To trace a thread of thought starting from a Homeric song that seems to have no ending

2015.06.03 | By Gregory Nagy

Nagy-Homer-the-Classic-400x600

§1. This posting of 2015.06.03 continues from where I left off in the posting of 2015.05.27, where I was focusing on the first song of Demodokos, contained in verses 72–83 of Odyssey 8 [Greek | English]. In that earlier posting and in the even earlier posting of 2015.04.10, I described this song as a micro-epic that refers to the macro-epics of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. And I justify my calling the song “Homeric” here by recalling a point I made in my previous postings. The point is, the micro-epic of Demodokos is the story of a “big picture” that encompasses the two macro-epics of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey combined. And, paradoxically, the expansive bigness of this big picture is compressed into the acute smallness of the micro-epic that occupies the 10-odd verses of Odyssey 8.72–83. But the micro-narrative that we see there is in fact only the beginning of the narrative performed by Demodokos when he starts to sing the first of his three songs in Odyssey 8. As I will now show, the actual narrative of the first song is potentially so big and so long that it will never even come to an end if someone just lets it go on and on.

What happens after Demodokos starts singing his first song

§2. Here I return to the word oimē at verse 74 of Odyssey 8, which refers to the ‘thread’ or ‘threading’ of what is pictured metaphorically as the ‘weft’ or ‘plot’ of the first song of Demodokos. For the semantics of oimē as ‘weft’ or ‘plot’, as I indicated in the posting of 2015.05.27, we may compare the French word trame, which means both ‘weft’ and ‘plot’.[1] As I also indicated, the genitive case of oimē (oimēs) at verse 74 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. And the syntax of this expression about the oimē corresponds to the meaning of the word prooimion (Attic phroimion). Functionally, the prooimion is a ‘proem’ or ‘prelude’. In terms of its etymology, this word prooimion is derived from oimos / oimē and means, metaphorically, the ‘initial threading’.[2] What the syntax of the genitive oimēs at verse 74 indicates, as I went on to argue in the posting of 2015.05.27, 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.

§3. The connectedness of this prooimion ‘proem’ to the overall epic performance of Demodokos is signaled by the continuing narrative that follows the micro-narrative about the first song of Demodokos at Odyssey 8.72–83, which I had quoted in the posting of 2015.05.27. I now quote and translate the continuing narrative that follows that micro-narrative:

|83 ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς |84 πορφύρεον μέγα φᾶρος ἑλὼν χερσὶ στιβαρῇσι |85 κὰκ κεφαλῆς εἴρυσσε, κάλυψε δὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα· |86 αἴδετο γὰρ Φαίηκας ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι δάκρυα λείβων. |87 ἦ τοι ὅτε λήξειεν ἀείδων θεῖος ἀοιδός, |88 δάκρυ’ ὀμορξάμενος κεφαλῆς ἄπο φᾶρος ἕλεσκε |89 καὶ δέπας ἀμφικύπελλον ἑλὼν σπείσασκε θεοῖσιν· |90 αὐτὰρ ὅτ’ ἂψ ἄρχοιτο καὶ ὀτρύνειαν ἀείδειν |91 Φαιήκων οἱ ἄριστοι, ἐπεὶ τέρποντ’ ἐπέεσσιν, |92 ἂψ Ὀδυσεὺς κατὰ κρᾶτα καλυψάμενος γοάασκεν.

|83 These things, then, the singer sang, whose fame goes far and wide. As for Odysseus |84 he took hold of his great purple cloak in his powerful hands |85 and he pulled it over his head, veiling that face of his with its comely looks, |86 since he felt shame in front of the Phaeacians as tears started flowing from beneath his brows. |87 And whenever the divine singer would leave off [lēgein] the singing, |88 he would wipe away the tears as he removed the cloak from his head, |89 and, holding up a drinking cup, he would offer a libation to the gods. |90 But then, whenever he [= the singer] started [arkhesthai] singing all over again [aps], urged to do so |91 by the best of the Phaeacians, since they took delight [terpesthai] in the words of his song, |92 Odysseus would veil his head and start lamenting [goân] all over again.

