Tag Archives: minstrel

“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXII – Death in the Great Hall

OdysseusSuitors

In this episode, Odysseus essentially cleans house (pun intended). With the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and the goddess Athena near the end, Odysseus kills all the suitors and spares only the minstrel and the herald, who were deemed innocents. Odysseus then has Telemachus put the disloyal maids to death.

I have a lot to say about this episode, which is clearly the climax of the epic. The first section I want to point out is when Athena appears. She acts quite differently from when she appears in other parts of the text. Throughout, she always offers assistance to Odysseus immediately, but not this time. Now, in his most dire hour, she withholds bestowing power upon him. Odysseus must now prove himself worthy of the goddess. It is as if this is Odysseus’ true test, almost like he is on trial and must demonstrate that he deserves to have divine power bestowed upon him.

For all her fighting words
she gave no overpowering aid—not yet;
father and son must prove their mettle still.
Into the smoky air under the roof
the goddess merely darted to perch on a blackened beam—
no figure to be seen now but a swallow.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 416 – 417)

When Athena finally reveals herself and prepares to join the battle, the suitors are thrown into panic. The description of the scene draws on imagery of birds of prey swooping down on their victims, which echoes the imagery seen in the omens and visions presented throughout the text.

And the suitors mad with fear
at her great sign stampeded like stung cattle by a river
when the dread shimmering gadfly strikes in summer,
in the flowering season, in the long drawn days.
After them the attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons
from eyries in the mountains veering over and diving down
with talons wide unsheathed on flights of birds,
who cower down the sky in chutes and bursts along the valley—
but the pouncing falcons grip their prey, no frantic wing avails,
and farmers love to watch those beaked hunters.
So these now fell upon the suitors in that hall,
turning, turning to strike and strike again,
while torn men moaned at death, and blood ran smoking
over the whole floor.

(ibid: pp. 418 – 419)

Homer uses the metaphor of cattle when describing the suitors. Throughout the text, cattle are generally offered as sacrifices to the gods. I cannot help but seeing the suitors as sacrificial beasts, slaughtered to appease the gods. Also, the falcons seem to symbolize divine justice. As I read this, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

(Excerpt from “The Second Coming”)

One passage that I found particularly fascinating was the scene where the minstrel and the herald are spared. It is Telemachus, the son, who is the one who can bestow forgiveness.

Telemakhos in the elation of battle
heard him. He at once called to his father:

“Wait: that one is innocent: don’t hurt him.
And we should let our herald live—Medon;

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 420)

I see a connection here between Telemachus and Christ. Both are figures who can offer mercy and intervene on behalf of a person. Forgiveness can only be attained through the son.

The last section from this episode that I want to look at also contains imagery and symbolism that we find in the Christian Bible.

Odysseus answered:

“Let me have the fire.
The first thing is to purify this place.”

With no more chat Eurykleia obeyed
and fetched the fire and brimstone. Cleansing fumes
he sent through court and hall and storage chamber.

(ibid: p. 425)

Whenever I hear about fire and brimstone, I cannot help but envision the Christian hell. I had always viewed fire and brimstone as symbols for punishment, when actually, they are symbols of purification, as expressed here. This changes my interpretation of biblical hell. It is not a place of punishment as some would assert, but a symbolic cleansing of the soul, a purification of the spirit before it is reunited with the divine source.

This book is definitely the climax of the epic, and it works on many levels. The symbols, metaphors, and the pace of the text all work together to create the climactic sequence, which has been steadily building throughout the tale.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book VIII – The Songs of the Harper

GreekHarp

In this book, Alkinoos holds a feast and a competition in honor of his still unknown guest, Odysseus. During the feast, Demodokos, a blind bard, sings songs which include tales of what happened to Odysseus, which stir deep and painful emotions within Odysseus as he listens.

So as I mentioned in my last three posts, each of the previous three books dealt with the theme of resurrection and rebirth associated with an element. In Book V, Odysseus is reborn through the element of earth; in Book VI he is reborn through water; and in Book VII he is reborn through fire. Now, to complete the cycles of rebirth, in this episode Odysseus experiences resurrection through the element of air.

The element of air is symbolized through the breath of the bard, Demodokos. As the bard sings the tales of Odysseus, his breath gives life to Odysseus’ past, essentially providing immortality through the art of poetry.

The following passage is worth a closer reading because it contains the key to understanding the importance of the bard’s voice in regard to the rebirth through air.

At the serene king’s word, a squire ran
to bring the polished harp out of the palace,
and place was given to nine referees—
peers of the realm, masters of ceremony—
who cleared a space and smoothed a dancing floor.
The squire brought down, and gave Demodokos,
the clear-toned harp; and centering on the minstrel
magical young dancers formed a circle
with a light beat, and stamp of feet. Beholding,
Odysseus marveled at the flashing ring.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 132)

The first thing to notice is that this takes place in a circle, which is a symbol of rebirth and continuity. The bard is placed in the center, signifying the central importance of the singer in the divine cycle. The dancers, representing action and emanation, circle around the source of the divine breath. It is also important to note that we again see the appearance of the number nine, the importance of which was established in Book III where the number nine symbolizes the connection between the earthly and the divine.

I want to point out that Demodokos sings three times. There is symbolic significance to this, since the number three represents, among other things, the three stages of life: birth, growth, death. After that, the cycle repeats itself with rebirth.

When we get to the third song, it is Odysseus who requests the theme, which is about how he took the lead in the attack from within the wooden horse at Troy.

The minstrel stirred, murmuring to the god, and soon
clear words and notes came one by one, a vision
of the Akhaians in their graceful ships
drawing away from shore: the torches flung
and shelters flaring: Argive soldiers crouched
in the close dark around Odysseus: and
the horse, tall on the assembly ground of Troy.

(ibid: p. 140)

Here the breath of the poet resurrects Odysseus as the words inspire visions. Words have the power to create, and many creation myths use breath or words as a symbol for the source of divine creation. For me, it makes sense that this element should be employed as the fourth level of rebirth for Odysseus.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and have a blessed day!

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