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Posts Tagged ‘odyssey’

homer

Photo: Greek Ministry of Culture
Recently discovered verses from Homer’s Odyssey are unusual both because they’re old and because they’re on clay. Most versions of the Odyssey perished early on, having been written on papyrus.

You would think that after studying Ancient Greek for five years in school, I would remember a little more of it than I actually do. But I retain an interest in all things Greek, especially literary selections that I once knew how to read in my stumbling way, like Herodotus, the great plays, and the Odyssey.

Recently I saw that a very early copy of 13 verses of the Odyssey had been found.

Jason Daley reports at the Smithsonian, “The epics of the Greek poet Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been recited around campfires and scrutinized by students for 2,800 years, if not longer. You might think that ancient copies of these books are dug up in Greece all the time, but that’s not the case. The ancient papyrus these books were written on rarely survives, meaning that ancient copies of Homer from the lands he wrote about simply don’t exist.

“But now, reports the BBC, archeologists in Greece have found 13 verses from The Odyssey chiseled into a clay tablet dating to the third century A.D. or earlier, representing the oldest lines of the poet found in the ancient land.

“The tablet was discovered near the ruins of the Temple of Zeus during three years of excavations in the ruins of the ancient city of Olympia on the Greek peninsula the Peloponnese. The verses are from the epic’s fourteenth book, in which Odysseus speaks to his lifelong friend Eumaeus, the first person he sees on his return from his decade away from home. …

“Any glimpse into Homer before medieval times is rare, and any insight into the composition of the epics is precious. It’s believed that The Odyssey and The Iliad come from an oral storytelling tradition. Whether the stories were composed by a blind poet named Homer is a source of debate. …

“There were many different versions of each work transcribed throughout the ancient world. That’s because, as Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy points out, the oral tradition of these poems was not a matter of rote memorization. Instead, bards would have told slightly different versions of the epics each time they recited them, using a technique known as composition-in-recitation. Scribes transcribing the recitations would have heard different versions depending on the storyteller, so there were likely various versions of the Homer epics works floating around the ancient world.

“The versions we know now come from medieval copies made of the complete works based on ancient sources that are now lost. After those texts were rediscovered during the Rennaissance, they became classics and have been translated endlessly. …

But not all of the earlier versions of Homer are lost. Archaeologists working in Egypt in the late 19th century began collecting scraps of papyrus containing lines, quotations and even complete chapters of the stories.

“Unlike in Greece, the dry conditions in Egypt mean some papyrus documents are preserved, including bits of Homer dating to the third century B.C. These scraps and chapters show that the medieval texts are not the only versions of the epics or even the authoritative versions — it turns out there is no one definitive Homer out there. That’s why the Homer Multitext Project is gathering all of those fragments together so they can be compared and put in sequence to provide a broader view of Homer’s epics.”

More  at the Smithsonian, here.

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I’ve been wanting to share this remix of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland but hoped to add something beyond saying that I like it.

Then today, Asakiyume tweeted some comments on fantasy that science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin posted at the Book View Cafe blog.

Le Guin was reacting to a comment Kazuo Ishiguro made about his latest novel when he was interviewed by the NY Times: “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Le Guin launched into a spirited defense of fantasy in which she mentions the very story I had been thinking about for this post.

“Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality. ‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d’Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork.

“Their presence or absence is not what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, or Alice in Wonderland.” More here.

I love Le Guin’s characterization of fantasy. It reminds of something C.S. Lewis said about writing good fantasy. He said that, within the laws of its own realm, everything had to be plausible. Or words to that effect. And he wrote an essay with a splendid title, “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s to Be Said.” (For a comparison of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s ideas about fantasy, check this essay.)

 

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