Homer: Singing Bards, Hymns and His Take on Different Topics

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Homer in the Musei Capitolini
Homer is a person said to have written “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” No one knows whether Homer was a he or she, or even a real person. The ancient Greeks believed he was a blind, itinerant bard who was born in Smyrna (present-day Izmir, Turkey) and lived in Chios (a Greek island near the coast of Turkey). Chios was famous for its epic singers and many people on the island called themselves “Homeridae” , the descendants of Homer. But these are far from universally-agreed-upon facts. Colophon, Salamis, Rhodes, Argos and Athens also claim to be his birthplace

The claim that Homer wrote the “Iliad” and “Odyssey” is traced to Herodotus. Homer is dated to about 850 B.C. because one Homeridae living in the 5th century said that Homer lived 400 years before him. Scholars believe the stories themselves evolved soon after the Trojan War, which took place about 1200 B.C., around the same time that Moses was leading the Jews to the Promised Land.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Although later generations of Greeks lauded Homer as the first and greatest Greek poet, they seemed to know little about the man himself. Various communities claimed that he was born or had lived there but the forensic evidence on the subject is not conclusive. Neither is the claim that he was blind although a well-known bust of the poet suggests that. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey reveal a wealth of information about Greek society and cultural expression during the Dark Age. The description of the bronze armor of Achilles, the evolution of the Greek polis (city-state) and the detailed accounts of battles are all vividly written and visually evocative. They have the ring of truth about them. Although it may not be possible to extract solid historical data from Homer he certainly taught the world how the ancient Greeks thought and felt about themselves. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

Book: “Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography” by Alberto Manguel (Atlantic Monthly, 2008)

Who Wrote Homer's Epics

Richard Bentley, an 18th century English critic, claimed the “Odyssey” was written for women with the implication being it might have been written by a woman. To back up this assertion he pointed out that the epic's portrayal of women was realistic, while the male characters were wooden and "hopelessly wrong." The details about shipping, he said, were erroneous (a boat is once described as having rudders in both ends) and there seems to be a lot of details about things men usually don't worry about (there are passages, for example, about folding laundry carefully). The same idea was more forcefully put forward in the 19th century by Samuel Butler.

In 19th-century a popular theory argued that a single bard, long after the Trojan War, wove stories of military adventure into two integrated poems — a process that would be repeated in medieval romances. The English novelist and essayist Maurice Baring is credited with originating the quip that it wasn’t Homer who composed the "Iliad” and the “Odyssey” but another man by the same name. These day there are a number of modern scholars that believe Homer was more than one person. As evidence they point to inconsistencies in style, plot and dialect. These allegations could easily be attributed to sloppy translations and are impossible to prove.

On the allegations that there were two poets, the scholar Michael Schmidt sneers it's ''as though Shakespeare could not have written 'The Comedy of Errors' and 'Othello.' '' He said this was this was likely the case even though Homer’s diction was ''a composite of different dialect strands . . . as though a poet wrote in Scots, South African, Texan and Jamaican, all in a single poem.''

Homer, Hesiod and Early Greek Thought and Cosmology

“We see the working of these influences clearly in Homer. Though he doubtless belonged to the older race himself and used its language, it is for the courts of Achaean princes he sings, and the gods and heroes he celebrates are mostly Achaean. That is why we find so few traces of the traditional view of the world in the epic. The gods have become frankly human, and everything primitive is kept out of sight. There are, of course, vestiges of the early beliefs and practices, but they are exceptional. It has often been noted that Homer never speaks of the primitive custom of purification for homicide. The dead heroes are burned, not buried, as the kings of the older race were. Ghosts play hardly any part. In the Iliad we have, to be sure, the ghost of Patroclus, in close connection with the solitary instance of human sacrifice in Homer. There is also the Nekyia in the Eleventh Book of the Odyssey. Such things, however, are rare, and we may fairly infer that, at least in a certain society, that of the Achaean princes for whom Homer sang, the traditional view of the world was already discredited at a comparatively early date, though it naturally emerges here and there. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University]

“When we come to Hesiod, we seem to be in another world. We hear stories of the gods which are not only irrational but repulsive, and these are told quite seriously. Hesiod makes the Muses say: "We know how to tell many false things that are like the truth; but we know too, when we will, to utter what is true." This means that he was conscious of the difference between the Homeric spirit and his own. The old lightheartedness is gone, and it is important to tell the truth about the gods. Hesiod knows, too, that he belongs to a later and a sadder time than Homer. In describing the Ages of the World, he inserts a fifth age between those of Bronze and Iron. That is the Age of the Heroes, the age Homer sang of. It was better than the Bronze Age which came before it, and far better than that which followed it, the Age of Iron, in which Hesiod lives. He also feels that he is singing for another class. It is to shepherds and husbandman of the older race he addresses himself, and the Achaean princes for whom Homer sang have become remote persons who give "crooked dooms." The romance and splendor of the Achaean Middle Ages meant nothing to the common people. The primitive view of the world had never really died out among them; so it was natural for their first spokesman to assume it in his poems. That is why we find in Hesiod these old savage tales, which Homer disdained.

