Recently I was reminded about the strange circumstances that led to my being an Ancient Historian. The University of Nottingham Classics Department ran a Twitter hashtag #itsaclassic, which asked people to post a picture of a book, person, or site that influenced them to study Classics. As you can imagine there were lots of things about reading myths as a child, or historical fiction, and the like. I’m sure there are more than a few current undergrads who were influenced by movies like Troy, Gladiator, and 300.
I was never influenced like that. Growing up I intended to go to art school and be a painter. My last two years at school were all geared up for this. For various reasons that mainly had to do with being caught out in a year where government mandated admissions requirements were changed, I repeated the last year of school to boost my overall mark (what was then in Victoria called an ENTER score). One of the subjects I took was Classical Civilisation. It fit into my timetable, sounded interesting enough, and was weighted up. We studied Iliad 22, Trojan Women, and something political that I (embarrassingly perhaps) can’t remember.
At the end of the year, as I was putting my folio together I added a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University to my application. I had been to the open day to look at their Fine Art programs. I met Jane Griffiths, who was the convener of the Classical Studies program there. But my first choice was the Drawing program at the Victorian College of the Arts, and because of the way admissions to art schools work I ended up getting two offers. One from Monash, and one from the Drawing program at VCA. I had thought about this happening and decided that I would obviously go to VCA. I filled out the program acceptance form, but I didn’t post it. I don’t know why I didn’t, but the more I considered it the less sure I felt.
I reached the deadline, and I still couldn’t decide.
I flipped a coin.
I flipped a coin and twelve years later I have a PhD in Classics and I live in London.
I flipped a coin and I constantly wonder what would have happened to me if I had flipped differently. If I had posted that form.
I still have the form. Filled out. Sealed in an envelope. A parallel life that might have been mine.
This was a very strange post for me to write, and I considered not posting it because of the impression that it might give about my dedication to Ancient History. Which is nonsense, of course. Regardless of a person's original motivation for choosing a subject at high-school, or even at undergraduate level, you do not go on to do a Master's and a PhD in a subject you are not committed to pursuing.
In a way, I was more worried about the impression that the end of this post might send. That I long for that 'other life' or that I feel I made the wrong choice. I do not. To both. Keeping that envelope is a part of who I am. It represents passion, longing, gain, loss, love. All the things that are also represented in the other bits of paper, envelopes, drawings, found objects that I have kept over the years.
Unrelated to that, please note that the Australian twenty-cent piece (pictured above) is the best coin to flip in any given coin-flipping circumstance.
While in Australia over Christmas I pulled the acceptance letter out its box to take a look. I hadn't looked at it in a (very) long time. It was strange how detached I felt from it - I am a different person now, really. Not an artist, but an ancient historian. Perhaps writing this post has allowed me to let go of that alternative life?
What?!? Yes, it’s all true. No matter what you've been told, or read, the ‘katabasis’ of in Odyssey 11 is not an actual katabasis!
A katabasis is a descent. In this context it’s a descent into the Underworld, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. And there are a bunch of famous katabases that we all know and love: Herakles going down to steal Kerberos, Orpheus heading down to rescue Eurydike, Theseus and Perithous’s attempt on Persephone. But, Odysseus isn't one of them. Katabasis stories involve physical travel into the Underworld, not realistic religious rituals. And the dead are not used as intermediaries. Odysseus's so-called 'katabasis' does involve a religious ritual and he interacts with the dead.
Odysseus starts in the living world, he digs a pit in the earth and pours his offerings into it. The dead rush up to greet him. This all shows that Odysseus is performing a necromantic rite, but there is a little bit more. So, let’s have a look at the actual necromancy itself (Homer’s Odyssey 11.20-47). This translation is from the Chicago Homer, where you can also find the original Greek.
We beached our ship when we got there, unloaded 20
the sheep, and went back ourselves along Ocean's stream
until we reached the place Circe had described.
