Homer

Poetic License: An Introduction to Greek (and Latin) Meter

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The study of Greek poetry is not easy without at least a basic understanding of the Greek meter. Annis (2006) rightly states that scholars have a tendency to become over focused on the meter within a poem but for the those beginning their study of Greek poetry it is an essential point of comprehension. By understanding the meter of Greek poetry one can also appreciate the creation of the text and the art of the poets involved.

The Poet Sappho

First of all there are a few words that must be defined:

Prosody: Prosody is the study of the elements of a poem including meter, rhythm and intonation.

Meter: Meter is the definitive pattern established fir a verse.

Greek Meter

Unlike in English poetry, the Greek meter is based on patterns of long and short syllables.

A long syllable is represented by a macron “―”

A short syllable is represented by a “U”

A syllable which can be long or short is represented by “U

The length of a syllable is most easily identified in Epic verses. Note that syllable length in meter is determined by the line not the word.

When discussing Greek poetry one must comprehend the basic unit of time, which is in this case a mora. Shorts syllables are one mora and long syllables are two morae. Beyond two morae the one divides them up in a number of ways which form time division patterns forming the fundamental blocks of Greek verse. These are called feet. For instance:

3 Morae

iamb  =           U― (eg. describe or include)

trochee =      ―U (eg. picture or flower)

tribrach =     UUU

4 Morae

spondee =     ― ― (eg. enough)

dactyl =         ―UU (eg. an-no-tate)

anapest =      UU― (eg. com-pre-hend)

5 Morae

cretic =          ―U―

bacchius =    U― ―

6 Morae

choriamb =  ―UU―

ionic =           UU― ―

Some Common Meters

The Hexameter

The Hexameter is the oldest of the Greek Meters. In epic hexameter two short syllables can be replaced by one long syllable but not the other way round. For more information regarding replacement see Halporn et.al (1980).

There are too many variations and rules to include in an introduction so let us look at two of the more common and simpler meters to get an idea of the use of morae, feet, syllable length and use.

Dactylic Hexameter

Also known as heroic hexameter, the dactylic hexameter is traditionally association with epic poetry in both Greek and Latin. It was hence considered the Grand Style of classical poetry. It is used in both of Homer’s works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in Virgil’s Aeneid. It also appears in Hesiod’s works.

Works and Days of Hesiod

Dactylic Hexameter is made up of six dactyls ―UU with the last foot appearing as an anceps syllable (a syllable which can appear either short or long). A dactyl never appears in the last foot. The last foot hence takes the form of a spondee ―― or a trochee ―U. It appears as:

―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―UU ―X

A caesura occurs in the middle of the hexameter within the third foot, either after the first long or short syllable. A caesura is a break where a word ends in the middle of a foot. It occurs as a naturally falling slight pause. It is generally indicated by a bar, |. So the third foot will appear as ―|UU or ―U|U. For more information on the Caesurae and Bridges I suggest reading Annis 2006.

Here is an example of Dactylic Hexameter in the  Odyssey 1.1:

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ

―   U  U ― U U ―  U  |  U  ―   U  U ―   U  U ―  ―

Iambic Pentameter

The Iambic Pentameter is commonly used in traditional verse and drama. The word Iambic refers to the type of foot being used (U―). Pentameter indicates that there are five of these feet. In English we see these Iambic morae in words like trapeze where the stress is laid on the last syllable. So a typical Iambic Pentameter would look like this:

U― U― U― U― U―

Poets have had a tendency to vary their use of the iambic pentameter but keeping the iamb U― as the most common foot.  However the second foot is almost always U―. The first foot though often changes through the reverse of syllables to become ―U. We see examples of this inversion in modern languages like in Shakespeare’s Richard III 1.1:

Now is the winter of our discontent

―    U   U  ―  U  U ―   ―  U  ―

Further Reading:

Halporn, J.W. et.al The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry (1980)

Dale, A.M. Lyric Metres of Greek Drama (2010)

If you are interested in a detailed study of Greek  scripts and how to learn them, have a look at THESE RESOURCES.

