“I reject you, speaker of fate, divine protector of truth.
I am in debt only to my father.
I am a double-parricide, more guilty, I fear, since
I killed my mother. She was done in by my crime.
Apollo, you liar, I have outdone my evil destiny.
I pursue lying paths with a trembling step.
Pulling myself away with each slowed print,
I guide my dark sight with a shaking right hand.
I move forward, unsure foot after slipping foot,
Go, flee, disappear. But, stop, don’t fall on mother.
Any who are tired at heart and overcome with sickness,
Lugging around a half-dead body, look at me: I am leaving.
Lift up your gaze to see, a lighter sky follows
My back. Whoever lies in isolation
And still breathes can now take a deep breath
Of clean air. Go, go and help those cast aside.
I take the deadly sicknesses away from this land with me.
Brutal Fate, terrible shaking of Disease,
Starvation and dark Death, maddening Sickness,
Leave with me, Come with me. These are the guides who please me.”
Fatidice te, te praesidem veri deum
compello: solum debui fatis patrem;
bis parricida plusque quam timui nocens
matrem peremi: scelere confecta est meo.
o Phoebe mendax, fata superavi impia.
Pavitante gressu sequere fallentes vias;
suspensa plantis efferens vestigia
caecam tremente dextera noctem rege.
—ingredere praeceps, lubricos ponens gradus,
i profuge vade—siste, ne in matrem incidas.
Quicumque fessi pectore et morbo graves
semianima trahitis corpora, en fugio, exeo:
relevate colla, mitior caeli status
post terga sequitur. quisquis exilem iacens
animam retentat, vividos haustus levis
concipiat. ite, ferte depositis opem:
mortifera mecum vitia terrarum extraho.
Violenta Fata et horridus Morbi tremor,
Maciesque et atra Pestis et rabidus Dolor,
mecum ite, mecum. ducibus his uti libet.
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:
Didyme has captured me with her eyes,
Alas! And I melt like wax before a flame
When I behold her beauty.
And if she’s black, so what?
Coals are too, and yet when we heat them
They glow like rose petals.
This epigram owes its fame chiefly to its eroticization of what, based on her/ name and her color, is presumed to be an African woman. But in a poem that is almost wholly conventional, the racialized woman, and the speaker’s justification of her, are poetic conventions too. If anything does distinguish the poem, it might be it’s prurience.
Most of the epigram’s conventional elements are easily identified: the eyes as instruments of bewitchment (Ibycus Fr.287); the lover’s liquefaction in the presence of desire (Alcman Fr.59a and Sappho Fr.112); eroticizing of skin color, albeit white skin (Rufinus 5.60 and Dioscorides 5.56 in the Greek Anthology [GA]); and the lover as inflaming the beloved (Rufinus 5.87 GA), when not the other way around.
Conventional also, though less obviously so, is the beloved’s roseate glow. In 2 epigrams about sexual intercourse (5.54 and 5.55 GA), Dioscorides describes a woman’s buttocks as “rose-like” in color. Rufinus describes the vagina as rose-like in its glow (5.36 GA) and uses “rose” as a euphemism for vagina (5.36 GA). So when Asclepiades suggests that the stimulated woman–and stimulation is what “heat them” references–glows red, the change in coloration is not to her skin in general, but to her sex organs.
What about her African name and dark skin? Scholars have pointed out that the name Didyme was quite common for Egyptian women in the period, and so we can read its use here as stereotypical (i.e., conventional). And as for Didyme’s dark skin, consider these lines by Philodemus (5.132 GA) who worked after Asclepiades:
If she’s Opician, and named Flora, and doesn’t sing Sappho’s songs,
No matter, even Perseus desired Indian Andromeda.
The English might not convey the extent to which the form of these lines–an objection and an answer to the objection–is nearly identical to “And if she’s black, so what? / Coals are too.” What structures the couplet in both Philodemus and Asclepiades is εἰδὲ . . . καὶ (“and if . . . even”, or translated differently, “and if . . . also”). “If she’s Opician” (from Opicia, the area around Naples) is modeled on “if she’s black” in Asclepiades. “Even Perseus” (or “Perseus too”) is modeled on “coals too” (or “even coals”) in Asclepiades. Perseus’ lover is marked as non-Greek and presumably brown just Asclepiades’ lover is non-Greek and black. If Asclepiades ‘invented’ the use of this form for racialized erotic content, then the tradition absorbed it and made it conventional, just as he himself had absorbed the tradition’s conventions.
The following is not really a single poem but rather a collection of lines cited in Athenaeus, Plutarch and others and attributed to Cleobulina
Cleobulina fr. 3.1
“I have seen a man fashioning bronze on another man with fire
Fitting it so well that he joined them in the blood.
I saw a man stealing and deceiving violently—
To accomplish this with violence is the most just thing.
A donkey corpse struck me on the ear with its horny shin.”
These lines are poetic riddles: the first one, according to Athenaeus, is about using a cupping glass to draw blood to the surface of the skin) the last one is about a Phrygian flute (which was made from a donkey bone)
Revered Nereids, grant that my brother
Comes to me alive and well;
What in his heart he wants to happen,
Grant that it be realized;
As many wrongs as he did before,
Make him atone for them all;
And make of him a joy to his [friends],
But [a torment] to enemies.
Let there be not one [problem] for us.
