More Classics

Western civilization, in as far as it still exists, has traditionally identified itself with a heritage that includes the classics and the Bible.  As study of the Bible grew beyond a bunch of guys discussing what they thought the text meant, realization dawned that comparison with the classics might not be a bad idea.  The main difference between the two was that one was considered revealed by God and the other was mere human invention.  Nevertheless, an educated person was expected to be well acquainted with both.  In today’s version of “western civ” it’s sort of an embarrassment to admit to being interested in the dusty old classics, and the Bible has reverted to being a bunch of guys discussing what they think it means.  In the interim there was some fantastic work done that helped us understand whence we came.

Those of us born in the sixties or later were raised in a culture where the classics were diminishing.  Yes, I’d heard of Cicero, Seneca, and even Ovid, but I couldn’t tell you what they wrote.  By the time I really took an interest I had the hundreds of volumes of the Loeb Classical Library to tackle—a daunting feat even for an undergrad.  Those guys wrote a lot.  Compared to the classics the Bible—a pretty big book—is miniscule.  As someone who deals with biblical studies all day long (and who has done so for decades) I’ve had to pick up on the classics a bit.  Those of us who were more inclined toward the Hebrew end of the spectrum discovered the vast, and still not fully translated, archive of ancient West Asian material.  If you wanted to include these ancient classics that influenced our civilization only indirectly, you wouldn’t have time even to tweet.

There are those who accuse classicists of any strip of being backward looking.  Those of us so accused are often amazed at how current events so closely resemble things the ancients encountered.  Historians, relegated to their shadowy corners, have been the Cassandras of us all, warning that if we don’t learn this stuff we’ll end up repeating it.  As often as they prove correct the rest of the “civilization” scratches its head in wonder at how we’ve come to this point.  I’ve not read all of the classics.  I’ve not even read all of the Ugaritic tablets—more have been discovered since my ill-fated dance with academia.  We have much to learn from ourselves.  About ourselves.  If only we could spend our time in the classic pastime of reading.

An Odyssey

Once again in Ithaca, I find myself thinking of the classics. Although it’s difficult to believe these days, even rural Americans used to value a classic education. Take upstate New York. Not only is there an Ithaca, but also a Rome, Syracuse, and Homer, among other locations. This speaks of a time when the non-urbanites wanted to be considered sophisticated rather than gun-toting, bigoted rubes who actively hate higher education and all that it stands for. My maternal line of ancestors came from this region, and although they were simple farmers, they still named my grandfather Homer. And his sister was Helen. They knew the Bible, yes, but they may also have know the Iliad.

In a recent, flattering online game, Oxford Dictionaries offered a quiz to help you identify which classical hero you were. This is flattering because most of us aren’t heroes, but instead work-a-day types just trying to survive in a Republican world. I had to confess being pleased to find the result suggested I identified with Odysseus. Odysseus was king of Ithaca, you see, and considered one of the heroes more inclined to use his brain than his brawn (although he could use that too, if push came to shove). Perhaps it felt right to me since my own life feels like an odyssey. And my grandfather was Homer. I was first exposed to classical mythology in fifth grade, and I have loved it ever since. Besides, I’m more of an upstate mentality than a downtown one. The thing about an odyssey is that you’re not always in control of where you end up.

Sitting here in Ithaca I wonder how Americans came to despise the notion of classical education. The standard of living is higher in college towns like this. People treat each other well and there’s a strong sense of community spirit. On the way here yesterday we had to drive through rural New Jersey. We stopped in the decidedly non-classically named Buttzville for gas. The car in front of us had “Blue Lives Matter” and pro-Trump bumper stickers all over it. Yet the guy who limped out and made his way into the vehicle looked like he had probably benefitted from government largesse over the years. Proud of a president who brags about not reading. Who wants to bomb a country he can’t find on a map just because it’s different. I think to myself, I’m glad I’m on my odyssey to Ithaca.

Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

Dispelling Myths

According to the Los Angeles Times yesterday, Danish scientists have debunked the folk-wisdom that a person can become drunk by soaking his or her feet in alcohol. In the spirit of science, three scientists submerged their feet for three hours in a washtub of vodka (I am very curious what the university requisition form must have looked like). At the end of three hours, the stone-cold sober scientists with pickled feet had dispelled “the myth.” Myth remains one of those loosely defined concepts that can be good and evil, in turns. If a falsehood is being disproved, the myth is misguided and wrong. If a deity is being described and worshiped, the myth is the ultimate truth. Perhaps we need a larger vocabulary.

A semester chock-full of mythology is drawing to an end for me. I taught on ancient Near Eastern myths, classical Greek myths, and biblical myths. Placing these religious stories side-by-side brings things into a sharp focus. No matter how funny or strange their results may seem to us, mythographers were people attempting to make sense of their world. Seldom do they get the scientific facts right, but that is not what they seek. In modern minds where the fine-tuning between truth and factual statements has been effaced, a conflict is inevitable. Especially since some fields of inquiry make lots of money (so much that professors can have happy feet) while others scrape by with the dregs of university funding. Aren’t we all climbing the same mountain?

One of the more disturbing aspects of teaching mythology is seeing undergraduates continually confusing mythology and history. This is not fine-tuning, the dial has broken off completely. I am astonished to learn that Heracles and Theseus really rescued (and sometimes violated) damsels in distress. Yet, on the first day of class, before the roster has been read aloud I could smell the alcohol in the air. A semester of dispelling myths lay ahead. “Kristensen [the Danish scientist] said it was important that the myth undergo scientific scrutiny to prevent students wasting their time experimenting with this activity,” according to Thomas Maugh. I wonder if it might not be best to keep the “mythology” alive – undergrads might well benefit from pouring the alcohol into their shoes rather than into their mouths.

A book undergrads might actually read