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A Shaky Beginning: Parkinson’s Disease in Ancient History

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After finding out that an average of 30 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease every day in Australia I started to wonder how long humans have known and dealt with the disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system resulting in decreased motor skills due to the death of dopamine-generating cells. Symptoms include tremors and rigidity, gait, slowness in movement, cognitive issues, sensory and emotional issues, sleep problems and depression. With over 80,000 people in Australia living with Parkinson’s, it is almost certain that you know someone affected by it.

Mucuna Pruriens Bak

The oldest surviving reference to what could be Parkinson’s is in the traditions of Ancient India, with the treatment of the disease in the ‘Ayurveda’, an ancient system of medicine dating from around 5000-3000 BC. Gourie-Devi et.al explains in his ‘Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease in ‘Ayurveda’: Discussion Paper’ that the neurological disorders in the Ayurveda are thought to be due to an imbalance of ‘vata’. Parkinson’s is believed to be what is described as kampavata which bears a strong resemblance to the clinical features of Parkinson’s. The Ayurveda’s description of kampavata includes tremors, stiffness, depression and a depletion of movement. The Ancient Indians prescribed a number of drugs to battle the symptoms of the disease, some of which scientists have come back to review today. These include the root of Withania somifera, the seed of Mucuna Pruriens Bak, Root of Sida Cordifolia and the fruit of Hyocyamus reticulatus. In recent years, the experimentation with Mucuna Pruriens Bak has resulted in significant improvement in trial patients. This is recorded in Vaidya et.al Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease with the Cowhage Plant – Mucuna Pruriens Bak.

The Chinese appear to be the next to make descriptions suggestive of Parkinson’s Disease. These date to around 425 BC. Zhen-Xin Zhang et.al (2006) asserts that traditional Chinese medicine recommended an antitremor pill which is still used to this day in the traditional sphere. He suggests that based on the evidence provided by Zhang Zihe, in the first recorded case of Parkinson’s Disease in the manuscript Ru Men Shi Qin, the disease was first described in China around 2400 years ago.

Nestor and Telemachus

There are several references to ailments that are very similar in symptoms to Parkinson’s in the Ancient Greek literature. We cannot for certain say that these were Parkinson’s but the similarities suggest that the Ancient Greeks and later the Romans had knowledge of similar ailments and the known symptoms. Homer tells in the Odyssey that King Nestor suffers from symptoms which are typical of Parkinson’s and hence can no longer compete in athletic contests. Erasistratus of Keos describes in the third century BC a freezing that occurs such in Parkinson’s when he describes ‘paradoxos’: a type of paralysis which effects a person when walking by making them stop suddenly and being unable to continue, which wears off after some time. Dioscorides also mentions in his Materia Medica that beaver testicles are helpful in the treatment of lethargical problems, tremblings and convulsions alongside neurological and diseases of the nerves, when prepared with vinegar and roses. Celsus describes a similar ailment in his de Medicina Octo Libri and Galen is often said to give the first definite definition in his description of disorders of motor function. Galen, in his On Tremor, Palpitation, Convulsion and Shivering even distinguishes between the different forms on the basis of their origin and appearance.

The Byzantine period and following Medieval period saw the likes of Paul of Aigina (625-690AD) and Ibn Sina (980-1037AD) who provide further discussion of ‘shaking palsies’. The first definitive study of Parkinson’s Disease in Western medicine though is ascribed to its namesake, the English doctor James Parkinson. James Parkinson published a detailed description in An Essay on the Shaking Palsy in 1817.

There is unfortunately a limited awareness of Parkinson’s Disease in modern society. If you would like to find out more about Parkinson’s for yourself, family or friends, then please go to http://www.parkinsons.org.au/ which provides information, support, helplines and ways you can help.

