| ORAL TRADITION|
IN HOMER, PRESOCRATICS, PLATO, ARISTOTLE
I.D. Greeks 00013
The last quotation was from pages 33-34 of GREEK MYTHOLOGY AND POETICS by Gregory Nagy, Cornell University Press, 1990. These next quotations are from the same source, pages 44-46.
In the ODYSSEY Odysseus himself tells stories like an oral poet who has to keep adjusting his composition/performance to the exigencies of his diverse audiences, (xi 368, xviii 518). It is in the manner of a poet that he tells his “Cretan lies” (compare xvii 514, 518-521). As he finishes telling one such Cretan tale to Penelope, Odysseus is described in these words:
iske pseudea polla legoon etumoisin homoia
He assimilated many falsehoods [pseudea] to make them look like genuine things.
ODYSSEY xix 203
Earlier, had described other wanderers who, just as the disguised wanderer Odysseus is doing now, would come to Penelope with stories about Odysseus that are calculated to raise his hopes:
all’ alloos komides kexremenoi andres aletai
pseudont’, oud’ ethelousin aletheia muthesasthai
It’s no use! Wanderers in need of food
are liars [pseudontai], and they are unwilling to tell true things [alethea muthesasthai].
ODYSSEY xiv 124-125
Odysseus himself fits this description: before telling his major tale of the Odyssey in the court of Alkinoos, he asks the king to let him eat first, since his gaster ‘belly’ is making him forget his tales of woe until it is filled with food (vii 215-221). Such a gambit would be typical of an oral poet who is making sure that he gets an appropriate preliminary reward for entertaining his audience.
The root for ‘forget’ in the last passage is leth- (lethanei vii 221), the functional opposite of mne- ‘remember, have in mind’, a root that can also mean ‘have the mnemonic powers of a poet’ in the diction of archaic poetry. Mnemosune ‘Memory’, mother of the Muses (Theogony 54, 135, 915), is the very incarnation of such powers. The conventional designation of poetic powers by mne- has been documented by Marcel Detienne, who also shows that the word a-leth-es ‘true’ is thus originally a double-negative expression of truth by way of poetry. [GCM: Something Heidegger somewhat similarly advocates BUT DEFINITELY NOT IN THIS CONTEXT!] The wanderers who are described in the passage above as being unwilling to tell the truth, alethea muthesasthai, are cast in the mold of an oral poet who compromises poetic truth for the sake of his own survival. Similarly in the court of Alkinoos, Odysseus as poet is implicitly threatening to withhold the truth of poetry by explicitly blaming his gaster ‘belly’. [GCM: It is important to remember this is said of a major hero of
With these passages in mind, we come finally to THEOGONY 22-34, retelling Hesiod’s encounter with the Muses. These goddesses, as daughters of Mnemosune ‘Memory’, not only confer the mnemonic powers of poetry on the poet of the THEOGONY but also offer to endow his poetry with truth, as they themselves announce to him:
poimenes agrauloi, kak’ elegxea, gasteres oion,
idmen pseudea polla legein etumoisin omoia,
idmen d’, eut’ etheloomen, alethea gerusasthai
Shepherds living in the fields, base objects of reproach, mere bellies [gasteres]!
We know how to say many falsehoods [pseudea] that look like genuine things,
But we can also, whenever we are willing, proclaim true things [alethea gerusasthai].
“Truth,” which itinerant would-be oral poets are “unwilling” to tell because of their need for survival (oud’ ethelousin at Odyssey xiv 124-125), may be “willingly” conferred by the Muses (ethelomen). We see here what can be taken as a manifesto of pan-Hellenic poetry, in that the poet Hesiod is to be freed from being a mere “belly” – one who owes his survival to his local audience with its local traditions: all such local traditions are pseudea ‘falsehoods’ in the face of the alethea ‘true things’ that the Muses impart specially to Hesiod. [GCM; One might think this is an overstatement of the case except A: What else could the Muses be referring to? Just random lies? And B: Hesiod does have the powerful Muses of
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