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 B. The Homeric Performer, the Staff, and “Becoming the Character”

The “play” between bard and character, their inner dynamics, variations, attunements, narratological ensembles and assemblies, can be brought to life by looking at a series of objects that threads through both the Iliad and the Odyssey, consisting of scepter, spear, staff, sword, etc. Within the poems, the scepter signifies that the speaker holding it has the authority, or inspiration, of the gods (cf. “scepter-bearing kings”). But let us for a moment imagine that the performer of the poems himself held in his hand such an instrument, say, a staff. It seems certain that at some stage, rhapsodes did use such an instrument to assist them with their histrionic, entrancing performances. How might this have worked?

As discussed in the Introduction, the first character the Homeric performer “becomes” (in terms of direct discourse) is Chryses, priest of Apollo, who is carrying a golden scepter, which the performer richly describes before “becoming” Chryses and voicing his speech. The performer of the poem and the priest within it share this implement: it spans the realm of the performance and the realm of the story. When the bard becomes Chryses, if that bard is holding a staff, his audience can see as well as hear that he has become Chryses; his appearance now overlaps with that of the character, and the audience is suddenly shunted to Troy, beholding the character before their eyes. The scepter then goes on to play a dramatically effective role in the beginning of the Iliad, where it possibly shifts hands to each speaker in the first assembly, receives a lyrical outburst as that by which Achilles swears (1.234–239), and finally is thrown down by Achilles (1.245). It is taken up again in 2.46 by the deluded Agamemnon (whose authority wielding it we now question), and receives the phrase σκῆπτρον πατρώιον, ἄφθιτον αἰεί, “his ancestral scepter, unwithering forever,” fraught with dramatic possibilities; its glorious history is recited (2.101–108), and it is swiftly taken up by Odysseus (2.186) with the same ironic phrase, to drive the Achaeans back to their seats like cattle and to beat Thersites to a pulp (2.265). [1] Finally Odysseus stands up with it (2.279) to deliver his speech on the omens at Aulis, a long stretch of time during which Odysseus’ physical presence pointedly overlaps with that of the performer—appropriately so, recalling the events at Aulis [2] —but after what a ride!

Now it is sometimes assumed (see Appendix A) that at the time the Homeric poems were composed, the bard would have held not a ‘rhapsodic’ staff, but a singer’s lyre, as the singers depicted within the poems use. But perhaps the staff is not only a fifth-century phenomenon. Hesiod, after all, says that the Muses “gave me a scepter, a branch of blooming laurel, a marvel, and breathed into me a divine voice” (Theogony 30–32) and with it knowledge of future and past. The branch held by Hesiod, then, had a quasi-magical power to transport him to another realm: that transport (as well as ‘authority,’ etc.) is what it signifies. Similarly such implements can be used, by characters within the Odyssey, to effect a transformation into another realm or into another form. Circe’s magic wand, with which she changes men into mute beasts and back again into speaking humans, may allude to the “bridging” quality of the performer’s staff that is used to “animate” characters; see below. Immediately one also thinks of Hermes’ staff. But all that is within the realm of what the stick means, within the poem, and how it is used by characters (including “Hesiod” as a character [“I”] represented within the poem).

Now within the space of performance the bard may have actually used such a thing, even in the era before staff-wielding rhapsodes show up in the ceramic record, as evidenced by the opportunities the Iliad and particularly the Odyssey provide for the performer to use the staff to embody his connection to a character and to play with that connection. There are many passages where we can see the possibilities for play with this “prop” fully realized. The array of uses to which the bard may put the prop can be brought to light by looking at a variety of passages that each present different performative possibilities. That variety among passages alerts us to a similar diversity of ways a bard could use such an object in any single passage. Let us consider one.

Odysseus in the Underworld

When, in Book 11, Odysseus journeys to the beyond to consult Teiresias and visit other dead souls, he does so not by crossing into a house of Hades, but by necromancy of a very particular type. He digs a ditch of a specified size, sacrifices some animals, and then wards off the approaching specters from the blood so that they drink of it (gaining the ability to speak and to recognize him) in an orderly fashion, one by one. He wards off the ghosts with his sword (11.48–50, 11.82, 11.88–89, cf. 11.147–149): we may imagine the performer here gesturing with his staff. Note the repeated description of the drawing-out of the sword from his thigh, both in order to dig the ditch and in order to ward off souls, in both Circe’s instructions and in the ‘actual’ acts (10.535, 11.24, 11.48, cf. 11.231). The amalgamation that is the bard and Odysseus, describing Circe’s instructions, gets to ‘rehearse’ the act, and then to carry it out. One is the preparation; the other is the animating act. Remember that it is Odysseus, sitting among the Phaeacians, narrating this scene, saying “I held them off with my spear, etc.” Thus, there are three parties involved so far: Odysseus-necromancer, Odysseus-storyteller, and the bard. Here is a place where there is a full flowering of the inner tensions and confluences among these three parties. As Odysseus by lowering his sword allows each departed spirit to cross toward him, toward the blood, to regain their consciousness and voice, so too does the bard (and the Odysseus who is sitting among the Phaeacians), imitating the sword action with his staff, allow each succeeding character to cross toward and “enter” him, and thus to speak. For since, with epic, we are dealing with a single embodier of voices, and not either a dramatic ensemble of embodiments or a page with written signs, on one level what we the audience see is Odysseus, summoning souls, and then that same person becoming each soul. As Odysseus is in the Phaiakis crossing over from hero of the Iliad to teller of his own tale, and into a post-heroic future where bards are already telling his story, he invokes the spirits of those who did not make that crossing with him and are left behind, needing his help to reanimate their stories.

