The Rain-Swollen Charles

As I was bicycling to work across the rain-swollen Charles river between Newton and Needham, that “rain-swollen” reminded me of Homeric epithets.

My graduate school roommate was in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department at Brandeis, on his way to becoming a distinguished Bible scholar. That involved studying lots of languages, including some I hadn’t heard of before like Akkadian and Ugaritic. Some days I would find the dining room table littered with his scratch paper from studying the night before, covered with notes in Akkadian cuneiform chicken tracks. Then there’s Moabite, which (at least in those days) is known from just one text, The Moabite Stone.

Another year he was studying classical Greek, reading the Odyssey in the original. Homer is known for not using a noun by itself, but prefacing it with a couple of descriptive words. It’s never “the dawn”, but “the rosy-fingered dawn”, not “the sea” but “the wine-dark sea.” Apparently Buzzy got caught up in that, because one day I heard him walking around the apartment patting his pockets and looking under piles of papers, muttering to himself, “Where, oh where, are my ring-tingling keys?”

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