Monthly Archives: July 2015

Junipero Serra and the canonization controversy.

Yesterday I attended a lecture given by scholar-spouses Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz, respectively professors of Spanish and California history at SCU. They spoke on their decade of research on Junipero Serra, which just culminated in a book, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. Just as they were about to publish their book, of course, Pope Francis announced he was going to declare Serra a saint. As Senkewicz joked, the pope has been a great press agent for their book! Beebe and Senkewicz went to Rome in April to give an address to the pope on their research. My fiancé was in Beebe’s advanced Spanish class, and with all her other students received small medallions blessed by Francis!

serraBeebe and Senkewicz’s talk deliberately avoided the question on everyone’s minds: should Serra be a saint? They were very clear: we are historians, we only do history. And do history they did. Beebe began by describing Serra’s personality: he was not some dopey happy friar, but professorial, brilliant, fiery, sarcastic, and sometimes funny man. One of his main images for God was that of a stern father, which explains the paternalistic (and sometimes brutal) practices at the missions he founded. After becoming a professor of philosophy at a Franciscan seminary in Spain, he asked to be sent to New Spain to found a mission. When he finally did encounter unevangelized native Americans, he felt it was an Edenic experience.

One thing I really liked about Beebe and Senkewicz is that they tried to bring out the gray areas in Serra’s character. On the plus side, he felt he was doing good work. His ideal was to build a multiethnic community, and to shield the native peoples from the exploitation that the two other arms of Spanish colonialism – soldiers and civilians – would inevitably impose on the indigenous people. So at the very least we can say he had good intent. And he felt that these people were worthy of being saved, that they were human, and he labored for decades to achieve that end.   He could have stayed a professor in Spain, and probably lived a much more comfortable life. But he chose to leave because he felt he was doing some good for others.

On the other hand, many argue that in trying to shield native peoples from exploitation by Spanish colonialism, the missions created that same exploitation. One feature of the missions was that once baptized and brought into the mission, nobody was allowed to leave. If they left, they would be searched for and publicly flogged as punishment. I think one good word for that is “slavery.” Serra condoned this practice, and probably felt it was in line with his view of God as a stern father. Just as God is a stern father to His children, so Serra had to be with his. Clearly, this kind of paternalism can have good intent but disastrous, dangerous consequences.

Beebe and Senkewicz fielded some tough questions at the Q&A, and I was impressed at how poised they were in answering them. One Lakota woman pointedly asked if they engaged with contemporary Native Californians to learn more about their views of the legacy of Serra and the missions. Senkewicz replied that they did, but that the book would have been different if a Native person had written it. Two – not one but two – people asked what they thought about the canonization, despite the fact that they were very clear they were not giving an opinion on it. Another person asked if the native peoples would have been better off if the Spanish had never colonized them. Historians don’t generally traffic in contrafactual questions, but Senkewicz did point out that if the Spanish hadn’t colonized California, someone else would have. So the question should not be “Was Spanish colonialism worse than California never being colonized?”, but “Was Spanish colonialism worse than anyone else’s colonialism would have been?” He didn’t give a clear answer. I suspect there isn’t one. My fiancé asked the last question, about Serra’s view of religious syncretism. Serra seemed to be aware of it, but pretended not to notice. To me it seems clear that he would have had nothing to gain in either condemning or condoning it.

This was definitely one of the more lively academic lectures I attended. Beebe and Senkewicz really coordinated their talk, and had a lot of interesting images to show as well. I thought it was interesting to note what did not get discussed in the talk. How much are people conflating the question of Serra’s canonization with a moral evaluation of the California missions as a whole? Those are not the same questions.

From what I gathered, Beebe and Senkewicz’s book only focuses on the extensive epistolary correspondence and diaries of Serra himself. Of course, Serra was not the only missionary in California, and was definitely not the only missionary in New Spain as a whole. Serra died in 1784, and the missions definitely continued after he died. We can’t pin blame on Serra for actions taken by other people, nor can we hold him responsible for things that happened after he died. The native people of the time can’t speak for themselves, as AFAIK we don’t have their own words in writing. But archaeologists can look at their bones, which tell us a lot about their diet, manual labor, and other indicators of their quality of life both before and after the missions. My point here is that a full moral evaluation of the missions would have to take into account other missionaries’ writings, as well as the history of the missions after Serra’s death, as well as material evidence. Serra is only one piece of the puzzle.

Serra’s canonization makes me ask two questions, not historical but ethical questions. How much do we judge someone on their intent vs. their actions? And how much can we expect a historical figure to transcend their time vs. being a person of their time? In other words: how much do we take a person’s upbringing into account when we evaluate their actions morally? These are questions we confront in everyday social interactions. They don’t have easy answers. I really appreciated Beebe and Senkewicz’s humility in not answering the question of canonization, and in knowing the limits of their expertise. This kind of humility is something I aspire to as a scholar.

Book Review: Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem.

Goodacre’s short book is an introduction to the Synoptic problem, or the question of how the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are related.  He walks the reader through the problems and some of the theories about them.  The first question: which gospel came first?  The vast majority of scholars accept Mark as the first gospel, because of how Matthew and Luke clearly use his text, and because he uses simple language and vocabulary.  Goodacre follows other scholars on this.  This is contrary to the minority opinion, the Griesbach hypothesis, which holds that Matthew came first.

mazeThe next question, then, is where Matthew and Luke get their material from.
  Most scholars accept the “two source theory”: Matthew and Luke both use Mark as well as an independent sayings gospel called “Q.”  Q has never been found, so it is purely hypothetical, but scholars suspect it is of the same genre as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which contains only sayings and teachings of Jesus with no narrative.  Most scholars accept Q, but Goodacre does not.  He instead sides with the Farrer hypothesis, which holds that Mark came first, Matthew used Mark, and then Luke used Matthew and Mark.  (At all steps in the process, of course, oral tradition played a role as well.)  He argues that pro-Q scholarship ignores instances of Luke using Matthew’s version of Mark, or Luke including stories in Matthew but not in Mark.

The synoptic problem has been around in New Testament scholarship for some time, and scholars spent a lot of time developing the contemporary consensus of Markan priority and Q.  That said, I can’t help but wonder if this is an issue we can set aside for some time until new evidence comes up.  There is just so little evidence one way or the other.  That said, it is an issue that all biblical scholars need to be familiar with, and Goodacre is good at walking the reader through the issues rather than simply telling them what to think.  He reduplicates synoptic parallels so the reader can see what he is talking about, and explains how to color code a synopsis.  The chapters are broken up into small sections, and each chapter and section has a summary at the end.  This was a nice gym read, but it would also be a good text for a class on the synoptic gospels.

Reading Challenge #11: Song of Songs: A New Translation.

Part of my summer reading challenge is to read as much of the Bible in English as I can.  I’m trying to diversify my intake by reading different translations and different commentaries.  So recently I read Ariel and Chana Blach’s translation of Song of Songs.  I really enjoyed it.

blochThis edition has a lot to offer: a 42-page introduction that illuminated the text, an afterword by Robert Alter, an 88-page commentary, and a translation with the Hebrew text on the facing page.  I didn’t check the Hebrew that much — Song of Songs is known for its difficult language — but the English flowed really well.

The Song of Songs itself is an erotic love poem, an obvious anomaly in the Hebrew Bible.  Both Christian and Jewish interpreters (e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, Rabbi Akiba) have allegorized it as a spiritual poem about God and Israel/Church/humanity.  Its literary format is that of a dialogue between two young lovers and a few other figures, called in this translation the “brothers” and the “daughters of Jerusalem.”  According to the Blochs, it was most likely written during the Hellenistic era:

It is clear that much of the Song is anomalous in the biblical context, and calls for explanation: the concern with the private life as opposed to the public and communal, the frank interest in sexual experience, the idealization of pastoral innocence, the aesthetic appreciation of the human body.  All of this would suggest that the Song was composed in a Hellenized atmosphere. (27)


Apart from the specifics of the Blochs’ translation, what did I get out of this text?

