Thursday, September 10, 2015
Homeric Digressions: Are They Necessary?
When the reader arrives at a significant moment in The Odyssey and when the tenseness is almost about to reach its climax, Homer jerks him back in time to give an exhaustive literary impression of a particular object or person. At first, the digressions might feel tedious, seem unnecessary and slow the story down, especially, if one is waiting on the edge of his seat for more action. However, compared with the modern day excessive amusements and distractions, Homer and his fellow citizens were not interested in cutting to the chase, but in embellishing the stories of their heritage and celebrating the heroes and their culture. This essay will attempt to justify the essentiality of Homeric digressions.
These digressions add depth and background, richness and context to the beloved stories. They fully illuminate themes, ideas and the essential Greek cultural capital of Reciprocity, Hospitality and Arête. The digressions involve the storyteller himself. In the middle of the story, Homer chimes in and takes the reader on a tangent, like a little old man in his rocking chair might do. The digression is where we, the reader, allow the bard to embellish and celebrate the stories within the story.
Many essays have been written about the more famous digression of Odysseus’ scar, but there are numerous smaller digressions that beg for attention. One in particular is the story of how Odysseus obtained his bow. Penelope dreadfully climbs “up the steep stairs…to a hidden storeroom, far in the palace depths.” The reader is anticipating her bringing the bow down to the hall where the suitors will contend in stringing the bow and cutting the axes. The best man will become Penelope’s new husband. Yet, leaving us in terrible suspense, Homer takes us now, to the region of Messene, where youthful Odysseus strikes up a friendship with Iphitus. We learn that they exchange gifts to mark the start of their relationship; Iphitus gives his bow, which once was his father’s, the mighty Eurytus and Odysseus gives his sharp sword and rugged spear. No sooner than they exchange the friendly tokens, but Heracles, the past master of monstrous works, kills the gallant Iphitus, Eurytus’ magnificent son, a guest in his house.
In this digression, Homer expounds upon some of the themes of heritage, of names, of hospitality, as would an old wise man continually take to the task of teaching and training the virtues to the young. He knows his place as a keeper of the Greek values and maintains it through the oral tradition.
In addition to the reasons we have already discussed, the digressions occasionally suggest prophecy, omens, or symbolism. In this one, there seems to be some symbolism in the arrows described as “shafts of pain.” Heretofore in the epic, we know that Odysseus is the man of pain and has suffered much pain in the last twenty years, and who is finally on home turf with one last battle to fight. Nevertheless, instead of his pain, this time it will be that of the suitors. Furthermore, symbolic of the bow that never “went abroad with” him, but that he “only took…on hunts at home,” he will use specifically on a hunt at home; his very home; within his home. But first, Penelope must search “far in the palace depths” to find the well-constructed bow. Symbolically, she is reaching far within the depths of her soul for solace and what will bring her the most happiness—her husband home and by her side. Here she arms herself with the weapon of soon-to-be-mass-destruction, thinking only of her own imminent destruction and yet, it is the very symbol of home for Odysseus as it, along with Odysseus’ craftiness and strength, will restore his home and his family. All this symbolism is made richer, deeper and more powerful because of the story of the bow.
The stories within the story are important to these people. Interwoven throughout the Odyssey, the inquiries: who are you, what is your name, and from whence do you hail, express the importance of Greek heritage. The story of the man is the ultimate of who he is. His story embodies him. It is the cultural capital that portrays Arête. It is the motivation for hospitality and reciprocity. Without the digressions, we have few stories.