Odyssey 8.83–92

The epic singing of the first song of Demodokos in Odyssey 8, once it gets started by the prooimion as indicated by the syntax at verse 74, keeps getting restarted. Whenever the performer ‘leaves off’, as indicated by the word lēgein at verse 87, he keeps on ‘restarting’ the epic, as indicated by the wording aps arkhesthai ‘start again and again’ at verse 90. The continual restarting creates the effect of an endless narrative: the epic performance of the first song of Demodokos seems to have no end in sight.[3]

Restarting after leaving off

§4. The context of the word lēgein at verse 87 of Odyssey 8 indicates a recurrent ‘leaving off’ from the performance, followed by a recurrent starting up at the point where the performance had last left off: every time Demodokos leaves off performing his epic, he comes right back to ‘restarting’ it where he last left off, as we see from the context of the expression aps arkhesthai ‘start again and again’ at verse 90.[4]

§5. But then, at Odyssey 8.98–99, Alkinoos the king puts a temporary stop to the ongoing performance that I have been describing as the first song of Demodokos. In the book Homer the Preclassic, I examine in some detail what happens next in Odyssey 8: to summarize here in the shortest form possible, I will say only that the Homeric narrative now proceeds to restart the performance of Demodokos by connecting his first song with the second song, and the second with the third.[5] The second song of Demodokos, at verses 266–366 of Odyssey 8, appears to be significantly different in form and in content from both the first and the third songs. But this second song, which is neatly 100 verses long, is still part of an ongoing continuum of singing that gets started already in the first song, continues into the second, and continues further from there into the third. In Homer the Preclassic, I argue that such a continuum is metaphorized by way of the word humnos at verse 429 of Odyssey 8, and that the meaning of this metaphorical word can be translated roughly as the ‘web’ of song.[6] In other words, I argue that the word humnos here, referring metaphorically to the ‘web’ of the singing performed by Demodokos, applies to all three of his songs in Odyssey 8—as if they constituted a single ongoing narrative. And this visualization of a continuous narrative as a humnos in the sense of ‘web’ is already signaled by the word oimē at Odyssey 8.74, which as I argued refers to the ‘thread’ or ‘threading’ of what is pictured metaphorically as the ‘weft’ or ‘plot’ of the first song of Demodokos.

The concept of “context” as a restarting

§6. Comparable to what we have just seen is the meaning of Latin contexere, derivative of texere ‘weave’: essentially, contexere means ‘restart the weaving’—that is, ‘restart’ it at the point where the weaver had previously left off weaving.[7] Here is a striking example involving the verbs ordīrī ‘start the weaving’ and contexere ‘restart the weaving’:

cum semel quid orsus, [si] traducor alio, neque tam facile interrupta contexo quam absolvo instituta

Once I have started weaving [ordīrī] something, if I get distracted by something else, it is not as easy for me to take up weaving where I left off [contexere] than to finish off what I have started.

Cicero Laws 1.3.9

A weaver may finish a sequence of weaving only to restart it later in a new sequence—at exactly the point where he or she had last left off. In the case of Penelope, as we see the story recounted at Odyssey 2.104–105 and 19.149–150 (also 24.139–140), the restarting is more radical: it is an undoing of everything that has been done up to a point and then doing it all over again.[8]

§7. The idea behind the Latin word contexere, which gives us the English word context, can be found not only in Latin (and in Greek, as we have seen) but also in other Indo-European languages, as in Sanskrit. For example, in one of the hymns of the Rig-Veda (1.110), the singer starts the hymn by saying, at the very beginning of the song (1.110.1a), that this song is like a web stretched on a loom and that the song is getting restarted just as the work of weaving the web gets restarted: tatám me ápas tád u tāyate púnar ‘the work that is stretched [on a loom] by me—here it is being stretched again’.[9]

A qualification about the numbering 1 2 3 assigned to the three songs of Demodokos in Odyssey 8

§8. In speaking of the three songs of Demodokos that are paraphrased in Odyssey 8, I have been referring to them as the first, second, and third songs. But it would be more accurate to describe the second song as simply the next song that comes after a series of songs that follow the first song. And that is because the first song is followed by a series of restarted songs that are not paraphrased in Odyssey 8, and the paraphrasing that is restarted at verses 266–366 of Odyssey 8 represents simply the next song, not the second of three songs. Similarly, the paraphrasing that is restarted at verses 487–498 of Odyssey 8 represents not a third song but simply the next song.


Bibliography

Durante, M. 1976. Sulla preistoria della tradizione poetic greca II. Risultanze della comparazione indoeuropea (Incunabula Graeca 64) Rome.

Nagy, G. 2002. Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens. Cambridge MA and Athens.

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

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

Nagy, G. 2015.04.09. “Who is the best of heroes, Achilles or Odysseus? And which is the best of epics, the Iliad or the Odyssey?” Classical Inquiries.


Notes

[1] Nagy 2002:79. See also Nagy 2009|2008 2§290.

[2] Nagy 2009|2008 2§92.

[3] Nagy 2009|2008 2§292.

[4] Nagy 2009|2008 2§295.

[5] Nagy 2010|2009:80–96|I§§189–231.

[6] Nagy 2009|2008 2§302.

[7] Nagy 2009|2008 2§296

[8] Nagy 2002:98n88.

[9] Durante 1976:175.