Thursday, March 10, 2016

TFBT: Homer and the Pretzel

 A fellow club member at Hour 25 just received an internship to work on his Master’s thesis.  The thesis is that there is a correlation between the way the Ancient Greeks built new cities and the way Homer composed the Iliad.  Cool, huh?   

Oh, Homer didn’t write the Iliad, he recited or sang it accompanied by a lyre.  He had to keep a certain beat; dactylic hexameter.  In a possible autobiographical sketch in a lesser work he might have been an inerrant poet singing for his supper before dining aristocrats.  He would pick a tale appropriate for the occasion and using traditional language, style, format, quotes and blocks of text compose their song during a totally oral spontaneous performance. 

His thesis and internship were much discussed in Hour 25.  It has been much on my mind.  What else that has been on my mind is country-swing dancing.  I am teach the class and we are half way through the Spring session. 

Last night one of the girl’s said she preferred dancing with me because I signaled what we were going to do next.  “I do?”  Apparently, to use the literary term I foreshadow what is coming.  It is the nudge of a shoulder when I am spinning her away, the lifting of my arm in anticipation of a Left Tuck or the subtle shift in our hand position.  I never occurred to me that dancing was composition in performance.

For those that don’t “boot scoot” there are several different styles of country and western music.  There are fast melodies with strong beats for swing dancing, slower softer music for “polishing your belt buckles” that is the two-steps and a waltz among others.   The man leads, that is choreographs dance as he and his female partner dance.  The lady’s job is to “follow”.  The “meter” would be pounded out by their feet.  Swing is with both dancers putting their left foot in and their left foot out.  For men the two-steps is “left (foot forward then, bring up your right foot) together, left together, right (foot back the, bring back your left foot) together.  Waltz is the basic 1-2-3, 12-3.  You can’t waltz to a swing song.  Swinging to a two-step is just sad.  And trying to two-step to a waltz gives one a headache.  Lord and Parry the definitive researchers in composition in oral performance say the audience’s trained ear can tell when the poet misses the beat in the poem’s meter.  And trust me your audience can tell you stepped on your partner’s feet when you missed the beat.

The guy choreographs the couple’s routine right there on the dance floor.  They have a set routine or routine moves they like doing and can do without concentrating too much.  These are probably tradition moves they were taught by other.  While waltzing or two stepping they traverse the floor going counter-wise as tradition dictates.  The guy might interrupt their “Five Basic Moves” by whirling them around in one spot or spinning her away should the traffic flow get jammed up.  They will warm up a bit and then advance into more complex swing moves.  The moves are all built of more basic moves “moshed” together, condensed and contracted.  And maybe at the end of the song it will be the elbow-wielding “Pretzel”, sweet “Window” or their signature move; unique to them but composed of all the tradition elements. 

Should they take a break and another gentleman ask the lady to dance.  She and their audience and their fellow dancers will expect him to keep the appropriate beat, perform the appropriate steps and moves, dance the traditional style and use the traditional moves or moves recognizable as from tradition.  If he doesn’t she wouldn’t be able to follow, she and anyone watching will deem him a bad dancer and his fellow dancers will deem him a nuisance. 

You don’t get to be Homer by being a nuisance, and you definitely must know how to do the “Pretzel”


  1. The foundation of a new city included a sacrifice, and there is a hecatomb in Scroll 1. Otherwise, I know too little about the building of cities to make a comparison.

  2. Maya,

    I mentioned that to Renan. Remus' death was nicely coincidental to the founding of Rome. I am pretty sure I saw a reference once in the Bible about child sacrifice and the corner stone of a building.


  3. Human construction sacrifice is present in our folklore. It was believed that, if a building more serious than a private home is to last, a young woman must be put alive in its foundation. I have no data about any actual sacrifices of this sort. A milder version advises to use only the shadow of the woman, but says that after "losing" her shadow, she will be weakened, sickened and will soon die.
    A folk song on the subject is well known and included in middle school curriculum. When hated it when we studied it (and still do). We were taught that the elder brothers were bad because they used deception to save their wives, while the youngest brother who was honest was good. (I'll give the text below.) Not a word that human sacrifice is bad!
    My elder son recently studied the song, but (happily) its archaic language escaped his comprehension, so he didn't even get what it was about. He said, "I have a homework about Struma." This is the river called Strimon by the Greeks. The victim's name is in fact Struna (i.e. String).
    The song is from the Rhodope mountain, the alleged birthplace of Orpheus.

