Chapter 5. Homer: The Trial of the Rhapsode

Not surprisingly, considering the overwhelming prestige of the Iliad and the Odyssey, a heroizing body of legend attached itself to a person regarded as the author of those poems. The legend of Homer follows the pattern under consideration in important ways: the poet is a wanderer, like Aesop; he is exiled from inhospitable cities; and there is a dramatic treatment of the trial theme we found in Aesop and Archilochus. This legend, preserved in the Hellenistic biography by “Herodotus,” is based on earlier Ionic traditions, and contains epigrams that probably date from the seventh or sixth centuries BC. [1] The legend of Homer’s death is referred to as early as Heraclitus, which dates it to the end of the 6th century at the latest. [2] A treatment of Homer’s death is also found in the Contest of Homer and Hesiod. [3] Homer is the best poet: “the wisest of all the Greeks” and “the sweetest singer.” [4] He is holy, [5] the son of a Muse and Apollo. [6] His epitaph refers to “the sacred head of divine Homer.” [7]
Like Aesop, Hesiod, and Archilochus, Homer receives a supernatural vision as inspiration for his poetry: Helen appears to him in a dream and demands that he write the Iliad. [8] Another story of supernatural inspiration links Homer with the Muses. Praying at the tomb of Achilles, he becomes blinded by a vision of the warrior in full armor, and receives poetic skill from Thetis and the Muses as compensation. This compensation/inspiration theme shows how close the poet is to the seer in archaic Greece. [9] The idea of a blind singer is actually traditional; in his discussion of Eastern European oral singers, Milman Parry notes that, while the blind are not always the best singers, a number of prestigious oral singers were blind. [10]
After Homer has learned his poetic craft, he becomes a wanderer; in the pseudo-Herodotean biography, he is forced to leave three cities (Smyrna, Neon Teichos, and Cyme) in succession before he finally finds a home in Chios. He leaves Smyrna because “he had no means of support [ἄπορος ἐὼν τοῦ βίου, §9],” then departs from Neon Teichos because he was “hard up [aporōs] and finding it difficult to feed himself.” [11] The emphasis on the word aporos recalls Archilochus, who left Paros “because of poverty and lack of resources [dia penian kai aporian].”
This portrait of wandering insecurity would seem to be a realistic, historical touch. The traveling aoidos or rhapsode must have led an uncertain, dependent life, continually visiting more or less hospitable cities. In Plato (Republic 600d, cf. Ion), Homer and Hesiod are said to have been so little valued that no city wanted to have them stay. Herodotus (5.67) describes a tyrant repressing rhapsodes. [12] Thus I agree that legends of Homer and similar poets encapsulate rhapsodic experiences over generations. [13] We can accordingly posit an oral tradition for stories of Homer—legends, folk tales, developed from preexisting legends of mythical seers and heroes—long before these stories began to be written down.
In the case of Cyme, we have a fleshed-out episode with Aesopic resonances. The poet approaches Cyme with high hopes for righteousness and hospitality; he composes the following epigram: “May my feet bring me straight to a city of righteous men; their hearts are generous and their intentions best.” [14] In the same way, Aesop had looked to Delphi for righteous and hospitable men. [15] As in the case of Aesop, Homer is well received at first, but then receives no hospitality. [16] He proposes that the city give him support in return for his poetic performances and is told to present his case to the town senate. The senate is initially sympathetic to his proposal, but a powerful senator opposes him, arguing that if all blind men (called homēroi, ‘hostages’, by the Cymeans) were supported by the state, they would have to shelter a huge crowd of useless individuals (and so Homer, previously called Melesigenes, received his second, more famous name). [17] The unsympathetic senator sways the senate, and they vote against supporting Homer, which in effect exiles him. The inimical senator goes outside and announces the decision to Homer; Homer pronounces a curse on the town to the effect that no famous poets will bring it glory. He recites the fourth epigram, surprisingly beginning with theological meditations:
οἵῃ μ’ αἴσῃ δῶκε πατὴρ Ζεὺς κύρμα γενέσθαι,
νήπιον αἰδοίης ἐπὶ γούνασι μητρὸς ἀτάλλων.
ἥν ποτ’ ἐπύργωσαν βουλῇ Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο
λαοὶ Φρίκωνος, μάργων ἐπιβήτορες ἵππων,
ὁπλότεροι μαλεροῖο πυρὸς κρίνοντες Ἄρηα,
Αἰολίδα Σμύρνην ἁλιγείτονα ποντοτίνακτον
ἥν τε δι’ ἀγλαὸν εἶσιν ὕδωρ ἱεροῖο Μέλητος·
ἔνθεν ἀπορνύμεναι κοῦραι Διός, ἀγλαὰ τέκνα,
ἠθελέτην κλῇσαι δῖαν χθόνα καὶ πόλιν ἀνδρῶν,
οἱ δ’ ἀπανηνάσθην ἱερὴν ὄπα, φῆμιν, ἀοιδήν.
