Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.
Homer: An Ancient Greek "Singer of Songs"
The survival of the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, is nothing short of miraculous. These epics are songs, kind of like the "rap music" of archaic Greece, dating back to a time before writing had even been invented. The Homeric singers worked with a core set of themes and images and music which allowed them to improvise unique performances in which they sang about the Trojan War and about the adventures of the Greek heroes after the war, as they made their way back home. The Homeric singers did not know how to write, but they used their powers of memory and improvisation in order to create, and re-create, the songs. The Homeric epics survived as songs, preserved by the oral tradition, for many centuries.
The Homeric songs even survived during the "Dark Ages" of Greece, after the collapse of the archaic Greek cultures centered in Crete and in Mycene. During those "Dark Ages," from around 1100 BCE to 800 BCE, chaos ruled in the lands of Greece, but the tradition of Homeric singing survived. Then, as Greek culture re-established itself and began to flourish in what is called the "archaic" period of Greek culture, from around 800 BCE to 500 BCE, the Homeric songs provided a link to those great cultures of the past, now long dead.
By the time classical culture took shape in Athens and other Greek city-states, Homer was a revered legend. The anonymous Homeric tradition, built upon centuries of singers and songs, was now interpreted in terms of a single person, a man named Homer. There is no reason to believe that Homer ever existed, but the idea of Homer is a powerful one: Homer was supposed to have been blind, which was able to explain both his "other worldly" and inspired poetic vision, and could also explain why he had not written down his poetry, as a modern author would. The Homeric epics are oral epics: they were composed in oral performance, not as written documents. The epics are filled with references to singers and to songs; they know nothing of written poetry.
Although many Homeric epics were lost, the epics that survived became the centerpiece of classical Greek culture, and educated Greeks would know by heart huge quantities of Homer, and the poetic language used by Homer became the basis for new schools of poetry in the classical age.
The Odyssey: Ulysses Tells His Story
The Odyssey is an epic song that tells the story of how Odysseus - in Latin, Ulysses - spent 10 years journeying back home to Ithaca, and the adventures that he had when he finally reached his home. The selections for this week's reading come from Book 11 of the Odyssey, which describes the visit that Ulysses made to the "land of the dead." This is our first example in this class of the journey being used as a frametale. As Ulysses journeys throughout the land of the dead, he describes what he sees - and he also runs into famous people who tell him their story, creating stories within stories.
Even better, the journey that Ulysses makes to the land of the dead is contained within another frametale! This is because Ulysses himself is the storyteller, telling his adventures at a banquet organized by King Alcinous of Phaeacia. So you also have here an example of the occasion that creates a frametale. As the banquet is taking place, there are various forms of entertainment, including the singing of songs. When Ulysses hears someone singing a song about Troy, he begins to weep. Here is how Homer describes this sequence of events:
[The banquet singer] sang how they over ran the city hither and thither and ravaged it, and how Ulysses went raging like Mars along with Menelaus to the house of Deiphobus. It was there that the fight raged most furiously, nevertheless by Minerva's help he was victorious. All this he told, but Ulysses was overcome as he heard him, and his cheeks were wet with tears. He wept as a woman weeps when she throws herself on the body of her husband who has fallen before his own city and people, fighting bravely in defence of his home and children. She screams aloud and flings her arms about him as he lies gasping for breath and dying, but her enemies beat her from behind about the back and shoulders, and carry her off into slavery, to a life of labour and sorrow, and the beauty fades from her cheeks- even so piteously did Ulysses weep, but none of those present perceived his tears except Alcinous, who was sitting near him, and could hear the sobs and sighs that he was heaving.
King Alcinous sees that Ulysses is weeping, and he asks Ulysses to tell his story. Ulysses then begins a long series of stories, of which the journey to the land of the dead is only one episode! By a series of accidents, Ulysses and his companions have ended up on the island of the goddess Circe. That is where our story begins: after spending time on Circe's island, Ulysses's companions ask him why they are not continuing their journey home to Ithaca. Circe explains that in order to find out how to get home to Ithaca, they have to make a journey first to the land of the dead in order to get information from Teiresias, a famous prophet who died long ago and is now among the ghosts of the underworld. In your readings this week, you will meet not only Teiresias, but many other ghosts in the land of the dead, including the famous Greek heroes Agamemnon and Achilles.
MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D.
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