The Epic Rhapsode and His Craft: Homeric Performance in a Diachronic Perspective

  González, José M. 2013. The Epic Rhapsode and His Craft: Homeric Performance in a Diachronic Perspective. Hellenic Studies Series 47. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


Two avenues are open to the scholar who seeks to answer these and related questions: he may either look at the internal evidence of the extant text or consider the external evidence of its surrounding culture. It is chiefly the latter approach that I have followed here. My proposal in this book has been that, if one wishes to investigate the formation, evolution, and fixation of the Homeric poems, he can do no better than consider the figure of the epic performer and his craft. For, if it is true that the composition and performance of Homeric poetry were but two aspects of one and the same act of creative engagement with the poetic tradition, then the shape of the text must have been affected primarily by what the rhapsode, the performer of Homeric epic, did as he trained for and actually delivered his performance. Doubtless, this must have been the case until such time as the poems became primarily the province of teachers, scholars, and an educated reading public, and the primary agents of their transmission were no longer the rhapsodes and their festival performances.

We have seen that focusing on the rhapsode opens a window into the peculiar nature of Homeric poetics. We learned that archaic poetry cast the performer in the role of mediator between the Muse and his audience. In this capacity he could be viewed as an instrument of revelation and proclamation, and thus notionally akin, respectively, to the mantis and the prophet. This realization in turn gave us insight into one of the most puzzling and consequential features of Homeric poetry: its notional fixity. I demonstrated that this emic notion follows from the conviction, at the heart of Homeric poetics, that the song is but the quoted speech of the omniscient Muse to which the rhapsode has privileged access and which invests him with authority. Authority is at the root of authorship: authority to say, sing, and perform; authority to legitimize festival gatherings and religious ceremonies; authority to validate a ritual and empower their participants to achieve its ends. So long as the performance occasion was the primary determinant in the recitation of Homeric poetry, the invocation of the Muse (and, by implication, Apollo) lent authority to the rhapsode’s recomposition, and the matter of individual creativity did not overtly arise. In a world of multiform oral traditions, conflicts between rival versions were bound to occur. But in these early, formative periods they were aired not by accusations that a singer had interpolated extraneous material of doubtful authorship but by branding him a liar who for the sake of his belly would readily produce whatever the audience wished to hear.

We saw that in the second half of the sixth century BC, responding to a tendency broadly attested among the Greeks to trace the origin of cultural watersheds to specific human inventors, biographical speculation about the composer of the poetry about Troy and Odysseus attracted growing interest, especially as it allowed competing states to vie for the control of so significant a cultural capital. This move, from an authorizing divinity who presides over the performance to a legitimacy based on the rhapsode’s faithfulness to a human author, was helped by the notional fixity of the poetic corpus: for, just as with the quoted speech of the Muse, if a poem was the concrete end product of one man’s activity, then surely it could not change with every new performance according to the individual rhapsode’s recomposition and still claim faithfulness to its author—that, at any rate, was the logic regardless of what actually happened in performance. Even then, at least in the beginning, authorship was far from the totalizing notion of a unique creative source that it would eventually become. Instead, it remained closely tied to the authority, now of a particular performer, to produce and shape a narrative in performance.This book also explored how the placement of the rhapsode as mediator between the audience and the source of authority naturally allowed for his twofold role as performer and hermēneus of his tradition. Diachronically speaking, both facets changed character with the passing of time. Originally the performer was also the composer, in fact, composerinperformance. From the emic perspective, his hermeneutic role made reference to his explication of the divine intention (especially past, but also future), which he expressed in poetic form. From our etic stance, we would make a distinction between the relatively less fluid poetry, particularly the speeches, which the rhapsode recomposed with more predictable regularity as to form and content, and the more fluid (usually narrative) portions, which he recomposed with greater variability and by which he elaborated the μῦθος (in Aristotle’s sense), stitching together the speeches into a larger whole. With the passing of time, the performance involved a decreasing measure of recomposition and the hermeneutic function gradually changed into the ἐπίδειξις of prose commentary and pedagogic lecture. It is in opposition to the rhapsode’s role in classical education (as ἐπαινέτης of Homer) and his monopoly of the cultural capital of Homeric poetry that the emergent sophists defined their own practices.

