Today Reading Greek Tragedy Online returns to Sophocles’ Philoktetes at 3 PM EDT Online, and LIVE at Harvard University’s Hilles Cinema, sponsored by the Division of Arts and Sciences and Department of the Classics at Harvard University and the School of Arts and Sciences and Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. Tune in Live, return for a recording, or, if you can make it, stop by in person and say, “ἆ ἆ ἆ ἆ.”
Sophocles, Philoktetes 971-2
“You aren’t bad but by learning from wicked men you became used to pursuing wicked things”
RGTO is produced by a partnership of Out of Chaos Theatre, the Center for Hellenic Studies, and the Kosmos Society. This project started at the onset of COVID19 lockdowns in the US and UK and brings together actors and researches to stage scenes from the ancient stage and talk about how they impact us to this day. We have over 50 episodes posted already and will add a few more by the end of the year. In the first year of the Pandemic, we went through every extant Greek tragedy. As we have moved on, we have tried to broaden our scope, expanding the questions we ask of the past and reaching out to bring more people and perspectives into discussion.
Sophocles, Philoktetes 54-55
“You need to bewitch
Philoktetes’ mind with your words.”
τὴν Φιλοκτήτου σε δεῖ
ψυχὴν ὅπως λόγοισιν ἐκκλέψεις λέγων
This performance marks the first time many of us have met in person and the first time some of us have been together since before the start of the pandemic. As we have written about elsewhere, the process of putting on these readings has helped us to rethink Greek Tragedy. For me, it has forced a re-centering of performance and audience experience in creating a play’s meaning. Viewing and reflecting on tragic action together expands our emotional and cognitive grasp, helping us to see each other and ourselves through the characters on stage. In particular, the practice of listening to other peoples’ interpretations and using them as a sounding board for our own gives the moment of performance and its aftermath power that is often impoverished on a simple page.
Cast and Crew
Damian Jermaine Thompson
René Thornton Jr.
Directed by Paul O’Mahony, translated by Ian Johnston.
With host Joel Christensen, and special guests, Naomi Weiss and David Elmer
Artistic Director: Paul O’Mahony (Out of Chaos Theatre) Host and Faculty Consultant: Joel Christensen (Brandeis University) Executive Producer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies) Producers: Keith DeStone (Center for Hellenic Studies), Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott (Kosmos Society) Director of Outreach: Amy Pistone (Gonzaga University) Poster Designer: Allie Marbry (Center for Hellenic Studies) Poster Illustration Artist: John Koelle
Sophocles, Philoctetes 86-95 (Neoptolemus to Odysseus)
“For my part, son of Laertes, I hate to carry out those plans which pain me to hear. I was not born to do anything from evil contrivance, nor was the one (as they say) who begot me. But I am always up to the task of taking a man by violence and not trickery. With his one foot, Philoctetes will not overwhelm us, who are so many, in a violent contest. Yet, since I was sent as your helpmate, I would rather not be called a traitor; but my lord, I would rather err while acting nobly than prevail while acting basely.”
We first visited Philoktetes on the island of Lemnos in 2020 with special guest Norman Sandridge. At the beginning of the pandemic it was impossible not to see Philoktetes’ isolation and dehumanization as a way to think about the impact of COVID19 on our lives.
Sophocles, Philoktetes 446-452
“He would survive, since nothing rotten ever dies,
but the gods take good care of these things
and they love turning the wicked back from hell
even as they are always damning the just and good.
How can we make sense of this, can we praise it
when look close at their work and realize the gods are evil?”
“We use ‘self-sufficient’ not to mean a person alone—someone living in isolation—but to include one’s parents, children, spouse, friends, and even fellow citizens, since a human being is a social creature by nature. Now, some limit needs to be observed in these ties—for it will go on endlessly if you extend it to someone’s ancestors and descendants. But that’s a problem for another time.
We posit that self-sufficiency is something which in itself makes life attractive and lacks nothing and for this reason we think it is happiness, since we imagine that happiness is the most preferable of all things when it is not counted with others. It is clear that it is desirable even with the least of the goods—the addition of goods increases the total, since the greater good is always desirable.”
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
Late in 2021, I had the great honor of being asked to preside over the wedding of a former student and friend, Zach as he married his long time partner, Molly. In the midst of COVID19 still and all the chaos in the world, it was a moment of respite and celebration and a sign that life continues on. Here’s the better part of it to mark a commercial holiday with all the meaning that we make of it.
Welcome friends, family, and all of you who gather today to celebrate Molly and Zack. After nearly two years of uncertainty and fear, there are few things more life affirming and hopeful than this–two people confirming their love for each other and asking their community to stand with them to recognize that in a shifting and unsettled world, this is something to count on.
As a sage once said, how did we get here? When Zach first asked me before the Pandemic to officiate I said yes without hesitation–not because I have any authority or experience in doing so, but because I can think of an honor no greater than this, to stand here and help Molly and Zach speak into existence something they made for themselves, something to shape, define and comfort them for the rest of their lives.
As is the custom with these things, I am in a position to offer some reflection and advice to the soon to be wed couple on what marriage means. Three short stories; three things to think about: politics, passion, and age.
I was Zach’s teacher in the Department of Brandeis University in the Department of Classical Studies. I used to joke to Zach that the nicest thing said about marriage in all of classical literature comes in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus, naked and bedraggled, gives a blessing to the young princess Nausikaa
“May the gods grant as much as you desire in your thoughts,
A husband and home, and may they give you fine likemindness,
For nothing is better and stronger than this
When two people who are likeminded in their thoughts share a home,
A man and a wife—this brings many pains for their enemies
And joys to their friends. And the gods listen to them especially”
Doesn’t this sound great! The lesson here, it’s a political one, the promise of the married couple working as a team to achieve their goals and punish all those who oppose them. But there’s a limit too-a close reading shows that homophrosyne, likemindedness, means having shared aims and plans, but it really looks externally, to surviving the world outside the home.
If the Odyssey tells us about the politics of marriage, and dominating your neighbors, another famous story is about passion. Ovid’s Metamorphoses gives us the Babylonian Pyramus and Thisbe. Two young lovers, forbidden to be with each other, housed right next door. When they sneak out to meet, Thisbe runs from a lioness and leaves her veil behind only to have Pyramus arrive to see what he thinks is a predator with a bloody grin. The two end up taking their own lives in sorrow and inspiring tales like Romeo and Juliet.
This story is in a way an warning allegory about passion and excess–it reflects the kind of love that burns bright and then fades. The frantic love of youth is a memory. It inflames, but is hard to sustain.
The one story from the ancient world that has always seemed to me to understand love the most is Baucis and Philemon, also told by Ovid. They were an aging couple in a wicked city and when the gods came to test them, they were the only ones who offered strangers hospitality. In thanks, Hermes and Zeus turned their home into a temple and when they died, they turned into two trees, rooted near each other, and over time they grew so intertwined that you couldn’t tell where one started and the other ended but you could still clearly see the wood and character of each tree.
This too is an allegory for love: the way people grow together and change, shaping and shaped in turn, creating a life and story that is so intertwined that you cannot remember where one starts and the other ends. As I have learned in spending more than half my life with my partner, few gifts are more comforting and sustaining, to be part of something bigger while still yet becoming yourself. Passion inspires us to love; life requires us to team up and face the daily struggle, age and the passage of time brings this great, unexpected gift: becoming more than yourself by loving someone else.
May you bring joy to your friends and eliminate your enemies, may you feel the passion of youth for as long as it burns, and may you grow so close and strong together that no power on earth can move you apart.
I am presiding over another wedding this spring (!) and will have to come up with new stories to tell.
“…the egg that Orpheus claims was created, projected from the boundless matter, was born like this: the quadruple matter is alive and all of the endless deep flows eternally but it moves in an unclear war, pouring forth here and there endless incomplete mixtures from one time to another. For this reason, it pulls them back too and then opens wide as if for the birth of a creature that cannot be bound.”
The poet and classicist Anne Carson has an essay that sticks like maple syrup to your subconscious, called “Essay on What I Think About Most.” She begins the poem by addressing the idea of the error and what we can learn from it by dissecting a bit of poetry from Alcman of Sparta, a Greek lyric poet from the 7th century BCE.
[made?] three seasons, summer
and winter and autumn third
and fourth spring when
there is blooming but to eat enough
is not (trans. Carson)
Carson notes that the verb in Alcman’s laconic rumination on hunger seems to have no subject. She addresses whether this was a grammatical mistake caused by transmission and fragmentation; a way modern philologists can scrub away “errors” of the past. “But as you know, the chief aim of philology,” she says, “is to reduce all textual delight / to an accident of history. And I am uneasy with any claim to know exactly / what a poet means to say. So let’s leave the question mark there “
The lack of any punctuation is the kicker there. The absence does more work than any ellipsis or period ever could. Carson demonstrates how, for her, Alcman “sidesteps fear, anxiety, shame, remorse” connected to mistakes in order to engage with a truth:
“The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection.”
What is Pasts Imperfect? It is a column and a space for commentary, reviews, essays, reflections, statements, and any other words needed to help us negotiate between the past and our present world. We talk about pasts because antiquity isn’t just one land, timeline, or narrative; it is multiple and multiplied by the perspectives we bring to bear on it. Our Pasts are not just Greek, Roman, and Mediterranean; they are not just elite, white, and male. The past includes these people and perspectives, but also those who were silenced or left behind: the people, the languages, and the histories in or beyond the margins.
Imperfect is about value and aspect. We acknowledge that the past is far from perfect and we study antiquity to help us understand ourselves and the causes of things, not to render fictive, to emulate, or to praise simply because something has been praised before. To be human is to be imperfect; to love as a human is to love imperfectly. Our studies of the past and ourselves must honor and inhabit such complexities.
Imperfect is also about incompletion. We see the study of the past as a process that is ongoing and never truly done: each generation, each embodied person, each new perspective contributes to challenging what we think we know about what has come before.
Pasts Imperfect seeks to bring critical and transparently progressive reflections and scholarship on antiquity to a wider audience. It is a column, a space, and a developing network for those who want to engage in challenging discussions about antiquity, its construction and reception in scholarship, and its impact on the modern world. As our editorial college and paid writer-network begins to expand and to take pitches, we hope to venture into a more global understanding of the past while also making space for imperfection.
Plutarch, On the Affection Offspring (Moralia 496b)
“There is nothing so imperfect, helpless, naked, formless, and unclean as a human being glimpsed at the moment of birth, someone to whom nature has not even given a clear path to the light.”
