One of the most amazing things that I’ve witnessed over hundreds of performances of the Odyssey is that a high school freshman can just as easily observe something brilliant about the story as can a scholar.
The text’s ability to suggest, absorb, and provoke, is almost supernatural. Of course a scholar will have different types of insights than a 14 year old, but there is the potential for each to interact with the story and in reckoning with it come to some sort of heavy, meaningful, human truth.
At my first performance of 2018, in a very frigid Boston, at a party thrown by The Paideia Institute at a venue called Makeshift Boston during the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting, an audience member made an observation in the form of a question that I haven’t been able to shake.
He marveled at how Homer’s Odyssey seemed to inspire artists to make art, how so many artists felt the need to respond in some way to the story by creating something new (as I had done).
This is a not a revolutionary or particularly classically-specific observation of course: much great art harbors a power to inspire.
But what’s stuck with me about this thought in relation to Homer’s Odyssey is that this story and telling of it has its roots deeply in an ancient oral tradition and in fact likely came into being in the form in which we read it with one leg firmly in an oral culture and one in a written culture.
So this story was shaped at a time when the survival and transmission of stories was no small thing: it was everything. If someone wasn’t inspired to tell it, to sing it, to ask a bard to sing it… a story disappeared.
It would stand to reason then that the stories that could most consistently provoke retellings are the ones that were the most likely to survive and be passed on.
At this point I’d like to disclose that I was a psychology major for exactly one semester before I became a Classics major and took enough Psych to have come to a basic understanding of the underlying logic of the theory of evolution and evolutionary benefit.
After my performance, I talked with the audience a little bit more over food and drinks but my mind was stuck on the observation about artists reacting to The Odyssey by creating. During the short cold walk back to my hotel and as I lay in bed trying to grab a couple hours of sleep before my early flight back to Chicago I began to develop a picture of these stories competing to be told by bards. The most provocative (not in the scandalous sense) would be told by the most bards and have the best chance of survival.
So maybe this aspect of Homer’s Odyssey, this ability to inspire artists to create in response to it, this democratic faculty that enables 14 year olds and scholars alike to access its truths, is a vestige of the reason we have it today: it it so moving, so broadly yet deeply accessible so as to insure that its audience will pass it on in some way or create a vehicle to do so.
It certainly found a willing host in me.