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Professor Joshua Katz (Princeton) is one of this year’s Dorothy Tarrant Visiting Fellows at the ICS. Here he shares an insight into his research into the language of Archaic Greek poetry from a comparative/historical linguistic perspective.

On sabbatical from my home institution, I am spending April and May at the Institute of Classical Studies, where the award of a Dorothy Tarrant Fellowship has made it possible for me to think about the language of Archaic Greek poetry surrounded by thousands of books and in the company of friends and colleagues old and new. I’d given a couple of talks at the ICS in past years but never before used the library. What a gem the place is—though on good days, of which there are increasingly many as early spring heads into summer, the leafy sunshine of Russell Square can exert an irresistible appeal. I am going to miss the view of the back of the British Museum from my office (if you have not made it to the exhibition ‘Charmed Lives in Greece: Chika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor’, go now!), the ability of the librarians to find within minutes a book that had unaccountably (and, let me stress, most unusually) been shelved in an entirely different room from where it was supposed to be, and the good humor of Greg Woolf, Valerie James, and so many others.

My recent publications have largely been devoted to the language of Archaic Greek poetry. In particular, I am interested in bringing linguistic and literary work together by demonstrating to literary scholars how an understanding of the deep linguistic background of Homer and Hesiod can be of more than narrow interest while at the same time pointing out to linguists that there is a wide world out there beyond the asterisk. In a paper titled ‘Toward an Indo-European Commentary on Hesiod’, soon to appear in a series published by Hempen Verlag, I offer a sample of what a specifically linguistic commentary on the first two verses of the Works & Days might look like: a commentary that examines an eighth- or seventh-century BCE poem from the perspective of Proto-Indo-European, the ancestor of languages from Greek to Latin to Sanskrit to Russian to Welsh to English that was spoken, probably on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, around 6000 or 5500 years ago. Comparative philologists, who have as one of their tasks to use established linguistic tools to reconstruct this proto-language, can be comically methodical, in a snail-like way, and one may wonder just how long it will take me to get to verse 10, not to say 100, not to say 828. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that in my Tarrant Lecture, ‘The Goddess and Damned Wrath: How a Linguist Reads the Iliad’, held at the ICS on 8 May, I talked about the first, second, third, and sixth words of the poem that is conventionally considered the start of Western literature, thereby instantiating my not wholly tongue-in-cheek answer to the question, ‘So, how does a Linguist Read the Iliad?’: ‘Slowly!’


Illustration from John Flaxman’s (1755-1826) Iliad (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

My talk extended some ideas about the start of the Iliad that I first presented in a pair of papers published in 2013, ‘Gods and Vowels’ (revised version in press) and ‘The Hymnic Long Alpha: Μούσαϛ ἀείδω and Related Incipits in Archaic Greek Poetry’, as well as giving a taste of a third one that is coming out shortly, ‘Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά and the Form of the Homeric Word for “Goddess”’. My goal was to give a new appreciation of what the beginning of the Iliad does and does not mean, to say something about where it comes from in pre-Greek terms and how it was received (and, as it were, mis-received), and to make a novel proposal about how it was first performed nearly three thousand years ago. More specifically, I hope to have shown the following four things about Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆοϛ | οὐλομένην ‘Of the baneful/damned wrath of Achilles son of Peleus sing, o goddess’.

(1) From the Indo-European perspective, all four of our most archaic hexametric poems — the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, and the Works & Days — have in their first verse a word that goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *men- ‘think, engage in mental activity’ or its derivative *mneh2- ‘keep in mind’: forms of Μοῦσα ‘Muse’ in the Odyssey and in the two works of Hesiod, μῆνιν ‘wrath’ (etymologically something like ‘bad-mindedness’) in the Iliad. Indeed, this root underlies the very first syllable of three of them. Furthermore, three of the four are followed by a form of *h2weid- ‘sing’, as in ἀείδειν ‘to sing’ and ἀοιδή ‘song’, and three of the four main Homeric Hymns, as well as a number of the shorter ones, both begin and end with forms of *men-/mneh2- and/or *h2weid- (e.g., the Hymn to Apollo, which opens with μνήσομαι ‘let me remember’ [from *mneh2-] and finishes with the common hymnic closer μνήσομ’ ἀοιδῆϛ ‘I shall remember a song’). The two main roles of the Muse-inspired bard in an oral culture are to be the memory of the people (the Muses’ mother is Μνημοσύνη ‘Memory’, likewise from *mneh2-) and to sing of that memory. We are thus able to reconstruct the collocation *men- + *h2weid- as a pre-Greek poetic incipit, an idea whose implications for such matters as genre will need to be worked out carefully.

(2) The alternative opening to the Iliad associated with the Athenian book collector Apellicon of Teos (d. 84 BCE) goes like this: Μούσαϛ ἀείδω καὶ Ἀπόλλωνα κλυτότοξον ‘Of the Muses I sing, and Apollo of the famed bow’. As we now understand, the first two words of the so-called ‘Old Iliad’, which bring us to the caesura, are etymologically equivalent to Μῆνιν ἄειδε.

Achilles and Agamemnon: Roman mosaic from Pompeii (Naples National Archaeological Museum). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

(3) The etymologically unexpected long initial vowel in ἀείδω (vis-à-vis ἄειδε, with a short one) is an instance of a hitherto unnoticed phenomenon by which the bard calls his audience to attention by elongating the most resonant of the Greek vowels: the ‘hymnic long alpha’, as I call it. Once we have noted that the goddess at the start of the Iliad is the Muse and that it requires adding the word θεά to establish metrical and semantic as well as etymological equivalence between Μούσαϛ ἀείδω and Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, then we may suggest that the likewise difficult-to-explain long alpha in θεά, found here and throughout Homer, is likewise an instance of this same phenomenon. If this is correct, we have evidence not only for a detail of Archaic performance but also for the influence of that oral performance practice on written text.

(4) Finally, the enjambed first word of the second verse, οὐλομένην, supposedly a middle participle of ὄλλυμαι ‘perish’, agrees grammatically and forms a ring with the first word of the first verse, μῆνιν. It is semantically problematic: the ‘active’ translation ‘baneful, murderous’ is difficult to justify since the verb is in the middle voice; on the other hand, the ‘mediopassive’ translation ‘damned, doomed’ don’t make much sense as a description of Achilles’ wrath. A common solution is that the meaning ‘damned’ has been transferred from the optative of wish ὄλοιτο ‘may he perish!’ Mine is very different: the familiar feminine accusative singular aorist middle participle of οὐλόμενοϛ was not originally a participle at all but has replaced οὐλομενήν (note the different accent), the Arcado-Cypriot feminine accusative singular form of the otherwise unknown adjective οὐλομενήϛ ‘destructive-minded’, a compound of οὖλοϛ ‘destructive’ and μένοϛ ‘force, passion’ (cf. εὐμενήϛ ‘well-minded, kindly’ and δυσμενήϛ ‘ill-minded, hostile’) whose second member goes back in Proto-Indo-European to none other than the root *men-. In other words, μῆνιν … οὐλομένην is a hidden figura etymologica ‘destructive-minded bad-mindedness’.

The next word of the Iliad is the relative pronoun ἥ. I doubt that there is anything of broad interest to say about it. But the poem has 15,693 verses, and I invite others to join me in uncovering its linguistic gems.

by Joshua Katz