Tag Archives: Greek

Bus drivers, ballet dancers, and biblical scholars: skill and effortlessness.

I live in San Jose, CA, but three days a week I hike up to Berkeley for school. (Any of you who live in the SF bay area know that is a trek!) What this usually entails is a 20-minute bike ride, a 45-minute bus ride, a 50-minute train ride, and a 30-minute walk. (I could do the drive in 1 hour (on a good day) but I think the stress of that drive would shave a few years off my life.)

This morning I was talking to one of the bus drivers. He told me he used to drive big rigs. I asked him, which was harder? He said buses, hands down, because of the pressure of being responsible for so many lives. He said (paraphrasing), “We make it look easy. But every moment, we are constantly aware of our surroundings, of the traffic, and our minds are always working.”

His statement brought me back to when my mom took me to see The Nutcracker when I was a teen. Ballet dancers make their art look so graceful, so effortless, even fun, as if bouncing and twirling around on stage for an hour just comes naturally. Of course you know that their craft is the result of years of disciplined practice, and results in bloody toes and worn-out joints. But the ballerina, like the bus driver, has practiced their skill for so long that others don’t see how hard it is, because they make it look easy.

I think of biblical languages in the same way. My undergraduate Greek professors made Greek look so easy. Of course, each of them had studied and taught Greek for many years. In the case of one of them, we were the last first-year Greek class she taught before retiring after over dour decades of teaching. Another one of my professors, Daniel Turkeltaub (a Homerist), often compared learning Greek to working out at the gym: there is no substitute for disciplined, methodical practice, day in and day out. Only with that practice can you get to the point where it looks effortless. And, I would add: like the bodybuilder, we aspire to get to the point where it looks effortless.

All this is to say: using this metaphor of building a skill, honing a craft, helps keep me motivated as I try to practice my discipline in Greek and Hebrew.

Speaking of biblical languages, I am hoping to come out with some resources on my blog soon to help students of biblical languages. There are a lot of things I wish I had been aware of when I first started learning Greek, in particular the scholarly conventions and (sometimes) outright falsehoods that we learn in first-year Greek to make the language make sense. As scholar of comparative religions J.Z. Smith titled one of his books, map is not territory. One of the projects I am working on is for a professor writing a handbook for students of biblical Hebrew. Another is something much smaller I will post here.

Reading Challenge #5: Homer’s Iliad.

As I explained in my last post, Homer, the misnamed Homeric hymns, and Hesiod are the oldest major works of Greek literature we have.  Homer’s Iliad, a poem of war and warriors, was most likely codified by 750 BCE.  The epic tells the story of the Trojan War, which happened in the twelfth or eleventh century BCE; so if the Iliad is based on any real facts about the war, it comes from a long oral tradition.

How was Homer composed?  Scholars spent much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century arguing over whether Homeric epics are unitary compositions or cobbled-together collections of folk tales.  Essentially, does the Iliad fit together well, or are there the kind of contradictions, clumsy transitions, and awkwardness characteristic of an edited-together collection?  Scholars mostly follow the “Lord Parry” synthesis in which Homer is neither a unitarily composed work nor a mere collection of folktales.  Millman Perry and Albert Lord argued that Homer composed the work as a unity, but drew from oral traditions of stock scenes, lines, and epithets as he composed on the fly. So when the Iliad was an oral tradition, each telling could be different.  Only in written form is it trapped in the same form.  We see this in the written version, in which some books are superfluous and could be taken out without disrupting the main story.

iliad-faglesAnd of course, the term “Homer” here is just a shorthand.  We don’t know if there was one man who composed the Iliad and/or the Odyssey.  It could have been a school of poetic composition.  One fringe theory claims that Homer was a woman.  There’s no evidence for it, but we can’t disprove it either, only note its improbability.

