Friday, April 21, 2006

Bath, bed, home

From an essay by Andy Crouch on shaving and much else:

Last summer I began reading the Odyssey to my eight-year-old son. . . . To his delight, Timothy quickly recognized a distinctive feature of Homer's poetry, the stock phrases, epithets, and even whole passages that recur again and again. Somewhere around book eight, he observed, "Dad, these guys take a lot of baths."

Indeed they do. Homer's heroes bathe because they feast: no scene of feasting in the great halls of an Achaean king is complete without the visit to the bathchamber before the meal. The Iliad, the book of war on the shores of Troy, has almost no such scenes. Its men are at war, and too busy to bathe. But the Odyssey, though not without its adventures and battles, is a book that celebrates the man at home -- the pleasure of the bath, the board, and the bed.
A wonderful observation. There is, if I'm remembering correctly, only one scene of bathing in the Iliad, in book 10, after Diomedes and Odysseus undertake a night raid. In book 22, Hector is killed as his wife Andromache prepares his bath, heightening the pathos of his death. In the Odyssey, Telemachus bathes in books 3 and 4; Odysseus, in book 6. More baths follow, in the story of Odysseus' wanderings, in Ithaca too.

Thanks to Sean Payne for pointing me to this essay.

      » The Best a Man Can Get: In Search of the Perfect Shave

comments: 5

Eustace Bright said...

Hi Michael,

Last year I read The Odyssey for the first time as an adult. A book or so into the work, I wrote a post that sought to explain why I found so many repititious character epithets at the mention of each person's name. I would like to know what you think about my conclusion.

Incidentally, I later retold The Odyssey to fourth graders over many, many lunch periods. I read a chapter to myself and then told it from memory as best as possible as if I were a bard, trying me best to retain all the good descriptions and such (minus some of the sex!). I mention this just to tell you that I omitted the epithets at first, but then found them to be indespensable...

The post: ," posted the insightful blogger...

Michael Leddy said...

Hi Joseph,

[I posted this reply earlier, but there was a probelm. I'm trying again.]

Classics scholars always point out that, as you say, epithets often don't seem to go with the speeches they precede. Epithets seem to have functioned as placeholders for oral poets, filling in parts of the metrical line (dactylic hexameter). An oral poet can thus paste in (so to speak) an appropriate epithet to fill out a given line. I'm reminded in some way of blues lyrics, which are often made with well-worn parts --

I woke up this mornin' with the Monday morning blues (Mississippi John Hurt)
I woke up this mornin', feelin' round for my shoes (Robert Johnson)
I woke up this mornin', and looked up against the wall (Furry Lewis)
Woke up this mornin', when chickens were crowin' for day (Bessie Smith)

With Homer, some translators (e.g., Lattimore) reproduce every instance of an epithet; others (Fitzgerald, Lombardo) are more selective and will shade an epithet's meaning to fit the context. Lombardo does that, for instance, with glaukôpis, the word describing Athena's eyes. When she's angry, it's "her grey eyes flashing." In one esp. eerie moment in the Iliad, her eyes are "grey as winter moons."

I like to point out to my students that Homeric epithets persist in the realms of sport and entertainment -- "Ol' Blue Eyes" for instance. Pretty Homeric!

Thanks for commenting.

Eustace Bright said...

Hmmm... yes, filling out the meter is a persistant obstacle in poetry. I'm sure that's the primary reason.

It's hard for me to let go of my theory, though. Perhaps their function as a memory aid is a secondary reason. It would be easy enough to find supporting or condemning evidence by examining whether the epithet phenomenon appears in non-metrical oral tradition. I'll get back to you if I can find anything on this! Perhaps you know of examples/counterexamples already?

Michael Leddy said...

For the poet, epithets help a lot -- they're like breathing spaces. Seth Schein has a nice demonstration of how they work in relation to meter at the start of his book on the Iliad, The Mortal Hero. Epithets can be deeply meaningful though. The Iliad ends with one ("Hector, breaker of horses"). Repetition of epithets seems esp. meaningful in book 19 of the Odyssey, in which it seems that Odysseus is trying to let Penelope know who he is and she in turn is trying to let him know that she gets it. O is again and again said to be speaking with his mind teeming. P is said again and again to be watching him carefully (periphrôn, seeing all around). The epithets heighten the sense that there is subtle, intense communication taking place. A smart translator will keep those epithets in, all of 'em, as they add greatly to the mystery of the scene.

Non-metrical oral poetry with epithets? I'm not familiar with any. I'd suggest to look at the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord. Good luck!

Michael Leddy said...

Oops -- periphrôn means, literally, thinking all around -- i.e., deeply thoughtful, prudent. I was blurring Homer's Greek with the word circumspect, Lombardo's neat way of bringing the word into English (looking all around).