  4. Struna the young wife

    Three brothers were building a town,
    They were building it under the bright sun at day,
    They were building it under the moon at night.
    The three brothers made a pact:
    "Whoever of our wives comes earliest
    To bring us an early meal,
    We'll build her in the White Town."
    Each man told his beloved [about the pact],
    Only Struna's husband didn't tell her,
    Instead, he told and ordered her:
    "Oh Struna, Struna, young wife,
    Tomorrow, beloved, get up early,
    Bathe the young child,
    Wrap him and feed him,
    Feed him, put him to sleep,
    Then bake early bread for me,
    Wash the white clothes,
    Then cook early meal for me
    And bring it to the White Town."
    [He gives his wife a lot of chores in the hope that, while she is working at home, one of the other wives will come to the construction site.]
    Struna the young wife got up early
    And did a lot of chores
    As her beloved had ordered;
    And she cooked an early meal,
    Cooked it and brought it.
    When her beloved saw her,
    He bowed his head,
    Bowed his head and started to shed tears.
    When Struna the young wife saw them,
    She said to her beloved in a low voice:
    "Why did you, my beloved, bow your head,
    Bow your head and start to shed tears?"
    "Oh Struna, Struna, young wife,
    I dropped my silver ring,
    Silver ring with a red stone,
    I dropped it in the White Town!"
    "Oh my beloved, beloved of Struna,
    Struna will jump and bring it back."
    Struna jumped into the White Town
    To bring back the silver ring.
    Then Struna's brothers in-law,
    With stones and woods, one by one,
    Built Struna the young wife inside.
    Struna the young wife cried and wept:
    "Oh my brothers in-law,
    Open the wall from the right side,
    The right side of the White Town,
    So that I can feed my young child,
    My young child with fresh milk."

  5. Maya M,

    How awful! We have some pretty terrible fairy tales and nursery rhymes. I wonder why we hang on to them?


  6. Other southern Slavs have similar folklore:
    I read that the victim in this Serbian poem makes the same request as Struna - to be left open from one side to brestfeed her baby.

    I tried to find more about "Struna" and found an important inaccuracy in the variant I translated: The 3rd verse actually says, "It was being ruined by night". Like the weaving of Penelope; but here, the daytime work is destroyed at night not by the builders themselves but by hostile supernatural forces that have to be defeated or appeased by sacrifice. (Or, alternatively, by improving the method of building - but the brothers never had such a revelation.)

    The text of "Struna" is strange because it is untainted by any Abrahamian religion. After the late 14th century, Ottoman authorities made the decisions in urban planning. So the song may predate the Ottoman conquest. More strikingly, there is nothing to show that the characters are Christian. Christianity was introduced in the mid-9th century.

  7. Recently, another folk song was removed from our middle school curriculum: "Do you give, do you give, Yovo from the mountain". It is about a Bulgarian man from whom a gang of Muslims (privileged at the time of the song) demand his sister. He refuses; to force him to consent, they cut off his hands, then his feet and then take out his eye. After that, they take his sister anyway and leave.
    Many Bulgarians are indignant that the song is removed, but I am glad that my sons will not study it. Not only is the text too bloody, but modern kids disagree with its main idea. They point out the futility of the hero's resistance - it is clear from the start that he could do nothing to actually save his sister. Maybe Achilles and Ajax the Great would understand Yovo, but we do not.

  8. In the above comment, "eyes" must be plural.

    "We have some pretty terrible fairy tales and nursery rhymes. I wonder why we hang on to them?"

    A commenter in a Web forum echoes your thoughts:
    "Why doesn't Bulgarian folklore determine the worldview of our children anymore? Bulgarian folk tales pose the same requirements to maidens as present-day Bulgarian employers: the maiden must be under 20 but have skills corresponding to 30-yr experience, she must be slim and gracile yet strong and able to to much hard work, she must have no diseases and no protests.
    Conclusion: nobody takes folklore seriously anymore, except scholars studying it."

  9. OT: Just read at Hour 25 Kimie's comment that Hector was not entitled to strip the armor off Patroclus' body (Iliad 17:200-205). In the Bulgarian translation, Zeus' value judgement is omitted. And, to me, it makes no sense. After all, taking the armor of the killed enemy was the standard procedure. How do you think, why was Zeus indignant?

    1. Maya M,

      Based on things I read about the armor, Zeus is not making a value judgement but rather seeing more clearly what it means to put on the armor of a man destinied to die young. Considering how poorly any of Achilles' armor protected Achilles, Patroclus and Hector I am always find it interesting that Odysseus and Ajax fought over it. I believe Achilles son Ptolemus ended up with the armor. He too died young; a sacrifice upon the altar of Apollo at Delphi.


    2. Brilliant! As if it was another "Harmonia's robe".

    3. Maya M

      Excellent example! I think Astma has a list of divine (poinosous) gifts. I will look