It is necessary to divide our account into chapters for the reader’s convenience, but it is well to bear in mind that such a division is somewhat artificial. The chapters are not mutually exclusive; the fields that they cover interlap and interlock. Thus, the period dealt with in Chapter IV brought us to the Mycenaean or Late Minoan age. The Homeric age followed immediately but its roots were Mycenaean and even pre-Mycenaean; we are thus obliged to think as much as possible in Mycenaean and Minoan terms if we would appreciate the Homeric flowering.

One often speaks of the Greek miracle, this being the simplest way of expressing one’s wonder at the Greek achievements and one’s inability to account for them. The wonder begins right at the very end of the Mycenaean age, at a time when the new Greek culture was not yet completely emancipated from its origins. The first and greatest gift of that age was a long epic in the Greek language, the Iliad.


We trust that an analysis and description of that poem is superfluous. Should some of our readers need it they could easily find it in many places, or they could read the poem itself in their own language. According to ancient tradition the Iliad was composed by Homer, but to the query “Who was Homer?” one can hardly answer anything except “the author of the Iliad,” and there seems to be no means of escaping from that vicious circle. At any rate, Homer’s fame spread rapidly as the Greek civilization matured and nobody doubted his existence. He was conceived as a blind old man,³²³ singing or reciting his own compositions; and seven Greek cities³²⁴ claimed to be his birthplace. Such incompatible claims are the best proof of ignorance, even if it is disguised in the cloak of knowledge. They show that even at a relatively early time Homer had ceased to be known as an ordinary mortal. How could that happen? How could so great a poem exist and its author vanish?

The study of comparative literature³²⁵ makes it much easier now to explain that mystery. The Iliad is unique because of its earlyness and of its beauty, but similar poems have been created from time to time by many peoples spread all over the earth. The same factors were apparently at work everywhere; the desire to explain their origins and to commemorate great events of the past inspired anonymous poets of many nationalities. Their compositions were almost always in metrical form, because of the innate love of rhythm that exists in every man; on the other hand, that form helped memorization and thus national archives could be transmitted indefinitely without being written down. Indeed, these poems were generally composed before writing had been invented by the nation concerned, or at least before it had become popular. Minstrels traveling from one court to another helped to create these poems and recited them for the entertainment and the edification of their hosts. After a while, certain poems that had been received with particular favor were standardized not only in their general form but also in their anecdotic and stylistic particularities. Not unlike the children of today, the ancient people loved the old stories best. There was an element of surprise, to be sure, in a new tale, and that was pleasant enough to the listeners, but their joy was greater when they recognized an old tale, when the minstrel evoked familiar heroes and described them in familiar terms. Striking epithets or metaphors or even whole verses, having once appealed to their imagination and tickled their fancy, were gradually expected and received with smiles or other marks of approval; ³²⁶ the skilful minstrel soon learned that it would not do to omit them; other characteristics of the poetic narrative, concerning its form or its matter, were gradually crystallized in the same way.

The majority of the minstrels, we may assume, were much like our musicians who move from place to place playing their repertory and adding little if anything to it. Their art consisted in remembering much and interpreting well. A few minstrels were more ambitious and were anxious to invent new ballads or else to reshape completely the older ones; they were like the virtuosi of today, who are not satisfied to interpret the compositions of the great musicians but are eager to play their own. There was scope for infinite variations — the whole gamut between a creative power that must find expression at one end and retentive passivity at the other — but the minstrels and troubadours of each people were alike in this, that they were exploiting the same stock of national memories; their creative and interpretive abilities were moderated as well as guided by the need of satisfying the same public, whose tendencies were, on the whole, conservative. There was no better way of pleasing their patrons and obtaining their favor than by reciting the lays that were already loved. No matter how great their originality, the minstrels ended by doing as the virtuosi do who include old favorities in their program or in the encores. The poet ³²⁷whom we call Homer was the most successful of these early minstrels. It is impossible to know how much he invented, but it is safe to assume that however much he created he inherited much more from his predecessors and helped to perpetuate their best compositions. It is possible that he was chiefly an “editor” of genius, who put together all the best lays available to him and harmonized them masterfully in a single whole. This hypothesis helps to explain the unity of the Iliad, as well as its occasional lapses, such as unnecessary repetitions or imperfect transitions.

The methods of these minstrels and of the later rhapsodists ³²⁸ are readily understood from the comparative study of various early literatures, and more vividly from the performances of their living representatives. This was done admirably by the late Milman Parry (d. 1935), a Harvard philologist who traveled in Yugoslavia, armed with recording apparatus, and collected two popular epics of great length from the very lips of the rhapsodists. Unfortunately, his life being cut short by an accident, he was not able to complete his task.³²⁹ It is probable that the Homeric rhapsodist was not essentially different, as to outlook, temperament, methods, from the blind Yugoslavian poet Huso, whose recitations were immortalized by Parry’s efforts.

The appreciation of oral traditions is a little difficult for us, for they implied an ability to memorize long poems that modern man has almost completely lost. Some men had that ability to a degree that would be incredible if we did not have abundant proof of it.³³⁰


The question, “Who was Homer?” is futile, if it is taken to mean What kind of man was he? How different was he from the other minstrels? When and where did he live? and so on. But the question, “Was there a Homer?” is a very pertinent one and I think we can answer it in the affirmative. The remarkable unity of the Iliad, imperfect as it is, could not be explained otherwise. No matter how and when its several parts were composed, it took one supreme minstrel to put them together in a sequence which was probably not very different from that which has come down to us.