  1. The Blochs claim that the Song of Songs is the only book in the Bible which celebrates eros for its own sake.  Other books describe the importance of a strong marriage (Proverbs), or the trouble that lust gets people into (Jacob), or even the joys of marriage (Ecclesiastes).  But I don’t see any hint that the protagonists of Song of Songs are even married at all.  The fact that she orders him to leave before dawn (e.g. 2:17) points to the possibility that their love is illicit.  Yet in this forbidden fruit the protagonists find a kind of divine intimacy.  As the Blochs write:

    The Eden story preserves a memory of wholeness and abundance from the beginning of time; the prophets look forward to a peaceable kingdom at the End of Days.  The Song of Songs locates that kingdom in human love, in the habitable present, and for the space of our attention, allows us to enter it. (35)

  2. Although it’s pretty obvious this poem is about sex, the Biblical Hebrew always uses euphemisms for sex itself, such as using “feet” to refer to a penis.  Here the pleasures of the flesh are symbolized by the fertile garden imagery throughout the poem.  As an example of these fruitful metaphors:

    Your branches are an orchard
    of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit,
    flowering henna and spikenard,
    spikenard and saffron, cane and cinnamon,
    with every tree of frankincense,
    myrrh and aloe,
    all the rare spices. (4:13-14)

    These metaphors pile up on one another until both the man’s and the woman’s body contain all the pleasing sights and smells of every plant in the garden.  In the afterward, Robert Alter writes:

    In more explicit erotic literature, the body in the act of love often seems to displace the rest of the world.  In the Song, by contrast, the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body.  The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of good afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed. (130)

    Personally, I don’t have much interest in the allegories that make this poem a spiritual allegory, because then we miss all these wonderful affirmations of the world.  But all of these metaphors and symbols used in the poem lead to the third point….

  3. The Song of Songs is a perfect example of how difficult it is to read ancient literature, because so many of its metaphors are lost on a contemporary audience.  Take 1:13-14:

    All night between my breasts
    my love is a cluster of myrrh,
    a sheaf of henna blossoms
    in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.

    I don’t know about you, but I have never seen myrrh or the vineyards of Ein Gedi.  The only henna I have seen are tattoos, not blossoms.  But even if I had seen these plants, would I really understand their metaphorical qualities invoked here?  Not really.  For much of the Song of Songs then, I appreciated the beauty of the language, and the broad fertility implications of the floral imagery, but I am just not able to grasp all of the metaphors.

I really enjoyed this translation.  Right now I’m working through Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke.  Onward and upward!


Becoming a Biblical Scholar.

In preparation for my beginning graduate studies in biblical studies this fall, I’ve been read two useful books on becoming a biblical scholar: Nijay Gupta’s Prepare, Succeed, Advance: A Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studies and Beyond, and Ben Witherington III’s Is there a Doctor in the House?: An Insider’s Story and Advice on becoming a Bible Scholar.  I was worried the books would be redundant, but in fact they complemented one anotwitheringtonher.  

I won’t give a full review of these books here.  Other blogs do that well: see a review of Gupta here, and reviews of Witherington here, here, and here.  Both are useful for a budding biblical scholar.  Gupta provides more direct advice on what to do pre-, during, and post-doctoral studies, while Witherington tells personal anecdotes to give a better idea of what it’s like to be a biblical scholar.  For example, Witherington tells the story of how he gave up a promising musical career (he played violin) for biblical studies: “in 1970 I put down my violin and have almost never picked it up since” (141).  

These stories made Witherington’s book fun to read, and I got a lot of great advice from it: focus on languages.  Develop breadth, because you never know what you will teach.  Remember your responsibility to society, the Church, and God.  Find your voice, and don’t parrot your dissertation advisor.  (Witherington doesn’t say this, but I find blogging a good way to find my scholarly voice.)  Remember there will be painful sacrifices along the way.  But Witherington doesn’t give as much direct advice, except in an appendix in the back.

guptaBut at this point, I am looking for what Gupta’s book provides: very direct advice geared to the student pre-doctoral program, in the doctoral program, in the ABD phase, and pre-tenure.  I mostly read the pre-doctoral advice, because that is where I am at.  While some of his advice might applies to any kind of doctoral program, the most valuable parts of this book do not.  For example, he describes the differences between getting a doctorate at a seminary, an American research university, and a British research university, and what the benefits and perils are for those holding each type of degree.

