Every Tuesday afternoon, a group of more than half a dozen people meet at Forbes Library to read The Odyssey in Ancient Greek, an epic poem attributed to Homer that’s more than 3,000 years old. The group consists mostly of people in their 60s and 70s, including retired educators, a former engineer and a lawyer. What connects them all is a shared love of Ancient Greek literature.
Sitting in a group tucked away in a private room on the second floor of the library, nine people read aloud in a sing-song musical poetic cadence in Ancient Greek. They go through several lines from Book Nine of the Odyssey, where the hero Odysseus and his crew are trapped in the cavern lair of a one-eyed giant Cyclops named Polyphemus.
The group translated text revealing that Polyphemus didn’t cook his meat, eating it raw and only used a fire in his cavern for warmth.
“This fella’s really primitive,” interjected Nicolas Gross, a 79-year-old retired Ancient Greek, Latin and classical civilization professor from the University of Delaware.
Gross, who moved to Northampton with his wife in 2008, founded the Ancient Greek Language Study Group at Forbes in April 2016. He said that there are a lot of words from Homer’s time that are lost in translation or that the oral tradition poet made up, just as William Shakespeare would do more than two millennia later. This leads to the group sometimes improvising with translations. For example, one recurring word they encountered that day, “pepon,” is commonly translated as “good friend.” But in the context of a teasing conversation between immortal gods and brothers Zeus and Poseidon, they decided to go with another word that captured the familial relationship between the two gods — “dude.”
“For every two pages there’s at least 40 words that you don’t expect to know,” he explained. “There’s an enormous vocabulary. Even modern Greek has a large vocabulary. But you’ve got to remember that this was composed orally. Homer had no syllabary (written alphabet) and it’s 3,000 years old.”
There’s also some key differences between translating modern Greek and Ancient Greek text, Gross said.
“In college, there were four boys from Greece and they took Homer with me. They didn’t have the vocabulary trouble that people who don’t know Greek have…. But there were sentences in Homer where you would do better reading from right to left than left to right,” he said.
Many in the group have a background in the modern Greek language, having studied it in their youth, or other languages such as Latin.
Christian Campe, a 73-year-old Northampton resident emigrated to the United States from Munich, Germany, more than 40 years ago. He said when he was 69 he decided to learn Greek, inspired by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who learned the language at 80 years old.
“Classes started at Smith College, I went over there, and took three years of courses there,” he added. “I knew zero Greek and now I can read it. That’s a fantastic experience.”
Campe described the journey of learning Greek as “a new horizon opening up,” when he returned to the classroom as a student.
“I felt like I was 15 again in school,” he added. “Wow. Having that experience a second time was wonderful. With Homer, the times come to life, but there’s a refinement on language that is unbelievable and that was 3,000 years ago! The western civilization started on the highest note, it went downhill, and some of the greatest things came back. But surpassing it? — No.”
The reason why the group is reading Book Nine of the epic Ancient Greek poem is simple. It’s the easiest. In 2016 they started with that book before moving into other tales in the Odyssey, which proved far more difficult for newcomers to the group to translate. Now, they’re back on Book Nine, Gross explained.
“They had help on books Nine through Twelve with text and vocabulary online,” he added. “They could always go to that. They just wanted to continue, so then we did books One through Five. Five is just terrible. There’s a point where Odysseus builds a boat and the vocabulary becomes unbearable.”
John Lind, 73 of Northampton and a newcomer with the group, started with Book Five. He described translating passages about Odysseus being caught in a riptide in that section as “brutal.”
Lind, a retired engineer and former business owner, had a lifelong dream to read Homer’s Odyssey in the Ancient Greek language.
“I discovered what I thought was true, really was true,” he said. “There’s a complexity of Homer versus what you see in the translations and the way it’s taught in American education. And I think the complexity is so amazing because you can actually see in it the seeds of future fiction. There’s all sorts of things in here that you would never expect to see. Everybody thinks that ancients were primitive, but in reality, they were so advanced. We’ve lost track of that. We went through the dark ages. And now in the 21st Century, someone like me might discover that they were fairly complex back then.”
Though Gross is an organizer for the group it’s very much a collaborative process with no single leader, he said.
Bob Ritchie, an 81-year-old Amherst resident, is a retired lawyer and former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who studied Greek in high school and went on to study Greek and Latin in college.
“It brings you back to your roots,” he added. “It meant something to me years ago and it resumes meaning something to me today with people like this. It just opens up a world that had meaning and it ties the ends of my life together nicely.”
Catherine Hilton, 65, of Shutesbury and one of the original members, decided to join the group after her husband passed away.
“I was fairly recently widowed and looking for ways to be connected,” she explained. “I had long had an interest in traditional oral poetry. I had always wanted to study Greek, but hadn’t had the opportunity to do it. So, I leaped at this. And I’ve loved it ever since.”
Exploring the Odyssey in its original language is what’s kept her coming back to the group for years, she noted. “I guess I love what it tells us about ancient life — what is continuous since antiquity and what is different,” Hilton said.