“Odysseus’ tale was finished. Held in the spell of his words they all remained still and silent throughout the shadowy hall.”
Homer, Odyssey 13.001
It can sometimes be hard to imagine what ancient people were like just from pot shards and crumbling columns. But their stories have been told and retold, surviving the ravages of time to remain available to us today and can give us more of an insight. The enduring popularity of Homeric stories is something we have experienced first-hand here at Helicon Storytelling, through rehearsing for and performing our debut show, The Battle of Frogs and Mice. Based on fragments of an original text (thought to be later than the Odyssey and Iliad, but still respectably old!), one of the things that continues to astound and fascinate me is the sheer accessibility of the story. To be telling jokes to children in 2021, which were crafted thousands of years ago, and for those children to still find them funny is just incredible to me.
So why does Homer remain so popular? Well, there are a myriad of cultural and social reasons to do with democratic western countries seeing themselves as the natural heir of the Greeks and Romans. Understanding the Classics has traditionally been used as an hallmark of education and privilege only available to the upper echelons of society. For example, Cambridge University has been putting on an ancient Greek play in the original language since the 1800s. Of course, a modern audience has no hope of following this production unless they have had the access, money and leisure to learn Greek, and even Classics dons such as Mary Beard have admitted to struggling to follow the language, so far removed from reading texts in the classroom. As Classical languages are increasingly cut from British state curriculums, access to these languages (and therefore the stories contained in them) remains the domain of the privately educated elite. At Helicon Storytelling, we think stories should be for everyone, and we are committed to bringing the stories of the Classical World to those who might not have been exposed to them before.
Several Red Figure Attic Vases showing figures with lyres perhaps telling a story set to music
But if we forget for a moment the social and cultural context of Homer, and look at the stories themselves, we might also see why they have remained so popular. And really, they’ve got it all: a hero who defies all odds to make it home, god-like heroes who commit to short, violent lives in order to live forever in song. Magical realism remains popular: man-eating dragons and one-eyed barbaric giants are worthy foes for Odysseus. Storytelling techniques still used today are also employed (although how much of those are retroactively applied once the Odyssey and Iliad were written down after a long oral history remains up for debate). Both stories start In Media Res (in the middle of the action) and most interestingly for today’s blog, most of the tale is told through the mouths of characters engaging in storytelling.
Indeed, the opening four books of the Odyssey find Telemachus telling his tragic story to the city council, asking for help in expelling the suitors from his home (1.49-85). Many of the council are convinced; the power of storytelling is heralded from the very start of the Odyssey. Moving forward, Odysseus’ arduous journey from Troy towards home is told at Alcinous’ feast, by Odysseus himself (6.20-386 and 6.439-580). Throughout the narrative, every single character can be found telling or listening to stories. Many of the most significant plot points are told to us by the gods as they bicker over treatment of their favourites and exact just revenge for the hubris of mortals.
Bards themselves feature as key characters, with the songs of Demodocus the Bard – who has “the special, god-given gift of delighting our ears with his song, at whatever point he chooses to begin (8.045) – being the catalyst for Odysseus revealing his identity to the king who will enable his ultimate return home. As Demodocus receives the choicest piece of meat from the feast, Homer shows us the social importance of the storyteller. The bard performing this episode of the Odyssey presumably hopes that his audience would reward him in much the same way after his song is complete!
Storytelling transcends the Homeric works, from being integral to plot, narrative style and the ancient performance context. It underpins every retelling of Homeric stories that we participate in as both storyteller and audience, and it makes us feel very connected to the tradition we, as Homeric storytellers, are involved in.
Homer by Felix Boisselier (19th Century)