Odysseus wards off other souls awaiting the approach of Teiresias, only possessor of nous in the underworld, who carries a golden scepter (11.91), as did the Chryses who stepped forth in Iliad 1. He asks Odysseus to step away from the trench and withdraw his sword so that he may drink. Odysseus does so, and as he does, he sheaths his sword: with this sheathing, he is literally allowing Teiresias to “speak νημέρτεα,” but insofar as he dovetails with the bard, he is saying somewhat as an illocution, “I am not the speaker any more: he is.” Teiresias with his scepter, and his knowledge of the plot to come, seems iconically bardic. But when he is done with his plot-revealing prophecy (at whose climax stands a very staff-like object, the planted oar), Odysseus remarks that it’s all well and good, and he’s sure the gods have plotted everything—but what about his mother? “Tell me, lord, how can she recognize me as I am?” (144). Teiresias gives him an answer that seems to apply equally well to the underworld situation and to the performance. “Easily shall I tell you a word and put it in your phrenes: Whomever you allow, of the dead who have perished, to go near the blood, he will speak unerringly to you: and whomever you begrudge this to, he will go back again” (146–149). Now, Odysseus already knows this full well, and so the effect of Teiresias’ speech is that he is not talking about necromancy any more, but pointing toward something else: the animating power of the staff for the performer. Thus the speech becomes demonstrative and meditative, “trying out” the staff’s powers.

The underworld use [5] is the most explicitly ‘theoretical’ and at the same time the most concrete embodiment of the connection between staff and ‘becoming the character.’ It is the explicitness of the swordplay here that marks it out as play, as the bard’s display of his own mental and physical equipment, but it highlights the fact that these elements are in play all the time. Quite possibly there is some sort of movement within the Odyssey in its use or neglect. The prop is always being received and put away for safekeeping. After agreeing to take Theoclymenos aboard, for example, Telemachus receives his spear (15.282) and stows it carefully. After directing Theoclymenos to the house of Peiraios, famous for his spear (15.544), removing him temporarily from the audience’s purview, Telemachus picks up the spear again (15.551), only to hand it over to Eumaeus (16.40). Does this become the bow at last bestowed by Eumaeus (21.378–379)? All of this maneuvering seems to start with Odysseus throwing down his beggar’s staff at the approach of the dogs (14.31). As Clay notes, the only occurrence of σκῆπτρον as a “common staff with no connection to status or authority, is (perhaps significantly?) the staff of the disguised Odysseus (13.437; 14.31; 17.199).” [6] This staff, given to him by Athena herself, is, as Nagler writes, “the predecessor of that with which Odysseus will later go to the ‘assemblage’ of his townsmen when Eumaeus, acting as his herald, leads him as ἄνακτα … σκηπτόμενον, ‘sceptered lord’ into the city. Its power is that of illusion rather than outright authority, but that befits Odysseus, especially at this stage of his career.” [7] Nagler goes on to observe that Odysseus asks Eumaeus for a ῥόπαλον (17.195) to replace the σκῆπτρον he lost, “but the poet reveals its true meaning (199)”: “And [or, ‘but’] Eumaeus gave him a suitable σκῆπτρον.” [8] This fort-da act with the staff of authority does not simply add up to the triumphant epiphany of our hero, but works together with the bard’s nuanced embodiment of Odysseus and Eumaeus in the poem’s third quarter, as plumbed in Chapter 4.

