An Experiment in the Making of a Homer Commentary

2015.05.27 | By Gregory Nagy

Taking a Shortcut in Analyzing the First Song of Demodokos in Odyssey 8

Detail from folio 12r of Venetus A: Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή ‘and the plan of Zeus started moving toward its fulfillment’. What triggers this programmatic declaration at the beginning of the Iliad is the fact that the narrative starts with the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.

§1. This posting, 2015.05.27, continues where I left off in a previous posting, 2015.04.10. There I translated and then analyzed the text of the first song of Demodokos, contained in verses 72–83 of Odyssey 8, which I described as a micro-epic that refers to the macro-epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In that previous posting, I offered a translation of these verses, followed by a brief analysis that kept citing lengthy arguments that I had developed in a variety of earlier publications. But I kept asking myself, even while writing up my analysis in that posting: could I find new ways of developing my argumentation without having to rely mostly on the details that I cited from my earlier publications? In the present posting for 2015.05.27, which should take less than ten minutes to read, I experiment with a form of commentary that focuses on a minimum number of details to be analyzed. Choosing only three details for analysis in verses 72–83 of Odyssey 8, I will comment on all three by focusing on the relationship between the micro-epic contained in these verses and the macro-epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This focused commentary is intended as a radical shortcut in envisioning the big picture, as it were, of Homeric poetry.

The first song of Demodokos revisited

§2. In order to situate the three details in my shortcut commentary, I quote again and translate the relevant text of the first song of Demodokos:

|72 αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο, |73 Μοῦσ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸν ἀνῆκεν ἀειδέμεναι κλέα ἀνδρῶν, |74 οἴμης, τῆς τότ’ ἄρα κλέος οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἵκανε, |75 νεῖκος Ὀδυσσῆος καὶ Πηλεΐδεω Ἀχιλῆος, |76 ὥς ποτε δηρίσαντο θεῶν ἐν δαιτὶ θαλείῃ |77 ἐκπάγλοις ἐπέεσσιν, ἄναξ δ’ ἀνδρῶν Ἀγαμέμνων |78 χαῖρε νόῳ, ὅ τ’ ἄριστοι Ἀχαιῶν δηριόωντο. |79 ὣς γάρ οἱ χρείων μυθήσατο Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων |80 Πυθοῖ ἐν ἠγαθέῃ, ὅθ’ ὑπέρβη λάϊνον οὐδὸν |81 χρησόμενος. τότε γάρ ῥα κυλίνδετο πήματος ἀρχὴ |82 Τρωσί τε καὶ Δαναοῖσι Διὸς μεγάλου διὰ βουλάς. |83 ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς …

|72 When they had satisfied their desire for drinking and eating, |73 The Muse impelled the singer to sing the glories [kleos plural] of men, |74 starting from a thread [oimē] [of a song] that had at that time a glory [kleos] reaching all the way up to the vast sky. |75 It was the quarrel [neikos] of Odysseus and Achilles son of Peleus, |76 how they once upon a time [pote] fought at a sumptuous feast of the gods, |77 with terrible words, and the king of men, Agamemnon, |78 was happy in his mind [noos] that the best of the Achaeans [aristoi Akhaiōn] were fighting. |79 For [gar] thus had oracular Phoebus Apollo prophesied to him, |80 at holy Delphi, when he [Agamemnon] had crossed the stone threshold |81 to consult the oracle. For [gar] then [tote] it was that the beginning of pain [pēma] started rolling down [kulindesthai] |82 upon both Trojans and Danaans [= Achaeans], all on account of the plans [boulai] of great Zeus. |83 These things, then, the singer sang, whose fame goes far and wide. As for Odysseus …

Odyssey 8.72–83

Three details

§3. The first detail that I have chosen for comment in this passage is the expression aristoi Akhaiōn (ἄριστοι Ἀχαιῶν) at verse 78, which I translate as ‘the best of the Achaeans’. I highlight the fact that this expression here is in the plural, and that nowhere else in either the Iliad or the Odyssey do we find such a plural. Rather, we find the singular aristos Akhaiōn (ἄριστος Ἀχαιῶν), which I again translate as ‘the best of the Achaeans’. Although many heroes contend for this title in the macro-epic of the Iliad, only one of them, Achilles, emerges as eligible to be known in that epic as the absolute best of all the Achaeans, by contrast with such rivals as Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Ajax. Similarly in the Odyssey, only Odysseus emerges as the absolute best, by contrast with the suitors of Penelope. So, in terms of both these two macro-epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, there can only be one hero who is truly ‘the best of the Achaeans’.

