Phemius and Demodocus: Two Bards Considered

Homer Singing with his Lyre, early 19th century (oil on canvas)
Homer by Felix Boisselier, early 19th century

In Homer’s Odyssey, we encounter two different examples of poets, one hailing from the halls of Ithaca, and the other from the land of the Phaeacians. We hear neither one speak -Phemius is silent until the closing books of the text when he pleads for his life. As with all things inherited from the ancients, we notice the meticulous primacy placed on speakers in the poem, for speakers are capable of being put on trial, based on the knowledge we have of them. Homer, for example, removes himself at least one step, by invoking the muse at the outset -that is, by shrouding his face behind the ambiguous relationship between himself and the goddess. In doing s he conceals his authorship. In addition, the tales of the warrior’s Homecomings from Troy are sung by the poets, though we know they could have no knowledge or experience of Troy, and the bulk of the Odyssey is told not by Homer, but rather by Odysseus himself as he recounts his many twists and turns to Alcinous at the court of the Phaeacians. Keeping this ambiguity of the individual agency of the poets over their craft in mind, let us examine the two bards we meet in the Odyssey.

Phemius, the bard of Ithaca, is first introduced to the us in Book I of the Odyssey. His character is pitiable. He is forced by the suitors to sing pleasing songs with his lyre, yet he does not explicitly express his allegiance to the suitors. He sings a song of lament about the Achaeans in the Trojan War, and of long lost Odysseus who has never returned. This song, notably different from the songs experienced by Odysseus when he stays with the Phaeacians, impels Penelope to considerable grief. Penelope, in tears, asks Phemius to stop playing the song as it is painful for her to think of Odysseus. Telemachus, defiantly, reprimands her and allows the song to continue. Later, in Book XXII, we encounter Phemius again, begging for his life at the feet of Odysseus. He claims that he never wanted to play music for the suitors, and Telemachus vouches for Phemius. However, Odysseus, while sparing his life, commands Phemius to play wedding songs that will drown out the dying sounds of the suitors strewn across his house.

Phemius is the first bard we encounter. He is a self-taught player of the lyre and we only hear about his songs of sorrow, until commanded by Odysseus to play wedding songs -joyous songs. He successfully escapes the fate of death at the hand of Odysseus, when he reminds Odysseus that he is both a singer for humans, as well as the divine -“for gods and mortals.” He has been “inspired” by the gods with all manner of songs. He is also an oral poet who composes his own material, rather than copying those that came before him. He represents the uncomfortable mix of tradition and novelty -the latter of which the suitors are so fascinated.

In Book VIII, we are introduced to Demodocus. As the poet of the Phaeacians, Demodocus sings three songs -the first and the third of which bring Odysseus to tears, though they are concealed beneath his blur cape, noticed only by King Alcinous. Like Phemius, Homer does not allow us to hear him speak, only about his songs. After the first song, the pitiable music is interrupted for rigorous competition. For the second song sung by Demodocus, who is revealed to be blind like homeros meaning either “blind” or “hostage”, Demodocus sings of the love between Ares and Aphrodite -they make love in Hephaestus’s house, until spotted by Helios, god of the sun who notifies an angry Hephaestus, but Ares is eventually defended by Poseidon. The song ends with the two gods being freed and flying to their separate islands. Next, two people of the court dance -Odysseus notices their great dancing skills.

Odysseus, curiously, praises Demodocus as a man he ‘respects more than any other on earth’ (Book VIII, 546-550) because he has probably been taught by the Muse, Zeus’s daughter, or the god Apollo. He then beckons Demodocus to sing of Odysseus’s wooden horse trap, built by Epeus with Athena’s help “true to life as it deserves” (556). Invoked by the Muse, Demodocus obeys and brings Odysseus to tears. Again, Alcinous notices and commands Odysseus to reveal his name and his story. In response Odysseus plays the role of poet, or “maker” in Book IX by detailing the Odyssey, proper.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

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