About a perfect start for a world-wide web of song

2020.08.07 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Homeric poetry, at a pivotal moment where it represents the making of Homeric poetry itself, pictures a blind singer of tales in the act of starting his song. The singer is shown in the act of ‘starting from a thread [oimē] that had at that time a fame [kleos] reaching all the way up to the wide sky’. That is how I translate line 74 in Rhapsody 8 of the Homeric Odyssey: οἴμης, τῆς τότ’ ἄρα κλέος οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἵκανε. The song that the singer of tales is singing here is pictured as a world-wide web of song, reaching all the way up to an unlimited celestial expanse. And the threading or oimē that becomes the song is being made by a master weaver who starts weaving his web with a heading band, as weavers call it. Ancient Greek weavers called it the exastis (ἔξαστις), and we see it pictured in the drawing that I show as the illustration for the cover of this essay. The drawing originates from Elizabeth Barber, who is not only a renowned expert in ancient textiles but also a deft weaver in her own right. And such a heading band, as pictured in this drawing, makes for a perfect start of Homeric song as sung by the singer of tales. There is a primal metaphor at work here. If a weaver makes a perfect start, then the web that is woven by the weaver can lead to a perfect finish. Comparably, a perfect start for Homeric singing leads to a perfect song, that is, to a marvel of unified poetry.

Line drawing of a reconstruction of an ancient Greek upright warp-weighted loom, with the label for the heading band highlighted.
Reconstruction of an ancient Greek upright warp-weighted loom. The label for the heading band, exastis (ἔξαστις), is highlighted in orange. Line drawing by Mark Stone, from Barber 1991:270 fig. 12.3, with re-labeling by Garrett Bruner.

§1. In their post for Classical Inquiries 2020.08.07, guest-editors Rachele Pierini and Thomas Palaima have published comments by Elizabeth Barber that I find relevant to the meaning of the word oimē, used in the genitive case (“genitive of origin”), at line 74 of Rhapsody 8 in the Homeric Odyssey. In this context, we find Demodokos, the blind singer of tales, ‘starting from a thread [oimē] that had at that time a fame [kleos] reaching all the way up to the wide sky’. As I already indicated in my introduction to this brief essay, I argue that we see here a metaphor where the making of epic song is compared to the weaving of a web—and where the beginning of the song is compared to the making of a heading band for the web. I quote here the relevant comments of Barber in Classical Inquiries 2020.08.07 §40 concerning the craft of weaving in the Mycenaean era:

For weaving, the Mycenaeans used the warp-weighted loom [here she shows the same line drawing that I showed for illustrating my essay], on which the warp-tension is produced by stretching the warp threads between a top beam of wood and heavy weights tied onto bunches of warp threads near the floor. […] In order to be able to tie the weights on, the weaver must first attach each warp thread firmly to the top beam. The only efficient way to do this is to weave a band, called a heading band, in which the weft of the band is pulled out in very long loops to make what will be the warp threads of the future cloth [Figures 4 and 5 in Barber’s commentary]. This firmly-woven band, with its cargo, is then lashed firmly across the top beam so that the newly-made warp threads for the future cloth hang down. These are then separated—one forward, the next one back, etc.—to form the primary shed. The weights are then hung on. This whole long process can be called dressing the loom. Only then can the weaving begin.

§2. I argue, then, that the oimē in Odyssey 8.74 is metaphorically the web of song, and, as the singer of tales starts to weave his web, as it were, he has to make a heading band for the song.

§3. I now go on to argue that such a heading band is what Greeks in the classical era called the prooimion, translated into Latin as the prooemium, ‘proem’. I repeat here the basics of my argumentation as I present it in Homer the Classic (Nagy 2008|2009) 2§92:

