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Homer's Rhapsodes, or “Don't blame the singer!”


This fresco from Nestor's Palace at Pylos, where Book 3 of the Odyssey takes place, shows a rhapsode with his lyre.

Rhapsode,InformationThe word rhapsode [ravidow] is not found in the Iliad or the Odyssey, but it is derived from the verb rapsai [ravaj] meaning to sew or stitch together, and by extension to devise or plan, which neatly describes how Odysseus stitches together the episodes of his odyssey. It survives in the word rhapsody, an episodic instrumental piece favored by Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninov, and others.1minstrel, bard, poet, Singer of Tales2: all these epithets3 denote Homer and other singers of epics. Possessed of phenomenal memories and Herculean stamina, they chanted the deeds of heroes and the interventions of the gods, their only accompaniment the lyre and a bottomless cup of wine. Their audiences ranged from beggars to kings. Their stories, stripped of their music, continue to enchant us as literature. Sometimes blind, and often illiterate, the rhapsodes were the DJs of the ancient world.

What do we do at a party? Eat and drink, sing and dance, of course. That hasn't changed in 110 generations. Only a quarter of the way into the first book of the Odyssey, after the necessary invocations, the bard is brought on stage.

While the suitors are listening to Phemius (the voice), Telemachus is engaged in conversation with Athena, who has appeared in the guise of the Taphian general Mentes. Claming to be an old friend of Odysseus, Mentes advises Telemachus on how to deal with the suitors and where he might hear tidings of his missing father. After calling an assembly of the citizens of Ithaca, where he will present his suit against the suitors, Telemachus is to hire a ship and go to visit Nestor and Menelaus. Athena/Mentes then departs and Telemachus rejoins the suitors in the hall.

Here Homer takes on the role of playwright, and this dramatic passage shows both his ability to make us visualize and his capacity to explore complex human relationships. Most striking are the changing dynamics between the mother and son, but Homer also gives us a glimpse into the uncertain estate of an artist.

Phemius is working for the suitors, perforce performing in the great hall of Telemachus and Penelope. His song must surely be more to the suitors' taste than to the family of the missing-in-action Odysseus. Having drunk much wine, the suitors have tactlessly demanded a "song of the wretched Achaeans' struggle to make it home from the battle at Troy." Listening from her private quarters, Penelope finds it offensive and depressing. Instead of sending one of her maids with a message, she makes a personal appearance, exerting her authority over her home. When her son, just come to manhood, overrules and rebukes her, she returns to her room to weep for her lost husband.4

Her appearance provokes an uproar among the suitors, which Telemachus attempts to calm by calling for a return to the song:

Telemachus chooses the moment to announce his intention of calling the suitors to account at the assembly on the following morning. He is answered by Antinous, and a short debate ensues—a preview of what will be said on the morrow, when both have more energy and a larger audience. For the moment they go back to the entertainment.

Throughout this dramatic scene, Phemius remains ready to break off and resume his song, or even to change his tune if required. What might have happened if Telemachus had not reversed his mother's command? Whom would Phemius obey—the mistress of the house or the unpredictable suitors? Rude as Telemachus rebuke of his mother may seem, it may have saved the skin of the bard. Telemachus will save him again at the end of the Odyssey with words similar to "Don't blame the singer!"

When Phemius turns up again in Book 22 he is in much worse trouble. Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca and, with his son Telemachus, dispatched the audacious suitors to Hades. As they are rounding up the servants who cooperated with the suitors, Phemius decides he had better plead for his life, having entertained the enemy in the house of the king. He may be blessed by the gods with a special gift, but his life is in jeopardy.

The key phrase in this passage is : aytodjdaktow d'ejmj. "I am self-taught." Phemius avers that his musical talent is a gift from the gods, implying that to kill him will be a sin. He says this while clasping the king's knees—an act of abject humility—but clearly warning Odysseus that even kings have to pay for rash acts that offend the gods.

The notion that musical ability is a special gift goes back to the beginnings of civilization. Most of us have known someone who could play the piano beautifully without ever having had a lesson. No one has ever satisfactorily explained how it happens that a person is born with such ability. We simply say that such a one is gifted. Sometimes these musicians never learn to read musical notation, but they have great memories and can improvise, the same gifts that Phemius had. Sometimes, like Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder, these artists have a disability.

