Readers of the World: Greece (Olympic Edition)

Last time on our Readers of the World tour, we roamed the wilds and wonders of the East African country of Kenya. For this post, we’re sprinting across the globe to for some gold-medal standard selections of literature to celebrate the Games of the 30th Olympiad. Today marks the official start of London 2012 and the eyes of the world will be focused on the capital for an opening ceremony that is sure to be showstopping, anticipating the many thrilling victories of the next 17 days. If you’re one of the many unable to secure tickets to the Games, than have no fear, as ROTW is here to whisk you away to – where else? – the home of the Olympics, Greece. So on your marks, get set, and let’s go to race towards some Olympian sized literature…

At the advent of the Olympics of Ancient Greece, which formed the origin of the modern Games, feats in literature ran alongside the sporting activity and ability to compose an ode that would masterfully engage the mind was as highly regarded as great physical prowess. The earliest Olympics consisted somewhat surprisingly of one single event, a 190 metre long sprint, meaning there was much call for other forms of amusement and competition – and literary games featured heavily in the schedule, with battles between poets, writers and philosophers happening across the Olympic site. Away from Olympia the god of poetry, Apollo, was regularly honoured with fiercely fought competitions of verse recital – an Olympic event in reading aloud is one contest we could get especially excited about at The Reader Organisation!

Around the same time as the first ancient Olympics took place in the 8th century BC, arguably the most prolific and influential contributor to Greek literature, Homer, composed his epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. The two poems, charting the conflicts, onslaughts, glories and eventual aftermath of the Trojan War as experienced by their major characters the warrior Achilles and celebrated hero Odysseus , are regarded to this day as defining literary works, being translated from Homeric Greek (a particularly literary form of the ancient Greek language, mixing several different dialects) into many modern languages – and being transformed from its oral origins into written text, also.

Modern day literature lovers can get some indication of what the ancient Olympics were like by reading these epic poetic works; in The Iliad, Homer dedicates an entire book to the funerary games held in honour of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion, which feature chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, running, shotputting, archery and javelin throwing, and closely resemble the Olympic Games in their lively and celebratory nature, although the prizes for the victors were quite unconventional; instead of receiving medals, competitors were given such spoils as a cauldron, a two-handled urn and a six year old mare (which definitely couldn’t fit on the mantelpiece quite so handily). The showcasing of athletic abilities is also featured in The Odyssey, whereby Odysseus is challenged to prove his worth and bravery against the Phaiakians by undertaking physical activity. Although the characters in both poems allowed themselves to be influenced by the Gods to a far greater degree than any human would today, Homer’s classic works still have many significant lessons to teach, particularly to prospective Olympians, considering themes such as pride being balanced between greatness and ruin and the pursuit of glory as something that long defines.

Another Ancient Greek poet, Pindar, was especially famous for connecting the Olympic Games with literature, writing epinikion – victory odes honouring the successes of the athletes in the Ancient Olympics. Such odes would praise winners as ideal representatives of the places they came from, elevating them almost to the status of cult heroes – but would not go so far as to turn them into Gods as hubris was a quality reviled in Ancient Greece, considered as serious as a crime. Pindar was himself revered amongst poets and scholars, and was the first Greek poet to reflect upon the role of poetry in life and culture, although his writing does appear quite unusual to the modern reader.

Best of all things is water; but gold, like a gleaming fire
by night, outshines all pride of wealth beside.
But, my heart, would you chant the glory of games,
look never beyond the sun
by day for any star shining brighter through the deserted air,
nor any contest than Olympia greater to sing.
[The Odes of Pindar, Olympia 1]

Heading closer to current times, a strong literary tradition has continued to flourish in Greece, especially when it comes to poetry. Two of Greece’s most influential and revered modern poets, George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, received the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1963 and 1979 respectively. Twice nominated for the prize, but never a recipient, was Kostis Palamas, considered to have been ‘the national poet of Greece’ during the height of his literary career in the 1880s. Palamas played a major part in ensuring the thread between literature and the Olympics remained in place – he wrote the lyrics to the Olympic Hymn, first performed at the inaugural modern Games in 1896 and which has become a central aspect of every Opening Ceremony since 1960.

Perhaps the most familiar of all contemporary Greek poets is Constantine P. (C.P) Cavafy – of Greek parentage, even though he was born in Alexandria in Egypt, and spent a great proportion of his adolescent years living in England, specifically in Liverpool, a place he was familiar with given his father’s profession as an importer-exporter. Though his work was largely obscured from the public during his lifetime – preferring to circulate it solely to his close friends – Cavafy went on to be instrumental in reviving Greek poetry to readers across the world. His distinctive style, defined by uncomplicated language and direct delivery, was unlike anything else that had appeared in either Greek or Western European poetry, and so allowed Cavafy to become a hallmark figure in modern literature, creating a poetic dialogue and genre all of his own. However one of his most well-known works, Ithaca, consolidates him firmly alongside his literary ancestors; it was inspired by the journey of none other than Odysseus of The Odyssey, and emphasises to the reader that it is the journey of life and its enjoyment that should be regarded above the final destination – another, perhaps more consolatory, lesson for Olympians-in-waiting from every corner of the globe.

It’s not just Readers of the World that are uniting as part of the Cultural Olympiad, which started to gear up everyone for the big event over a month ago, but writers of the world too. The Poetry Parnassus sees the largest poetry festival ever staged in the UK in celebration of the 2012 Games and the cultural and literary activities that stem from it, uniting 204 poets from the competing countries together to showcase and celebrate the power and importance of the spoken word internationally. Representing Greece at the Poetry Parnassus is poet, artist and translator Katerina Iliopoulou, co-editor of Greek Poetry Now, which provides a platform for contemporary Greek poets and stems from previous projects, such as inthepill, which have explored alternative communication of poetry and art to a wider public. Speaking in an interview with SJ Fowler, Katerina expressed her belief that

“poetry is a universal language, but more importantly is the language of doubt. Poetry opens up space within what we consider as reality: more space for us to cross and look through and think, a space of risk where our conscience is awakened, where we question our beliefs and ideas, where we become active.”

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