Feeling pain and delight while hearing a song in Odyssey 8

2015.06.10 | By Gregory Nagy

Achilles veiled
Achilles, grieving and veiled. Thetis, with new armor. Athenian red-figure volute crater, Louvre G482. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


§0.1. This posting of 2015.06.10 continues from where I left off in the posting of 2015.06.03, where I was focusing on the audience’s reception of the first song of Demodokos. The song, as we saw, is paraphrased at verses 72–83 of Odyssey 8; and the reception, as we also saw, is described at verses 83–92, which I translated and analyzed in the previous post. These verses 83–92 say that the singing of Demodokos is a delight for the Phaeacians who hear his song, while it is a pain for the one person in the audience who is not a Phaeacian, and this person is the hero Odysseus. The occasion of the singing is a feast hosted by Alkinoos, king of the Phaeacians, and Odysseus is attending as a guest of honor, though his identity is not yet known to anyone there at the feast. But Odysseus too is a part of the audience, and that fact becomes a problem for the reception of the song performed by this singer.

§0.2. I use the term reception here not in the narrow sense that applies in studies of literature, where this term conventionally refers to whatever happens after a given piece of literature is composed for transmission to the public. A broader sense of the term is needed when we are dealing with oral traditions, as in the case of Homeric poetry.[1] Unlike what happens in literature, where reception by the public happens only after a piece of literature is transmitted, reception in oral traditions happens during as well as after transmission. That is because the process of composition in oral traditions allows for recomposition on each new occasion of performance for a public that sees and hears the performer. In oral traditions, there is an organic link between reception and performance, since no performance can succeed without a successful reception by the public that sees and hears the performer or performers.[2]

§0.3. Up to now, I have used the terms audience and public in referring to those who attend an oral performance. The reception of such a performance depends on this audience, this public. I could even have said “this group,” since the very idea of attending an oral performance presupposes some measure of mutual engagement—that is, some sense of membership in a group. The degree of mutual engagement may of course vary, depending on the given tradition of performance, and the variations can be extreme, as we can see from the worldwide evidence of ethnographic studies focusing on live performances as still attested in various different societies.[3] At one extreme, a group of persons who attend a performance may be a group in name only, passively uninvolved with the performer and even with each other; at the other extreme, however, a group of persons may feel bonded to each other as a community precisely because they are actively involved in a performance that notionally represents them: in the context of such a performance, they may be considered secondary performers even if all they do is to look and listen and thus validate whatever it is that the primary performers perform.[4] In short, the performance may at least notionally involve the whole community, as if an individual performance were a group performance.

The reception of the singing performed by Demodokos

§1. In Odyssey 8, the reception that is given by the Phaeacians to the singing performed by Demodokos shows that these people, as an audience, represent the kind of actively involved group that I have just described. They are the public for Demodokos, in the sense that they are the ‘community’ or dēmos whose very identity is represented by Demodokos and who literally ‘receive’ Demodokos. This idea actually comes to life in the meaning of the name Dēmodokos, ‘he who is received [dekhesthai] by the community [dēmos]’.[5]

§2. But now we are about to run into a problem: while the first performance of Demodokos is well received by the Phaeacians, the reception of his song by Odysseus is a failure. Or at least the initial reception of the singing is a failure. And that is because, as we will see, the singing of Demodokos about the Trojan War is a pain for Odysseus, even if it is simultaneously a delight for the Phaeacians.

An internal criterion for determining the success or failure of reception

§3. Alkinoos, king of the Phaeacians, explains why the reception of the singing performed by Demodokos about the Trojan War is a failure, at least for the moment. As the wording of Odyssey 8 says explicitly, only the king notices that the singing of Demodokos about that war has made his guest sad (94–95). Once again later on, when Demodokos sings another song about the Trojan War, only the king notices that this song too has made his guest sad (532–533). Just as Alkinoos had stopped the singing of the first song (98–99) he now stops the singing of this other song about the Trojan War (537). And, this time, he gives an explicit reason for stopping the song: he says that the kharis or ‘pleasing beauty’ of the singing has not pleased his guest: the idea is conveyed by the verb derived from kharis, that is, kharizesthai (538). It is necessary, the king continues, that everyone at the ongoing feast—especially the yet-unnamed guest of honor—should ‘take delight’, and the word that is used here to express the delight is terpesthai (542). It was this same programmatic word that was used earlier to describe the expected response of the audience to the singing of Demodokos: the yet-unidentified guest of honor must ‘take delight’, terpesthai, when he listens to the humnos or web of song on the occasion of the feast (429). Moreover, the same word terpesthai was used even earlier to describe the response of the Phaeacians to the first song of Demodokos: when this audience, figured as a communal group, listens to the singing, they ‘take delight’ (91), and they keep on urging the singer to ‘restart’ his singing, aps arkhesthai (90), every time Demodokos ‘leaves off’ singing, lēgein (87). So the ongoing performances of Demodokos are being driven by the necessity to please the audience: the listeners must continue to ‘take delight’, terpesthai.[6]

§4. And yet, the first song of Demodokos is not a delight but a pain for Odysseus. As we saw from the verses I quoted in the last posting, Odyssey 8.83–92, Odysseus is inwardly sad when he hears Demodokos sing for the first time. He reacts to the song by weeping (86) and lamenting (92: goân) while veiling his head with a massive cloak and thus hiding from the Phaeacians his true feelings (83–86). But then, at those occasional moments when the Phaeacians call out to Demodokos and urge the singer to restart his singing (90), Odysseus unveils himself to join the audience in engaging with the ongoing song (87–91). In public, then, Odysseus is outwardly happy.

