Homer, Teacher and Parodist? The Vitae on the “Battle of Frogs and Mice”

We haven’t mentioned the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice in a while—but we are actually still working on it. There was a tradition in the early Roman Imperial period that Homer had composed the poem either just for practice or for educating children (or a combination of both). Here are some passages:

Greek Anthology, Exhortative Epigrams 90

“Because he wanted to exercise his mind,
Homer made up the tale of frogs and mice,
Which he then gave to children to imitate.”

῞Ομηρος αὐτοῦ γυμνάσαι γνῶσιν θέλων,
τῶν βατράχων ἔπλασε καὶ μυῶν μῦθον
ἔνθεν παρορμῶν πρὸς μίμησιν τοὺς νέους.

The problematic biographies, the various Lives of Homer, include some similar information.

Vita Herodotea 332-4
“The man from Khios had children around the same age. They were entrusted to Homer for education. He composed these poems: the Kekropes, Batrakohmuomakia, Psaromakhia, Heptapaktikê, and Epikikhlides and as many other poems as were playful.”
ἦσαν γὰρ τῷ Χίῳ παῖδες ἐν ἡλικίῃ. τούτους οὖν αὐτῷ παρατίθησι παιδεύειν. ὁ δὲ ἔπρησσε ταῦτα· καὶ τοὺς Κέρκωπας καὶ Βατραχομυομαχίαν καὶ Ψαρομαχίην καὶ ῾Επταπακτικὴν καὶ ᾿Επικιχλίδας καὶ τἄλλα πάντα ὅσα παίγνιά ἐστιν.

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Homeric Sexual Healing: Margites fragments 1-3 and More!

We are near the end of a semester at my University and I seem to be limping to the end. As a tonic for tired days, I turned to the Homeric Margites today. What’s more therapeutic than laughing at a fool? (Well, maybe we should ask Margites’ wife…)

“Some old man, a divine singer, came to Kolophon,
An assistant of the Muses and Apollo
Holding a sweet-singing lyre in his dear hands.
The gods didn’t make him an excavator or a ploughman
Nor wise in anything at all: he screwed up every kind of craft:
He knew many deeds, but he knew all of them badly.”

ἦλθέ τις ἐς Κολοφῶνα γέρων καὶ θεῖος ἀοιδός,
Μουσάων θεράπων καὶ ἑκηβόλου ᾿Απόλλωνος,
φίληις ἔχων ἐν χερσὶν εὔφθογγον λύρην.
τὸν δ’ οὔτ’ ἂρ σκαπτῆρα θεοὶ θέσαν οὔτ’ ἀροτῆρα
οὔτ’ ἄλλως τι σοφόν· πάσης δ’ ἡμάρτανε τέχνης.
πόλλ’ ἠπίστατο ἔργα, κακῶς δ’ ἠπίστατο πάντα.

Actual T-Shirt, Game-worn Condition
Actual T-Shirt, Game-worn Condition

And yes, I do own a t-shirt proudly emblazoned with the motto: πόλλ’ ἠπίστατο ἔργα, κακῶς δ’ ἠπίστατο πάντα. I would not be so proud to be known for the following details, however.

According to the testimonies part of Margites’ ignorance extended to carnal acts (from Dio Chrys. Or. 67.5 (On Reputation)):

“He would be much more foolish than Margites, who was ignorant about what to do with a woman after being married.”

Πολύ γε ἂν εἴη τοῦ Μαργίτου μωρότερος, ἀγνοοῦντος ὅ,τι χρὴ γήμαντα χρῆσθαι τῇ γυναικί.

Hesychius (the Alexandrian Lexicographer, not the Monk!) adds another detail for titillation: his wife told him she had been bitten in her genitals by a scorpion and that she needed, well, sexual healing. Eustathius (Comm ad Od. 1.395), as one might expect, repeats this anecdote with relish.

“We have learned a similar thing about the fool Margites, thanks to whom “raging” (margainein) means also “to be a fool”. The poet who bears Homer’s name makes him a son of extremely wealthy parents who, after he got married, did not climb upon his wife until she persuaded him that she had been wounded in her nether regions. She said that no medicine would help her except the act of fitting male genitals into that place. And in this way he laid next do his wife, for the sake of therapy.”

οὕτως ἔγνωμεν καὶ τὸν ἄφρονα Μαργίτην τὸν ἀπὸ τοῦ μαργαίνειν ὅ ἐστι μωραίνειν. ὃν ὁ ποιήσας τὸν ἐπιγραφόμενον ῾Ομήρου Μαργίτην ὑποτίθεται εὐπόρων μὲν εἰς ὑπερβολὴν γονέων φῦναι, γήμαντα δὲ μὴ συμπεσεῖν τῇ νύμφῃ ἕως ἀναπισθεῖσα ἐκείνη τετραυματίσθαι τὰ κάτω ἐσκήψατο. φάρμακόν τε μηδὲν ὠφελήσειν ἔφη, πλὴν εἰ τὸ ἀνδρεῖον αἰδοῖον ἐκεῖ ἐφαρμοσθείη. καὶ οὕτω θεραπείας χάριν ἐκεῖνος ἐπλησίασεν.

And if you didn’t expect some Marvin Gaye now, well, you’re worse off than Margites: