Homer, Divine Not Human

Yesterday I made the mistake of playing along with a twitter game and I submitted;

This wasn’t a big mistake–I was just surprised how many people don’t agree. But the upside was that a twitter correspondent W. Graham Claytor (@graham_claytor ) let me know about this:

Homer Theios

This is a a writing exercise on an ostrakon listing some names and words (from the website: “Stranger; Dios; Stranger; Herodes; Ptolemaios; Herodes;;Homer is a god, not a man.”. Note the absence of diacritical marks.

Homer theios close up

Here is the Greek as printed:


Here’s the Greek with the accents and breathings:

θεῖος οὐκ ἄνθρωπος Ὅμηρος

“Homer is divine not a human being”

I can’t tell if there is a ligature for -ος after θει or if it is a ligature of -ος after θε- (so, “divine” vs. noun “god”). But to break with the published translation, Greek anthrôpos is less gendered than anêr (“man”, sometimes “husband”) and is here opposed to “divine”. So, the contrast and meaning here is mortal/immortal. “Human being” is a better translation.

ὁ θεῖος ῞Ομηρος (“divine Homer”) is not an uncommon phrase in Ancient Greek (appearing in Classical Greece and then becoming increasingly common from the poems of the Greek Anthology through to letters of Julian the Apostate).

Here’s a dedicatory inscription from the Appendix of the Greek Anthology (Epigram 61)

“This is the divine Homer, who adorned all of boastful Greece
With wisdom of the beautiful word.
But especially the Argives who took down
The god-walled Troy, as payback for well-tressed Helen.
For his sake a great-citied people have set this up
And they apportion to him the honors of the gods.”

Θεῖος ῞Ομηρος ὅδ’ ἐστίν, ὃς ῾Ελλάδα τὴν μεγάλαυχον
πᾶσαν ἐκόσμησεν καλλιεπεῖ σοφίῃ,
ἔξοχα δ’ ᾿Αργείους, οἳ τὴν θεοτείχεα Τροίην
ἤρειψαν, ποινὴν ἠυκόμου ῾Ελένης·
οὗ χάριν ἔστησεν δῆμος μεγαλόπτολις αὐτὸν
ἐνθάδε, καὶ τιμαῖς ἀμφέπει ἀθανάτων.

Here is a nice bit too….

Dio Chrysostom, On Homer (Discourse 53)

Democritus says this about Homer: “Homer, who was granted a divine nature, crafted a universe of verses of every kind.” This means it is not possible for him to have created poems so beautiful and wise without divine and immortal nature. Many others have also written about this—some who directly praise the poet and also select for illustration some of his sayings while others attempt to interpret his very manner of thinking…”

Ὁ μὲν Δημόκριτος περὶ Ὁμήρου φησὶν οὕτως· Ὅμηρος φύσεως λαχὼν θεαζούσης ἐπέων κόσμον ἐτεκτήνατο παντοίων· ὡς οὐκ ἐνὸν ἄνευ θείας καὶ δαιμονίας φύσεως οὕτως καλὰ καὶ σοφὰ ἔπη ἐργάσασθαι. πολλοὶ δὲ καὶ ἄλλοι γεγράφασιν οἱ μὲν ἄντικρυς ἐγκωμιάζοντες τὸν ποιητὴν ἅμα καὶ δηλοῦντες ἔνια τῶν ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ λεγομένων, οἱ δὲ αὐτὸ τοῦτο τὴν διάνοιαν ἐξηγούμενοι

The Homeric poems as part of an oral tradition is not new in Post-enlightenment scholarship–F. A. Wolf was probably the first ‘modern’ author to get really into it. But the persistence of the insistence that because the Homeric poems are complex and meaningful, they must have been designed by an author to be that way is both a reflection of our own views about genius a creation and a misapprehension of the deep and complexity possible from oral traditions.

The work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord helps in part to explain how oral poetry may works compositionally, but this does little to address the larger issue which is the confirmation bias that shapes what we think ‘art’ is and how we think it is made (the works of John Miles Foley and Egbert J. Bakker are really helpful too; for the creation of the idea of Homer, I know of no better text than Barbara Graziosi’s The Invention of Homer).

I do think it is entirely possible for different modern interpreters to believe radically different things about the creation of the texts we possess and still come to similar conclusions about their meanings. Elton Barker and I cover this rather ecumenically in our introductory book to Homer. In our book Homer’s Thebes, out with the Center for Hellenic Studies next spring we are going to be a bit less so.)

