Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Baby Bear will be your master: climate and ethnocentrism in the Greco-Roman world and Jubilees

Kids who grow up on dull children's programming like Dora the Explorer or Bob the Builder don't know what they're missing out on.  Back in the day parents used to tell their children wonderful stories about trespassing little girls who stole strangers' food and nearly got themselves eaten by ursine homeowners.

In the ancient world there was a belief that physical environments shaped the people who lived within them.  The physical, social, cultural, and political characteristics of entire people groups could be explained based on the climate and terrain of their homelands.  Some writers in Greco-Roman antiquity argued that harsh and mountainous terrains created tough warriors, while flatter areas with nicer terrains created soft people who naturally ended up in servitude to others.  There's a particular strand of this tradition that I like to call the "Goldilocks climate."  Some writers argued that some regions were extremely cold and other regions were extremely hot, and that the peoples in these climates exhibited an extreme set of strengths and an extreme set of weaknesses.  Greece (for Greek writers) or Rome (for Roman writers) was in the center of the world and therefore had the perfect blend of hot and cold.  This meant the peoples of Greece or Rome exhibited the strengths of those in the extreme regions, but without the accompanying weaknesses.  This of course made them perfectly suitable for ruling the world.  Aristotle had this to say:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ancient history, scholarly objectivity, and Reza Aslan

If some people have their way any Muslim scholars at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature meeting will need to wear an “I am a Muslim” name tag before they can contribute.

I never thought I’d be interacting with Fox News on my ancient studies blog.  I am sure that many of you have already seen the Fox News interview with Reza Aslan about his new book, Zealot.  And I am sure many of you also found it difficult and frustrating to watch.  Lauren Green, taking a cue from John Dickerson’s equally troubling Op-Ed, focuses on Aslan’s identity as a Muslim, questioning why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus and accusing him of concealing his Muslim identity while he peddles anti-Christian views of Jesus in the guise of scholarship. 

I have not yet read Zealot, so I cannot comment on its contents.  But the Fox News interview and Op-Ed raise some important questions about popular perceptions of ancient historical scholarship and the nature of objectivity.  Here are some things that Lauren Green, John Dickerson, and the general public should know:

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Ancient Maya invade Minnesota

Maya blood ritual
On my pilgrimage to the land of 10,000 lakes this last week I had the opportunity to visit the Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota with my sister and brother-in-law.  Ancient Mesoamerica has been completely off my personal academic radar, so I was pretty excited to get a little bit of orientation to the field of Maya studies (you can check out the post on Maya hieroglyphs here).

If you have the opportunity I would recommend checking out the exhibit.  It is designed very well and manages to keep the attention of a wide range of audiences.  I won't give a play by play, but will just briefly point out some highlights:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dead Language Bonanza: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages

All humans ask many of the same big, important, and often unanswerable questions about life: Where did we come from? What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?  And where can I find a basic grammatical description of nearly every ancient language I could imagine in one volume?

The answer to the ultimate question is of course 42 and the answer to the final and arguably more important question is The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages.   Roger Woodard's mammoth volume brings together a small army of scholars who have contributed 20-30ish page grammatical overviews for many of our world's ancient languages.  Just to give you a taste of the breadth of the volume, here is what it covers:

Ancient Egyptian and Coptic
Akkadian and Eblaite
Phoenician and Punic
Canaanite dialects
Ge'ez (Aksum)
Ancient South Arabian
Ancient North Arabian
Attic Greek
Greek dialects
Middle Indic
Old Persian
Sabellian languages
Continental Celtic
Ancient Nordic
Classical Armenian
Early Georgian
Ancient Chinese
Old Tamil

Be honest, did you even know that all of these languages existed?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eumaios: a collaborative website for Early Greek epic

An embyronic digital variorum.  This is not the name of a Brave New World style reproductive facility or a reference to the National Library of Medicine's cool new app, but the self-description of the helpful Eumaios website.  If you took our advice in an earlier post and picked up Eleanor Dickey's volume Ancient Greek Scholarship then you may find Eumaios a particularly interesting tool, as it gives you easy access to Homeric scholia.  It does more than this, however.  The homepage lists the following elements the site offers:

