The Timing of Homeric Performance:   A Response to Muellner’s ‘Odyssey 15’

Leonard Muellner and Douglas Frame (on right),  viewing the 4th Century BCE Bouleuterion at the site of the Panionia, near sunset. Photo by Alex Herda, with permission

By Douglas Frame | 2023.05.08

In his Question No. 1 Leonard Muellner discusses the non-employment of ring composition and the non-application of Zieliński’s law in Odyssey 15. His observations seem to me to bear on questions of Homeric performance. I agree with his assessment that “it seems to be a question of scale” that at the beginning of Odyssey 15 Athena picks up where she left off a book earlier in her departure for Sparta. The lack of ring composition in this case, where only one book intervenes, contrasts with the two counsels of the gods in Odyssey 1 and Odyssey 5. The two widely separated scenes on Olympus set in motion two apparently sequential episodes that are in fact simultaneous, and the operation of Zieliński’s law in this case does seem to have something to do with the long interval between the two counsels. Muellner’s thought-provoking chapter has inspired my rather wide-ranging analysis below, which focuses on performance. I hope that it contributes even marginally to a discussion.

I recall once hearing the New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl refer to his work as “playing Palestine.” The offhand tone of that remark was memorable, although I can hardly know what was actually meant. I would describe my own work as “playing Panionion,” by which I mean imagining as concretely as possible the circumstances in which the Homeric poems were created in the recurring celebration of the festival of the Panionia at a site called Panionion on the coast of Asia Minor. This last sentence contains a complex historical picture that is nowhere directly attested but can nonetheless be securely inferred. While I am prepared to defend this claim, I feel no need to do so here, having made the case fully elsewhere. Instead I wish to probe further an essential feature of the Panionian model for the origin of the Homeric poems, namely the organization of the two poems into twelve performance units. I have nothing to add to my basic analysis on this matter, which Muellner also follows: each performance unit consists of four “books” of Homer (the term “books,” as discussed by Muellner, is conventional but anachronistic; so for that matter is “Homer”) and each performance unit has its own dramatic trajectory, with a beginning, middle, and end. For a performance unit to work it had to tell its own story, however partial, so that a break before the next performance unit felt natural. The four books in which Odysseus tells the Phaeacians of his “adventures,” a complete narrative in its own right, illustrates the point (Books 9–12, the poem’s third performance unit). But I now want to “play Panionion” more aggressively and imagine the twelve performances as they actually occurred at the festival. While a twelve-day festival with one four-book unit performed each day is a possibility I do not think that that was what happened. A shorter six-day festival, with two four-book units performed each day, would more closely match what is represented in the Odyssey, where there is time for Odysseus’ four-book performance after three other performances by the court poet Demodocus on the same day, a day which also includes athletic contests and a dance performance. Imagining six such full days at Panionion would seem to imply that the cities of the dodecapolis came together primarily to construct the Homeric poems, an idea that makes sense if in fact, as I believe, the Homeric poems were the main vehicle for the formation of the twelve-city community. The question here is whether there is evidence in the performance units themselves for a pattern of two performances per day. The assumption to be tested is that each day should exhibit a coherence between its two performances and that each day thus be a distinctive whole, such that we can speak of Days 1, 2, and 3 of the Iliad performance and Days 1, 2, and 3 of the Odyssey performance as real performative entities. How well do the entities in question, demarcated by the ends of Iliad 8, 16, and 24 on the one hand and Odyssey 8, 16 and 24 on the other hand, and divided from each other by nights of sleep on the part of festival goers, cohere within themselves? In considering the six days devoted to these narrative stretches, Day 3 of the performance of each poem stands out immediately as a coherent whole: on Day 3, to put it simply, Achilles takes care of business at Troy and Odysseus takes care of business in Ithaca. Day 3 in both poems is a well-rounded climax, with attention focused squarely on what needs to happen to resolve the dramatic conflict. But let me take the various days in order, starting with the Iliad, where coordination between each day’s two performances is in fact easily confirmed. Day 1 of the Iliad performance ends with a new stage in the plot as the Trojans, with Achilles no longer present to contain them, camp outside their walls for the first time; the famous simile at the end of Iliad 8 comparing the watchfires on the Trojan plain to the stars in heaven is well placed if in fact poets and audience at this point at the end of Day 1 retired for the night. The two performance units of Day 1 cohere well with each other insofar as the first unit, Iliad 1-4, ends with the resumption of fighting after the withdrawal of Achilles, and the second performance unit, Iliad 5–8, shows the Achaeans without Achilles, after initial successes by Diomedes, being turned back in defeat. The Trojan bivouac outside the city walls at the end of Day 1 marks a definite stage in the action. Day 2 of the Iliad performance is devoted to Patroklos. The first performance unit of the day, Books 9–12, ends with Hector and the Trojans breaching the Achaean wall, which brings Patroklos into the action in the next performance unit, Books 13–16. Patroklos has already been set in motion in the first performance unit of Day 2 when he meets with Nestor in Iliad 11. While Day 1 of the Iliad performance is about the Trojans gaining the upper hand over the Achaeans in Achilles’ absence, Day 2 is about the heroic entry of Patroklos into battle to save the Achaean ships and his death. This leaves the stage clear for Achilles to dominate Day 3, as he first takes the field at the end of the day’s first performance unit, Iliad 17–20, and then rises to near godlike status in his aristeia in the day’s second performance, Iliad 21–24, before recognizing his own mortality and recovering his humanity at the end of the poem.