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War Minus the Shooting: Ideals behind the Ancient Olympic Games

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‘War Minus the Shooting’, is what Orwell in Spivey’s ‘The Ancient Olympics’ states as being what serious sport amounts to.  But, can this be said to be the sole idea behind competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC, or did competition amount to more?

Competition at the Olympic Games was not just about ‘war minus the shooting’ especially since one of its key bases was in religion.  By competing, athletes were attempting to become closer to the gods.  Spivey asserts that in Greek Myth all the events that appeared at the Olympic Games during the eighth and seventh centuries BC were first participated in by gods or heroes.[1]  This suggests that by participating in these competitions, the athletes were striving to reach what those gods associated with those events, represented. Spathari explains that the competition and training was essentially an attempt to attain and evolve physical, intellectual and spiritual powers.[2]  In striving to perfect their physical and spiritual wellbeing the Ancient Greeks believed that they would follow the path which led to the divine.

Tampa 86.35. chariot race. Photograph courtesy of the Tampa Museum of Art

Excavators have uncovered evidence of altars in and around the sanctuary of Zeus in the form of ashy deposits, which could be attributed to the seventh and eighth centuries, along with a number of votive offerings.[5]  The Olympic Games were primarily a religious festival and the competition was a way of worshipping the gods: primarily Zeus who came to Olympia in the tenth century with the Eleans.  It is also argued by such as Sansone that “all sport is a ritual sacrifice of bodily energy”[6] suggesting that the competitor and competition at Olympia doubled as both a dedicator and a dedication.

Early competition in the Olympic Games also held associations with the heroic ideal.  Competition at Olympia was in part a means to gain attributes of the heroic ideal as set out by Homer.  Tyrrell assesses that one of the most important aims of competition at the Olympic Games was to become the best of men.[7]  Tyrell’s assessment is backed up by Homer’s statement “always to be best and superior to others”[8] (Iliad VI 208), which was transformed into an idea that became the essence of competition in the Ancient Greek World.  It became a purpose of competition to achieve this superior status amongst your fellow competitors.

Heroic poetry had a very significant role in competition in Ancient Greece and in particular at the Olympic Games.  The competitive ethos within these texts influenced the people’s ideas of what was important in life and how these ideals could be achieved.  This heroic poetry expresses that fame, honour and glory are the most important things to strife for, and this was an idea internalised by ancient Greek society to the extreme.  Competition at events such as the Olympic Games was the only way one could achieve the glory only otherwise gained in war.[9]  In this way the Olympic Games could be viewed as “war minus the shooting,”  but not in the sense which Orwell refers to.  Spivey notes that Homer can be assessed as a great influence on competitive ethos throughout the whole of society due to becoming a “set text for school children, a poet whose lines were widely known and often quoted.”[10]

Tyrrell explains that the ancient Greeks admired and “strove to emulate the values of the Homeric warrior,” [11] chief among these values being his arete, his valour. The Iliad and the Odyssey illustrate the shame culture in Ancient Greece and the Homeric values of honour and fame.  This competitive ethos was internalized from the heroic poetry, and competitions such as at the Olympic Games were a means of achieving what all Greeks desired, kleos (κλέος) and arete (ἀρετή).  Homer’s account of the funeral games of Patroclus demonstrates the quest for kleos (fame/glory) and arete (valour) though athletic competition.[12] When Menelaos and Antiochos are arguing over the prize of second place in the chariot race, essentially they are arguing for their kleos and to retain their arete.  Homer’s account of this event illustrates the importance of these values to Greek society in the ferocity of the arguments of these two characters.[13]

Tyrell asserts that the “study of Greek athletes begins with the warrior’s arete because in many ways his values continued to impel men to pursue through athletics the glory no longer obtainable in war.”[15]  During the eighth and seventh centuries BC the quest for individual honour was forced out of war by the introduction of the hoplite form of fighting.  This suggests that the quest for honour moved to other “competitive areas”[16], among them the athletic contest.

