Lost in Translation: The Importance of Cultural Context

I have made the point before that cultural context matters when trying to ascribe meaning to something someone from a distant time period or foreign culture has to say. Cultural context refers to what something means in the particular culture being studied. For example, some ritual they do, or tradition by itself might seem meaningless or silly to an outsider, but have deep significance to those within that culture. An opinion that seems arbitrary or illogical to an outsider’s perspective may reflect a different worldview in where such an opinion makes perfect sense. Taken out of their proper context within a culture, anything like rituals, values, opinions, concepts etc… may seem meaningless or misunderstood. Cultural context helps the historian have a much richer appreciation for what they are studying, as they can try to see what it was supposed to mean to an insider, rather than just looking in from the outside. Since every culture has their own worldviews, traditions, values etc… it is a very easy mistake to make to interpret another culture’s message through the eyes of your own culture, not theirs.

While the most obvious cultural misunderstandings happen around customs, traditions, values etc…, there is one particular aspect that is much more overlooked. In anyone’s culture, there are certain things that are so ingrained, that we take for granted and don’t even think of them as cultural, but universal to everyone. These often are abstract concepts in our own worldviews. I never thought of this before either, actually, as for me too, things seem so obvious it is almost alien to think others think differently and still are making any sense. For example, in Western culture, and my own worldview, what makes sense is governed by rules of logic and reasoning. In this worldview, there are truths and untruths, and what is true must be based on evidence that we can somehow sense or figure out, or through rules of logic. It is more analytical and ridged in the way that I found out other cultures do not think in such terms. To them, their worldview is more fluid, how they determine what is in their world to us might seem arbitrary by our standards, but they have a different outlook. Even in the past, most people thought in a different way than we do now. Our worldview in the West has become “scientific” in how it’s grounded in logic and evidence, perhaps only recently once the scientific revolution took place and science as we know it got more prominence in our culture. Even a smaller concept than trying to determine the rules of the cosmos we can easily take for granted.

For example, the concept of time, how it functions seems so obvious to us, but to another culture it is different. Western culture views time as a linear process, heading away from the past, towards the future. Other cultures though, had a cyclical view of time, like in many past agrarian societies the seasons would govern their lives and be on a cycle. For those people, that made sense, as they lived season to season on an agricultural cycle, than an industrial culture in which the cycles of the seasons became irrelevant and one could count the years ever moving forward. The agricultural society however, couldn’t care less about whether it’s been a decade or a century, their crops depended on the repeating cycles of the seasons. Time seems like such an absolute, I mean. Everyone experiences it, and to us, it seems logical to view time as linear; past, present, future…, but even though everyone is aware of time, how it is interpreted can vary.

This creates problems for the historian trying to view a message through the eyes of the culture at the time. We may think we know what they mean when they talk about some concept like “to create” in John Walton’s example in his analysis of Genesis, but they might take the meaning of creating something as different from ours conception of what it is to create something. This is especially tricky for people wanting to get meaning out of religious texts to live by or use as official doctrine. It is not enough to simply feel like you could translate a text and then know what the ancient really meant when they wrote it. You could theoretically weed out all the grammatical and semantic ambiguities, know where the word is used most often, and what it meant in our language, but without the cultural context in the picture too, we still see the meaning through our eyes, not theirs. Another example of this importance of cultural context comes from another author, Dr. Orville Jenkins in his article Time or Character, The Ages or A Time Sequence in aionios How Words “Mean” in Greek and English . He is an anthropological linguist, and has worked with other cultures. He gave a great example involving the Greek word aionios, which is translated to mean “eternal” or “everlasting”. Jenkins disagrees with this, as he argues that those words in our culture in English connotate a worldview the Greeks at the time did not have.

The word in English “everlasting” assumes a context of time sequence and measurement, which the word “aionios/aionion” (of the Ages) does not.  The word everlasting indicates a starting point and moving towards what would be an ending point, but without a real ending point.  That is, the focus seems to still be on sequence.

The English word “eternal” further carries an abstract metaphysical connotation not seemingly in focus in ancient dynamic worldviews. The influence of Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish neo-Platonist of the 1st century, was influential in that direction in later European thought.

He goes on the argue the Ancient Greeks at the time did not have those views in their conception of time, or what they meant in the context of what they were trying to say was going to happen the New Testament.

