A Meme: Funniest things in ancient literature

The Greek reading group I’m in is translating through Book IX of the Odyssey. Today we came across one of my favorite parts – where Odysseus and his crew jam the red-hot μοχλος (spike) into the Cyclops’ eye. The dialogue that takes place afterward is one of the funniest things in ancient literature, in my opinion. It is as follows:

ἱστάμενοι δ’ εἴροντο περὶ σπέος ὅττι ἑ κήδοι.
“Τίπτε τόσον, Πολύφημ’, ἀρημένος ὧδ’ ἐβόησας νύκτα δι’ ἀμβροσίην, καὶ ἀΰπνους ἄμμε τίθησθα;
ἦ μή τίς σευ μῆλα Βροτῶν ἀέκοντος ἐλαύνει;
ἦ μή τίς σ’ αὐτὸν κτείνει δόλῳ ἠὲ Βίηφιν;”
Τοὺς δ’ αὖτ’ ἐξ ἄντρου προσέφη κρατερὸς Πολύφημος.
“ὦ φίλοι, Οὖτις με κτείνει δόλῳ οὐδὲ Βίηφιν.”

Standing around the cave they asked him what was troubling him.
“What has come upon you, Polyphemus, that you yell in the divine night and keep us from sleeping?
Is some mortal driving off your flocks against your will?
Is a man killing you by trick or violence?”
Then out of the cave spoke strong Polyphemus,
“Oh Friends, Nobody is murdering me by trickery, not with violence.”

I really enjoy this section of Homer as there is a lot of wordplay, but this in particular is really funny to me. When learning a language, it’s nice to be able to read through something that you genuinely enjoy reading. I wonder about what other bloggers find funny in ancient literature, so I’m tagging them to see what they come up with. My tags go to Mike Aubrey, Stephen Carlson, and my fellow Classicists, Brandon Wason and Esteban Vázquez.

Also, back in line 389 – why in the world is ὀφρύας (eyebrows) in the plural? Did Cyclopses have two eyebrows?

8 Comments

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8 responses to “A Meme: Funniest things in ancient literature

  1. Ha! I remember working through that text in Greek class with joy. We also went through the Greek of Euripides’s Cyclops which I think you’ll really enjoy as well.

    About the eyebrow, I remember trying to come up with the correct Greek term for a uni-brow, monophrys (it’s not in LSJ unfortunately).

  2. When I took Aramaic, our prof dug up this old collection of talmudic tractates about Rabbi X meeting the Amazons, or Rabbi Y outsmarting Caesar and the minim (oh wait, that’s us!). It certainly made the class more fun.

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  4. The Babylonians took their hepatoscopy seriously, but it strikes me as funny that they named the hepatic port the ‘bab ekallum’ (literally palace gate). So in the omen texts, we read, if the bab ekallum (in the liver) is overturned–the bab ekallum (in the city) will be overturned! BTW, I wonder if there is an allusion to this when Jonah said 40 days and Nineveh will be overturned.

    Another serious text that has some funny moments is Lysias I, on the Murder of Eratosthenes. Two of my favorites are 1) “I did notice that the gates squeaked in the night–the one leading into the courtyard and the one leading into my wife’s bedroom (she was temporarily sleeping downstairs with the baby) and I did notice that she was wearing makeup in the middle of the night, when she should have been in mourning for her brother who had recently died–but still I didn’t suspect a thing.”
    2) When Euphiletos finally kills the intruder in his house he denies that he had fled to the hearth for sanctuary–how could he, he was naked on the bed, his arms tied behind his back, defenseless and surrounded, when I killed him.

    One more, Dick Cheney would appreciate this. I forget the text–it is another legal case, but the speaker challenges his opponent to interrogate his slaves through a dikaiotatos basanos a “must just torture.”

    Some of my orthography might be off, I don’t have the texts at hand. It’s a hot night and I couldn’t sleep.

  5. I don’t think Polyphemus is actually called one-eyed anywhere…’cyclops’ translates as ‘wheel-eye’ as far as I remember…

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  8. I swear that I’ll get to this sometime, O honorable colleague!

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