“Yet it would be wrong to see in the Theogony a mere revival of the old superstition. Hesiod could not help being affected by the new spirit, and he became a pioneer in spite of himself. The rudiments of what grew into Ionic science and history are to be found in his poems, and he really did more than anyone to hasten that decay of the old ideas which he was seeking to arrest. The Theogony is an attempt to reduce all the stories about the gods into a single system, and system is fatal to so wayward a thing as mythology. Moreover, though the spirit in which Hesiod treats his theme is that of the older race, the gods of whom he sings are for the most part those of the Achaeans. This introduces an element of contradiction into the system from first to last. Herodotus tells us that it was Homer and Hesiod who made a theogony for the Hellenes, who gave the gods their names, and distributed among them their offices and arts, and it is perfectly true. The Olympian pantheon took the place of the older gods in men's minds, and this was quite as much the doing of Hesiod as of Homer. The ordinary man would hardly recognize his gods in the humanized figures, detached from all local associations, which poetry had substituted for the older objects of worship. Such gods were incapable of satisfying the needs of the people, and that is the secret of the religious revival we shall have to consider later.

Homer's Books

Apotheosis of Homer
The “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” were the first and greatest stories in Western civilization and many of the events described in them took place in present-day Turkey. The 3200-year-old epics were the basis for Greek religion, morality and history and arguably Roman religion, morality and history too. The 5th-century-B.C. Poet Aeschylus claimed that all his plays were merely “slices from the great banquets of Homer.” Plato mentioned him 331 times in his dialogues.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “It was Homer (perhaps Homer of Chios) who wrote the two classic works of literature the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Actually he likely didn't “write”; it seems more probable that he “dictated” to a man legend identifies as Palamedes.) The way of life that is described in the two epic poems comes mostly from Homer's own time although the period he describes extends backwards into Mycenaean times. There is still much uncertainty in academic circles about when the poems were written down-perhaps around 775BC – after centuries of being recited or sung. What is clear is that it would not have happened without the invention of the first true alphabet, the first writing that could be pronounced by someone who is not a speaker of that language. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

The Iliad and Odyssey were written in the same epic meter—dactylic hexameter—and use many similar formulas and are couched in the same dialect, which lead one to believe they are written by the same person or at least people who lived in the same general place. Homer's stories were written in verse, partly because verse was easier to remember. Homer used 8,500 different words in his works, compared to Hugo who used 38,000 different words and Shakespeare who used 24,000. The Old Testament has 5,800 different word; the New Testament, 4,800.

The era in which Homer is said to have lived is also the era that Greek writing first appeared and the illiterate Greeks began to read. The oldest verison of Homer is a medieval copy made in the 10th or 11th century Half of the documents written on Egyptian papyri that exist today are copies of the “Iliad” and “ Odyssey “ or commentaries about them. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Impact of Homer’s Work

Greek soldiers who fought in the famous Persian Wars could reportedly quote long passages of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” . Romans looked to the books for moral lessons and used them as the basis of their great literary work Virgil’s “Aeneid” . Through the ages the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” relayed information from generation to generation about geography, navigation and shipbuilding.

Homer's books were the basis of Greek and Roman education. Not only did they define honor and moral conduct for the Greeks, they were the foundations of Western literature. Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the “Iliad” and traced his maternal ancestry back to Achilles. Latin translations of the Homeric classics helped spur the Renaissance and inspired writers like Dante and Milton to write in the Homeric style. Today it can argued that the ancient texts are the sources of the metaphors that life is a battle (the “Iliad” ) and life is a journey (the “Odyssey”).

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “It is impossible to overemphasize his impact on Greek society. Homer gave his countrymen an expected model of behavior, a handbook of values. Students relied on Homeric texts, orators and politicians quoted him and philosophers and philologists dissected his poems. As more than one person expressed it, "I studied Homer so that I might become a better man." Admirers included Alexander, the Great who slept with his sword and a copy of Homer by his bedside. The German archaeologist Schliemann would not have discovered (and inadvertently partially destroyed) the ancient city of Troy without the aid of Homer. His status as the greatest epic poet ever is rarely challenged. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

Aristotle Praises Homer for the Unity of His Plots


Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote in “The Poetics”: ““Unity of plot does not, as some persons think, consist in the unity of the hero. For infinitely various are the incidents in one man's life which cannot be reduced to unity; and so, too, there are many actions of one man out of which we cannot make one action. Hence the error, as it appears, of all poets who have composed a Heracleid, a Theseid, or other poems of the kind. They imagine that as Heracles was one man, the story of Heracles must also be a unity. But Homer, as in all else he is of surpassing merit, here too- whether from art or natural genius- seems to have happily discerned the truth.

“In composing the Odyssey he did not include all the adventures of Odysseus- such as his wound on Parnassus, or his feigned madness at the mustering of the host- incidents between which there was no necessary or probable connection: but he made the Odyssey, and likewise the Iliad, to center round an action that in our sense of the word is one. As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole.

“It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.”

Singing Bards and Rhapsodes

In Homer's time, stories were generally heard or spoken rather than read or written. People who memorized stories spoke them at public performances to share the stories and entertain the people. It was in this manner that The Odyssey and stories like it could be passed onto new generations in a culture without an alphabet.In ancient Greek, Homer’s poems were recited by rhapsodes (song- stitchers) who could add their own personal and cultural touches depending on where and when the stories were told. It seems likely that some rhapsodes were better than others. Homer himself said: “So it is that the gods do not give all men gifts of grace - neither good looks nor intelligence nor eloquence.”