The Greek word, and the messianic idea it attempts to represent, are focused on condition or character, not time or length of time.  In focus is a new age that is different from the current age, in kind and quality.  The focus is not on how long in terms of time sequence. The Greeks, as well as all the ancient peoples, were dynamic and relational in their understanding of the world, even the “philosophical” thinkers.  We call those cultures concrete-relational, or oral-relational.  Modern literacy and the resultant way of thinking analytically since the Enlightenment has affected the actual way people think. The western Rationalist approach to knowledge, reducing matters down to components and analyzing them by linear deduction, has led to a high focus on time sequence and cause and effect by “independent” actors, rather than the connected, relational concepts of reality dominant in the rest of the modern world and universal in ancient human cultures.

That means the ideas of “everlasting” or “eternal” in English have a time-sequence meaning you cannot get away from.  This is just not involved in the Greek (really Hebrew) idea of a New Age. The Greek word in its own context likewise does not carry any connotation of focus on time sequence, but on a period of time as a unit, very like the common words most used to translate it, “age,” “of the age.”

This would present a major misunderstanding for those trying to interpret what will happen according to the New Testament, as a Westerner with a more time-oriented view would misunderstand what the Ancient Greek writer really meant a “New Age” was supposed to be. The concept of the “New Age” as linearly time oriented like in our Western worldview would be illogical and incorrect for a culture with a more relational worldview like the Ancient Greeks. Knowing that leads to a much better understanding. Who knows though too, the Greek translator might have misinterpreted the original Hebrew or Aramaic word through an Ancient Greek cultural lens rather than the original!

Jenkins makes a great point too, in general, that words “mean” only what they mean within a culture’s worldview, not in our own. Greek words mean what they mean within Greek culture, not American culture for instance! One can try to find the nearest functional equivalent, but no word in a foreign language means exactly the same concept as in your own language and culture. I will add even if a word is translated accurately into a word we already have, what that word means to the other culture an be completely different!

The linguistic understanding of meaning is that the meaning of any word or phrase in a language depends on the worldview, the cultural context of the people using that language.  No word in any language means a word in another language.  Put another way, no word in one language is equivalent to a word in any other language.  Or no word in any language can be defined by any word in another language.

Words have meaning only in their cultural worldview context.  And a word can make sense only in the context and structures of its own language.  Meaning is culture-sensitive.  This is simply what we know about how human language works. Most of the classic lexicons or dictionaries don’t give you a meaning of the Greek word.  Most simplistically reference how that word has been translated into English!  So we still don’t know what it MEANT in GREEK!  In the Mediterranean 1st-Century socio-cultural setting!

Jenkins’ article really highlights the importance of cultural context on interpreting what historical people have to say. Without the original cultural context, even with it being perfectly translated grammar-wise and semantically, the message is still “lost in translation”!

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Different worldviews, different conclusions…

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Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting, Linguistics and History, Opinion Piece | 4 Comments

Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek

You may have noticed that some of my more recent posts have to do with Ancient Greece and the classical world. I have become more interested in that time period again, only instead of the Romans like last year, currently I’m more focused on Ancient Greece and 30429349_779969788866953_261389237_nthe ancient Greek Language. I’ve been trying to learn some of the language, and the alphabet. Although the complex grammar of Ancient Greek is a bit over my head right now, the alphabet itself is less challenging than I thought to try to learn! The best I can do now is try to sound out words I see, sort of like first learning how to read. There are some resources online to learn Ancient Greek, but are less common than Latin and mare more technical much faster than other resources on languages like Latin and German. Therefore, I thought that getting a textbook would be a better start to trying to learn more. I wanted one like the Cambridge Latin Course or Ecce Romani, with simple vocabulary and sentences with illustrations of the ancient world. Unfortunately, there are far fewer textbooks of Ancient Greek with such things. However, I did find one called Athenaze, by Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall that did have some images of Ancient Greeks in the style of the time period as well as simple stories and vocab. I prefer line drawings like in the Cambridge Latin Course, but it’s still good and feels authentic. Similar to the Cambridge Latin Course and Ecce Romani, Athenaze tells a story with characters to follow. getting increasingly complex as you go along. The story centers around an Ancient Athenian who lives on a farm with his family named Dicaeopolis, translated roughly as “just city”, which is supposed to mean something along the lines of  “honest citizen”.

