Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Treasures of Greece: Myth Becomes History

So, lately I've been getting through a lot of history by way of audio books, on Greece and Rome, and the Middle Ages (Early, High, and Later), and then Greece again, and currently Sumer and its successor states in Mesopotamia, with the Hittites possibly in the offing. So when I heard that this year's History Lecture Series at the Univ. of Wash. would be a three-part series on Ancient Greece, I thought that'd be something worth seeing if we cd manage it.

After a little more investigation, I decided that unlike the Tolkien lectures two years ago,* where I went to all the ones I cd, this time I'd just sign up for a single lecture, the first, which focused on the historical accuracy or otherwise of Homer's world as described in THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY.** Janice and I had planned to go together, and meet up with our friend Jeff Grubb (who loaned me some of the aforementioned audiobooks) there, but by the time the night of the event came round Janice was struggling with a cold and insisted I go without her. So I drove up on my own, met up with Jeff (who fortunately had saved me a place in line, given the unexpectedly sizable crowd), and got to enjoy the event.

The lecturer truly knew her stuff, and we all enjoyed the introduction by another UW professor who turned out to be her husband; it was an added bonus to me that she had a delivery style rather like that of my friend Verlyn Flieger. Some of what she said I already knew, like the parallels that have been drawn between Homer and 20th century Balkan oral poetry, and there are only so many times I need to be told in a single night that the Parthenon was "a perfect building" (I'm not any more likely to believe it the eighth time than the first). I'd also have liked to hear more on the whole question of whether the Greeks really lost the ability to read and write for four centuries (the so called 'Dark Ages'). But I enjoyed her account of the modern search for the site of Troy (which I'm currently reading a book about). Her most interesting point, to me, was her belief that the Greeks have been living where they are now, on both sides of the Aegean, for a very long time now; about nine thousand years. I would have liked to ask her how this fits in with the 40% question -- that is, since only 40% of ancient Greek words are Indo-European in origin, where did the other 60% of their vocabulary come from? The traditional answer has been that it derived from the language of the local, non-Greek, population (the 'Pelasgians') that was subjugated when the Indo-Europeans arrived. Bernal, on the other hand, asserts that most of the non-European words can be traced back to Phoenician and, more remotely, Egyptian borrowings. She did win points, I thought, for noting that the Greeks were not just great innovators but inspired borrowers who learned a lot about architecture from Egypt, probably by way of Crete.

I was less enthused about her assertion that "we are all Greeks" (quoting Shelly, my least favorite Romantic poet, I think); I've been getting a lot of 'I-heart-Greece' from the various things I've been reading and it's wearing a bit thin, frankly (the ancient world's equivalent of Merrie Olde England medievalism). But if you do love All Things Greek, and you live anywhere in the Seattle area, you should consider trying to go to the remainder of the lecture, if they're not all sold out.

Lecture Two (T. 1/19, 7pm, Kane Hall): INSPIRING OTHER CULTURES

Lecture Three (T. 1/26, 7pm, Kane Hall): FORGING MODERN GREECE

here's the link for more information of the lecture series:

And, I shd add, Prof. Thomas has written or co-written or edited seventeen books, some of which she listed (too briefly!) at the end of her talk in a 'further reading' postscript. Here's a link to the ones in the Univ. of Wash. library:

I have a feeling I'll be reading some of these down the road. One title (not by Prof. Thomas) I did jot down which sounded interesting is Eric Havelock's PROLOGUE TO GREEK LITERACY [1971], which turns out to be a slim volume of only about sixty pages. I'll have to check this one out sometime and contrast it with Bernal's CADMEAN LETTERS [1990].

--John R.

*here's the link for the Tolkien series:
At the time, they were offering a set of cds of the course, though I don't know if these are still available.

**this is because the second and third lectures focus on Greek influence on later cultures and modern images of Greece, respectively, neither of which interest me as much as ancient Greece itself, particularly the Mycenaean and Minoan era.

No comments: