The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey

By Beth Cohen | Go to book overview
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11
The Intimate Act of Footwashing: Odyssey 19

Christine Mitchell Havelock

Sophokles wrote a play, Niptra, which no longer survives, about Odysseus' return home, and it has been conjectured that theatrical performances of this drama may be the source for the depictions of Eurykleia washing the feet of Odysseus in Classical art. 1

This chapter, however, considers the possibility that the ancient Greek artist might have been inspired by oral performance, that is, by the singing or recitation of Homer's Odyssey. The epics of Homer were of central importance in Greek civilization, constituting one of the primary sources in Classical times for the education of the young and for the entertainment of all. For the most part they were spoken aloud and thus heard rather than read, for literacy was limited to a small percentage of the population. 2 We recall how Demodokos, accompanying himself on the lyre, sang to an eager audience in the Odyssey( 8.44-520). Trained rhapsodes were reciting the Homeric epics by perhaps the mid-sixth century and continued to do so through the fourth and probably later. 3 An artist would at some time surely have been present in the audience. In that case his experience of the poem would have been entirely aural, and his emotional reaction therefore would have been one of intense identification. While listening to the spell-binding rhapsode, visual images would have been imagined and activated in his mind, 4 and probably committed to memory. Let us understand, then, that the Greek artist was a listener, rather than a reader. 5

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