When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.
Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.
Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.
There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:
Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.
Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.
Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.
The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.
- The unsung heroine who helped decode Crete’s ancient script (bbc.co.uk)
- Rediscovering Philology (sites.tufts.edu)
- The Open Philology Project and Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities at Leipzig (sites.tufts.edu)
- Genes and Languages: Not So Strange Bedfellows? (23andme.com)
- Bavinck on Comparative Religion and Comparative Philology (calvinistinternational.com)
- How to Teach yourself Ancient (and Modern) Languages (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Welcome to GraecoMuse (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Alice Kober: Unsung heroine who helped decode Linear B (adafruit.com)
- The Unsolved Mysteries of the World (secretsofthefed.com)
- Macquarie Ancient Languages School – Winter Session (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
This post is just a bit of fun after a very long week. Recently another PhD student and I decided to branch out a bit and do something a unconventional and fun, so at the start of the year we started taking a pole fitness class at a local dance studio. And before anyone asks, we wear gym clothes and it is nothing that you would see in a strip club. Pole can be a sport; a combination of dance, gymnastics and body-building and it is part of the International Body Building Association. But it got me thinking that there must be traditions behind the idea going back into my favourite subject: Ancient History. Lo and Behold I was correct.
So let me introduce you to the origins and traditions of pole fitness just because I can.
Mallakhamb is a traditional Indian sport which is made up of gymnastics and poses undertaken on a vertical wooden pole or rope. The word Mallakhamb comes from the terms ‘malla’ meaning a ‘gymnast’ or ‘man of strength’ and Khamb meaning ‘pole’. Essentially it translates as ‘pole gymnastics’. The earliest records of the sport come from the twelfth century when it was mentioned in the Indian classic Manasollasa written in 1135 AD by Somesvara Chalukya. In the Manasollasa it is called by an earlier form of the term ‘Mallastambha’.
Mallakhamb lost popularity over the centuries before being the subject of a revival in the early nineteenth century in India. It was revived and recorded by Balambhatta Dada Deodhar who was the fitness instructor of Peshwa bajirao during the reign of Peshwas. Nowadays, twenty-nine states in India participate nationally in competitions demonstrating three main types of Mallakhamb; hanging, rope and fixed Mallakhamb. Also forms of Mallakhamb are predominantly male and was originally introduced as a supporting exercise for wrestlers in order to develop and maintain concentration, speed and flexibility. Modern studies have even begun to appear showing the benefits of the sport to health and strength. P.Nande explains for instance that it causes a decrease in body fat percentage and an increase in lean body mass.
The video below shows just how much skill and strength is required in Mallakhamb. It also demonstrates the types of moves that are performed in pole fitness. This video is not sped up…which is a bit scary actually…
Chinese Pole is an amazing feat of strength and gymnastics which is today associated with the likes of Cirque du Soleil. It dates also to around the twelfth century in the literary evidence with it being performed by circus professionals using 3-9m tall poles laced with rubber material. The rubber material is not always used because it had the potential to cause painful friction burns. Yet again Chinese Pole is predominantly male activity and hence friction burns would be even more painful to certain areas. Full body costumes were and are worn often by performers requiring even more skill on the behalf of the performer.
Chinese pole is still a popular sport which is often performed with at least two participants or many more. They display climbing, sliding, stretching and holding positions with acute strength usually performed with two poles. Performers hop from pole to pole displaying gravity defying tricks.
Just watch the link below. If you thought Mallakhamb was amazing, this is just ridiculous!
European Pole Dancing
The western world had its own types of pole dancing with influences from Druid, Pagan and Roman traditions. The most famous of these is Maypole dancing which dates back in the record to the twelfth century as well. Maypole dancing was essentially a pagan celebration of fertility (hence the pole as a phallic symbol).
It was performed by young girls performing circle dances around a pole decorated with garlands of flowers and emblems. The younger girls involved danced in the inner circle while the older danced in the outer circle, all holding ribbons. The dancing itself involved circular steps which allowed the ribbons to intertwined and plait round the pole and then be unravelled while the girls retraced their steps. The festival, in which the maypole dance was performed, marked the beginning of the pastoral summer or Beltane. It is also connected to the Roman worship of Flora and the festival of Floralia which was celebrated at the same time.
The Ancient Greek’s also had their own form of maypole like dancing in the Daphnephoria. Eutychius Proclus discusses the pole in the Daphnephoria in his Chrestomathy written in the second century AD:
(74) This is the daphnephoria: They wreathe an olive-wood pole with laurel-branches and colourful flowers, and on top of it they fasten a bronze ball, and from this they hang smaller ones. And, onto the middle of the pole, they attach purple fillets of wool, and put them around a ball smaller than the one at the top. And they wrap around the [bottom] end-parts of the pole with saffron-dyed material.
(75) To the people the highest ball represents the sun (with which they also associate Apollo), and the one lying beneath [represents] the moon; the hanging balls [represent] the planets and stars; and, indeed, the purple fillets [represent] the yearly cycle – for they even make exactly 365 of them.
(76) A boy with two living parents starts/leads the daphnephoria; and his closest relative holds up the wreathed pole, which they call the kōpō.
(77) And the daphnephoros himself follows and holds onto the laurel, with his hair let down, wearing a golden crown, bedecked in bright clothing down to his feet, and shod in epikratides; a khoros of parthenoi accompany him, holding out sprigs in supplication [and] singing hymns.
(78) And they escort the daphnephoria to the temples of Apollo Ismenios and Khalazios.
(Translation provided by my dear friend A.Cox from Sydney University)
African Pole Dances
There is little information on the history of pole dancing in Africa but it certainly existed in some forms. Tribal rituals in certain areas involved betrothed women dancing around wooden poles as a type of fertility dance. Again the pole represented a phallic symbol with the connection to fertility.
Panjat Pinang (Pinang Climb)
Panjat Pinang is a traditional game played in Indonesian which was introduced in the era of Dutch colonialism as a form of entertainment. It is essentially a climbing game performed at events like weddings using traditional areca nut trees. Participants compete to climb the poles to reach a variety of interesting gifts. It is also performed as a way of celebrating Indonesia’s Independence Day when the pole is covered in oil or lubricants and young men are invited to climb and compete to reach the prizes at the top.
Obviously western pole dancing is largely associated with exotic dancing which has its roots far bar in ancient history. The exotic dance dates back to at least ancient Sumerian times when dances like that of the seven veils was used in association with the goddess of love Inanna. The dances were used to tell stories as a form of interpretive dance. The dance of the seven veils for instance represents the seven gates which Inanna had to pass through to find her lover and partner Damouz.
Pole dancing also has influences in Belly-dancing and Latin inspired dancing such as the Rumba and the Tango. Nowadays it still relates to the ancient forms as a hybrid dance and fitness form.
Want to see what modern pole is like as a hybrid of all these historical and international influences? Just watch the video below of the amazing pole fitness and art champion Oona Kivela:
In order to evaluate to what extent there is a concept of ‘female heroism’ in ancient Greek literature it is necessary to look at female literary figures in ancient Greece and their qualities. There are several definitions of a heroine that provide us with a basis from which to evaluate the concept of ‘female heroism’. Lyons asserts that a heroine is a “heroized female personage or recipient of heroic honours.” This definition is in some ways similar to definitions of male heroes yet female heroic figures in literature were very rarely seen in the same light. Even in the Oxford English Dictionary does it describe heroines as being, in ancient mythology, a female intermediate between a woman and a goddess; a demi goddess who has cult paid to them and are worshipped, a woman distinguished by courage, fortitude or noble achievements; “the chief female character in a poem, play or story”; the woman in whom the interest of the piece is centred. Definitions of male heroism however include, “a great warrior”, “a man of superhuman qualities”.
The concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature displays that heroines would not act as male heroes would, and they had less significantly recognised qualities. This indicates that this concept was stunted due to lack of diversity in characters. Harris and Platzner assess that heroines don’t often “go on quests or engage in combat with monsters or gods”. An evaluation of Ancient Greek sources such as Euripides’ Hecuba and Iphigenia, suggests that the main role of the female hero was that of sacrifice. The female heroic figure is excessively seen with this quality of self sacrifice, such as with Polyxena. Euripides explains that Polyxena is self-sacrificial in nature for the sake of her people. As Euripides asserts that through her sacrifice to Achilles, the Greeks were finally able to set out on their voyage to Troy and the awaiting war. However Polyxena also expresses more masculine qualities of wishing to obtain her honour and spirit by insisting on dying with dignity, not as a slave, so she can be a willing sacrifice.
Iphigenia also shows this willingness and quality of self sacrifice when she is sacrificed so the Greeks can leave Troyafter the Trojan War in Euripides7. She sacrifices herself for the good of her people and accepted it as such, even though at the last moment she is spirited away by the gods. This quality of self sacrifice is very rare in male heroic figures in Ancient Greek literature. An evaluation of this quality indicates that the majority of female heroic figures were sacrificed and achieve honour quicker than their male counterparts; this illustrates one reason why their roles in literature are smaller; they achieve their purpose quicker.