I read the Iliad in Fagles’ translation, which is very readable though often inaccurate.  There’s no way to sum up this amazing epic in one blog post, but a few themes stand out:

  1. Before I read the Iliad, I thought it uniformly celebrated the glories of war.  I was wrong.  While the Iliad does relish in descriptions of the heroism and might of heroes such as Diomedes, Achilles, and Hector, it also frequently depicts warfare as a pointless game for status and the spoils of war.  My grandpa lived from 1913 to 2012, and after living through World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Iraq-Afghanistan War, he told me that “nobody really wins a war.”  Homer injects some of that mentality into the Iliad.  Achilles fights to win timē (honor, status) and kleos (fame), but you can’t bring any of this into the afterlife, and even the victors in war return home having lost great men.  The Iliad depicts both the glorious and the tragic, chaotic, unfair aspects of war, which is part of what makes it great literature!
  2. The Iliad underscores just how different humans and gods are.  But this is not because the gods are more noble or moral, only more powerful.  Fagles writes that

    To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. (45)

    In other words, honeybadger don’t give a f***, but honeybadger is Zeus.  While humans in the Iliad think they can influence the gods by sacrifices and prayers, Homer’s omniscient narration of both humans and gods reveals that the gods typically do things for their own reasons entirely.  For example, the Achaeans think that Zeus is making the Trojans win because he wants them to win.  But in fact, Zeus is making the Trojans win so the Achaeans will honor Achilles and bring him back into war.  Like humans, the gods are petty and fight with one another for stupid reasons; but the gods are immortal, so the results of their petty conflicts are never as drastic as they are for humans.

  3. The Iliad presents many of the conflicts of running an army that ancient Greeks must have faced.  One major question: who do we value more?  The greatest warrior (Achilles) or the one who controls the largest faction of the army (Agamemnon)?  The Iliad presents many conflicts within armies that illustrate the difficulty of running an army.  Frequently in the epic we see warriors looking out for their own geras (spoils of war) more than the war itself.  So they stay back on the battlefield collecting armor off dead enemies rather than fighting at the frontlines.  Sometimes a warrior’s drive for personal gain (status and spoils) conflicts with the good of their army.

I’m really, really glad I got the chance to study the Iliad in Greek this quarter.  Once summer starts and I have some leisure I’ll get to the Odyssey as well, personally my favorite of the two.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #4: The Homeric Hymns.

When I took the survey course in classical mythology (mandatory for classics majors, of course!) I read parts of the Homeric Hymns.  But I never set down and read them all.

Just some background.  Greek literature pre-Common Era is divided roughly into three periods: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic.  Hellenistic literature comes from the Greek world after Alexander the Great’s conquests around the eastern Mediterranean and Persia (336-323 BCE); this period includes the comedian Menander, the pastoral poet Theocritus, and the epic Argonautika.  Classical period literature hails from the heyday of the Athenian empire in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and includes the dialogues of Plato, the comedies of Aristophanes, and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.  The Homeric Hymns were mainly composed in the Archaic period (ninth-sixth centuries BCE), along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.

We have lost a lot of archaic literature.  Hesiod refers to other writings of his, now lost.  We have found fragments of epics from this time which we have lost.  (An example: we know of a lost epic of Herakles’ great deeds written by Herodotus’ uncle.)  If someone finds one of these epics in some undiscovered papyrus heap in Egypt, scholars could unlock entirely new understandings of Homer.

61ish6ItLxL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This is all to say that frankly, it’s amazing that anything survives in Greek that is so old.  It’s really frickin’ cool that it has.  Just a little perspective.

First things first, the “Homeric hymns” are actually seriously misnamed.  Although they are written in dactylic hexameter like Homer, Hesiod was too, so this seems like a standard meter in archaic poetry, rather than something associated specifically with the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Homeric hymns also use many of the oral formulae that Homer does, and shows evidence of oral composition as well.  But this just proves there was a shared oral poetic culture.  And not all of these sing the praise of a god in the way we think of a “hymn” as doing.  The Homeric hymns provide creation stories, etymologies, geographies, and other facets of Greek culture, and they were possibly used as preludes to worship of the gods.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Diane Rayor’s translations of these bad boys.  Here’s a few things I learned.