The Iliad may use the staff differently. Consider for instance the sword-drawing line ending in ὀξὺ ἐρυσσάμενος παρὰ μηροῦ. This phrase occurs seven times in the Odyssey, notably in the bedroom encounter with Circe (10.321; cf. 10.294), and seems to be a comic or Odyssean version of what is, in the Iliad, a precursor to a kill (Iliad 1.190, 21.173, both of Achilles). In Iliad 1.190, the bard has all sorts of possibilities while Achilles, hesitating whether to draw his sword, is visited by Athena; in line 194, when he finally draws it, Athena appears in the same line, and when he sheaths it (220), she departs. If we presume the “precursor to a kill” usage to be the primary one, the comedy of its bedroom use stands out. (Similarly at 9.300 Odysseus draws his sword only to realize a trick is in order, while at 10.126 the drawn sword cuts a cable to enable Odysseus’ getaway by ship.) The underworld use would add a meditative or metatheatrical note; the sword’s utter uselessness in the face of shades runs up against and yet enhances its effectiveness in terms of poetic embodiment. Shall we speak of a comic and a tragic staff? This is perhaps a better dichotomy than “Odyssean versus Iliadic,” for the Iliad does not exclude sly comedy. (I mentioned the ironic uses of the authoritative scepter, from Books 1 and 2.) At 6.318, Hektor enters Helen’s bedroom with his phallic spear, and this apparatus, we might imagine, morphs into the bow fondled by the dawdling Paris (6.322). (Perhaps this in itself makes more plausible the analogous Odyssean morphing of the beggar’s staff into the bow.) The intermittent presence in the Iliad (absent in the Odyssey) of the shepherd in his simile, there to observe quietly and disappear again, is another chance for variety in instantiation: perhaps the bard stands stock still and holds his shepherd’s staff (like the shepherd Hesiod) while he recites the simile. [9]

The thinking that results from envisioning the use of this prop—or, if you would prefer, the kithara—goes beyond the immediate moment of performance. In other words, thinking through the use of the prop involves ideas that resonate with broader structural and thematic issues. It makes tangible the connection between performance and the themes of death and escort in the poem. Where the Iliadic staff often embodies the power to kill, to dispatch a hero to his death, the counterpart in the Nekyia raises the dead. Yet we can now see that the Iliadic poet performs a similar act when he “raises” each hero, now dead, by bringing him forth on the battlefield for a brief appearance, before his death “again” in the time of the poem. Consider further the Iliad performer’s staff when it represents a weapon. In the space of performance, the performer, facing out toward the audience, faces what in the space of the battlefield is his (at the moment unembodied) opponent. When one dying hero after another is embodied, it is easy to see that the direction the performer faces comes to seem during certain passages like the space of death. There is a resemblance between the battle scene and Odyssey 11: in both cases the staff marks the border between the still-living hero and the realm of death. In the battle scenes, he may wield the staff as a weapon to ward off, usually in vain, the approach of death. In the Nekyia, the staff used by the performer-as-Odysseus both marks the border between the hero and the dead characters and can effect the crossing of that border, with the dead characters crossing into the body of the performer to speak. The Hermes-like role of the hero, as well as the epic performer, is given a tangible reality and substance.


[ back ] 1. On the ironies of the scepter’s history and uses here, see for example Thalmann 1988:10–13.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Bakker (1993:18), on Odysseus as a performer in the speech about Aulis, recalling a scene of which he and his audience have been eyewitnesses.

[ back ] 3. The way the staff bridges realms resembles Winnicott’s idea of the transitional object (e.g., Winnicott 1971). The transitional object denotes in the first place the infant’s experience, “the intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear,” but it extends into adult play and creativity. It is “the intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived.” It is not that the bard’s staff is a transitional object. But for readers familiar with this idea, it provides an impetus toward seeing the poetry, experiencing it as enactment that bridges real and unreal, past and present, here and there, me and not-me, and especially, dead and alive.

[ back ] 4. Doherty 1991.

[ back ] 5. Some scholars find Odysseus’ mode of getting to the Beyond puzzling in terms of the geography of ancient underworld belief, and in visual consistency. It is plausible that the rigging of this scenario is governed by performance considerations. See Page 1955:22–26; Kirk 1962:236–237; Heubeck in Heubeck and Hoekstra 1989:75.

[ back ] 6. Clay 2003:73, within a valuable discussion of Hesiod’s wielding of the σκῆπτρον in the versus in the (pp. 73–75).

[ back ] 7. Nagler 1974:123–124.

[ back ] 8. Nagler 1974:125.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Lombardo on the performance of similes in the Iliad: “In performance, I found myself isolating the similes somewhat and marking them—pausing a little before and after, changing the voice, dropping any percussion I may have been using—in order to bring out their quality as poetic events distinct from the poetry of the narrative and speeches” (Lombardo 1997:x, my emphasis). Lombardo’s use of italics for similes re-creates on the page the simple act that at once is a dropping of a mask, and yet also a transport to elsewhere, the performer’s stopping to look at what he has done and what he is channeling. The shepherd who emerges out of these similes embodies the astonished quietness: the performer can be him, from Lombardo’s testimony, by dropping a mask. This produces a sense of extreme penetration of the scene.

[ back ] 10. To draw on the kinesthetic imagination, think of the standup comic’s microphone and stool. Though the comic rarely sits on the stool, it may be essential to the performance. Likewise, microphones no longer need stands, or even need to be held, but hand-held ones are better props than clip-ons. Smokers know the usefulness of a cigarette for “becoming the character,” even if it is oneself. Recall West’s remark on staffs and pipes substitutes for the gusle, Appendix A, page 329 above. More recently solo performers use bottles of water: plastic bottles can be wielded more easily than glasses. On the deictic and symbolic aspects of the guitar or microphone, see Zumthor 1990:162.

[ back ] 11. See Nagy 1990a:214–215.