Q. If sēma can mean both ‘sign, meaning’ and ‘tomb’, did one of these meanings come first?
Upon learning that the Greek word “sema” could mean either a sign/symbol or a hero’s tomb, I first assumed that these were two separate words (homographs). That would follow the example of the Greek “mela,” which can refer to either apples or sheep. An English example could be “pen,” which can refer to either a writing implement or an enclosure for livestock.
But I understood Prof. Nagy to say that “sema” is a single Greek word with these very different meanings. So is there any way to tell which meaning was the prior one? If we knew that the meaning of “tomb” came first, then the derivation of “sign/symbol” from that would be especially significant.
A. by Gregory Nagy
This is a beautiful question. When we apply comparative linguistics to the problem, an interesting answer emerges. The cognate of Greek sēma in Indic is dhyāma, and that word means ‘thought, thinking’. When I say cognate, I mean something commonly inherited, not borrowed. So this comparative evidence shows that the primary meaning of sēma is ‘meaning’ or ‘sign’, not ‘tomb’. And we may infer that the attachment of the meaning ‘tomb’ to this word shows that a hero’s or an ancestor’s tomb is something very important to think about in ancient Greek society. In the book h24h, I give a bibliography on my research on this word.
Q. Sanskrit and Greek are both children of a presumed proto-Indo-European mother language. Is it dangerous to similarly regard the Sanskrit and Greek epic traditions as children of a presumed proto-Indo-European epic tradition?-B.P.
A. What we know is that there was Indo-European poetry and therefore a song culture, because there are poetic expressions inherited in common in many of the languages of the family (Greek, Sanskrit, Avestan, Germanic, etc.), includng many that are actually about poetry and making poetry. There is a collection of these expressions which have been found by generations of scholars in a book by the German scholar, Rüdiger Schmitt, called Dichtung ind Dichtersprache in Indogermanische Zeit (Wiesbaden, 1967) = Poetry and Poetic language in Indo-European Times. There was also an amazing book written in 1923 by Antoine Meillet, the great French Indo-European linguist, called Les origines indoeuropéennes des mètres grecques = “The Indo-European Origins of Greek Meters”. The meters in question are the meters of Greek lyric not epic poetry, and what Meillet shows is that meters like those of Sappho’s poetry have exact parallels in prosody and rhythmic pattern in Sanskrit, in the Vedic Hymns. That means that lyric is older than epic, even though in the case of Greek it appears that lyric poetry (like that of Sappho) is later because it is attested after the date that Homeric poetry is thought by many to have been composed, namely, the 8th Century BCE. In any case, there is no evidence to show that there was an “epic” tradition in Indo-European, even though the expression kleos aphthiton ‘unwilting song’ is one of the several poetic expressions inherited in common by Greek and Sanskrit and therefore part of the Indo-European poetic tradition.