Agnosticism on the issue is likely the wisest route. Ultimately, what we have are poems that have been treated as texts with a unifying authority behind them for two thousand years. Yet, I must confess a frustration that we so reflexively insist that the genius of any work is due to the genius of an individual and not a cultural context and its inheritance. Because we see the world as individuals and are culturally and biologically conditioned to imagine ourselves as agents acting individually within it, we assume a view of causality that reinforces our view of self. (And this is culturally reinforced by religious beliefs.)

What I teach, I approach the issue the way Elton and I do in the introductory book–I tell the full story and transparently say what I believe (without expecting followers). But I also ask students to consider why it is important that we have a Homer behind the Homeric poems. Why do we feel so strongly we need an author? What does it do for us? What do we lose without it?

[But it is fine if we disagree! I actually do treat this the way I do religion. Who can rightly judge what no mortal can ever truly know? Although an atheist, my spouse is Muslim, I was raised Lutheran and I have known as many religious people clearly smarter than I am as I have known atheists to be fools.]

Here is a full citation: “O.Mich.inv. 9353; Recto.” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/apis/x-784/9353o.tif. University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. Accessed: July 05, 2018.

Addendum [3 hours after original post]:

When I was visiting graduate schools as a precocious soon-to-be college graduate, I got in an argument with a 3rd year graduate student about “Homer” which ended with me suggesting that he only wanted to believe in a singular, monumental genius because he wanted to believe that he was a genius too. (The story has a happy ending, we are now friends.)

My comments on twitter about the non-existence of Homer drew more ire and rejection than I expected. I am in part grateful for this because it reminds me that I write and work and teach in a rather closed circle. I have for too long taken the tenets of my belief about Homer to be standard, when it seems that they are not.

From my experience, the Homeric poems are qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything else I have ever read. This knowledge emerged with the belief that their origins in an oral-performance culture help to explain this. When I first read Homer in Greek after years of reading Latin epic and a lifetime of reading English poetry and prose widely, I was floored by how different it was. It was so different that I despised Homer in translation before I read the Iliad in Greek and would only have imagined myself dedicating the next decades of my life to the study of Homer as a nightmare or joke.

The explanation for the genius was unfolded for me slowly. My Greek teacher, mentor, and eventually friend, Leonard Muellner, handed me a concordance of Homer and told me to take any ten lines and look for repetitions and similarity elsewhere (e.g. formulae). Only after seeing the building blocks of Homeric language up close, did I then read Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and Lenny’s own brilliant work on Homeric eukhomai and mênis.

(There are other authors whose work should be added here: the work of John Miles Foley on oral poetry, the linguistic informed books of Egbert Bakker, the work of Casey Dué, Olga Levaniouk, Sheila Murnaghan, and dozens of others too.)

I’m not exactly a dilettante when it comes to Homer (as I am with most Greek and Roman authors). But I do realize that I probably seem to be the member of a hardline approach. I must emphasize again that I think the problem of authorship is ultimately without a solution.

What is not without a solution is a careful reflection on why we believe what we believe about (1) Homer, (2) the nature of creative production, (3) authorship, and (4) the relationship between the individual and collective culture. The reason I bring this up is that some of the most strident responses to my comments about the non-existence of Homer come from the same voices who have objected to my assertions that the Homeric poems are misogynistic or that they don’t necessarily reflect the same assumptions about race and ethnicities as our own.

It is not surprising that some of the same people who have a knee-jerk reaction that Homer is only about European people and cannot be taken to task for being part of a misogynistic culture are those who so desperately cleave to a notion of Homer as genius. These beliefs are rooted in an essential conservatism, a patriarchal view of culture, and a rigidly individualistic view of cultural production.

[As an anecdotal aside, in addition to similar voices complaining about Homer as misogyny, etc. I got antisemitic hate tweets for the twitter thread associated with this post. The poster was a follower of one of the original culture haters.]

I do not mean that everyone who thinks there was a Homer is a racist of misogynist or that they hold their beliefs about Homer because they are conservative and close-minded. Indeed, I know and know of many well-educated, progressive, and intensely kind people who believe there was a Homer who wrote one or both of the epics.

But I did want to point out the curious overlap between cultural chauvinists and the cult of genius. My apologies to the good people who believe in Homer but do not fall into this group. Whatever we believe about the origin of the Homeric poems, we must rigorously examine why we believe it. What assumptions do we make about personhood and the relationship between individual and community in the human species? Why do we need an author for the Iliad or the Odyssey? Why do we need to identify a designer if we sense beauty and design? Do we see design because we are part of an aesthetic continuum that has been shaped by the Iliad and the Odyssey and by later cultural reflections on those poems?


