Babel: Adventures in Translation at the Bodleian

On a recent trip to Oxford, I took in the Bodleian Library’s current exhibition, ‘Babel: Adventures in Translation‘, mostly because I expected there would some nice multi-lingual manuscripts. I was definitely not disappointed about that – the display started off with some lovely texts like this codex from Mexico, written in Nahuatl and Spanish (left) and this Bible which includes multiple different versions in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin (right):

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The Silence of the Girls – review

new doc 2019-01-21 20.32.30_1The Iliad tells the story of the Greek hero Achilles’ anger after Briseis, a woman he’s taken captive as his ‘prize’ after sacking her city, is taken away from him by Agamemnon, and the disasters that strike the Greek army after Achilles withdraws from the fighting over this slight. Briseis herself doesn’t feature much in the poem; she’s only mentioned ten times, and only speaks once, to mourn the death of Patroclus, who, she says, was kind to her after her capture by Achilles (19.282ff). Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls (2018) gives us Briseis’ version of the Iliad: the story of the war told from the point of view of one of the many women who lose their homes, families, and freedom at the hands of the Homeric ‘heroes’. It’s a wonderful novel, beautifully written in mostly very simple language that manages to shift seamlessly in and out of near-translations or Homeric references when recounting key moments from the poem: Barker uses this to particularly strong effect when she recreates a Homeric battle-scene — a long list of men suffering gruesome deaths interspersed with small details about their lives or their final moments — then subverts it by giving the alternative version of their story: the one told by their female relatives after their death to their fellow-slaves. Continue reading “The Silence of the Girls – review”

The ‘oldest text of the Odyssey’?

Image via BBC

There’s been a lot of media excitement in the last few days over the discovery of a clay tablet at the ancient Greek sanctuary of Olympia (home of the original Olympic Games), with 13 lines of the ‘Odyssey’ inscribed on it. It’s certainly a very nice find – unlike in the Late Bronze Age period that I study, inscriptions of any kind on clay tablets are unusual at this point (the 3rd century CE, when Greece was part of the Roman Empire) – though it’s fair to say that most of the excitement has been due to the Homeric text and particularly to the claim that this is the oldest text of any part of the Odyssey. As plenty of other Classicists have been quick to point out, this isn’t actually true – there are plenty of earlier texts of (parts of) the Odyssey, e.g. on papyri from Egypt, and the oldest known example is an inscription on a potsherd from Olbia, modern Ukraine, dating to the 5th century BCE. This is just a quick post to provide some helpful links for anyone wanting to know more about this find:

Here is the original press release from the Greek Ministry of Culture (in Greek).

Here is a blogpost by ‘The Philological Crocodile’ correcting some of the errors that have appeared in a lot of the media reports, and speculating that the inscription could be a votive offering by a rhapsode (a reciter of the Homeric poems).

Here is a very detailed blogpost by ‘Kiwi Hellenist’ with a transcription and annotated photograph, as well as lots more details and a round-up of some of the news stories.

My Museum Favourite: The Siege of Troy

In this week’s Museum Favourite, Anna Judson ventures outside the Faculty to see a pair of paintings in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

In the Fitzwilliam’s medieval-Renaissance Italian art gallery you can find these two paintings depicting episodes from the Siege of Troy: the Death of Hector and the Wooden Horse.

The Death of Hector (Fitzwilliam Museum M.44)
The Death of Hector (Fitzwilliam Museum M.44)
The Wooden Horse (Fitzwilliam Museum M.45)
The Wooden Horse (Fitzwilliam Museum M.45)

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The Odyssey by Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden


Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden

Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden are storytellers who perform a wide range of different stories, from folk and fairy tales via King Arthur, Beowulf, and Robin Hood to the IliadOdyssey, and Metamorphoses – for the last three of which they were awarded the 2006 Classical Association Prize for ‘most significant contribution to the public understanding of Classics’. Having seen their performance of the Iliad several years ago and been absolutely amazed by it, when I found out they would be doing the Odyssey in Cambridge I had to go along. Continue reading “The Odyssey by Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden”

The Lost Books of the Odyssey

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this book for ages, since it’s not only one of my favourite Classics-based books, but also definitely has a place in my (long) list of favourite books ever – as the many of you to whom I’ve recommended it already know!