“Zeus’ laws move me to sing of that exceptional contest-ground which Herakles
Set up by the burial place of Pelops along six altars
After he killed Kteatos, Poseidon’s perfect son
And Eurutos, because he was willfully
Trying to get his pay from arrogant and unwilling Augeas.
Herakles set an ambush in the underbrush near Kleônai and defeated the men near the road.
Once before the intolerable Moliones crushed
His army from Tirynth
When it was at rest in the valley of Elis.
Not long after that the king of the Epeians
Who deceived a friend
Saw his rich country and his own city
Laid low under the deep current
Of tireless fire and steel blows.
There’s no way to decline
A conflict with stronger people.
And that guy at last
Was found caught thanks to his own foolishness
And he didn’t escape sheer death.
Then Zeus’ bold son gathered the whole army and the spoils
In Pisa and created a sacred space for his father supreme.
He brought all of Altis around into an enclosure and marked it off.
He made a circle in the plain and a place for feasting,
Not failing to honor the stream Alpheus and the twelve high gods.
He named this the hill of Kronos because it was nameless before
When Oinomaus was king and it was crowned with damp snow.
The Fates stood nearby during this birth-rite
Alongside the only one who can test the true truth of things,
Then as Time moved forward, it revealed the clear truth of things—
How Herakles distributed the spoils of war
And made the best of them sacred;
And how he created the four-year festival with the first Olympic games and their triumphs.”
In Pindar’s 10th Olympian Ode, we find the traditional story for the creation of the first Olympic games. Herakles established them to honor his father and the rest of the gods during his various labors. Pindar’s poem, an epinician (a poem composed in honor of an athletic victory) is one of many that blends myth, history, and effusive praise–a heady mix wielded by sportswriters to this day.
The traditional date of the first Olympics is 776 BCE. The event was so important that its four-year cycle was the only calendar system shared by ancient Greek cities. (Each city-state had its own way of keeping time, typically a luni-solar system based around religious festivals, agrarian rites etc.)
But the Olympics were not the only Panhellenic games. Between the legendary founding of the Olympia and the Classical Age three other major games developed: the Nemean, Isthmian, and Pythian. These games had what you might expect: running, archery, boxing. They also had musical and choral competitions and some of the biggest events wouldn’t be found at today’s Olympics (the chariot games).
Athletic festivals like the Olympian games were part of a handful of cultural practices we now recognize as creating Panhellenic identities. Other include worship at the cult-sites of Delphi and Delos and Homeric and Hesiodic poems. The Games were an essential part of aristocratic culture–so much so that there are accounts of people considering the games a good place to find a spouse.
Just as today, most of us would have no chance of competing in the games: they were for those healthy and wealthy enough to spend their time training and of blood noble enough to have the presumption to enter the contests. They were of such prestige in Athens that an Olympic victor was awarded with meals for life in the public dining hall.
The earliest games we have recorded in literature are in Homer’s Iliad where Achilles hosts funeral games in honor of Patroclus. Those games create an experimental space where the leading figures of the Achaeans could compete against one another without actual murder. Indeed, a close reading of Iliad 23 will show that Achilles, Menelaos, Antilokhos, and friends negotiate some of the same political tensions that causes the conflict in book 1.
Athletic contests in early Greece, then, developed as a ritualized kind of practice for war. Most of the events practiced–running, wrestling, javelin throwing–are those that aristocrats would have practiced in preparation for war. But instead of fighting each other to the death, they struggled over honor on the field. Probably naked. Probably cheating and scrabbling for every advantage just like today.
The traditional date for the last ancient Olympic games is 393 CE—even if ancient historians such as David Potter (2011) and Sofie Remijsen (2015) have questioned the reality of this rather synthetic date.They place the final games later into the reign of the emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450 CE). In the years prior to the concluding competition, the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Nicene Christian born in Hispania, had undertaken sweeping legislation and withheld state funds in order to quell traditional Roman religio and address heresies within the empire. The closing of the famed festival games held in honor of Zeus may have been but one move in a broader agenda which promoted Nicene Christianity while suppressing spaces, rituals, and people labeled as either pagan or heretical. Or the games may have simply petered out and fallen victim to the institutional and financial shifts at play in the late Roman Mediterranean.
In 380, the “Edict of Thessalonica” (also known as Cunctos populos; CTh 16.1.2 trans. Jacobs) was directed predominantly at the heretics of Constantinople. It took on a more wide-ranging significance defining Nicene Christianity as the “official” faith of the Roman Empire with the compiling of the Theodosian Code in 436. However, other imperial actions did signal attempts to literally and figuratively snuff out paganism. In 391, the eternal flame of Vesta in Rome was extinguished and numerous laws banned sacrifices or withheld money from traditional religious cults. As Remijsen notes, the closing of Greek athletic festivals in Late Antiquity was not just religiously motivated, but also influenced by financial, institutional, and political aims. Agonistic budgets were high and the shift to a more centralized financial scheme meant athletic festivals could not be paid for.
Whatever the motives for the demise of the Olympic games in Late Antiquity, the historic festival has left behind a wealth of literature, papyri, inscriptions, art, and archaeological remains that continue to grip the imagination of the modern public since the reinstitution of the games in 1896. The Olympics can and have been used for nefarious purposes (e.g. the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and Leni Reifenstahl’s propaganda film Olympia). However, the modern Olympics can also nudge us to reinvestigate the origins and evidence for the Archaic games.
