Homer, Odyssey, Books 1, 2, 3.

        Click here for a short summary of epic poems' typical features, and the main members of the lineage of Anglo-European epics which trace their descent from Homer's poems.

Oral Tradition and Oral-Formulaic Epic Composition (the "Parry/Lord Hypothesis"): Homer's song, or more properly "the Homers' song," challenges all our notions of individual artistic creativity, shaped as they had been by print culture and authors' copyright laws since the early C18.  Folk music, blues music, and other "traditional" singing literatures still preserve the older mode of composition and reception.  But we tend not to treat these literatures as serious art, though they have won a small place in the Norton Anthologies which teach English majors the "canon" of great literature. 

        The "Parry/Lord Hypothesis" was developed at Harvard by Milman Parry and his student, Albert Lord, who studied the Homeric epithets ("Menelaos of the loud war-cry," "Achilles the man-breaker," etc.).  These repeated formulae struck modern scholars as oddly uncreative uses of language set amid the epic's usually wonderfully varied narration strategies (extended similes, flashbacks and foreshadowing).  Parry theorized that the epithets so commonly mated to the characters' names were part of a compositional formula based on the meter (rhythm) of the line in which they occured.  To test the hypothesis, Parry and Lord brought sound-recording equipment to the mountains of then-Yugoslavia (modern Bosnia, Croatia, etc.) where they discovered living, illiterate oral-formulaic poets who could improvise poems the length of the Odyssey over a period of three weeks, singing two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon.  When compared between performances, the songs always changed in countless tiny ways, so they clearly were not rote-memorized, word-for-word.  Rather they were recreated in each performance based on a repertoire of narrative structures that could be creatively expanded and combined, and based on that fundamental set of rules for combining the metrical formulae out of which the poem's smallest compositional units were created.  You can read a clear memoir of the discovery by Albert Lord in his The Singer of Tales (1960).  Since the Parry/Lord hypothesis was generally accepted as a foundation for study of Homeric poetry, it also has been applied to Anglo-Saxon epic verse, especially Beowulf.

        For modern studies of oral-tradition composition, literature students often ally themselves with anthropologists.  The Oral Tradition is a Web site maintained by the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, University of Missouri--Columbia)  http://www.oraltradition.org/  [This site also contains a link to Oral Tradition Journal, accessible online from Project Muse.]  Among the resources on this site is An eEdition of The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey performed by Halil Bajgorić, a Bosnian singer recorded in 1935 by a research team headed by Milman Parry (text edited and translated by John Miles Foley).  It's not Homer, but if you look for structural parallels in the type scenes, plot motivations, and character functions, you will hear echoes of the Odyssey in the hero's journey through danger to his wedding. 

        What differences do I notice between the Homeric text you are reading and The Wedding?  It's leisurely, almost fulsomely repetitive, but the Homeric text is compressed, leaping ahead from episode to episode.  Homer has "longeurs," of course--look for "catalogues" where the narrator revels in lists of people and places before moving the plot forward again.  I suspect it was like paid political advertising for the cities or donor-shout-outs on NPR.  It does preserve the dramatis personae of the cultural context, though, and their kleos also matters. This is a song that sings a culture into being in the minds of its audience and singers--there are no mass media, no Internet, no literacy to stubbornly record the scratchings of past peoples into the future.  Even the tomb inscriptions we were reading from the lyric poets have not yet been invented.  There is just the night sky filled with stars, little artificial light, and the singer's song.  David Smith, "Ancient Household," 1945 (Hirschorn Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Book 1‑‑Telemakhos in Ithaca; the Suitors in Odysseus' hall

1)  What questions are asked by the poet's invocation of the  Muse and how do you expect the poem to answer them?  What is the  relationship between poet and audience, poet and Muse, Muse and  audience?

2)  What information is introduced to the plot by the council of  the gods?  How do the gods' interest in Odysseus affect your  expectations regarding what his character will be like?  Is this what you would have expected after reading The Iliad, where the fate of the city of Troy is fought over by Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Ares, and Apollo, as well as a host of other minor immortals?

3)  How is Telemakhos described when we first see him, and how old  do you think he is, based on this description?  (He's about 20.)   What are the gods asking him to do and why?