§4. To introduce the second detail, I start by considering the quarrel between Odysseus and Achilles as signaled at verse 75. In my interpretation of the context, these two heroes are quarreling over the question: who is truly ‘the best of the Achaeans’? As we read at verses 79–81, the god Apollo had prophesied such a quarrel when he made his divine response to Agamemnon, who had come to Delphi in order to consult the god’s oracle. And what gets prophesied by Apollo is what then becomes the plot of the epic that Demodokos is performing. Here I come to the second detail I have chosen for comment: this epic plot in the first song of Demodokos is equated with the planning of Zeus, as we see from the wording Dios megalou dia boulas (Διὸς μεγάλου διὰ βουλάς) at verse 82, which I translate ‘on account of the plans [boulai] of great Zeus’. In other words, the whole plot of the micro-epic as performed by Demodokos had been planned by Zeus.

§5. The third detail I have chosen for comment is the expression oimēs (οἴμης) at verse 74, which I translate as ‘starting from a thread [oimē] [of a song]’.

Linking the three details

§6. Now I will link together the three details chosen.

§7. I start with what I have already said about Achilles as ‘the best of the Achaeans’ in the Iliad. The fact is, there are other Achaeans who contend for that title, and one of them is Agamemnon. He claims to be the best of the Achaeans in the context of the quarrel he has with Achilles at the very beginning of the Iliad. In the course of that quarrel, Agamemnon makes the claim that he, not Achilles, is ‘the best of the Achaeans’. At Iliad 1.91, where Achilles is speaking to his mother Thetis, this supreme hero himself is quoted as saying that the king Agamemnon eukhetai ‘claims’ to be the best of the Achaeans; then, at 2.82, Nestor likewise is quoted as saying that Agamemnon eukhetai ‘claims’ to be the best. Still, it is Achilles who emerges as the absolute best of the Achaeans in the Iliad. That fact is an essential feature of the plot of the Iliad.

§8. Similarly, as I have already indicated, the corresponding fact that Odysseus emerges as the absolute best of the Achaeans in the Odyssey is an essential feature of the plot in that epic.

§9. By contrast with this mutually exclusive distribution of the title aristos Akhaiōn ‘the best of the Achaeans’ in the plots of the two macro-epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the single micro-epic of Demodokos awards this same title to both Achilles and Odysseus, who are jointly described in the plural as aristoi Akhaiōn ‘the best of the Achaeans’. And just as the micro-epic merges the agenda that are kept separate in the macro-epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey, it also merges the plan of Zeus as it operates in the Iliad with the plan of Zeus as it operates in the Odyssey. These mergers are evident from the fact that we see the plural form boulai ‘plans’ with reference to the plot of the micro-epic at verse 82 of Odyssey 8, as opposed to the singular form boulē ‘plan’ with reference to the plot of the macro-epic at verse 5 of Iliad 1. Likewise in the Odyssey, as the book of Jim Marks has shown clearly, the whole plot of this macro-epic is driven by a singular plan of Zeus.[1]

§10. What introduces the micro-epic of Demodokos is indicated by the word oimē at Odyssey 8.74, which refers to the ‘thread’ or ‘threading’ of what is pictured metaphorically as the ‘weft’ or ‘plot’ of the song. For the semantics of oimē as ‘weft’ or ‘plot’, we may compare the French word trame, which means both ‘weft’ and ‘plot’.[2] That is, the oimē is the ‘thread’ of a story. More important for now, the genitive case of oimē here means that the singer starts ‘from’ a given thread of a given story: in other words, we see the starting thread of the story about to be told. Most important, the syntax of this expression about the oimē corresponds to the meaning of a word that is directly linked to the word oimē. That word is prooimion (Attic phroimion), which is actually derived from oimos / oimē and means, metaphorically, the ‘initial threading’.[3] What the syntax indicates, then, is that the singer is starting his epic performance by performing a prooimion. Or, to put it metaphorically, the singer starts from the initial threading of the web to be woven.

§11. This context of oimē indicates that the embedded micro-narrative of Odyssey 8.72–83 is not derived from the macro-narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. On the contrary, the two macro-narratives are derived from and introduced by a single micro-narrative that actually pictures itself as the initial threading of a world-wide web of song. In the next posting, I will have more to say about this figurative web.


Marks, J. 2008. Zeus in the Odyssey. Hellenic Studies 31. Washington DC.

Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.


[1] Marks 2008.

[2] Nagy 2009|2008 2§290.

[3] Nagy 2009|2008 2§92.