The score of polyphony

For many people, even in today's enlightened times, it’s only their own perspective that counts. However, we knew better, even in antiquity.

Pictures of an ancient statue of Herodotus
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Herodotus of Halicarnassus lived in the 5th century BC.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus lived in the 5th century BC and has since been associated with many flattering attributes. He is considered by some to be the first historian or religious scientist, by others to be the ancient ethnologist par excellence, and by still others to be a geographer from a time that actually did not know this science at all.

For Andreas Schwab, professor of Greek studies and knowledge research at Kiel University since September 2021, Herodotus was certainly a trailblazing thinker who was far ahead of his time – and an outstanding protagonist of polyphony. Which sounds more complicated than it is, because this term simply means multiple voices in literature and especially in music.

"Travelling to capture the voices and views locally." According to Schwab, that is what the ancient scholar did more than 2,000 years ago. And he did so with an approach that can be described as scientific, even by today's standards, as the Hellenist emphasised: "He tried to describe foreign cultures as factually and neutrally as possible." In fact, during his travels to Egypt or Persia, Herodotus repeatedly gave a voice to priests or other protagonists of public life. Andreas Schwab has coined a nice term for this approach: "Herodotus inter-views." By this, he means that the ancient Greek engaged in conversation with other people by asking questions, and at the same time conveyed different "views", i.e. perspectives.

However, Andreas Schwab is interested in much more than just this one historical figure. Instead, over the course of his years of study and research, which led him to places such as Heidelberg, Paris, Chicago and most recently Munich, where he was a stand-in professor for three and a half years at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU Munich), he has created a real diachronic score of polyphony.

"Fundamental Elements for a Polyphonic History of Religion of Ancient Greek Literature" is the five-year project that Schwab developed using the so-called Heisenberg Programme funding, awarded to habilitation graduates who have not yet been appointed to a permanent professorship. Although it is already clear that the Greek scholar will remain at Kiel University after these five years, the idea of his building blocks remains unaffected. The first of these is about voices on religion in classical ancient literature, from Homer to Plato in the 5th and 4th century BC. After all, in the professor's opinion, Plato's dialogues on Socrates already represent the precursors of polyphony in this era.

The second building bock is devoted to the way Greek authors treated the imperial period, such as Josephus, Diodorus or Origen, of religions that are neither Greek nor Jewish nor Christian. "How do these authors deal with the unknown?" is how Schwab formulates the central question about this part, which as the third element follows the examination of religious voices within Christian, Jewish and Greek religious history.

The focus is on the philologist and Christian theologian Origen as a preacher and exegete. According to Schwab, this thinker in particular was "very creative and productive with his publications", and conveyed "highly interesting perspectives" through, among other things, artistically interwoven voices from the Old and New Testament.

While there may be many facets to the subject, it is important for the Kiel scientist that each of these facets deals with the clichés. For example, the bright minds of ancient times not only had an impact on small elite groups, but instead reached thousands of people with their tragedies, dramas and comedies. And even the contents are by no means outdated from Andreas Schwab's point of view: "What fascinates me is the timelessness of these discourses."

Author: Martin Geist