So far, the textbook overall is what I was hoping for. The illustrations are nice, and like I said, authentic to the time period of Ancient Greece. The simple stories are in large readable font and the vocab lists help one learn. Unfortunately, it is trickier to judge 30772221_779959862201279_692771164_osome aspects since it is definitely more in depth from earlier on than the Latin textbooks, and the grammar is explained less clearly and simply than the Latin textbooks as well. I would say my biggest criticisms of Athenaze is that it spends too little time going over the absolute fundamentals, like exercises on the Greek alphabet, expecting mastery after a few pages going over sounds, and explaining basic grammar before jumping into things, like aorists and other more obscure grammar points. The grammar is definitely too fast paced and the Latin textbooks take it in smaller more comprehensible steps for the beginner. Also, the book does not give pronunciation for the vocab words to make sure they are pronounced correctly. Even though this book is for beginners, it is more appropriate for students with at least a year of Ancient Greek in a classroom. Being self taught, this textbook is challenging and more geared towards a classroom setting with a knowledgeable teacher. Overall, I am pleased with the illustrations and short stories, and the fact they have samples of Ancient Greek from classical sources and Biblical sources, as the New Testament was originally in Greek, and the Septuagint, also in Greek, is the Old Testament. It really shows the range of where and how the language was used. For an absolute beginner for the most part, like myself, I’ve discovered my pace is better met with resources for young children learning Ancient Greek!  Luckily, there are resources to teach young children and are slower paced and don’t dive right into a ton of very technical grammar! It also helps with alphabet practice! Here’s some free pages I found from one source! Hey, Andrew! Teach  Me Some Greek!

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A last point to mention is that this textbook teaches Attic Greek, the Ancient Greek most classicists use and was spoken around Ancient Athens. Attic Greek is more grammatically complex than Koine Greek, the “common” Greek after Alexander conquered many parts of the Hellenistic world. The Biblical sources were written in Koine Greek, not Attic Greek. Some resources, mostly religious in nature due to this fact, teach Koine Greek. The advantage of Attic Greek though is I’ve heard once you can read Attic Greek, you can understand Koine Greek.

I would say that Athenaze is an okay textbook for a class or highly motivated individuals that catch on quickly. The drawings are what I like best, and trying to follow along with the short stories.  The grammar is a bit too complex too soon in the learning process, but the book feels authentic with the period stories and illustrations. Would recommend as a supplement for learning Ancient Greek on one’s own, or for someone with more familiarity with the language. Overall though, very fascinating textbook for a very interesting language :)

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Here are some resources I found helpful online!

Ancient Greek Words & Phrases with Audio

Bill Mounce YouTube Channel

Ancient Greek Phonology

Useful Ancient Greek phrases

Posted in Ancient History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Linguistics and History, Reviews | 6 Comments

“They Have Risen!”

Jesus wasn’t the only god who died and rose again in the springtime! The theme of “Dying and Rising” gods was common in agricultural societies where naturally, the deities would follow the cycle of growth in the spring and summer, and the “death” of the nature in wintertime. While not all dying and rising god stories follow the same themes and events as the story of Jesus, the thing they all have in common is the deity dies by some means, but comes back to life.

Dying and Rising Gods

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(Left to right: Thor, Mithras, Jesus, Dionysus, and Osiris)

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Yes, Kids Can Handle Darker Themes in Movies…

Two movies I personally find to be a goldmine of deep themes and intellectual richness for children are The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Disney, and The Prince of Egypt by Dreamworks.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Disney is full of very dark, but deep themes to explore and reflect on. I won’t give a full summary here as I want to dive right into why I think it is so good. First of all, I want to give it a thumbs up for how it wasn’t afraid to tackle the very controversial topic of religion and religious corruption. Many kids movies shy away Related imagefrom religion unless they push a specific agenda. This movie however, treated religion in an objective and balanced light, showing both its beauty and its ugliness. The villain Frollo, who was a priest in all but name clearly used Catholicism for his own corrupt and unethical purposes. He wanted to wipe out the gypsies in Paris in his own genocidal campaign and lusted after and imprisoned one, Esmeralda, accusing her of being a witch when he really was trying to hide his sexual desire for her. Frollo uses religion as an excuse for his wrongdoings and genuinely believed he was doing right, unlike most kids movie villains who do evil simply for evil’s sake.  In that respect, he was the most realistic bad guy in a kids movie in my opinion! However, the more loving side of Christianity is also shown through the archdeacon. He upholds the idea of a loving religion, one of inclusion and tolerance and helps Esmeralda. Also, throughout the movie, Christian religious concepts like sin, damnation, hell, the devil, God, prayer and such come up frequently. While many non-Christian parents might squirm at it for ideas not in their belief system, or Christian ones for that matter, as religion is not portrayed as 100% good, Christianity itself in the film is not proselytized, but explored as a driving force in medieval society. The theme of religious corruption and religion in specifically medieval society is one of great intellectual thought.

Another commendable thing is that one can appreciate it all the greater in knowing the historical context of it. In the Middle Ages, it was basically a theocracy centered around Christianity, more specifically, Catholicism! The Church was very powerful and did have the authority to persecute people for heresy and the like. Religion was a huge inseparable part of day to day life and people’s worldview, far greater than today! There was no distinction between the secular and religious spheres of life. In that context, religion has to be in every facet of the movie, as omitting religion from a medieval movie Image result for hunchback of notre dame disney frollo hellfireomits the foundation of medieval society in which The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set! Yes, songs like “Hellfire” are very very dark, but it gives a lot to think about. The most significant thing to gain from the religious theme for kids is that religion is an integral part of the human condition, and has affected humans for millennia. The good can be approved of, and the bad reflected on and analyzed. Religion in itself is not bad or should be controversial to expose children to, as long as one isn’t being put on a pedestal over the others and told everyone has to believe it!  The Hunchback of Notre Dame does in no way proselytize Christianity, indeed it looks at it with a very critical eye! Religion used to indoctrinate kids in a movie is one thing I agree needs to be toned down a lot, but if a society in which a story is set has religion ingrained in its very fabric, then it is only accurate to portray religion in the story! Another point of excellence was the use of Latin chants in the soundtrack to capture the atmosphere of the Catholic/medieval setting such as the cathedral and reflecting the themes in the songs.

Aside from religion, other deeper themes come up, like the concept of genocide when Frollo tries to kill off the gypsies, to abuse of Quasimodo, and themes about lust and Image result for hunchback of notre dame disney archdeaconsexual desire in Frollo’s repressed mind. Even a song called “Topsy Turvy” hints at more bawdy themes in medieval society and from a historical point of view, gives an honest impression of medieval festivals. A more uplifting theme is one of moral courage, as Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Phoebus as each challenge the corrupt authority of Frollo. Disney did an exemplary job of capturing the culture of the time period, and historical context! I love how their cultural ideology is reflected in the story line, musical numbers, and dialogue! Disney captured the culture of Medieval Europe extremely well in this movie! While very dark as a kids movie, and probably not best for very young children who are more concrete thinkers, and wont pick up on most of the nuance, older kids can appreciate it with the help of an inquisitive adult.

The Prince of Egypt

The Prince of Egypt by Dreamworks is also a very dark, but exemplary film in terms of critical thought, deep themes, and religion. Unlike The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it directly covers the Story of the Hebrews leaving Egypt in Exodus and is geared toward an audience of believers in Judaism and Christianity. However, it can easily be appreciated by people of other faiths or no religion too. This is because while the story is from a Judaeo-Christian worldview, where God does in fact, exist and it preaches Judaeo-Image result for prince of egyptChristian moral values such as trusting in God’s plan, it also can be interpreted as the viewpoint of the characters, not necessarily required of the audience. A non religious person can appreciate the story line in that the religious ideas presented are held by the characters in the story, but doesn’t necessarily mean you personally have to as the viewer. An easy example of that sort of distance is when looking at other myths around the world, like the Greco-Roman myths. Even in highly Christian Medieval Europe, many scholars could enjoy Greek and Roman mythology, without feeling like they too, must believe in Zeus! The Hebrew characters, being Jewish, genuinely believe in the God of Abraham, and accordingly, their actions and songs through the film should reflect that fact. They are not detached or neutral towards religion, as it is their religion! Dreamworks also gives the Egyptians some attention too beyond just being the “bad guys”, and they are portrayed with equal sincerity in the worship of their own gods as pagans.  Like in the Middle Ages, religion has been in the fabric of life for most of human history! Portraying most historical cultures involves portraying religion if done authentically. This is why I wish, even as a non-religious person, that religion play a bigger role in capturing the essence of historical cultures in movie and TV. I love how they portrayed the religious beliefs of both sides sincerely and without condescension. Not because religion shouldn’t be criticized or examined, but because those were the sincere beliefs of the people being portrayed.

Even though this movie is geared toward a religious slant for us viewers, it still is not without implicit criticisms although devoid of explicit ones about the Judaeo-Christian God. Even though the brutality of the Egyptians is explicitly evident, there is a graphic scene of genocide at the beginning, and the brutality of slavery, the God of the Hebrews acts with equal brutality in many scenes, such as the killing of the first born and the plagues. Dreamworks portrays the Egyptian’s human side, like when the pharaoh loses his beloved son, and you can see Egyptian citizens cowering in fear. That scene, which can be found on YouTube is chilling, even more disturbing than any scene in The Related imageHunchback of Notre Dame! Makes me wonder, was it allowed simply because the movie was religious? What does that say about the power of religion and not questioning it? In a way, Dreamworks gave the story a more objective tone by portraying the brutality of the Hebrew God as well as the Egyptians, and humanizing both sides, even though it was clear the Hebrews were the “good guys”. Thorny questions are easily thought of for the inquisitive mind about how morally justified the God of the Hebrews was in retaliating by killing everyone’s first born son, as although the pharaoh was evil in his genocide, the Egyptian people were innocent and powerless to stop it. Similar questions could be addressed in the context of Germany and post -WWII. The Prince of Egypt was a great and insightful portrayal of religion both Jewish and pagan, in the ancient world.

Of course, historical context makes it all the more insightful! I commend Dreamworks for putting so much research and historical accuracy in the clothing, setting, and culture of the Near East of antiquity! I also like the other themes depicted, like persecution/genocide, the humanizing of the “bad guy” and of Moses, and brotherly love and family responsibility between Moses and Ramses. Even though Ramses turned out to Related imagebe very unethical, he was still Moses’ brother, and Moses did not forget the bond they once shared, and he felt the intense guilt of his god killing his nephew, his brother’s son. Moses too, was made to be more human, and less “larger than life”, also commendable. Moses had doubts and imperfections. He made mistakes and changed as a human being, not just an agent of God’s divine plan. It’s a good skill to see another culture or viewpoint like that of the ancients in the story, both Egyptian and Hebrew, and children should learn to as soon as possible. Even the prequel Joseph King of Dreams is superb quality! While geared towards a Judaeo-Christian audience, many of other faiths and no faith, have come to appreciate the intellectual richness and appreciation for the human condition in the film. Let your children appreciate the richness another culture’s story can bring, we can for Greco-Roman stories even if we don’t personally believe,  why not Judaeo-Christian ones? It’s quite rare the movie is better than the book ;)

Overall, both movies have very dark, but insightful themes that touch on major aspects of the human condition. Shielding children from those ideas and themes simply because it makes us uncomfortable is more reflective on our own inability to face up to humanity’s problems, not our children’s incapability. The world can be a scary dark place, and kids need to know and be aware of that in order to make changes as adults. The world can also be very beautiful when good people fight for it. The ability to think critically and objectively and be aware of our shortcomings as Homo sapiens is half the battle toward a world that is more “rated G”.

Posted in Ancient History, Helping Make History More Interesting, Middle Ages, Opinion Piece, Religion, Reviews | Leave a comment

You’re Not Alone…

Human nature makes us wonder about if others are like us. I think that’s what ultimately drives the search for alien life out there. Aside from the very intriguing scientific possibility of different kinds of life from our own on earth, there is the more existential curiosity if there is life out there specifically like us humans. Humans evolved to be very social animals seek out others like their own kind. However, I don’t intend to go off on an extraterrestrial tangent on my history blog! I want to address a more personal issue of mine involving finding others like myself:

In some ways, I don’t feel like I’m like many people, even fellow intellectuals. We’ve all heard of the stereotype of the rabid intellectual, a one dimensional person obsessed with some narrow interest with zero social life or other lighter hobbies or pursuits. Characters like Sheldon on the “Big Bang Theory” play into those amusing stereotypes of intellectuals. The absent minded professor, the unfeeling robot, the character in “A Beautiful Mind” or the idiot savant also come into mind. However, most people realize in real life, there are plenty of well rounded fully functional intellectuals who have brilliance, academically, and socially. Plenty of intellectual academics have a variety of non-intellectual hobbies and interests as well as thriving social lives outside their field. Like many others, many intellectuals can be brilliant and passionate at their job, but come home to their personal life as a different person from their academic life. For most, this is a good combination and a well balanced fulfilling life.

I agree with that view intellectually myself, but emotionally, I feel different. Most who know me personally I think would most likely describe me as smart or intellectual. My passions for science, and history especially, have been with me from a very young age. As early as the 3rd grade in my solid memories. Ever since then, I’ve always knew I was “different” from a lot of my peers. When they were playing mindlessly, I was trying to follow the teacher and ask her about geology. When my peers were gossiping about Justin Bieber, or what video game they liked, and literally did not think of anything remotely deep and intellectual, I was thinking about either things in history or science. In high school, some of the deeper philosophical questions entered my mind. The point is, I was always, and still am, strongly intellectual. Now, I don’t believe I even come close to the stereotypical portrayal of the closed off rabid intellectual, who had zero interest in other things and no social life. I was never like Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory, who frankly, probably has some developmental disability like Asperger’s or something. I could read emotion, and understood social boundaries and empathized with my fellow man. While being a strong intellectual in my youth, as I matured, I also developed a more social and lighter less “deep” side to my personality. I developed some new interests and hobbies especially around high school. I could joke around mindlessly with my friends and just “be a kid”, so to speak. Like the ideal intellectuals who could be intellectual, and well rounded, in some ways, I was maturing into a more well-rounded person.

However, something is still amiss. When I was younger, I felt like all the other intellectuals out there must be like me: focused intensely on their chosen field of study, and it was a large fundamental part of their identity as people. It never occurred to me some may indeed take “breaks” from their deep intellectual thought, and wish to talk about other things too. As I matured, I did come to the realization that most people have other sides to them too, which they might equally like to develop and explore, but something about it still felt confusing and disheartening. For me, my intellectual interests are still a huge part of my identity. It’s not just a “hobby” to casually put aside, but something that is fundamental to defining me as an individual. Just as we don’t put our core values and morals away at will, I can’t put away my intellectual side. We may not openly preach our core values ad-nauseum to others, and I don’t talk non-stop about intellectual things to people obviously not interested nor understand it, but it is always a presence in life in both cases implicitly within ourselves and who we are.

To put it more to the point, I feel that many of my fellow intellectuals can compartmentalize the many dimensions of their personality, and keep them separate, like in their own neat little boxes, whereas my “intellectual box” is overflowing, and spills into the other dimensions of myself. As an example, say an intellectual scholar is passionate about Ancient Greek and the Classical World, but in their personal life likes to watch mindless soap operas. When watching mindless soap operas, they are not actively thinking of Ancient Greek verbs or alpha privatives. For me, I like to shop for clothes and will go to the store and look around without any existential thoughts or metaphysical angst.

However, thoughts can creep into my mind about completely unrelated intellectual topics, like philosophical questions, or as an example, alpha privatives. They don’t bother me, but are like pleasant background music. This even happens in social situations. I’ll be mindlessly joking around with friends, but think about intellectual topics I’ll never bring up in the conversation. It’s like I can’t purely focus on just being mindless with my friends like others can. Sometimes, I even get the strong urge to let an intellectual thought out even though no one in my company would understand or appreciate it! Sometimes, I’ll watch a movie or TV show and realize I’m thinking about the work on a deeper level than just watching it, looking for the themes and character development, and the messages in the story even if it’s not for some school assignment, but I use the same skills I learned in the class to analyze it. Probably the biggest issue is when I’d try to talk to my teachers intellectually outside class, only to be shooed away due to their disinterest in the subject outside class, or in the moment. You see, to them, the subject is merely a job to be put away outside formal work, but for me, it was so much more, and I thought they’d share my same zeal for learning more about it.

