Sunday, January 5, 2014

Rereading the Iliad part 2.

Powell writes:

The invention of the Greek alphabet c. 800 BC was the third most important invention in the long history of the human species after the discovery of fire in the primordial past, and the invention of writing itself c. 3400 in Mesopotamia. The Greek alphabet . . . allows the re-creation of rough phonic equivalent of speech, even if you do not know the language. The Greek alphabet was the first system of writing capable of preserving Homer, and it seems to have been designed for this very purpose.

Let us slow this down and parse it.

"The Greek alphabet c. 800 BC was the third most important invention in the long history of the human species."

More important than the Hebrew alphabet being employed southeast of Greece, in another, not all that distant redoubt of the Mediterranean, and from which there flowed texts no less essential to the world as we know it than Homeric Greek? Really more important than that? So much more important that the Hebrew alphabet need not even be mentioned in Powell's extravagant claim for Greek?

Let me then mention what he does not.

Biblical Hebrew, generating literature roughly contemporaneous with Homeric epics, was, it is true, absent vowels — the vowels and vowel markings of Hebrew being introduced much later. It could not, then, as accurately as Homeric Greek, reproduce the actual sounds of speech. One result, for example, a rather resonant one for Judaism, is that we do not know how to pronounce the name of God — the tetragrammaton, the four letter name, Yod He Waw He, the Hebrew letters, or in English, YHVH.

Maybe Hebrew was absent vowels precisely to keep that pronunciation secret. Only the high priest on the highest of holidays was empowered utter this NAME with impunity and authority.

I like that.

I believe in it exactly as much and as little as I believe in the idea that the Greek alphabet was shaped and molded by the need to reproduce the sound of the Homeric epics.

Were both Homeric Greek and Biblical Hebrew formed by the deepest religious/poetic urges of the Greek and Hebrew people, distinctive as they were?

Such a sweet idea...

But here's something else.

Homeric Greek, indeed, employed a full alphabet. The Hebrews, however, with their comparatively reduced set of letters, their consonants, did something unique with what alphabet they had. Their key writings point to the alphabet itself so as to esteem it above all other modes of expression. (The Hebrews were, in effect, the better McLuhanites: Not only did they use their hot new medium but they bragged on it).

Think Second Commandment: No graven images.

Think, too, what happens when Moses comes down from Sinai and finds his Hebrews reverting to old media — as in dancing, around a golden calf. He smashes the Tablets of the Law upon that obnoxious and resurgent idol. He goes up for another session with YHVH and returns with a definitive edition of the Commandments. It's not only the Second Commandment as written but the whole event, the whole revelation at Sinai — a keynote of the Hebrew Bible — that aims at zero tolerance for dancing, sculpture, graven images.

Text is it, alphabetic text.

The Greeks, remember, for all their marvelous uses of the alphabet, had other sanctioned media, graven image galore.

For the Hebrews, there was only one means of expression to be trusted with what counted.

To be continued. . .

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