The Evil of the Muse

A popular modern myth about ancient Greece is that all the legendary singers were blind – in particular, that their blindness was a form of punishment from the gods. Based mainly on the story of the blind singer Demodocus from Homer's Odyssey, who is said to have suffered 'both good and evil from the Muse', this idea has influenced the perception of many other myths. Some of them, it appears, did not involve blindness at all and were only subsequently re-imagined. Nevertheless, the myths about blind singers have been seen as evidence that blindness was seen as a 'fate worse than death' and as punishment from the gods, making those living with this condition social outcasts.  

This view is quite anachronistic. The following sections analyse the myths of blinding by the gods, as well as the stories involving singers, to show that they have been significantly altered throughout the centuries of their reception.

Thamyris

One of the most well-known blind figures of Greek myth, Thamyris was believed by many to be the first blind bard. Homer tells his story in the second book of the Iliad. Thamyris was a skilful musician who boasted that he could surpass the Muses in competition. For this, Homer says, they maimed him, making him forget his song and lyre-playing. (Il. 2.594-600) The moral of the story is as clear-cut as in the myths of monstrous birth: do not challenge the gods, lest you be punished, for they are more powerful.

 

As noted in the section on terminology, the Greek term for ‘maimed’, pêros, can mean anything from missing limbs to being bald. It does not indicate blindness specifically. Moreover, a word like tuphlos, the most generic term for a person who has no sight at all, could have been used instead without a fault in the rhythm. It is more likely that the maiming that took away the bard’s song and lyre-craft was, in modern terms, a condition of the nervous system, paralysing him in voice and hand.

 

However, later writers and scribes began to interpret the myth and move towards the idea of blinding. The Thamyris of Sophoclean tragedy may have been either completely blind or blind in one eye – for the convenience of staging, since it is difficult to visualise paralysis. Apart from this, both Sophocles and later commentators, influenced by the idea that Homer himself was blind, sought to see the theme of blinded bards repeated throughout his work. Whallon observes that the Venetian B scholiast on the Iliad refers to the figure of Demodocus of the Odyssey, arguing that Thamyris suffered not one but to evils, being both blind and having forgotten his song. Venetian A scholiast, on the other hand, censures the post-Homeric poets, presumably Sophocles and Euripides, for their belief that Thamyris was blind: 

Sophocles and Euripides (Rhes. 924f), for their belief that rqpobv means blind: "how would it harm him, singer as he was, to lose his eyesight? For he would then be better able to hold attention in his declamation. Look at Demodocus." Thus it is evident that the established tradition of associating, after Demodocus, singers with blindness influenced the interpretation and subsequent translation of the term pêros in the texts of the Iliad

 

But one should not yield to the temptation of circular logic that suggests, ‘since Homer was blind, Thamyris and Demodocus are also blind, and we know Homer was blind because the singers in his poems are blind.’ It is indeed quite obvious that blindness was an important theme for Homer. While one blind character, like Oedipus of Sophoclean tragedy, is not as significant, in Homer blindness and blinding is a recurrent theme. But it is still impossible to know which myth influenced the other –  whether Homer’s blindness made him include blind characters in his poems or Homer became ‘blinded’ in his readers’ imagination.

 

Whatever the case, textual evidence suggests that Homer's Thamyris was not blind at all. The use of this myth as evidence of ill-treatment of the blind in ancient Greece is therefore groundless, more telling of modern society’s views than ancient realities.

Demodocus

The figure of Demodocus is one of the most important for the discussion of blindness in Homer – not only because he is a potential 'self-portrait' of the author but also because of its influence on other myths about singers. 

Homer tells his audience that Demodocus suffered both good and evil from the Muse, who blinded him but gave him the gift of song. According to Rose, divine intervention was a common explanation of the legendary figures' talents: their development of senses other than sight would be exaggerated, since such an exaggeration 'makes a more durable tale.' The idea of talent as compensation for disability is evident especially in myths about prophets, but in such myths the cause and effect are not always entirely clear. The ambiguity of the relationship between blindness (and disability in general) and talent is exemplified by the number of variations of the story about the blinding of Teiresias. Callimachus in the fifth hymn asserts that Teiresias was blinded for seeing Athene bathing and received the gift of prophecy from his mother as compensation, while Apollodorus believes that Teiresias revealed divine secrets thanks to his prophetic talent and was punished by blindness (iii.6.7). 

Although Homer does make it clear that the gift of song was given to Demodocus for his blindness, why exactly and in what way the blindness was inflicted upon him is unclear. Following the Byzantine principal of allegorical interpretation, one may suggest that the Muse in the story is associated with her father, Apollo, whose arrows could bring disease, and that the singer's blindness was caused by an infection, – a common phenomenon in ancient Greece. The 'compensation', therefore, resulted in his acute hearing and memory, allowing Demodocus to perform the epics better than his sighted counterparts. If the story of the blinding by the Muse is indeed an allegory, it undermines the idea of discrimination by ascribing the disabled man's talent to divine powers. 

Moreover, the need to ascribe talent to divinity cannot be described as discrimination per se because able-bodied artists were often seen in a similar way. The extraordinary talent of the mythical singer Orpheus, for instance, was explained by his parentage as he was believed to be the son of a muse and either the Thracian king Oeagrus or the god Apollo himself (Apollod. i. 3.1). Thamyris, too, is said to have received his talent through his father, a lesser-known musician called Philammon, who was also one of Apollo’s sons (Ovid Metamorphoses, xi.317). It is rather obvious, then, that the association between talent and divinity is not limited to disabled people and should not be seen as a negative attitude to disability.

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© 2019 by Alexandra Zhirnova