Tag Archives: Homer

On Greek being Greek

My grandfather wrote this out for me from memory in the summer of 1990, the summer before I turned 15. (He would have said before I turned 16; we had endless arguments about inclusive counting). He must have written it in the village of Καλό Νερό in Messenia, where I, my cousin Angelos and my grandparents were vacationing. He had written it out for me because we had taken the old train to Κακόβατος for the day to go for a swim and a bite to eat (neither of my Greek grandparents knew how to drive). As we were waiting for the train to come, my grandfather started to teach me the opening lines of the Odyssey, to bide the time, I guess. The words were strange to me. They didn’t make sense, even though of course I recognized familiar words. My cousin laughed at me as I tried and failed to reproduce the strange sequence of sounds that my grandfather was patiently reciting.

I remember the scene vividly, and so does my cousin. It stuck with me. I was always aware of the fact that my father had learned ancient Greek in high school and wrote his papers in καθαρεύουσα, the formal language of the Greek state until 1976. But I didn’t grow up learning Greek formally: I learned orally, largely from my father and from my grandparents, who never left Greece and who never really learned any language other than Greek. And I learned largely in Greece, and especially in Athens, in Exarcheia and Glyfada.

I didn’t grow up yearning to know ancient Greek, but in my first year at college at the University of Michigan, I briefly entertained the idea. I flipped to where “Greek” should have been in the course catalog – this was the 90s, we had paper course catalogs – and it read simply, “See Classical Studies.” The first course codes under “Classical Studies,” listed alphabetically, were “Classical Archaeology.” I was planning to double-major in history and economics, and I was vaguely interested in ancient history, so the idea of archaeology intrigued me. I took an introduction to Greek Art & Archaeology taught by John Pedley and an introduction to Field Archaeology taught by Sue Alcock, and that was it: I was hooked.

But I also took Greek that year, the ancient variety, and while I don’t remember being hooked, I did like it. It was different from the Greek I knew. My classmates kept insisting that my knowledge of modern Greek must have been a huge advantage, but I remember thinking that wasn’t so. More than anything else, modern Greek helped me remember certain words, but the language had changed enough that it wasn’t a one-to-one connection. My favorite example is the adjective ποικίλος, which the LSJ renders as “many-coloured, spotted, pied, dappled; wrought in various colours; cunningly wrought; changeful, diversified, manifold; intricate, complex” etc. In Greece now, a ποικιλία (the noun) is a variety plate of appetizers (sort of) served at restaurants, normally for a  bite to eat while you’re drinking (called meze in Greek).

These kinds of connections and interconnections were fascinating to me. They enriched my understanding of my Greek – in wonder, I realized that the Greek word for newspaper, εφημερίδα, was actually a “daily,” literally (φ’ μέρα > ἐφήμερος, cf. English ephemeral). And I understood now that Greek used to have an aspirate, which is why it was an ephimerida and not an epimerida. These are dumb things in retrospect, but it was a revelation to feel that you understood a language and its history rather than simply using it to order souvlakia (still the best thing you can do in any language is order meat on a stick).

I wanted to take ancient Greek because in my addled teen brain I thought it was a kind of family tradition. My father learned ancient Greek in school, my grandfather had taught me my first words of Homer. So it was with some surprise and interest that I read James Nikopoulos’ thoughtful article “On not wanting to know ancient Greek.” In some ways, it sounds like we have a lot in common: we both spent our summers in Exarcheia, we were both raised and educated in the US. But my family saw the language of ancient Greece as something relevant to us. And while my family’s vacations were largely vacation-y, we spent a lot of time surrounded by antiquity: going to archaeological sites and museums, visiting my uncle, who worked as an architect on archaeological projects. I’m not sure that we talked about it much, but it was there, all the time.

And it’s still with me. I’m a professional Classicist – sorry, James – that works on the earliest Greek we have, in the Late Bronze Age. I really derive pleasure from showing students the connections between the Greek words they know and the ones they see in radically different forms in Linear B; that they actually know this word from 14th c. BC Knossos:


(It’s to-sa, as in τόσα, “so many,” as in τόσα σουβλάκια [but sadly in this case it’s actually feminine plural, τόσαι]).

On the other hand, I share James’ worry that the Greek language “shouldn’t have to pretend it ever stopped being itself,” and the same goes for Greece. I do find its antiquity endlessly interesting, but if I’m being honest the reason I have gone back every summer since I can remember is the place as it is now and as it has been. I can’t imagine living without it.

And I share James’ regret that I don’t know Greek better, in all its forms. But I’m working on it.