Here’s a bit of something different: I’d like to talk about new book my a good friend. Emily Austin’s Grief and the Hero: The Futility of Longing in the Iliad was released a few months ago. As anyone who has published something during the pandemic knows, there’s not much room for something as simple as a book in all the noise.
But this is a book I think people should read. Now, I read a lot of books about Homer. It is not just a job, it is something I have done as a hobby since I first read Gregory Nagy’s The Best of the Achaeans and Richard Martin’s The Language of Heroesas an undergraduate. I often ignored homework assignments in graduate school in favor of reading books like Donna Wilson’s Ransom and Revenge or Hilary Mackie’s Talking Trojans. See, before I started working on the Odyssey,I was all Iliad all the time.
D Schol. ad ll 1.1
“Sing the rage..” [People] ask why the poem begins from rage, so ill-famed a word. It does for two reasons. First, so that it might [grab the attention] of that particular portion of the soul and make audiences more ready for the sublime and position us to handle sufferings nobly, since it is about to narrate wars.
A second reason is to make the praises of the Greeks more credible. Since it was about to reveal the Greeks prevailing, it is not seemly to make it more worthy of credibility by failing to make everything contribute positively to their praise.”
Everyone knows the Iliad starts with the “rage of Achilles”. What that rage means and how it shapes the poem is not so universally understood. My first Greek teacher and now friend of two decades, Leonard Muellner, wrote one of the best books on this topic. In his The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic, Lenny shows how Achilles’ anger has cosmic implications and is rooted in a thematic pattern shared by gods like Demeter and Zeus. He also notes that there may have been versions of the poem that put Achilles’ rage alongside Apollo’s
The proem according to Aristoxenus
Tell me now Muses who have Olympian Homes
How rage and anger overtook Peleus’ son
And also the shining son of Leto. For the king was enraged…”
What I love about Emily Austin’s book is that she enters into a deep and ancient discussion and asks what seems like a simple question: what about the cause of rage? Starting from the premise that the absence of things, longing, what a Lacanian might call a “lack” (my words, not hers), Emily offers a reading of the epic that doesn’t countermand the importance of rage, but instead, decenters it, looking at how longing (pothê,) shapes the poem and its audiences expectations.
Here’s Emily talking about her book:
In Grief and the Hero, I set aside conversations about the Iliad’s composition and authorship, and instead consider the poem as narrative poetry. The heart of my book is Achilles’ experience of futility in grief. Rather than assuming that grief gives rise to anger, as most scholars have done, Grief and the Hero traces the origin of these emotions. Achilles’ grief for Patroklos is uniquely described with the word pothê, “longing.” By joining grief and longing, the Iliad depicts Achilles’ grief as the rupture of shared life—an insight that generates a new way of reading the epic. No action can undo the reality of his friend Patroklos’ death; but the experience of death drives Achilles to act as though he can achieve something restorative. Achilles’ cycles of weeping and vengeance-seeking bring home how those whom we have lost will never return to us, yet we are shaped by the life we shared with them. In Grief and the Hero, I uncover these affective dimensions of the narrative, which contribute to the epic’s lasting appeal. Loss, longing, and even revenge touch many human lives, and the insights of the Iliad have broad resonance.
I am not a disinterested party in this book. I read an early manuscript and recognized early on that this was an original contribution to an old debate. There is an urgency to longing and the absence of what we need to complete ourselves that motivates the actions of the poem and feeds the timeliness of this book. In a year of violence, disruption, and isolation, it is a perfect time to think about the causes of the things that set us apart.
Grief and the Hero provides a perfect complement to Muellner’s analysis of the thematic function of Achilles’ rage; it also functions as a corrective for many responses to Homer that shy away from the grand themes and the big stages of human life. There are a few dozen books about Homer I think a Homerist must read; there are only a handful I think everyone should try. Emily’s Grief and the Hero is now one of them.
Of course, I’m biased here. I’ve learned so much from talking to Emily about literature, loss and grief over the past few years that I am certainly not objective. But I asked a couple other friends for their thoughts too.
Emily Austin has written a rare and welcome contribution to recent Homeric scholarship: a “robustly literary” meditation on grief and the Iliad. In her reading, the Iliad shows how anger born of grief is never satisfied. It cycles on, relentlessly forward. Peace that comes from vengeance is illusory, and the yawning chasm of loss can only be repaired by letting go.
I have spent the better part of three years living inside the characters of the Iliad as I composed and now perform the Blues of Achilles, my first-person song cycle adaptation of the epic. I found Grief and the Hero exhaustingly resonant with what I’ve come to vividly understand as the core emotional arc of Achilles and those caught in his orbit. Grief and the Hero works for me on multiple levels: academic, creative, and, most importantly, human, so beautifully teasing out the most powerful and universal theme of the poem that I only began to fully discover and appreciate as I wrote my songs: the resolution of grief.
“In addition to providing a novel interpretation of the Iliad‘s narrative and applying close readings of phraseology and structures, Emily brings new depths to the character of Achilles that all subsequent interpretations will need to consider. Her approach is a perfect balance of careful scholarship and elegant interpretation.. She has challenged me to think about the human dimension of the stories.”
Those of us in academia have missed some minor things during the pandemic: book release parties, dinners to celebrate tenure, long talks away from loud conferences with friends. These are so insignificant compared to the losses of the past year that I feel bad even mentioning them. But loss is part of what makes us who we are.
