The Great Myths #46: Sacred Language & Homer’s Poets (Greek)

Here are two passages from Homer’s Odyssey featuring the common household bard of prehistoric Greece. The first poet, the description of which probably lent to the legend that Homer himself was blind, performs stories of the Trojan war before a disguised Odysseus, bringing him to tears. The second is the bard at Odysseus’ own home in Ithaca. Following the slaughter of the suitors, he begs for his life, claiming he was forced to perform for the men who despoiled Odysseus’ house.

The herald came near, bringing with him the excellent singer [Demodokos]
whom the Muse had loved greatly, and gave him both good and evil.
She reft him of his eyes, but she gave him the sweet singing
art. Pontonoös set a silver-studded chair out for him
in the middle of the feasters, propping it against a tall column,
and the herald hung the clear lyre on a peg placed over
his head, and showed him how to reach up with his hands and take it
down, and set beside him a table and a fine basket,
and beside him a cup to drink whenever his spirit desired it.
They put forth their hands to the good things that lay ready before them.
But when had put away their desire for eating and drinking,
the Muse stirred the singer to sing the famous actions
of men on that venture, whose fame goes up into the wide heaven,
the quarrel between Odysseus and Peleus’ son, Achilleus,
how these once contended, at the gods’ generous festival,
with words of violence, so that the lord of men, Agamemnon,
was happy in his heart that the best of the Achaians were quarreling;
for so in prophecy Phoibos Apollo had spoken to him
in sacred Pytho, when he had stepped across the stone doorstep
to consult; for now the beginning of evil rolled on, descending
on Trojans, and on Danaans, through the designs of great Zeus.
These things the famous singer sang for them, but Odysseus,
taking in his ponderous hands the great mantle dyed in
sea-purple, drew it over his head and veiled his fine features,
shamed for tears running down his face before the Phaiakians;
and every time the divine singer would pause in his singing,
he would take the mantle away from his head, and wipe the tears off,
and taking up a two-handled goblet would pour a libation
to the gods, but every time he began again, and the greatest
of the Phaiakians would urge him to sing, since they joyed in his stories,
Odysseus would cover his head again, and make lamentation.
There, shedding tears, he went unnoticed by all the others,
but Alkinoös alone understood what he did and noticed,
since he was sitting next him and heard him groaning heavily.

– Homer, The Odyssey, Book 8, 62-95
translated by Richmond Lattimore


Phemios the singer, the son of Terpias, still was skulking
away from death. He had been singing among the suitors
under compulsion, and stood with the clear-toned lyre in his hands
by the side door, and his heart was pondering one of two courses:
either to slip out of the hall to the altar of mighty
Zeus of the court, and crouch at the structure, where once Odysseus
and Laertes had burned up the thighs of many oxen,
or rush up and make entreaty at the knees of Odysseus.
Then in the division of his heart this way seemed best to him,
to seize hold of the knees of Odysseus, son of Laertes.
Thereupon he laid the hollowed lyre on the ground,
between the mixing bowl and the chair with its nail of silver,
but he himself rushed in and caught the knees of Odysseus,
and spoke to him in winged words and in supplication:
“I am at your knees, Odysseus. Respect me, have mercy.
You will be sorry in time to come if you kill the singer
of songs. I sing to the gods and to human people, and I am
taught by myself, but the god has inspired in me the song-ways
of every kind. I am such a one as can sing before you
as to a god. Then do not be furious to behead me.
Telemachos too, your own dear son, would tell you, as I do,
that it was against my will, and with no desire on my part,
that I served the suitors here in your house and sang at their feasting.
They were too many and too strong, and they forced me to do it.”
So he spoke, and he hallowed prince Telemachos heard him.
Quickly then he spoke to his father, who stood close by him:
“Hold fast. Do not strike this man with the bronze. He is innocent.
And let us spare Medon our herald, a man who has always
taken care of men when I was a child in your palace;
unless, that is, Philoitios or the swineherd has killed him,
or unless he came in your way as you stormed through the palace.”
So he spoke, and Medon, a man of prudent thoughts, heard him;
for he had hidden under a chair, and put on about him
the hide of an ox, freshly skinned, so avoiding black death.
He came out quickly from under the chair, and took off the oxhide,
and then rushed in and caught hold of the knees of Telemachos,
and spoke to him in winged words and in supplication:
“Here I am, dear friend. Hold fast, and speak to your father,
before – since he is so strong – he destroys me with the tearing
bronze, in anger over the suitors, who kept ruining
his goods in his palace and, like fools, paid you no honor.”
Then resourceful Odysseus smiled upon him and answered:
“Do not fear. Telemachos has saved you and kept you
alive, so you may know in your heart, and say to another,
that good dealing is better by far than evil dealing.
But go out now from the palace and sit outside, away from
the slaughter, in the courtyard, you and the versatile singer,
so that I can do in the house the work that I have to.”
So he spoke, and the two went away, outside the palace,
and sat down both together beside the altar of mighty
Zeus, looking all about them, still thinking they would be murdered.

– Homer, The Odyssey, Book 22, 330-380
translated by Richmond Lattimore