Lost in Translation: It’s all Greek to Us

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You have no idea how many times while in Greece we used that joke ‘oh it’s all Greek to us!’ But fortunately in that environment the joke never gets too old hehe. Over my years at university there is one thing which is a constant issue with new students, the thought of learning ancient languages. DUM DUM DUUUUM!!!! Yes its very scary, new stuff, new ways of learning, yes i understand. But it is the key reason that so many people drop out of the ancient history courses, which is rather a shame because after a while, learning languages can be rather useful and fun.

By my honours year there was only, what, three people left from the original course four years earlier. And thats sad 😦 And the reason was because of the language component. So let me explain to you why it is necessary to keep going, to strive to pass the basics and continue with those pluperfects, infinitives, genitive sandwiches and adjectival clauses. Because when you get down to it, ancient languages are one of the key parts of starting a successfully ‘historic’ career in the area.

So my dear padawans to successfully succeed where others easily give up here is some important things to keep in mind: First of all there is a reason why it is a compulsory component, ancient languages are essential to the study of historical texts, primary sources, ancient attitudes and societies. If you want to be a serious archaeologist or historian, you can’t not do them! That’s the serious stuff. Plus if you have languages, its so much easier to get opportunities working in the area later or just being successful in applying for digs, post-grad and exchanges. I learnt Classical Greek from my second year at Uni and by the end of that year I had been to Greece, dug awesome sites, and was able to converse on a basic level with the natives…well i could order a drink at least, very important stuff. But just the fact that I made an effort to learn their language on some level, whether ancient or modern, made people more friendly and because of this I had a far better experience than otherwise and met some frankly awesome, slightly mad, people. ‘Oh you speak Greek?’ ‘A little’ ‘Good on you! I’m from Cyprus, here’s my life story, I’ll pay for that.’ Its the same in all countries. You make an effort to know the people and culture and it all adds up!

That’s two fabulous points for continuing ancient languages: Academic advantage and progression and cultural familiarity and opportunity.

Still not convinced that learning languages is a good plan? Still think its too hard to be worth the effort? Well I have more! Plus if i don’t convince a few people, one day no one might want to learn and I’m out of job, and we wouldn’t want that now would we! Picking up Greek or Latin or even Hieroglyphs is not actually as hard as it seems, remember that people who give you negative views usually exaggerate more than people with positive views so listen to the positive. You may think that because you found it hard to learn say French at high school that you will find Greek hard at Uni, but that is often that not, not the case. The way vocab and grammar is taught at uni is completely different to school. In fact it doesn’t even compare. Actually I don’t think I even learnt grammar till university and I’d done numerous modern languages at school…

Also learning languages at uni can be fun, after all the academics teaching them are doing so because they love them! They are far more enthusiastic usually. Ok like every subject you will get one lecturer that reads from the book and bores you half to death, but that happens with every subject, and you are only with them for an hour or two a week. The risk is worth the reward. And when you do have a handle on a language you do get a fantastic sense of achievement! You can read a dead language that no one else can read, you can explore texts that you were otherwise blind to. And you know what? That’s pretty cool!

The lost in translation idea is vital to ancient history, archaeology, philology, well almost any subject. Everything changes in translation at least a bit, why do you think there are so many versions of the Bible! By being able to read a text in the original language even a little bit is a HUGE advantage to your work, study or research. If you are doing honours and not have at least some knowledge of the associated language, frankly you are screwed…umm i mean…’thou art highly disadvantaged.’ With the changing of the text comes change in interpretation, if you can’t compare the original to the translations at least you are going to find it very difficult to comprehend the secondary texts.

So yes, learning an ancient language can be a boring and stressful thought. But that is all it is, a thought. If you put your head down and do the work like any other subject you can get it, and there are always people to help you! Its a cliche tosay that there are no such things as stupid questions but its true (as long as you have been listening and making an effort. Asking when lunch is is not usually a valuable question). But when you do get through the basics it can be fun, rewarding and really really useful. I’m bias but I love my languages so shoot me.

Learning Greek was the most useful part of my undergrad. So stick it out! Keep the number of ancient history students up! Its so much cooler to say ‘I have a degree in ancient history’ than ‘I have an arts degree’ (though that’s cool too)!!!

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If you would like to learn an ancient language, brush up on one or need a bit of extra tutoring then go to http://www.anchist.mq.edu.au/mals.html 


Survivor PhD: Close Encounters of the First Kind

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In the beginning there was the word and the word was ahhhhh! Ok so I started a PhD and the first thing i found out was that this was…actually i found out nothing at all. The first year of a PhD is not exactly what you would term structured. The reality is that you are likely to be told to just ‘ready steady GO!’ The same is generally said for any postgrad and the way to react is very simple and should, and will, be followed to the letter: 1.) Celebrate (Woo! I got in!), 2.) PANIC!!!

