'Maimed in His Sight, Maimed in His Legs'

The eighth book of Homer’s Odyssey is a unique account of the Greeks’ perception of disability. It tells of the blind singer Demodocus entertaining the guests at Alcinous’s feast with a tale of Hephaestus’s cuckolding. Since no definite first-hand account from a disabled person in Ancient Greece survives, this is one of the most important extant narratives of disability. It presents the story of one disabled character from the point of view of another, creating a much more positive tale than is commonly believed. It is in a way a version of the fable about the collaboration between a man ‘maimed in his sight’ and one ‘maimed in his legs.’

Demodocus appears in book eight as an entertainer at a feast on the island of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus was shipwrecked after seven years of imprisonment on Calypso’s island. He is described from the outset as blind and being led in and out by a herald (8.62, 106), seemingly demonstrating his powerlessness and vulnerability. However, this is mainly because he is in a new setting, during a feast – an occasion that makes any space tricky to navigate even for the sighted. Normally, especially in the setting of an ancient Greek village with its complicated and static topography it would have been easy for a blind person to move around on their own. Moreover, Demodocus’s power lies primarily in his artistic talent, – the song about Hephaestus being especially important for the poem's plot. 

The mini-epic of Aphrodite's adultery acts as a mise en abyme – as a representation of the work as a whole, reflecting on both the content of the Odyssey and its poetic form. An obvious parallel is that between the revenge of Hephaestus and the killing of the suitors that is to follow: like Odysseus, the lame Hephaestus defeats his competitor through cunning and artistry. As Newton observes, the song is included in the poem because it indicates that "wits and intelligence are superior to mere physical strength," thus encouraging the hero to take revenge and influencing the plot. However, the idea of the mind being superior to the body must have also appealed to the blind singer himself, especially since he has some curious parallels with the god. 

Homer creates the first association between the two by means of formulaic language. As Rinon notes, Demodocus is called periklitós (‘highly renowned’, ‘famous’), which is the epithet of Hephaestus at 8.287, 300, 349, and 357. In addition, both are artists associated with the divine: Hephaestus is a god and Demodocus is "god-like" (8.43). The second association is based on their disability. The blindness of Demodocus is mentioned as soon as he is introduced, while Hephaestus is described as significantly limited by his legs, which, as discussed before, may have caused him to be thrown down from Olympus by Hera. And although the modern reader expects them to be miserable in their eternal struggle in a world of able-bodied men, the bard and the god are shown to have a decent position in their societies. Both seem to be hindered by their disabilities and apparently subservient to others – Demodocus relies on the hospitality of Alcinous and his guests to receive his meal (8.448-52), and Hephaestus often works at the request of other gods (Il. 18.368-467). But this makes them no more dependent on others than any average craftsman or singer. Demodocus, despite being blind, is certainly in a better position at the court of Alcinous than sighted Phemius, who is held against his will by Penelope’s suitors (1.154-155; 23.353-54). Likewise, compared to the fate of the abled-bodied Daedalus, practically imprisoned by Minos on Crete, Hephaestus enjoys a life of privilege, working for other gods in exchange for favours. Even when in the Iliad he voluntarily assigns himself the role of cupbearer for other gods and clowns and makes a joke out of his gait (Il. 1.597-8), it is him who controls the narrative of laughter. ‘If Hephaestus makes a joke at his own expense,' says Lee, 'it stops the other gods from doing so. Therefore, if the gods are going to laugh at him, by controlling the narrative, Hephaestus forces them to laugh with him and not at him.’

In this particular song in the Odyssey Hephaestus even manages to invert the narrative and subject Ares to public humiliation, directing the laughter of the gods at him. Like his Olympian counterpart, Demodocus controls the mood of the feast, and it is his power to generate laughter or tears. He uses his artistry to create a jovial atmosphere after Odysseus has been insulted by the young Phaeacian, Euryalus, in a way similar to Hephaestus entertaining the gods after the quarrel between Zeus and Hera in the Iliad; moreover, Demodocus directs the laughter of the guests at Ares and makes them praise Hephaestus’ inventiveness, offering the contemporary reader an insight into the way the blind singer saw disability and wanted it to be seen.

 

Thus both the blind man and the lame god participate in social life and work as successfully as any ancient craftsman or singer. They even play an important role in the one area of social life that they cannot physically take part in – that is, war. 'To be a real Greek man,' writes Rose, 'was to be a soldier.' And although neither Demodocus nor Hephaestus are renowned fighters, their actions are nevertheless a crucial part of the Trojan war. Hephaestus’s making of armour for Achilles (Il. 18.478-539) and setting fire to Scamandrus (Il. 21.342-76) are crucial moments of the Iliad, the latter described by Homer in especially heroic terms. Demodocus, on the other hand, is the one who immortalises its heroes in song. He and other bards are essential instruments of kléos – and kléos, particularly commemoration in song, is the key to wrestling the hero from oblivion.

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© 2019 by Alexandra Zhirnova