We shall come back to the method of its tradition later on. Let us first consider a more fundamental question. When was the Iliad completed? The Trojan War, episodes of which form its historical core, was variously dated by Greek chronologists from about 1280 to 1180. That ambiguity of a century does not matter to us, for a period many times as long must have elapsed between the events and the completion of the poem.³³¹ Some elements of it, such as the catalogue of ships or of the Greek expeditionary forces,³³²are of greater antiquity, or at any rate reflect conditions of an earlier, pre-Trojan, time; but the artistic integration of those elements cannot have occurred much before the tenth or ninth century.³³³ If we have to name a single century, we shall not be far wrong in naming the ninth; that is, that dating tallies pretty well with previous and later events.

Further discussion would be out of place here, and the more so because it would never be convincing, however elaborate it was. Let me insist only on a single point. There is no reference to writing in the Iliad (nor for that matter in the Odyssey) except one that is incidental: “But Proetos sent Bellerophon to Lycia giving him baneful signs, on a folded tablet he had traced many signs poisoning the king’s mind [against Bellerophon].” ³³⁴ I do not doubt that the words “baneful signs” represent a kind of writing, such as the Minoan writing that Sir Arthur Evans discovered in Crete. Lycia, incidentally, was a Cretan colony. That Homeric line might then be used to prove that some kind of writing was known in those days, but that proof is superfluous, for we have many actual examples of that writing, albeit undeciphered. Writing was known in the Aegean world; it was probably a Cretan invention. Its use was restricted to inscriptions, legal or magical records, inventories, accounts, and other very short technical texts. No minstrel ever thought of using it for literary purposes. This is not simply a local, Greek, fact but a general fact, which has been well established by anthropologists and by comparative philologists. An interval of time, which may extend to centuries, elapses between the invention of writing and its common use. On account of deeprooted traditions, and perhaps also of the vested interests of minstrelsy, heroic poetry would not be among the first things to be committed to writing but among the last.

We may be sure that Homer was not conscious of writing except as a rare and somewhat mysterious method of communication which might be used in exceptional cases but did not concern men of letters. We may be sure that he never thought of writing his compositions. Moreover, how could he have done so? The invention of writing is worthless for literary purposes if it is not completed by the invention of writing materials. In Homer’s time no such materials were suitable for long compositions. Papyrus did not become available in Greece until the beginning of the Twenty-sixth (Saitic) Dynasty, during the rule of Psametik I (663–609).


The Iliad is not only the earliest monument of European literature, the earliest monument of any size or quality, but it is also — and it is this that is really unexplainable, “miraculous” — of supreme excellence and of very large size.³³⁵ There is no virtue in size, of course, but there is more virtue in a long poem than in a part of it. Moreover, it is astonishing to meet at the very threshold of European literature, not simply a few little pieces by means of which the oldest poets would have tried their strength, but an immense literary monument, representing the accumulated efforts of many men and of centuries. It is as if the earliest architectural monument to have come to us were already as large and as elaborate as one of the outstanding medieval cathedrals. The Iliad is in its mode and style so close to perfection that it has remained a model of excellence to this very day. We admire it not merely because of its antiquity, but irrespective of it. As a matter of fact, most critics would agree that it is the best of all the Western epics, with the possible exception of the Odyssey. And that epic — allow me to repeat it — does not appear toward the end of Greek culture or when that culture reached its climax, but at the beginning of it, or we might almost say, before its beginning.³³⁶ Homer was truly a herald of Greek culture, of European culture, of Western culture — a herald of such gigantic stature that he is still overshadowing us. Is not that a miracle, or can one think of anything less easily explainable, more miraculous?


What is more, the miracle was not an isolated one, or if it was for a time it did not remain so very long. A second epic, the Odyssey, came gradually into being. We may be certain that it was completed later than the Iliad, perhaps as much as a century later or more. We must postulate the existence of an author or editor for that poem, even as we had to postulate it for the Iliad. In fact, both poems have been traditionally ascribed to the same author, Homer. In order to reconcile that tradition with the probabilities derived from internal evidence, I would suggest that the author of the Iliad be called Homer I and the author of the Odyssey, Homer II. This does not press the difference between them too far; it does not even completely exclude the (slight) possibility that Homer II may have been the same person as Homer I, but at a much older age.³³⁷

When one assigns different dates to the two epics it is well to remember that such dating is always ambiguous. For each poem contains stories, ideas, definite phrases or lines that represent different chronological strata; then for each poem there were different stages in the long process of amalgamation and standardization. Neither poem was completed at a definite date. Whether one studies the vocabulary, grammatical, rhetorical, or prosodic characteristics, one finds many elements that are common to the Iliad and the Odyssey.³³⁸ Indeed, the outstanding qualities are common to both, that is, the simplicity of thought and diction, and the rapidity of development (in great contrast with the slowness, fantastic exuberance, and turgidity of the Oriental epics).

The differences in subject and mood between the Iliad and the Odyssey are considerable. The Iliad is a story of war; the Odyssey is a story of peace, of domestic life, of merchants, travelers, and colonists; it is full of romance but also of magic; it is at once more superstitious and more moral. The artistic unity of the Odyssey is deeper and the mood is gentler. It is a kind of novel, the first in world literature,³³⁹ and moreover it has a moral purpose. Says Jaeger, ”It is impossible to read the Odyssey without feeling its deliberately educational outlook as a whole, although many parts of the poem show no trace of it. That impression derives from the universal aspect of the spiritual conflict and development which moves parallel with the external events in the tale of Telemachus — which is in fact their real plot and leads to their real climax.” ³⁴⁰ There lies between the two poems an unmistakable interval of peaceful culture and urbanization, though how long that interval may have lasted, nobody can say for certain. It might be a matter of a century or two; on the other hand, the natural difference between two successive generations, the older one more warlike, the younger one more peaceful, or perhaps even the difference between the mellowness of an old man and the impetuosity of his own youth, might suffice to explain the contrast.

