One Man Show: Poetics and Presence in the Iliad and Odyssey

  Kretler, Katherine. 2020. One Man Show: Poetics and Presence in the Iliad and Odyssey. Hellenic Studies Series 78. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Appendix A. Rhapsodes in Vase Painting; Rhapsōidia

Vase painting provides evidence for the nature of Homeric performance, though not as much as might be thought, and not in as much abundance as for other musical contests held at the Panathenaia. [1] The earliest depictions of performance on vases of Panathenaic shape pre-date Plato’s Ion by a century and a half, however, and so constitute precious evidence. Some of these have been interpreted as depicting rhapsodic performance. None of the vases are labeled “rhapsode,” however, and the identification of even the most famous “rhapsode” vase is disputed. That is the Kleophrades Painter’s depiction [2] shortly after 500 BCE of a bearded man standing on a platform, holding a knotted staff (a rhabdos?) and reciting (or singing). Beazley was confident this was a rhapsode. Herington calls this vase “the only pre-Platonic evidence for the manner in which the Greeks performed their epic poetry,” [3] and stresses that he is unable to find any other vase that “quite certainly represents an epic rhapsode.” This judgment, and the widespread reproduction of the vase, is due to the words painted as coming out of the performer’s mouth, ὧδε ποτ’ ἐν Τίρυνθι, ‘once upon a time in Tiryns’: a hexameter up to the trochaic caesura, but, unfortunately, not from the Iliad or the Odyssey (or any other identifiable poem) as we know them. On the reverse is an aulos player dressed more elaborately and also on a platform. Shapiro, [4] pointing to the Kleophrades Painter’s practice of spreading a single scene over the two sides of the vase, suggests that the two sides depict an aulode (a singer), rather than a rhapsode, and his accompanist, a pairing which other panathenaic-shaped vases show performing together on the same platform. Shapiro, however, unlike the even more skeptical Friis Johansen, [5] does allow that other vases do depict rhapsodes.

One of Shapiro’s criteria here seems to be the use of a staff: he rejects one figure previously identified as a rhapsode ostensibly because the performer is not carrying a staff. By contrast, Bundrick, while accepting that a rhapsode may be depicted with a distinctive staff, suggests two other vases as depicting rhapsodes even though they lack them. [6] The question of whether and when a rhapsode used a staff is difficult to answer on the basis of vase paintings, since sticks are held by audience members, young and old, and by figures identified as “judges” or “trainers.” [7] The “judge” and/or “trainer” figures are sometimes identified by the fact that their sticks are longer and forked, but this is not always the case for figures so identified. Shapiro notes that the “rhapsode” on a panathenaic-shaped vase in Oldenburg holds a staff with a curved handle that seems to differ from that held by his standing listeners. [8] He believes another panathenaic-shaped vase from Liverpool [9] is the earliest depiction of a rhapsode, from about 540 BCE. This man leans on a staff, looking slightly down, as he stands between two seated listeners, one of whom sniffs a flower in a pose familiar from other depictions of the audience in Panathenaic musical contests. [10] Although the figure is not presented on a platform, the shape of the vase and the typical pose of Athena between two columns on the obverse indicate a musical contest, and, as Shapiro says, it is difficult to see what else this man could be if not a rhapsode.

There are, then, on vases officially commemorating the Panathenaia and on other shapes associated with such musical content, depictions of solo performers unaccompanied by a musical instrument, some of whom carry staffs. This visual evidence suggests that, at least from the second half of the sixth century, around the time of the controversial “Panathenaic rule,” rhapsodes performed at the Panathenaia and, at least sometimes, used a staff. Whether Homeric performers in other locations and at earlier dates used a staff or musical accompaniment is another question.

The use of a staff has been approached from another direction, namely the origin and meaning of the word ῥαψωιδός, “rhapsode.” [18] Modern discussions focus on two passages from Pindar (Nemean 2.2 and Isthmian 4.63) and their scholia. Pindar himself does not use the word “rhapsode,” but his diction suggested to ancient commentators a connection to two different words, ῥάπτω, “to sew,” and ῥάβδος, “staff, wand, stitch, rivet.” At Nemean 2.2, Pindar sings of the Homeridai as ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων … ἀοιδοί, “singers of stitched verses.” In Isthmian 4, [19] Pindar says that Homer has honored Ajax throughout humankind: erecting Ajax’s entire aretē, ἔφρασεν κατὰ ῥάβδον, “he pointed it out with his staff.” The scholia on these passages relate both ῥαπτῶν and ῥάβδος to ῥαψωιδός and ῥαψωιδία:

Scholion 1d (Drachmann) ad Nemean 2.1

Modern scholars generally reject an etymological connection to ῥάβδος in favor of ῥάπτειν, “stitch.” [21] The precise nuances of “stitching” have commanded more attention than a connection to the “staff” because of the stitching metaphor’s implications for composition, whether it applies to line-by-line composition or to the stitching together of sections [22] by later rhapsodes (as in the above scholion). It is nevertheless significant that the connection with ῥάβδος seems to be more popular in ancient testimony [23] and that this is explicitly connected with the practice of carrying staffs in performance. (For example, Σ Ion 530a, Herington App. 2 No. 29: “They were so called because in telling the Homeric epics they held rhabdous daphinas.”) The etymology is important, but so are folk etymologies. The scholia are late evidence, to be sure; but keep in mind Pindar’s own use of the phrase κατὰ ῥάβδον in describing Homer’s activity. Pindar’s phrase, in the context of ἔφρασεν and ὀρθώσαις, surely refers to the ῥάβδος as staff or wand, [24] and thus is a welcome early complement to the ceramic evidence that, though earlier than Pindar, does not refer explicitly to Homer. I do not defend a derivation of “rhapsode” from “rhabdos.” Nor does settling questions about this word necessarily settle issues of early Homeric performance. However, where the “stitching” interpretation of “rhapsode” has borne a heavy burden in arguments about composition, I am happy to take the folk-etymological rhabdos theory as emblematic of my own interpretation. Rhapsody qua ῥάπτειν stresses composition, and poiēsis; rhapsody qua rhabdos-wielding stresses performance, and (especially in the rhabdos’ transformative powers) presence/becoming or genesis.

Ford notes that compositions normally performed as rhapsody, that is, unaccompanied, may be set to music. Since the evidence is scanty, one should admit the possibility that rhapsodes occasionally accompanied themselves, perhaps even when reciting Homer.

Having said all of this, as I have repeatedly stressed, I am not arguing in this book for a high degree of histrionics, or really any particulars at all; only in a few places is the effect of a particular gesture brought to bear, and that need not be unsubtle. (I have not, however, hidden my suspicion that there was a staff involved by siphoning off all mentions of it to these Appendices.) What is important to realize is that the evidence for the histrionic presence of the bard is not all in. The wealth of internal evidence of the poems as scripts remains untapped until one stands up and begins performing. You can sit down if you like.


[ back ] 1. Shapiro 1993:95. Victors in musical contests, unlike athletes, did not receive amphorae as prizes. Vases depicting musical contests are not prize vases but souvenirs; they are panathenaic in shape and conventions but slightly smaller, and are referred to as “pseudo-panathenaic.” M. L. West’s 3 article “Rhapsodes” (unlike West 1997; see below) typifies the slippery way ceramic evidence is adduced: “Originally reciters of epic accompanied themselves on the lyre, but later they carried a staff instead … Both are shown on vases.” West does not indicate here why he does not interpret lyre-players on pots simply as lyre-players.

[ back ] 2. London E270; ARV2 183, 15.

[ back ] 3. Herington 1985:14.

[ back ] 4. Shapiro 1993:96.

[ back ] 5. Friis Johansen (1967:236n324): the panathenaic-type amphorae “nowhere depict a contest between rhapsodes.” It is not clear whether this comment rules out the depiction of rhapsodes who are performing, but not competing, at the Panathenaia.