The rhapsode was a privileged protagonist in the gradual transition of ancient Greece from predominantly oral to predominantly written habits of culture. This evolution, several centuries in the making, did not always proceed at the same pace. For Athens, in particular, it is clear that the late fifth and early fourth centuries were definitive and that during this time the technology of writing made great strides into the various domains of performance. I studied this transition in Parts Ⅲ and V, primarily through the lens of Aristotle’s Rhetoric and his study of oratorical delivery. I justified my increasingly Athenocentric focus with the central role that Athens’ Panathenaic festival had in shaping rhapsodic practice and the transmission of Homeric poetry. We saw that Aristotle himself made the connection in his work between rhetoric, tragic drama, and rhapsody. I showed that this connection is hardly accidental: only by considering together these three preeminent domains of performance in their mutual relations and influences does one gain a proper understanding of the evolution in the training and performance practices of rhapsodes. Aristotle’s own connection between rhapsody and rhetoric in the matter of ὑπόκρισις justified my applying to the rhapsode’s trade, mutatis mutandis, the philosopher’s and Alkidamas’ observations about ‘delivery’. In fact, I demonstrated that the treatment of ὑπόκρισις in the Rhetoric is broad enough to allow us to translate this concept as ‘performance’ and not strictly as oratorical performance: it is one that focuses on the voice, its expression of ēthos and arousal of pathos, and that depends for its effect on the sensory aspects of diction (especially the auditory). This was surely the case with rhapsodic performance too. Aristotle’s work also offered an account of the status of writing in his own time as an aid subordinate to delivery. Insofar as the culture still prized declamation over written dissemination of speeches, I argued that the growing role of scripts among orators illustrated the gradual introduction of writing among rhapsodes: first as transcripts, ‘accidental’ recordings of performances (in the philosophical sense of ‘accidental’); then as scripts, aids designed for the honing of delivery, but still in tension with a measure of traditional creativity at the moment of performance; and finally, during Hellenistic and Roman imperial times, as ‘scripture’ largely controlling the thematic sequence and specific diction of rhapsode and homerista. [2]

The history of the Athenian rhapsode in the late fourth century BC was marked by the state’s increasing regulation of his trade. Part Ⅳ explored the central role that Lykourgos and Demetrios of Phaleron played in asserting public control by state officials over the organization of the festivals and the participation of artists. These had been matters until then left largely to the initiative of wealthy patrons. These bureaucratic regulations reinforced a tendency among performers towards specialization and doubtless gave the necessary impetus for the formation of σύνοδοι or κοινά of τεχνῖται in Athens and other cultural centers. These associations dominated the festival scene in the Hellenistic period. It was during that time that, as contemporaneous inscriptions show, the twofold office of the rhapsode, as composer and performer, explicitly unfolded into the figures of the ἐπῶν ποιητής and the continuing ῥαψῳδός. The latter kept to the traditional repertoire, whereas the former was responsible for the composition and performance of new hexametric poetry, primarily encomiastic in nature. Parallel to these was the homerista, who put greater emphasis on the acting out of Homeric scenes, especially fights, with appropriate dress and props. Yet his greater emphasis on acting by no means precluded his recitation of poetry, as is often supposed.

The basic methodological leitmotif of this book has been that one cannot hope to understand the epic rhapsode and his craft except from a diachronic perspective, in the multiplicity of timedependent, systemic relationships of reciprocal influence between the three great domains of performance in ancient Greece: oratory, tragic drama, and rhapsodic recitation. History has not been kind to the Homeric performer. It has left us with hardly any explicit reflection on his trade and practices. For this reason, my approach to him has been indirect. But against the cultural matrix explored in this work, the epic rhapsode and his craft emerge in clearer light, with more definite outlines. And with this clearer vision we also gain a deeper understanding of the cultural processes, in their full diachronic sweep, to which we owe the final textual shape and the preservation in writing of the Homeric poems.

εἴρηκα, ἀκηκόατε, ἔχετε, κρίνατε.


[ back ] 1. See especially Parry 1971 and Lord 1960; cf. also Lord 1991 and 1995.

[ back ] 2. For the sense of ‘scripture’ here, see Nagy 1996c:110–112.

[ back ] 3. Republic 607a2–3: συγχωρεῖν [χρὴ] Ὅμηρον ποιητικώτατον εἶναι καὶ πρῶτον τῶν τραγῳδοποιῶν.