For flavor, a conventional of Homer:

Number 6, part 1part 2

Also, I made a poll, this will solve everything.

9 thoughts on “Homer, Divine Not Human

  1. As a Hellenic Polytheist, my own personal belief is that Homer is somewhat of a divine hero. Or more properly in His case, a divine being with a chthonic side that manifests as the hero “Homer”. I base this on how most likely there wasn’t a singular human named Homer that wrote everything attributed to the human Homer but there seems to be a singular presence that “reads” as Homer when interacting with it on a cult level (I mean, clearly somebody was experiencing something that they interpreted as Homer or they wouldn’t have given the guy cultus). That’s just my obviously and decidedly unscientific take on the nature of Homer

  2. Oh totally. I mean, I think the same could be said about any topic that our understanding of the world influences how we view the works of others. If you look at it from a purely historical perspective then you will be purely interested in the “historical Homer” or “Homers” as tends to be the popular consensus (which again is most likely the case in regards to what happened in “this world”). I, of course, acknowledge the spiritual element to Homer’s character. Honestly, that’s the beauty of Homer, people like Him, and Classics in general: there’s something for everyone because it applies to everything. Our ancient forebears were people just like us and had the same concerns about life

  3. As much as this question has induced anxious hand-wringing for Classicists for a few centuries now, the answer to it has always struck me as largely irrelevant. Supposing that we settled conclusively that Homer was both a real individual and the sole creative genius behind both the Iliad and Odyssey, it nevertheless remains true that we would possess so few certain biographical details about him that the bare certainty of his existence would cast no helpful interpretive light upon the poems. Moreover, the reception of his work in antiquity and the impossibility of reconstructing an archetypal Homeric text for any time earlier than the period of Hellenistic scholarship means that, even if we granted that there were an identifiable author of staggering genius who composed the poems, they are at any rate now infused with an inevitably pan-Hellenic spirit and an accretion of much material which, though perhaps not a part of the original oral tradition, was at any rate felt to be sufficiently traditional to work its way into the text. We can see that even after the development of the printing press and in comparatively recent times, it is sometimes difficult to discern where the towering and singular genius of Shakespeare’s work ends and the collective interpolation of actors begins.

    Our reception of Homer is in a sense already bundled up with an informed by the mystery of his identity. Yet, as far as I can tell, even the reception of Homer in antiquity was in many ways inextricably linked to and colored by the element of mystery surrounding the authorship of the poems. The Homeric poems have endured and been enjoyed for thousands of years now without a definite answer to this question. If the existence of Homer were conclusively proven, it would remain true that the only truly important biographical detail we possess of him is his authorship of the poems – that is to say that, in effect, the *poems themselves* are really what matters anyway.

    1. I think you’ve hit on something we don’t acknowledge enough–not knowing who Homer is adds to the romance and enticement. Imagine if we knew Homer in all of his strength and weakness?

      For me, the lesson to be applied is that the art must be separated from the artist. Terrible people can make beautiful art–not because they are terrible or even in spite of it but because they are channeling the inspiration and inheritance of the human race.

  4. Partly because of the “modular” way in which the Homeric epics are composed I’ve wondered to what extent they developed over a long period of time through performance experience. Like some very good blues songs, or medieval street theater, they worked up elements that over and over, with experiment, proved successful with audiences. These then gradually gathered canonical authority, but they were molded in the heat of live art. At least I’ve liked to think so. Much appreciate your dedication to these works.

    1. I do like the street theater and blues comparisons. I have forgotten the names, but there are examples of blues singers as traditional personae dropped by one performer and assumed by another.

      And thank you for the thanks. This ended up being my life’s work (so far). It is personal and often selfish. Having c ok conversations helps make it, well, more human.

  5. Thank you for this – it is very interesting. Homer is, of course, not the only example of this. I have spent some time studying Aesopic fable and Aesop, too, is an author who probably never existed. There is not nearly as much invested in Aesopic fable from a cultural standpoint as there is in Homeric epic (although Aesop is certainly more widely read and better known today), but I wonder if there would be additional light shed on the question of Homeric authorship if it were considered side-by-side with Aesopic authorship. Why would the Greeks create identities of “Homer” and “Aesop” in order to have singular authors for epic and fable? I actually have a half-written paper trying to look at some of this but your knowledge of Homer far surpasses mine….

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