The Politics of Being "Self-Taught" (Autodidaktos) in Homer and Aeschylus

Brett M. Rogers

University of Georgia

Amidst the slaughter of the suitors in Odyssey 22, the bard Phêmios attempts to persuade Odysseus to preserve his life with a rather unusual plea: "I am self-taught (autodidaktos), and a god has engendered in my mind / ways of songs of all kinds" (347-8).  Scholars have reacted variously to Phêmios' plea, understanding autodidaktos either as a form of religious expression (Aelius Aristides), a poetic claim (e.g., Stanford 1962, Thalmann 1984), or as both a poetic and initiatory statement (Assaël 2002).  Most productive is the assessment of Dougherty (1991), who draws on oral theory to argue that Phêmios' claim is an expression of his ability to both perform and innovate song for specific audiences and occasions.  However, even Dougherty does not recognize that the only other occurrence of autodidaktos before 400 B.C. – the claim of the Chorus of Argive Elders in Aeschylus' Agamemnon that their heart sings autodidaktos (990-1) – is also an audience- and occasion-specific claim.

I argue that the claim to be autodidaktos is spoken for a particular audience and occasion: for a king upon the (near-)completion of his nostos.  In both incidents the speaker attempts to persuade the addressee that he has remained loyal to the king – especially important given that a usurper has tested that loyalty during the king's absence.  Thus, being "self-taught" primarily functions as a sociopolitical claim of allegiance to a social and political superior (or, put in different terms, a claim of non-allegiance to another "teacher").  In recognizing the audience and occasion motivating these claims of being "self-taught," this interpretation suggests a performance-oriented critical model for the examination of the social and political implications of "teaching" in archaic and classical Greek poetry.


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