Dread Voices in the Odyssey

Amy Vail

Baylor University

Musicologists and others who study opera have recently added much to understanding how to construct the operatic diva.  She is larger than life, thoroughly artificial, irresistibly attractive and at least potentially threatening (ClĂ©ment 1988; Koestenbaum 1993; Dunn and Jones 1994, Hadlock 1994).  Many of her roles are correspondingly huge, put-on, alluring, or terrifying, not real women at all: consider Olympia, the singing robot-doll in Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffman, for instance, or Mozart's Queen of the Night. 

Such dangerous divas exist in the Odyssey, not real women at all, but merely nymphs or monsters.  The female figures in the Odyssey who sing are routinely perceived as threatening by mortal male  listeners.  Kirke and Kalypso both have beautiful voices, while the Sirens' song is as dangerous as it is irresistible, containing a high proportion of diphthongs and long vowels, as well as an unusual number of strong caesuras (Stanford 1981).  By the time Odysseus hears the voices of Nausikaa and her compatriots, it should come as no surprise that all he panics (Od. 6.119-125).  The proximate cause for his fear is the girls' squeal when their ball falls into the river, but their song alone would be ample cause for Odysseus' terror.

Male voices in the Odyssey are those of bards, and thus inherently good, yet soon after Nausikaa's voice has frighted Odysseus, even the song of a minstrel makes him unhappy.  Yet his misery is far more for the song than for the singing: it grieves him to remember Troy.  Only after the minstrel has sung the comical story of Ares and Aphrodite, can Odysseus once more take pleasure in vocal music. At this point that Odysseus conspicuously honors Demodokos, giving him a large portion of meat.  

The female voice, by contrast, is associated with threatening sexuality: Odysseus, the sexual plaything of two sweet-voiced nymphs, has come to associate female singers with virtual castration.  Hermes, apparently untroubled by Kalypso's voice, tells the hero in so many words that Kirke has the power to "unman" him. (Od. 10.301)  He is particularly vulnerable at this point in the narrative, for at 10.51, he has been contemplating suicide (Tracey 1990).  Her seduction of the hero leads him indirectly to the Land of the Dead (Powell 2004).  Kalypso seems to sing daily, and more than audibly: when Hermes arrives on Ogygia, he can hear her voice from outside of her cave.  She also has some accompaniment: the very birds of the isle sing with her.  Perhaps Odysseus spends so much time on the shore because he wishes to avoid the sound of her disturbing presence.  Perhaps coincidentally that the Sirens' invitation to listen to their perilous music opens with the same words that Aphrodite speaks to invite Ares into her bed, for they, too, at least according to Kirke, are using their charming voices to entrap male hearers.     

Penelope and Arete, both paradigms of the chaste wife and the good ruler, never sing at all.  The only female figure asked to sing in the Odyssey is the Muse.  That the Muse constructs only morally ambiguous female singers is perfectly natural, for she is herself a prima donna.    


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