Homeric problems and bibliographical challenges, Part 2: More on the performances of rhapsodes at the festival of the Panathenaia

2018.11.30 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. This post, dated 2018.11.30, picks up from where I left off in Classical Inquiries 2018.11.22. Here again I am dealing with problems I have encountered in figuring out the historical circumstances of Homeric performances by professional reciters called rhapsōidoi ‘rhapsodes’ at the seasonally recurring festival of the Panathenaia in Athens. As before, my starting point centers on what I have already formulated in a set of twin books entitled Homer the Classic (2009|2008) and Homer the Preclassic (2010|2009). And, as also before, I am faced with bibliographical challenges: how to develop further formulations without getting bogged down in secondary bibliography.

Black-figure pseudo-Panathenaic amphora, probably from Orvieto: a rhapsode stands on a bēma, wearing a wreath and holding a curved staff, flanked by two listeners. Ca. 520–500 BCE. Stadtmuseum Oldenburg, XII.8250.2.
Black-figure pseudo-Panathenaic amphora, probably from Orvieto: a rhapsode stands on a bēma, wearing a wreath and holding a curved staff, flanked by two listeners. Ca. 520–500 BCE. Stadtmuseum Oldenburg, XII.8250.2.

§1. With such challenges in mind, I recommend here two most relevant books. The first of these, by José M. González, was published in 2013, while the second of the two, edited by Jonathan Ready and Christos Tsagalis, appeared in 2018, not long before the date of the present posting. By highlighting these two pieces of secondary bibliography, I can afford to shade over a number of other pieces that are less relevant, and I can thus stay on track with formulations I have already developed in Homer the Classic (hereafter HC) and Homer the Preclassic (hereafter HPC) about the existing evidence for rhapsodic performances of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaia in Athens.

§2. In the case of the 2013 book by González, which I will hereafter abbreviate as JMG, I highlight not only his balanced argumentation concerning the art of the rhapsodes but also his critical survey of secondary bibliography. The thoroughness of the work done by JMG has I think strengthened exponentially my own argumentation in HC and HPC, especially with regard to the arguments I have made against the specific idea that Homeric rhapsodes were simply memorizers of a Homeric text and against the general idea of assuming the existence of some kind of a stark contrast between a poetically creative aoidos ‘singer’, as represented by Homer, and a supposedly non-creative rhapsōidos ‘rhapsode’. At stake here in particular is my cumulative interpretation, as best presented at HC 3§§47–76, concerning Plato’s metaphor in Ion 536a–c comparing divine poetic inspiration to a magnet. The logic of this Platonic metaphor, as I have argued in HC and in earlier work, fits my overall diachronic reconstruction of the rhapsodic art. But my reconstruction, which was achieved independently of Plato’s metaphor, can be badly misinterpreted if you think of it merely as an extrapolation that supposedly depends on that metaphor. JMG at 8.3.2 analyzes a glaring example of such a misinterpretation, with further analysis at 10.1. Given the thoroughness of JMG, however, I see no point in exhuming here the grim remains of defective interpretations that JMG has already laid to rest.

§3. Next I turn to the 2018 book edited by Ready and Tsagalis, which I will hereafter abbreviate as R&T. I see here a major step forward in explorations of the available evidence, however fragmentary, about the Homeric performances of rhapsodes at the Panathenaia in Athens. Both editors contribute chapters. Also contributing is Sheramy D. Bundrick, whose Chapter 2 presents an exhaustive analysis of the relevant iconographical evidence revealed in Athenian vase paintings. A salient example of a pictured rhapsode is a painting that I had once chosen for the illustration that appeared on the cover of my 2003 book, Homeric Responses. The same illustration appears on the cover of my posting here.

§4. Here is a brief inventory of observations that I found particularly useful in the book edited by R&T:

pp. 51–52: a critical analysis of various scenarios for reconstructing rhapsodic performances of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey at the Panathenaia.

p. 52: on the Odeum of Pericles as a possible venue for such performances.

p. 72n38, also at p. 95n10: on the rhapsode (or aulode) pictured on a Panathenaic amphora by the Kleophrades Painter.

p. 72n39: on the notional unity of epic performance; see also Nagy 2018.11.22.

p. 72n41: on arguments against the notion of a prototypical standard written text of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, to be followed verbatim by the rhapsodes: these arguments are relevant to what I say in the present posting, at §2 above.

p. 80 Figure 2.4: pseudo-Panathenaic amphora, showing a rhapsode on the reverse, ca. 520 BCE; Oldenburg, Stadtmuseum. The picture of this rhapsode is mentioned at §3 above in the posting here.

p. 82 Figure 2.6: calyx krater, showing apparently a rhapsode ascending a bēma ‘platform’; Pantoxena Painter, ca. 440 BCE; Tarquinia.

p. 90: on the so-called Panathenaic Regulation.

p. 91: on the Pantoxena Painter’s rhapsodic scene, shown in Figure 2.6 at p. 82.

pp. 91–92: on the Odeum of Pericles as a possible venue for rhapsodic performances of Homeric poetry.

p. 92: on the rhapsode and the bēma ‘platform’, as represented by the Pantoxena Painter. Bundrick notes that “it is reasonable to imagine” the scene as taking place inside the Odeum. She adds: “A bēma would certainly have helped with any visibility issues arising from the apparent forest of columns.” On the term “forest of columns” as applied to the interior of the Odeum, I refer to my observations in HC 4§178. For more on the columns inside the Odeum, I refer to the remarks of Bundrick p. 97n33.

p. 329: on the poetics of relay performance in Iliad 9.190–191; reference here to JMG

p. 330: on the poetics of continuity, metaphorized as fabric-work in Odyssey 8.429; reference here to HC 2§§82–96 and to JMG



González, José M. 2013. The Epic Rhapsode and His Craft: Homeric Performance in a Diachronic Perspective. Hellenic Studies Series 47. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_GonzalezJ.The_Epic_Rhapsode_and_his_Craft.2013.

Nagy, G. 2003. Homeric Responses. Austin, TX. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homeric_Responses.2003.

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. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed | Online version. Berkeley and Los Angeles. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homer_the_Preclassic.2009.

Nagy, G. 2018.11.22. “Homeric problems and bibliographical challenges, Part 1: On the performances of rhapsodes at the festival of the Panathenaia.” Classical Inquiries. https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/homeric-problems-and-bibliographical-challenges-part-1-on-the-performances-of-rhapsodes-at-the-festival-of-the-panathenaia/.

Ready, J. L., and Tsagalis, Ch. C. 2018. Homer in Performance: Rhapsodes, Narrators, and Characters. Austin, TX.