So let me tell you how it is, this odd and unique experience, the first year of a very long period where you feel like you are achieving nothing and drink way too much tea.

In the words of a very wise colleague of mine ‘If you don’t regularly have a breakdown, you are doing it wrong!’ But ultimately, in the run of things, if you are not enjoying it you are also doing it wrong. That is the thing with a PhD you see, its your chance to finally do what you want to do, to research what you want to research, to go where NO STUDENT HAS GONE BEFORE! *cough* sorry, side tracked…Basically one does a PhD not to add to the research of the age but because they have a love of a subject and they want to find out more. If you are doing it for the sake of doing it then you are going to have four years of misery, too many energy drinks and no money for no reason, which is frankly a waste.

Lets take me, after all I am the one writing this, I think, yes it’s definitely me…as you can see doing a PhD can make you quite erratic, eccentric and noticeably tired even in the middle of a relaxing weekend. But I research what I research because I find it interesting and I not only see the benefits of my research for future students of history but for myself. In my first year as a PhD student I developed awesome researching skills, read a ridiculous amount of interesting hypotheses (most of which I decided were arguable) and I finally learnt to touch type after twenty-one years in a technology age (it was seriously about time). I stressed over time and work loads and whether my topic was original but I loved what I was doing and that made it worth my while.

But we come back to the same point we started with; when one starts one does not have a clue where to go, what to do and generally why one is doing it. The university only gives you so much direction so let me share some of my wisdom for those of you starting out, continuing or who are just interested. In the words of Corporal Jones DON’T PANIC! Well panic a little bit, that’s healthy, but don’t stress out. No one knows what they are doing at the start, you are not there by a fluke (imposter-syndrome is very common – I have always been a sufferer myself), people are interested in what you have to say and don’t take any criticism to heart.

The best thing to do is read, read like you have never read before! It is very rare for someone to start out knowing exactly what they want to do and even when they do it doesn’t often work out the same as what it started. Don’t panic if you only have a general topic, it took a super intelligent Doctor I know two and a half years of his PhD to work out what on earth he was going to write about. Obviously don’t fluff around but one can only benefit from knowing their topic area from all angles first and then deciding where to take it.

You WILL be prone to procrastination. I certainly found new and exciting ways to waste my time. When you work as hard as is required with a PhD this is actually healthy in my opinion. About the only time my brain turned off the Greek translations, medical jargon and epigraphic analysis was during an episode of QI or a random trip to the supermarket to buy new eyeliner and chocolate which I didn’t need. FYI you will forget fruit and vegetables within the first few months and convert to instant meals, try to avoid this if possible…I’m not sure it’s possible…

Everyone’s first year goes a little differently, there is no structured instructions because they would never apply to everyone involved. The thing to do is work out what works for you, discuss it with your academics, your peers, your pets, and then accept that it isn’t going to go as planned. Love what you are doing, if you don’t you will go mad. You may go mad anyway but generally in a more lovable way.  So keep this in mind after your 20th coca cola of the week. You are not alone, we are watching! Twilight Zone Theme

Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream)

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It seems that the human obsession with the stars, sun and moon spreads far and wide throughout history. And it is because of human creativity and curiousity that we are fortunate to have some of the most interesting and slightly wacky works that we have today that represent the other side of the serious scholar in the historical corpus. With Lucian of Samosata we received his True History including his famous trip to the Moon! From the seventeenth century we have received yet another strange and fascinating moon based work, Kepler’s Somnium, Latin for ‘The Dream’.

Kepler was an astronomer and a mathematician who clearly was looking for an alternative form of output in his Somnium which parallels Lucian in its obscurity and science fiction like nature and characters. Who would have thought that such a serious astronomer would write this! Daemons? Magical potions? Islands in the sky? People living on the moon?! Come on thats all fantastical! Especially in the 17th century! It must be worth the read! And it certainly is…

Let me begin by relating some of the key events and chapters in the Somnium:

The poor icelandic boy Duracotis is cruelly sold by his mother (a herbalist and magic worker) to a sailor who he travels with to Denmark to deliver a message to the Dane Tycho Brahe. Duracotis stays with Brahe for many years and learns to read the star and the moon. He then decides to return to the mother who sold him who oddly enough greets him with open arms and who wishes to impart her knowledge of the heavens and acquaintances with spirits. It is here that we are introduced to the Daemon from Levania (aka. THE MOON!). Levania being an island 50 thousand miles up in the sky and yet only a four hour trip (If only it took that long in reality!) Kepler goes on to reccount the lives of the peoples of the two hemispheres of the moon: The Privolvans and the Subvolvans.

