Sing, Muse, of that blessed ancient peninsula in a corner of the Mediterranean! Sing, of its mountains, of its seas and of its myriad islands. Sing of Asia Minor, of Krete and of Northern Africa. Sing of its ancient culture, of its comedy and its tragedy, of its music and its philosophy, coming together to build the cornerstone of what we now call Western Civilization. Sing of the country which invented democracy, which reared Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and which nursed the West’s first greatest writer, who gave us the epic stories of Helen of Troy and Odysseus. Sing of the seafaring people who conquered the world through culture, much more than through politics. And sing, Muse, of those who carry yet today a love for that oldest mother country: Hellas.
BOOM (sorry, couldn’t help myself; it’s the first time that I’ve written an invocation of the Muse, and I got a little carried away.) Ahem. ‘Philhellene’ is a noun defined as ‘a lover of Greece and Greek culture’. It’s a contraction of the Greek adjective ‘philos’ (filov; ‘loving’) and the name the Greeks themselves gave to their country: Hellas ($Ellav). Another term would be ‘Grecophile’, but I prefer ‘philhellene’ because a) my spellcheck doesn’t appear to accept ‘Grecophile’, and b) I prefer the term which uses the Greeks’ own name for their country. Feels more authentic to me.
So, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet: I’m a philhellene. When picking a subject to study in secondary school, I went for the least obvious choice and picked, apart from Latin, yet another dead language: Ancient Greek. And I haven’t regretted it for a second. In fact, I enjoyed it more than Latin, because as a language it’s a lot more elegant and refined. It also gave me a feeling of exclusivity, of course: there were, I think, at least 40 people taking Latin in my year, but in our Greek class it was nice and cosy, with only five of us. And though overall secondary school wasn’t a unequivocally wonderful experience for me, the classes Ancient Greek always made me feel better. And as I still study languages, my knowledge of it has helped me out in numerous ways: not only have those years of study given me a linguistic insight (as did Latin) which is very handy when you have to learn a new language, but it also has given me a load of cultural background which is vital if you want to understand anything of Western literature.
I’m talking about the classics, of course. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were both on the menu (which is very handy now I’m reading Ulysses; pray for me), and as a 12-year-old girl I remember spending many afternoons sitting at the bottom of my closet (I didn’t yet understand the irony of this, and now I don’t understand how I could ever have found this comfortable) reading a very big and heavy book titled ‘Greek Myths’. After the epic, the oratory of Pericles followed, and the philosophy of Plato. And, let’s not forget a very important reason for my current philhellenism: the lyric. More importantly, Sappho, whose lyrical poetry continues to inspire. Though I’m generally more into contemporary literature (and less into the oldies), Sappho and Shakespeare (I’m starting to sense a consonantal pattern) are the two great exceptions. Of course, the classes on Sappho were interesting to me in more than merely an academic sense, but I only became aware of that later. I am still a fervent fan now, though, and while now I rarely pick up the other literature we used to read, I still frequently read a Sappho poem. (And thanks to a lovely friend of mine, I can now read them in English translation; my two great literary loves combined! I’m in heaven.)
Am I going anywhere with this eulogy (eulogìa) on the oldest mother country (as I shall henceforth call it)? Not really, no. I merely wish to raise a glass of retsina to the country which continues to inspire me, in my writing (Muses are handy when writing poetry), in my studies (‘find the Greek reference’ is a game I love to play in my academic papers, and it has yielded wonderful results), but also in my general appreciation of life. I know that my mind would be much the poorer for it if I, like the hoi polloi ($oi polloi; let me be condescending just this once?), had chosen not to put Greek on my curriculum. So in this sense this blog post is also an encouragement for anyone who still has this choice ahead of them: please add Greek to your curriculum. The vocabulary is arduous to study, but very useful (just think about how many English words derive from Greek), the grammar may give you a headache sometimes, but the literature will enrich you in ways you probably won’t appreciate until much later. Also, an argument against anyone who tells you that studying a dead language is a waste of time: believe me, it is not. It may not serve you in the most practical sense, but if you, like me, are more interested in the value of things than in mere functionality, then you might consider joining the phalanxes of philhellenism. We have cookies. (and feta cheese, and tzatziki, and moussaka; also, olives)