Through many nations and across many seas
I’ve come, my brother, for these sad burial rites—
To pay you the final tribute owed the dead,
And to speak, in vain, with your speechless ashes,
Since fortune has snatched you—you!—away from me.
Oh! My poor brother, cruelly taken from me!
Still, there’s the matter of the burial rites,
Preserved in antique customs of our line
And passed on in the melancholic tribute:
Receive them, though quite wet with fraternal tears.
And now, for all time, my brother,
I salute you and say goodbye.
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem.
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi,
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
Fr. 3 Seneca the Elder ( Donat. Vita Vergilii, 29.)
“Seneca reports that Julius Montanus was in the habit of saying that he would have stolen certain things from Vergil if he could have his voice, and comportment, and dramatic ability. [He added] that the same verses sounded beautifuly when Vergil was reciting but without him they were meaningless and mute.”
3. Et Seneca tradidit Iulium Montanum poetam solitum dicere involaturum se Vergilio quaedam, si et vocem posset et os et hypocrisin; eosdem enim versus ipso pronuntiante bene sonare, sine illo inanes esse mutosque.
“Solon the Athenian, the son of Eksêkestides, when his nephew sang some song of Sappho at a drinking party, took pleasure in it and asked the young man to teach it to him. When someone asked why he was eager to learn it, he responded: “So, once I learn it, I may die.”
“Sosikrates in his Successions writes that when Pythagoras was asked by Leon the Tyrant of Plius what he was, he said “A philosopher”. And he was in the custom of comparing life to the Great Games because while some go there to compete, others go there to make money, even as some of the best go to watch. In the same way, in life, some grow up in servile positions, Pythagoras used to say, hunting for fame and profit while the philosopher hunts for the truth. That’s enough of that.”
“This will be enough regarding the stained origin of games in idolatry”
Sed haec satis erunt ad originis de idololatria reatum.
“How many ways have we shown that nothing which has to do with these games pleases god!”
Quot adhuc modis probavimus, nihil ex his quae spectaculis deputantur placitum deo esse!
Plutarch, Progress in Virtue 79F
Once when Aeschylus was watching a boxing match at the Isthmian games, one of the men was hit and the audience screamed out. He elbowed Ion of Chios and said, “Do you see what training is like? The man who was hit stays silent and the spectators yell!”
“The story of deeds lives longer than deeds themselves”
ῥῆμα δ’ ἐργμάτων χρονιώτερον βιοτεύει
Cicero, De Senectute 58
“Let others have weapons, horses, spears, fencing-foils, ball games, swimming competitions, races, and leave to the old men dice and knucklebones for games. Or let that go too since old age can be happy without it.”
Sibi habeant igitur arma, sibi equos, sibi hastas, sibi clavam et pilam, sibi natationes1 atque cursus; nobis senibus ex lusionibus multis talos relinquant et tesseras; id ipsum ut2 lubebit, quoniam sine eis beata esse senectus potest.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.973-984
“And whenever people for many days in a row
Have given endless attention to games, we see that many
Have stopped actually absorbing these things with their senses
Even though there are paths still open in the mind
By which the representations of things may enter.
For many days in this way the same things are seen
Before their eyes and they stay awake so that they might seem
To see dancers moving their gentle limps
Or brush with their ears the liquid song of the lyre
And the talking chords, and to sense again that same concord
And the wild spectacular with its bright scene.”
Et quicumque dies multos ex ordine ludis
adsiduas dederunt operas, plerumque videmus,
cum iam destiterunt ea sensibus usurpare,
relicuas tamen esse vias in mente patentis,
qua possint eadem rerum simulacra venire.
per multos itaque illa dies eadem obversantur
ante oculos, etiam vigilantes ut videantur
cernere saltantis et mollia membra moventis,
et citharae liquidum carmen chordasque loquentis
auribus accipere, et consessum cernere eundem
scenaique simul varios splendere decores.
Horace, Epistles 1.19.48-9
“Sport tends to give rise to heated strife and anger, anger in turns brings savage feuds and war to the death”.
ludus enim genuit trepidum certamen et iram, ira truces inimicitias et funebre bellum.
Xenophanes, Fragment 2. 16-19
“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”
I must decide the matter at hand along the edge, as it were,
of a carpenter’s rule and square.
Kyrnos, I must give both sides justice and what is fair,
relying on seers, auguring birds and burnt offerings,
so I don’t face shameful reproach for a mistake.
Does the speaker want A and not-A at the same time? Contrast the stated obligation of precision in decision-making with the imprecision of the decision-making procedures (seers, augurs, and sacrifices to the gods). Or, put it this way: contrast objective methods (e.g., drawing a line along the edge of a carpenter’s square) with subjective ones (e.g., reading bird omens). The two approaches are in conflict and yet the speaker presents the latter (subjective) as the means of achieving the former (objectivity).
So, what’s justice? A strict obligation is laid on the speaker, but the instruments available for satisfying it are unreliable: the carpenter’s edge guarantees a straight line, the bird omen guarantees nothing. This of course the speaker knows. But what’s the alternative? The speaker is stating, however indirectly, a problem fundamental to law: justice is a strict obligation, but there are no infallible procedures for its production. What exists are procedures (maybe reading the birds, maybe empaneling a jury), and fidelity to them is what justice more or less is (i.e., more process than outcome). Therefore interpret the poem’s final line not as “omens and the like save me from mistakes” but as “because I follow the established practice of omens and the like, even when I make mistakes I’m spared the worst criticisms.”