A re-invocation of the Muse for the Homeric Iliad

2018.08.16 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Working on A sampling of comments on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, I have made revisions, concentrating on the need to fill some gaps in my analysis of Homeric poetry. Here I focus on a set of revisions centering on the Muse who is invoked by the Master Narrator in Iliad 1, at the very beginning of the epic. What led to these particular revisions in the first place was a question I was asking myself: why does this singular Muse in Iliad 1 get re-invoked in Iliad 2 as a set of multiple Muses? I have no solution as of yet, but at least the revisions I have made in my comments point toward a hoped-for answer from the re-invoked Muse herself. The illustrations that I have chosen for my post here are suggestive of the answer I am hoping for: possibly the singular Muse is Calliope, divine mother of Orpheus. I am not the first, and I will surely not be the last, to argue that Calliope is the originating Muse of the Iliad, but my reasoning, however tentative, has its own merits, I think.

“The Muse Calliope” (about 1730). Charles Antoine Coypel (1694–1752).
“The Muse Calliope” (about 1730). Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694–1752). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. In my comments on I.01.001–012, I list among the subject headings: “Muse as goddess of poetic inspiration.” Then I go on to say that the Master Narrator begins his narration by focusing on the anger of Achilles, and that he invokes a Muse, as a goddess of inspiration whom he addresses here simply as theā ‘goddess’, to sing this anger, I.01.001. Then, in the same set of comments, with reference to the idea of the Muse(s) as the goddess(es) of poetic inspiration, I cross-refer to a general comment on I.02.484–487 and to two special comments on I.02.484 and on I.02.761. Before leaving my comments on I.01.001–012, I add this obvious comment on I.01.001: By saying ‘sing, goddess [theā]’, the Master Narrator is saying that the song that he will perform is something that he hears from the Muse.

Central medallion of the Vichten mosaic (about 240 CE). National Museum of History and Art, Luxembourg.
Central medallion of the Vichten mosaic (about 240 CE). National Museum of History and Art, Luxembourg. Image via Flickr, under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

§2. Now I turn to my general comment on I.02.484–487. Here I list among the subject headings: “Muse(s) as goddess(es) of poetic inspiration.” Then I go on to say… The immediacy of the Master Narrator’s performance here is counterbalanced by an attitude of remoteness from the composition. Such a counterbalance indicates the Narrator’s deference to the epic tradition of Homeric poetry. The Narrator does not claim that he knows the tradition: instead, he says he just ‘hears’ it from the Muses, goddesses of poetic inspiration, and this act of ‘hearing’ is kleos, I.02.486, derived from the verb kluein ‘hear’. The literal meaning of kleos as ‘the thing heard’ has an enormous prestige that translates into the idealized meaning of ‘glory, fame’ as applied to the composition and performance of Homeric poetry. The Narrator of Homeric poetry is proud of his capacity to ‘hear’. To hear what? To hear ‘the thing heard’, which is kleos. This capacity translates into ‘glory, fame’ not only for Homeric poetry but also for the poet who performs the poetry. Such a poet claims access to both the form and the content of what he ‘hears’ the Muses tell him.

§3. Then I offer a specific comment on I.02.484, and I list there among the subject headings: “re-invocation of Muse(s).” Here is the wording of I.02.484: ἔσπετε νῦν μοι Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ’ ἔχουσαι ‘tell me now, you Muses who have your dwellings on Mount Olympus’. In this context, I signal for the first time the poetics of re-invocation, referring to further comments on I.02.761, Ι.11.218, I.14.508, I.16.112. For now, it suffices to observe that the re-invocation of the Muses here at I.02.484 pictures these goddesses in the plural, by contrast with the singular Muse who had been initially invoked at I.01.001. There will be another invocation of the singular Muse at I.02.761, to be followed by invocations of plural Muses at Ι.11.218, I.14.508, and I.16.112. In the case of each invocation, there is a heightened level of poetic self-awareness about the importance of what is about to be narrated. Here at I.02.484, for example, the Master Narrator shows his concern about the need for accuracy in re-creating a comprehensive catalogue of essentially all the cultural ancestors of the Greek-speaking world. On other occasions of re-invocation, there are comparable poetic concerns.

“Calliope” (1869). Giuseppe Fagnani (1819–1873).
Homer’s medium is imagined here as writerly, not performative, but such historical inaccuracies do not bother me. After all, the artist imagines Homeric reception in terms of a reading public. More bothersome is the representation of writing here as vertically running down the scroll instead of across the scroll.
“Calliope” (1869). Giuseppe Fagnani (1819–1873). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


“Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry” (1620). Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643).
The medium for the reading of Homer here is imagined as a codex, not as a scroll: compounding of anachronisms.
“Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry” (1620). Giovanni Baglione (1566–1643). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§4. I come to my second specific comment for now, on I.02.761, where the subject headings include, again, “re-invocation of Muse(s).” Unlike what we see at I.02.484, Ι.11.218, I.14.508, I.16.112, where the Muses are invoked as plural goddesses, the Muse here at I.02.761 is invoked as a singular goddess. And the Muse is of course singular also at the beginning of the Iliad, I.01.001, and at the beginning of the Odyssey, O.01.001. Similarly in the First Song of Demodokos, O.08.73–82, which is featured as a proto-Iliad, there is a singular Muse that inspires the singer of tales at the beginning of his performance, at O.08.073. I think that the self-awareness here in invoking a singular Muse has to do with the singularity of the subject at I.02.760–770, since the subject in this case is Achilles. The Muse is asked for an answer to the Iliadic question: who is the ‘best of the Achaeans’? The answer of the Muse is that Achilles is the best. He is the singularity of the Iliad as epic, just as Odysseus is the singularity of the Odyssey as epic. That is why, I suspect, Calliope is the perfect singularity of a Muse for these notionally singular heroes of two singularly important epics. After all, Calliope is the Muse of Epic.

§5. I find it relevant here to mention my argument in Homer the Preclassic 345 about Calliope as the Muse of kings (Hesiod Theogony 79–93). Similarly, as I argue there, Orpheus was once the singular poet of kings, but his status was degraded in the Athenian phase of Homeric reception.