I've done my Odyssey show so many times (Syracuse University was my 230th performance) that I sometimes lose perspective on certain specific aspects of my song.
For instance, I know that the first thing the audience hears (and sees) is this:
I. Who am I?
Who am I
Mind on fire
Born of you but
Who am I?
Why are you
What you do
Name spread wide but
Why are you?
If I put my mind to it, I can remember (or think I can remember) writing those words in December of 2001 in my bedroom on the third floor of the red brick three flat on Magnolia Avenue in Chicago where I lived with a couple of friends in the early oughts.
I think I remember thinking that beginnings were very important in the world of ancient epic (and life for that matter too I suppose) and I had better get mine right.
Homer starts his Odyssey as follows (translation Lombardo with the typographic descriptions preserved):
Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.
Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped,
The suffering deep in his heart at sea
As he struggled to survive and bring his men home
But could not save them, hard as he tried—
The fools—destroyed by their own recklessness
When they ate the cattle of Hyperion the Sun,
And that god snuffed out their day of return.
Of all these things
Speak, Immortal One,
And tell the tale once more in our time.
Damn that's good!
The new (as in, released this week) translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson substitutes the phrase "complicated man" for "cunning hero" and while there will likely be Classicist teeth gnashing about "complicated," the use of "man" mirrors the original Greek exactly.
To wit, here's the original Greek:
ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
5ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.
That ἄνδρα up front there means "man" (in this case, Odysseus). For comparison, the first word of the Iliad is μῆνιν ("anger") and the first couple of the Aeneid are arma virumque (arms and a man).
So in epic, the first word acts as a distillation of the subject of the story to come. This is probably a preserved feature of the oral tradition where the poet would want the first thing out of his mouth to capture the audience’s attention and prepare them for what they are about to hear.
In addition to the “first word” feature of the proemium, the poet would also ask for help in telling the story, an act called the Invocation of the Muse. The idea here is that the poet is a vessel for divine inspiration and the Muse (in Lombardo’s translation, “Memory”) is going to speak through the poet. This makes practical sense: if you were about to sing/chant for an hour or so you’d be asking for Memory’s help too.
So I felt like my beginning needed to contain a statement of purpose and theme as well as function like an invocation. My “Who Am I” is a meditation on both identity and notoriety. οἴνοπα πόντον is the ever-present “wine-dark sea,” functions as a mantra, and the musical motif attached to these strange words comes back later in the piece several times just as the wine-dark sea of the Odyssey is an ever-present entity.
Importantly, the “I” in “Who am I” could be a number of different people: The Poet, me, Telemachus, Odysseus… and this sets up the constantly changing “I’s” of the songs that follow and the sense that identity will be the centerpiece of my interpretation.
All of this I know about my Invocation.
But after my performance at Syracuse, a student raised his hand during the discussion and asked a question that no one in any of the 230 previous discussions had asked: “What or who are you invoking in The Invocation?”
I stumbled around something like an answer for a bit before settling on the idea that I was invoking the millennia-old tradition of storytellers and bards, the thread that connects me back to Homer and his audiences back to mine.
Reflecting on this after the fact, I think it’s the truth. I’ve written before about how moving this connection is and how much it means to me and I think it is what I’m trying to conjure up and honor each time I start my song.
With a little more time to kick around the question of how my Invocation functions, I think the key is in those two Greek words, οἴνοπα πόντον.
Seeing two Greek words in a book I read for senior year high school history was what inspired me to take Ancient Greek in college which is what ultimately led to my life traveling the country singing my song. (It’s a story for another blog but: the book was The Myth of the State by Ernst Cassirer and the words were παλίντροπος άρμονίη and holy shit I just realized that the fact that παλίντροπος was one of the words that lead me to The Odyssey opens up a (technical philological term) shitload of etymological connections and - *head explodes*)
When I sing those two Greek words (OIN-AH-PAH PONE-TONE) I imagine I’m reciting a spell that will conjure up the ghosts of Homer and Odysseus. With my eyes closed, I listen to the strange sounds bounce off my settling audience and by the end of The Invocation, the room is quiet and I’m in a trance and on my way in sync with the Muse that will guide me along my tale. My Muse is maybe less practical than Homer’s but just as important: I’m invoking spirits who invoked spirits, hoping to tap into the same magic they discovered and harness it in my time to tell a story that is both always the same and different, the story of what it means to be human.