The best argument to my mind for a longer interval is the following. The Iliad mentions bronze fourteen times as often as iron, and the Odyssey only four times. That fact is significant, because the differences would not be deliberate; the poets would hardly think of that but would simply react each to his own environment. Both poems have their roots in the Bronze Age, but Homer II was more familiar with iron, and less familiar with bronze, than Homer I.

If we assumed that the Iliad was completed about the middle of the ninth century, we may perhaps assume also that the Odyssey was completed a century later, but that is at best a plausible guess. After having made that reservation, it will be simpler in what follows to abide by the ancient tradition and speak of “Homer” as the author of the Homeric poems in general. Those poems, and especially the Iliad and the Odyssey, are concrete realities. When we speak of Homer we simply mean those two epics.


The early story of the Iliad and the Odyssey is necessarily obscure. Both poems were kept alive by minstrels and rhapsodists who recited them at banquets or religious festivals. Homer’s fame was already such by the middle of the sixth century (c. 540) that Xenophanes of Colophon could say, “From the beginning all men have learned from Homer.”³⁴¹ In the time of Pindar, half a century later, some of the Rhapsodists were called Hom ridai,³⁴² but we need not conclude with the scholiast that they were descendants of Homer, except in a spiritual way. The Hom ridai were simply the followers of the old minstrels and especially of the most illustrious of them, Homer; they were in the fullest sense the keepers of the Homeric tradition. For practical purposes the Homeric canon was vulgarized ³⁴³ and Homer’s national fame securely established during the fifth century. One of the guests of Xenophon declared, “My father being anxious that I should become a good man made me learn all the poems of Homer,” ³⁴⁴ and the final consecration was given, albeit grudgingly, by Plato. The latter, referring³⁴⁵ to the eulogists who called Homer the educator of Hellas, conceded that he was the greatest of poets and the first of tragedy writers, yet would banish him from the city. In spite of Plato’s unreasonable and illiberal verdict, Homer has remained in the city and kept his position in the heart of every Greek. The validity of his title, “educator of Hellas” has been confirmed by the whole history of Greek-speaking peoples down to our own days; it has never been doubted except by Plato, and the very Christians have seldom allowed their antipagan prejudices to cool their admiration for him. In fact, Homer deserves a broader title; he was not simply the educator of Greece, but one of the educators of mankind. We shall come back to this presently.


What did Homer teach? In the first place, he taught the Greek language. His immortal works helped to standardize that language, or rather to lift it up to that level of excellence and dignity which can be reached only by means of literary masterpieces. His writings became for the Greek people a kind of Bible, to which they were always ready to listen and which gave them and their children patterns of honor, of good breeding, and of good language. In spite of its mythological contents, that Bible was a lay Bible; that is, there was nothing sacerdotal in it, and it was remarkably free of magic and superstitions. The Ionian poet was truly an ancestor of the Ionian scientists whose achievements will be explained later.

In the second place, the Iliad and the Odyssey taught history, the history of the Minoan and Mycenaean origins, which were in some respects dim and distant, yet in other respects near enough in the form of tools, usages, words, and folklore to be easily recognized and understood by the listeners. It is the very function of epic poetry to record the past for posterity and prevent its oblivion. It is impossible to itemize the historical contents of the Homeric poems without giving a course on Mycenaean culture. The reader will find a very brief characterization of that culture in the previous chapter, and sufficient bibliographic references to continue his study of it as far as he may wish. Note that every textbook of Minoan or Aegean archaeology is necessarily full of references to Homer. Homeric lines help to explain the monuments and these in their turn help to interpret Homer. The latest editors of Homer refer continually to Aegean antiquities. The pioneer exponent of the archaeological interpretation of Homer was Wolfgang Helbig (1884), who was followed by many others.³⁴⁶

Homeric poetry offers us a mirror of the Mycenaean age, which was then vanishing, yet was vividly and joyfully remembered by the old people and the minstrels. Like every epic, it was turned toward the past; it is thus a little paradoxical to call it the harbinger of a new age. It is a climax or an ending rather than a beginning yet it provided the new people, the Greeks, with a solid foundation upon which to establish a new culture; it provided them with a standard of propriety and a guide of conduct; it gave them pride and dignity.

To put it otherwise, I am more and more convinced that the Greek culture of Homeric days was not something radically new but rather a second growth of the Aegean culture which had been temporarily suppressed by violent upheavals and almost destroyed. Life is never completely destroyed, however; consider, for example, the rich growth of plants in a region devastated by volcanic eruptions or desiccated by a long drought. One might think that everything is dead, but it is not. Life is dormant and may remain so for a long time, yet let the blessed rain fall and the mercy of heaven permit it, and it will soon reappear as vigorous as ever. Much is lost in the process, of course, and new elements are mixed with the old ones. The new Greek culture was a revival of the old one; that revival was deliberate, at least from the point of view of the minstrels and their patrons. It was different in many respects from the Aegean one, for the conditions of life had been deeply modified. For one thing this was the age of iron; the days of bronze could never come back.


It would be tempting to analyze the Homeric poems from the point of view of each of the scientific categories of our own days, but that would be long and not very rewarding. Moreover, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to date exactly the elements of that knowledge. How much is prehistoric, how much old Minoan, how much Mycenaean, how much neo-Greek? For example, when the Iliad was composed much geographic knowledge had already been accumulated by Phoenician and Aegean sailors and colonists; the Mediterranean and the Euxine world had been pretty well explored. Bold navigators had reached the Atlantic and introduced the conception of the great river Oceanos encircling the earth’s disk and returning into itself.³⁴⁷ That conception was mixed with the mythologic one of Oceanos, son of Uranos and Gaia, wedded to Thetys, the father of primeval water and of all the rivers.³⁴⁸ Another story, that of the Argonauts (Argonautai) sailing on the ship Argo under Jason’s leadership to capture the Golden Fleece in Colchis (on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea), perpetuates the remembrance of some of the earlier sea adventures. The minstrels told many other stories, equally marvelous, but they did not care about geographic accuracy or even about geographic consistency. Geography and mythology, facts and fancies, were inextricably mixed up in their tales. It is as futile to try to account exactly for the wanderings of Odysseus as for those of Sindbad the Sailor in much later times. The storytellers remembered the adventures and the wonders and forgot geographic realities. One reality, however, had impressed their minds — the four winds, Boreas, Euros, Notos, and Zephyros — which represented roughly the four cardinal points, north, east, south, and west; two of those directions were immemorially known because of the rising and setting of Sun and stars; the two others were suggested by the climateric regularities of the Aegean Sea. We may be sure that the early Greek sailors knew their Mediterranean localities pretty well, but they did not communicate much of their knowledge to Homer or the latter was not interested in it.


The medical knowledge implied in the Homeric poems is such as we would expect among people intelligent and quarrelsome, having much experience of war wounds and of their healing. They had learned to anoint their limbs with oil (aleiph lipa or lip’ elai ).The best observers among them had opportunities of realizing the various effects of special wounds, the peculiarities of fainting spells, the convulsive motions of dying men. Many good descriptions of such facts occur in the epics. There were professional physicians and these were appreciated — “a physician is worth many other men” ³⁴⁹ — but were not always available and the fighting men had to help one another in case of need. Much of the medical work was surgical. Yet the physicians were concerned with internal medicine as well as with surgery and used drugs of many kinds (introi polypharmacoi³⁵⁰). Some women also practiced the medical arts; they nursed patients, collected herbs and prepared drugs, such as the anesthetic and soothing potion (pharmacon nepenthes) the secret of which Helen had received from an Egyptian woman.³⁵¹ The so-called “anatomical” vocabulary of Homer includes some 150 words. One bit of Homeric physiology is still embedded in our own language. The life spirit (thymos, psych ; cf. anima, spiritus) was placed in the midriff (phrenes); hence our words phrenetic, phrenology! But that localization should not be accepted literally. In Homer the words phr n, phrenes refer to other organs, and especially to the heart or the parts about the heart and to the seat of the mind.³⁵² The early Greeks used the word phr n as carelessly as we still use the word heart (as when we say “he has a good heart” to mean “he is kind”).³⁵³ Homeric anatomy should not be taken more seriously than Homeric geography.

The best technicians, then as now, were not learned people, masters of words, but craftsmen — smiths, potters, carpenters, leatherworkers, whose experience and folklore might be considerable. The woman spun and wove. The husbandmen knew the lore of beasts and plants; they had learned to use dung (copros) to fertilize their fields.³⁵⁴ The craftsman (d miurgos) was often moving from place to place, so were the seer, the healer (i t r cac n), the builder, the minstrel.³⁵⁵ Homeric science is simply Mycenaean folklore with a few novelties and variations.

The exercises of the body — gymnastics and choral dance — which the Greeks would later develop to such a high pitch in their Olympiads ³⁵⁶ and other festivals, were clearly of Cretan origin. Homer refers to the dancing floor (choros) “which once in broad Cnossos, Daidalos built for Ariadne with the beautiful locks.”³⁵⁷ Such dances are often pictured in Cretan frescoes. The early musical instruments were of the same origin.


Homer was the educator of Hellas. This must be understood in a broad way, humanistic rather than technical. One might say that he taught everything essential, but one might also say that he taught nothing. He certainly did not teach history, except vaguely. He gave the Greek-speaking people ideals of nobility, virtue, courtesy, poetry; thanks to him they were provided from the very beginning with a viaticum of humanities. He awakened or strengthened their literary and artistic sensibility, and whatever he did, he did with remarkable clearness and soberness, without unnecessary mysticism or too much hocus-pocus. The educational influence of the Iliad and the Odyssey has continued to our own day with hardly any interruption; there is no older and more persistent tradition in the Western world.³⁵⁸

From ancient times almost to our own the rhapsodists or reciters plied their trade. We find references to them in the papyri ³⁵⁹ and later in Byzantine and neo-Greek literature, as well as in the unwritten folklore of Greek lands. The Homeric tradition was at first restricted to the people who understood Greek, and thus it hardly touched the people of Western Europe before the fourteenth century. Indeed, that fundamental and essential part of Hellenism was not, like Hellenic science and philosophy, transmitted to us indirectly via the Syriac-Arabic channel, ³⁶⁰ and when the Catholic Church allowed the knowledge of Greek almost to die out in Western Europe, Homer was known only very imperfectly through the Latin literature of the Roman age and through various adaptations in medieval Latin and in vernacular poems or narratives.³⁶¹ The Greek revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries brought back the original text to the attention of scholars, and the Greek princeps edited by Demetrios Chalcondyles (Florence, 1488) reestablished it forever (Fig. 36). From that time on, Homer has been one of the educators of Western Europe with almost unbroken continuity.

It is not possible here to tell the history of that tradition, for even the swiftest outline of it would take too much place. Moreover, such an outline would be repetitious and tiring. It is more interesting to select one episode, which is familiar enough to French readers but less so to English ones. The abbé Fénelon (1651–1715), having been appointed by Louis XIV as tutor to his grandson the Duke of Burgundy, wrote for the latter the didactic novel entitled Les aventures de Télémaque (Fig. 37). That book, first printed without author’s name in 1699,³⁶² immediately obtained considerable success (many editions appeared in France and the Low Countries during the first year). It evoked much criticism in the royal circle because of its satirical, utopian, and “liberal” tendencies and completed the author’s disgrace. Its early diffusion was largely due to the foreign editions. It exerted a deep influence upon thought and letters during the eighteenth and a good part of the nineteenth century.³⁶³

Fig. 36. Editio princeps of Homer (Florence, 1488); colophon, p. 439 b. [From the copy in the Boston Public Library.]