  1. Information that is tied to specific lines of text, in particular:
    1. Papyrus readings for the Iliad and Odyssey, gathered from Dana Sutton's list, now maintained by the Center for Hellenic Studies, but displayed differently here
    2. Scholia from Hartmut Erbse's edition of the Scholia
    3. Correspondences between the Iliad and the Aeneid, based on the lists in Georg N. Knauer's Die Aeneis und Homer. Studien zur poetischen Technik Vergils mit Listen der Homerzitate in der Aeneis (Göttingen, 1964)
    4. Bibliographical items gathered from volumes 35-63 (1964-92) of L'Année Philologique
  2. Bibliographical information about lemmata, wordforms, and repeated phrases gathered from volumes 35-63 (1964-92) ofL'Année Philologique
  3. A report by Martin Mueller About Homeric repetitions: facts, figures, and hypotheses as well as notes on some 300 interdependent repetitions in the first and last books of the Iliad 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Maya "Hieroglyphs"

Clearly they were wrong about the end of the world, but maybe the ancient Maya have something else useful to teach us?
From the Linda Schele Drawing Collection

Most of my personal study focuses on the ancient Mediterranean world, so ancient Mesoamerican civilizations and their languages are about half a world outside of my academic comfort zone.  But in anticipation of my upcoming visit to the Ancient Maya exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota, I thought I'd add at least a rudimentary post on ancient Maya "hieroglyphics" to our ancient language resource page.  If you are interested in Mesoamerican civilizations you might want to check out some of these resources, and maybe try your hand at learning some of the Maya "hieroglyphs" (it is a logosyllabic script, popularly called hieroglyphic because it reminds us of Egyptian).   If, like me, your ancient gaze lies elsewhere, it is still a fruitful exercise to learn something about the language.  For one thing, its hundreds of symbols will make any challenges you encounter with ancient alphabet or even abugida scripts seem less daunting.  But there is also value in the comparative study of ancient languages, writing systems, and cultures.  What comparative light might the Mayans shed on your own areas of research?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Israel's White Collar Criminals

If a priest breaks the law does that make her a "white collar" criminal?  (Sorry, if you're looking for good jokes a blog on the ancient world is probably not the place you're going find them)

I recently prepared a sermon on Amos 8:1-12, a passage that includes the Hebrew prophet Amos' vision of the summer fruit basket (see our discussion of that here) and one of his many condemnations of the rich oppressing the poor.  When we read a text like that from the perspective of the ancient historian, we might wonder what exactly the wealthy were doing in Amos' 8th century context to oppress the poor.  What did "trampling" on them look like?  What was the nature of ancient white collar crimes?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fruit Baskets: how foreboding can they be?

If 8th century prophets had directed The Godfather that horse head scene might have involved a basket of figs instead.  

Amos, an 8th century BCE prophet who was lucky enough to get included in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, had some visions.  One of them involves a fruit basket:

"Thus the Lord YHWH showed me: behold, a basket of summer fruit. And he said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.” Then YHWH said to me, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass by them. The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord YHWH; “the dead bodies shall be many; in every place they shall be cast out in silence.” (Amos 8:1-3; RSV)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Scholarship on Scholarship: Eleanor Dickey's "Ancient Greek Scholarship"

Scholia and Eustathius . . . I think my doctor diagnosed me with that once.

Believe it or not, modern classicists are not the first nerds scholars to analyze and write about Greek "classics."  Even 2,000 years ago there were precocious young adults adding gray hairs to their parents' heads: "Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you -- I've dropped out of my business program and decided to major in classics."  Ancient works like Homer, Hesiod, or Euripides were carefully preserved and studied by ancient and medieval scholars, many of whom asked the very same sorts of questions we like to ask today.

Monday, July 15, 2013

PRISM: Ancient Persian Edition

The recent leaks from Edward Snowden have brought government spying into popular attention, particularly PRISM, which is an extensive NSA electronic surveillance program.  It turns out the U.S. government is using some advanced technology to keep an eye on us.  Fortunately, I don't need to worry about the NSA reading what I write here, because even super computers and government spies are bored by the history of the ancient world.