Homer Reciting his Verses
to the Greeks
During Homer's time the people who told stories were mostly traveling bards who recited from memory, often accompanied by a lyre, at feasts and religious gatherings. They told stories about epic battles, heros, adventures and supernatural creatures. The "chapters" of the “Iliad “ and “ Odyssey “ came from episodes that were recited by singer-poets at social gatherings. The people listening knew the story already. Perhaps the listened to it like a pop song that gave them a lift every time they heard it.

In the early part of the 20th century a young American scholar named Milman Parry tried to get a sense of what Homer's works were originally like by observing illiterate bards in Muslim Serbia that still sang heroic epics to illiterate audiences. The bards, Parry discovered, were skilled improvisers who recounted certain episodes but told different stories every time. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

By observing the Muslim Bards, Parry determined, the chapters were perhaps an hour in length, because that was the limit of an audience's attention span, and were strung together from gathering to gathering with an involved plot and a larger theme.μ

Around the 7th century B.C., in ancient Greece, traveling bards began being replaced by trained reciters called “ rhapsode” who began using written texts and performed at poetry contests. Their tellings were thought to be less spontaneous and improvised than the singer-bards.

Dialogue Between Socrates and Ion, the Rhapsode


Plato wrote in “Persons of the Dialogue: Socrates and Ion,” (380 B.C.):
Socrates. Welcome, Ion. Are you from your native city of Ephesus?
Ion: No, Socrates; but from Epidaurus, where I attended the festival of Asclepius.
Socrates: And do the Epidaurians have contests of rhapsodes at the festival?
Ion: O yes; and of all sorts of musical performers.
Socrates: And were you one of the competitors- and did you succeed?
Ion: I obtained the first prize of all, Socrates.
Socrates: Well done; and I hope that you will do the same for us at the Panathenaea.
Ion: And I will, please heaven.
[Source:Plato, Persons of the Dialogue: Socrates and Ion, 380 B.C. translated by Benjamin Jowett, MIT]

Socrates: I often envy the profession of a rhapsode, Ion; for you have always to wear fine clothes, and to look as beautiful as you can is a part of your art. Then, again, you are obliged to be continually in the company of many good poets; and especially of Homer, who is the best and most divine of them; and to understand him, and not merely learn his words by rote, is a thing greatly to be envied. And no man can be a rhapsode who does not understand the meaning of the poet. For the rhapsode ought to interpret the mind of the poet to his hearers, but how can he interpret him well unless he knows what he means? All this is greatly to be envied.
Ion: Very true, Socrates; interpretation has certainly been the most laborious part of my art; and I believe myself able to speak about Homer better than any man; and that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor any one else who ever was, had as good ideas about Homer as I have, or as many.

Socrates. I am glad to hear you say so, Ion; I see that you will not refuse to acquaint me with them.
Ion: Certainly, Socrates; and you really ought to hear how exquisitely I render Homer. I think that the Homeridae should give me a golden crown.
Socrates: I shall take an opportunity of hearing your embellishments of him at some other time. But just now I should like to ask you a question: Does your art extend to Hesiod and Archilochus, or to Homer only?
Ion: To Homer only; he is in himself quite enough.

Socrates and Ion on the Skill of the Rhapsode

scene from the Apotheosis of Homer
Plato wrote in “Persons of the Dialogue: Socrates and Ion,” (380 B.C.):
Socrates: But how did you come to have this skill about Homer only, and not about Hesiod or the other poets? Does not Homer speak of the same themes which all other poets handle? Is not war his great argument? and does he not speak of human society and of intercourse of men, good and bad, skilled and unskilled, and of the gods conversing with one another and with mankind, and about what happens in heaven and in the world below, and the generations of gods and heroes? Are not these the themes of which Homer sings?
Ion: Very true, Socrates.
Socrates: And do not the other poets sing of the same? Ion. Yes, Socrates; but not in the same way as Homer.
Socrates: What, in a worse way?
Ion: Yes, in a far worse.
Socrates: And Homer in a better way?
Ion: He is incomparably better.
Socrates: And yet surely, my dear friend Ion, in a discussion about arithmetic, where many people are speaking, and one speaks better than the rest, there is somebody who can judge which of them is the good speaker?
Ion: Yes.

Socrates: And he who judges of the good will be the same as he who judges of the bad speakers?
Ion: The same.
Socrates: And he will be the arithmetician?
Ion: Yes.
Socrates: Well, and in discussions about the wholesomeness of food, when many persons are speaking, and one speaks better than the rest, will he who recognizes the better speaker be a different person from him who recognizes the worse, or the same?
Ion: Clearly the same.
Socrates: And who is he, and what is his name?
Ion: The physician.

Socrates: And speaking generally, in all discussions in which the subject is the same and many men are speaking, will not he who knows the good know the bad speaker also? For if he does not know the bad, neither will he know the good when the same topic is being discussed.
Ion: True.
Socrates: Is not the same person skilful in both?
Ion: Yes.
Socrates: And you say that Homer and the other poets, such as Hesiod and Archilochus, speak of the same things, although not in the same way; but the one speaks well and the other not so well?
Ion: Yes; and I am right in saying so.
Socrates: And if you knew the good speaker, you would also know the inferior speakers to be inferior?
Ion: That is true.
Socrates: Then, my dear friend, can I be mistaken in saying that Ion is equally skilled in Homer and in other poets, since he himself acknowledges that the same person will be a good judge of all those who speak of the same things; and that almost all poets do speak of the same things?

