starlady: A typewriter.  (tool of the trade)
[personal profile] christycorr asked about my three favorite words, in any language.

My favorite word in Latin is, and has been since probably the second month I started learning Latin (in, god, 1994), olim. It's a preposition used to introduce stories that means something like "once upon a time." I just have always really liked the sound of it, though thinking about it now, I'm not sure in all my reading I've ever actually encountered it in an actual text. Runner-ups: most of Catullus' vocabulary, and some of the verbs we only know from Pompeiian graffiti.

There are a lot of words I really love in Greek--most of them are nouns, Greek prepositions are not my friend, for reasons we'll get into later--but I think my favorite is still ἡ θάλασσα, thalassa, which means the sea, Homer's wine-dark sea (Homer gets a lot of flack for his color metaphors, but color terms are actually really complicated to translate in general, and the epithet refers to intensity of the color, not the hue itself). It's also the source of the English word thalassocracy, which is a great word in and of itself.

My favorite word in Japanese might be 紫 murasaki, which is the word for purple. It's a noun, which I think is pretty cool--in Japanese some colors are adjectives and some are nouns.

I really love a lot of English words, especially the old weird Anglo-Saxon ones, many of which Twitter has recently been unearthing, such as "dustsceawung," and the one about lying awake in bed at night worrying. Also words like "bumpershoot," which is the best possible word for an umbrella, you must agree. English is pretty cool.

[personal profile] troisroyaumes asked about my favorite aspect of Greek grammar. I should warn you, my opinions on this subject are somewhat unorthodox.

I think the single coolest aspect of classical Attic Greek (which is what they spoke in Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries, and is the Greek that you will learn at the college level, and is basically the hardest version of Greek to have ever existed in its 3500-odd-year history) is actually one that's so rare that it's never actually taught, just declined in tables in the back of the book for reference: the dual. This is a mode of speech (mostly pronouns, and some verb endings) that two people use when they are extraordinarily close in purpose/intention--it's basically a unified way of saying "we." You mostly see it in drama--the most famous example is probably in The Libation Bearers. Electra and Orestes shift to the dual after they've recognized each other and agreed that Orestes will kill their mother Clytemnaestra for her murder of their father Agamemnon (and Cassandra, but no one cares about her).

Classical Attic Greek is extraordinarily difficult because it's extraordinarily complex, which, although it makes it a pain in the ass to learn, also means that the language is capable of extraordinary precision and subtlety. It's no accident that most philosophers of the ancient world wrote in Greek, because Latin simply doesn't have the structures to express complicated ideas with the same rigor. (You can try, but then you end up like Lucretius, writing an Epicurean epic in dactylic hexameters and causing students of Latin forever after to curse your name and the atoms and the clay mask all at once. I love Lucretius, but De rerum natura is no joke.) Though I shed blood doing flashcards before the exams and beat my head against my books more than once, learning Greek was a really good thing, because I understand grammar much better and also because all other Greek ever is comparatively easy.

My least favorite aspect of Greek grammar is that the old Indo-European instrumental case (which became the ablative in Latin) dropped out a little bit before the Homeric epics were written down (some of the lines preserve old forms including it, as poetry is wont to do), meaning that its functions were absorbed by the genitive, accusative, and dative cases, meaning that it's impossible to commit a stable set of prepositions for each case to memory the way it is in Latin, because they're all all over the place. You don't know what you got til it's gone.
starlady: Queen Susan of Narnia, called the Gentle and the Queen of Spring (gentle queen how now)
One of Catullus' most famous poems, and one of my personal favorites. This translation is my own.

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
   advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
   et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
   heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
Nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
   tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu,
   atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.


Transported through many peoples and many seas,
   I have come, O my brother, for these wretched offerings,
So that I might honor the dead with final gifts
   and speak pointlessly to your silent ashes,
Because Fate stole you yourself away from me,
   Oh, my wretched brother, taken from me undeservedly.
Yet now in these circumstances, these offerings
   handed down from our ancestors, ancient custom and sad duty--
Accept them dripping with tears from your brother,
   and for eternity, O my brother: "hail and farewell."