In the Odyssey there is a remarkable parallelism between the two performance units of Day 1, Odyssey 1–4 and Odyssey 5–8, which the council of the gods at the beginning of each unit strongly reinforces. In the first unit Telemachus is lifted from his inert state in Ithaca and taken to Pylos and Sparta, where he remains in dramatic suspension at the end of the unit. In the second unit Odysseus is taken from his inert state on Calypso’s island and made to reach Scheria, where he is still unrecognized at the end of this unit. Again dramatic suspension. There is a progressive awakening of innate character in both the son and the father in these units, as Telemachus learns from those who were there who his father was at Troy, and Odysseus is reminded of his own heroic past in the songs of the Phaeacian singer Demodocus. Father and son are of the same stock, and this stock progressively manifests itself in the friendly environments in which the two performance units of Day 1 culminate, Sparta and Scheria. After the parallelism between the two performance units of Day 1, Day 2 of the Odyssey performance raises interesting questions. It is in the second performance unit of Day 2, Books 13–16, that the parallelism constructed between father and son on Day 1 is continued and brought to a climax in the return of both father and son to Ithaca and the reunion between the two in the swineherd’s hut. Day 2 comes to an end when father and son, secretly reunited, fall asleep in the swineherd’s hut. The two have achieved a nostos at virtually the same time, and for both this entails a renewal of strength to face the hostility that awaits them. That hostility, which was foregrounded at the beginning of the poem, is previewed again in Odyssey 16 when the swineherd brings news of Telemachus’ return to the palace. The long narrative gap in the nostos of Telemachus, who was left in suspension at the end of the first performance of Day 1 and only put back in motion midway through the second performance of Day 2, has a kind of dramatic correctness to it. The long absence of Odysseus and his climactic return home appropriately take center stage before Telemachus completes his nostos, and the narrative gap in the son’s nostos, giving it the illusion of a greater duration than it has, serves to establish a balance with the greater heft of the father’s story. The story of Telemachus is that of a young man reaching adulthood, and, as Muellner’s perceptive observations make clear (his Question no. 3), the Odyssey is intensely interested in this coming-of-age story. The stretching out of Telemachus’ story from early Day 1 until late Day 2 is dramatically effective.

To return to the question of coherence between the two performance units on each day of the festival, the second performance unit of Day 2 of the Odyssey, just discussed, is yet to be considered for coherence with the first performance unit of Day 2, which is Odysseus’ own performance in Books 9–12. This performance vividly stages for the audience the theme, repeatedly invoked in the Odyssey, of the long duration of Odysseus’s absence: here, with chapter and verse, is the full account of what took place during that long time from the man himself. The sense of duration arising from this four-book performance is what the narrative suspension in Telemachus’ story seems intended to balance. To reinforce a point touched on earlier, both performances of Day 1 end in a kind of dramatic suspension, and this is a further parallel between the two units. In Odysseus’ case, his identity has remarkably been withheld from his Phaeacian hosts through the entire second performance unit of Day 1. Only at the end of this unit does his host ask who he is that he weeps when he hears stories of Troy. Day 1 ends with this question and the Homeric audience, which already knows the answer, retires for the night in anticipation of Odysseus’s revelation of his identity and his story at the start of Day 2. But here is the interesting point. The Homeric audience may retire for the night here, but Odysseus’ Phaeacian audience, which does not yet know his identity, does not wait until the next day to find out. Odysseus goes on without break to tell his hosts who he is and he and his rapt audience do not sleep until his story is finished. Odysseus’s story is the first performance of Day 2, and it is not until the beginning of the second performance unit of Day 2, in Book 13, that Odysseus and his Phaeacian audience sleep. This break for sleep within the story, which does not coincide with the break between days in the poem’s performance, may seem at odds with what was said in two other cases, where breaks for sleep in the story do coincide with breaks for sleep in the poem’s performance, namely at the end of Iliad 8, where the Trojans bivouac on the plain, and at the end of Odyssey 16, where Odysseus and Telemachus go to sleep in the swineherd’s hut. Can we have it both ways, coincidence in those other two cases but non-coincidence in this case? In fact there is a marked difference between the attention drawn to the close of day at the end of Iliad 8, with the vastness of the night sky so vividly portrayed in the simile describing the Trojan watchfires, and the night of sleep at the end of Odysseus’ performance, which passes in a single line as the narrative hastens on to the hero’s voyage home. The coherence between the two performance units of Day 2 of the Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ nostos, its remarkable duration and nature in the first performance by Odysseus himself, and its almost instantaneous completion at the start of the second performance unit, which then goes on to mesh with the completion of the nostos of Telemachus and the reunion of father and son. The coherence between the performance units of Day 2 is strong.

