Language as Cultural Consciousness

“O Helen, Tyndareus’ daughter, the very essence of loveliness, off-shoot of Erotes, ward of Aphrodite, nature’s most perfect gift, contested prize of Trojans and Hellenes, where is your drug granted you by Thon’s wife which banishes pain and sorrow and brings forgetfulness of every ill? Where are your irresistible love charms? Why did you not make use of these now as you did long ago? […] It was said that these Aeneadae condemned you to the flames as retribution for Troy’s having been laid waste by the firebrand because of your scandalous amours. But the gold-madness of these men does not allow me to conceive and utter such a thing, for that madness was the reason why rare and excellent works of art everywhere were given over to total destruction. […] After all, how could one expect to find among these unlettered barbarians who are wholly ignorant of their ABCs, the ability to read and knowledge of those epic verses sung of you:
Small blame that Trojans and well-greaved Achaeans
should for such a woman long time suffer woes;
wondrously like is she to the immortal goddess to look upon.”
—O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (1150-1217), translated by Harry J. Magoulias

Here is an excerpt from Choniates describing the 1204 sack of Constantinople. In this section, he has been describing the ancient bronze artworks that western crusaders melted down, specifically in this passage a statue of Helen of Sparta. Many things about this text fascinate and distress me. It’s of course deeply sad to contemplate how many works of art humanity has lost to wanton, willful destruction. I wonder what ancient literature might also have been lost at this time. And I’m curious about the pagan myths that seem to be a natural part of Choniates’ vocabulary. The latter point is especially intriguing because it challenges me to rethink familiar narratives about knowledge.

When I read this passage, and others like it from Greek writers of the Middle Ages, I wonder what it means for language to function as a cultural consciousness, to simultaneously preserve, transmit, and build knowledge in ways that outsiders cannot perceive or penetrate. Choniates speaks to Helen directly, not only as a historical truth but also as if she is present in the room with him. We do not sense her distance in time or values (her pagan to Choniates’ Christian), as we might expect. It is as if the historical Choniates and the Helen of myth occupy one space, one consciousness in which many different versions of what it means to be “Greek” coexist.

I notice, too, that Choniates lists reading and knowledge of the epics as, potentially, two separate things. Perhaps knowledge comes from reading; perhaps it is transmitted orally. But if you don’t know Homer, one way or another, you won’t recognize that the last three lines are from the scene in the Iliad when Helen joins Priam and the Trojan elders on the city walls to watch the battle between Paris and Menelaus.

If you know, you know, but if you don’t…

As always, I welcome your impressions, thoughts, reading recommendations, and whatever else you would like to share in the spirit of respectful dialogue.

2 thoughts on “Language as Cultural Consciousness

  1. It’s interesting to see that these sort of pop culture “in jokes” (not that this example is particularly funny) have been around so long. On a COMPLETELY different register, I’ve been re-watching the entire run of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and am constantly surprised by the range of references they make to everything from literature to classic films, to what contemporary (at the time) pop culture.

    Another thing that’s sort of similar to this is when references to a cultural resource become so reused that we don’t know their origin. I’m thinking about Shakespeare quotes that we use today and may not realize come from the Bard, or even the fact that Reynard the Fox, a collection of medieval subversive and funny animal stories that were immensely popular in medieval and Renaissance Europe (and in fact were referenced in…Shakespeare (in “Romeo and Juliet”, Tybalt makes reference to “the prince of cats,” that is, Tibert or Tybalt from these stories). Today, most of us only know vague copies – different versions of the rooster Chanticleer, or even his name alone, as well as Disney’s animated “Robin Hood”, which was originally supposed to be “Reynard the Fox” until the Disney team realized just how mean and violent many of these stories are.

    Sorry that I went on a tangent there, but thanks for giving me a lot to think about – both in your post and in the things it’s made me consider about the things I’ve recently been watching and reading.

    1. Oh, this is super interesting and exactly in line with what this got me thinking about: the way words, ideas, values, beliefs, etc. become encoded and passed on in language in ways that we don’t always consciously know and/or can’t always track. Obviously we can sometimes, but as you point out with the examples of Shakespeare and the animal stories, sometimes we’re preserving and transmitting knowledge without realizing it, until someone comes along and says, hey, I know that: It’s from Homer/Shakespeare/the tales of so-and-so.

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