Take a chance on a book; let’s make Emily’s year special.
and some epigrammatic humor to end the post
Palladas of Alexandria, Greek Anthology 9.169
“The Rage of Achilles has become the cause for me
a grammarian, of destructive poverty.
I wish the rage had killed me with the Greeks
before the hard hunger of scholarship killed me.”
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Orchards and Trees, using them as a metaphor to think about he development of Homeric poetry and its promulgation. Metaphors, of course, are not the things themselves! While one comparison can help us see a truth of a thing, several can help us get a better understanding of the things day-to-day language and thinking have trouble grasping.
The metaphor of the tree is at its core, a visual one. It may call to mind things and how we use them (ships and wood) or roots and branches, as in the stemmata of textual traditions. Homeric poems developed in a song culture, an aural landscape. Aural memory and oral performance inspire different qualia. And it is difficult–if not mistaken–to try to transfer an aural understanding to a visual one. As Epicurus observes, our senses do not translate from one domain to another. What does it mean to feel a smell?
So, try this one now. Imagine a supremely complex symphony: as you listen, melodies rise and fall over time, movements come and go and they return again, sometimes changed, sometimes syncopated, sometimes just an echo of what they once were. But some three or four note sequences are more insistent than others—they press through the sound and are emphasized first by this instrument and then by those.
The problem is that there are many of these sequences and some repeat intensely only to be lost and never to return, while others burst back through the rising wall of music to take over when they are least expected.
The music is beautiful but terrifyingly hard to follow: when you pause, however briefly, you realize you’ve been listening to one line of song when there were three or four others going on at the same time. It is hard to start again because you don’t want to lose track of the one you just heard. But you are already thinking about that brief gasp of song that escaped you.
The 16 thousand lines of the Iliad and 12 thousand lines of the Odyssey are like 24 and 20 hours of polyphonic music, played by musicians in separate rooms who can’t really hear each other but are somehow working in concert. The audience stands someplace apart. If we relax and let the composition fall over us, we can get some idea of the whole. But when we listen closely, we can get lost in the depth of each passing strain.
This is how I explain why it is so hard to translate epic or even to interpret it well. Each line has melodies full of resonant meaning that echo differently based on who you are and what you’ve heard before. When someone tells you the Iliad is about this or the Odyssey is about that they are following one repeated series of notes for their movement and resolution, and necessarily leaving others aside.
The total density of the soundscape of the poems and the generations of meaning’s potential within them makes them impossible to understand or explain in ‘real time’. When I hear someone talking about what epic means, sometimes it is like hearing a different poem talked about altogether. I have been listening to other movements, contemplating different themes.
The individual lines of Homer break into three units—segments scholars from Milman Parry and Albert Lord to John Miles Foley and Egbert Bakker have seen as units of composition (intonation units) or what we might even think of as ‘measures’. The ‘formulae’ are repeated patterns in a bounded soundscape. They are not simple building blocks, they are merely the observable repetitions of a system with clear limits: words and rhythm are part of the form of expression, not something imposed upon it.
We make meaning differently based on our sensory inputs and our cultures of performance and reception. There’s a strange prejudice Walter Ong identifies (explored more by Foley too) that visual cultures and literary productions are in some way more sophisticated and elaborate in both creation and reception than others. This ‘primitive’ pose is an outcropping of colonialism, yes, but it is also a simple observer bias. Even literary Greeks like Aristotle saw ‘writers’ in Homer where he should have found song.
Oral-formulaic theory helps break down our own cultural prejudices by revealing what is instrumentally possible for composition in performance. This is on the side of production; theories like J. M. Foley’s “traditional referentialtiy” or Barbara Graziosi’s and Johannes Haubold’s “resonance”. Each in part also draws on reader response theory, centering how audiences hear and respond to poems. If we try, we can intellectually grasp how intricate songs emerge in performance and how audiences dynamically receive them.
From Song to Translations
All this leaves aside how the epics moved from living song to the fossils we piece together on the page. This runs through the problems of performance, text, and reperformance. I emphasize song and aurality here because Homeric epic developed and flourished outside the constraints of a page. When a translator or interpreter tries to make sense of what they see on the page, it is like a conductor looking at a score for a symphony written in a different system of notation with many sections unclear.
The role of some instruments is left undesignated; some sounds cannot be made anymore; and some sequences just don’t make sense to a modern ear. As Casey Dué notes, Greg Nagy proposes a movement from performance, to transcript, to script, to scripture in the stabilization of the narrative: a translator has to move backward through these stages, yet abandon none
Because of the polyphony of Greek epic it is charged with meaning: the lines of song exist through time and carry many meanings at once. A translator listens to the whole song as it echoes and picks the melodies that ring strongest now.
Each of us is to an extent a translator of Homer and those of us who read the Greek but teach in another language are constantly moving from one domain to another. If Homer is a langue each of us has our own Homeric parole. In my first semester teaching as a professor, I gave a full lecture on the mythic, even Iliadic “plan of Zeus” (Dios d’eteleieto boulê), going so far as to have the students recite the line in the Greek. At the end of the class, a kind and forgiving student came up to me and said, “that was really cool, but there’s no plan of Zeus in my Iliad.”
I had assigned Stanley Lombardo’s fine translation. He writes about “Zeus’ Will” (as many others do). I hadn’t checked the translation and sounded as if I were speaking of a poem none of the students had read.