Homer, the Iron Age, and Materiality

The new issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal contains an article by James Whitley, entitled “Homer’s Entangled Objects: Narrative, Agency and Personhood In and Out of Iron Age Texts.” Its abstract reads as follows:

In recent years, material culture studies have come to embrace contemporary Melanesia and European prehistory, but not classical archaeology and art. Prehistory is still thought, in many quarters, to be intrinsically more ‘ethnographic’ than historical periods; in this discourse, the Greeks (by default) become proto-modern individuals, necessarily opposed to Melanesian ‘dividuals’. Developments in the study of the Iron Age Mediterranean and the world of Homer should undermine such stark polarities. Historic and proto-historic archaeologies have rich potential for refining our notions both of agency and of personhood. This article argues that the forms of material entanglements we find in the Homeric poems, and the forms of agency (sensu Gell 1998) that we can observe in the archaeological record for the Early Iron Age of Greece (broadly 1000–500 bc) are of the same kind. The agency of objects structures Homeric narrative, and Homeric descriptions allow us precisely to define Homeric ‘human–thing entanglement’. This form of ‘material entanglement’ does not appear in the Aegean world before 1100 BC.

If Whitley is right, of course, this is an important discovery that cuts to the heart of how we understand the Greek world, the history of the Western notion of personhood, and so on. Obviously it’s not possible in a short blog post to touch on every aspect of Whitley’s argument, so I’m just going to concentrate on a series of claims that Whitley makes about the Homeric poems. Whitley argues (397)  that “it is the particular entanglements of people, narratives and things… that form much of the matter of both Homeric poems.” This argument pins down a key claim of Whitley’s, namely that (398)

the ‘entanglement’ of objects within peoples’ lives, and the agency attributed to objects in many kinds of narrative in many genres undermines the stark dichotomy between a morally autonomous ‘Western’ individual and a socially-entangled Melanesian ‘dividual’. It should no longer be taken as self-evident then that those proto-Westerners, ‘the Greeks’, whose ‘individualism’ many authors have taken as rising in Archaic times, were ‘individuals’ in the modern sense at all.

Whitley’s discussion of Homer focuses on two types of objects in Homer: those with extensive biographies, and those which are described at great length (these descriptions are known as ekphrasis). Whitley claims (399) that subjects of ekphrasis provide occasions for brilliant poetic performance, but have little narrative force, whereas biographical objects, while rarely described in detail, are often agents that drive the narrative forward. An example of an ekphrasis for Whitley is the gold brooch described by Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to Penelope. But Whitley says that in ekphrasis “images act as a prompt to oral narrative” (399). But in this case, the brooch is entirely absent: the whole point is that Odysseus/the beggar is describing the brooch totally from memory. So it seems odd to focus on the materiality of an immaterial thing. And the fundamental immateriality of this exchange is confirmed by the fact that the brooch is just the introduction to the beggar’s overall description of Odysseus that causes Penelope to weep: the brooch is described in 6 lines (19.226-31), but the beggar’s description of Odysseus takes up a full 24 lines (19.225-248).

In fact, Whitley’s focus on material objects is a problem to begin with. Whitley focuses on artifacts (Agamemnon’s scepter, Achilles’s arms, Odysseus’s helmet) that are potentially recognizable archaeologically, because he’s an archaeologist. But this is surely far too limiting: after all, as much as archaeologists might wish it to be true, it’s not the case that the world is just made up on individuals, dividuals, and artifacts. It’s not. There are animals, plants, actions, features of persons, and divine signs, among many, many other things.

I didn’t pick these examples at random. When I think about those marks that are most entangled with personhood in Homer, I think about these, not artifacts. Odysseus’s identity, after all, is not revealed mainly by artifacts. It is instead revealed by an animal, Odysseus’s dog Argos, who dies when at last his master returns home after 20 years (Od. 17.290-310), by his amazing knock-out of Iros with a single punch (Od. 18.88-117), by a scar on his leg that he got while hunting in the mountains with his grandfather Autolykos (Od. 19.386-502), by divine portents seen by Theoklymenos (Od. 20.350-357), by his ability to string his bow — notice that it is his ability to manipulate this ‘biographical’ artifact and not the artifact itself which is decisive here — and his use of it to slaughter the suitors in his heroic persona, with divine assistance (Od. 21.404-22.41), and finally, and most decisively, by his clear and detailed recollection of a fixed bed which he built with his own hands from a living olive tree (Od. 23.181-204).

It’s very odd to read an article about non-human things and personhood in Homer that doesn’t refer to any of these things. It might be possible to describe Homeric poems as “narratives of people and things” (411), but only if we radically cut down our full range of vision to a tiny subset of interactions in order to suit one particular argument.