25 MARCH 2000, Page 14


Martin Hammond on donkeys

and other echoes of the Homeric past

TO make a Greek donkey start, go for- ward or accelerate, you tell it 'So'. To make it stop you say something like 'Proof with a long rolled r. To cause a donkey to eat or drink, you whistle to it, or intone `m-na, m-na, — or both.

These invaluable tips I picked up 30 years ago, when I travelled on a donkey in rural Crete, through a landscape and a cul- ture then barely changed since Homeric times. My encounters with men, women and donkeys gave shape and definition to my understanding of the world of Homer, and were constantly in my mind's eye when I came, in more recent years, to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey.

My first donkey, of three which I bought and sold on those journeys, initially inspired me with some pride and fondness. Acquired for 1,500 drachmas (then about £20) and several glasses of ouzo, she seemed a delightful creature: neat, clean and handsome, with a delicate gait and an expression of deep abstract thought. But it was not long before I was driven to parox- ysms of impotent fury, and some most un- English treatment of an animal, by the pure obstinacy of the beast and the adagio pace which she chose.

'Proof she responded to readily enough. 'Se' didn't always work. Nor did anything else. The locals said I was too kind to her, and she certainly took advantage of my remaining foreign scruples. But then the Greeks have had 3,000 years of the prob- lem, as we discover in the famous donkey simile in Iliad Book 11. Aias is slowly retreating: As when a donkey — a stubborn creature, who has had many sticks broken on both sides of him — ignores the efforts of the boys leading him alongside a field and turns in to crop the deep corn: the boys beat him with their sticks, but their strength is feeble, and they only drive him out with much effort when he has had his fill of food.

For 12 weeks, over two summer holidays when I was teaching at St Paul's School, I travelled with donkeys among the villages of rural Crete. It was like walking through the Odyssey. Although there were metalled roads, I and my various donkeys went on them only twice. For the rest of the time we moved from village to village via the mule-tracks over and round the moun- tains, what the villagers call 'the old road'.

You realise with a frisson of timeless- ness that you and your donkey are walking a path unchanged for 3,000 years. The economy of those independent village houses, the animal husbandry, the very modes and tools of cultivation were strik- ingly similar, on a smaller scale, to those of Odysseus' palace in Ithaka described in the Odyssey.

The position and responsibilities of women, the pattern of festivals and mar- riages, the celebratory eating of meat, the dominance of the natural world — all these resonated strongly with antiquity. I saw women weaving and spinning wool with spindle and distaff exactly as Pene- lope and her maidservants had done. In one house, that of a very poor man in Armanogeia, after a shoulder of lamb had been eaten there was divination by the head of the household from the markings on the shoulder blade. I met an illiterate shepherd who, like a Homeric bard, could recite all 10,000 verses of the 17th-century Cretan epic poem, the Erotokritos (I was delighted, but stopped him after a bit).

Modern Greek is recognisably the deriva- tive of Homeric Greek, and the abstract vocabulary is little changed. For example, I had no difficulty with the Greek for 'superi- ority complex', sYmplegma anoterotetos, which I was glad to apply to an insufferable village backgammon champion when I had beaten him. More everyday words have evolved like pebbles, worn smooth by the passage of time. A typical example is the Homeric and classical word opson, which signifies any moist or cooked food served as the accompaniment to bread and wine. A characteristic lexical route leads through the diminutive opsarion, topped and tailed, to psari, the modern Greek for 'fish'.

Even the names remain unchanged. I met a Plato, a Herakles, an Iphigeneia, and, most intriguingly and disappointingly, an Aphrodite. I learnt some skills of limit- ed subsequent application — for example, how to make cheese (exactly as the Cyclops did in Book 9 of the Odyssey).

I was often taken, rather flatteringly, for a pedlar (children would ask me 'What are you selling?'). Curiosity was strong, and the ignorance which sometimes fuelled it quite astonishing. Was England part of Califor- nia? Were Englishmen Christians? (not a bad question). How did we make the sign of the cross — with one, two or three fingers? (This was a remarkably insistent question, to which I gave various answers.) One man assured me, and would not brook any con- tradiction, that 50 per cent of English people believed in metempsychosis.

Most touchingly, when I was spending sev- eral days in a tiny place deep on the south coast called Treis Elddesies — not marked on any map, to which there was no road, and whose only permanent residents were the priest and his mother — there came a shep- herd from the village of Paranymphoi in the mountains above carrying a young goat which was sick (a problem with one of its hind legs). He asked me seriously to give my opinion on the nature of the injury, 'since you know many things'. My classical educa- tion did not qualify me to help, and after a short while the shepherd hoisted the goat over his shoulders once more, and set off back to the village — a three-hour climb.

Crete is a hard country and life is hard, death and tragedy lying close to the sur- face. With only superficial differences, the way of life, the beliefs, the moral and social values, the striking combination of fatalism and nobility are little changed from Hom- eric times. Christianity thinly overlays and accommodates itself to older beliefs and customs. In 1972 the small village of Mirror- rouma, which I had visited two years earli- er, suffered an appalling tragedy. More than 20 of its children — nearly all the chil- dren in the village, many of them bearing the surname of the family with which I had stayed for several days — were drowned on a school excursion when an overloaded boat capsized, just 100 yards from the shore. The collective funeral ached with antiquity. The women tore their hair and raked their cheeks with their fingernails. Into the graves were poured milk and honey, the ancient offerings to the Furies. The Odyssey recounts that jars of honey were piled on the pyre which consumed the body of Achilleus.

But, above all, that which binds the pre- sent to' the remote past is the sacrament of hospitality, something which we have lost in more developed Western countries. In village after village, without fail, I experi- enced that eager, insistent and almost com- petitive hospitality (bed, food, drink, talk) which was offered to travellers and strangers in the Odyssey, whether at royal palaces or in rural shacks like that of the swineherd Eumaios, who welcomes the disguised Odysseus with a meal.

So speaking he quickly tied his tunic togeth- er with his belt and went out to the sties where the families of young porkers were penned. He fetched out two and slaughtered them both, then singed them and chopped them up and threaded the pieces on spits. When he had roasted it all he brought it in and served it to Odysseus, hot and still on the spits, with a sprinkling of white barley- grains on top. (Odyssey 14.72ff) Visitors to Greece will immediately recognise the prototype of the ubiquitous pork kebabs, souvlakia, served throughout the country, especially at festivals and mar- kets in rural areas. The deeper continuities were astonishingly resonant. In modem as in ancient Greek the same word, _zeros, means both 'stranger' and 'guest'. In these Cretan villages strangers were guests. They were rare enough and a stranger/guest was a cause for pride, for eager, elaborate and, I fear, expensive hospitality, and for polite but incessant questioning. As in the ancient world, a guest brings both honour and information; and the respect for the educated man runs flatteringly deep.

Many of my Cretan hosts would echo the beatitude, and the attitude, of the cou- plet written in about 600 BC by Solon, the Athenian statesman and poet: 'Blessed is the man who has sons to his name, strong- footed horses, dogs for the hunt, and a guest in his house from elsewhere.'

I should add that the cultural instinct for hospitality, though strongest in rural areas of Greece, was not — at least in the early 1970s — confined to them.

In March 1972 I arrived at Athens air- port in the middle of the night, and took a taxi, asking the taxi-driver to take me to a hotel. We tried three or four, and found them all full. The driver then drove me back to his own house in the suburbs, mak- ing no charge, woke up his uncomplaining wife and told her to prepare a meal for me (by now it was three in the morning), gave me a bed, and made it clear that I was wel- come to stay as long as I needed. He had beehives on the roof of his house and the following day gave me a full honeycomb. It is hard to think that visitors to London would have received such generosity from a cabby in Clapham, say.

Martin Hammond is headmaster of Ton- bridge SchooL His translation of the Odyssey was published last month by Duckworth.


As an illustration of Martin Hammond's virtuosity, here is his version, in Homeric hexameters, of a passage from P.G. Wodehouse's 'The Reverent 'Wooing of Archibald' in Mr Mulliner Speaking (1929).

'And a lot of good that will be,' said Archibald moodily. 'Even if I do get a chance, I shan't be able to make any use of it. I wouldn't have the nerve. You don't seem to realise what it means being in love with a girl like Aurelia. When I look into those clear, soulful eyes, or see that perfect profile bobbing about on the horizon, a sense of my unworthiness seems to slosh me amidships like some blunt instrument. My tongue gets entangled with my front teeth, and all I can do is stand there feeling like a piece of Gorgonzola that has been condemned by the local sanitary inspector. I'm going to Branstead Towers, yes, but I don't expect anything to come of it. I know exactly what's going to happen to me. I shall just buzz along through life, pining dumbly, and in the end slide into the tomb a blasted, blighted bachelor. Another whisky, please, and jolly well make it a double.'

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