(for A, and for her brother)
starlady: (utena myth)
Jo Graham, Black Ships (New York: Orbit Books, 2008).
Ursula K. LeGuin, Lavinia (New York: Harcourt, 2008).

Both these books tell, in completely different ways, the story of the woman who helped Aeneas found his new kingdom in Italy after his wanderings following the fall of Troy.

For Graham, that woman is Gull, the daughter of a slave taken in the first sack of Wilusa (the name of Troy in the HIttite archives) to Pylos; after she is lamed in an accident, Gull becomes an acolyte of the Pythia, and then the Pythia herself; following the will of her Lady she sails with Prince Aeneas and his seven ships after they come to Pylos to take back the slaves stolen from Wilusa in its second, final destruction. Obedient to Gull's vision, the refugees of Wilusa make their way through the Middle Sea at the end of the Bronze Age, finding the world they knew falling into fire and barbarism as they go; after escaping Egypt and Pharaoh's vicereine Basetamaon, they make their way slowly to Latium, by way of the underworld navel at Cumae, where Aeneas saves a kingdom from destruction and becomes its king, living to a ripe old age and world made anew.

LeGuin, by contrast, focuses on Lavinia, Aeneas' Latin bride who in Vergil's poem never speaks, but who in LeGuin's telling speaks the whole story, even to her poet, with whose dying shade she communes while wandering the sacred groves of Latium, her father's realm. She even gets Vergil to wish he could give her a voice, and her true hair color (brown, not gold), but it's too late, the poet is dying, he has someone else to lead through a dark wood, and Lavinia is left to hold to her fate, to marry a foreigner rather than her cousin Turnus, in the face of madness and war, given life in the poem, but not enough to die.

Arma virumque cano... )

Finally, another contemporary novel that provides an excellent interpretation of mythology is Barry Unsworth's The Songs of the Kings, which deals with the sacrifice of Iphigenia prior to the Achaians' sailing to Troy.
starlady: ((say it isn't so))
The August theme over in [community profile] readingthepast is Roman Britain, for which I read four historical novels (well, okay, Asterix in Britain is a comic book, but close enough)--completely serendipitously, in reverse historical order. I'm going to talk about them in non-widdershins chronology, though.


Asterix in Britain )


The Crow Goddess )


Dark North )


The Silver Branch )


I am one of those people who is quite capable of feeling regret for not having experienced various historical formations at their height, and all these books definitely pushed my "O to see Rome in its prime" buttons, despite the fact that it's still true, even now, as Emperor Hadrian says in The Crow Goddess, that everyone comes to Rome eventually, and that a good portion of Roman Rome still remains in the Eternal City. Obviously the Romans weren't any sort of angels on earth, but it's indisputable, to my mind, that the Empire in general and the Pax Romana in particular brought a greater prosperity and physical well-being to more people on earth than had been seen in history up to that point, and in some ways even since. (NB: I'm not sure on the stats w/r/t Qin China, but that was only for, what, 20 years in the 220s BCE?) And, you know, I do wonder in some ways whether we'd be better off even today if the Empire hadn't fallen (especially w/r/t the aforementioned differences between ancient and modern politico-cultural subjectivity). It's hard to see that we'd be worse, though I could do without the gladiatorial games and various other festivals of human cruelty that the Romans were down with. Plus, you know, slavery, though Bradshaw in particular is good at illustrating the ways in which ancient slavery was very, very different from slavery as we think of it in America (the Peculiar Institution was very peculiar historically, suffice it to say).

Q: All these books take it for granted that Latin was the imperial lingua franca. I've heard multiple times that it was actually Koine Greek. Was it both, as in Latin in the West and Greek in the East? Or was it actually just Greek?

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