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Building the World of Ancient Songs

Shelmerdine revitalizes the language of classic texts

Faculty Focus, published by the UNCG Office of Research Services, July 1998

[About the research of Strong College Fellow Dr. Susan Shelmerdine]

Line by line, word by word, phrase by phrase, Dr. Susan Shelmerdine, associate professor of classical studies, reconstructs ancient Greece by unveiling the culture captured in its songs.

“The antiquity of the world and the mystery of trying to learn about a culture that is no longer there—that’s what I find fascinating about my work,” said Shelmerdine. “You have to look at more than just the literature, you have to look at the whole picture.”

Vase paintings of mythological themes, sculptures of goddesses, and maps co-created with Dr. Jeff Patton from the geography department precede Shelmerdine’s translation of The Homeric Hymns, thirty-three poems written by several authors over many centuries. The poems are named for the gods and goddesses that they invoke or construct stories about. With this book, Shelmerdine labored to produce a more readable text; she added notes and private theories to reach two different audiences: students in mythology classes who need basic information and teachers looking for more scholarly approaches.

“These hymns are a wonderful window on the different gods and goddesses and how they interact,” said Shelmerdine. “For years, they weren’t read and there was not a lot of work done on them. Thankfully, a revitalized interest in the hymns has helped them reenter the classical curriculum.”

Shelmerdine’s text was well accepted, and as a result, Focus Books, its publisher, asked her to work on three volumes of Aeschylus, his trilogy of plays called the Oresteia. Shelmerdine has agreed to translate the first of these Greek tragedies and weigh its success against future commitments. The writings of Aeschylus originate from the end of the archaic period and the beginning of the classical period.

“It will be interesting and fun for me to move from that earlier piece on the Hymns to the point at which Greek tragedy began. It’s the next step,” said Shelmerdine.

This step extends from Shelmerdine’s primary research project. Her creation of a comprehensive commentary on the Hymn of Hermes has required years of scholarly dedication. The commentary involves developing a detailed reading of the Hymn along with a complete investigation into its linguistic and cultural history, such as its relation to other ancient texts, the number of readings and their origins, the various meanings of phrases and word usages, and mistakes in manuscripts. Shelmerdine plans to send the final product and a number of related articles to a publisher this year.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021