Ion: Why then, Socrates, do I lose attention and go to sleep and have absolutely no ideas of the least value, when any one speaks of any other poet; but when Homer is mentioned, I wake up at once and am all attention and have plenty to say?
Socrates: The reason, my friend, is obvious. No one can fail to see that you speak of Homer without any art or knowledge. If you were able to speak of him by rules of art, you would have been able to speak of all other poets; for poetry is a whole.
Ion: Yes.
Socrates: And when any one acquires any other art as a whole, the same may be said of them. Would you like me to explain my meaning, Ion?
Ion: Yes, indeed, Socrates; I very much wish that you would: for I love to hear you wise men talk.
Socrates: O that we were wise, Ion, and that you could truly call us so; but you rhapsodes and actors, and the poets whose verses you sing, are wise; whereas I am a common man, who only speak the truth. For consider what a very commonplace and trivial thing is this which I have said- a thing which any man might say: that when a man has acquired a knowledge of a whole art, the enquiry into good and bad is one and the same. Let us consider this matter; is not the art of painting a whole?
Ion: Yes.


Socrates: And there are and have been many painters good and bad?
Ion: Yes.
Socrates: And did you ever know any one who was skilful in pointing out the excellences and defects of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, but incapable of criticizing other painters; and when the work of any other painter was produced, went to sleep and was at a loss, and had no ideas; but when he had to give his opinion about Polygnotus, or whoever the painter might be, and about him only, woke up and was attentive and had plenty to say?
Ion: No indeed, I have never known such a person.
Socrates: Or did you ever know of any one in sculpture, who was skilful in expounding the merits of Daedalus the son of Metion, or of Epeius the son of Panopeus, or of Theodorus the Samian, or of any individual sculptor; but when the works of sculptors in general were produced, was at a loss and went to sleep and had nothing to say?
Ion: No indeed; no more than the other.
Socrates: And if I am not mistaken, you never met with any one among flute-players or harp- players or singers to the harp or rhapsodes who was able to discourse of Olympus or Thamyras or Orpheus, or Phemius the rhapsode of Ithaca, but was at a loss when he came to speak of Ion of Ephesus, and had no notion of his merits or defects?

Socrates on the Divine Inspiration of the Rhapsode

Plato wrote in “Persons of the Dialogue: Socrates and Ion,” (380 B.C.):
Ion: I cannot deny what you say, Socrates. Nevertheless I am conscious in my own self, and the world agrees with me in thinking that I do speak better and have more to say about Homer than any other man. But I do not speak equally well about others- tell me the reason of this.
Socrates: I perceive, Ion; and I will proceed to explain to you what I imagine to be the reason of this. The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

Many are the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men; but like yourself when speaking about Homer, they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only; and when inspired, one of them will make dithyrambs, another hymns of praise, another choral strains, another epic or iambic verses- and he who is good at one is not good any other kind of verse: for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine. Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and therefore God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know them to be speaking not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God himself is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us. And Tynnichus the Chalcidian affords a striking instance of what I am saying: he wrote nothing that any one would care to remember but the famous paean which; in every one's mouth, one of the finest poems ever written, simply an invention of the Muses, as he himself says. For in this way, the God would seem to indicate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, or the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed. Was not this the lesson which the God intended to teach when by the mouth of the worst of poets he sang the best of songs? Am I not right, Ion?

Socrates and Ion on Rhapsode as Interpreters

Ossetian Phapsode Mysykkaty

Plato wrote in “Persons of the Dialogue: Socrates and Ion,” (380 B.C.): Socrates: Are there any things about which Homer and Hesiod agree?
Ion: Yes; in my opinion there are a good many.
Socrates: And can you interpret better what Homer says, or what Hesiod says, about these matters in which they agree?
Ion: I can interpret them equally well, Socrates, where they agree.
Socrates: But what about matters in which they do not agree?- for example, about divination, of which both Homer and Hesiod have something to say-
Ion: Very true:
Socrates: Would you or a good prophet be a better interpreter of what these two poets say about divination, not only when they agree, but when they disagree?
Ion: A prophet.
Socrates: And if you were a prophet, would you be able to interpret them when they disagree as well as when they agree?
Ion: Clearly.

Ion: Yes, indeed, Socrates, I feel that you are; for your words touch my soul, and I am persuaded that good poets by a divine inspiration interpret the things of the Gods to us.
Socrates: And you rhapsodists are the interpreters of the poets?
Ion: There again you are right.
Socrates: Then you are the interpreters of interpreters?
Ion: Precisely.
Socrates: I wish you would frankly tell me, Ion, what I am going to ask of you: When you produce the greatest effect upon the audience in the recitation of some striking passage, such as the apparition of Odysseus leaping forth on the floor, recognized by the suitors and casting his arrows at his feet, or the description of Achilles rushing at Hector, or the sorrows of Andromache, Hecuba, or Priam,- are you in your right mind? Are you not carried out of yourself, and does not your soul in an ecstasy seem to be among the persons or places of which you are speaking, whether they are in Ithaca or in Troy or whatever may be the scene of the poem?
Ion: That proof strikes home to me, Socrates. For I must frankly confess that at the tale of pity, my eyes are filled with tears, and when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end and my heart throbs.

