So, my favorite thing about The Odyssey might be its almost incessant repetition. I had worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a real feel for the language of the poem, but in fact the words are hypnotic.
First, there are the epithets, metrical stopgaps that were an important part of oral poetry. Basically, everyone gets a set of adjectives to help his name fit into any necessary spot on a line, in any necessary case. Some examples from Bernard Knox’s introduction to the Penguin edition of the Robert Fagles translation I read:
Odysseus, for example, is “much-enduring,” “a man of many schemes,” “godlike” and “great-hearted”; the island of Ithaca is “rocky,” “seagirt” and “clear-skied”; ships are “hollow,” “swift” and “well-benched,” to list only some of the often polysyllabic epithets attached to them.
There are many, many more, and they swirl around just about every reference to a character or object common in the poem. And in addition to these there are stock phrases that are almost epithets (“bright-eyed girl,” “deathless goddess,” “blissful gods”). The effect of both is a sense of intense familiarity with nearly everything that appears—we know their characteristics inside and out. Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, has bright gray eyes, is deathless, blissful, and wise. The ships are swift, hollow, black with pitch, and scud along the waves. And the sea is “fish-infested.”
It was another type of repetition though that did me in. Passages two, three, a dozen lines long, repeated two, three, a dozen times throughout the text. Everything is a ritual in The Odyssey, from “when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more” to the retellings of Odysseus’s trials themselves (did I mention how much I love framed stories? there are only about a million here). Hospitality is a huge theme, and whenever a guest is offered food by a wealthy host,
A maid brought water soon in a graceful golden pitcher
and over a silver basin tipped it out
so they might rinse their hands,
then pulled a gleaming table to their side.
A staid housekeeper brought on bread to serve them,
appetizers aplenty too, lavish with her bounty. …
They reached out for the good things that lay at hand,
and when they’d put aside desire for food and drink…
When the host is ready to question the guest,
Tell me about yourself now, clearly, point by point.
Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents?
What sort of vessel brought you here? Why did the sailors land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are?
I hardly think you came this way on foot!
And for the highly ritualistic and continual animal sacrifices, of course,
…they quartered her quickly, cut the thighbones out
and all according to custom wrapped them round in fat,
a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh. …
Once they’d burned the bones and tasted the organs,
they sliced the rest into pieces, spitted them on skewers
and raising points to the fire, broiled all the meats.
So visceral. And it almost makes your head spin, everything happening again to everyone everywhere. Some of these passages are introduced in the very first book, to be repeated throughout to the end (or to be saved to the end); others are just coming on for the first time when Odysseus—“there was a son, or was he all a dream”—is killing the suitors. And it’s strange, the whole time the action seems to come on so fast, only to pull you back under where you’ve heard it all before, and then the whole passage has just set up the next scene for you.
Obviously I found the technique highly effective—fugue-like and entrancing. If/when this gets a re-read, I’d like to be really methodical about noting the passages (certainly someone must have done this already); I’d also like to read a different translation, probably the Lattimore (reviving my minimal Ancient Greek is probably not an option, though tempting for this purpose). I really liked this one but of course it’s hard to trust these things, and I heard that Fagles actually has a tendency against repetition of the epithets (from a nonreputable source; is this true?).
Tomorrow: the fish-infested sea.