So Saith Xenophon

HoundsHuntingHullIf you’re considering tabletop RPG systems and thinking about how XP (experience points) should work, or maybe just thinking about a fresh perspective on how adventurers might see what they’re doing, you could probably do worse than to read some old Greek manuals on hunting:

Do not envy those who push ahead rashly for their own advantage, either in their private business or in public affairs. Remember that the best of them, although well thought of, are envied, while the evil ones are both ill thought of and badly off. For they make off with the property of the private citizens and that of the city and are more useless than  private citizens for the common defense. They keep their bodies in the worst and most disgraceful condition because they are incapable of toiling. But hunting men offer their bodies and their property, which they keep in good shape, to the community for he benefit of the citizens.

These war against wild beasts; those against their friends. And while those who war against their friends have ill repute among all, hunting men who war against wild beasts have good repute. If they make a catch they are victorious over hostile forces, but even if they do not make a catch they are praised, first, because they go out neither to harm a man nor for love of gain. Besides, from the very attempt they become better in many ways and wiser… for the forces contending with them for life, fighting in their very homes, are very strong. Therefore the hunting man’s labors are vain unless by greater industriousness and sagacity he conquers them.

So those who wish to gain advantage over a city take pain to vanquish friends, but hunting men take pains to vanquish common enemies. This practice makes these braver against other enemies; and those, worse. And these take prudence with them on the hunt, and those take shameful audacity. These can despise bad manners and shameful gain; those cannot. Some speak with eloquent voices and others harsh. In religion nothing keeps the one from being profane, while the other are most reverent. Ancient stories have it that even gods rejoice in this work, both as participants and as spectators…

—Xenophon, Cynegeticus (XIII: 10-15), translated by Denison Bingham Hull and published in the wonderful book Hounds and Hunting in Ancient Greece.

Xenophon’s way more old-school than Gygax and Areson, isn’t he?

Seriously though, this is a wonderful book I found in the cookbooks section of the library. I guess hunting, meat, food, cooking… makes sense. Hull was a classicist and a hunting man; his erudition and interest in foxhunting made me assume he was British, but it turns out he was an American who was frustrated by the mangled translations and glosses on ancient Greek hunting texts that academics took as accurate, because they knew nothing about hunting. Hull know a lot about hounds and hunting, so he decided to clear up the confusion and mistranslations. The book turned out to be a fascinating treatment of the subject of hunting in the ancient Greek world, though I’ll admit some of the interest is in reading how Hull tells it: he comes off as an astute, thoughtful older American gentleman, and provides just enough commentary on modern hunting practices and culture here and there to spice it up.

It’s also a quick read, only 180-odd pages, the latter half of which is all translations from the Greek of texts dealing with the subject, like the Xenophon passage above. Reading about how ancient Greeks dealt with their hunting hounds, it strikes one just how much hasn’t changed, alongside everything that has changed. Well, and it certainly made me think about how actual in a scenario like Rafael Chandler’s Bad Myrmidon might think very differently about adventuring than, say, a band of 17th century adventurers.  (And let’s not even get into how weird alignment systems would be for characters in a culture as alien as the old Hellenic one was to our post-Christendom culture. I mean, there’s a kind of synergy between, “Go around bashing monsters and taking heir treasure” and what Xenophon talks about hunting being a moral activity of greater elevation than urban political infighting… and that’s not even to stray into what comes of reading the Homeric epics with a gamer’s eye.)

Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m the only person ever to have signed out this particular book—certainly there’s no marking on the library tracking card in the back of the book, and the book physically seemed never to have been read when I picked it up… or, okay, maybe it had been read once. Perhaps the problem was that it was shelved over by the English-language cookbooks, instead of in the history section, I don’t know.

Hull seems to have done some other interesting research and translation focused on the area of the classical world, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *