The Homeric Answer: Odyssey

Yesterday morning my dear Emily drove me & my still-worsening asthma to the hospital at Ireapetra. At the very foot of the mountain we saw Adonis beginning his ascent. His car wasn’t working & it was easier for him to come along with us via Ireapetra by car, than hike up the steep mountain road to Agios Ioannis. I also think he wanted to help as well, being the nice fella that he is. Once at the hospital, & after the formalities of introductions were helped by Adonis, I was left to coalese with an oxygen pump while Emily went back to pack. Slowly but surely my lungs were coaxed back to normality by this hissy, gas-splurgling thing, & I was picked up a couple of hours later by Emily & the girls at the resumption of some semblance of normality.


It was time to drive to Elounda for our final few-day stint in Crete, arriving yesterday. The rooms are slightly less than OK, but they do have A/C AND mosquito nets – a veritable godsend. I slept most of yesterday & well into this morning, on account of my asthmatic lack of sleep at Ioannis. it had all been rather like that film, A Nightmare on Elm Street; I was afraid to nod off in case I never woke up again. Also, & quite startingly, that bloody palmthorn decided to eject itself from my body. I had just immersed myself in a lovely hot bath, when the water must have disturbed my puncture wound’s scab & suddenly, like a cork from a bottle, the black thorn emerged slowly out of my foot. I had no idea it had been that bloody big & I have just witnessed at first hand a miraculous testament to the human body’s ability to expel alien bodies.


Today we’ve pottered about Elounda, something of an ex-pats colony, taking lunch on a floating restaurant – including a freshly caught, 60 euro fish – while gazing at the dusky old leper colony on Spinalonga island. It was then off to a nearby waterpark where a mixture of chlorine & seawater is making all my bodycuts scream in pain. It is under such stingy conditions that I shall now begin my further investigations into the Homeric Question. In an earlier Letter, I showed how the Iliad was in fact a construction, or rather reconstruction, of earlier Homeric materials by a Cretan poet under the patronage of a Spartan King. The Odyssey, I believe, came to light under quite similar circumstances, which occurred at Athens in the 6th century BC. The noble catylyst was a tyrant called Pisistratus, whose influence on the Homeric poems has already been observed by many classical writers;

Pisistratus brought together & published the Iliad & the Odyssey (Aelian)

We praise Pisistratus for his gathering together the poems of Homer (Libanius)

Pisistratus brought them together, as this epigram, inscribed by the Athenians on Pisistratus’ tomb, makes clear: Pisistratus, great in councils, I who gathered together Homer, who had formerly been sung here & there (Anonymous Life of Homer)

Who was more learned in that same period, or whose eloquence is said to have had a higher literary culture than that of Pisistratus? He is said to have been the first to have arranged the books of Homer, which were previously confused, in the way we now have them (Cicero)

The general gist is that during Pisistratus’ time as the Athenian leader, both of the Homeric epics were ‘arranged’ into their 24 books, then scribally copied, i.e. ‘published,’ for public consumption. Of the two epics, the Iliad seems far too much of a composite to have been ‘previously confused,’ as Cicero says, & one expects Pisistratus did little other than arrange the Iliad into its 24 books. Indeed, he seems to have had some influence upon book 10, for Eusthatius has stated, ‘the ancients say that this book was put seperately by Homer & was not counted among the part of the Iliad, but was put into the poem by Pisistratus.’ Other Iliadic tweaks made by the Athenian demagogue are said to have included his fudging of the ‘Catalogue of Ships,’ an account of the Greek forces who sailed to Troy. Pisistratus could well have interpolated Ajax’s bringing of 12 ships from Salamis in order to prove that it was once an ancient possession of Athens. Turning our attention on the Odyssey, however, screams out with immediate rancour that it was ‘previously confused,’ & believe me it is still confusing to this day; a jumbled mass of plots & stories which leap about through the narrative like quantum literary atoms.

The need to show off personal power with monumental exhibitions is an ever-present trait of the human condition. In recent centuries, the Great Exhibition of the British Empire in 1851 & the neoclassical buildings of Adolf Hitler at Nuremburg are perfect examples of the grand ego’s demonstrance. Pisistratus understood how, & more importantly why, Lycurgas had moulded his own version of Homer. Wishing to demonstate his own cultural splendour, the Athenian lawgiver emulated the modus operandi of his Spartan predecessor. He even gets a namedrop in the Odyssey, where a ‘Pisistratus’ appears as Nestor’s noble son. There is something also of the tyrant’s return from exile to Athens & resumation of its leadership reflected in the epic; which is altogether a perfect metaphorical match for the return of Odysseus to Ithica. Furthermore, when we observe Odysseus being praised with, ‘in the world of men you have no rival as a statesman & an orator,’ it is east to make out a veiled tribute to Pisistratus.

The platform for the first oral performance of the Odyssey would have been a festival known as the Greater Dionysia in Athens. Inaugarated by Pisistratus himself, this festival celebration to Dionysis, the god of wine, lasted six days, mirroring the six equal parts into which the Odyssey is divided. The central stage of the festival was a theatre to Dionysis on the Acropolis – also built at the instigation of Pisistratrus – which would in succeeding centuries play host to the works of the best playwrights of ancient Greece. We may permit ourselves a moment to imagine that the very first recital of the Odyssey was sung from the stage of this theatre; when, for six consecutive night throughout the festival, the best Athenian bards would remember & retell the adventures of Odysseus.

In contrast to the testosterone-fueled Iliad, the Odyssey has a lighter, feminine touch, leading certain scholars to believe the poem was composed by a woman. This new feminine direction would have pleas’d the women of Athens, who held high social standing in the democracy. Among the many strong female characters, the true star & heroine has to be the goddess Athena, who dominates the action from beginning to end. As the ‘patron saint’ of Athens, her presence in the poem strengthens the idea that the Odyssey was created in the city.

Strabo discusses how Pisistratus ordered an official recension, entrusting the task to four leading scholars. Such a split in pensmanship explains the stylistic differnces & textual inconsistancies in context which run rife throughout the Odyssey. An example can be found with the spear-holder used by Telemachus; which moves from inside the megaron building in Book 1, to merely being leant against a column in Book 17. Modern scholars have identified an earlier ‘A’ poet, & one or more later hands they designated as the ‘B’ poet. Of these hands, the ‘B’ poet is reckoned to have modernised & lengthened the nucleus of the poem as given by ‘A.’ Let us then assume that the ‘B’ poets are four leading scholars employed by Pisistratus to work on the orginal Odyssean material.

The version we now possess presents us with the recognition scene in xxiii 1-296, a fine passage in which the only discordant notes are the late interpolations in 96-165, & perhaps in the last lines; in this account, Penelope is portrayed as finally learning the truth at the end of a story in which she has played, up to that moment, only a marginal part. But in the hypothetical second version, of later date than xxiii, the recognition scene would have taken place earlier, during the bathing of the wound in xix 53ff, at the point in the text of our MSS where Odysseus asks for an old woman such as Eurycleia to attend him (xix 343-8); & this would have been followed by husband & wife together hatching the plot for vengeance. A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey (v3) – Russo, Joseph / Fernandez-Galiano, Manuel / Huebeck, Alfred (1992)

They four scholars are never given names, but one of these ancient erudites could have been the literary-minded Onomacritus, of whom Heredotus states had collected the oracles of a poet called Museaus, into which he inserted forgeries of his own making. For numerous reasons, another of these scholar-poets might have been Stesichorus (632-555 BC). Only fragments of his poetry survive, but he was widely celebrated in classical times for his epic tayles in lyric metre; such a talent was perfectly suited for the job of assembling the Odyssey. The massive 10th century Byzantine collection of biographies known as the Suda actually attributes to Stesichorus a poem known as the Nostoi, which deals with the return of the Greeks from Troy. Is it in fact recording the work of Stesichorus upon the Odyssey? ‘The greatness of Stesichorus’ genius,’ praises Quintillian, ‘is shown among other things by his subject-matter: he sings of the most important wars and the most famous commanders and sustains on his lyre the weight of epic poetry. In both their actions and their speeches he gives due dignity to his characters, and if only he had shown restraint he could possibly have been regarded as a close rival of Homer.’ In a similar vein, Dionysius of Halicarnassus commends Stesichorus for ‘the magnificence of the settings of his subject matter; in them he has preserved the traits and reputations of his characters,’ while Longinus puts him in select company with Herodotus, Archilochus and Plato as the ‘most Homeric’ of authors. According to Plato, Stesichorus created a palinode which read, ‘that story is not true / You {Helen} never sailed in the benched ships. You never went to Troy,’ which is consistent with the ‘Egyptian’ Helen as hinted at in various places throughout the Odyssey. Plato adds that because of these slanderous verses, Stesichrous was rendered blind, a legend which may have transchisper’d into Homer’s own legendary blindness.

In the wake of the Athenian recensions, Alexander the Great would always sleep with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, even paying homage to Achilles at Troy on his march into Asia. Alexander’s favorite line in the Iliad, Plutarch tells us, was ‘great in the war, great in the arts of sway,’ an apt epitaph for that mighty conqueror of the ancient world. Since the Athenian edit, the two Homeric poems have been copied out & copied out & copied out again until they became the stone-set poems which appear in our modern texts. Layer upon layer of composition. recomposition & editing has created the Odyssey & The Iliad, & holding them in one’s hand today is akin to the moment when Schliemann first set his eyes on Hisalrik Hill. He knew the truth about the Trojan War was in there somewhere, & all he had to do was start digging.

15th July

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