An interactive experience in speaking with people from the past

Certain photos demand your attention: vintage mugshots of Australian criminals; portraits of soon-to-be victims of Stalin’s Great Purge, or of nomads in the desert or the steppe.

You stare into these peoples’ eyes and wonder what they were thinking about, what their days were like, how their voice sounded—maybe how they died.

A nomadic man in Afghanistan, photographed by Steve McCurry
A nomadic man in Afghanistan, photographed by Steve McCurry

Books can have that effect too. You’re digging through the “used” bins and come across a paperback with intriguing cover art, but it’s in another language. You study the cover and scan the pages for familiar-looking words, and try to get a general sense of the story, the characters, the descriptions.

Every now and then, you stumble on a book stamped with curving gilded letters in an unfamiliar alphabet, every page lined with a secret code of squiggles and swirls. No hope of catching familiar words here, and there aren’t any pictures either.

Do you just say “forget it” and put the book back?

Or have you ever kept scanning the pages for a minute, trying to imagine what it’s like to read meaning in those shapes?

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Archaeologists in Turkey recently discovered a “lost” Mesopotamian language. Just imagine that — the sole written record of a culture’s existence, buried in the dirt through the rule of the Assyrians, then the Persians, then the Greeks and Romans, the Ottomans all through the European Middle Ages and Renaissance and the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution, and both World Wars, and the Turkish Republic and the whole modern era. The inscription waited through all that time.

And now across that time comes a voice.

There’s no other feeling in the world like the feeling of hearing a voice speak to you from the far end of history— and understanding its words.

Theseus battling the Minotaur
Theseus battling the Minotaur

I first heard one of those voices — distantly — in third grade, reading big colorful books of Greek and Roman mythology. I fought the Minotaur with Theseus, stole the Golden Fleece with Jason, tricked the cyclops with Odysseus. I hurled thunderbolts with Zeus and rode in Apollo’s gold chariot and descended through the Underworld with Hercules.

These stories made me want more.

I checked out some wordier books — back in third grade we called them “chapter books” — with longer and more intricate versions of the myths. From these books, I learned that the original stories came from a language called Greek, which used an alphabet different from ours. Some of its letters looked familiar; most were mysteries. I stared at them and tried to listen for the voice locked behind them — the real, true original voices of the Greek storytellers.

“I want to learn Greek,” I told my parents. We went to the library and checked out everything they had on learning Greek — which was a copy of Greek For Dummies, plus a college textbook on literary Greek and a Greek/English dictionary. The Greek alphabet turned out to be simple to memorize, and after a few weeks I could sound out words —

And that felt like magic.

It also felt exactly like learning to read all over again.

Soon after that, though, I hit a wall. The grammar was just too much to keep track of, and lists of practice questions loomed at the end of every chapter. I flipped through the books and saw that the reading practice kept getting longer and more complex. I looked at the exercises at the end, and thought,

I’ll never be able to read that.”

And I moved on to another hobby, as third-graders do.

 

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Twenty-odd years later, I flipped open a used copy of the Iliad, which happened to be in the original Greek, and was surprised to find I could still sound out some of the words. I googled a translation, and managed to make sense of the epic’s first line, which goes like this:

In other words, “Rage, goddess; sing of the rage of the son of Peleus, Achilles.” Or as the popular Samuel Butler translation has it, “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus.”

Any good English translation of the Iliad carries over the characters, the events, and even the rhythms and sound effects, in an artful way. But when you read just one single line in Greek, you immediately hear someone else behind the words —

A voice that’s older, wilder, more raw.

Let’s try a quick experiment. Say the middle line in that trio above (the light brown one) out loud to yourself, right now. Try it. Roll the sounds around in your mouth, and let yourself feel the meanings of those sounds. You’re speaking ancient Greek. If you’re lucky, you might feel a shiver run up your spine.

One thing you’ve got to admit is that the Greek has a distinctly different feel from the English — even though it says the same thing. Sort of.

That split widens as you keep reading the first paragraph, and you start to pick up the sound patterns and rhythms of the poet’s style. Take this, for example:

Try the experiment again if you want — roll the words around in your mouth and feel their meanings. Just so you know, Butler translates this line, “Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades.” (“It” meaning the rage of Achilles.)

Butler’s translation feels like an old poem — but the Greek original puts your ear to the mouth of a real person, across two thousand years; a person from a world very different from yours, and yet a real world, every bit as colorful and textured and complex as this moment right now.

The people in that world lived in bodies like yours, and chewed their fingernails and scratched their cheeks and spoke to each other in the sounds that just came out of your own mouth.

They’re speaking to you.

Now imagine how it feels to hear a voice from a time even more distant, far more distant than ancient Greece, through a writing system utterly unlike yours. That’s how it feels to read Babylonian…

…which you just did. You just read the first words of the creation epic known as the Enuma Elish, composed around 3,700 years ago.

The "Enuma Elish"
The “Enuma Elish”

The full line reads, “When the sky above was not named…”

When you say the Babylonian words of that line — “Enuma elish la nabú shámamu” — out loud, and understand their meaning, you’re speaking a language almost as old as writing itself; a language that enjoyed a long and illustrious history, until, after thousands of years of active use, it finally went extinct in the time of the Roman Empire. That’s how old those words are; the words you just spoke.

Try a bit more, if you like:

You can feel them, can’t you? The textures and sounds of four thousand years ago swirl around in your mouth; they hum in your belly. They’re here now, and they’re a part of you.

As Craig Childs says in his essay “Getting Out of the Jail of Time,”

A death a thousand years ago is hardly different than one today. Maybe it’s all too much to bear, so we make clocks and calendars. We build walls around us to say this is now, that was yesterday.

But once you’ve spoken old words for yourself, felt their sounds in your diaphragm and lungs, across your tongue and lips — Ménin áeide theá — and known their meaning for yourself — “Rage sing, goddess” — you realize the truth.

There is no “yesterday” — it’s all now, and they’re all right here.

 






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