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Growing Up with the Odyssey (theparisreview.org)
26 points by diodorus 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 16 comments

I always read the Odyssey (I think the Fitzgerald translation) to my younger high-school age kids (in batches) as part of our home education efforts (8 kids, from birth through high school) and the power and paradoxically absolute modernity of Homer's characters (human nature is unchanging) always held their attention quite well, and was, I hope, rewarding.

Of course, Fitzgerald points out that, no matter the power of the translation, something is seriously lost by not reading the original Greek. One of the sadnesses of the limitations of a chosen life...

I agree with grtrans that it is hard but not impossible, even while holding down a regular job as a software engineer. I took a year of night classes in ancient Greek at Harvard Extension School (they'll take anyone with a credit card :-), going through Hanson & Quinn. Then their second year was just reading through a few chapters of the Odyssey. After that, just keep going! :-) Use Owen & Goodspeed to drill vocab from most-frequent to least. Homer's grammar is pretty simple and the same patterns over & over. Tons easier than Thucydides or the orators. His vocab is immense, like Shakespeare, but still manageable. I spent many pleasant Saturday mornings at a coffee shop reading Homer. That was before I had kids, but we homeschool too and I'm hoping we can work in some ancient Greek lessons to give me an excuse to keep it alive. :-)

>Of course, Fitzgerald points out that, no matter the power of the translation, something is seriously lost by not reading the original Greek. One of the sadnesses of the limitations of a chosen life

I'm greek and I still can't read the original, Homer's language is very difficult. I can only imagine how hard it must be for people with no exposure to any form of the Greek language

As someone who taught themselves greek to read Homer, Aristotle, and the bible, it’s not as hard as you might think. Grab a grammar book and a dictionary for the dialect and get to work! Checking with other translations is not cheating but encouraged—that’s how you learn the subtly of obstruse (to a romantic ear) greek words like sophrosyne and common idioms.

Of course, it’s an absolutely massive time commitment, but not a terrible way to spend a sunday afternoon.

As a point of clarification, are you saying that Homeric Greek is difficult for a native speaker of Modern Greek, or are you saying that, objectively speaking, Homeric is a fundamentally more difficult language to use? I took two semesters of Attic about a million years ago and one of my romantic aspirational goals is to learn Homeric enough to enjoy the Iliad in the original.

I'm not Greek although I have a lot of a Greek friends. I taught myself ancient Greek and can (barely) communicate in modern. I'd say that ancient Greek is about as far from modern as Chaucer is from modern English. Even Greeks can't understand it without study, although of course knowing modern helps a ton. Just a few decades ago, all Greeks spoke Demotiki (modern Greek or "people's" Greek) but also learned Katharevousa in school ("pure" Greek, very close to ancient Greek). They don't teach that any more, but some of my friends say their parents can read Plato like it's the morning newspaper. How envious I am of that! :-)

>Just a few decades ago, all Greeks spoke Demotiki (modern Greek or "people's" Greek) but also learned Katharevousa in school ("pure" Greek, very close to ancient Greek). They don't teach that any more, but some of my friends say their parents can read Plato like it's the morning newspaper. How envious I am of that! :-)

That's correct, but katharevousa was nowhere close to ancient Greek, it was really a bastardized language created to sound more ancient-y in an era when the nation was searching for identity (Greece was heading for its revolution against the Ottomans).

But it was forced and unnatural. There's an era around the turn of the 20th century where many prominent scholars, poets and novelists formed a movement against it but nationalistic reasons (and thick headed archaists) made it stick until the 70's.

It's true that previous generations (like my parents') had a better classical education, but that has nothing to do with katharevousa

All my knowledge of this history is second-hand, so thank you for correcting me! :-)

Difficult for modern Greek speakers. I can't say if it's generally more difficult than classic era Greek but personally I can understand classics better.

The easiest for modern greek speakers to grasp is Koine greek, the language of the new testament. The grammar is familiar, as is the syntax. For an educated person it's almost effortless

The trouble with ancient greek for me is mainly the syntax. Grammar is different as well (more complex than modern) and although many words are the same they have different meanings.