Fig. 37. Title page and first page of the first edition of Télémaque (2 vols.; 145 mm high). Volume 1 contains on its last page (p. 216) the royal privilege, dated Versailles, April 6, 1699. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]


The story of Homer was beclouded with legends almost from the beginning. The early Greeks did not deny his existence but seven cities claimed him as their son; seven different birthplaces are too many for a mortal, yet too few for a mythical hero. In the course of time, as the Homeric poems became the basis of Greek education wherever the language was spoken, the legends concerning their author increased and more birthplaces were invented for him. For example, Heliodoros of Emesa wrote in his youth (c. 220–240) ³⁶⁴ a famous novel, wherein he claimed incidentally that Homer was born in Thebes, the son of the god Hermes (= Thoth) by the wife of an Egyptian priest.³⁶⁵ We gather from the papyri that Homer was very well known in the Greek circles of Egypt; it is possible that the Syrian Heliodoros obtained his Homeric lore from Egyptian sources. The very fact that a Greek author who became eventually a bishop in Thessaly could give credence to such a fable speaks volumes for the reality of Egyptian influence on Greek thought. If the Greeks of the third century were prepared to believe that their own Homer, the educator of Hellas, was an Egyptian, they must be ready to consider Egypt as the cradle of their culture.³⁶⁶

Such extravagances were not restricted to ancient and medieval ages; they pop up from time to time as late as the last century. The following illustration will probably amuse the reader as much as it does me. The Flemish magistrate Charles Joseph De Grave (1736–1805) devoted the leisure hours of a very active life to archaeological studies, the extraordinary fruits of which appeared soon after his death in a book entitled République des Champs Elysées ou Monde ancien (Fig. 38).³⁶⁷ Inspired by Télémaque and by the Atlantica of Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630–1702),³⁶⁸ the austere scholar tried to reinterpret from top to bottom the story of our classical origins. Even as the Swede Rudbeck was anxious to place them in Sweden, the Fleming De Grave writing a century later was placing them in Belgium. That kind of illusion is common enough, but very few people will work as hard to establish it on so heavy a substructure. According to De Grave, Homer was a Belgian poet who had been celebrating the Belgian country. That seemed pretty obvious to him, but was not so obvious to other scholars, especially to those who had not been brought up in the bosom of sweet Flanders.


After this little intermezzo, we may return for a moment to the discussion of textual difficulties which was carried on throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by scholars of many countries; as those scholars were trained with more rigor, their discussions became gradually more critical and more exacting. That long travail culminated in the Prolegomena ad Homerum of Friedrich August Wolf (1795) (Fig. 39),³⁶⁹ which opened the modern phasis of the “Homeric question,” that is, the series of misgivings concerning the existence of Homer and the integrity of theIliad and the Odyssey. We have already referred to them and stated our own diffident conclusions.

Fig. 38. Title page of volume 1 of De Grave’s République des Champs Elysées (3 vols.; Ghent, 1806). [From the copy in the Library of Congress.]

Among the innumerable publications devoted to these topics, I would like to single out one which the average philologist would prefer to pooh-pooh. One of the great English writers of the last century, Samuel Butler (1835–1902), the author of Erewhon and The Way of All Flesh,published toward the end of his life (in 1897) a book, The Authoress of the Odyssey (Fig. 40), wherein he tried to prove that the Odyssey was written by a woman (a woman of Trapani in Sicily!). To use our own terminology, Homer I was a man, but Homer II — definitely — a woman. His arguments are not convincing, except the more general part of them which do but confirm the impression of every sensitive reader that the literary atmosphere of the Odyssey is gentler, more domestic, and let us even admit, feminine than that of the Iliad. More than that Butler could not prove, but that much was easy enough.

Fig. 40. Title page of Samuel Butler, The authoress of the Odyssey (1897). [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.]

Fig. 39. Title page of volume 1 (the only one published) of Wolf’s Prolegomena (Halle a.d. Saale, 1795). [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.] This copy bears the following inscription: “To the celebrated Harvard University in Cambridge, new England. From the author, Fr. A. Wolf, Berlin, d. 21, April, 1817.” Note that Wolf gave the book to Harvard 22 years after its publication, toward the end of his life; he died in 1824.

Samuel Butler was an amateur of whimsical genius studying Homer for the mere love of it, as so many Englishmen have done and are still doing; he was simply diverting himself and refreshing his soul, but meanwhile professional philologists of many countries were displaying immense erudition and endless ingenuity in the search of the texts, line by line, word by word, analyzing, stratifying, classifying, disarticulating them in every possible way. While they were thus engaged, competing with one another, often quarreling about this word or that, it took an ex-business man, that is, a Philistine, to have the simple idea of checking Homeric words against monuments. The philologists were working day and night in their libraries, surrounded with dictionaries, editions, commentaries, and the dusty memoirs of their predecessors. Their task was endless and they often worked in a kind of fever. Time was precious. They could find none for adventure and had no inclination to wander in the places that the Homeric poems were supposed to describe or to refer to. Moreover, was not Homer simply a weaver of fairy tales? Was there any hope of finding traces of the ancient gods and heroes? Owing to his ignorance ³⁷⁰ and simplicity as much as to his enthusiasm and faith, Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) thought there was. Nay, he was sure of it, so sure that he was ready to stake his fortune and his life on that belief. Homeric poems were not spun out of thin air; there must be a material basis to them and he would go and unveil it. He visited Greece and Troy for the first time in 1868 and in that same year began his excavations in Ithaca. The following twenty years were largely devoted to excavations in Troy, Mycenae, Orchomenos, Tiryns, and he was truly the pioneer of Greek prehistoric archaeology. He was the first to excavate methodically and, though his methods have been refined in many ways, he is the founder of that line of research; ³⁷¹ the first to improve his methods was his young assistant and successor, Wilhelm Dörpfeld (1853-1940).