Socrates: Why, does not Homer speak in many passages about arts? For example, about driving; if I can only remember the lines I will repeat them.
Ion: I remember, and will repeat them.
Socrates: Tell me then, what Nestor says to Antilochus, his son, where he bids him be careful of the turn at the horse-race in honour of Patroclus.
Ion: He says:
Bend gently in the polished chariot to the left of them, and urge the horse on the right hand with whip and voice; and slacken the rein. And when you are at the goal, let the left horse draw near, yet so that the nave of the well-wrought wheel may not even seem to touch the extremity; and avoid catching the stone.

Competing in a Rhapsode Competition

Plato wrote in “Persons of the Dialogue: Socrates and Ion,” (380 B.C.):
Socrates: Well, Ion, and what are we to say of a man who at a sacrifice or festival, when he is dressed in holiday attire and has golden crowns upon his head, of which nobody has robbed him, appears sweeping or panic-stricken in the presence of more than twenty thousand friendly faces, when there is no one despoiling or wronging him;- is he in his right mind or is he not?
Ion: No indeed, Socrates, I must say that, strictly speaking, he is not in his right mind. Soc. And are you aware that you produce similar effects on most spectators?
Ion: Only too well; for I look down upon them from the stage, and behold the various emotions of pity, wonder, sternness, stamped upon their countenances when I am speaking: and I am obliged to give my very best attention to them; for if I make them cry I myself shall laugh, and if I make them laugh I myself shall cry when the time of payment arrives.

Socrates: Do you know that the spectator is the last of the rings which, as I am saying, receive the power of the original magnet from one another? The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all these the God sways the souls of men in any direction which he pleases, and makes one man hang down from another. Thus there is a vast chain of dancers and masters and undermasters of choruses, who are suspended, as if from the stone, at the side of the rings which hang down from the Muse. And every poet has some Muse from whom he is suspended, and by whom he is said to be possessed, which is nearly the same thing; for he is taken hold of. And from these first rings, which are the poets, depend others, some deriving their inspiration from Orpheus, others from Musaeus; but the greater number are possessed and held by Homer. Of whom, Ion, you are one, and are possessed by Homer; and when any one repeats the words of another poet you go to sleep, and know not what to say; but when any one recites a strain of Homer you wake up in a moment, and your soul leaps within you, and you have plenty to say; for not by art or knowledge about Homer do you say what you say, but by divine inspiration and by possession; just as the Corybantian revellers too have a quick perception of that strain only which is appropriated to the God by whom they are possessed, and have plenty of dances and words for that, but take no heed of any other. And you, Ion, when the name of Homer is mentioned have plenty to say, and have nothing to say of others. You ask, "Why is this?" The answer is that you praise Homer not by art but by divine inspiration.

Ion: That is good, Socrates; and yet I doubt whether you will ever have eloquence enough to persuade me that I praise Homer only when I am mad and possessed; and if you could hear me speak of him I am sure you would never think this to be the case.
Socrates: I should like very much to hear you, but not until you have answered a question which I have to ask. On what part of Homer do you speak well?- not surely about every part.
Ion: There is no part, Socrates, about which I do not speak well of that I can assure you.
Socrates: Surely not about things in Homer of which you have no knowledge?
Ion: And what is there in Homer of which I have no knowledge?

Homer’s Odyssey on Ancient Greek Sources on Food

Homer's world
Homer's “Odyssey”, believed to have been written around 750 B.C. about events that are supposed to have occurred around 1250 B.C., contains many references to food, particularly wine, cereals, olive oil, meat, fruits, and dairy products (milk and cheese). There is archaeological evidence that these food were consumed by the Ancient Greeks. [Source: Matthew Maher, University of Western Ontario, The Odyssey of Ancient Greek Diet, Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 3, June 19, 2011]

On grains and bread, Homer wrote in the “Odyssey,” the "housekeeper brought in the bread" and "there is wheat and millet here and white barley, wide grown." One olive oil, he wrote: in the “Odyssey,” "oozes the limpid olive' oil" and "the flourishing olive". On meat; "and sacrifIce our oxen and our sheep and our fat goats" and "where his herds of swine were penned in sacrificed them." On fruits and vegetables: "pear trees and pomegranate trees and apple trees" and "rows of greens, all kinds, and these are lush". On milk and dairy products: "baskets were there, heavy with cheeses" and “he sat down and milked his sheep". (Lattimore 1965:175, 604, 107, 116, 73-74, 115, 128, 219, 244).

Homer on Ancient Greek Sacrifices

The “Iliad” Home wrote in “The Iliad” (ca. 800 B.C.): “And they did sacrifice each man to one of the everlasting gods, praying for escape from death and the tumult of battle. But Agamemnon, king of men, slew a fat bull of five years to most mighty Kronion, and called the elders, the princes of the Achaian host...Then they stood around the bull and took the barley meal, and Agamemnon made his prayer in their midst and said: "Zeus most glorious, most great god of the storm cloud, that lives in the heavens, make not the sun set upon us, nor the darkness come near, until I have laid low upon the earth Priam's palace smirched with smoke and burned the doorways thereof with consuming fire, and rent on Hector's breast his doublet, cleft with the blade; and about him may full many of his comrades, prone in the dust, bite the earth." [Source: Homer, “Homer's Iliad,” London: J. Cornish & Sons, 1862]

“Now, when they had prayed and scattered the barley meal, they first drew back the bull's head and cut his throat and flayed him, and cut slices from the thighs and wrapped them in fat, making a double fold, and laid raw collops thereon. And these they burnt on cleft wood stripped of leaves, and spitted the vitals and held them over Hephaistos' flame. Now when the thighs were burnt and they had tasted the vitals, then sliced they all the rest and pierced it through with spits and roasted it carefully and drew all off again. So when they had rest from the task and had made ready the banquet, they feasted, nor was their heart stinted of the fair banquet.”