The way we each create our own Homer is in part why I have such trouble reading any version other than the Greek. This is why for even the best translations the fairest reaction is to crib from Richard Bentley’s response to Pope’s Iliad: “a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” Here’s another quick example of this danger from Emily Wilson’s successful Odyssey translation.
Let’s start with my simple translations and the Greek. In the Odyssey’s proem, the narrator says of Odysseus:
“But he didn’t save his companions even though he wanted to.
They perished because of their own recklessness”
The fools! They ate up the cattle of Hyperion’s son Helios
And he deprived them of their homecoming day.”
The line σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν (their own recklessness/stupidity) echoes through the poem as a theme that connects Odysseus’ companions, the suitors, and the hero too.
It comes again a mere 20 lines later as Zeus complains
“Friends, how mortals are always blaming the gods!
They say that evils come from us. But they themselves
Have pain beyond their fate because of their own recklessness.
So now Aigisthus too [suffered] beyond his fate…”
This is one of those four-note sequences, a melody earlier scholars would have called a formula that follows, indexes and guides the interpretation of the poem. When I read/teach the Odyssey I point to these passages as inviting us to see the world and its actors in a particular frame
In Wilson’s translation, σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν disappears from the proem altogether, yielding the following.
“…He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
They ate the Sun God’s Cattle, and the god
Kept them from home…”
And soon after, σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν is rendered simply as “By folly.”
“This is absurd,
That mortals blame the gods They say we cause
Their suffering, but they themselves increase it
By folly. So Aegisthus overstepped:”
These choices limit the repetition and play down the theme of responsibility and recklessness that is central to the poem (from my reading). “Folly’ also disambiguates the complexity of atasthalia, which evokes foolishness, rashness, arrogance, and blindness. Of course, this is not an oversight Wilson commits alone: Lombardo translates the first example as “recklessness” and the second as “witlessness”
To be clear, Wilson and Lombardo have to make some choices; no language conveys the same semantic ambiguities of another. Translators perform hermeneutic magic, moving things from one realm to another. Some moments dazzle, others are imperfect illusions.
This takes us back to the symphony played in separate rooms heard only in parts. When people ask me why Homer is different, I sputter about its bigness and depth and land on the layers and power. Like translation itself, analogy and metaphor only take us so far.
There are several works cited above, but for the atasthalia theme see my recent Many Minded Manor these better books:
Leon Battista Alberti, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literature (Part V):
“I had often heard a great number of the most serious and most erudite men recalling those things about the study of literature which could not unjustly drive anyone away from literature and the desire of learning.:
Sepe audiveram plerosque gravissimos eruditissimosque viros de studiis litterarum ea referentes que non iniuria possent a litteris discendique cupiditate ununquenque avertere.
Today A Bit Lit debuted a video of Paul O’Mahony, Evvy Miller, and me talking about literature, performance, and experience based on our experience with Reading Greek Tragedy Online. We tell the story of how we started doing these readings and give personal narratives about what the performances meant to us during the pandemic and how the experiences changed our idea of what literature is and does in the world.
“But if this clear profit [of studying literature] is not clear and if entertainment alone should be sought from these pursuits, I still believe that you would judge them the most humanizing and enlightening exercise of the mind.
For other activities do not partake in all times, all ages, and all places—reading literature sharpens us in youth and comforts us in old age. It brings adornment to our successes and solace to our failures. It delights when we are at home and creates no obstacle for us out in the world. It is our companion through long nights, long journeys, and months in rural retreats.”
Quod si non hic tantus fructus ostenderetur et si ex his studiis delectatio sola peteretur, tamen, ut opinor, hanc animi adversionem humanissimam ac liberalissimam iudicaretis. Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum: haec studia adolescentiam acuunt, senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.
Gilbert Murray, The Interpretation of Ancient Greek Literature
“There are many elements in the work of Homer or Aeschylus which are obsolete and even worthless, but there is no surpassing their essential poetry. It is there, a permanent power which we can feel or fail to feel, and if we fail the world is the poorer. And the same is true, though a little less easy to see, of the essential work of the historian or the philosopher.”
“Simonides said that Hesiod is a gardener while Homer is a garland-weaver—the first planted the legends of the heroes and gods and then the second braided together them the garland of the Iliad and the Odyssey.”
Take a minute and imagine a tree in a park or garden. Make it a really nice tree, one you’d notice and remember if you lingered on it a bit, one that has been well situated in its environment. Think about the tree’s imperfect symmetry, the way it occupies its space.
Now think about this: someone planted the tree; others tended to it and trimmed it; more people spent generations selecting this domesticated tree from its ancestral stock. Think about the uncountable hands that made this tree possible, the saplings transplanted, the varieties combined over time. What were their lives like? What stories did they tell? What were trees to them?
Then think about the tree’s beauty, its aesthetics. What makes us set this tree apart from others? What is essential about it? Our appreciation is based on other trees we might not remember as well as an entire ‘grammar’ of human beings and the environment. Like any other native language, you learned its basic syntax without trying. You have a sense of the way trees should be.
You probably judge a tree differently from a shrub for historical aesthetic reasons. You have expectations on what trees should do, how they should look, and what function they fulfill. You are mostly not cognizant of these assumptions. But you almost certainly have different notions about a shrub or a bush.
Sure, the shrub comment may seem a bit of an aside, but it is really about genre. We have different sets of expectations for different categories of form based on explicit and implicit criteria.
Now, if someone asks you who is responsible for the tree, what do you say? Is it someone who designed the park? Is it a gardener? Is it the first person who imagined a tree in the garden?