Even as Wolf had opened a new era of philological discussion, Schliemann began the era of archaeological exegesis and made possible a new interpretation of Homeric poetry as a mirror of the Mycenaean age.

This could not affect one of the Homeric questions, the one that teases the average person most — the identification of Homer — but in a deeper sense it resurrected him (Hom ros anest ) as the author or editor of poems celebrating the dawn of Greek culture. We shall never know the truth concerning the author (or the two authors, or the plural one), but that does not matter very much for we have the two poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, presumably in their integrity, and these are indestructible treasures, the value of which can but increase in the future.


In their splendid work on the Growth of Literature the Chadwicks have shown that the early literature of many nations is not concerned only with narratives or sagas, but deals also with other subjects. The Iliad and the Odyssey are the outstanding examples of epic poetry in world literature, but the early Greek minstrels were reciting occasionally poems of different content, the purpose of which was mainly didactic, gnomic (aphoristic “wise sayings,” riddles), or mantic (divinatory, prophetic). This is not surprising, for why were there minstrels and why do we find them all over the world? Simply because people always craved for information, for knowledge of one kind or another. Personal, familial, or tribal gossip could not satisfy the more intelligent among them very long; they wanted to extend their horizon. They could not help asking themselves many troublesome questions. “Why were they doing what they did?” “Where did they come from and whither were they bound?” “Why were they living at all?” “Why was the world as it was?” Such questions introduce mythology and cosmology; they also introduce science, and the history of science is largely the history of the successive answers that have been proposed.

The peoples’ historical curiosity was satisfied with the sagas that gave them consciousness of their own traditions, pride of race, humanities, nobility. That was good but left many important questions unanswered, not only the very deep ones that have just been mentioned, but simpler ones, more practical and more urgent. The husbandman’s need of special knowledge is considerable and very diversified; the same can be said of sailors and craftsmen. In addition, all people need moral and social guidance such as is transmitted to them in the form of proverbs. Every proverb ³⁷² is like a parcel of folk wisdom, standardized, hallmarked, and ready for transmission. For example, a saying like “If a man sow evil he will reap more evil” ³⁷³ is easy to remember, especially if it is put in rhythmic form or expressed with rhymes and alliterations; it is also easy to repeat and he who quotes it sententiously in the family circle or the market place obtains a measure of personal credit for the wisdom of his whole tribe (he deserves that credit for he helps to preserve that wisdom and to teach it).

The best didactic poetry of the Greeks is associated with the name of Hesiod, who flourished somewhat later than Homer; perhaps for that reason, his personality is more tangible. He was the first Greek poet who spoke in his own name and expressed the intention of delivering a personal message, “to tell of true things.” ³⁷⁴ Like Homer, Hesiod originated from the Asiatic coast, but Homer was probably an Ionian, while Hesiod’s father was established in Cyme, a harbor of Aeolis (just north of Ionia). Poverty obliged the father to leave Cyme and seek better fortune elsewhere; he crossed the Aegean and settled on the Greek mainland, in Ascra, in Boeotia. His sons Hesiod and Perses were perhaps born and certainly educated in the new abode. They were farmers, like their father, but their destinies were very different. Perses was an idler and good-for-nothing, while Hesiod, not content to do his duty as a husbandman, answered an impelling call from the Muses to sing and preach. Toward the end of his life he moved to Oenoë in Locris, where he was murdered. ³⁷⁵

There is no reason to doubt the existence of the poet Hesiod and we may assume that he flourished somewhat after Homer II, say toward the end of the eighth century. He was a Boeotian and this may account for the occasional crudity of his verse, as compared with Homer’s.³⁷⁶ The two main poems ascribed to him that have survived, the Works and Days and the Theogony, are excellent specimens of their kind. Note that both are relatively short, 828 and 1022 lines, but that is not surprising, for didactic or aphoristic poetry does not lend itself to the long developments and digressions that the narrative style of the Iliad, or the Odyssey encouraged. The storytellers are keenly aware that their audience is eager for detailed accounts (for example, of battles and banquets) and thrilling enumerations, and that it loves the tantalizing spinning out of dramatic episodes. On the contrary, husbandmen want brief advice, and the proverbs wherein the folklore is crystallized are naturally terse.

Works and Days

The Works and Days (Erga cai h merai) (Fig. 41) may be divided into four parts: (1) an exhortation to his younger brother Perses, (2) a collection of rules for husbandry and for navigation, (3) ethical and religious precepts, (4) a calendar of lucky and unlucky days. The first part contains allegories or fables explaining the conditions of man and the value of goodness. In the first of these allegories, useful emulation is contrasted with quarrelsomeness. The myth of Pandora which follows explains the origin of evil and the inevitability of labor (compare with the story in Genesis having the same purpose); the Fable (ainos, tale) of the Hawk and the Nightingale shows the wrongness of violence and injustice. The most interesting of these stories to us is that of the Five Ages of the World: ³⁷⁷ the age of gold which was the age of peace and perfection; the age of silver, less pure and less noble; the age of bronze; the fourth age, which seems to refer to the Minoan revival the glorious remembrance of which had inspired Homer; finally the age of iron, the present age of sorrow, hatred, and strife. Hesiod was living in an age like ours, when thoughtful men were contemplating the ruin, misery, and chaos that are the sequel of war and of moral decline, and when in their disillusionment they were tempted to say, “The world is getting worse every day, it must needs come to an end.” This kind of social pessimism may strike us as modern, because some of our contemporaries are in a similar mood, but it suggests comparison also with more ancient times, for example, with the Sumerian hymn quoted above (p. 96). In a sense, the idea that everything is slipping from bad to worse and that “the world is going to the devil” is an idea of all times, or rather it is bound to reoccur each time the social balance is violently disturbed by wars, revolutions or other calamities. Even when no calamities intervene, it may impress itself upon the mind of a man whose own body and mind are gradually deteriorating, or who lacks patience with the gradual emancipation and the waywardness (apparent or real) of the new generation.

