Archive for May 18th, 2006

Nodding on the bus

In ancient times, they had interesting notions about the body — mainly interesting because they're so different from ours.

For example, the word phren (φρην), midriff, also meant heart and mind, since the heart is obviously located in the torso, and they believed the mind was found in the heart. Later on, they believed that the personality was made up of different combinations of liquids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. These ideas seem very strange to us now, even if remnants of these ideas still persist. Black bile, which has never been observed in nature, was too good a metaphor to give up. It's where we get melancholia. And although we don't believe the mind is found in the midriff, we still have words like phrenetic and schizophrenia.

There seems to have been in Homeric times the belief that strength had its seat in the knees. Probably this comes from the observation that when one is terrified, the knees give way.

"Aged sir, if only, as the spirit is in your bosom,
so might your knees be also and the strength stay steady with you" (IV.313-314)

"Come then, hold up your hands to Zeus, and let go an arrow
at this strong man, whoever he may be, who does so much evil
to the Trojans, since many and great are those whose knees he has broken." (V.174-176)

This leads, no doubt, to another custom which I find the strangest in Homer: the gestures in the act of supplication. When Thetis goes to see Zeus to petition in favour of her son Achilles,

She came and sat beside him with her left hand embracing
his knees, but took him underneath the chin with her right hand
and spoke in supplication to lord Zeus son of Kronos. (I.500-502)

I imagine they held the knees in recognition of the person's (or god's) power. It's hard to imagine this, especially the part about the chin, but it survives in at least one famous vase painting.

Nessus the centaur is begging Heracles to spare him, and is reaching back to take his chin. Clearly, he has no time to hold the knees.

But what did the chin symbolise? The question is too much for me, but I notice one thing: if the person or god agreed or consented to what was being asked, they turned their chin down towards the suppliant. If they denied their request, they turned their chin away. Homer even had a verb for each gesture. The first, κατανεύω (kataneuo), meant to turn the chin down, or to nod. It meant to give assent, or to promise something. The second, ανανεύω (ananeuo), meant to refuse or make a motion of prohibition.

She spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athene turned her head from her. (VI.311)

The curious thing is that these gestures still exist among Greeks today, after so many years. When a Greek says no, he nods upwards, raising his chin. Sometimes he will also raise his eyebrows. (Sometimes, if he is lazy — which is quite often — he will only raise the eyebrows.) Often, too, this gesture is accompanied by a clicking or tsk sound.

Growing up in Canada, I never made this gesture, of course. I would shake my head from left to right, like everyone else. Here in Greece, when I do this, people often think I'm saying I didn't hear them, and repeat themselves.

A Greek professor I had in university had told us once, "What separates us from Homer? Eighty grandfathers. That's all." It seems dubious, but an amusing thought nonetheless.

* * * * *

I really shouldn't, I know, but I get really annoyed when people stand at the bus door, or even get on, and ask people where the bus is going, or what bus it is. I myself never get on a bus if I don't know where it's going, or which one it is, but some people don't have time. People look absolutely stupid when they do it: they look around with a wide-eyed look of panic and say, "Is this the 203?!"

"It's a little late to be asking now, isn't it, you moron!" I feel like saying, but I can't be bothered. Most people ignore them, but someone eventually tells them whether it is or not. If it isn't, they get off at the next stop, and try their luck with whatever other public transport vehicle happens to stop near them.

Today I was going to work, and I was seated near the back door. We came to a stop on Vasilissis Sophias Street, near the Benaki Museum. A woman came to the door when it opened and shouted, "Is this going to Syntagma?"

No bus or trolley on that street goes to Syntagma, not exactly, and anyway she was close enough to walk. But no one was answering her. When I saw the beseeching, desperate look on her face, I felt nearly overcome with weariness. How do you explain such things to people like her? All I did was raise my eyebrows. I couldn't even be bothered to raise my chin.

And I thought, a moment or two later, how far I've come.

The translations are from Richmond Lattimore's Iliad, which follows the same line breaks as the original.

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