Some might say I’m not a well rounded person, or it’s not healthy to be so strongly obsessed with intellectual topics, and it honestly does bother me to be seen in that way by others, especially other intellectuals. However, despite my abilities to put myself in other’s perspectives, it still confuses me why they don’t see the wonder and awe in what I’m into. To see being intellectual and talking about, teaching and sharing one’s knowledge as merely a “job” and something to be put away in one’s everyday personal life is still somewhat of an odd mindset to me. As I said before, my intellectual nature isn’t something I can just “put away” in a little box, only brought out at certain times, but a defining feature of my identity. Even when I think of lighter subject matter, or am engaged in mindless hobbies, intellectual thoughts are always creeping in. Some people say “So what? Who cares? Everyone’s different…”, but I do care. I said humans are very social animals, and a basic human instinct is to desire others like oneself. Sometimes it feels very isolating to think that other scholars do not think as I do about their intellectual pursuits. To feel like I’m the only one save for a socially awkward and inept few that think intellectually and think about intellectual topics even during non-intellectual activities. It would be such a breath of fresh air to find out I’m not alone in this. That some fellow intellectual thinks like I do, wanting to constantly learn and share their intellect with people who care and could teach them new things. Someone who doesn’t view intellectual interests as merely a “job”, but an all encompassing passion in life.

I am still figuring out that dilemma. Trying to find the right balance to be a well rounded person, but not suppress a major part of my identity. I wish I could just let it all out unburdened by guilt or social constraint, and to someone who cares just as much. I just want to say to anyone out there reading this who thinks like me, you’re not alone. If you too feel your intellect is a part of your identity, if you want someone to learn from who is as passionate as you are, if you find deep thoughts and questions permeating your brain at random, if you struggle to keep it all inside when others aren’t interested or wouldn’t understand, if you just want someone who knows what it’s like to have a mind like yours and embrace it…

-You’re not alone.

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Posted in Helping Make History More Interesting, Opinion Piece | Leave a comment

One Culture’s “Heaven” is Another One’s Hell: Pederasty in Ancient Greece

As historians, I have often emphasized the need to suspend our own cultural tastes, opinions and taboos to be able to study those who came before us in an objective scholarly way. Most of the time for many scholars this comes easier than in most of society. From topics of brutal slavery, racism, sexism, national and religious extremism, genocide, rape, killings, and all sorts of practices and attitudes we now would deem completely unacceptable were at one time or another, part of the culture and made up the historical background we must acknowledge in order to understand them. Part of understanding the lives of our predecessors, is to look at it impartially, and dispassionately. The good and especially the bad, as it is harder for us to accept what we don’t like than what we do. For many unpleasant topics to our culture, overall most scholarly people are able to swallow and get past their own cultural perspective and analyze others with different values. However, I believe there is one topic so taboo in our culture, one even hardened criminals revile and abhor, it is hard to see past our cultural revulsion of it: sexual crimes involving children. Murder is one kind of evil in society, rape is too, but sexual harm to children is by far the most reviled and horrific in our society. The taboo aura the topic generates ironically has prevented a lot of actual victims from getting justice as it is “the topic which will not be spoken of” to that effect. What does this have to do with the historian? Plenty when it comes to the study of Greek Pederasty.

The topic historically has been downplayed heavily and overlooked as “the thing we shall not mention”. It was only more recently did historians decide to address such a taboo subject. The actual practice had to do with the education of Greek boys and young men. It was part of the “erotic-educational model”, in which an older man would teach a boy the virtues of Greek society and wisdom in exchange for sexual gratification from the boy. To modern ears, this sounds like the unethical exploitative practices of modern teachers taking advantage of their students and conjures up images of the Catholic priest scandals and other scandals involving teachers and coaches. However, this needs more explanation. In our culture, sexuality is though of in terms of gender, ex. homosexual vs. heterosexual and so on. In the ancient world, sex and sexuality revolved not around gender, but power. It was a matter of who penetrated whom, whether man or woman regardless if you were the opposite sex. To us, we like to envision sex as a mutual undertaking. A shared experience between two equals. This is why we get upset if there is a power imbalance, whether it be a man over his wife, or an authority figure over a subordinate. To us, any power differential in a sexual relationship is exploitative to the one not in power. An adult and child is a prime example of the inherent power differential we decided is unethical.