It is clear that Hesiod had been moved to write his poem by the indiscipline of his foolish brother. He was trying to educate him, to shame him into a more decent conduct, and to buck him up (probably all in vain). The first part of his poem was a kind of mythological introduction which was meant to awaken in Perses’ soul the love of tradition, the desire to be just and to work like a man.

Fig. 41. Editio princeps of the Works and days, together with the Idyls of Theocritos (Milan, c. 1480); title of the Works and days (folio 33a). [From the copy in the Huntington Library.]

The other parts require less explanation. The rules of husbandry and navigation; ³⁷⁸ (more than a third of the whole) are easier to read than to analyze. Let us quote a few lines. First the opening ones:

When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle. This is the law of the plains, and of those who live near the sea, and who inhabit rich country, the glens and dingles far from the tossing sea, — strip to sow and strip to plough and strip to reap, if you wish to get in all Demeter’s fruits in due season, and that each kind may grow in its season. Else, afterwards, you may chance to be in want, and go begging to other men’s houses, but without avail; as you have already come to me. But I will give you no more nor give you further measure. Foolish Perses! Work the work which the gods ordained for men, lest in bitter anguish of spirit you with your wife and children seek your livelihood amongst your neighbors, and they do not heed you. Two or three times, may be, you will succeed, but if you trouble them further, it will not avail you, and all your talk will be in vain, and your word-play unprofitable. Nay, I bid you find a way to pay your debts and avoid hunger.

Then these:

But when the artichoke flowers, and the chirping grass-hopper sits in a tree and pours down his shrill song continually from under his wings in the season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of an heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the, fresh Zephyr, from the everfiowing spring which pours down un-fouled thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine,³⁷⁹

That is not so Boeotian after all! Hesiod’s immediate purpose was to explain to his brother how to work profitably and to escape want, but the poetry inherent in his subject was too much for him, or, to put it otherwise, the practical and censorious man was defeated by the poet in him. At his best he was so deeply moved by the gracious spectacles which surrounded him that he was lifted for a while to a higher level; he was then really a forerunner of the bucolic poets of a later time.³⁸⁰

Until 1951 it would have been correct to say that Hesiod’s Works and Days were the first example of a “Farmer’s Almanac.” This is no longer true, because Samuel Noah Kramer of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania has discovered in Nippur and deciphered a cuneiform tablet of c. 1700, beginning with the line “In days of yore a farmer gave these instructions to his son”; there are 108 lines in all, explaining a farmer’s duties throughout the year. Kramer has published a tentative translation entitled “Sumerian Farmer’s Almanac.” ³⁸¹ Please note that the unknown Sumerian farmer who wrote or inspired that text flourished about a thousand years before Hesiod.

To return to the latter, the two final sections of his poem are very short (70 and 64 lines). The third offers homely advice for marriage and for good behavior in various circumstances, even some which are apparently very trivial (how to make water, omichein³⁸²) ; this includes superstitions that would interest the folklorist but upon which I have no time to insist. The precepts in the fourth part, dealing with lucky and unlucky days, are of course entirely superstitious, but we should bear in mind that similar fancies guided the farmer’s activities until yesterday, that they still guide him today in many countries, and that there are among us so-called rational people who are afraid of “Friday the thirteenth.” The poem ends with these lines:

These days are a great blessing to men on earth; but the rest are changeable, luckless, and bring nothing. Everyone praises a different day but few know their nature. Sometimes a day is a stepmother, sometimes a mother. That man is happy and lucky in them who knows all these things and does his work without offending the deathless gods, who discerns the omens of birds and avoids transgression³⁸³

The farmer was aware of many mysteries surrounding and threatening him; he was every day at the mercy of the elements and of luck. It was not enough for him to do his best in a practical way, he must be humble and full of awe.

Among the lost works of Hesiod was an astronomical poem of which only a few fragments remain. It describes the principal constellations and explained their names, that is, the myths connected with them. The fragments that have come down to us deal with the Pleiades, Hyades, the Great Bear, and Orion. These are the earliest texts of their kind in Greek literature.


The other extant poem, Descent of the Gods (Theogonia) is a summary of mythology, the history and genealogy of the gods, which should not detain us. It was originally followed by another poem, a catalogue of women and eoiai, that is, a list of heroines each of whom was introduced by the minstrel with the words hoi (or like her). These women constituted the natural link between the world of gods and that of men, for the heroes, to whom a divine origin was generally ascribed, were brought to life by earthly mothers. After having set forth the intricate genealogy of the gods it was thus necessary to speak of the mortal women whom they had loved and by whom the heroes, the leaders of men, had been given to the world. This way of thinking helps to account for primitive matriarchy, but I must abandon that subject to anthropologists.