  1. The hymns are not a uniform collection.  We have 34 hymns.  Most of them are short, taking up less than a page.  Four of them are really long: hymns to Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite.  Some of them are directed at abstractions or personified forces of nature we seldom think of the Greeks as worshipping; we have hymns, for example, to Gaia (earth), Selene (moon), and Xenoi (guests and hospitality).
  2. The hymns demonstrate that Archaic Greek literature does not provide a unified portrait of the gods.  Diane Rayor writes:

    The long narratives … show the cosmos itself in the process of being ordered in its details, though its broad patterns are already in place.  Zeus’ rule, too, is new and perhaps not yet firmly established.  The story of the divine realm as told in the Hymns provides the missing link between Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s epics.  Zeus first takes power in the Theogony; in Homer, this power is firmly set and unchallenged, and the hierarchy of the gods fixed. (8)

    Rayor is suggesting that Hesiod depicts a period when Zeus has first taken power but not solidified it yet.  It’s an interesting hypothesis, but perhaps overstated.  I can point to incidents in Homer where Zeus does not seem to be fully in control either, like when he has to let Sarpedon die in Iliad Book 16.  But does the difference between the Homeric Hymns and the Theogony stem from a real theological difference, or from the genre difference between poetic songs and theogonies?  I honestly don’t know.

  3. These myths provide many origin stories for Greek cultic and cultural practices.  This is most obvious in the long hymn to Apollo, which explains the origins of names such as “Python” and “Delphi,” and explains how Apollo’s main temple came to be located at Delos.  The long hymn to Demeter explains how the seasons originated, and provides the origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an important Greek cult.
  4. As a human, interacting with the gods is always dangerous.  When I took Greek mythology, our professor gave us two major principles for humans and gods interacting.  First, the gods punish humans for things the humans can hardly be held responsible for.  In the hymn to Demeter, Demeter punishes Metaneira for snooping on her putting her son Demophon into the fire by stopping the process of turning Demophon into a god.  But Metaneira was not aware that the disguised Demeter was actually a goddess.  Is it fair to punish her? Second, romance and sex between the gods and humans almost always ends badly for humans.  When Aphrodite falls in love with the human Anchises in her hymn, he is honored and beloved, though warned not to boast of his sexual relation with the goddess or else.  The hymn ends there, so we do not know from this text whether or not he kept his mouth shut.  But Anchises is lucky, the exception to the rule.  Most importantly: Greek gods, unlike the Christian god, are not primarily worshipped for their compassion and love.

Anyway, one more down from the summer reading list.  Right now I am reading through Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, a bit of a chronological leap forward.  Soon I’ll post my notes on Homer’s Iliad, which I have been reading in Greek for the past quarter.

Review: “When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.”

Right now I am listening to The Sparrow, a work of theological sci-fi in which a team of Jesuits lead a mission — part evangelization, part scientific discovery — to Rakhat, a planet with intelligent life.  One of the main characters, Fr. Emilio Santos, is a linguistic genius.  Another character, an AI researcher, spends months interviewing him to understand his language-learning techniques.  Within months of contact with the people of Rakhat, Santos has become mostly fluent in their language, despite its having no relation with any human language.

410hV8nKgBL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-47,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_I am not yet at Santos’ level, but I am already learning quite a bit about language acquisition from John Gruber-Miller’s edited volume, When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin.  The book features essays by classicists applying modern pedagogy research to how Greek and Latin have traditionally been taught.  Although it is written primarily for professors, it has made me think deeply about how I learn languages and what has worked and not worked for me in my education so far.  The book has been well-reviewed by Stephen M. Trzaskoma, so I won’t duplicate that, but I will focus on three chapters that were particularly illuminating for me.

Chapter Two: “Cognitive Style and Learning Strategies in Latin Instruction,” by Andrea Deagon

I would never have predicted that such an innocuously-titled chapter would give me so much insight!  Deagon delineates different learning styles and their strengths and weaknesses in the language classroom.  One of her major demarcations is the difference between comprehension and operation learners:

Comprehension learners prefer to get a feel for an entire topic before approaching details … they often look ahead and back; details fall into place last.  They learn through using a language, and are often less attuned to minor errors than operation learners.  In contrast, operation learners approach a topic methodically, preferring a step-by-step approach and building an overall picture of the topic from details.  They tend to be more rule-oriented… (29)

I am definitely more of a comprehension learner.  I look at passages as a whole, and am better at getting the sense of a Greek poem than at discerning the distinction between an aorist and perfect.  My best experiences with Greek have been when I could make connections between the language and broader questions of culture, exegesis, and literary technique.  When I took my Odyssey reading course last quarter, I had a hard time with the in-class translations, but my word analysis paper was incredibly fun.

