Don’t Blame the Singer!

A few years ago I began translating The Odyssey. Having achieved proficiency in koine Greek, I wanted to be able to read Homer. Why does a music professor want to read Homer in Greek? Because none of the English translations preserve the meter of the poetry, which is the main element of the music in the epics. The bronze-age composer of The Iliad and The Odyssey was a musician who sang his poems for an audience of soldiers or nobles gathered in a palace or in the camps. One heard Homer rather than read Homer.[1]

As my translation progressed, I began sharing it with my students. It was a revelation to them that the Homeric epics were sung by a musician. Many had read The Odyssey in high school, but in a prose translation that did little more than summarize the action. And here we were reading it in dactylic hexameter! “One and-a two and-a three and; four and-a five and-a six and.”

Music is always about more than melody and meter, and we moved on to discuss the social context: the life of the professional musician in the Bronze Age. These men were entertainers whose lives and livelihood depended on their voice, their skill on the lyre, and their memory. Moreover, they had to be able to please demanding lords who held the power of life and death over them.

Rhapsode[2], minstrel, bard, poet, Singer of Tales[3]: all these epithets[4] 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.

And having sated themselves with abundant food and drink, they

turned their attention to entertainment of other kinds:

singing and dancing, the ideal accompaniment to a feast. A

herald then fetched the well-tuned lyre for the hands of Phemius, a

bard compelled to perform for the suitors; and setting in motion the

strings of the lyre, he began to sing his enchanting song.

Odyssey, 1:150-155, tr. Lawrence Sisk

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.

He found them sitting in silence, listening as the famous

bard sang a song of the wretched Achaeans’ struggle to make it

home from the battle at Troy, enjoined by Pallas Athena.

Up in the women’s quarters, prudent Penelope, daughter of

Icarius, heard, and her heart was moved by the inspired song.

Then from her chambers above she began to descend the staircase,

not unaccompanied, but attended by two of her handmaids.

When she had entered the hall where the suitors were gathered, she stood by a

column supporting the sturdy roof, flanked by her handmaids,

holding a glistening head-scarf to veil her lovely face.

Then, with a handmaid on either side to give her support, she

mastered her tears and began to address the god-like bard:

“Phemius, surely you know a number of other delightful

songs you might sing of the deeds of famous men and of gods;

sing one of those as you sit entertaining these men who are drinking their

wine in silence. But cease this woeful, depressing song of the

wretched Achaeans—it greatly distresses the heart in my breast!

Sorrow has been my constant companion, never relenting, for

ever I feel the loss of my husband, remembering the face of the

noble hero renowned throughout Hellas and middle Argos.”

But contradicting her, bold Telemachus answered in these words:

“Why now, my Mother, are you reluctant to let the worthy

bard entertain as his mind directs him? Don’t blame the singer!

If anyone is to blame, I suppose it is Zeus, for you know that he

gives to men who must toil for their bread, and to each as he wills.

Spare us your righteous indignation, Mother, and let the

bard sing the evil fate of the Danaans; for men will applaud most

warmly the song that falls on the ears with the greatest novelty.

It would behoove you, too, to take heart and summon the courage to

listen; for not only brave Odysseus suffered the loss of his

homecoming day, but many others were lost at Troy.

Go back upstairs now and mind your own business—the work of the loom and the

distaff—and see that the housemaids attend to their chores. Leave to the

men—and especially to me—the words and the speeches, for I am the

voice of authority now in this house and the head of the household.”

Odyssey, 1:325-359, tr. Lawrence Sisk

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.[5]

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

At that the suitors erupted, filling the shadowy hall with their

uproar, for each of them lusted to lie by her side in the bed; but

being a young man of sound understanding, Telemachus said to them:

“My mother’s suitors, stifle your overweening wanton

hubris, and let us continue amusing ourselves with feasting.

How good it is for us all to listen raptly to such a

bard as this man, who in beauty of voice resembles the gods!

Odyssey, 1:365-371, tr. Lawrence Sisk

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.

Phemius the bard, son of Terpes, was hoping he might yet avoid dark

death, for the suitors had often compelled him to entertain them.

Standing apart, near the back door, his resonant lyre in his hands, he

weighed out his options but couldn’t decide whether he should run from the

great hall and head toward the well-built altar of Zeus—where Odysseus,

son of Laertes in times past had so often burned the thigh-bones of

oxen—or whether he ought to run right up to Odysseus and

clasp both his knees in supplication, begging for mercy.

As he debated himself, it seemed that the best course of action was

running right up to Odysseus and clasping his knees in entreaty, and

that’s what he did. Laying the hollow lyre on the ground,

right between the wine-mixing bowl and the silver-studded

chair, he rushed up to great Odysseus and, taking hold of his

knees, he began supplicating the king with winged words.