Any single answer ignores those countless hands, minds, and environments that contributed to the treeness of this tree. It also ignores the salient fact that you are the one judging the tree and that your gaze is shaped by non-tree things.
For me, the Homeric epics are like that tree. They come out of a complex relationship between performance traditions, new technologies, and aesthetics that are both products and producers of the same song culture. The reception and transformation of this ancient song culture into something fixed and reanalyzed as a text with an author has shaped our own culture too.
How we respond to ‘arboreal’ questions is keyed into individual psychology and cultural discourse. We always simplify our interpretation of where the tree came from because our minds are too small to understand we are part of mind-networks and our lives are two abbreviated to trace time’s larger sweep. We impose simple origin stories on art and human products because it is hard to escape our own single experience of culture and see how it works in the aggregate.
These individual psychologies are shaped as well by a cultural system deeply interested in teleology and the import of design. Two aspects of this among many that interest me. First, our search for meaning in the empty universe encourages us to argue that design necessitates a designer. Second, our system of values and credit under capitalism emphasizes the metaphor of authorship as an opportunity for creating and maintaining value.
The two aspects are part of a shared problem: we assign meaning to the world we see based on patterns and human-mirroring things. We re-cast the pattern as a design and in that an intention we assign to authority and authors. So group activities that result in notable patterns are reanalyzed as communications of some type of an authorial intention.
And yet, we know that meaning is made from observation and reflection.
We impose a god/author model on complex things for cultural and psychological reasons. It is a fallacy to insist that design implies a designer when we recognize design as viewers conditioned to do so. The history of Homeric scholarship and its so-called ‘question’ (of which there are actually many) is dominated by the problem of design without an urgent exploration of what design may entail until the 20th century (in addition to work by Greg Nagy (recently Homer the Pre-Classicand Homer the Classic), see Casey Dué’s recent Achilles Unboundand Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer).
There’s no smoking gun about Homeric authorship. There will never be a clear answer to the issue. That we care so much about it is a problem. it is, dare I say, the rot at the core of ‘western’ liberalism and capitalism, this desperate search for ancient authority combined with a pathological need to extract profit from everything.
In searching for “Homer”, most people find what they want to find. (Something Casey Due makes the case for in looking at the invention of Ossian). My experience of teaching, reading, and writing about the epics for over two decades is that people cleave almost painfully to what they believe about authorship and art before they really listen to the Homeric poems.. That’s also why I keep returning to the bench and thinking as much about who is thinking about Homer and why.
And when I turn back I think less in terms of “who wrote the Iliad” than what the people were like who domesticated the epics and set them aside and why we still look at them today.
“For poets certainly tell us that they bring us songs by drawing from the honey-flowing springs or certain gardens and glades of the Muses just like bees. And because they too are winged, they also speak the truth.”
Trees in Homer: Paris’ Ship, Odysseus’ Raft, and Laertes’ Orchards
My metaphor of a tree for seeing Homer as something organic and exhibiting aesthetic beauty without a designing authority may seem a bit whimsical, if not outlandish. But I am in part inspired by what we find in Homer. In Homeric poetry trees are objects of wealth, inheritance and memory. They appear at a crucial moment in Odysseus’ return to Ithaca when he meets his father. Odysseus follows the patterns established earlier in the book and attempts to deceive his father before they both weep and he tries to prove who he is, first by pointing to his scar, and then by pointing to the trees.
Odyssey 24. 336–339
“But, come, if I may tell you about the trees through the well-founded orchard
The ones which you gave to me—when I was a child I asked you about each
As I followed you through the garden. We traced a path through them
And you named and spoke about each one.”
As Erich Auerbach famously observes, Odysseus’ scar is an entry-point into a universe of aesthetic thought. As I see it it, the scar is a metonym for identity and story traditions. It marks experiences and potential stories to be told. The trees are metonyms for stories themselves and they have are metapoetic as well. Alex Purves (2010:228) characterizes steps as Odysseus “taking an imaginary walk through the orchard in his mind just as [Elizabeth] Minchin has suggested that Homer takes a cognitive walk through the Peloponnese in order to recount the Catalogue of Ships (2001: 84-7).”
As Elton Barker and I explore in Homer’s Thebes (78) Whether or not Laertes’ trees mind the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, the trees are suggestive of the stories that are or could be told. [Cf. Henderson 1997:87 for the trees as “epic wood.” So too, “… the trees may stand metonymically for epic poems… the combined product of nature and nurture which have been shaped by the judgment (aesthetic and political) of countless constant gardeners” (628).
Of course, these assertions seem strange if we don’t look at other Homeric trees. For me, a signal moment in epic poetry comes when Odysseus is authorized to build a raft to escape from Ogygia and try to return home. The narrative pays special attention to enumerating the trees and specifying Odysseus’ skill in using them:
“She gave him the smooth axe and then took him on the path
To the farthest part of the island where the tale trees were growing,
Alder, ash and fir trees reaching to the sky,
Dry for a long time, long-seasoned, perfect for sailing.
Once she showed him where the great trees were growing,
Kalypso, the beautiful goddess, returned to her home,
While he was cutting out planks. The work went quickly.
He picked out twenty altogether and cut them with bronze.
He skillfully planed them down and made them straight with a level.
At the same time, the shining goddess Kalypso was bringing him augers
And he drilled all the pieces and fit them together.
