Monday, September 7, 2009

Homer Reading (the Bible)

Some time back, blogger Ken Brown started a blogger game (aka "a meme") which resulted in "more than fifty people having offered their top five most influential books or scholars." Ken's question was who has "had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the Bible"?

My listing starts this way: "Homer's most influenced how I read the Septuagint. The Septuagint's most influenced how I read the rest of the Bible."  (This is before any explicit acknowledgement of feminisms.)

In this post, I want to talk some about how Homer influences (me). In another post perhaps, I'll say a bit on the Septuagint.

The funny thing is, the story goes, is that Homer was blind. That's funny because until the braille books of the nineteenth century and the audio books of the twentieth century, people could only read his works by, well, by reading them with their eyes open.

But that's not how my story begins. I myself first heard the voice of Homer (the voices in his epics that is) in the voice of my mother. When my siblings and I were growing up as missionary kids in South Vietnam the last decade of the war, Mom would read to us. And she had a huge library of books. And she taught us each one to read. But Homer. He was a stand out even back then. The heroes and heroines and goddesses and gods and plot turns and places and violence and beauty and tensions sustained and subsiding and happy points and deep sadnesses. The Illiad was Truyện Kiều and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Little Women and The Red Badge of Courage.

Fast forwarding a good bit, and moving across the Pacific Ocean, the story of my Homer Reading picks up again. As an undergraduate college kid learning Greek in Texas, I heard something new in the voice of the Hellene.


The Odyssey and Odysseus are obvious enough in English translation even. I'm talking about the playfulness of these two words, the Journey and the Journeyman. But in Hellene, the Cyclops is no longer just Polyphemus who some critics glossed as "famous," but he's ironically Πολύ - φημος without Many eyes or Much vision at all. And the "Much - Legendary" monster, we now hear in Hellene, is "blinded" literally and figuratively by our Hero. Our Hero, Ὀδυσσεύς, tells his name to the creature: it's οὔτις. O-Dysseus, says our blind Homer, is called hO-Tis. SomeBody is NoBody. And if we listen like the Cyclops, then we're blinded, and dead.

Wordplay. Playfulness of words. And also Wiggleroom in how one sees and hears those words, in hermeneutics, in how one can or might not interpret words. With consequences.

(We could talk all day about Homer's wordplay, and Hesiod's, and Sappho's. We could take a graduate course in an American university. We could write a dissertation. We could devote a literary career to their study.

The only other thing I want to say about that is this:  that there have been some mighty important things noticed about Homer. First, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle noticed how what he did with words threatened the Republic and the pan-Hellenic Politics. A great preface to some of the things Plato noticed is Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato. Second, Eva Brann has much more recently noticed many Homeric Moments that open up wordplay. And third, Sylvie Honigman has noticed Homer's influence in the legend on the development of the Septuagint--she has the best history on the subject ever: The Septuagint and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria: A Study in the Narrative of the Letter of Aristeas. Perhaps I'll post on the Septuagint next).

Even if one never reads F. A. Murray's Feminism In Greek Literature From Homer To Aristotle, I think few of us have a problem understanding that Homer's no feminist.  I don't have time to go into Homer's sex biases.  Nonetheless, Homer reading - with all the wordplay - opens up, for me, ways of knowing and of seeing (aka "epistemologies") that are akin to Nancy Mairs's and Mary Daly's and Alice Walker's and Maya Angelou's and Toni Morrison's. Morrison's Homer, of course, was blind but a woman.  When you listen, you can see what Homer means.


J. L. Watts said...

If you insist, Kurke...

What do you make of the Wisdom Tradition, found better expressed in the LXX with its 'additions' to the Hebrew Canon?

J. K. Gayle said...

I'm curious to know, Joel, what you think. You've been willing to post on the Wisdom Tradition at your blog. And have found wisdom (i.e., of Sirach in LXX) to be more womanly than many men have conceived of her.

Quite apart from notions of "additions" - I think many Jews have trouble with the Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures, especially as many Christians have appropriated the translations. Maybe I'll post on the LXX to say more - but maybe I'll post on Kenneth Pike and say even more about appropriations.

Rob Murray said...

It's great to have you blogging again. I've been lurking for some time, listening in, and benefiting greatly from your mind-stretching posts. Just wanted to let you know that, even if I'm not entering into the debate, I'm finding your point of view invigorating. Thanks for the taking the time to think out loud.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thank you, Rob Murray! Please feel free to enter any conversations here. How wonderful it is to hear your kind words. I'd love to know more of what you think!

J. L. Watts said...

To be honest, the Wisdom Tradition as found in the LXX and the early Church has influenced the lessening of my view of the sexes (male superiority, etc...), much to the detriment of others.

Can you imagine a feminine aspect of God?

And what influenced me most about the LXX is first Wisdom and then Sirach and the use the Wisdom Tradition in early Christological debates.