In Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey Phemius (Greek: Φήμιος, Phêmios) is an Ithacan poet who performs narrative songs in the house of the absent Odysseus. His audience is made up largely of the suitors (Proci), who live in the house while attempting to persuade Penelope to marry one of them. In Book 1 of the poem, Phemius performs at their request a version of the theme The Return from Troy (a theme that actually existed as a written poem, probably at a slightly later date). The performance is heard by Penelope. The story distresses her, since it is a reminder that her own husband has still not returned, and she emerges from her room to ask Phemius to choose a less painful theme. The proposal is roughly rejected by her son Telemachus, who, under Athena's influence, is asserting his manhood at his mother's expense:
"But then she’s interrupted by her son. “Why, Mother, do you blame the balladeer for all the things that Zeus has surely done? And why deny us men the chance to hear the way his inspiration tugs him on? How could it be his fault, if Zeus gives men their daily bread or hides it from the throng? Why is it wrong for him to sing of when the battling Greeks endured a bitter fate? Since when do men, when choosing what to hear, refuse the newest song their highest rate? And why not listen to a song that’s ‘dear?’ Remember, when you hear this poet moan, among the lost, your man was not alone.
In any case, climb back up to your room. Go handle household business as you should! Let either of these ladies snap your loom or do some other work that does some good. But in this house, it’s only men that speak of what they do as men & when it’s done— all men; but in particular their chief, since, in this house, I’m now accounted one.” Penelopë is stunned by all of this. The sting in what he says cuts to her heart. She climbs upstairs again, and ev’ry miss goes with her to the mansion’s upper part. Then thinking of her long-lost man, she cries until Athena throws sleep in her eyes." [Odyssey, Book One.]
We are told that Phemius performs for the suitors "unwillingly", and he successfully pleads to be spared the death that Odysseus is planning for the suitors. Towards the end of the story Odysseus instructs Phemius to perform wedding songs to conceal the dying suitors' cries from passers-by.
He is also the son of Terpes.
- Homer. Odyssey, 1.325-27.
- Homer. Odyssey, 1.154.
- Homer. Odyssey, 22.330-77.