As wide as a man who is skilled in wood-working
Traces out the line of a merchant ship—that’s
How wide Odysseus made his skiff.
Once he set up the deck beams he attached them to the
Close-placed ribs. And then he finished out the raft with long gunwales.
He fashioned a mast and placed on it a yard-arm.
He also made a rudder to steer with and then
He fashioned willow-branches and brush into a wall
To stand against the waves around the vessel.
And then Kalypso brought him a bolt of cloth
To make into a sail. He crafted that too, skillfully.
He tied into the raft braces, and restraints, and sheets
And using levers moved it down toward the shining sea.
It was the fourth day and everything was complete.”
Here we find a balance between nature and skill, between the material found and offered and the creative power of a maker authorized by a god. If the trees at the end of the Odyssey are symbols of tales that might be told, these Ogygian planks are echoes of stories that were told and lost. They also tell us about the relationship between narrative agent and story. As I write in my recent Many-Minded Man: “In this passage’s detail and the dramatization of Odysseus’s labors, the epic offers an anticipatory metaphor for the rebuilding of the hero’s identity. The material available has been there for years—it is not of Odysseus’s own making, but his skill and agency are critical for forming it into something new, something that can make a path or journey of its own. The selection of the trees stands in for the selection of stories and aspects of the self that will be reassembled as Odysseus journeys home.” ( 2020, 11).
But in this analysis, I might focus overmuch on the epic’s hero and not enough on the epic stuff itself. There is a relationship between the basic matter (the wood, the trees) and the stuff matter makes: ships, homes, vessels of meaning and vessels for meaning. It may be too cute to juxtapose, but there may be more to the Greek word for “matter” hule, which can also mean wood, than meets the eye.
Epic is deeply concerned with what comes after and some of its figures, like Hektor, imagine singular monuments, tombs that can be seen and act as reminders for men to come. In a way, the grave is a kind of scar left on the earth conveying its own story. But groves of trees and the ships they provide can carry on meaning and life in different ways. I am reminded here of a brief aside from the Iliad.
“Mêrionês then killed Phereklos, the son of the carpenter,
Son of Joiner, who knew who to fashion all sorts of intricate tings
With his hands. Pallas Athena loved him especially.
He is the one who designed Alexander’s fantastic ships,
Those kindlers of evil which brought evil on all the Trojans
And on him especially, since he understood nothing of the divine prophecies.
Well, Mêrionês, once he overtook him in pursuit,
Struck him through the right buttock. The sharp point
Went straight through his bladder under the bone.
He fell to his knee and groaned. Then death overtook him.
Ok, this passage may seem unconnected and offering it may seem indulgent even for me, but consider the way Phereklos is marked out as a carpenter’s son and how the ships that carried Paris to war are positioned as the vehicles of evil for them all. While as scholiast (Schol. bT ad Il.5.59) glosses the name Phereklos as “one who brings the turmoil of war through the ships” (Φέρεκλος ὁ φέρων κλόνον διὰ τῶν νέων), I would also like to believe that name Phere-klos, might make someone think of ‘fame-bringer’. And the connection between poetic fame and the activity of the war arises elsewhere in this passage two.
Note that the this Phere-klos is the son of Harmonidês, a man who, according to the passage, is the one who build the ships “the bringers of evil” (ἀρχεκάκους) for Paris (those ships which carried him from Troy to Sparta…). The name Harmonidês is not insignificant: Gregory Nagy has etymologized Homer as “one who fits the song together”. Phereklos’ father is a “craftsman” (“tektôn”) who built the very ships that allowed his son (and Paris) to bring the conflict to Troy and generate the fame of the songs it generated. Here, the ships are positioned as the first steps in evil, but I would suggest, that as the means by which the songs themselves travel across the sea, the ships are, as products of specialized craftsmen, both metonymns for the stories themselves and necessary vehicles for their transmission.
And here, even if asymmetrical, I find myself considering a life-cycle of Homeric trees: the way one set were cut down to fan the flames of war that launched myriad ships; that others fell to bring Odysseus home to gaze upon his ancestral orchards, potentials tales to be told or curtailed…once Odysseus journeys to a land where no one remembers the sea.
A particle is a meaningless sound, which neither hinders nor causes a significant sound to be made out of many sounds … which cannot fittingly be put at the beginning of a sentence by itself, like μέν and δέ.
ARISTOTLE, POETICS, 1456B38–57A4 (GREEK TEXT FROM TARÁN AND GUTAS, 2012)
Eric will be rolling out a new post about a different particle every week. Eric starting designing this project over a year ago, building on his own fascination with particles and his frustration with easily accessible tools to understand them. Here’s what he says about his website:
“This website is aimed primarily at that student. Its goal is to aggregate the discussion of particles, which is often spread out and hard to track down, into one place, where the views of various scholars can be summarized in a succinct and understandable manner. Particles entries include extensive hyperlinking to the Glossary page, which includes definitions for common terms and explanations of theories which underlie the arguments being described.”
I have learned a lot in discussing the project (and particles!) with Eric. He resisted my urge to name the site “Particle Man”, showing maturity and wisdom beyond his years.
In additional to the specific posts, this site has gathered electronic resources on particles and includes a useful glossary. For each particle, Eric will focus on Homeric examples and usage in part, but these posts will range from basic definitions, through usage from a perspective of grammaticalization, and to different readings based on historical linguistics and contextualization.