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In classical antiquity, a rhapsode was a professional reciter of poetry, especially the epics of Homer, but also the wisdom-verse of Hesiod and the satires of Archilochus, among others. Plato's dialogue Ion, wherein Socrates confronts a star rhapsode, remains our richest source of information on these artists.

Often, rhapsodes are depicted in Greek art, wearing their signature cloaks. Such a cloak is also characteristic of travellers in general, implying that rhapsodes moved from town to town singing their stories.

The recitation of epic poetry was called in historical times rhapsody. The word is post-Homeric, but was known to Pindar, who gives two different explanations of it, "singer of stitched verse", and "singer with the wand". Of these the first is etymologically correct (except that it should rather be "stitcher of verse"); the second was suggested by the fact, for which there is early evidence, that the reciter was accustomed to hold a wand in his hand, perhaps, like the sceptre in the Homeric assembly, as a symbol of the right to a hearing.

The first notice of rhapsody meets us at Sicyon, in the reign of Cleisthenes (600-560 BC), who put down the rhapsodists on account of the poems of Homer, because they are all about Argos and the Argives (Hdt. 5.67). This description applies very well to the Iliad, in which Argos and Argives occur on almost every page. It may have suited the Thebaid still better. The incident shows that the poems of the Ionic Homer had gained in the 6th century BC, and in the Done parts of the Peloponnesus, the ascendancy, the national importance and the almost canonical character which they ever afterwards retained.

At Athens, there was a law that the Homeric poems should be recited on every occasion of the Panathenaea. This law is appealed to as an especial glory of Athens by the orator Lycurgus (Lcocr. 102). Perhaps therefore the custom of public recitation was exceptional, and unfortunately we do not know when or by whom it was introduced. The Platonic dialogue Hipparchus attributes it to Hipparchus, son of Peisistratus. This, however, is part of the historical romance of Conipare the branch of myrtle at an Athenian feast (Aristoph., Nub., 1364). The Iliad was also recited at the festival of the Brauronia, at Brauron in Attica (Hesych. s.v. Brauronia) The author makes (perhaps wilfully) all the mistakes about the family of Peisistratus which Thucydides notices in a well-known passage (6.54-59). In one point, however, the writers testimony is valuable. He tells us that the law required the rhapsodists to recite taking each other up in order, as they still do. This recurs in a different form in the statement of Diogenes Laertius (1.2.57) that Solon made a law that the poems should be recited with prompting . The question as between Solon and Hipparchus cannot be settled; but it is at least clear that a due order of recitation was secured by the presence of a person charged to give the rhapsodists their cue. It was necessary, of course, to divide the poem to be recited into parts, and to compel each contending rhapsodist to take the part assigned to him. Otherwise they would have chosen favorite or show passages.

The practice of poets or rhapsodists contending for the prize at the great religious festivals is of considerable antiquity. It is brought vividly before us in the Hymn to Apollo (see the passage mentioned above), and in two Hymns to Aphrodite (v. and ix.). The latter of these may evidently be taken to belong to Salamis in Cyprus and the festival of the Cyprian Aphrodite, in the same way that the Hymn to Apollo belongs to Delos and the Delian gathering. The earliest trace of such contests is to be found in the story of Thamyris, the Thracian singer, who boasted that he could conquer even the Muses in song.