While the specific technologies may be new, government surveillance is quite ancient.  The rulers of ancient kingdoms needed to keep tabs on their subjects, and they developed surveillance and communication methods to make this happen.  Oppenheim states this quite strongly when he says: "Informers, accusers, internal spies, censors, secret agents and their like form, in all these civilizations, then as well as today, an effective and often unobtrusive web, that with constant vigilance and demonic effectiveness directs, controls and coerces the individual in his social setting." ("Eyes of the Lord" 180)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic)

Ge'ez is the classical language of Ethiopia.  As a member of the Semitic language family its relatives include familiar languages like Hebrew and Arabic.  Ge'ez is really important for students of Greco-Roman Judaism and the history of Christianity.  The Christianization of Ethiopia (4th century CE) led to the translation of Jewish/Christian writings into Ge'ez, including important Jewish writings like 1 Enoch and Jubilees.  We have since lost most of the earlier Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic versions of these Jewish texts, so they only exist today in their entirety in Ge'ez translation. This makes it an important language for students of early Judaism.  Beyond these Jewish writings the Ethiopian manuscript tradition contains many Christian works translated from Greek and Arabic, and also includes indigenous Ethiopian Christian resources -- most of which have not been translated into English.  For those interested in studying non-western Christian history, learning the Ge'ez language will be very rewarding.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Jewish Homer

The blind bard, not Simpson.

Hisdem temporibus Sosates cognoscebatur ille Ebraicus Omirus in Alexandria.  (Excerpta Latina Barbari, 278)

There are all sorts of seldom studied texts from the medieval world, and sometimes scholars find fascinating nuggets tucked away in such writings.  In an article published in 1981, Shaye Cohen alerted scholars to one of these nuggets (it had been noted by some scholars before, but Cohen really put it on the academic radar).  In a 7th/8th century Latin translation of an earlier (5th or 6th century) Greek work, we find the line quoted above, which Cohen translates as: "At this same time Sosates, the Jewish Homer, flourished in Alexandria." (391)

Thursday, July 11, 2013


They say that learning obscure old languages like Syriac is fairly impractical for day-to-day life.  In most cases they're probably right.  However, when I was working as a heating/cooling salesman, I did once have an opportunity to use Syriac in my job.  I was giving an estimate on some ductwork in the home of an Assyrian Christian, who happened to have a Syriac prayer on his wall (which he could not read).  My Syriac had gotten very rusty (much like his ductwork), but I was still able to read some bits of it to him.  I'd like to think my shaky knowledge of Syriac is what got me the sale!  So yes, there is money to be made in these obscure languages.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Epic of Theodotus

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries some brave and adventuresome souls began to experiment with mixing peanut butter with other food stuffs, including oranges, mayonnaise, and cream cheese.  In a bold act whose specific origins have been lost, someone combined peanut butter with jelly on a sandwich, and from this act of culinary syncretism an American staple was born.  (The first published reference to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was in 1901)

Much like food, fascinating things happen when cultures collide.  It can be a wonderfully messy business, as stories and styles combine to form something entirely new.  The Epic of Theodotus illustrates this well.  Written by a Jew possibly in the 2nd century BCE, this text retells stories of the Jewish patriarch Jacob and his family in the language and style of Greek epic.  Like the blind bard Homer, the Epic is written in Greek hexameter and uses Homeric vocabulary.  Interesting, right?  This is just one of many examples of Jewish writings from the Greco-Roman period that synthesized Jewish and Greek traditions and cultural expressions in creative ways.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Chicago Homer

When I first started studying Homer's Iliad I quickly made a digital best friend: The Chicago Homer.  TCH allows you to read and search Homer, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns.  There are several different display options, including one that allows you to display the Greek lines and the English (or German) translation together.  The Greek can also be displayed in transliteration.  The Greek words are hyperlinked, allowing you to learn the parsing and lexical form of a particular word, find other occurrences of that word (in inflected or lexical form) in the corpus, and access the Liddell, Scott, Jones lexicon entry at Perseus.  One of the things I love the most about TCH is that it tags common phrases and collocations, allowing you to easily find other places where they occur in Homer.

TCH is a powerful tool -- take the time to play around with it!