To a mythologically minded person (and that description applies to every Greek) the genealogy of gods and cosmology were related fields, for the origin of gods, the origin of the world, the procedure and details of creation were inextricably mixed. How had the poet obtained knowledge of the dark secrets that he revealed? He warns us in the prelude ³⁸⁴ that the daughters of great Zeus “plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy olive, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime.” ³⁸⁵ This placing of the unknown past on the same plan as the future was natural enough. The genuine seer, like Calchas’ son Thestor,³⁸⁶ knows ”the present, the future, and the past,” and the timeless gods are not conscious of time. Remember the inscription in the Iseum of Sais; Isis says of herself, ”I am everything which existed, which is now and will ever be, no mortal has ever disclosed my robe.” ³⁸⁷

Philologists agree that the two main Hesiodic poems are post-Homeric, though each contains elements that are or may be as old as anything embedded in the Odyssey or even in the Iliad. They would place the Theogony later, perhaps as much as a century later, than the Works and Days.The Theogony is thus ascribed to another writer, whom we might call Hesiod II.³⁸⁸


Though the Works and Days contains some graceful passages, Hesiod’s style is generally inferior to Homer’s. This may be because the subject lends itself less easily to poetic graces, or it may be due to the sterilizing fascination that Homer’s greatness and popular success entailed. It is conceivable that the fame of the Iliad and the Odyssey, when these epics were finally perfected, discouraged other poets, including Hesiod, in the same manner that Michelangelo and Raphael created a kind of artistic desert around them.

The main reproach that one can make to Hesiod is that he lacks the rapidity and the fluidity of Homer and that many of his verses follow one another haltingly in a staccato rhythm, but this was often unavoidable, and I feel greater respect for an author who jumps readily from one idea to another when there is no real connection between them, than for one who forges artificial transitions. Hesiod’s style is homely and naïve but that is not unpleasant, and his mood is rather stern and unromantic, but what would you have? He was in a more literal way than Homer a teacher, an instructor. People did not take as willingly to him as they did to the storyteller who by now had already assumed heroic grandeur.

It is not surprising then that the Hesiodic tradition was less glamorous and less universal than the Homeric one. Even today a hundred people know Homer for one who knows Hesiod, and so, I imagine, it always was. It would seem that the later poem, the Theogony, was the first to attract attention; it was commented upon by the founder of the Stoics, Zeno of Citium (IV–2 B.C.) and edited by Zenodotos of Ephesos (III–1 B.C.) and Aristophanes of Byzantium (II–1 B.C.). The first philologist to interest himself in the Works and Days was Dionysios Thrax (II–2 B.C.); curiously enough, the Greek text of that work was printed almost a decade before that of Homer.

Hesiod is not forgotten, however, and his words are still moving. He was close to the earth and to life. He explained the fundamental law of mankind, the necessity of justice and honest labor; that law has not been abrogated and never will be. His stem advice is still applicable and a few idyllic traits of his are still warming our hearts.


Homer. The first edition of the Greek text of both the Iliad and the Odyssey we owe to Demetrios Chalcondyles; the colophon is dated Florence 9 December 1488, though the printing was not completed before 13 January 1489. See our facsimile of a page taken from the copy in the Boston Public Library. Descriptions in the British Museum Catalogue of incunabula (vol. 6, p. 678) and in Emile Legrand, Bibliothèque hellénique (Paris, 1885), vol. 1, pp. 9–15.

Edition of the Iliad by Walter Leaf (2 vols.; London, 1886–1888, 1900–1902), and by Jan Van Leeuwen (2 vols.; Leiden, 1912–13). Greek-English edition by Augustus Taber Murray in the Loeb Classical Library (2 vols.; London, 1924–25). Greek-French edition by Paul Mazon in the Collection des Universités de France (4 vols.; Paris, 1937–38). George Melville Bolling, Ilias Atheniensium. The Athenian Iliad of the sixth century B.C. (524 p.; New York: American Philological Association, 1951); an attempt to reëstablish the Peisistratian text; about 1000 of the 15,693 lines accepted by Wolf are here set at the foot of the page; see footnote 21.

Editions of the Odyssey, Books I–XII, by W. Walter Merry and James Riddell (Oxford, 1875, 1886), Books XIII–XXIV by David Binning Monro (Oxford, 1901); Books I–XXIV by Jan Van Leeuwen (Leiden, 1917). The Odyssey printed in Robert Proctor’s type on Morris paper by the Oxford University Press in 1909 is a very beautiful book. Greek-English edition in the Loeb Classical Library by A. T. Murray (2 vols.; London, 1919). Greek-French edition by Victor Bérard in the Collection des Universités de France (3 vols.; Paris, 1924).

Hesiod. Editio princeps of the Works and Days together with the Eidyllia of Theocritos, printed by Bonus Accursius in Milano without date (c. 1478–1481, c. 1480). The title page of the Works (folio 33a ) which we reproduce was obtained from the copy in the Huntington Library. Editio princeps of both works of Hesiod, with Theocritos and other works, printed by Aldus Manutius (Venice, February 1495/96). These two first editions are described in the British Museum Catalogue of incunabula (vol. 8, p. 757; vol. 5, p. 551).

Greek-English edition of Hesiod, together with the Homeric hymns and Homerica, by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (Loeb Classical Library, London, 1914).

Bibliophiles will enjoy the edition of the Works and Days in Greek and French by Paul Mazon printed in the Garamond type by Edouard Pelletan (Paris, 1912), together with woodcuts by Emile Colin and a long essay by Anatole France. This was the last book published by Pelletan, The Garamond type is so called after Claude Garamond (d. 1581); it was the type used by Robert Estienne (1503–1559) in his Greek editions after 1544. It is very pleasant to look at, but difficult to read because of numerous ligatures. Three sizes of it are still available at the Imprimerie Nationale, Paris.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!