§5. Later on in Odyssey 8, when Demodokos sings a new song about the Trojan War, the singing makes Odysseus dissolve into tears all over again, just as he dissolved into tears when he heard the first song. When he hears the newest song of Demodokos about the Trojan War, Odysseus is described is feeling akhos ‘sorrow’ (541), and he is said to be expressing this sorrow by way of goos ‘lamentation’ (540).[7]

Epic mindreading

§6. Only Alkinoos, king of the Phaeacians, notices the sadness of Odysseus on both occasions when Demodokos sings about the Trojan War (93–95, 532–534). And the verb that is used on both occasions to signal the act of noticing, noeîn (94, 533), is derived from the noun noos, which I translate for the moment as ‘mind’.

§7. We have already seen this noun in my postings for 2015.04.10 and 2015.05.27, where we considered the text that contains the paraphrase of the first song at verses 72–83 of Odyssey 8 and where saw at verse 78 the word noos ‘mind’ used with reference to Agamemnon, who was happy ‘in his mind [noos]’ when he saw ‘the best of the Achaeans’ quarreling with each other (78). In that context, the mind of Agamemnon was reading, as it were, the meaning of the quarrel, which had been prophesied to him by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi (79). As we saw in the posting for 2015.04.10, the Oracle must have said to Agamemnon: ‘When the best of the Achaeans get into a quarrel at a feast, then you will know that Troy will be conquered’. But the reading of Agamemnon the king was incomplete because, as the story says at verse 81, there was a huge pēma or ‘pain’ experienced by the Achaeans before the conquest of Troy, and the king was quite unaware of this future ‘pain’, which was, first, the withdrawal of Achilles from war, as narrated in the Iliad, and then his death, as narrated beyond the Iliad and as prefigured by the death of Patroklos within the Iliad.[8] It could be said, then, that the noos ‘mind’ of Agamemnon was defective in not picking up on the implications of the future ahead of him. In the judgment of Achilles himself, the noos ‘mind’ of Agamemnon is blurred whenever he is  looking forward into the future or backward into the past:

οὐδέ τι οἶδε νοῆσαι ἅμα πρόσσω καὶ ὀπίσσω
He [= Agamemnon] knows not a thing when it comes to noticing [noeîn] both backward and forward in time.

Iliad 1.343

Here I must compare the context of verses 93–95 of Odyssey 8, where we see the mind of Alkinoos at work in reading what it means when Odysseus is outwardly happy but inwardly sad. There is a pointed contrast to be found here. On the one hand, there was the inward happiness of Agamemnon in thinking about the conquest of Troy as an event of the future, without knowing about the intervening pain. And now, on the other hand, there is the inward sadness of Odysseus in thinking about that conquest as an event of the past, with full knowledge of that intervening pain. Prospectively, the mind of Agamemnon reads the Trojan War as something for him to be happy about. Retrospectively, the mind of Alkinoos reads this same war as something for his yet-unidentified guest to be sad about.

Odysseus as a mindreader of Achilles

§8. Odysseus makes his own retrospective reading. He can now see the songs of Demodokos about the conquest of Troy as a pain for himself, since he now knows that his own Iliadic story about getting credit for the conquest of Troy by way of heroic intelligence will be forever preempted by the Iliadic story of Achilles, even though that rival hero failed to conquer Troy by way of heroic force. But Odysseus reads the songs of Demodokos also as a pain for Achilles. We see it when Odysseus hears the newest song of Demodokos about the Trojan War. In the words of Alkinoos, who has noticed the sadness of his guest, the yet-unidentified hero Odysseus is feeling akhos ‘sorrow’ (541) and expressing this sorrow by way of goos ‘lamentation’ (540).

§9. The fact is, this form of expressing sadness is a characteristic of Achilles himself. As Leonard Muellner has demonstrated, vase-paintings that show Achilles in moments of extreme sorrow picture him as veiling his head and face with a massive cloak, just as Odysseus veils himself in his own moments of sorrow as he listens to the first song of Demodokos.[9]


Muellner, L. 2012. “Grieving Achilles.” Homeric Contexts: Neoanalysis and the Interpretation of Oral Poetry (ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, Ch. Tsagalis) 197–220. Trends in Classics Supplementary Volume 12. Berlin and Boston.

Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Revised ed. with new introduction 1999. Baltimore.

Nagy, G. 1996a. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge.

Nagy, G. 1996b. Homeric Questions. Austin.

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

Nagy, G. 2009. “Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions.” The Brill Companion to Hesiod (ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and Ch. Tsagalis) 271–311. Leiden.

Nagy, G. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed | Online version. Berkeley and Los Angeles.


[1] This formulation applies also to Hesiodic poetry, as I indicated in Nagy 2009:282.

[2] Nagy 2009:282–283.

[3] Some of my favorite examples come from lower-caste societies in latter-day India. I consider some of these examples in the context of a broader argument in Nagy 1996b:43–63.

[4] This formulation applies especially in situations where the performance is perceived as a reenactment, as in the case of the Apache traditions that I study in Nagy 1996a ch. 4.

[5] This argument was first presented in Nagy 1979 1§4.

[6] Nagy 2009|2008 2§305.

[7] Nagy 2009|2008 2§306. (532–533)

[8] Nagy 1979 4§6. This theme is linked to the name of Achilles, which can be explained morphologically as *Akhi-lāwos ‘he who has akhos [“pain”] for the lāos [“host of fighting men”]’.

[9] Muellner 2012.

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