To the ancient Greeks and many many other cultures, power is the key in such relationships and society in general was far more hierarchical. The Greeks envisioned pederasty as not unethical, as it would be done in a way that the younger boy, who really was 14 and up, or at least into puberty, that does not compromise his citizenship rights. The thing they were cautious of in such relationships was that if done improperly, the

The “up and down gesture” depicted in Greek Art. Yes, it’s explicit. We’re all scholars here, if you want to study history, you will come across far worse things…

younger boy could lose his citizenship status if he is too “submissive” in his sexual role. Being on the receiving end to so to speak, meant you were the passive one. Indeed, the terms for the two who would be in a pederastic relationship were the erastes or “lover” and his eromenos or “loved one”. To combat this, the boy would have to play “hard to get”. He could not enter into the relationship too quickly, but must be convinced to help preserve his autonomy. Likewise, the erastes must also temper his desire for the boy, or risk appearing unmanly with desire. The emphasis on the relationship though, was not supposed to be about pure lust and sexuality. Going back to the “erotic educational model”, there was a big emphasis on the education part of the deal. It was more important for the erastes to teach the eromenos how to be a productive and wise citizen of Greece than for the eromenos to give love to the erastes. To further preserve the dignity and autonomy of the eromenos as a freeborn male, in many cases, there was no penetrative sex. In one of Plato’s works, The Symposium, one of the guests at that party made a speech detailing more about the practice of Greek pederasty. He said that it was a form of “heavenly love”, as opposed to the “common love” of women and physical bodies, unlike the higher heavenly love of wisdom and your partner’s intellectual qualities. Pederasty was part of that “heavenly love”, as they believed the male sex was superior in wisdom and intellect. Pederasty was in that sense, more of an intellectual union than a physical one.

Regardless, this practice is still unacceptable in our own culture, and I personally agree with that judgement. Just because it worked in Ancient Greece, does not mean it works here! Our own notions of sex and power dictate it is unethical within our cultural framework. Trying to justify it in our culture is comparing apples to oranges. Our culture has vastly different in worldviews on the subject, and being done in our culture, would cause psychological harm. However, in Ancient Greece, the practice was extremely commonplace, and no trauma would result as it is not considered taboo or dirty, or wrong in their own culture. For Ancient Greek males, this was simply a stage of life to go through. Many went on and married women and had normal lives. This was not about being “gay” or getting “confused”, as like I said before, gender wasn’t the issue. It’s about power. Once the boys grew into proper men, they ended the sexual component, as sex between male equals was taboo, and would disempower the man in the passive role. However, they often retained life long bonds with their former erastes and teachers, like a lifelong mentor.

As historians, it is still a challenge to overcome our own revulsion of the practice to study it in a frank and honest way. It also challenges our notions of the Greeks being this “ideal culture” in which we were bred from! Yes, the Ancient Greeks contributed much to our culture, but it is an important lesson to learn that no culture will have 100% of your values, no matter how much you glorify them. Nor does Greek pederasty diminish the awe inspiring contributions Greek society did give the Western World! Let me reiterate this one last time: Just because the ancients did something in their culture, doesn’t mean it works in ours! I am in no way saying because pederasty was done in Ancient Greece, it make it ethical in our cultural framework. Conversely, I will boldly state just because something would be unethical in our culture doesn’t mean it’s unethical in their cultural framework! Let’s be historians and scholars here shall we? Stop our collective cultural blushing, giggles, and “eeeeeewwww!” and just grow up! What’s “heavenly” in one culture may be “hellish” in another…

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For more resources:

Ancient Greek Pederasty: Education Or Exploitation? (This article is excellent in emphasizing how we must not let our cultural taboos get in the way of scholarly analysis! She also provides some information I left out in the courtship process!)

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Opinion Piece | 4 Comments

Happy International Septuagint Day!

The Septuagint is a Greek Translation of the Hebrew Books in the Bible! As there is a Greek New Testament, the Septuagint is essentially the Greek Old Testament with a few additional books not found in the Christian Bible! The name “Septuagint” refers to the legend that 70 translators translated the text! There were technically 72, but 70 sounds better ;) The word comes from Latin for 70 (LXX). The Septuagint is an important document to historians wanting to learn more about the early origins of the Bible and gives great insights into how the Greek speaking Jews of the time translated their readings of the Hebrew texts. History is Interesting encourages you to learn more about this awesome historical resource, and others like it that shape the history of things we find fascinating! :)

(PS. The “Museum of The Bible” YouTube channel has some very fascinating easy to understand videos like this one on the history of the Bible from a non-religious scholarly perspective! Even if you are not an adherent to the Judaeo-Christian traditions yourself, the Bible, Torah, and other books not included in the official canon are fascinating in themselves as interesting pieces of ancient literature! If you haven’t studied them as closely, broaden your horizons into the history of these age old texts!)

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Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting, Holidays | 2 Comments