My first-year Greek course was taught in the traditional grammar-translation method: learning grammar, then applying it to translate “textbook Greek” back into English.  As the year progressed and time became more tight, we stopped doing the passages for each chapter (in the book we used, mostly Herodotus) and diving into details about Greek culture — something that Gruber-Miller and others in this book lament as being typical.  By third quarter I was thoroughly sick of Greek, and stuck with it as a means to an end.  I had a friend in the class who seemed to be much more the operational type: he loved grammar, loved looking at its details and nuances.  Not realizing that we simply had different learning styles, I often felt stupid when working with him.

Deagon’s chapter helped me accept my learning style.  I can find ways that work for me in language, like doing word studies and reading commentaries.  I can also catch myself when I get too lazy about grammar.  Just as the operational learners might get so caught up in details that they fail to ask the big questions of meaning in the text, comprehension learners like me can fall into a habit of bullshitting our way through the technical work of translation.

Chapter Eight: “Ancient Greek in Classroom Conversation,” by Paula Saffire

One of the most helpful exercises in my Odyssey course was memorizing the first ten lines of the Odyssey.  Memorization is often scorned as “rote learning,” but I found that it gave me something concrete to hold onto.  In learning ancient languages, it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing to show for it.  If someone at a party asks me to say something in Greek or asks me to translate a sentence, I am useless.  But I can always quote “Andra moi, ennepe, Mousa…” (“Sing to me of the man, Muse…”) and feel proud of what I have done.  And every time I recall those ten lines and think through their meaning, I re-remember much about the Odyssey and Homeric Greek as well.

Since then I have tried to integrate memorization and other forms of oral learning into my Greek education.  I’m currently working on the Magnificat in Greek.  Next I hope to move onto the Lord’s Prayer.  I hope to attend Latin mass over the summer so I can internalize the sounds of that as well.  Still, I have never thought to go as far as Saffire suggests in her article.  She describes using purely conversational Greek for the first two weeks of the year, using dialogues from her own textbook.  She argues that these first two weeks make students feel comfortable with the language, enable rapid vocabulary acquisition, and make grammar acquisition move faster the rest of the year.

The number of Greek professors who make students speak ancient Greek is rather small, whether teaching Koine in biblical studies or Attic in classics.  But the few who do advocate such methods are a vocal minority.  I have definitely heard of Randall Buth, Michael Halcomb, and Daniel Streett, three New Testament scholars who advocate a “living Koine” approach.  But frankly, I’ve always been too scared to try it out.  Perhaps this summer I will order Buth’s materials or Halcomb’s Conversational Koine stuff.  Saffire concludes her essay with some success stories:

(1) Hebrew, once used only in fixed language for prayer, is now the everyday, living speech of Israel.  That was an experiment in speaking an ancient language that worked, and on a massive scale! (2) I am told that Sanskrit is still spoken in some ashrams in India. (3) Latin is still spoken in the Vatican.  I learned this in a game of Diplomacy played in Jerusalem.  While everyone else disappeared into corners to make their “top secret” plans, the two Vatican-trained priests conversed loudly and openly, secure from prying because the rapidity of their Latin made eavesdropping impossible. (179)

My Latin teacher had a similar experience – four years of conversational Latin at a Catholic high school that had recently been deconverted from a minor seminary in the 1960’s.

Chapter Nine: “Teaching Writing in Beginning Latin and Greek: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos,” by John Gruber-Miller

Gruber-Miller’s article looks at Greek and Latin composition in a new light.  Rather than discounting it as a waste of time, he argues for it as a useful pedagogical tool.

Writing in Greek is not entirely foreign to Greek pedagogy.  My Greek textbook had English sentences for Greek translation.  These were much more difficult but also much more helpful.  However, like the reading passages, we stopped doing these at some point in the second quarter.  But Gruber-Miller doesn’t think that Greek composition is only a means to the end of learning grammar.  He wants students to express their own thoughts and ideas in classical tongues.  This would be much more work than set English-to-Greek sentences, but also more rewarding in terms of student interest.  He lists several exercises that could be useful, such as making students write graffiti like the kind found at Pompeii.

Textkit.com has two old books on Greek prose composition.  I think I’ll try them out this summer as well.

Overall, I gleaned a surprising amount of insight from such an academic tome.  I would recommend it for anyone finishing their first year of Greek or Latin.  I wish there was another volume for students, to help us figure out our learning styles and give us ideas for being a more active learner in our college Greek courses and beyond.