4)  How do the gods send their message to T?  In  the Homeric hymns and other texts, some characters are unable to  recognize gods while others can.  How is T's "god‑sensor" working  and why?

5)  When asked if he is Odysseus' son, what does Telemakhos say and why does he respond in this fashion?

6)  What problem do the suitors pose for Penelope and Telemakhos?  Why can't they end it by simply telling them to go away?

7)  With what famous son is Telemkhos compared?  What is the thematic "constellation" formed by this son's family compared with Telemakhos' family?

8)  Phemios, the bard, sings an epic song.  What is its subject  and where would you go today if you wanted to her it?  What is  Penelope's response, and how does her son react to her?  What has  changed in the court of Ithaka?

9)  When Eurymakhos asks T about the identity of his mysterious visitor, how does T respond and why?  What does that tell you about his character?

10)  How did Eurykleia come to live in Odysseus' household?  What is her role and how does the poet describe her special status?

Book 2‑‑Telemakhos in Ithaca--Telemakhos leaves home to seek news of his father

1)  What are the "Robert's Rules of Order" for an Ithakan  assembly?  What does the poet draw your attention to in each of  the characters who speaks?

2)  By what arrangement did Penelope come to be Odysseus' bride?  How does that relate to Athena's advice in Book 1 (338)?

3)  What is Telemakhos' argument regarding how the suitors should be treated?  Note that in traditional patriarchal cultures based on warfare, killings must be carefully justified, and in Greek culture, especially, guests have a fundamental right to safety and even protection from their hosts, a right enforced by Zeus, himself. 

4)  How are the suitors individualized by the poet?  Look up their  names in the index of Graves' Greek Myths.  What do their names  mean?

5)  How, according to the suitors, has Penelope been occupying her time in Odysseus' absence?

6)  What omen appears to the suitors and how is it interpreted?  How do the suitors respond and why?  How is the audience to take this moment?

7)  How do the gods assist T in carrying out his instructions?   Especially, in what form does Athena help him and why?  What topic of their previous discussion reappears in this new encounter and what specifically do we learn about Odysseus' character here?  Notice that Athena appears to Telemakhos in the guise of two men whose names contain forms of the Greek word for "mind": Mentes and Mentor.  This is related to the classical Greek belief that naming summons the thing named, and that names have predictive power.  For an excellent scholarly article explaining the "nomen-->omen" significance of names in this epic, see:  Norman Austin, "Name Magic in the 'Odyssey'." California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 5 (1972), 1-19
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25010630

8)  What do we learn about their characters from the encounter between Antinoos and Telemakhos near the end of Book 2?

9)  What kind of event in the life of a young man is Telemakhos'  voyage?  How does it affect his relations with his parents, and  what does this mean for his sense of himself as a man?  How is it  related to the events of Book 1?

10)  If you were one of the suitors, what would you want to do  regarding Telemakhos?  Why?  How might this relate to the  situation in Aeschylus' Orestia trilogy?

11)  In the mythic chronology upon which both works depend, which  came first, the events in Books 1 & 2 of The Odyssey, or the  events in The Orestia?

Book 3‑‑Telemakhos' Voyage to Pylos News of Odysseus from Nestor

1)  What is the situation in which Telemakhos first encounters Nestor, and how does Nestor handle it?

2)  What is the format of a Grecian feast for the gods?  What can  you tell about the gods' characters from the ceremony?

3)  How does Telemakhos handle the introduction of his mission in Pylos and what has changed in his account of himself from Book 1?

4) Why shift the implied narrator in this part of the text?   What stories does Nestor tell, and what is the effect of hearing the story of Agamemnon from Nestor?

5)  How does Athena correct Telemakhos, and what is the basic principle underlying her statement? 

6) What is the role of the poet/singer in Agamemnon's household?   Why is this task given to a poet?

7)  How might the contents of this section have influenced Aeschylus in his composition of the Orestia?

8)  Consult the map of the Peloponnesian Peninsula.  Why did Telemakhos and Peisistratos travel from Pylos to Sparta by chariot instead of continuing the journey by sea?

9)  How does Nestor react to the discovery that Athena has been his guest and how does the poet guide your evaluation of that reaction 

10)  Given what we have been told in this book about events in Argos, and where Telemakhos is heading in Book 4, what is the significance of Nestor's family?