On a sacrifice for the dead, Homer wrote in The Odyssey, XI:18-50: Odysseus speaks: 'Thither we came and beached our ship, and took out the sheep, and ourselves went beside the stream of Oceanus until we came to the place of which Circe had told us. 'Here Perimedes and Eurylochus held the victims, while I drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh, and dug a pit of a cubit's length this way and that, and around it poured a libation to all the dead, first with milk and honey, thereafter with sweet wine, and in the third place with water, and I sprinkled thereon white barley meal. And I earnestly entreated the powerless heads of the dead, vowing that when I came to Ithaca I would sacrifice in my halls a barren heifer, the best I had, and pile the altar with goodly gifts, and to Teiresias alone would sacrifice separately a ram, wholly black, the goodliest of my flocks. But when with vows and prayers I had made supplication to the tribes of the dead, I took the sheep and cut their throats over the pit, and the dark blood ran forth. Then there gathered from out of Erebus the spirits of those that are dead, brides, and unwedded youths, and toil-worn old men, and tender maidens with hearts yet new to sorrow, and many, too, that had been wounded with bronze-tipped spears, men slain in fight, wearing their blood-stained armour. These came thronging in crowds about the pit from every side, with a wondrous cry, and pale fear seized me. Then I called to my comrades and bade them flay and burn the sheep that lay there slain with the pitiless bronze, and to make prayers to the gods, to mighty Hades and dread Persephone. And I myself drew my sharp sword from beside my thigh and sat there, and would not suffer the powerless heads of the dead to draw near to the blood until I had enquired of Teiresias. [Source: translation by A. T. Murray, in the Loeb Classical Library, vol. I (New York, 1919), PP. 387-9]

Homer on the House of Hades

Homer wrote in the Iliad XXIII, 61-81, 99-108: “Nay if even in the house of Hades the dead forget their dead, yet will I even there be mindful of my dear comrade...You sleep, Achilleus; you have forgotten me; but you were not careless of me when I lived, but only in death. Bury me as quickly as may be, let me pass through the gates of Hades. The souls, the images of dead men, hold me at a distance, and will not let me cross the river and mingle among them, but I wander as I am by Hades’ house of the -wide gates.

“And I call upon you in sorrow, give me your hand; no longer shall I come back from death, once you give me my rite of burning. No longer shall you and I, alive, sit apart from our other beloved companions to make our plans, since the bitter destiny that was given me when I was born has opened its jaws to take me. And you, Achilleus like the gods, have your own destiny; to be killed under the wall of the prospering Trojans.

“So he spoke, and with his own arms reached for him, but could not take him, but the spirit went underground, like vapour, with a thin cry, and Achilleus started awake, staring, and drove his hands together, and spoke, and his words were sorrowful: ‘Oh, wonder! Even in the house of Hades there is left something, a soul and an image, but there is no real heart of life in it. For all night long the phantom of unhappy Patroklos stood over me in lamentation and mourning, and the likeness to him was wonderful, and it told me each thing I should do.”

Homer: The Mead of Asphodel, Where the Spirits Dwell

Persephone and Hades

Homer wrote in Odyssey XXIV, 1-18: “Meanwhile Cyllenian Hermes called forth the spirits of the wooers. He held in his hands his wand, a fair wand of gold, wherewith he lulls to sleep the eyes of whom he will, while others again he wakens even out of slumber; with this he roused and led the spirits, and they followed gibbering. And as in the innermost recess of a wondrous cave bats flit about gibbering, when one has fallen from off the rock from the chain in which they cling to one another, so these went with him gibbering, and Hermes, the Helper, led them down the dank ways. Past the streams of Oceanus they went, past the rock Leucas, past the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, and quickly came to the mead of asphodel, where the spirits dwell, phantoms of men who have done with toils. [Source: Homer. “The Odyssey” translated by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.

“Here they found the spirit of Achilles, son of Peleus, and those of Patroclus, of peerless Antilochus, and of Aias, who in comeliness and form was the goodliest of all the Danaans after the peerless son of Peleus. So these were thronging about Achilles, and near to them drew the spirit of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, sorrowing; and round about him others were gathered, the spirits of all those who were slain with him in the house of Aegisthus, and met their fate. And the spirit of the son of Peleus was first to address him, saying: “Son of Atreus, we deemed that thou above all other heroes wast all thy days dear to Zeus, who hurls the thunderbolt, because thou wast lord over many mighty men in the land of the Trojans, where we Achaeans suffered woes. But verily on thee too was deadly doom to come all too early, the doom that not one avoids of those who are born. Ah, would that in the pride of that honor of which thou wast master thou hadst met death and fate in the land of the Trojans. Then would the whole host of the Achaeans have made thee a tomb, and for thy son too wouldst thou have won great glory in days to come; but now, as it seems, it has been decreed that thou shouldst be cut off by a most piteous death.”

