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.
This repertoire of themes and images and music grew over a period of centuries, and 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 selections for this week's reading come from Books 9-10-11 of the Odyssey, which consists of a total of 24 books (the Odyssey and the Iliad each contain 24 books, which is the number of letters in the Greek alphabet; the classical scholar Barry Powell has argued that this is because the creation of the Greek alphabet and the transcription of the epic songs are closely related historical events).
Books 1-8 tell the story of Odysseus's adventures after leaving Troy, until he is shipwrecked and washed ashore on the island of Phaeacia. On the shore of the island, he encounters Nausikaa, the daughter of King Alkinoos. Nausikaa brings him back to the palace. Odysseus has not revealed his identity to the Phaeacians, but at a feast, he bursts into tears when he hears a blind singer singing the story of the Trojan War.
He 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.
As Book 9 begins, Odysseus then tells the Phaeacians who he is, and the story of his adventures after the Trojan War. Because Odysseus is telling the story, you will be reading something written in first-person narration this week. This Odysseus' story, told by him from his point of view.
The Homeric epic was originally composed in Greek, but these stories were also popular in Latin-speaking Rome. This means that most of the gods and goddesses, the heroes and other characters, often have both Greek and Latin names (and the Greek names are often transliterated into the Roman alphabet in various ways: Achilles, Akhilleus, etc.). The translation you will be reading this week uses the Latin rather than the Greek names - so before you start reading, make sure you are familiar with these name-equivalents:
Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology.
Laura Gibbs, Ph.D.
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