[ back ] 6. Bundrick 2015.

[ back ] 7. Beazley 1922:72–73.

[ back ] 8. Shapiro 1993:98; fig. 25. Shapiro earlier (1989:46) mooted the possibility that all three were rhapsodes, or that the figure at left, the only one with the forked staff, was a judge.

[ back ] 9. Liverpool, National Gallery 56.19.18; Shapiro 1993 figs. 26–27.

[ back ] 10. Shapiro 1993:100.

[ back ] 11. Bundrick 2015:25.

[ back ] 12. Dunedin E48.226: Shapiro 1989 pl. 22b–c; Beazley 302889.

[ back ] 13. West 1966 ad Theogony 30; emphasis mine.

[ back ] 14. Carter 1995:286.

[ back ] 15. But as Segal (1994:182) notes, not only do Alkinoos (11.368) and Eumaeus (17.518) compare Odysseus to a singer (aoidos), but the disguised Odysseus also refers to his story as singing (14.464). Nagy (1990b:21) writes: “the word aeidō [sing] (as in Iliad I 1) is a functional synonym, in contexts where the medium refers to its own performance, of the word e(n)nepō ‘narrate, recite’ (as in Odyssey I 1), which does not explicitly designate singing … Self-references in Archaic Greek poetry may be diachronically valid without being synchronically true.” Especially since Odysseus refers to his own narration as singing, it is not clear that Demodokos or Phemius is in any sense a self-portrait, even one that is only diachronically valid; it could be deliberately anachronistic or not referring to the current (current at any stage) poet’s own modality at all. Like Taplin (1992:30), I am “driven away from the model supplied by the bards of the Odyssey.” Cf. Collins 2004:168. But again, the answer to this question is not dispositive for the present inquiry.

[ back ] 16. Danek and Hagel 1995, whose reasoning, however, if applied to iambic trimeter, would show that trimeter too was sung. The movement from a Demodokos-like singer to a rhapsode as depicted on pots and in the Ion is a common unspoken assumption.

[ back ] 17. For example, Gentili (1988:6) cites Demodokos and Phemius as evidence that “the rhapsode’s mode of performance might or might not involve the use of song.” Perhaps, but Demodokos and Phemius are not called rhapsodes within the poems themselves, so this is confusing.

[ back ] 18. Chantraine 1968–1980 v. ῥαψωιδός; Meyer 1918; Fränkel 1925; Patzer 1952; Sealey 1957:317; Herington 1985 Appendix 2, Nos. 1, 28, 29; Gentili 1988:6–7; Ford 1988 (comprehensive discussion with bibliography); Nagy 1996a:61–76; West 1997:163–164; Collins 2004:179–184; West 2010; González 2013:§10.1.1.

[ back ] 19. 4.37–38 Race; 3/4.56 S-M.

[ back ] 20. Or “and the narrative woven around a staff I received and sing continuously”: Collins 2004:182.

[ back ] 21. Herington (1985:167) considers the history and meaning of rhapsode “still unsolved.” Ford (1988:300) states: “We now reject as phonologically impossible the most popular ancient derivation, from ῥάβδος.” This seems likely (cf. González 2013: §10.1.1 “there is no linguistic path from ῥάβδος to ῥαψῳδός”), but the proof is not given. Ford and LSJ cite this scholion as though the rhabdos there is unqualifiedly a staff. But Callimachus, while he may also play on the meaning “staff,” clearly has in mind the “stitching” or fabric metaphor (compare ὑφαινόμενον ἠνεκὲς with Iliad 12.297 ῥάψε … ῥάβδοισι διηνεκέσιν), or even, given the word’s wide application to sticklike objects, an unattested meaning such as “shuttle” or “distaff.” (Cf. the statement in the Nem. 2 scholia that a rhapsode was called στιχαοιδός because a rhabdos could also be called a stikhos; see Collins 2004:182.) The scholiast seems to be using the passage as evidence of the derivation rhapsode < rhabdode < rhabdos, “staff” (cf. the scholiast’s διεξιέναι). Fränkel 1925 suggests the origin of the term should be sought in epic usage of ῥάπτειν and leaves aside ῥάβδος, except when (as in the Iliad passage just cited) it means “rivet.” Note that this very passage in the links ῥάπτειν and ῥάβδος, whether ῥάβδος means “stitch” or “rivet.” This complicates things considerably, and scholars are perhaps too eager to separate these words (contrast Chantraine’s more cautious ῥάπτω entry).

[ back ] 22. See Burgess 2004:13n51.

[ back ] 23. González 2013: §10.1.1.

[ back ] 24. The entire phrase is typically cryptic. May we link ὀρθώσαις as well as ἔφρασεν with κατὰ ῥάβδον, lending the phrase a necromantic flavor (cf. Appendix B below)? Are we to render ἐπέων closely with ῥάβδον? LSJ does so, yet blandly renders ῥάβδον ἐπέων “measure of his verses,” perhaps having in mind the one Pindar scholium (on Isthmian 4.63) explaining κατὰ ῥάβδον by κατὰ στίχον. Cf. Meyer 1918:330; Patzer 1952; Ford 1988:306; González 2013:§10.1.1.

[ back ] 25. Ford 1988:303.

[ back ] 26. Ford 1988:303.

[ back ] 27. One might argue that the use of the staff qua prop extends beyond the range of the rhapsodic as Ford traces it, beginning with the Callimachus fragment quoted in the scholia above, such that the rhabdos would extend beyond the traditional range of rhapsōidia. But even here, the Callimachus fragment is elegiac, not strophic. If, as Ford emphasizes, traditionally “rhapsodic” (non-melic) poetry may be set to music, it may also be true that melic poetry may be rhapsodically recited. See Ford 2002:25. The rhabdos is, as it were, the instrument taking the place of the kithara or the aulos in the rhapsōidia compound: so would go the folk etymology.

[ back ] 28. Failing a live performance, see Bagby 2006.

[ back ] 29. “Theatricalization”; “ever more theatrical and mimetic over time”: Nagy 1996a:162, 165; Collins 2004:203–218. On Homeristai, Nagy (pp. 158–168) discusses Athenaeus 620b–c; Achilles Tatius, Clitophon and Leucippe 3.20.4, 8.9.2–3; Artemidorus 4.2 ed. Pack; Petronius, Satyricon 59.2–6; and papyri from the second and third centuries CE. Similarly, Danek and Hagel (1995:15–17): improvised “Epengesang zur Phorminx” breaks off at a certain point, after which we see only the endpoints of two different lines of development—uncreative rhapsodes without music, and setting fixed texts to new music. For a skeptical view of Athenaeus’ testimony on earlier Homeristai, see Boyd 1994, esp. 116n18.

[ back ] 30. Nagy 1996a:166.

[ back ] 31. González 2013 repeatedly invokes the “dramatic” or “mimetic potential” of Homeric epic. “In adopting under the influence of drama some of the accoutrements of the acting trade, he was only bringing out the extraordinary mimetic potential already inherent in the Iliad and the Odyssey” (González 2013, Conclusion). If the mimetic potential was there, and “extraordinary,” what spark does either evolution or the influence of drama add?

[ back ] 32. M. L. West 2001:19; Pelliccia (2003:111) suggests these rhapsodes were text-teachers specifically hired to teach Niceratus the text verbatim.

[ back ] 33. Plato Ion; Xenophon Memorabilia 4.2.10; Xenophon Symposium 3.6. Cf. Redfield (1973:144): “they possessed the stupidity which is often found among, and even recommended for, actors. The performer is not a creator; he responds to another’s creation …” My point is simply that one cannot assume rhapsode: stupid: actorly :: creative bard: non-stupid: wooden. Cf. Collins 2004:135–146.