Sunday, 17 June 2007

The Winnowing Oar

I ran recently into the works of Conrad Shawcross, a British artist who produces sculptures inspired by scientific/philosophical themes: for instance, The Nervous System, a kinetic piece that weaves double-helix rope from coloured strands.
      His Winnowing Oar, that appeared as part of his Continuum installation at the National Maritime Museum, is intriguing for its literary allusion. Homer's Odyssey, Books 11 and 23, report how the prophet Tiresias told Odysseus how to know when his journey is over. He's to carry an oar and keep walking inland, and when he's so far from the sea that people don't recognise it and think it's an αθηρηλοιγον (athereloigon, an instrument for separating grain from chaff) he'll have come to his journey's end. A variety of instruments fit that function. It's often translated as "winnowing fan" or "winnowing fork", neither of which resembles an oar. Did (the collective known as) Homer mean something like a winnowing shovel? Conrad Roth's Varieties of unreligious Experience blog has an excellent exploration of this question: see The Unknown Object: Part I and The Unknown Object: Part I.

While skimming surrounding links I found several approving references to Jamie Riger's vigorous commentary on the Odyssey. The site's defunct, but findable on the Internet Archive: Jamie Rieger reads the Odyssey. (I'd recommend it as a study guide; it's a funny but mostly accurate gloss that makes this complex and nonlinear narrative highly accessible - the style reminds me of John Barth's Chimera). Rieger has given the same treatment to the Iliad. A sample from the Odyssey, Book 23:

Eurycleia: Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod! Wake up, Penelope!
Penelope: (Stretches, blinks.) What? Nurse, is that you? What are you-
Eurycleia: Ohmigod, Odysseus is here. He came back. He totally killed all the suitors. Ohmigod!
Penelope: Impossible. What you say is impossible. My husband is dead.
Eurycleia: He had a bow, and he shot Eumaios, and Eumaios was like "Aaaargh!" and he made a face like this, you see the face I'm making, like this, and the suitors were like, "Mercy!" and he was all "Eat this!" and he started shooting them.
Penelope: That does sound like my husband.

(As I said, mostly accurate: Eumaios was Odysseus' ally against the suitors. Still, if even Homer nods, Rieger can be forgiven the occasional lapse).

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