Most helpfully for me, Gupta breaks down graduate admissions into eight areas:

  1. Strength of institutions of BA/MA degrees
  2. GPA
  3. Preparatory coursework
  4. References
  5. Test scores
  6. Research and publishing record
  7. Teaching experience
  8. Diversification

This list is really helpful to me because it provides a clear checklist of things to work on. For me, 3 is the most useful category.  Under “preparatory coursework,” Gupta specifies six areas of study:

  1. Biblical content
  2. Hermeneutics and methods
  3. Biblical backgrounds
  4. Languages
  5. History of interpretation
  6. Critical thinking skills

For me this was a real eye-opener.  What areas am I lacking in?  What do I need to bone up on so I have decent breadth as a scholar?  And for that mysterious “diversification” category, Gupta asks: what special skill or body of knowledge makes you stand out from the crowd?  Based on his list, I made my own list of goals to accomplish in my MA program to fill these gaps in my education.

  1. Take biblical content and exegesis courses.  My undergraduate school did not offer any of these; the limits of the religious studies department meant that most of the classes were topical or methodological.  I got my fill of content and exegesis classes by taking Homer and Plato, but none of these are the Bible.
  2. Do a course in traditional literary-historical methods.
  3. Do a course in social-scientific methods.  I really wish I had done more cultural anthropology courses as an undergrad.
  4. Take a course in Second Temple Judaism background.
  5. Take a course in Near Eastern background.  My classics degree has given me a lot of background in the history and culture of the New Testament, but almost no background in the ancient Near East.
  6. Take either Akkadian or Ugaritic.  Gupta lists both of these as good languages for Hebrew Bible doctoral programs.  Since I’m leaning in that direction, taking these will give me a leg up on the competition.
  7. Learn Aramaic.  This is a given.  I might have to do this one self-study.
  8. Learn French and German.  I’ve already started German.  French can be next summer’s task.
  9. Get work tutoring others in Greek and Hebrew.

Thanks to Gupta, I now have a clear set of goals for my M.A.  But on that last category, “diversification,” I am less clear.  Gupta wants the applicant to consider what makes them stand out: a solid knowledge in Coptic?  A particularly unexplored paradigm?  This relates to Witherington’s exhoration to budding scholars to find their voice.  What might my voice be?  What might it say?

At this point, I think my defining trait as a budding biblical scholar is my strong background in comparative religion and interreligious dialogue.  As an undergrad, I took several courses in Buddhism and Islam.  (There is a part of me that still wants to learn Classical Arabic and do Bible-Qur’an intertextuality research.)  I also am passionate about interreligious dialogue, and really want to do something like Scriptural Reasoning.  So while my undergraduate studies in religion and classics did not give me much foundation in the Bible itself, when I combine my broad background in religion with the study of the Bible, I hope to find new insights that can lead to interreligious understanding.

What those insights will look like, though, is not clear.  Guess you’ll have to keep reading my blog to find out…

Onward and upward!

Book Review: two books on Orphic texts.

In Greek myth, Orpheus is most well-known for his failed quest to retrieve his lover Eurydike from Hades.  But there was also a cult focused around him in antiquity, a sect of the Bacchic cults which focused especially on ritual purity and the afterlife.  Orphism dates back to the 6th century BCE, though most of our evidence for it comes from the Common Era.  Hence, like many aspects of the ancient world, our knowledge of Orphism is rather sketchy!

