Sunday 18 October 2015

Wine, Norwegian Hellenists, and Song

Norwegian Acdemy of Science & Letters
Skol! We intoned it rather too many times over the dinner last night at the Norwegian Classical Association's knees-up in the beautiful building of the Norwegian Academy in Oslo. I have always enjoyed the drinking salutation of the Norwegians. It may be a coincidence, unless an Indo-European shared root explains it (memo to self to research this one), but the ancient Greek word for a popular drinking song was a skolion. This word is to be distinguished from a learned grammarian’s comment on a text, a scholion. An important distinction, although some of the scholia on e.g. the Iliad  are so crass that one wonders whether the grammarians had in fact been drinking when they inscribed them.

The Oslo Musical Papyrs--song from a tragedy
I’d been invited by the Academy’s General Secretary Øivind Andersen, one of the long line of outstanding Greek scholars Norway has produced. I first got to know about them when writing about the vocal techniques of ancient Greek actors, who in tragedy had to sing arias as well as speak dialogue. They wrote these arias on portable scripts they could take with them as they toured the theatres of antiquity. Several have survived on papyrus. The musical notation takes the form of extra letters written over the libretto. They tell us an enormous amount about how ancient tragic melodies actually sounded—large intervals were usually avoided, and the melodies wound sinuously up and down the ancient set scales.

One of the most important of the ‘musical papyri’ is in Oslo. It contains a plangent song sung by an ancient actor in an otherwise lost tragedy about Achilles’ son Neoptolemus.  You can hear a slightly imaginative reconstruction of what it sounded like here

Leiv Amundsen (right)
I feel a special affinity with this papyrus because it was co-edited by the gifted earlier Norwegian Greek scholars Samuel Eitrem and Leiv  Amundsen (in oil painting I'm pointing at in the picture) along with whom else but Reginald Pepys Winnington-Ingram, Professor at King’s College London.  His office is now mine. This thrills me because as long ago as 1948 he wrote the most significant article on Aeschylus’ Oresteia to appear until the 1970s, a profoundly feminist piece in which he explained that Clytemnestra’s real problem is that she knows she is smarter than her husband. So last night I feel that the Hellenist philological bond between Oslo and my institution was delightfully reaffirmed over Norwegian cod and excellent wine. Skol skol skol!


  1. Norwegian 'skål' (not 'skol') is descended from Old Norse 'skál' (pronounced in Modern Icelandic something close to "scowl"), itself from Proto-Germanic *skêlô - however, this means "bowl". It appears the root means something to do with bending or curving and Falk (1909) lists Greek 'skolios' ("bent", "curved") as cognate to Germanic *skelha/skelhva (< PIE *skel- or *skwel-). 'Skolion' is derived from 'skolios'.

    So there is an etymological relation but it does not have to do directly with the toasting, rather its association with bowls or drinking horns.

  2. This is extraordinarily helpful and interesting, Thomas. Thanks so much. Saves me several days in a library! Edith