“I kneel to you, Odysseus: have mercy upon me and spare me!

Afterward, you yourself will suffer much grief if you kill a

bard, for you know that I sing for the gods as well as for men.

I am self-taught, and god has planted songs of all kinds in my

heart, so that I was fit to sing for you and the gods.

Don’t be so eager to slay me by cutting my throat, my Lord.

Telemachus, your beloved son, is my witness that I never

came to your house on my own seeking gain, but the suitors forcibly

brought me here to sing for them after they had dined.

Being more numerous and stronger, they brought me under compulsion.”

That’s what he said, and divine Telemachus overheard him and

turned to his father in haste and called out to him nearby:

“Hold back, and do not strike with your bronze sword, for this man is blameless!”[6]

Odyssey, 22: 330-356, tr. Lawrence Sisk

The key phrase in this passage is: autodidaktos d’eimi. “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.

Alcinous: “Summon the bard, the divine Demodocus,

who has been granted the gift of song by the gods to amuse us in

whatever way his heart and his spirit may move him to sing. . .”

Then came the herald, leading from not far away the beloved

bard, whom the muse had favored with both good and bad: for though she had

blinded his eyes, she had granted to him the gift of sweet song.

For him then Pontonus set out a silver-studded chair in the

midst of the guests at the banquet, placing it right by a pillar,

so he could hang the resonant lyre on a peg just above his

head and easily reach up his hand to find it; the herald

placed a bread-basket on a beautiful table beside him as

well as a cup of wine he might sip when the spirit moved him.

[Hands were extended to grasp the good cheer prepared and served; and

when they had sated themselves with abundant food and drink, the]

muse then began to urge the bard to sing of the fame of

men—a song whose fame had reached all the way to heaven—of

how Odysseus had quarreled with Peleus’ son Achilles, and

how they had argued so vehemently at a sumptuous feast to

honor the gods, and how Agamemnon rejoiced at heart, when the

king of men saw his best soldiers striving among themselves.[7]

Odyssey, 8: 43-45; 62-78, tr. Lawrence Sisk

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.

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.[8]

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.

Demodocus, by far I exalt you above all mortals.

Either the muse was your teacher, or even Apollo, the son of

Zeus; for you sing so truly the fate of the men of Achaia—

how much they suffered and how they toiled in the trenches—that one might

think you had been there yourself or heard it first-hand from another.

But now move on and sing of the brilliant plan of the horse made of

wooden beams from the ships, which Epeius built with Athena,

which then the god-like Odysseus cunningly brought to the upper

city, stuffed with Achaean soldiers who sacked impregnable Ilion.

If you can tell the story of these things, just as they happened,

then I will not hesitate to declare to all men that that the gods have

given divine inspiration in song to you in full measure.

Odyssey VIII: 487-498, tr. Lawrence Sisk

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:

Answering, much-devising Odysseus said to the king:

O Lord Alcinous, exalted above all people, indeed it

is delightful to hear such a wonderful bard as this man,

for he is like the gods in beauty and power of voice.

Moreover, I declare that nothing surpasses the pleasure of

people enjoying themselves at table, seated in proper

order and listening to the bard sing his moving songs,

banqueting in the lord’s great hall, where tables are laden with

food and meat, and the wine stewards circulate, pouring wine from the

great mixing bowls into all the drinking cups of the guests.

Nothing could be more lovely than this, so it seems to me.

But since your hearts are now set on hearing the litany of all my

troubles—despite the suffering that I must endure in recounting them—

where shall I now begin to relate them, and where shall I end?

(Seeing the heavenly gods have seen fit to give me so many.)

I shall begin with my name, in order that you may know me, and

understand that while I am fleeing the pitiless day I shall

be unto you the stranger who lives in a home far away.

I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to men for all

manner of wiles, and my fame extends to the heavens above.

Odyssey, 9:1-20, tr. Lawrence Sisk

Odysseus is no singer [aoidos] 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.[9]


[1] I will not attempt to address the “Homeric question” here, but if there was an individual named Homer, it is difficult to imagine him writing 16 thousand lines of The Iliad and 12 thousand lines of The Odyssey, given the state of the Greek language in 700 BC, and the legend that he was a blind bard. Most scholars believe that Homer is a name for the collective creation of many bards or rhapsodes over a period of time.

[2] The word rhapsode is not found in The Iliad or The Odyssey, but it is derived from the verb rapsai  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.

[3] Alfred B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, Harvard U. Press, 1960.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] Compare “Don’t blame the singer!” in I: 347.

[7] 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.

[8] This lengthy song continues over 115 lines: VIII, 254-369.

[9] 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.


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