Orphism had a unique cosmology in which Dionysus was king of the gods (not Zeus!) and the world was born from an egg. We know very little about Orphism, and some argue that it was not really a cult but only a literary tradition. What we do know is scattered in classical authors (especially Plato), Neoplatonists from the 3rd century onwards, and three collections of texts found from antiquity: a collection of 3rd-century CE hymns from Pergamum, a collection of golden funerary tablets from the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE, and a fragmentary papyrus containing an allegorical-cosmological commentary on an Orphic poem (now lost) from 330 BCE. So we really don’t have much.

Scholars and religious apologists (both pro- and anti-religion alike) frequently debate the similarity of Orphic and Bacchic cult to early Christianity.  I won’t try to oversimplify that debate here, though IMHO both sides make good points.  But Orphism is important for the study of early Christianity because it had a relatively elevated view of hieroi logoi, or “sacred words.”  Orphism claimed that its texts were sacred, and invested in them a certain amount of authority because they came from the mouth and lyre of Orpheus himself.  This does not mean Orphism was a textualized religion like the Abrahamic faiths.  I have seen no indication of a closed canon of Orphic texts.  But in investing their texts with more authority, by deeming them sacred and referring to them to justify their beliefs and practices, Orphism provided a pagan precedent for early Christianity’s introduction of the concept of sacred canon to the Greco-Roman world.

Here I review two key works on ancient Orphism.  These were really useful, but also really interesting in and of themselves.  I’d recommend them for New Testament students.

I.  The Orphic Hymns: Translation, Introduction, and Notes by Apostolos Athanassakis

Orphic hymnsThis book is a collection of Orphic hymns to various Olympian gods, personified natural forces, and of course Dionysus himself. The hymns date to the 2nd-3rd century CE, though their oral tradition may extend much farther back, perhaps even to the 6th century BCE when Orphism first emerged.

This book is hard to review because it really is the best of its kind. Athanassakis is a well-known translator of Greek literature (he rendered the Homeric Hymns as well), and this is a revision of a work he first published in 1977. The hymns take up only 66 pages, but the notes take up 152. The notes are helpful, because they explain various references in the hymns, particularly to Orphic myth and cosmology. However, the notes do not give any philological guidance, so the student of Greek might want to look elsewhere. The translation is superb, and Athanassakis’ introduction had some really interesting points about religious epithets and the religious experience of chanting various epithets and names of God.

My only complaint about this book is the brevity of its overview of the hymns themselves. I wish Athanassakis had spent more time introducing them as a whole and discussing various aspects of them. It would be far too tedious to read the notes on every hymns.  I was hoping for something like what Graf and Johnston do in the book below, with chapters devoted to different theories about the text itself.

II.  Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets by Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston

GrafAs I mentioned above, one of our major sources of evidence for ancient Orphism is a series of tablets found in tombs in Greece and Italy.  These tablets are made of gold, and their writings are divided into two types.  Some tablets have just the names of the initiates on them, while others have instructions for what to do in Hades to have a good rebirth.  (Orphism held to the tenet of reincarnation.)  In this way, these tablets are like a very, very short version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, also written for disciples to attain a good rebirth.

Here Graf and Johnston provide a critical edition of the tablets, with both the Greek texts and the English translation; they have a map of where each one was found; they include six chapters of research on various aspects of the tablets; and they have four appendices on other funerary tablet finds and Bacchic texts.  So this is a really, really useful text, one I am going to hold on to.

A chapter by chapter summary:

