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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 31 -- Big Ideas: The Poets of The Odyssey

Finally, life has settled back down into its normal pattern, and I have time to start tackling these longer posts again. While my last one, on the Homeric Simile, was fairly technical in nature, this one is going to be more of a meander through the text, mixed with a large portion of my general thoughts on the subject. I hope you'll forgive me if it sounds at times as if I'm reaching for something I cannot quite grasp; I often find myself in that position when I think about this text as a whole.

First, let us start with the primary poet of The Odyssey, namely Homer himself. I touched on the authorship question briefly when we embarked on this journey, but the general scholarly consensus is that there was no Homer. (I'm restraining myself from making the obvious The Simpsons joke--and yet, I added this parenthetical.) Homer is the name given by later generations to the poet of both The Odyssey and The Iliad and a number of other works, the so-called Homeric Hymns, a name already firmly in place by what we consider to be the "classical" age, some four to five hundred years after the poem was originally meant to be written.

Of course, written is the wrong word, which is why we have so many problems identifying its ultimate author--this poem was, rather, composed; it emerges from the oral tradition. As such, it literally predates the concept of authorship such as we understand it now. Most likely, "Homer" was generations of men (and possibly women--more on that in a moment) hearing and learning the poem, or large segments thereof, and then reciting it, with each person probably making additions, changes, and deletions as they went, either to make it, perhaps, fit their own personal "style," or perhaps to tailor it to their audience. If there ever was a Homer, and there may well have been, there are no authoritative accounts of him. There is great work being done by philologists, linguists, and classic scholars of all kinds on the so-called "Homeric Question," but given the dearth of hard evidence, I think it unlikely that we'll ever really know if Homer existed, or, if he did, how much of what we attribute to him he actually wrote.

Two final notes on this general topic before I move from the poem as text to the poem as story. First, the modern computer-based analysis of stylometry, which has shown to be quite adept, at times, at clarifying questions of dubious authorship, sheds some light on this question. While it can't definitively credit the works to Homer, as we have no texts that can be attributed to him with certainty, it does show there there is a great internal consistency both within the two Homeric epics and between them. This strongly suggests that a single person, or group of people working in concert, gave us the poems as we have had them for over 2000 years.

But what if that person wasn't a man? That's the intriguing conclusion argued by Victorian scholar Samuel Butler in his book The Authoress of The Odyssey. Butler actually takes it a step further and rather bizarrely identifies Nausicaa as the "real" Homer. I mention this possibility of a female Homer for several reasons. Primarily, is shows how little we really know about Homer and his poems; while few, if any, reputable scholars subscribe to Butler's view, it would be very hard to disprove that the ultimate source for this story is a woman who met or knew the historical Odysseus, assuming there was one, and who told the story to her children or family around the hearth. As the scientists say, we just don't know. Less importantly, I mention it because what initially struck Butler, namely the preponderance of intelligent, powerful, and pivotal female figures throughout the story, must surely strike any reader of the poem. And that's the topic I plan to address in my next "Big Ideas" post. Consider this an official teaser.

But now, let's move on to the other "poets" of The Odyssey. The poem presents us with several images of storytelling, most importantly, Odysseus' own telling of his journeys at the court of King Alcinous, which we have just completed with Book XII. Indeed, Odysseus himself is the other major poet of The Odyssey. It is he who tells of his many travails since sailing from Troy. Just as Nestor and Menelaus earlier had told Telemachus their far more prosaic accounts of their returns, Odysseus tells of his encounter with Polyphemus, his visit to Hades, and his ultimate undoing by his own crew. But, unlike either Nestor or Menelaus or any of the other returning Trojan heroes, Odysseus is alone. His fleet has been utterly destroyed, and only he is left to tell the tale.

This raises the always thorny question of Odysseus' character. Odysseus is clever and crafty and, when necessary (and sometimes even when it is not) deceitful. Therefore, how much can we believe of what Odysseus tells us of his journeys? Of course, I don't mean to imply that we as modern readers should believe any of it as fact; that's a habit of Homeric readers we have generally lost with the modern age. Rather, I mean, how much are we to believe of Odysseus' story within the confines of the narrative? Did he really go down to the House of Death? Were his men really turned into pigs by Circe? Or is he embellishing his story to better entertain his audience, and perhaps, to increase his own stature? It has been argued, somewhat persuasively, that the "truth" of Odysseus' journeys lies in a more prosaic reading of his epic exploits: his men acted like pigs when the met Circe; the Lotus Eaters did spend a lot of their time intoxicated, but it wasn't the entirety of their lives; and so on. But Odysseus is not speaking of facts, necessarily; rather, he is telling a story. So we will allow him any poetic license he may be employing. Stories, after all, take us beyond the realm of facts and "truth," and instead can guide us to Truth--capital T intended.


This brings us, I feel, to the final poets of The Odyssey, or at least the last ones I shall discuss: Demodocus and the Sirens. Demodocus, "People Enchanter," is the poet at the court of King Alcinous who, unknowingly, brings about the revelation of Odysseus' identity. He does this, as all poets do, through his song--he sings of Troy, and of the men who fought and died there. Odysseus, at this point nine years or more removed from the battle, is struck afresh by what he and his comrades did and endured. He is hearing his life sung, and he understands the Truth of it. Just so with the Sirens, so beguiling to their hearers that men waste away listening to them sing. As I mentioned in my last post, the Sirens sing to Odysseus of his exploits and of himself--of the Truth of himself, and of more besides, for they know "all that comes to pass on the fertile earth." They are the ultimate poets in that they offer the ultimate Truth, but we are not meant to know it. If we even hear their song, we are sure to die listening.


That is what unifies the poets of The Odyssey: Homer, Odysseus, Demodocus, the Sirens, even Phemius, the bard at Ithaca in Book I. They sing to us of the world in which Odysseus and his contemporaries live, and of other worlds, in other places, in other times. However, like all great poets, from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Shakespeare to Milton to Keats to Dickinson to Frost, what they really sing is the Truth--of their world, of our world, and of ourselves. But we should never forget to take heed of the danger of the Siren song. We cannot simply listen--we must act and live. Otherwise, there are no stories to tell, no songs to sing.

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