It does strike one that despite Kepler’s wild imagination there are points quite close to the truth which understandably make ones view of Kepler a bit higher. This was clearly a man of logic and knowledge. For instance, Kepler relates that in order to travel the ‘four hours’ to the moon one must be shot aloft by gun powder. From a 17th century standpoint thats not far from the truth. He also relates that while in transit one can not breath and would experience extreme cold. A simplistic description but again true to what we now know about space. In fact Kepler goes into many astronomical features of the moon in some detail throughout his record of the life of the imagined inhabitants. Such as that the dark side of the moon would be of extreme cold while the light side would be more temperate.

Its an interesting combination of theoretical 17th century astronomical knowledge and the preludes to todays science fiction movies. Actually I think they should make this into a movie, much better than some of the scripts we get on our screens these days. And so I raise my glass to the slightly peculiar Kepler and his dream of moon people, space travel and magical beings. His work is certainly unique to the period and a very interesting read. Who would have thought it with a work originally in Latin by some astronomy nerd in a 17th century back room.

Its a shame its so hard to find this book. So here it is for you:

Kepler’s Somnium

The (not so) True History – Lucian of Samosata

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People are always saying that Classical texts are BOOORING! But frankly it just isn’t always the case. Most scholars would probably use Homer to illustrate this point but let me introduce you to another far more insane and far less known text: THE TRUE HISTORY (Cough) of Lucian of Samosata.

This text only came to my attention recently and I am yet to find another person who has actually bothered reading it but it is definitely going on my recommended reading list. It has been called the first science fiction and this is really not a bad description yet i would rather describe it as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on…well…Lucy on the Sky with Diamonds.

Lucian starts this wonderful story by claiming that it is ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ and that all other stories of history are cock-and-bull. Yet well let me summarise it a bit for you:

Wine flavoured fish, talking trees, horse-vultures, sun and moon inhabitants who are at war, Ostrich-slingers, catapulting of huge radishes, winged acorns riden by dog headed men, pirates sailing in giant pumpkins, cloud centaurs…etc etc. The story is certainly unique. Particularly interesting is the war between the moonites and the sunnites; Lucian claiming of course that he was in fact the first man to travel to the moon! Very science fiction i do say. On his subsiquent trip to the underworld where he is put on trial for being alive in the land of the dead he meets a miriad of famous characters. The most famous of these possibly being Homer. It is from Lucian’s accounts that we learn the ‘true’ reason why this man wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey…basically he was bored…

But i won’t spoil anymore because it is a story that you really must read for yourself!

I can see why it isn’t mentioned among the classics. The ‘True History’ just seems too far fetched for any audience. But if you want to read something different that will make you think and definitely make you laugh, written by a little man way back in the second century before the advent of Stargate, Mars Attacks and Independence Day, then this is a tale for you. One could spend much time analysing the text but seriously its too wacky a story to take in any one way so I will let you read it and think for yourself. And thus I give you Lucian of Samosata’s ‘True History’!

P.S. Watch out for flying acorns…i mean pigs…

Lucian of Samosata Vol.2 – PDF – Includes the ‘True History’

Lucian of Samosata Vol.2 – Kindle Edition

Confessions of an Archaeologist: Live Free and Dig Hard!

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First of all i am particularly pleased that I managed to fit two movie puns into the one post title 🙂

When students start studying archaeology and ancient history they tend to always think of one thing: Indiana Jones and Tombraider. Okay technically that is two things but they amount to the same, the romaticised view. So here is what really happens to the professional archaeologist! Live free and die hard is actually an accurate way of describing time as an international archaeologist. In my time I have had an absolute ball but I have had to work ridiculously hard to get where I am and get the opportunities to play hard.

Honestly, if you love history as much as I do then the hard work can’t help but come with some fun. I have cliff jumped in the Peloponnese, got drunk in ancient temples of Apollo, played rock cricket with internationally acclaimed academics and then played beer pong with them in university libraries. Every dig i have been on has had its theme song from Dr Horrible’s Bad Horse in Scotland to The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up in Greece (The mp3 player got stuck during pottery analysis with that one). I have discussed Doctor Who with Orthodox nuns, found a TARDIS and gone on a Doctor Who hunt through the British Library, flown planes over active volcanoes, chased thieves off ancient sites and had conversations with Romanian strippers about their shoes. And note that none of these few things were planned!

Life as an archaeologist has been awesome but I’m an eccentric and outgoing person so who knows, this could have happened with any job I chose to pursue. These are the things I do not confess to my students because they are only a small part of the whole. But admittedly I love the other side just as much though often stressful and tedious!

On my last dig season in Greece I went through so much pottery and got so desensitized that I thought of drowning myself in the wet sieve.  I had to give up going to Olympia the first time to finish reading and reviewing a dissertation on Roman drainage pipes. The reality of the archaeologist is many hours of finding nothing in stifling heat or marsh land in the pouring rain or sitting in an isolated room for forty hours a week sorting through hundreds of Greek inscriptions to find the one one that is useful. Eight years of university to get a PhD (and it is taking forever). The reality of archaeology is a lot of repetitive research and analysis, lesson plans and bad weather. But you know what? I still love it! The opportunities are amazing if you are proactive even though the pay is virtually non-existent. The history one has in their hands is inspiring and never boring in the long run.

So if you are thinking of starting a career in archaeology remember the two sides to the coin. Its bloody hard work but it’s worth it if one loves what they are doing as I do. Plus its kind of fun saying that you can read several ancient languages and seeing someones jaw drop. Archaeologists are not by any means boring people. They are generally eccentric and quite mad (I’ve associated with Hawaiian shirted underwater experts and former smugglers turned archaeologists)

Also remember that one needs the languages. Its what students often find the hardest part but it really is necessary, who knows one day you could end up in my class or could be teaching a class of your own.

Review: Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986)

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Betz, H.D., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation(Chicago, 1986)

Betz (1986) is surprisingly one of the more recent studies of the magical papyri. . Betz, at the time was considered “a fresh and precise English translation of texts already known to scholars.”[1] 

And I believe this statement to be true. Betz’s collection is unique still with a huge amount of work having gone into it by numerous contributors, most of which are not even cited in the book itself. Betz’s study begins with a discussion on methodology and the difficulties that arose.[2]  This is particularly useful to one starting on their own study of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), as it outlines problems and reasoning faced by other scholars and the decisions they made to best combat them.

Betz adds a note on the editions before setting out a useful introduction to the Greek Magical Papyri.  He discusses the history of discovery and suppression due to modern negative connotations of magic and describes the Greek Magical Papyri as the original primary sources which were discovered by sheer luck.[3]  Betz pays particular attention to the Demotic papyri and how their inclusion changed the picture presented by the Greek Magical Papyri.

This provides, even for the modern reader, a positive appreciation of the corpus. Despite debate concerning Betz’ linkage of religion and magic, Betz allows us to see the individual spells in their context as part of the Greek Magical Papyri.  [4] The main character and discussion in Betz’s work remain relevant to the introduction of the magical papyri, though apparently revealing an underlying ambivalence. He provides suitable parallels to be drawn between papyri because his work is substantial, concise and of high quality, referring to both parallels in ancient literature and contemporary scholarship.[5]

The fact that this work has remained at the forefront of sources for its topic speaks for itself. Having spoken to one of the contributors I am even more impressed by the time and the content of this work. Granted there are downsides; the lack of Greek text alongside the translations does not allow one to judge the translations for themselves. Though this would not be a problem for the general public, the academic reader who is far more likely to pick up this work for research purposes would have benefited significantly from this addition. But we can’t have everything.
Certainly worth a read for anyone interested in magic, papyri, Greek and Demotic and historiography.

[1] Stroumsa, G.G., Review: The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells by Hans Dieter Betz, in History of Religions, Vol.28, No.2 (Nov., 1988), p.182

[2] Betz, H.D., (1986), op.cit., p.xli

[3] Ibid., p.xli

[4] Gager, J.G., Review: A New Translation of Ancient Greek and Demotic Papyri, Sometimes Called Magical – The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells, Vol.1, Texts by H.D.Betz, in The Journal of Religion, Vol.67, No.1 (Jan., 1987), p.81

[5] Stroumsa, G.G., (1988), op.cit., p.182

Simple Musings

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Welcome to GraecoMuse!

It’s surprising what one finds in the research of the human past. Always something new to find, frankly I don’t understand how anyone could be bored with looking into the past. The people who lived and died, how they survived, where they went, what they achieved.

This blog may be sketchy at first. Like all blogs it must start by the simple musings of its author. But what I think is interesting I’m sure you will. As an academic and traveler I often come across the strangest of facts and the most eccentric of people. Let me share them with you.

So this is the plan: To educate you on the absurd, go beyond the history books, share with lovely people of similar musings and increase and share knowledge on the world around us.