In the case of the compound noun prooimion / προοίμιον, conventionally translated as ‘proemium’, the element –oim-/-οιμ- is derived from a root that we find also attested in two simple nouns, oimos/οἶμος and oimē/οἰμή. The Attic by-form of prooimion/προοίμιον, which is phroimion/φροίμιον, elucidates the prehistory of the root: we must reconstruct it not as *oim- but as *hoim-, from *soim-. This reconstruction helps elucidate the surviving contexts of both oimos/οἶμος and oimē/οἰμή, which do not always give a clear picture of the basic meaning of either form.[1] In some contexts, the meaning seems to be ‘song’,[2] while in others it seems to be ‘way, pathway’.[3] With the help of comparative evidence, however, the primary meaning of oimos and oimē can be reconstructed as ‘thread, threading’, and the meanings ‘song’ or ‘way, pathway’ can be explained as secondary: that is, ‘song’ and ‘way, pathway’ are metaphorical generalizations derived from the meaning ‘thread, threading’.[4] And it is such a primary meaning ‘thread, threading’ that we find in comparable forms attested in other Indo-European languages: for example, the form *soimos that we reconstruct from Greek oimos is attested as Old Icelandic seimr, meaning ‘thread’.[5] In terms of such a primary meaning, the etymology of the compound noun prooimion ‘proemium’ can be interpreted as a metaphor referring to the ‘initial threading’ of a song. A close semantic parallel to the etymology of Greek prooimion ‘proemium’ as an ‘initial threading’ of a song is the etymology of Latin exordium, which likewise means ‘proemium’ in poetic and rhetorical contexts: the meaning of this noun as well can be traced back to the basic idea of an ‘initial threading’.[6] The poetic and rhetorical concepts of both Greek prooimion and Latin exordium in the sense of ‘proemium’ have a common Indo-European ancestry.

§4. On the expression “world-wide web” as applied to the idea of a cosmic web in Avestan poetics, I refer to a pathfinding essay by Oktor Skjærvø 2005.


Barber, E. J. W. 1991. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton.

Barber, E. J. W. 1992. “The Peplos of Athena.” In Neils 1992:103–117, with notes at 208–210.

Barber, E. J. W. 2020.08.07. “The Weaving Process in Ancient and Today’s Textile Industry and Some Notes on Mycenaean and Alphabetic Greek Textile Lexicon.” Classical Inquiries. §§33–50 (bibliography §50) in an issue edited by R. Pierini and T. Palaima. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/mast-chs-friday-june-26-2020-summaries-of-presentations-and-discussion/.

Chantraine, P. 2009. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque: histoire des mots, ed. J. Taillardat, O. Masson, and J.-L. Perpillou. With a supplement “Chroniques d’étymologie grecque,” ed. A. Blanc, Ch. de Lamberterie, and Jean-Louis Perpillou, 1–10. Paris.

Durante, M. 1976. Sulla preistoria della tradizione poetica greca. Vol. 2, Risultanze della comparazione indoeuropea. Incunabula Graeca 64. Rome.

H24H. See Nagy 2013.

Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Rev. ed. 1999, with new introduction. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Best_of_the_Achaeans.1999.

Nagy, G. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Poetry_as_Performance.1996.

Nagy, G. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Cambridge, MA, and Athens. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Platos_Rhapsody_and_Homers_Music.2002.

Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homer_the_Classic.2008.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Ancient_Greek_Hero_in_24_Hours.2013.

Nagy, G. 2016|2015. Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Printed | Online version. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Masterpieces_of_Metonymy.2015. Hellenic Studies 72. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC.

Nagy, G. 2020. 2nd ed. of Nagy 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Platos_Rhapsody_and_Homers_Music.2020.

Neils, J., ed. 1992. Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens. Princeton.

Pagliaro, A. 1953. Saggi di critica semantica. Messina and Florence.

Skjærvø, P. O. 2005. Poetic and Cosmic Weaving in Ancient Iran. Reflections on Avestan vahma and Yasna 34.2.” Haptačahaptāitiš. Festschrift for Fridrik Thordarson (ed. D. Haug and E. Welo) 267–279. Oslo.


[1] For a survey of contexts, see Chantraine DELG under the entries οἶμος and οἴμη.

[2] For example, oimē can be translated as ‘song’ in Odyssey 8.74 and 22.347.

[3] For example, oimos can be translated as ‘way’ in Hesiod Works and Days 290. In the case of the form δύσοιμος in Aeschylus Libation-Bearers 945, it is explained in Hesychius (under the appropriate entry) as δύσοδος.

[4] Nagy 2020:72, 81. See also Nagy 1996:63n20, with reference to Durante 1976:176–177, who disagrees with Chantraine DELG (again, under the entries οἶμος and οἴμη). Chantraine concludes that the basic meanings of oimos and oimē are distinct, but the contexts that he adduces point to an opposite conclusion, as noticed already by Pagliaro 1953:34–40.

[5] For this and other examples, see Durante 1976:176.

[6] See again Nagy 1996:63n20,with reference to Durante 1976:177 on Latin ex-ordium as a semantic equivalent of Greek pro-oimion. Also Nagy 2020:72, 81.