnasia in Athens one year, constructing a city aqueduct the next, and then endowing and building a museum — also known as a “home of the muses.”

“Why don’t we ask our politicians: What have you done lately? Why don’t you do a liturgy?” León wonders.

“Why don’t we send our senators to New Orleans? This kind of community-mindedness is something our world needs badly and could profit from in so many ways.

“I like the directness of the liturgy. We see that people who were favored by fortune, and who made a fortune, realized they have obligations.”

The ancient Greeks had to file reports upon completion of each assignment, adds León, who went to Athens to dig up such documents and used them to inform her book.

In writing about those pre-Christian community projects, León followed one of her own muses: the late Alex Haley, author of “Roots.”

“I corresponded with him; never got to meet him,” she said. But Haley shared with his fellow author a motto: “Find the good and praise it.”

“I adopted that as my own working philosophy,” says Leon. “It keeps you from getting too wound up in the negative. I’m not a Pollyanna. But I’ve found that while it’s harder to find the good things, it’s more rewarding when you do discover them.”

[King’s Books, Vicki León reads “Working IX to V,” Saturday, Oct. 6, 3 p.m., 18 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.8801]

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