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ἅνδρα μοι ἕννεπε, μοῡσα, πολύτροπον…
Of the man/husband/hero tell me, ō muse, the one of many turns…
Dime, musa, del hombre/esposo/héroe de muchas vueltas…

There is an inherent beauty in the first words of every Ancient Greek play. The reason is as simple now as it was innovative then: the first word of the play or poem dictated the theme for the work, especially amongst near-eastern writers born in Ionian lands beyond Attica, such as Homer. This archaic style would have been ancient even to the ancients, easily predating the classic writers of the 4th and 3rd centuries by at least 300 years. It is inevitable to compare Homer and our very own Victorian-era poets and their obsession for Latin, conservative views on life, and understanding of history. Homer, in much the same way, was obsessed with Linear B (which he spoke by tradition, not because he understood it), thought the previous culture quite conservative, and attempted to understand the history he was trying to portray.

A bit of a digression is in order. It is quite obvious that while making the attempt Homer fails to really portray the culture of the 12th century. At best, the ancient poet is speaking of the culture of the 11th to 10th centuries. We should think of the Iliad as a frame. Homer knew the borders were set, with some names, a battle, and perhaps the knowledge of a couple of events, but no more. What is within the frame can be defined as a painting, completely made up by the author based on his understanding of history centuries after the war in Troy, his assumptions, and his imagination. Those facts did not stop even the great Aristotle from using the Odyssey to make assumptions about the Athenian constitution. The philosopher had no qualms about ascribing post-12th century political advances, such as the creation of the village, to pre-12th century individuals such as kings Ion, Theseus, and Erechtheus. We suffered from the same ailment, for early historians such as Bede ascribed historical facts to mythological characters such as king Arthur. The historian knew some battles against the Saxons had taken place in 4th and 5th century England, and that someone amongst the Anglos had taken the lead to defeat them. More than likely, this man was multiple men, although Bede combined the battles he thought took place and ascribed the success of the Anglo push against the Saxons to King Arthur (Ambrosius) as early as the 8th century. Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Writers suffer from the same problem. They do not repeat each other, but they rhyme nicely.

Let us return to the issue at hand, then. The Odyssey begins with five words out of which the first is one of the most diverse and twisted concepts in all of Homeric Greek. A twist, as Homer understood it, was a witty turn of fate made by humans against the will of the gods. A twisted man was one able to wiggle his way out of any problem or thorny situation. Not every man could be twisty; only the most cunning and self-driven of men received such a title. Further, men themselves were divided into many categories, from φώς (not to be confused with φῶς – light) to ἅνήρ; it is the latter, out of all his choices, which Homer uses to open his rhapsody. The word can be translated as man/husband/hero, and it dictates, as stated, how the Odyssey will be themed. After all, who is Odysseus and what are his chiefly concerns if not the ones represented by this very word? The Odyssey is reminiscent of a time in which the gods, demigods, and heroes are extinct. It is a man, son of humans, that becomes the most important figure in the epic poem. This man, who is a hero by virtue of his many twists is also a husband to a traditional and loyal wife. Ἅνδρα, thus, describes the Odyssey perfectly. Further, Homer summons the muses to his aid. The idea there is that man no longer knows his history, it can only be revealed to him. Compare his calling to the summoning of the muses by John Milton in “Paradise Lost,” the epic poem about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (if you haven’t read it, you are missing out). Both Homer and Milton admit, by their summoning of the muses, that the period they are about to describe cannot be ascertained by research, only by revelation. It is ironic that one of the muses, Clio, is in charge of history. Although, irony is made practicality when we consider Clio represents oral history. Also, it is interesting that Homer uses an Imperative form of the verb ‘to tell’ in order to summon the muses. This indicates active research by the writer, since inspiration can only come when one has done the legwork to learn what could have taken place. In essence, research is the rite that summons the inspiration of the muses.

I described the word ἀνήρ as twisted, and gave you an idea of what the adjective meant in Homer’s time. The reason for it was that I consider the statement by Homer highlighted in this post, like his first word, twisted beyond twisting; in the good sense, of course. Πολύτροπον, thus, was an appellative of Odysseus because he was ‘twisty;’ able to wiggle out of any situation by sheer smarts. In many ways, there are many twisty writers today, able to wiggle out of grammatical problems and story dead-ends with amazing understanding of language and plot twists that engage the reader and baffle even the most skeptic of critics. This is why I love Homer, he is as twisty as Odysseus; his plot twists are unexpected and diverse. There is never a dull moment in the Odyssey, just as Odysseus’ life is never dull.
Thus, here we are. We have untwisted Homer’s first phrase in the Odyssey. Perhaps it is the role given to the reader to untangle the tangled words of the artist. If such is true, then we are failing at doing our jobs. However, the problem is only exacerbated by the fact that few writers twist their words anymore. We think of twisting as a bad thing, not to mention the twisted as bad people. Toni Morrison comes to mind, for she is an extremely twisted writer. It takes time to understand her work, which is also dreary and dark, filled with African-American issues, Womanism, and family problems, making her a very complex writer. I think we can say, with some certainty, that twisting and untwisting are essential to create meaning. We cannot long survive without the complexity needed to write good, twisted works. Writing well, then, is not only about proper grammar and syntax, it is about proper twisting as well.

Thus, reader, be twisted in writing and speaking. Give us, those who still care of the untangling, a chance to enjoy the process of making meaning.

Valete.

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