“There Eurylochus and Perimedes held the sacred victims,
and I drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh,
dug a pit a cubit's length this way and that, 25
and poured a libation to all the dead about it,
first with milk and honey, thereafter with sweet wine,
a third time with water, then sprinkled white barley groats upon it.
I repeatedly entreated the helpless heads of the dead,
that when I got to Ithaca I'd offer a cow that's not yet calved, 30
my best one, in my palace, then I'd fill the pyre with good things,
and that I'd sacrifice separately, to Teiresias alone,
a solid-black ram, that stands out among our sheep.
After I'd implored with prayers and vows the tribes of corpses,
I took the sheep and cut their throats 35
and the cloud-dark blood flowed into the pit. Up out of Erebus
they gathered, the souls of the dead who'd died,
brides, young men never married, old men who'd suffered much,
tender maidens with hearts new to sorrow,
and many wounded by bronze spears, 40
men killed in battle, holding armour stained with gore.
They stalked about the pit in throngs from one place and another
with an awful screeching, and green terror seized me.
Then at that moment I urged and ordered my comrades
to skin and burn the sheep that lay there slaughtered 45
by ruthless bronze, and to pray to the gods,
to mighty Hades and dread Persephone.
Offerings to the Olympic gods were (usually) upward focused. Sacrifices were burnt with the smoke rising up, and prayer conducted with arms raised into the sky. It makes sense that it happened this way – the gods are up, so offerings need to go up. So too with Underworld gods, except they are down and the offerings need to go down. In this section of the Odyssey, Odysseus digs a pit with his sword, and pours his offerings into it – including the blood of his sacrifice – and they sink down through the earth to the Underworld gods. The same thing happens in historical supplication to Hittite Underworld gods, where there is evidence for temporary, downward facing altars made by digging a pit in the earth. Sometimes this happened on a riverbank, and there’s evidence that pits might have been dug out with daggers (see Collins 2002, linked above). While there’s a strong link here, there’s a stronger link to Greek necromantic rites.
Odysseus is told, by Kirke, to go and find answers about his journey home from a dead seer, Tiresias. The place she sends him to matches the location of the Oracle of the Dead near the Acheron, in Thesprotia. Pausanias, much later of course, tells us that Homer knew that he was writing a description of the site at Ephyra (Od. 10.508-514):
But when you drive through Ocean with your ship,
there will be a rough headland and groves of Persephone,
tall poplars and willows losing their fruit. 510
Land your ship at that spot, by deep-eddying Ocean,
but go yourself to the dank house of Hades.
There Pyriplegethus and Cocytus, which is a branch
of the water of the Styx, flow into Acheron
Much later Pausanias (1.17.5) says that Homer had been to the Nekyomanteia here and used it in his description:
I think Homer had seen these places and boldly ventured to describe Hades’s realm in his poem and further named the rivers after those in Thesprotia.
Of course, ‘Homer’ himself doesn't say anything on the subject, but the topographical and archaeological evidence suggests that where Odysseus goes is indeed the location of the historical Oracle of the Dead. Homer could have included this because there was a cult of Hades close by (but that’s a story for another time).
Although this is only a short exposition of the issue, the two main points certainly illustrate that Odysseus doesn't descend into the Underworld. He isn't described as being in the Underworld, but the dead are described as rushing up, out of the Underworld, to him. And the site described by Homer is the site of an Oracle of the Dead.
Week one of #AcWriMo has been over for three days now, but I am feeling pretty good about my progress so far (as always, you can track everyone's progress on the #AcWriMo Accountability Spreadsheet). So, in the last ten days I have:
Tomorrow is my day off with Child (seen above, 'working' as I work), and I hope to do a little bit of reading, and some work on my research proposal while she is at ballet. Thursday and Friday will be dedicated to getting the manuscript in tip-top shape, and starting to flesh out my (next) book proposal. And that book proposal will be the task for next week.
And then continuing...
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