Incomparable Ethiopians

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson 1 Comment

Thetis to Achilles: “But you, sitting by your swift sea-faring ships, continue your wrath against the Achaeans and refrain entirely from battle; for Zeus went yesterday for a feast to the incomparable Ethiopians at the Ocean, and all the gods followed with him; but on the twelfth day he will come back again to Olympus, and then I will go to the house of Zeus with its threshold of bronze, and will clasp his knees, and I think I will persuade him.” Iliad 1: 420-427 Murray / Wyatt translation

Last week I found myself in a hut in very remote and rural Ethiopia with a group of villagers and an Ethiopian colleague who is working on our research project. Stuck for something to say after initial formalities and then many pleasantries I mentioned that Ethiopia is one of the very few real places outside Greece that is mentioned in the Iliad. My new friends had never heard of Homer or the Iliad, or even the stories of the Trojan Horse, the golden apple, Achilles killing Hector and so on, but they, I think, enjoyed hearing these tales, and asked lots of questions. Although it would appear that Ethiopian culture has either forgotten or never had heard of Homer, these people really were incomparable. Friendly and generous, and also dedicated to providing rural health and education services to these tiny, remote and very impoverished communities.

It is, perhaps, interesting to look at some of the different translations of ἀμύμονας Αἰθιοπηας, rendered as ‘incomparable Ethiopians’ in the Murray translation, revised by Wyatt in 1999.

Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English lexicon (1888) translates ἀμύμων as ‘blameless, noble, excellent, used by Hom.[er] as an honorary epithet, like our honourable, excellency, not implying virtue; never used of gods’.

George Chapman’s 1598 translation (the first translation of Homer into English), renders the phrase as ‘the blameless Aethiops’.

Thomas Hobbes’ 1677 translation gives us ‘To blackmoor-land the Gods went yesterday’ – not even an attempt at the epithet there! (See my earlier blog posts concerning Hobbes’ motivation behind this translation).

Alexander Pope (1715) gives us: ‘The Sire of Gods, and all th’ ethereal train, On the warm limits of the farthest main, Now mix with mortals, nor disdain to grace, The feasts of Æthiopia’s blameless race:’

Samuel Butler (1898), like Hobbes, also omits the epithet: ‘For Zeus went yesterday to Oceanus to a feast among the Ethiopians’.

E. V. Rieu – perhaps the most famous twentieth century translation (his Iliad was the first Penguin Classic published) – gives us ‘worthy Ethiopians’ (1950 p. 34).

Robert Graves’ The Anger of Achilles (1959) gives a strange rendition of Thetis’ speech, making her sound like an English public schoolmaster: ‘The fact is, that Zeus has gone to be entertained by certain well-behaved Aethiopians, near the Ocean Stream, and the other gods are with him.’ (p. 11)

Later in the twentieth century we have Fagles’ much-admired translation. He gives us ‘the Aethiopians, loyal, lordly men’ (1991 p. 92).

The two twenty-first century translations I have in front of me are very different from one another. Anthony Verity, true to his name, gives us a faithful rendition of the phrase: ‘blameless Ethiopians’ (2011 p. 13)

In contrast, Stephen Mitchell omits the epithet entirely from his 2011 Iliad. Mind you, he also misses out book 10 of the Iliad so the odd omitted epithet is hardly worth mentioning!

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