An Odyssey of their own: Classics Club members read from Homer’s “Odyssey” in worldwide event
In late October of 2020, Simon Kaplan, president of the UIUC Classics Club, found out through social media about the “Odyssey ‘Round the World,” a 24-hour event to be held on Dec. 8-9. The event would feature performances of every rhapsody of Homer’s Odyssey, recorded by students, faculty, and actors around the world.
The promotion, directed toward the active community of classical scholars on Twitter, came from Dr. Amy Pistone of Gonzaga University. After speaking with Pistone, Kaplan contacted his members, several of whom said they would participate.
Next, Kaplan reached out to Pistone again and worked with the student organizers of the event to receive his group’s instructions and line assignment, which turned out to be Book 18, lines 243-428. “After that it was just a matter of dividing out our parts, getting our costumes, and recording,” he said.
Five students took part in the reading: Kaplan, Nikhil Kappagantula, Edric Lin, Satwik Pani, and Habib Rehman. Kaplan commented that since not all of them were on campus they decided to record their parts individually and then edit them into a final video. “We toyed with the idea of using sets, props, and ambient lighting, but ultimately settled on restraining ourselves to improvised chitons—typical ancient Greek dress.”
You can watch and listen to their readings in this 13-minute video (the readers, in order, are: Lin, Pani, Kappagantula, Kaplan, and Rehman) below:
In reflecting on his own participation, Kaplan said, “I think the way that this project brought together students and faculty and Classics-lovers of all kinds, from countries all across the world, conveys a profound message about how stories, even those from the distant past, retain the power to bring people together in the present.
“It’s a message, I think, that’s much needed in a time such as this, where a pandemic keeping many of us apart and inside is only one of our worries, and is an example of what I believe the field in its best form can do.”
Rehman, a freshman from Darien, Ill., is majoring in bioengineering with a minor in computer science, but spent four years in high school learning Latin, and he loves Greco-Roman studies, so he joined the Classics Club. “Reading the Odyssey out loud gave me a unique perspective on the characters,” he said. “To actually read out their dialogues forced me to place myself in their shoes—to act as they would have. It made the characters feel more like real people rather than just literary figures.”
Connecting with like-minded scholars
Kappagantula, a senior from Palo Alto, Calif., is studying economics with a minor in informatics. He said he was motivated by the opportunity to connect with “likeminded scholars all over the world.
“Classics was something I’ve always had a passion for since I was a kid, so joining the Classics Club was a way for me to really explore that passion in college.
“Being able to present, as well as read with fellow Illinois Classics Club members, was something that felt special because it was a way for me to understand the impact of classical literature worldwide.”
Kappagantula even put together his own chiton after watching a few how-to videos on You Tube.
“I was definitely nervous, as this was my first time doing a video like this, but I had a great time doing it, especially after seeing the end result it felt like I was contributing to something bigger than just myself.”
In retrospect, he called it a once-in-a-lifetime experience for which he is grateful.
Lin, a sophomore from Northbrook, Ill., is seeking a dual degree in Electrical Engineering and Classics, said that doing the reading on video removed the nervousness he might have felt in front of a live audience. “But since I was reading to what was essentially an empty room with unlimited retakes, I didn't really sweat.
“When reading the Odyssey, many of my previous insights into the poem were reinforced. Reading the passage in English didn't seem as genuine or near the experience reading it in the original language, in meter and with the proper ancient Greek accents. The fun part of the project was wearing a toga since I rarely get to do so.”
In sum, Kaplan commented, “I think it only makes sense to bring together people from across the world to read the tale of a man who himself was a traveler to so many different lands, and whose journey therein has become the archetype for worldwide voyages of all kinds.”
For the five U of I Classics Club members who did their part in reading Homer’s tale, the journey was well worth the effort.
Written by Rick Partin, SLCL