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.

Winter’s Pageant

This winter has brought several bouts of much-needed moisture in the form of snow to Colorado Springs, and as I’m scheduling this post, portions of the Rocky Mountains are waiting with bated breath for the next wintry wave predicted to drop two-plus feet of the white stuff. The brutal arctic blast that swept through North America in mid-February and wreaked havoc across wide swathes of the country also dropped the temperature into the subzero range along the Front Range of the Rockies, but otherwise thermometer readings have been mostly seasonal.

Without belittling the loss of life or damage caused by broken pipes and power outages from severe winter weather (if you, your neighbors, friends, or family were effected, I hope things have returned to normal by now), I find that precipitation takes on a magic of its own when it arrives in the form of snowflakes. Depending on light, wind, and humidity, the resulting effects and moods vary widely. To walk under a bluebird sky through freshly fallen snow, hear and feel it crunch underfoot, and see the sparkle and glitter of myriad ice crystals is an experience I don’t want to miss. I enjoy the sense of adventure when I’m the first to break trail, when I tread where no one else has tread before, at least no other human.

Whether the trees are flocked with cotton-like puffs, whether mist or fog conspires with temperature to create a rime-crusted reality, whether Artist Winter has applied a whimsical brush, the stage is set for a wonderful show. Without further ado I will let you take in some of winter’s displays.

A Birder’s Prayer

Lord of Birds, please make me a better birder.

Where there are birds, let me find them,

Where there is birdsong, let me hear it,

Where there is a nest, let me shield it,

Where birds are hungry, let me feed them,

Where they are in danger, let me protect them.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

O Maker of Feathers, please grant that I may be

Fleeter of foot to find birds without flushing them,

Keener of ear to hear their heavenly music,

Sharper of eye to see all their beauty,

Astuter of perception to understand nature’s wonderful ways.

For it is through birds that we grasp nature’s miracles,

It is through birds that we discover a meaning of life,

And it is through birds that we find hope for the future.

Freely and shamelessly based on the Peace Prayer by St. Francis.

All bird photos were taken in Colorado Springs in January and February 2020, except for the Greater Yellowlegs, which was photographed in Pueblo, where it seems to have overwintered, rather than farther south. The topmost photo shows a White-breasted Nuthatch (Carolinakleiber).

Counting My Blessings

During a time when the health of the planet, of humanity, and of democracies is under threat it takes great effort not to give in to hopelessness. Recent events have made me (want to) turn off radio, television, and computer to avoid exposure to some of the basest human nature and to prevent me from crying sad tears or screaming in disgust and disbelief at what was said and done—or at what was not.

I frequently despair of humankind. Yet I am also reminded that human goodness does exist, and there are many reasons to be grateful. One of them is a dear friend who celebrated her 100th (!) birthday in December 2020. Esther has been in the habit of counting her blessings most of her life. She has been an inspiration for me for many years and I endeavor to embrace her positive attitude.

Esther on her 93rd birthday in 2013, still living in her own home. For her centenary we were only able to wave at her through the window of her assisted-living home.

Among my greatest blessings are my family and friends who have supported me in myriad ways throughout my life. Lately I have been touched by the kindness of fellow bloggers who reached out to inquire about my well-being. Thank you for your concern. I am still here and am doing as well as can be expected, and much better than countless others who have lost their health, loved ones, homes, or jobs.

In the turmoil of the past year nothing has comforted me as much as Mother Nature and her still mostly predictable cycles when everything else was all but. I am thankful that my freedom to spend time out-of-doors was never significantly curtailed. To experience nature’s multihued autumnal fashion show before it changed into its more muted winter attire, and to observe the parting of some birds for southern climes and the arrival of others from the north was reassuring. It gave me hope that spring will once again return and with it new life and new prospects.

Scrub oak at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Colorado Springs, October 21, 2020.

Pair of rare Tundra Swans at Manitou Lake near Woodland Park, October 30, 2020. An unexpected delight.

Serene winter scene at Bear Creek Park, Colorado Springs,  January 11, 2021.

In Esther’s spirit, I am counting each blessing that sustains me through these troubling times. I trust each of you is safe and healthy and wish you your very own blessings.

Black-and-White Birds

The combination of the colors black and white is considered elegant and classy, not only with regard to fashion, but also when it comes to feather arrangements, as many posts by fellow bird-loving bloggers attest. When I assembled my avian portraits a few months back, my only intention was to share a selection of Colorado’s bicolored resident and migratory birds. I hope you will enjoy their beauty with me. But when I finally scheduled this post a few weeks ago and realized how close to an eagerly awaited yet at the same time anxiously dreaded event it would be published, my mind took me into directions altogether different, and it is also my hope that you will allow me to digress.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover the cursor over it.

The bird in the topmost photo is a Black-throated Gray Warbler (Trauerwaldsänger).

I stay away from politics as much as possible because most of the time nothing good comes from discussing it. Only with some trepidation did I allow my pen and keyboard to follow my mind in this instance. All of us have strong convictions and are reluctant to have them questioned. Polarization and radicalization have increased not only in this country, but across the globe, whereas nuanced discussion and civil discourse have gone the opposite way. What does it say about our societies that people are not only ostracized, but are sent hate mail, death threats—or even poison—merely for expressing their opinions, or for stating scientifically accepted facts? It’s so bewildering it beggars belief.

I know one thing. While black-and-white fashion or plumage might be beautiful, black-and-white thinking is not. Polarizing is not. Claiming that white is better, smarter, or more superior than black is not. Asserting that every human being has the same potential and that people who don’t succeed didn’t try hard enough is ignorant at best, cruel at worst. To declare that systemic racism doesn’t exist is to wear blinders, is to deny that many humans don’t grow up on a level playing field or with the same privileges.

Indigenous lives matter. Black lives matter. White lives matter. It should go without saying that ALL lives matter, but this self-evident statement has been misappropriated and distorted in the most insidious way. A clarification: While feathers may be black or white, human skin is not. It might be pink or brown or countless other shades. But because we have reduced the world to black and white, I am manacled by reductive language.

Each day we see where prejudice and polarization have brought us—to a dead end. It will take all of us to correct centuries-old and deep-seated misconceptions and biases. To return to the birds which started this train of thought, we need to acknowledge and affirm that, while black and white might stand alone, they complement one another and become more beautiful when they exist side by side.

A selection of signs I have recently come across in people’s yards.