Much has been made in this part of the subject of a family or clan of Homeridae in the island of Chios. On the one hand, it seemed to follow from the existence of such a family that Homer was a mere eponymus, or mythical ancestor; on the other hand, it became easy to imagine the Homeric poems handed down orally in a family whose hereditary occupation it was to recite them, possibly to add new episodes from time to time, or to combine their materials in new ways, as their poetical gifts permitted. But, although there is no reason to doubt the existence of a family of Homeridae, it is far from certain that hey had anything to do with Homeric poetry. The word occurs first in Pindar (Nem. 2. 2), who applies it to the rhapsodists . On this a scholiast says that the name Homeridae denoted originally descendants of Homer, who sang his poems in succession, but afterwards was applied to rhapsodists who did not claim descent from him. He adds that there was a famous rhapsodist, Cynaethus of Chios, who was said to be the author of the Hymn to Apollo, and to have first recited Homer at Syracuse about the 69th Olympiad. Nothing here connects the Homeridae with Chios. The statement of the scholiast is evidently a mere inference from the patronymic form of the word. If it proves anything, it proves that Cynacthus, who was a Chian and a rhapsodist, made no claim to Homeric descent. On the other hand our knowledge of Chian Homeridae comes chiefly from the lexicon of Harpocration, where we are told that Acusilaus and Hellanicus said that they were so called from the poet; whereas Seleucus pronounced this to be an error. Strabo also says that the Chians put forward the Homeridae as an argument in support of their claim to Homer. These Homeridae, then, belonged to Chios, but there is no indication of their being rhapsodists. On the contrary, Plato and other Attic writers use the word to include interpreters and admirers, in short, the whole spiritual kindred of Homer. And although we bear of descendants of Creophylus as in possession of the Homeric poems, there is no similar story about descendants of Homer himself. Such is the evidence or which so many inferences are based.

The result of the notices now collected is to show that the early history of epic recitation consists of (1) passages in the Homeric hymns showing that poets contended for the prize at the great festivals, (2) the passing mention in Herodotus of rhapsodists at Sicyon, and (3) a law at Athens, of unknown date, regulating the recitation at the Panathenaea. Let us now compare these data with the account given in the Homeric poems The word rhapsode does not yet exist; we hear only of the singer, who does not carry a wand of laurel-branch, but the lyre, with which he accompanies his song. In the Iliad even the epic singer is not met with. It is Achilles himself who sings the stories of heroes in his tent, and Patroclus is waiting (respondere paratus), to take up the song in his turn (Il. 9.191). Again we do not hear of poetical contests (except in the story of Thamyris already mentioned) or of recitation of epic poetry at festivals. The Odyssey gives us pictures of two great houses, and each has its singer. The song is on a subject taken from the Trojan war, at some point chosen. by the singer himself, or by his hearers. Phemius pleases the suitors by singing of the calamitous return of the Greeks; Demodocus sings of a quarrel between Ulysses and Achilles, and afterwards of the wooden horse and the capture of Troy.

It may be granted that the author of the Odyssey can hardly have been just such a singer as he himself describes. The songs of Phemius and Demodocus are too short, and have too much the character of improvisations. Nor is it necessary to suppose that epic poetry, at the time to which the picture in the Odyssey belongs, was confined to the one type represented. Yet in several respects the conditions under which the singer finds himself in the house of a chieftain like Odysseus or Alcinous are more in harmony with the character of Homeric poetry than those of the later rhapsodic contests. The subdivision of a poem like the Iliad or Odyssey among different and necessarily unequal performers must have been injurious to the effect. The highly theatrical manner of recitation which was fostered by the spirit of competition, and by the example of the stage, cannot have done justice to the even movement of the epic style. It is not certain indeed that the practice of reciting a long poem by the agency of several competitors was ancient, or that it prevailed elsewhere than at Athens; but as rhapsodists were numerous, and popular favor throughout Greece became more and more confined to one or two great works, it must have become almost a necessity. That it was the mode of recitation contemplated by the author of the Iliad or Odyssey it is impossible to believe.

The difference made by substituting the wand or branch of laurel for the lyre of the Homeric singer is a slighter one, though not without significance. The recitation of the Hesiodic poems was from the first unaccompanied by the lyre, i.e. they were confessedly said, not sung; and it was natural that the example should be extended to Homer. For it is difficult to believe that the Homeric poems were ever sung in the strict sense of the word. We can only suppose that the lyre in the hands of the epic poet or reciter was in reality a piece of convention, a survival from the stage in which narrative poetry had a lyrical character. Probably the poets of the Homeric school, that which dealt with war and adventure, were the genuine descendants of minstrels whose lays or ballads were the amusement of the feasts in an earlier heroic age; whereas the Hesiodic compositions were non-lyrical from the first, and were only in verse because that was the universal form of literature.

It seems, then, that if we imagine Homer as a singer in a royal house of the Homeric age, but with more freedom regarding the limits of his subject, and a more tranquil audience than is allowed him in the rapid movement of the Odyssey, we shall probably not be far from the truth.


This article incorporates text from the Encyclopędia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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