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The Odyssey: Homer and His Audience

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Homer's "Odyssey" by Robert Garland

Not Homer and his readers, you'll note, but Homer and his audience. The Odyssey was composed to be recited – or rather to be sung. Later it was read, but when it was first composed, it was intended for delivery by a trained bard to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument resembling a lyre. We gain an insight into the way it was delivered from Homer's portrait of two bards – Phemius, who entertains the suitors who are harassing Odysseus' wife in his palace, and the blind Demodocus, who entertains the Phaeacians in the palace of King Alcinoüs on the magical island of Scheria. They do so to an audience of aristocrats. Phemius and Demodocus are temporary residents in both palaces. We don't know how long they've been there. It may be just a few days – but sooner or later, they will go elsewhere. It's their job to entertain the household in the evenings. After all, there isn't a lot going on in the evening. You can't go to the cinema or the theatre or the opera or the ballet or the pub or a restaurant or a club. It's a bit like lockdown. Your friends may come around to visit, or you visit them, but most of the time you'll be at home, and wouldn't it be nice to have some diversion. No doubt, from the very earliest times in human history, story-telling has been an important art, and this was certainly the case in Archaic Greece. Archaic Greece, was the period of Greek history from roughly 800 to 500 BCE, the period when Homer was writing.

We should probably imagine a bard turning up at an aristocrat's home one day and offering to provide entertainment, rather like the Players who turn up at the court of Elsinore in Shakespeare's play Hamlet. They are hospitably received and, in return, receive food and lodging. The length of a bard's stay would no doubt have depended on his accomplishment and skill, as well as his repertoire. If it turns out that he's a skilled bard, he may reside there for some while. But in essence, he's an itinerant, travelling from one noble house or palace to another. It'll be up to his audience to decide what story he narrates each evening. The all-time favourites are stories about the Trojan War and stories about the gods.

He will have to improvise. "Sing the story about the Trojan horse," someone might say. "Sing the story about the death of Achilles," another might say. Or for a change of pace, "Sing us the song about how the lame metalworking god Hephaestus exposed his beautiful wife Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, when she was having an affair with the nimble-footed Ares, the god of war." That's the song which Demodocus sings in Book 8. It's very funny. I'll talk about it later.

Homer's poems grew out of an oral tradition, and that's very important to understand. To help the improvisation, the bard had at his fingertips, so to speak, what we call formulae – phrases, whole lines, and in some cases whole passages that he could recite when the occasion arose that fitted the dactylic hexameter line. Who hasn't heard of the formulaic phrase "the wine-dark sea" or "rosy-fingered dawn." Then there are whole lines like "Then, in turn, the gray-eyed goddess Athena answered thus," or "Then resourceful Odysseus answered and spoke as follows." A bard would have many such formulae stored in his memory bank and could trot them out whenever needed. So it wasn't the case when he was asked to tell such and such a story either that he already knew it line for line or that he had to be inventing every line as he told it.

We don't know anything for certain about Homer. There was a tradition that he was blind, but that may be based solely on the fact that the bard Demodocus, whom we encounter at the court of the Phaeacians, was blind. There's also a strong suspicion that he may have lived not in mainland Greece but in one of the Greeks settlements on the western seaboard of Turkey, perhaps Smyrna. But we know nothing for certain. Some scholars dispute Homer's existence altogether. We call them the Analysts. The Analysts believe the poems are a patchwork stitched by many hands. We distinguish them from the Unitarians, who believe the opposite – that the poems are a unified composition by one or possibly two individuals: the poet of the Iliad and the poet of the Odyssey. We call the study of Homer's identity or identities the Homeric Question. It actually goes back to antiquity.

Homer, assuming he existed, is likely to have been a bard. If he was, however, he clearly had ambitions to be something much more. It was his genius – I think he was probably a man – to fashion together a masterly work of art out of a patchwork of legends connected with the Trojan War and sew them together in such a way that his work was never bettered and never supplanted. Incidentally, we don't know whether Homer was literate. We know that he knew about letters, he certainly lived at a time when Greeks were learning how to write, but it's perfectly possible that he composed the Odyssey in his head without the benefit of writing.

You, his audience, are probably aristocratic. Certainly, the poems have an aristocratic audience in mind. But that's not to say that if you were at the bottommost rung of society that you wouldn't be familiar with the Odyssey. One of the striking features of the poem is its broad range of social reference. Two slaves, in particular, Eurycleia, Odysseus' old nurse, who now looks after Odysseus' son Telemachus, and Eumaeus, who looks after his pigs, both play an important part in the story and are treated with affection and respect, though we should note that both of them were captured and sold into slavery. They weren't slave born. In the next lesson, I'm going to talk about the society of the Odyssey in more detail.

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Robert Garland