“So the famous singer sang his tale”

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I first read the Odyssey in eighth grade; I enjoyed it then (especially Odysseus’s “Nobody” trick) but over time have come to hear more of its sorrow. It takes time to start to know Odysseus and take in the tones of the many songs.

In Book VII, when Odysseus arrives, naked and bereft, at the land of the Phaiakians, after having lost his raft and swum two days at sea, he meets Nausikaa, who tells him the way to her parents’ house. Once he has arrived, Nausikaa’s father, Alkínoös, welcomes him. In Book VIII, after Odysseus has eaten, drank, and stayed the night, Alkínoös calls on his men to entertain the guest, and calls for the blind singer, Demodokos, “for to him the god gave song surpassing / in power to please, whenever the spirit moves to singing.” The herald Pontonoös sets out a silver-studded chair for him, hangs the lyre on a peg, shows him how to reach for it, and shows him where to reach for his cup. Demodokos sings of the old quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles. (At this point no one knows the identity of the guest.) As he listens, Odysseus

taking in his ponderous hands the great mantle dyed in
sea-purple, drew it over his head and veiled his fine features,
shamed for tears running down his face before the Phaiakians;
and every time the divine singer would pause in his singing,
he would take the mantle away from his head, and wipe the tears off,
and taking up a two-handled goblet would pour a libation
to the gods, but every time he began again, and the greatest
of the Phaiakians would urge him to sing, since they joyed in his stories,
Odysseus would cover his head again, and make lamentation.

πορφύρεον μέγα φᾶρος ἑλὼν χερσὶ στιβαρῇσι
κὰκ κεφαλῆς εἴρυσσε, κάλυψε δὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα:
αἴδετο γὰρ Φαίηκας ὑπ᾽ ὀφρύσι δάκρυα λείβων.
ἦ τοι ὅτε λήξειεν ἀείδων θεῖος ἀοιδός,
δάκρυ ὀμορξάμενος κεφαλῆς ἄπο φᾶρος ἕλεσκε
καὶ δέπας ἀμφικύπελλον ἑλὼν σπείσασκε θεοῖσιν:
90αὐτὰρ ὅτ᾽ ἂψ ἄρχοιτο καὶ ὀτρύνειαν ἀείδειν
Φαιήκων οἱ ἄριστοι, ἐπεὶ τέρποντ᾽ ἐπέεσσιν,
ἂψ Ὀδυσεὺς κατὰ κρᾶτα καλυψάμενος γοάασκεν.

Alkínoös notices Odysseus weeping and suggests that they all go outside for a few contests. This does not go much better; Euryalos taunts Odysseus for not participating in the contests, and Odysseus, after replying sternly, throws a discus so far that everyone is stunned. Alkínoös praises Odysseus and calls for dancers to dance and for Demodokos to sing again with the lyre.

Now Demodokos sings of Ares and Aphrodite in the house of Hephaistos–and Odysseus enjoys it greatly–but a little later, after receiving farewell gifts, Odysseus himself calls for Demodokos and asks him to sing of the wooden (Trojan) horse. When Demodokos sings, Odysseus once again “melted, and from under his eyes the tears ran down, drenching / his cheeks.” Alkínoös notices and at last asks Odysseus who he is. Odysseus’s answer takes up the next four books of the Odyssey. He reveals not only who he is, but what happened to him after he sailed away from Troy. He tells of the Kikonians, the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclopes, Circe, his visit to Hades, and much more; the rapt Phaiakians listen.

Anyone could forget, at this point, that these tales would have brought Odysseus to tears, had Demodokos been the one to sing them. The Phaiakians treat the tales as entertainment (whether profound or light); for Odysseus, who recognizes his life in them, they hold loss and grief. Yet he himself longs to hear them; otherwise he would not have asked Demodokos to sing again.

Entertainment is nothing to scoff at; to entertain, in the old sense of the word, is to maintain, to keep someone in a state of mind. The songs of the Odyssey delight the mind, but for some of the characters, and for readers over time, they do much more. Not only that, but they take and give back time; the question “who are you?” unrolls into the night.

 

The quotations in English are from Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey; the Greek text is courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library.

I took the photo outside the Dallas Institute yesterday.

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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