  1. Chapter one contains the Greek and English of all 38 tablets. 
  2. Chapter two gives a brief history of scholarship, including the debate between “minimalist” and “maximalist” approaches to how much we can know about Orphism.  An interesting point here is how much scholarship on Orphism was influenced by contemporary culture wars over just how much early Christianity borrowed from paganism.
  3. Chapter three, “The Myth of Dionysus,” was for me the most interesting in the whole book.  Here Johnston posits that Orphic myth was an intentionally created system.  From here she explores how Orphic myth made itself distinctive enough to be the basis of a new cult, yet also plausible enough in the general framework of Greek myth to attract converts, while still retaining a connection between Orphic myth and Orphic ritual.   For example, Orphics believes that Dionysus was the lead god in Greek myth.  This was plausible to an average Greek: just as Zeus took Kronos’ position as king of the gods, so Zeus’ position could be given to another.  But the belief in Dionysus’ supremacy was obviously distinctive, and clearly was the basis of Orphic focus on worship of Dionysus.  (That said, the Orphic hymns demonstrate that Orphic followers worshipped all the gods, just that Dionysus had a special place in worship.)
  4. Chapter four, “The Eschatology Behind the Tablets,” explored the postmortem geography of the underworld.  The tablets indicate that the initiate will enter Hades thirsty, but must bypass the first river, speak to the guards of Hades, and drink from the river of memory.  This will allow a good rebirth in which the initiate will remember some of their knowledge from the previous life.  There seem to be three options for the newly dead: for the wicked, punishment followed by a bad rebirth; for the good, a good rebirth with all knowledge forgotten; for the good who has been initiated in the Orphic cult, a good rebirth or joining the gods and heroes in the afterlife.  Wow.
  5. Chapter five, “Dionysiac Mystery Cults,” tries to place the tablets in the context of our scant knowledge of Dionysiac cult practice.  Essentially, what were these tablets for?  We don’t really know.  Graf argues that the tablets were a part of the initiation rites into Orphism, and were later placed in the graves of initiates after they died.  However we have no record of rituals in which these tablets were created, let alone explanations of why and when they were.
  6. Chapter six, “Orpheus, His Poetry, and Sacred Texts,” explores the identity of Orpheus and the nature of the hieroi logoi of Orphic religion.  Graf and Johnston look at different ancient sources on Orpheus as Argonaut, foreigner, singer, magician, initiator, and lover of Eurydike.  They then look at the debate over how textualized Orphic religion was.  They argue that when Orphic texts are referred to as heiroi logoi, this does not mark them as “scripture” the way we use the word.  Instead, these were myths and explanations of rituals, and were divided into two categories of public texts and private, insider texts.  In other words, the “sacred words” of Orphism referred more to Orphism’s specific texts, but that didn’t mean there was a closed canon or a theology of revelation attached to those texts.

I didn’t read any of the appendices, but even without those this was a really interesting book!  While Guthrie’s book mainly tried to establish the facts of Orphism, Graf and Johnston ask more speculative and interesting questions and give insightful answers.  I would really recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek religion, especially in mystery cults or practices surrounding the afterlife.

Onward and upward!

July update.

Well, I’m supposed to post my “state of the projects” here, but my summer plans have been mostly upended.  So I’ll just share a little about the progress I have made.  This is partly for your entertainment (hah!) and partly to keep me honest.

Writing Projects

These have been entirely dormant.  I make time to write almost every day, but book reviews and blogging take up a lot of that time.

The Matthew frontispiece from Saint John's Bible.

The Matthew frontispiece from Saint John’s Bible.

Probably the most exciting surprise of my summer has been writing about the Saint John’s Bible.  Commissioned in 1998 and completed in 2011, the Saint John’s Bible is a modern illuminated manuscript of the Bible, executed by some of the best calligraphers and illuminators alive today.  My university library’s archives and special collections department, where I work, has one of the high-quality “Heritage edition” facsimiles of this seven-volume set.  I’ve been assigned the task of writing blurbs for the illuminations throughout the text.  Basically I get to write about Scripture.  And I get paid.  Those things have to go in bold because they are so exciting.


This summer I am learning German with the help of two Germanophile friends and April Wilson’s German Quickly.  I’m mainly doing this for my modern research language.  (German is really important in biblical studies.)  I can’t say I’m as far as I hoped to be.  Right now I’m in chapter five, part two.  That said, Wilson’s book is really fun, in the same way Wheelock’s is: the exercises are witty proverbs or funny stories rather than bland pedagogical exercises.


This summer I am reading some Homer with my friend Brian (check out his blog!).  We are working through parts of Steadman’s glossed reader of Odyssey books 9-12.  So far we’ve gotten through almost 200 lines after two meetings.  I think that’s progress.

