2. Achilles' chant


Menin aeide, thea: ever since the Iliad's famous incipit was transmitted through individual readings (and not collective listening), written word (and not voices, sounds and gestures), in silence (not aloud), via the eyes (not the lips, the throat and the entire body), the sound events and the means of transmission included in it have undergone a slow process of desonorization, becoming suppressed in the silent commentary. Yet, for at least a millennium (about ten centuries separate the Homeric epoch from that of the Antonines), the comments, notations, interpretations, and references to the first three words retained the memory of the music and its strong association with ways of learning, preserving, and transmitting the myth. Frontisi-Ducroux maintains that the written text is rich of "discreet effects" that are actual traces of the primitive oral character of the epic poem. Such traces not only ensure even today the contact between the poet and his audience, but also enable the listener or reader to imperceptibly take part in the poetic construction (1986). This thesis leads us from the very start to consider the action and narration in terms of a useful critical estrangement.

From its very first word, menin (rage), the Iliad evokes a sound event, or rather a series of connected sound events, each of them containing an element in common with other moments of the mythological continuum in which the teaching, transmission and reception of music take place. Each small piece of the mosaic recalled at least another piece - and usually more than one - from which it was easy to pass on to a new piece and then to another, through literary forms that became modified in time also with reference to the different poetics of individual authors. The sound event described here is one of the most famous tesserae composing the mosaic of the mythology of sound in Homeric and archaic Greece.

Far from the noise of the military encampments and their strategic intrigues, on the seashore, Achilles had found an alternative to war that was able to satisfy his proud heart.

Achilles' funeral.
Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 643
Corynthian hydria from Cerveteri.

An expert both in the art of war and in accompanying songs on a string instrument (Avezzù-Ciani 1994), he abandoned the former. His soul found a balanced compensation in singing the deeds of other heroes to the sound of the phorminx (Homeric chord instrument), while Patroclus, the silent audience, listened at a distance (Hom. Iliad IX.186-189). Central to the sound event are the modifications of the feelings and actions produced by the sound of the instrument, whose "identity" is established, not only by its shape and number of strings, but above all by its precious decorations which allowed one to recognize its previous players. Achilles knew very well its worth, and did not abandon it even to stand up and converse with Odysseus: because of its fine carving and silver bridge, he had easily singled it out, and placed among the rich spoils taken from one of the cities on which Eëtion reigned. The phorminx is regarded as an object of reward, a geras that is worth the hard-fought battle, like the iron disk (Hom. Il. XXIII.826-829), the horse Pegasus (Hom. Il. XVI.152-154) or Briseis herself (Hom. Il. II.688-691, XIX.58).

Later on, in the effort of ordering systematically the mythe in the mythologique (Vernant 1996), that phorminx, having become a lyra, shall be known as the gift of Hermes to Cadmus on the day of his marriage to Harmony, a fact that is well known to all listeners (Diod. Sic. V.49; Rocchi 1980). The phorminx that was able to delight the heart of Achilles (terpomenon ... eterpen / "giving delight ... gave delight") was unique in that it embodied the "magic sediment" (Leydi 1991) of the god to whom it had originally belonged, in a context of mythological cross-references. On the one hand, such a context lends truth to the characteristics that are peculiar to the sound object; while, on the other hand, it refers the object back to other parallel events, through the identity or affinity of places, the homogeneity of contexts, and the presence of divinities with sound characterizations, in a system which remains open-ended. In this case, the connected events could be the marriage of Thetis and Peleus (Pindar, Pyth. 3, 89-92), celebrated in Thebes - a city of music and sound ever since its mythical foundation - during which the Muses sang; however, it can also evoke the relationship linking Achilles and Chiron (ps.-Plut. Mus. 1145e-1146a). Instead of the Muses' "gift" to the aedo (Gernet 1948) - that is, the ability to sing the klea andron thanks to the memory of what is, what has been and what will be (Hom. Il. IX.189) - in this relationship we find the model of the direct learning process between teacher and pupil, extended to incorporate a wealth of magical practices that included sound together with healing remedies (pharmaka) and weapons. Through his teaching the Centaur accomplished visible and long-lasting transformations in both the body and the soul in the context of a pre-Homeric society of nomadic hunters and shepherds.

Achilles' chant is a paradigmatic example of a "mythical sound event", i.e., it is a narrative that includes among its protagonists at least one mythical character - not necessarily a musician - and that evokes some kind of sound event, taken in the broadest sense - e.g., a shouting or singing voice; musical instruments; imagined or prohibited or played music; divine and human performers; music teachers and their pupils. Each component of the narrative branches off into mythical/musical ramifications; these, in turn, intersect to create centrifugal or centripetal motions that both begin and terminate in the initial sound event, giving rise to narrative variations and developments.

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