“Then the spirit of the son of Atreus answered him: “Fortunate son of Peleus, godlike Achilles, that wast slain in the land of Troy far from Argos, and about thee others fell, the best of the sons of the Trojans and Achaeans, fighting for thy body; and thou in the whirl of dust didst lie mighty in thy mightiness, forgetful of thy horsemanship. We on our part strove the whole day long, nor should we ever have stayed from the fight, had not Zeus stayed us with a storm. But after we had borne thee to the ships from out the fight, we laid thee on a bier, and cleansed thy fair flesh with warm water and with ointment, and many hot tears did the Danaans shed around thee, and they shore their hair. And thy mother came forth from the sea with the immortal sea-nymphs, when she heard the tidings, and a wondrous cry arose over the deep, and thereat trembling laid hold of all the Achaeans. Then would they all have sprung up and rushed to the hollow ships, had not a man, wise in the wisdom of old, stayed them, even Nestor, whose counsel had before appeared the best. He with good intent addressed their assembly, and said: “‘Hold, ye Argives; flee not, Achaean youths. 'Tis his mother who comes here forth from the sea with the immortal sea-nymphs to look upon the face of her dead son.’ “So he spoke, and the great-hearted Achaeans ceased from their flight. Then around thee stood the daughters of the old man of the sea wailing piteously, and they clothed thee about with immortal raiment. “And the Muses, nine in all, replying to one another with sweet voices, led the dirge. There couldst thou not have seen an Argive but was in tears, so deeply did the clear-toned Muse move their hearts. Thus for seventeen days alike by night and day did we bewail thee, immortal gods and mortal men, and on the eighteenth we gave thee to the fire, and many well-fatted sheep we slew around thee and sleek kine. So thou wast burned in the raiment of the gods and in abundance of unguents and sweet honey; and many Achaean warriors moved in their armour about the pyre, when thou wast burning, both footmen and charioteers, and a great din arose.

:But when the flame of Hephaestus had made an end of thee, in the morning we gathered thy white bones, Achilles, and laid them in unmixed wine and unguents. Thy mother had given a two-handled, golden urn, and said that it was the gift of Dionysus, and the handiwork of famed Hephaestus. In this lie thy white bones, glorious Achilles, and mingled with them the bones of the dead Patroclus, son of Menoetius, but apart lie those of Antilochus, whom thou didst honor above all the rest of thy comrades after the dead Patroclus. And over them we heaped up a great and goodly tomb, we the mighty host of Argive spearmen, on a projecting headland by the broad Hellespont, that it might be seen from far over the sea both by men that now are and that shall be born hereafter.”

Homeric Hymns

The Homeric Hymns are a collection of thirty-three anonymous ancient Greek hymns celebrating individual gods perhaps written around Homer’s time. The hymns are "Homeric" in the sense that they employ the same epic meter—dactylic hexameter—as the Iliad and Odyssey, use many similar formulas and are couched in the same dialect. They were uncritically attributed to Homer himself in antiquity—from the earliest written reference to them, Thucydides (iii.104)—and the label has stuck. "The whole collection, as a collection, is Homeric in the only useful sense that can be put upon the word;" A. W. Verrall noted in 1894, "that is to say, it has come down labeled as 'Homer' from the earliest times of Greek book-literature." [Source: Wikipedia]

Homeric Hymn XXX: To Earth the Mother of All: “I will sing of well-founded Earth, mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all creatures that are in the world, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. Through you, O queen, men are blessed in their children and blessed in their harvests, and to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men and to take it away. Happy is the man whom you delight to honour! He has all things abundantly: his fruitful land is laden with corn, his pastures are covered with cattle, and his house is filled with good things. Such men rule orderly in their cities of fair women: great riches and wealth follow them: their sons exult with ever-fresh delight, and their daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field. Thus is it with those whom you honour O holy goddess, bountiful spirit. 1 Hail, Mother of the gods, wife of starry Heaven; freely bestow upon me for this my song substance that cheers the heart! And now I will remember you and another song also. [Source: Hesiod, “Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle,” Homerica. 1922]

Homeric Hymn XXXI: To Helios: And now, O Muse Calliope, daughter of Zeus, begin to sing of glowing Helios whom mild-eyed Euryphaëssa, the far-shining one, bare to the Son of Earth and starry Heaven. For Hyperion wedded glorious Euryphaëssa, his own sister, who bare him lovely children, rosy-armed Eos and rich-tressed Selene and tireless Helios who is like the deathless gods. As he rides in his chariot, he shines upon men and deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly from him, and his bright locks streaming from the temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body and flutters in the wind: and stallions carry him. Then, when he has stayed his golden-yoked chariot and horses, he rests there upon the highest point of heaven, until he marvellously drives them down again through heaven to Ocean. 1 Hail to you, lord! Freely bestow on me substance that cheers the heart. And now that I have begun with you, I will celebrate the race of mortal men half-divine whose deeds the Muses have showed to mankind.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter

I begin to sing of Demeter, the holy goddess with the beautiful hair.
And her daughter [Persephone] too. The one with the delicate ankles, whom Hadês
seized. She was given away by Zeus, the loud-thunderer, the one who sees far and wide.
Demeter did not take part in this, she of the golden double-axe, she who glories in the harvest.
She [Persephone] was having a good time, along with the daughters of Okeanos, who wear their girdles slung low.
She was picking flowers: roses, crocus, and beautiful violets.
Up and down the soft meadow. Iris blossoms too she picked, and hyacinth.
And the narcissus, which was grown as a lure for the flower-faced girl
by Gaia [Earth]. All according to the plans of Zeus. She [Gaia] was doing a favor for the one who receives many guests [Hadês].
It [the narcissus] was a wondrous thing in its splendor. To look at it gives a sense of holy awe
to the immortal gods as well as mortal humans.
It has a hundred heads growing from the root up.
Its sweet fragrance spread over the wide skies up above.
And the earth below smiled back in all its radiance. So too the churning mass of the salty sea. [Source: translated by Gregory Nagy, uh.edu/~cldue/texts/demeter]

She [Persephone] was filled with a sense of wonder, and she reached out with both hands
to take hold of the pretty plaything. And the earth, full of roads leading every which way, opened up under her.
It happened on the Plain of Nysa. There it was that the Lord who receives many guests made his lunge.
He was riding on a chariot drawn by immortal horses. The son of Kronos. The one known by many names.
He seized her against her will, put her on his golden chariot,
And drove away as she wept. She cried with a piercing voice,
calling upon her father [Zeus], the son of Kronos, the highest and the best.
But not one of the immortal ones, or of human mortals,
heard her voice. Not even the olive trees which bear their splendid harvest.
Except for the daughter of Persaios, the one who keeps in mind the vigor of nature.


She heard it from her cave. She is Hekatê, with the splendid headband.
And the Lord Helios [Sun] heard it too, the magnificent son of Hyperion.
They heard the daughter calling upon her father, the son of Kronos.
But he, all by himself,
was seated far apart from the gods, inside a temple, the precinct of many prayers.
He was receiving beautiful sacrificial rites from mortal humans.
She was being taken, against her will, at the behest of Zeus,
by her father’s brother, the one who makes many sêmata, the one who receives many guests,
the son of Kronos, the one with many names. On the chariot drawn by immortal horses.
So long as the earth and the star-filled sky
were still within the goddess’s [Persephone’s] view, as also the fish-swarming sea [pontos], with its strong currents,
as also the rays of the sun, she still had hope that she would yet see
her dear mother and that special group, the immortal gods.

For that long a time her great noos was soothed by hope, distressed as she was.
The peaks of mountains resounded, as did the depths of the sea [pontos],
with her immortal voice. And the Lady Mother [Demeter] heard her.
And a sharp akhos seized her heart. The headband on her hair
she tore off with her own immortal hands
and threw a dark cloak over her shoulders.
She sped off like a bird, soaring over land and sea,
looking and looking. But no one was willing to tell her the truth [etêtuma],
not one of the gods, not one of the mortal humans,
not one of the birds, messengers of the truth [etêtuma].
Thereafter, for nine days did the Lady Demeter
wander all over the earth, holding torches ablaze in her hands.
Not once did she take of ambrosia and nectar, sweet to drink,
in her grief, nor did she bathe her skin in water.
But when the tenth bright dawn came upon her,

Hekatê came to her, holding a light ablaze in her hands.
She came with a message, and she spoke up, saying to her:
“Lady Demeter, bringer of hôrai, giver of splendid gifts,
which one of the gods who dwell in the sky or which one of mortal humans
seized Persephone and brought grief to your philos thûmos?
I heard the sounds, but I did not see with my eyes
who it was. So I quickly came to tell you everything, without error.”
So spoke Hekatê. But she was not answered
by the daughter [Demeter] of Rhea with the beautiful hair. Instead, she [Demeter] joined her [Hekatê] and quickly
set out with her, holding torches ablaze in her hands.
They came to Hêlios, the seeing-eye of gods and men.
They stood in front of his chariot-team, and the resplendent goddess asked this question:

Homeric Hymn to Dionysus

Dionysus procession

“I will tell of Dionysus, the son of glorious Semele, how he appeared on a jutting headland by the shore of the fruitless sea, seeming like a stripling in the first flush of manhood: his rich, dark hair was waving about him, and on his strong shoulders he wore a purple robe. Presently there came swiftly over the sparkling sea Tyrsenian1 pirates on a well-decked ship —a miserable doom led them on. When they saw him they made signs to one another and sprang out quickly, and seizing him straightway put him on board their ship exultingly; for they thought him the son of heaven-nurtured kings. They sought to bind him with rude bonds, but the bonds would not hold him, and the withes fell far away from his hands and feet: and he sat with a smile in his dark eyes. [Source: Anonymous. “The Homeric Hymns and Homerica” translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914]

Then the helmsman understood all and cried out at once to his fellows and said: “Madmen! what god is this whom you have taken and bind, strong that he is? Not even the well-built ship can carry him. Surely this is either Zeus or Apollo who has the silver bow, or Poseidon, for he looks not like mortal men but like the gods who dwell on Olympus. Come, then, let us set him free upon the dark shore at once: do not lay hands on him, lest he grow angry and stir up dangerous winds and heavy squalls.”

“So said he: but the master chid him with taunting words: “Madman, mark the wind and help hoist sail on the ship: catch all the sheets. As for this fellow we men will see to him: I reckon he is bound for Egypt or for Cyprus or to the Hyperboreans or further still. But in the end he will speak out and tell us his friends and all his wealth and his brothers, now that providence has thrown him in our way.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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