I’m also getting adjusted to Koine Greek with the help of Rodney Decker‘s Koine Greek Reader and Seumas (aka The Patrologist).  The language is easy, but Seumas is helping me get some of the distinctive idioms and usages of Koine Greek.  I’m really liking Decker’s reader because he includes not only New Testament, but also Septuagint and non-canonical early Christian literature in the reader.  So far we’ve done eight readings.

Reading Challenge

As for my summer reading challenge, I’m going slower than I wanted to … however this is in part because of other reading I am doing, such as a reading group with a professor on Greco-Roman religion.  (We just finished reading about Orphism: Guthrie’s classic book, the Orphic Hymns, the golden funerary tablets, and the Derveni Papyrus.)  I’m shifting gears away from the Greco-Roman material and into biblical material more directly.  Honestly though, I’m happy to not get all the reading done.  Even doing some of it will be helpful as I begin graduate school in biblical studies.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #10: Homer’s Odyssey.

After reading Homer’s Iliad, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns, I am finally rounding out my reading of Archaic Greek poetry.  And just in time: wedding planning is rapidly taking over my summer!  This was my third reading of Homer’s Odyssey, and my first with Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.  I like his balance between Lattimore’s highly structured language and Fagles’ looser, more dynamic rendering.

odyssey coverThe Odyssey provides the counterpoint to the Iliad: after the Trojan War is over, Odysseus, one of the Achaean generals, spends ten years trying to return home.  He gets lost in various detours with non- and semi-human creatures: witches, nymphs, goddesses, cannibals, a cyclops, and more!  When he comes home, all of his men are dead, and he must slaughter all of the suitors vying for his wife before he can reclaim his home and reign once more as ruler of Ithaka.

I had always thought of the two epics as opposites: an epic of war versus an epic of peace, an epic of pessimistic fatalism versus an epic of returning home to bliss, an epic of armies versus an epic of one man.  But in many ways, the Iliad and the Odyssey are parallel to one another.

  1. One major theme of the Iliad is what happens when civilization breaks down in the frenzies of war.  The Odyssey reflects this too, as Odysseus encounters uncivilized, barbarian men in strange lands.  Odysseus has to use both his brawns and his wits (as well as Athena’s help) to get out of the messy situations he is in, situations in which his adversaries do not respect the laws of civilized humans.  For example, he and his men are too weak to defeat Polyphemus and escape his cave, but Odysseus uses his wits to find a way out.  This is in contrast to the Trojan War, where brawns are more important than brains.  Humans may prevail against one another in strength, but not against giant one-eyed monsters.  For that they need wits.
  2. One of the themes of the Iliad was honor: who has it?  who has the most?  We saw Achilles sitting at the beach, not fighting because he felt his honor had been insulted by Agamemnon.  Was Achilles so honorable that nobody should insult him (that’s what he thought) or was he dishonorable because he was not fighting (what Agamemnon thought)?  Homer seems to be pointing to the fact that honor is just a social construction that people can disagree on.  The same happens in the Odyssey, in which the multitude of suitors think of themselves as the greatest men in Ithaka.  Obviously Odysseus thinks otherwise.  To him, even the lowly swineherd Eumaios has more honor than the suitors.
  3. In both epics, Homer offers a bleak vision of the afterlife.  In book 11, Homer visits the underworld to speak to the prophet Teiresias.  There he also speaks to his mom, Achilles, and Agamemnon, among others.  This seems to validate Achilles’ point in the Iliad: everyone dies, and great heroes get no better afterlife than wimpy cowards.  Greek religion varied in its views on the afterlife, and Homer’s gloomy vision of post-death existence contrasts sharply with the glorious afterlife promised in Orphism and some other devotional cults.

I know many classicists argue that the Iliad is a better work of art, but I personally like the Odyssey a lot more.  After reading it for the third time I can say it merits a fourth.

One last thing — this oral performance by Richard Dyer-Bennett helps me linger on the words of the epic as I should.  It’s amazing.  If only he recorded the whole thing.