The female heroic character in Greek literature was however more than sacrificing.. Most female heroic figures also expressed qualities of wisdom, cunning and dignity. Pomeroy explains that “Aristotle judged it inappropriate for a female character to be portrayed as manly or clever” but analysis of characters like Penelope and Nausicaa in the Odyssey, indicates that female heroic figures could, and did, hold these essentially masculine qualities. Homer explains that Penelope outwitted her suitors for years by weaving and unravelling a huge web, displaying a cunning mind and, in so doing, keeping her dignity. Nausicaa also shows these qualities. Homer explains that she kept her distance from Odysseus, even when she rescued him, for knowledge of the destructive powers of talk and never lost her honour. Through this assessment we can see that the concept of female heroism did exist as evident in the actions and qualities of certain figures in relation to their portrayal in texts. But this concept of heroism is more passive in some respects to the male literary heroes, their quests and obviously heroic actions.
The concept of female heroism is also evidently used by the poet to transmit a deeper meaning. Euripides’ works use female figures such as Helen to portray a higher purpose. Though Helen is a figure of questionability in regards to being a heroic figure or not, she can be assessed as portraying heroic qualities such as beauty and self sacrifice of love and family in Euripides. Euripides portrays Helen as the catalyst, the trigger that started the Trojan War, which if hadn’t taken place; all those heroes would not have done those deeds and achieved a heroic status. Homer however illustrates Helen differently, showing her more as a seductive character, but uses her in the same manner. This indicates that the concept of female heroism includes that of contribution to greater events, which is ultimately the reason why Helen can be seen as a literary heroine, as she is fulfilling the role of a ‘helper maiden’.
The female heroic figure is most often free from male assistance in her quest to achieve status. The majority of female heroic characters are independent. Harris and Platzner assess that this is particularly highlighted in “victorious heroines”, these are heroines who are able to “Retain their independence and to pursue their goals aggressively and yet remain within the context of gender-coded behaviour”. Such heroines include Nausicaa and Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey. An assessment of these figures suggests that both of these women were able to achieve their goals and not lose their honour and dignity, through their own means. This idea is even portrayed in the so called “brides of death”, like Iphigenia, who are able to keep their dignity and obtain status through their own willingness to be sacrificed for a cause.
This independence is also shown from the point of comparison between male heroic figures and female heroic figures. Pomeroy assesses that it is female characters who help male heroes. Pomeroy expresses this idea by outlining the many heroic female figures that helped male heroes, “Ariadne, who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur; Medea, who helped Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece; and Nausicaa, the advisor of Odysseus…”. An evaluation of this suggests that while male heroes require female assistance at times, female heroes do not require male assistance, making them independent from their counterparts and highlighting the concept of female heroism in Ancient Greek literature.
The extent of the concept of female heroism is greatly diminished in literature though, due to it not being the dominant force that the concept of male heroism is. Ancient Greece was a male dominated society and literature was written for males by males in order to inspire males, hence the concept of male heroism was by far much more established. Pomeroy analyses that “the mythology about women is created by men and in a culture dominated by men”, due to this, the role of the female in literature is usually submissive and modest. Pomeroy assesses that it is only through the influence of Bronze Age literature that the Ancient Greek poet or writer could not ignore strong female characters. Even so, the majority of female literary characters were seen as submissive to men. For instance, many accepted it when their own male relatives decided to sacrifice them. Iphigenia in Euripides accepts her father’s decision to sacrifice her, indicating a submissive side with a sense of duty, though she also seen as self-sacrificing and honourable.
The concept of female heroism is important in terms of the purpose the female heroes portrayed. In ‘Lycurgus against Leocrates’ Euripides expresses that “if women bring themselves to act like this, men should show towards their country a devotion which cannot be surpassed, not forsake it and flee, as Leocrates did, nor disgrace it before the whole of Greece.” If women were willing to sacrifice themselves for their people and countries, so should men or else they were cowards. Male heroes of the Polis were there to inspire, influencing the people and infusing them with their qualities as a reflection of heroic attributes. Female heroes had a similar purpose to those heroes of the Polis, except they were to inspire the male heroes more than the people. Through heroines in Euripides, Homer and Apollodorus; for instance Iphigenia and Polyxena, the authors are trying to bestow these self sacrificing qualities on their readers, the male heroes and the males in society. They are also expressing the heroine’s lack of pride and ego which men are often governed by.
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