Friday, February 19, 2010

Blind poets and prophets

In addition to Thamyris, Milton mentions Homer, Phineas, and Tiresias in his invocation to Book III:

Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides, [ 35 ]

And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.

The common thread is that all were blind. At least three were blinded by the gods as a form of punishment, or limitation. Thamyris, as we've seen, lost his sight for his hubris in challenging the muses.

Phineas features in the story of Jason and the Argonauts: [He] was said to be a son of Poseidon, or of Phoenix, and had the gift of prophecy. Zeus, angry that Phineas revealed too much of the plans of the gods, punished him by blinding him and setting him on an island with a buffet of food. However, he could eat none of it because the harpies, vicious, winged women, stole the food out of his hands right before he could eat.[1] This continued until the arrival of Jason and the Argonauts. They sent the winged heroes, the Boreads, after the harpies. They succeeded in driving the monsters away but did not kill them, as a request from the goddess of the rainbow, Iris, who promised that Phineas would not be bothered by the harpies again. It is said that the Boreads were turned back by Iris at the Strophades.[2]As thanks, Phineas told the Argonauts how to pass the Symplegades.

Tiresias was a prophet of Apollo. According to the mythographic compendium Bibliotheke,[3] different stories were told of the cause of his blindness, the most direct being that he was simply blinded by the gods for revealing their secrets. An alternate story told by the poet Pherecydes was followed in Callimachus' poem "The Bathing of Pallas"; in it, Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he stumbled onto her bathing naked.[4] His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears,[3] giving him the ability to understand birdsong, thus the gift of augury.

The poet's name is homophonous with ὅμερος (hómēros), meaning, generally, "hostage" (or "surety"), long understood as "he who accompanies; he who is forced to follow", or, in some dialects, "blind".[19] The assonance itself generated many tales relating the person to the functions of a hostage or of a blind man. In regard to the latter, traditions holding that he was blind may have arisen from the meaning of the word both in Ionic, where the verbal form ὁμηρεύω (homēreúō) has the specialized meaning of "guide the blind",[20] and in the Aeolian dialect of Cyme, where ὅμηρος (hómēros) was synonymous with standard Greek τυφλός (tuphlós), meaning 'blind'.[21]

It should be noted that the names of these famous Greek poets and prophets come after the description of the poet's chief haunt:

Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,

and before the evocation of the nightingale, whose bloody tale has been evoked by Ovid, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot and many others:

Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move

Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note.

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