Good strife being born of “a coupling between Zeus and the night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth…nurture desires for wealth and fame.”[18]   Due to the popularity and influence of this idea worded by Hesiod, it can be asserted that competition at the Olympic Games was not only about “war minus the shooting,” but a means to create this good strife.  Spivey assesses that Homer and Hesiod “established and exemplified the principle of positive strife”[19] and promoted contests and challenges as the “necessary trials of all creative endeavour.”[20]

Discobolus (Discus Thrower), Roman copy of 5th C Greek statue from the British Museum

Orwell believed that competition was bound up with “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”[21]  Though in many ways competition in the Olympic Games does reflect the acts of warfare, it was also about friendship and unity of states and a reflection of the individual and society. Eusebius asserts that Iphitus consulted the Delphic oracle and introduced the Olympic festival in response to the concern for wars, and he proclaimed a truce for those involved in the Olympic Games.[22]  Homer in ‘The Odyssey’ demonstrates that rivalry ceased to be hostile and became friendly competition as the character of the Odyssey’s games is the same as that attributed to the Panhellenic games.[23]

An assessment of competition at the Olympic Games suggests that spectators did not just see competitions as mindless violence, but as a reflection of themselves and their emotions.  This idea can be seen clearly in the ancient term ‘Olympiakoi Agones’ (Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες) meaning the ‘Olympic Games’.  Agon which is the Greek word for contest is related to the English word ‘agony’ and is hence a reference to the contest being a reflection of one’s emotions in relation to Olympic competition.

The idea of “war minus the shooting” though is by no means unprecedented in relation to competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh century BC at least. [24]  Spivey states that sport was a “sublimated form of human aggression, a channelling of the biological instinct to fight.”[25]  In other words, though the competition’s main purpose was the quest for honour and glory, the desire for which was the result of the internalisation of competitive ethos from heroic poetry, the platonic essence of athletics was an act of mimicry of fighting.  This relation to the mimicry can be seen in eighth century black figure pottery where the sports illustrated, such as wrestling and hand to hand combat,[26] can be rationalised as a set of drills for “infantry fighting” in later centuries.[27]

From the analysis of the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC we see that competition did not just amount to “War Minus the Shooting.”  Competition was not only the mimicry of war acts but was seen as a religious dedication and was concerned with trying to achieve a status close to the gods and divinity by trying to be the best of men and participating in events associated with the gods. Though later on in the seventh century, competition did reflect many of the acts of warfare, it was first and foremost a quest to gain and retain honour and hence considerably more than “War Minus the Shooting.”


[1] Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (Oxford, 2005), p.4

[2] Spathari, E., the Greek Spirit of Competition and the Panhellenic Games, in 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.16

[3] Vergil, The Aenied, Penguin Classics (Trans. W. F. Jackson Knight), (Oxford, 2006), Book VI

[4] Ibid., Book VI

[5] Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21

[6] Golden, M., Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1998), p.17

[7] Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4

[8] Homer, Iliad, Translated by A.T. Murray, 1924, Book VI 208

[9] Tyrell, B., op.cit., p.2

[10] Spivey, op.cit., p.15

[11] Tyrell, op.cit., p.2

[12] Homer, op.cit., Book VI – Presentation of the prizes for the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus

[13] Ibid., Book VI 208

[15] Tyrell op.cit., p.2

[16] Ibid.,  p 8

[18] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

[19] Ibid., p.5

[20] Ibid., p.5

[21] Ibid., p.1

[22] Eusebius, Chronicle, p 193

[23] Homer, Odyssey 8.97-253 – Odysseus in the tenth year after the Trojan war stays with the Phaeacians and participates in athletic contests as a guest of the Phaeacians.

[24] Eusebius chronicle – shows that events that emulated war like activities only start to occur around 708BC with introduction of wrestling and the pentathlon later followed in the early seventh century BC by chariot and boxing competitions.

[25] Spivey, op.cit., p.2

[26] 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.18

[27] Spivey, op.cit., p.3

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If you liked this post you may like to read The Fall of the Ancient Olympics: The Theodosian Code