Bakker Explores Homer's Warrior-Poets

by Steve Charles

April 4, 2014

“It’s tough to be a hero in Homer’s world,” Yale University of Classics Professor Egbert Bakker told the Wabash community Tuesday as he began the 5th Annual John Charles Lecture. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Bakker suggested, the song is mighty as the sword, the poet as powerful as the warrior, and often they are one in the same.

“If you’re a hero you have to create glory that will live on after your death, and you have to defeat your opponent with arms and with words,” Bakker said. "The greatest hero is Achilles, who was brought up as a speaker of words and a doer of deeds. Achilles is not only as a warrior, but also a singer.

“In Homer, words are deeds. Every utterance is an act, no less than a physical act.”

This “unity of word and deed is pushed to new heights” in The Odyssey, Bakker said before leading his audience through a series of passages from the book. 

“The songs sung by Odysseus are decisive actions, the singing of songs is the equivalent of battle, the hero becomes a singer, the singer becomes a hero.”

Department Chair and Associate Professor of Classics Jeremy Hartnett called Bakker’s presentation “a superb lecture and the highlight of a three-day stay on campus.”

Former Wabash Classics major and sponsor of the lecture Bruce Baker ’65 was on hand for Tuesday’s event.

“In fact, the idea of the Charles lecture was inspired by one of Bruce Baker’s undergraduate experiences, when the prominent historian and archaeologist, respectively, Sir Stephen Runciman and George Mylonas visited the College for several days,’ Hartnett said. “In keeping with that model, we have kept Dr. Bakker very busy over the last two days, as he has visited classes, run workshops, and dined with students and faculty.”

The lectureship honors the late Professor John "Jack" Charles, whose classroom teaching drew in flocks of students, one of whom called him "the most compelling lecture on the faculty," Hartnett said. "As impressive as the quality of Jack’s teaching was its range: in addition to history, Greek, Latin, and occasionally Egyptian hieroglyphics, he took on Spanish once when an issue arose in the 70’s, and when pressed into duty in the 1940’s during the V-12 program for sailors and navy officers, Professor Charles offered a course on naval strategy, using the Battle of Salamis between the Greeks and Persians in 480 BCE as a prominent component of the syllabus. He knew the material well, since naval warfare was also his academic specialty. Even in his retirement,  Jack Charles was a model, since he taught himself Hebrew for fun. Jack Charles–Some Little Giant."


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