Saturday, January 5, 2013

Writing, Law, and Memory in Ancient Gortyn

In the ruins of Gortyn, in central Crete, some of the famous ancient laws of Crete are preserved in stone.  Archaeologists uncovered them in 1884, and have since built a brick enclosure to protect them from the weather.
David L. O'Hara, photo credit
Gortyn, Crete

Even though I'm not an expert in the Doric dialect, I love to read this inscription, for several reasons that might interest even those who don't know Greek.

First of all, it has an unusual alphabet, containing fewer letters than modern or classical Attic Greek.  It lacks the vowels eta and omega (for which it uses epsilon and omicron), and the consonants zeta, xi, phi, chi, and psi (for which it substitutes other letters or combinations of other letters: two deltas for zeta, kappa+sigma for xi; pi for phi; kappa for chi; pi+sigma for psi.)

It also uses a letter that has since fallen out of use, the digamma.  The digamma (or wau) is probably related to the Hebrew letter waw (or vav) and to the Roman letter F, which it closely resembles.  By the classical age it had dropped out of use in Greek, and is fairly rare, like the letters sampi and qoppa.

(There is also a digamma in Delphi, not far from the Athena Pronaia sanctuary, on an upright stone dedicated to Athenai Warganai.  That second word is related to the Greek word for "work" or "deed," ergon, and also to our word "work."  This stone, pictured below, evinces several peculiarities of archaic Greek script.  Look at the second word, which looks like it says FARCANAI. The first letter is digamma; the third letter, rho, very much resembles the Latin "R"; the letter immediately after it, gamma, looks like a flattened upper-case "C.")

David L. O'Hara, photo credit

"Athenai Warganai" inscription at Delphi

Second, the writing is in boustrophedon style.  Boustrophedon means something like "as the ox turns."  Today we write in stoichedon style, in which all the letters face the same direction, like soldiers standing in formation.  Boustrophedon is based on an agricultural, not a military ideal: the writer writes as a farmer plows.  Write to the end of the line, and then, rather than returning to the left side of the page, turn the letters to face the opposite direction and write from right to left.  When you read boustrophedon, your eye follows a zig-zag across the page -- or the stone.

Have a look at this close-up of the engraving at Gortys and look at the way letters like "E," "K," and "S" face in adjacent lines:

David L. O'Hara, photo credit
Close-up of the Gortyn Code

(By the way, that "S" character is actually an iota; sigmas look like this: M; mu is like our "M" with an extra stroke added.)

There are a lot of other reasons to like this place, and this inscription, but I'll limit myself to just one more thing for now: memory.

This inscription is one way that an ancient community deliberately remembered their laws.  They wrote down what they decided, and that has affected our lives.  Writing the law down makes it accessible to everyone, and makes judicial decisions transparent. It establishes a set of expectations for conduct in the community, and makes those expectations known even to aliens.

The code at Gortyn records (in Column IX, around the middle, if you're curious) the presence at court of someone in addition to the judge: the mnemon.  You can see by the word's resemblance to our word "mnemonic" that it has to do with memory.  The mnemon's job was to act as a witness to previous judicial decisions, and to remember them and remind the judge of those decisions.  The mnemon's job was not to decide cases but to be a kind of embodiment of the law and therefore an embodiment of fairness.  

Unfortunately, no mnemon lives forever.  Presumably, the writing on the wall at Gortyn was a way of preserving what mattered most in the court, so that when they passed away, their memories would live on through the ages.

National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Possibly a child's dish? The sixth letter is digamma.


Harold Fowler writes in a footnote to his 1921 translation of the Cratylus that under Eucleides the Athenians officially changed their alphabet from the archaic one to the Ionian alphabet in 404/403 BCE.  This expanded their system of vowels, adding the long vowels eta and omega.  It became known as the Euclidean Alphabet.


If you can find it, Adonis Vasilakis' The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn (Heraklion/Iraklio: Mystis O.E.) is a great resource.  It has a facsimile of the whole wall, a complete translation, and some helpful historical observations.  ISBN 9608853400

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Books Worth Reading

After my recent post about great books, pedagogy and hope I've had some queries about what I'm reading and what I recommend.

I'm reluctant to make book recommendations because I think what you read should have some connection to what you care about and what you've already read.  In general, my recommendations are these:

First, I agree with what C.S. Lewis once said:* it's good to read old books.  Old books and books written by people who are not like us have a remarkable power of helping us to see the world with fresh eyes.

Second, let your reading grow organically.  If you liked a book you read, let it lead you to the next book you read.  Often, books name their connections to other books.  Or authors will name those connections, dependencies, and appreciations.  The first time I read Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, I missed the fact that the preface named H.G. Wells and that the afterword referred to Bernardus Silvestris.  When I read it again as an adult, I caught those obvious references and let them lead me to other books.**
Third, I recommend learning the classics.  That's an intentionally vague term, and I use it to mean that it's good to know those books that have given your culture its vocabulary.  People who have stories in common have enriched possibilities for conversation.  One of my favorite Star Trek episodes explored this idea, and it appealed to me because I believe that it's not far from how language really grows. If you need a place to start, check out one of the various lists of "great books" floating around out there.  For instance this one, or this one.

With all that being said, if you're still interested in what I'm reading, here are some older titles I've enjoyed in the last year or so:
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. (Mixed feelings about this one. My mind enjoyed it more than my aesthetic sense did, if that makes sense.)
  • John Steinbeck, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. (I discovered Steinbeck late in life, thanks to a friend's recommendation.  I've also recently read his Log From The Sea of Cortez and Travels With Charley In Search Of America.  I think these two will forever shape me as a writer.)
  • Graham Greene, Our Man In Havana, The Quiet American, The Honorary Consul, Travels With My Aunt, The Power And The Glory. (I will let the number of titles speak for itself.) 
  • Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country. (I was surprised by how contemporary this old book felt, and by how relevant to America an African book could feel.) 
  • The Táin. Because I have a thing for reading really old books, and this is one of the oldest from Europe.
And here are some of the more recent books I've enjoyed:
  • China Miéville, Kraken(London. Magical realism.  Bizarre and witty.)
  • J. Mark Bertrand, Back On Murder (I don't read many detective novels, but I really enjoy Bertrand's prose.)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road. (The final lines spoke to my salvelinus fontinalis -loving heart.)
  • David James Duncan, The River Why (I've re-read this one a few times.  If you like trout and philosophy, you might like this book.)
  • Mary Karr, Lit. (Third in a series of memoirs. Some of the best storytelling I've read in a long time. Brilliant insights into addiction, love, and prayer.)


* Lewis said this in his introduction to Athanasius' On The Incarnation (which, by the way, is now available from SVS Press in a dual-language edition, Greek on one page, English on the facing page.)

** There are two excellent books on Lewis' "Space Trilogy" or (as I think it should be called) "Ransom Trilogy":  This one by Sanford Schwartz, and this one by David Downing.

I realize I'm posting a lot about Great Books and St John's College lately.  I'll stop soon.  They don't pay me for this; I'm just a grateful alumnus.

Update, 8/11/14: I've posted another list like this one on my blog, with new recommendations.  You can find it here.  

Monday, December 31, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets, And Rieden's "Sonnet Number Six"

Back in the late '90s my classmate Charles Rieden complained to our Dean at St John's College that he didn't want to have to read Shakespeare's sonnets.  Charles explained to the Dean that sonnets were an outmoded and rather silly form of writing.  

The Dean listened to all this patiently, and then made Charles an offer: write me one good sonnet and you don't have to read any of Shakespeare's sonnets.  Charles immediately agreed.  How hard could it be to write one decent sonnet?

Very hard, it turns out.  And Charles, to his everlasting credit, came to see that pretty quickly.  He produced some sonnets that week, but, by his own estimation, they were terrible.  So he kept trying.  Eventually, over the course of the next year, he had a thick stack of sonnets.  I think in the end he wound up writing more sonnets than Shakespeare, and quite a few of them were really good.

Charles died, tragically, later that year.  He was hit by a drunk driver as he walked along a highway in Santa Fe.  The college framed one of his best sonnets, "Sonnet Number Six," and hung it in the graduate student common room.

As near as I know, it still hangs there, a memorial to Charles.  I take it as a reminder not to dismiss too quickly what I do not understand, and not to imagine I understand what I have not really engaged with.