There is almost a spell in ancient Greek myths! What is the most attractive element about them?
The most attractive element about Greek mythology is the idea and ideal of a journey. Greek mythology is not about the dichotomy between good and evil as is the case with many other traditions, but about a route that takes you to faraway places and the depths of yourself. A variety of circumstances in ancient storytelling compels heroes to act and react as they discover themselves, while navigating the limits of human existence with all its glory and its suffering. The journey is what makes one wiser, but wisdom comes with an epic or tragic cost; Odysseus returns home without his companions, Oedipus blinds himself after discovering his identity, as external and internal journeys shake and reshape heroic life. Heroism is only human and as such has limits. Ancient stories allude to the borders of hubris that heroes are often dangerously near to or even cross. Heroes like Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad or Heracles exceed those unseen limits in different ways, and by doing so can bring destruction for themselves and others. It is not through success but through wandering that one finds oneself. Students in college campuses across the US continue to come in huge crowds to classes of classical mythology. I think they react to the deeper allure of those stories and have a lot to gain by reflecting on them.
How is the study of ancient Greek literature still relevant? What would you say to a student who is still ambivalent/undecided?
The commonplace way of thinking about the study of ancient Greek literature is that it lies at the foundation of western literature and art. But this is a rather simplifying way of looking at ancient Greek literature. The adjective “classical,” when talking about the discipline of classics and the study of ancient cultures, often gives an unjustly unifying quality to a remarkably diverse world. Teaching courses on the ancient Greek literary tradition entails an initiation into the codes of ancient societies, as well as the intellectual understanding and hermeneutics of approaching them. In all my courses, my main goal is to teach aspects of the ancient world in connection with diachronic receptions and understandings of antiquity. For that reason, I like to take different texts and apply certain theoretical perspectives. For example, a feminist and anthropological reading can be applied to our study of women’s speech in the Iliad and the Odyssey or tragedy. In this type of reading you become more sensitive to the games around authority, competition, strategies of survival or revolution. In such a presentation, students do not only encounter ancient narratives, but also delve into contemporary theories of interpretation. By studying ancient Greek literature you don’t just get the benefit of historical enrichment but you understand patterns of behavior, see in action paradigms of leadership, of success and failures, both individual and collective.
In your recent book Voices at Work, you focus on women, female labor and feminine poetics. What made you delve into this subject?
The way we grow up, some of our earliest memories, the education we receive formally and, even more, informally through the osmosis of the many encounters in our early lives make us take decisions that we are not always conscious of when we actually face choices or dilemmas about our professional lives. Since my early childhood, I have had a fascination about linguistic patterns in the communication among people around me. Those patterns included song, storytelling, proverbs, silence, jesting, gestures even scent. Language is so much more than just words. As a child, I was mesmerized by the constant presence of work, around my grandmother’s life, and many of the women in her world with never a moment of idleness. As a scholar of the ancient world I soon realized that female work has been invisible to many studies on ancient history or literature, which is what enticed me to look into this in more depth. When we visit an ancient archaeological site we are preoccupied with a perspective on ‘ruins’ that makes us reconstruct it imaginatively as we experience it. Reading ancient literature can be deeply elusive by the pseudo-sense of totality, of a beginning, middle and end, in full coherence. If one reads a tragedy that survives in its entirety, we have a sense of completeness. Yet, we need to be more sensitive to the fact that what we now have is just a very small fraction of a very rich literary production, with most of it unrecorded. Women’s oral tradition around their daily working lives is one of the many things we are missing as a separate entity, but we know was there throughout.
How do you then understand archaic Greek literature in particular? Can you give some examples of things that we need to read differently?
It was a process in which everyone participated. No poet composed without specific audiences in mind, audiences that needed to be pleased, persuaded, and had no fear of reacting strongly to things they liked or not. We need to reconceive the entire literary experience of antiquity. The beauty of much of our earliest epic or lyric poems was that they were part of a public performance, they were not just a text to be consumed by individual readers. As such, they have absorbed those otherwise lost genres of communication, many of which were traditional patterns of speech, which were practiced by a community, such as lament, wedding, work songs to name only a few. When Odysseus arrives naked and exhausted at the island of the Phaeacians and sees Nausicaa, he talks to her using a rhetorical repertoire that includes traditional wedding song, hymn and praise, a type of speech tuned to his addressee in order to serve his goal. The hero mirrors the poet and performer who performs in front of actual people. This is what makes Greek epic sound so contemporary and alive as each line has the vestiges of not simply an ancient aesthetic piece that sought to entertain but a wide spectrum of social relations.
About Andromache Karanika
is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of California, Irvine. She received her PhD at Princeton University and has published articles on Homer, women’s oral genres, lament, pastoral poetry and, recently on Homeric reception and lament in Byzantine literature. She is the author of Voices at Work: Women, Performance and Labor
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014); she has also co-authored a textbook on Modern Greek. She is currently working on a book on wedding songs and poetics and the interactions of lyric and epic.