‘The Lost Books of the Odyssey’ is the literary debut of Zachary Mason, a computer scientist from California who wrote it in his spare time after work (don’t you just hate some people?). It’s a collection of forty-four stories, most of which are loosely constructed around episodes, characters and themes from the Odyssey (there are also a few based on the Iliad, and on other Greek myths) – the premise being that these are remnants of the epic tradition as it was before the canonisation of the Homeric versions of these stories. (The preface claims it to be a translation of a papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus, which ties in quite nicely with all our discussions last term about creating authority through ‘translation’.)

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Weird and Wonderful Classics: The Octopus

A pale coloured stirrup jar with a swirly brown painted octopus.This is going to be a series in which, basically, I post (hopefully) entertaining stories/quotes about any theme I happen to feel like at the time.  If you’ve got a favourite funny story/quote – or have just always wanted to know what the Greeks and Romans said about, say, volcanoes, or mushrooms, or anything, really – feel free to suggest it for future posts! In the meantime – octopuses:*

The Mycenaeans seem to have been rather fond of octopuses, judging by the number of jars they painted them on – for example this stirrup jar in the Met

In fact, they liked them so much they even decorated furniture with them: one Linear B tablet lists

“a footstool inlaid with a man and a horse and an octopus and a griffin (or palm tree)** in ivory”

Move on a few hundred years, though, and for some reason Homer doesn’t talk about octopuses much; he’s a bit busy going on about stuff like heroism and tragic deaths. Clearly the Mycenaeans had a better sense of priorities. He does manage to get an octopus into a simile in the Odyssey, though, when Odysseus has been shipwrecked and is swimming for shore; he grabs a rock, but the waves tear him away:

ὡς δ᾽ὅτε πουλύποδος θαλάμης ἐξελκομένοιο
πρὸς κοτυληδονόφιν πυκιναὶ λάιγγες ἔχονται,
ὣς τοῦ πρὸς πέτρῃσι θρασειάων ἀπὸ χειρῶν
ῥινοὶ ἀπέδρυφθεν

Just as when an octopus is dragged from its lair, and pebbles cling to its suckers, so pieces of skin were torn from his strong hands on the rocks

The best thing about this simile is that it’s not Odysseus who’s clinging on like an octopus; it’s the bits of skin that are left sticking to the rocks like octopus-suckers. Which is a bizarre/grotesque enough image to make this one of my favourite Homeric similes ever.

The ‘Weird and Wonderful’ prize, however, has to go to Pliny the Elder, who tells the story of an octopus which used to climb out of the sea and into the fish-pickling tubs on the shore, and eat all the fish. To stop it, the fish-picklers built a fence around the tubs – which the octopus promptly climbed over with the aid of a handy tree. Eventually they set a pack of dogs on it, but the fight was pretty much going the octopus’ way until the watchmen finally finished it off with their spears. According to Pliny, it weighed 700 pounds, and its tentacles were 30 feet in length.

A brown octopus sitting in a fir tree.I’m not entirely sure why a 700-pound, 30-foot long octopus needed a tree to get past a fence, but perhaps it felt a more inventive method than simply squashing the fence was needed to ensure its place in the (natural) history books. Another possibility is that this is the first recorded sighting of a Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, in which case this might provide evidence of a Mediterranean origin for this (unfortunately poorly-understood) species.

* The Greek and Latin words πολύπους and polypus can actually refer to squid and cuttlefish as well. I’m sticking with ‘octopus’ since it’s more convenient than ‘unspecified marine animal with tentacles’.

** You get this kind of thing a lot reading Linear B. At least it gives us Mycenologists plenty to argue about.