On Day 3 of the performance of the Odyssey the coherence between performance units is again strong. In the first performance unit, Books 17–20, Odysseus and Telemachus enter the palace separately and Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, is insulted by Penelope’s suitors and interviewed by Penelope herself. In the second performance unit, Books 21–24, Odysseus throws off his disguise and completes the story with respect to both the suitors and Penelope. At the end of the poem Odysseus’ father is also brought in.

In light of this analysis the conclusion seems warranted that, like heaven and earth in scripture, the Iliad and the Odyssey were created in six days at Panionion, with the understanding that, just as it took vastly longer for heaven and earth to evolve, it also took significantly longer for the Iliad and the Odyssey to be created. Repetition over several years at Panionion would have been an indispensable factor for the poems to reach their ultimate shape. What took six days at Panionion to do was recreate the Iliad and the Odyssey with every new performance.

As a coda to this discussion, I turn to a feature of the Panionia which must have been present from the festival’s foundation, namely the dedication of the festival to the god Poseidon. The dedication of the site of Panionion to the particular cult of Poseidon Helikonios, as attested by Herodotus, is evoked in a simile in Iliad 20. Here, as Achilles first enters battle at the end of the first performance unit of Day 3, his victims all receive a highlight. In the case of the third victim, his bellow upon being struck by Achilles is compared to the bellow of a bull being sacrificed to Poseidon Helikonios. That this is an allusion to the Panionia there is little doubt (Homeric similes, as opposed to Homeric narrative, are permitted to allude to contemporary life); so, to the proceedings of the Panionia as inferred above, can be added sacrifices to Poseidon Helikonios, as described in the simile of Iliad 20. Poseidon may at first seem to be a hard deity to square with the Panionian model for the creation of the Homeric poems. While Poseidon backs the Achaeans reliably enough in the Iliad, he is the implacable adversary of the hero of the Odyssey, who is only released from Calypso’s island when the other gods act behind his back. That Poseidon will be brought around in the end is envisioned, though not necessarily assured, when Odysseus is told by the prophet Teiresias in the underworld to go inland and dedicate his oar to Poseidon upon his return home. The attitude toward Poseidon, the tutelary deity of the festival, is not that he is in any way owned by his worshippers, but that he must be propitiated. This attitude is also seen in the case of the Phaeacians, who unintentionally defy Poseidon by bringing Odysseus home. Poseidon, the Phaeacians’ divine ancestor, makes them pay for this act by ending their role as home-bringers once and for all. The Phaeacians, as is suggested by their role as Odysseus’ internal audience in Books 9–12, represent the external audience at Panionion. When this internal audience is left praying to Poseidon not to be shut away behind a mountain, this has to do first of all with an intentional ambiguity as to the continued existence of a mythic people created by and for the Odyssey, but it also reflects the attitude of Odysseus’ external audience, which likewise prayed at the festival of the Panionia for Poseidon’s continued benevolence. That the Ionians would see themselves in the Phaeacians as they prayed to Poseidon not to make them disappear from the world is suggested not least by the Ionians’ own relationship to Poseidon as their divine ancestor. This raises the question of who organized the festival where the Homeric poems were created, and the answer must be the royal family of Miletus. They were the Neleids, and they too were descended from Poseidon as the father of their ancestor Neleus, the founder of Pylos and the father of the Homeric hero Nestor. Ionians from the rest of the dodecapolis were included in this Milesian ancestry, such that Poseidon was not only the tutelary deity of the Panionia but also, at least notionally, the ancestor of all who attended. The portrayal of the god in the two Homeric poems is consistent with this.

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