My Greek Year

Rather than discuss a year I spent in Greece (how I wish) or my membership in a sorority (which sounds like a nightmare), I will tell you about the completion of an odyssey started a couple of years ago. Whatever else 2020 might have been, it also was the year in which I finally reached my goal of reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Not the original versions, mind you, which would have required much study as my Greek language skills are next to nonexistent, but an English translation.

But which translation? After studying “It’s All Greek to Me” in my perpetual quest to get a better handle on antiquity, I followed the author’s recommendation and asked my husband for a birthday gift—the handsome boxed set of Homer’s classics by translator Robert Fagles. And while I dove into The Iliad right away, it took me a looong time to fight my way through the chronicle of the ten-year Trojan War, even though the book only discusses the final year of the action. My capacity was limited to absorb warriors’ genealogies on both Greek and Trojan sides, understand the seemingly arbitrary interventions of different gods, and stomach one war injury after the next, variously afflicted by spears, axes, or swords. The very detailed descriptions of human carnage would make a great study for trauma surgeons, who could conceive of an operative plan to treat the afflicted. If The Iliad is not required reading for future surgeons, it should be.

The Trojan War was fought because Helen of Greece either was abducted by Paris of Troy, or followed him willingly, leaving behind her husband Menelaus. He and his brother Agamemnon organized a fleet with various Greek tribes to sail for Troy (known as Ilium—hence the “Iliad” is a poem about Ilium) to bring Helen back. Agamemnon is chosen leader of the united Greek forces and is called a hero, but he is proud, selfish, and willing to risk countless lives by insisting on having the Trojan slave Briseis, who had rightfully been “won” by Greek warrior Achilles, for himself (the standard practice of rape is never questioned), after he is asked to return his own sex slave to her father, a priest. As a result, Achilles makes the equally selfish choice to no longer do combat for the Greeks, regardless of the havoc wreaked by his decision. His mind is changed only after Patroclus, his beloved friend, is killed. Patroclus was not a warrior, but he took up arms because he could not bear watching his fellow Greeks perish. His death puts Achilles in such a rage that he finally fights and is responsible for killing Hector, son of King Priam and Troy’s best fighter. This leads to the ultimate conquest of Troy with the help of the Trojan Horse, though I was surprised to learn that this is mentioned only in passing in the sequel to The Iliad.

This sequel, The Odyssey, was easier to get through even though it also abounds in accounts of graphic violence. But not all narrative strands deal with fighting. Many deal with human scheming, lying, and conniving, to say nothing of the childish, selfish, jealous, and otherwise ludicrous doings the Olympian Gods engage in.

The Odyssey is named for Odysseus, another Greek “hero” and originator of the Trojan Horse. He also makes countless poor choices and ends up losing all his men while they attempt to reach their home island Ithaca. The return trip takes another 10 years because the protagonist offends Poseidon by blinding his son, Cyclops Polyphemus. Odysseus eventually completes his journey because of divine help bestowed by Athena. After his homecoming, he suspiciously tests the loyalty of his wife Penelope, who has remained faithful to him for 20 years, while he has enjoyed sex with both mortal women and immortal goddesses. And despite having seen so much murder and mayhem, Odysseus is not yet ready to hang up his weapons. More bloodshed follows when he and his son Telemachus kill all the suitors who have tried to win Penelope’s hand while Odysseus was absent. The enslaved women who had “lain” with the suitors (whether or not they did so voluntarily is not considered), were brutally hanged.

Just as I was finishing Fagles’s 1996 translation of The Odyssey, a friend told me about a more recent 2018 translation remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only is it the first one by a woman, Professor of classical studies Emily Wilson decided to follow Homer’s lead and present the epic poem in verse. Instead of the six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters) that were the conventional meter in archaic Greece, she employed a meter English speakers are more accustomed to from reading Shakespeare and the like—iambic pentameter, which employs five-footed lines. And all this she did by holding the poem to the same length as the original, which makes it possible to open her opus on any given page and compare chapter and line numbers to Homer’s text.

The following examples illustrate the difference between the two versions. They represent the very beginning of The Odyssey:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.

Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,

Many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,

Fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. (Robert Fagles)

_____________________________________________________________________________

Tell me about a complicated man.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost

when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,

and where he went, and who he met, the pain

he suffered on the sea, and how he worked

to save his life and bring his men back home. (Emily Wilson)

“I prefer the first example, “ you might exclaim, which was my initial reaction. I don’t mind effusive language and originally thought Fagles sounded more lyrical. But I changed my mind once I read passages aloud and was swept along by the sparse prose and musical rhythm of Wilson’s meter.

What did my Greek year teach me? In addition to refreshing my memory about a confusing litany of names, both human and divine, my understanding of the events surrounding the Trojan War and the subsequent fate of its protagonists was improved. I also learned that both authorship and age of these so-called Homeric poems are still debated by scholars today. Consensus exists that they arose from an oral tradition and were recited for live audiences before being written down anytime between the late eighth and late seventh centuries BCE, but who did the writing down is less clear.

It is not my intention to belittle these important touchstones of world literature, but however interesting and intriguing they might be, edifying they are not. They left me with the sense that humans have always been imperfect, bumbling, or even downright devious. The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t offer a solution to this perpetual dilemma, they simply depict our faults and frailties. And in the pantheon of Greek gods, not one is without his or her own foibles.

In addition to the works discussed, I also read the following two novels not once, but twice, as I found them very enjoyable and relatable. Both were written by Madeline Miller, also a classics scholar, and could be considered fanfiction at a very high level. They imagine the lives of some of the characters of Homer’s opus in detail and present them as more fleshed out beings.

Please share your impressions and thoughts if you have had your own version of a Greek year or are familiar with any of the books discussed here.

34 thoughts on “My Greek Year

  1. We’ve read, together as a couple, both the Iliad and the Odyssey. While we enjoyed them, they’re heavy reading. You’ve done wonders getting through both so soon. We had a much bigger gap between reading first and second book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good for you, Liz and Nigel. I think it would be interesting to read at least parts of the stories to one another aloud. I agree that they are heavy reading because, apart from the length, so often the stories are little edifying and I found myself shaking my head. But I’m glad I finally got around to finishing them.
      Best,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post, Tanja. I’m mightily impressed by both your determination and your erudition, but am not tempted to follow in your footsteps. Life’s too short, and because I watch the television news every evening I already know all I need to know about the flaws and frailties that are an inescapable part of the human condition! Interesting to note that we modern, 21st century folk, think we’re so advanced and superior to our forebears but in fact – beneath the surface veneer – we’re not much different at all. How depressing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I recall reading a review of Emily Wilson’s translation around the time it came out. I don’t read Greek, so can’t evaluate her English version and Fagles’s for faithfulness to the original. Her first line strikes me as more of a paraphrase than a translation, and I seem to remember that that was a criticism the reviewer had of her version as a whole. (I do like the imabic pentameter, however).

    Most of the people who established the United States government in the late 1700s were well versed in the ancient Greek and Roman writers (often in the original languages), and were only too aware of “human scheming, lying, and conniving.” That’s why this country’s founders set up a divided government, in hopes of preventing any one group from getting too much power. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, called the Bill of Rights, were quickly added in hopes they would prevent a majority from becoming dictatorial and oppressing smaller groups and individuals.

    Alas, many American students—seemingly a large majority—are no longer taught history or geography or classic literature or the structure of their own government (or of their own language, for that matter). From that lack of traditional teaching, students come away with many mistaken notions about people and the world—for example that slavery arose in the United States, when in fact it has existed as far back as we have historical records, and all across the world, as the works of Homer make clear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I regret knowing no Greek and only a little Latin, Steve. A thorough knowledge of both languages would be beneficial on so many different levels. I’m not sure why most institutions stopped teaching it.

      And while it’s helpful to have studied ancient cultures and governments to learn as much as possible from what worked and what didn’t, humans have a tendency to make the same mistakes over and over.

      Just because slavery goes back a long time and didn’t start in this country is no excuse. This kind of argument absolves anybody from any wrongdoing ever, as we could always blame Adam and Eve.

      I have many questions, but very few answers.

      Like

  4. I read portions of the Iliad and Odyssey in college, but I will admit that I was never drawn to all that warring and killing. There were bits I found interesting, like when the men were turned into pigs. I really enjoyed your thoughtful take on the various aspects of the two stories. A nice way to start a sunny day in Maine. And “Circe” is on my TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m showing my ignorance here, but noting that the Wilson translation is in iambic pentameter, I wonder if the original Greek is written in metric form? It’s virtually impossible to translate metered (much less rhymed) verse without having to choose between form and accurate word equivalents.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I know this was a looong post, so it’s hard to read every word, but it does mention that the Greek original was written in six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters).

        I think it would be fun to listen to the works being read in Greek and try to catch that meter, even without understanding what is being said.

        A quick online search brought up this webpage with sound recordings from “The Iliad”: https://commons.mtholyoke.edu/hrgs/iliad-recordings/ (click on Iliad Recordings in the menu). The verses sound as if they are being sung–apparently ancient Greek was a “tonal” language, which rises and falls like a song. I had no idea until just now, so I’m grateful for your question, because it made me learn something new. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This ^ is the reason I come here, Tanya. This sort of ace!’

    Also, this > ‘…After studying “It’s All Greek to Me” in my perpetual quest to get a better handle on antiquity…’
    x

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, Tanja, you certainly have a great deal of persistence and determination! Irelate to your post, as I spent a whole year studying the Old Testament in a group. And while the OT is certainly not as violent as your reading in many ways, the lack of women and distressing stories about women left me feeling depressed. I kept asking, “If we keep telling these same sexist stories over and over, focusing on a history which doesn’t include women other than for procreation, than what is the point?” If women’s voices are not heard, we will keep going over and over the same narrow histories. Some would point out a few stories of hope in the readings, but it is certainly not enough for me. If these last few years of social media have taught us anything, it is that the story that is heard over and over will become what people believe, no matter how untrue it might be.
    Sigh…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Julie.
      I can relate to your sense of frustration. A lot of what we consider classics were written during times when the view of women was very different.

      Luckily, we have made some progress in some countries, but I find it shocking how many countries and cultures still have what I consider a medieval world view. The fact that some so-called developed countries are not immune to such outdated notions is depressing, indeed.

      And that people will go on believing what they want to in the face of objective proof to the contrary is no less demoralizing.

      I am seconding your sigh… 😦

      Like

  7. I loved this blog post, these two have been on my To Read list for years 🤍 I love learning languages but have never looked at Greek before – reading through all of the comments here with great interest! ⭐️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, I’m glad you liked the post. It took me a long time to finally get to the Iliad and Odyssey, and even though I had my problems with them, I’m glad I finally worked my way through them. I hope you will find the right time for yourself.

      Like

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