It's still closer to moder greek than eg. Italian or French is to latin

I was lucky enough to read and understand the Odyssey in ancient Greek and realize how beautiful it is. I always felt that it has really kick-started my part of the brain that imagines and dreams. Translations are great but if you could ever read such a masterpiece in its original language you would do yourself a favour. Kinda of like learning Lisp one day :).

The Canon, esp. Ancient Greek works used to hold much more sway over the intellectual psyche, which they no longer have, so much so that in the second half of 20th century it was suggested to rename Joyce's Ulysses Hamlet, to recreate the boldness of having the title laid against a well-known book. Wilson was born in 1971 so the play she's reminiscing here was done around 1979.

I think suggesting to put together such a play for grade school would be absurd, even in the relatively affluent Chicago public school that my son goes to. Many of the otherwise well-educated parents would hardly be acquainted with the book!

That's a shame, since one's understanding of so much of Western art of all sorts is greatly improved by familiarity with: 1) the Bible, and 2) a dozen or so Greek and Roman authors, including and especially Homer. By losing that foundation one engages with pretty much the entire body of Western art at a huge disadvantage. It's a kind of common language of symbols, tropes, and allusions that bind the whole thing together, without which much is lost.

The modern shift away from the classics as standard part of western education is sad, but understandable to me.

I believe it started as a reaction to the teaching rigidness and the over-reverence of classic texts by previous generations, people just got fed up. But more importantly there's now a variety of texts that explain, enhance or abridge the classics in a more approachable manner and an overabundance of new knowledge and art to explore.

However, there's still lot to earn by reading the original texts. I reread the Iliad and the Odyssey in my late twenties and I felt this fuzzy feeling of familiarity, that human nature hasn't changed that much (if at all) through the ages. Wrath, love, courage, friendship, betrayal, revenge, vanity, wisdom, ingenuity, stupidity - way too familiar.

One of my favorite parts of the Odyssey is when Odysseus' dog recognizes him. In a few words Homer describes the special bond between dogs and humans, a relationship that spans millennia and keeps strong even (more so) to this day.

We live in an age of cultural abundance. There are many paths and you can't walk them all.

Well, yeah, but a great deal of said cultural abundance assumes you've got a pretty strong familiarity with the Bible and a few classical authors. You're gonna be losing a lot from a pretty big chunk of Western art up the Moderns or so, and still quite a bit after, without that foundation, so by skipping out on that not even that large set of works you're giving up on serious engagement with most of Western art. It'll be a minefield of confusion and things you miss without even knowing they're there. Summaries and retellings won't cut it, since good references to those works will lean on nuance that's not usually present in "bare bones" or cultural-osmosis versions of the tales (the linked article covers some of this, in fact), to the point that making such references that assume only a kind of pop-culture understanding of these things tends to be a mark of poor, pseudo-intellectual, trying-too-hard art.

As far as things to skip due to an abundance of choices go, those are perhaps unwise ones to avoid, if some part of the other "paths" you'll walk include pretty much any other areas of Western art.

Maybe you decide your "path" is 19th century French literature. Guess which two bodies of work are foundational to that? OK, so you just like sci-fi. Well, there are the Bible and the Classical writers again, at least in the better stuff. Medieval studies? Yeah, obviously. Film—like, pretty much any of it that comes from the West and has artistic value? Oh god, yes.

Well screw all this, I'm gonna focus on Arabic or Persian works. Oh. They have significant cultural ties to the Greeks too, thanks to Alexander, so I'm back to that again.

Fine art. There aren't even words so I'm safe there. Oh, wait, no I'm not. Damn. Music? Ugh, there's Achilles and Abraham and Aeneas and all the rest. Philosophy? Nope, too much of that assumes the same common, smallish set of common experience as everything else.

OK, fine, I'm so over this, I'm just gonna play video games. This Deux Ex thing is supposed to be good for some reason, let's start there. Oh... oh no... not again!

I feel you. You're preaching to the choir here - I narrowly dodged majoring in classics myself, and my particular brand of virtue signaling is to rave about how much better the Lattimore is than the Fagles. But many of the leaves are now quite far from the root, and many of them are on other trees altogether. Studying foundational anthropological art and literature would no doubt accrue immense sociocultural benefits to, yeah, anyone, and to be sure, I can't wait to do Homer with my kid. But if other interests crowd out the roots, I'm sure he'll be fine, and so will the tree.

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