Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sealing with a sneeze

While reading The Odyssey recently, I was surprised by an unlikely coincidence. The passage comes amidst the conversation between Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Eumaeus, her most trusted slave, about the beggar who has come to their palace (i.e. Odysseus in disguise):
At her last words Telemachus shook with a lusty sneeze
like a thunderclap resounding up and down the halls.
The queen was seized with laughter, calling out
to Eumaeus winged words: "Quickly, go!
Bring me this stranger now, face-to-face!
You hear how my son sealed all I said with a sneeze?
So let death come down with grim finality on these suitors--
one and all--not a single man escape his sudden doom! (17: 602-609, bolding is mine)

To an American ear, there is nothing peculiar about the above passage. But having been born in Russia, I was struck by the idea that a sneeze (jokingly) symbolizes an affirmation of whatever was said immediately before the oral eruption: Penelope speaks, Telemachus sneezes, and Penelope then laughs at this prophetic confirmation of her speech.

This folk custom is found in exactly the same form in modern Russian culture! Frequently when I sneeze, my mom will say "Pravda!" ("Truth!") as though to verify whatever point is being made in the conversation. I always thought this was a quirk of Russian culture (as far as I am aware, no such "idiom" exists in American lingo) but apparently it dates back to at least Homeric times. It is a nice thought that such jokes can eke out a cultural existence through millennia, but better judgment would say that the sneeze of affirmation is an eccentric cultural coincidence.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Money before mind?

Earlier in the week, an unlikely event occured to me: the working hypothesis for my senior thesis - my hunch - I found to have been already put forth (albeit in a limited form) by another historian. As I stated in a previous post, I am researching why some of the greatest ethicists in history lived within a hundred years of each other across the world (particularly in Greece, China, Israel and India) in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. I noticed that coinage arose in those societies at around the same time or a couple of centuries before those philosophers. My hunch was that, with the introduction of coinage, something about the abstraction involved in thinking of wealth apart from useful goods (e.g. cows, land, vases) disharmonized the societies, prompting a similar philosophical response to congruous cultural conditions from the ethicists.

Last Wednesday, I was consulting with my undergraduate advisor, Prof. Marc Kleijwegt, who lent to me his book, Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy by Richard Seaford. Judge for yourself how similar the following quote from the book's abstract sounds to my above hypothesis:
How were the Greeks of the sixth century BC able to invent philosophy and tragedy? In this book Richard Seaford argues that a large part of the answer can be found in another momentous development, the invention and rapid spread of coinage, which produced the first thoroughly monetised society. By transforming social relations, monetisation contributed to the ideas of the universe as an impersonal system (presocratic philosophy) and of the individual alienated from his own kin and from the gods (in tragedy).

I have not read Seaford's book yet, but I have a feeling it will be crucial to shaping the focus of my senior thesis. As he has "utilized" my ideas, I look forward to observing and perhaps utilizing the methodology he uses to explore Greek philosophy and then reapplying that to ancient Hebrew, Indian and Chinese thought. My senior thesis is shaping up to be a happy marriage between my two interests in college: ancient intellectual history and economics.