The other rhapsode named in the Odyssey is Demodocus (people enchanter), the bard-in- residence at the court of Alcinous, King of the Phaeacians. Blind Demodocus must be led to his post by a herald. Homer has traditionally been portrayed as blind, and some have suggested that Demodocus is a self-portrait.

At this point Odysseus is still the noble stranger; he will reveal his identity in Book IX when he tells his story. But his response to the singing of the bard nearly gives him away, for he has to struggle to hide his tears and suppress his groans. Hearing the bard sing his own story is just too moving, and he can hardly contain himself. Alcinous tactfully suggests they take a break from the music and engage in athletic contests. This seems to me the antecedent of our practice of going outside after dinner to shoot a few hoops or pass a little ball.

After the games, they all return to the hall for some dancing, and Demodocus is sent for again. It is interesting to observe his dual role as singer of tales and accompaniment to the dance. During the dance he sings a bawdy rendition of illicit love between two gods. Ares (Mars) and Aphrodite (Venus) are having a torrid affair, and her husband Hephaestus (Vulcan) schemes to catch them in the act. He succeeds and holds them up to ridicule by the other gods—all except Hermes (Mercury), who says he would gladly endure the scorn for the pleasure of lying with the goddess of love.7

Odysseus is delighted with the scurrilous song and praises the dancers extravagantly. Alcinous calls for all the guests to reward the discerning stranger with gifts of friendship. After a luxurious bath, Odysseus is dressed in a clean tunic for more feasting. Seated beside the king, he is brought a choice cut of meat, which he promptly passes along to the bard, who has been brought back to entertain at the banquet. After they have eaten, Odysseus praises Demodocus and asks him to resume his song of the sack of Troy, telling the story of the Trojan horse.

Odysseus is still concealing his identity, testing the bard. Had Demodocus suspected that the man requesting the song had devised the plan for the Trojan horse, he surely would have felt put on the spot. Undaunted, he proceeds to tell the story, and again Odysseus is overcome by emotion. His tears, sighs, and groans are such that Alcinous tells Demodocus to stop singing. The time has come for the noble stranger to tell his name.

Book IX opens with praise of the host and his bard in preparation for the revelation:

Odysseus is no singer [aojdow] and—unlike Achilles—he can't play the lyre, but here begins his account of all his adventures since he left Troy. As reciter of his own odyssey, Odysseus now becomes the rhapsode, upstaging Demodocus, and even Homer.8


1 The word rhapsode [ravidow] is not found in the Iliad or the Odyssey, but it is derived from the verb rapsai [ravaj] meaning to sew or stitch together, and by extension to devise or plan, which neatly describes how Odysseus stitches together the episodes of his odyssey. It survives in the word rhapsody, an episodic instrumental piece favored by Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninov, and others.

2 Alfred B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, Harvard U. Press, 1960.

3 Homeric epithets are usually adjectival: clear-eyed Athena; white-armed Hera; crafty Odysseus; the wine-dark sea; the hollow ships. But they can also be substantive: Odysseus the sacker of cities; Poseidon the earthquaker; Zeus the cloud-gatherer.

4 This passage begs for comment on the role of women in ancient society, but my topic is the life and role of the musician. See Eva Brann, Homeric Moments (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002) for character studies of Penelope and Helen. For a broader discussion of women in Homeric society, I recommend M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books, 1982; 1st ed. 1954), especially chapter 4: Household, Kin, and Community, and specifically pp. 132-133 in chapter 5: Morals and Values. Barry Strauss's The Trojan War: A New History (Simon & Shuster, 2006) contains much useful information about women in the Bronze Age, and particularly about captive women. Euripides' The Trojan Women dramatizes the fates of Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen after the fall of Troy. Of course, one can find no more moving representation of a woman's plight than Andromache's monologue in the Iliad 6:407-439; and her lament for Hector, 24:724-744.

5 Compare "Don't blame the singer!" in I: 347.

6 Note that the bracketed lines are in Greek identical to the first two lines of the first quotation. This is an example of how rhapsodes used formulae in composing epics.

7 This lengthy song continues over 115 lines: VIII, 254-369.

8 In the Iliad 9:186-191, Achilles is sitting in camp, playing the lyre and singing to his friend Patroclus when an envoy arrives seeking a truce with Agamemnon. On Odysseus as reciter, see Eva Brann, Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002) p. 176, et al.

© 2008, Lawrence T. Sisk