ἀφραδίῃ τῶν μέν τε παθών τις φράσσεται αὖθις,
ὅς σφιν ὀνείδεσσιν τὸν ἐμὸν διεμήσατο πότμον.
κῆρα δ’ ἐγὼ τήν μοι θεὸς ὤπασε γεινομένῳ περ
τλήσομαι ἀκράαντα φέρων τετληότι θυμῷ.
οὐδέ τι μοι φίλα γυῖα μένειν ἱεραῖς ἐν ἀγυιαῖς
Κύμης ὁρμαίνουσι, μέγας δέ με θυμὸς ἐπείγει
δῆμον ἐς ἀλλοδαπῶν ἰέναι ὀλίγον περ ἐόντα. [18]
To what a fate did Father Zeus deliver me as a prey [kurma], even while he nourished me as a child, at my revered mother’s knees! By the will of aegis-holding Zeus, the people of Phricon, riders of wanton horses, more active than raging fire in the test of war, once built the towers of Aeolian Smyrna, wave-shaken neighbour to the sea, through which glides the splendid water of sacred Meles; from here the daughters of Zeus, glorious children, arose, and desired to make that fair country, and its populous city, famous. But in their folly [aphradiēi] those men scorned [apanēnasthēn] the divine voice and renown of song, and one of them will suffer and remember this afterwards—he who directed scornful words [oneidessin] to them and plotted my fate [emon diemēsato potmon]. Yet I will endure the doom which heaven gave me even at my birth, bearing my disappointment with a patient heart. My limbs no longer yearn to remain in the sacred streets of Cyme, but rather my great heart urges me to go to another country, small though I am.
“Herodotus” Vita §14 [19]
Here Homer associates himself with the Muses (who will later arrange his death); like Aesop, before his departure he pronounces a curse on the city that exiles him, and thus he enters the sphere of the poet who harms through words. [20] Twice he mentions the fate he has received from Zeus; a god has engineered his misery, his poetic vocation. [21]
So we have the theme of rejection of the poet by an inhospitable city; a public vote against the poet; in addition, there is the theme of the conflict of the poet and a powerful individual political figure, who has taunted or mocked Homer somehow (oneidessin). [22] There is a hint of a similar story set in Athens. Heraclides Ponticus tells us that Homer was fined fifty drachmas by the Athenians for insanity! [23]
Homer is also seen as a “harmful” poet in the fourteenth epigram, the “Kiln Poem,” a kind of begging song, in which the poet curses potters who may be dishonest and ungenerous to him. “Come also you daughter of the Sun, witch Circe: mix your wild drugs, and harm [kakou] them and their work … may … the kiln collapse, and the men groaning watch the work of destruction.” In Lindsay Watson’s interpretation, Homer, in an inhospitable world, suspects that the potters intend to cheat him of payment. [24] In Epigram 6, the poet also asks for divine vengeance against an inhospitable, dishonest patron. Once again, one senses that a wandering rhapsode was often at the mercy of ungracious hosts. [25]
Homer’s death, like Hesiod’s, is linked to an oracle and his failure to understand the answer to a riddle. Though he does not die because he could not answer the riddle, he can only die after he fails to answer it—perhaps an attenuation of the original theme of riddle contest and death of loser. [26] The Delphic oracle tells the poet he will die in his mother’s country, and that he should beware of the riddle of young children. [27] Much later, in Ios, children who have been fishing tell him: “All that we caught we left behind, and carry away all that we did not catch.” Homer does not understand that they are talking of lice, not fish, and when he learns the answer, he remembers the oracle, then soon after slips on his side and dies. [28] A Hellenistic epigram adds the detail that the children were inspired by the Muses to ask the riddle, “In Ios the boys, weaving a riddle at the bidding of the Muses, vexed to death Homer the singer of the heroes,” [29] which leads us to the theme of Muses engineering the death of someone they have particularly inspired. [30] Without this theological dimension, the death of Homer makes little sense; it would hardly be a heroizing tale such as rhapsodes would repeat continually.
Homer receives hero cult. In the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, after the poet visiting Argos praises the ancestors of the Argives, they “set up a brazen statue to him, decreeing that sacrifice [thusian] should be offered to Homer daily, monthly, and yearly; and that another sacrifice should be sent to Chios every five years.” [31] Οn the statue, they inscribe that they serve him (“divine [theios] Homer”) “with the honors of the deathless gods [timais amphepei athanatōn].” [32] Outside of legend, rite and honor awarded Homer is widely attested in many places, including the full gamut of poetic cult: dedication of temples to the poet, sacrifice, statues, coins, and even ascription of a month to Homer on Ios, where he died. [33] His poetic immortalization continues.
Thus Homer is the best of poets, a sacred figure, who is reduced to wandering and beggary. He is marginal, blind. He suffers inhospitality where he had expected support; offending a powerful political figure, he is exiled by a political meeting; he curses the town prophetically, so that they are afflicted with poetic sterility from that time on. He looks on the god who inspired him as his persecutor. The Muses set up his death after he fails to understand a riddle. He then receives hero cult. Once again, we see familiar shadows, Aesop and Archilochus, behind a poetic vita: the wandering performer, the inhospitality, the trial, the curse, the disaster, and the poet’s hero cult.34


[ back ] 1. DK 22 B 56, cf. “Herodotus” Vita §35 (492ff.); Markwald 1986:16.
[ back ] 2. 15 Wil. / 254–339 Allen. For dating of the Contest, see below, ch. 6 (Hesiod).
[ back ] 3. On Homer’s wisdom, see below. Sweetness: anēr hēdistos aoidōn (Homeric Hymn to Apollo, 169). This description of a blind poet was applied to Homer at least by the time of Thucydides 3.104.5.
[ back ] 4. Cf. Falter 1934:78. See below.
[ back ] 5. Suda, p. 256 Allen. For association of Homer with Apollo, cf. the Hesiodic fragment that has Homer, with Hesiod, starting off his bardic career in Delos, composing a hymn to Apollo, fragment 357 M-W. Cf. the blind singer in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, 165–178; see Nagy 1979:297n7, also Contest of Homer and Hesiod 14 Wil. / 271–274 Allen; 18 Wil. / 318 Allen.
[ back ] 6. Contest of Homer and Hesiod 18W (337–338); Vita VI p. 253 Allen. τὴν ἱερὴν κεφαλὴν . . . θεῖον Ὅμηρον.
[ back ] 7. Vita VI, p. 252 Allen; Isocrates Helen 65; cf. Falter 1934:80. In an entirely fitting eventuality, Homer himself would later achieve divine status, and appear to Ennius in a dream to inspire him to write the Annals, see fragment ii–x of that book, Skutsch 1985:147–153; Falter 82–84; West 1966:159. Cf. following note.
[ back ] 8. Vita VI p. 252 Allen. For the mythical reflex of the pattern: Euenius, blinded, is given divination as a recompense, Herodotus 9.92–94 (cf. Parker 1983:274), just as Demodocus is deprived of sight, but given inspired song at the same time (Odyssey viii 63–64, cf. Iliad II 599–600). Tiresias is the most famous mantic example (Hesiod fragment 275; Apollodorus 3.6.7; Callimachus Hymn 5, “The Baths of Pallas”). See also Buxton 1980; Loraux 1987b; Halliday 1967:77–79, 72; P. Murray 1983:8, 9; below, chapter 16 (Demodocus, Tiresias); chapter 17 (Cridenbel, Lugaid, Dallán).
[ back ] 9. Lord 1960:18–20. Contra: Wilamowitz 1916a:421.
[ back ] 10. Translation by West. ἀπόρως κείμενος καὶ μόλις τὴν τροφὴν ἔχων, §11.
[ back ] 11. Cf. Foley 1998:161–162 (Ćor Huso Huscović, blind legendary singer in Montenegro and Serbia); Kirk 1962:312–315; P. Murray 1983; Lord 1960:19 (accounts of historical modern oral singers who were blind beggars, professional wandering singers); Sealey 1957:312; Lesky 1966:15; Chadwick and Chadwick 1932 1:568–634. On rhapsodes generally, Nagy 1990b:21–28, 1996:60–77.
[ back ] 12. See Nagy 1996a; Foley 1998:163, who writes that the archaic poetic hero “lives on the cusp of real-life bardic practice and the alternate reality of legend.”
[ back ] 13. Epigram 2 (“Herodotus” Vita §11). αἶψα πόδες με φέροιεν ἐς αἰδοίων πόλιν ἀνδρῶν· / τῶν γὰρ καὶ θυμὸς πρόφρων καὶ μῆτις ἀρίστη.
[ back ] 14. See Vita G 125: “When I was far away from your city, I was impressed with you as men of wealth and generosity.”
[ back ] 15. Vita G 124; “Herodotus” Vita §12: “By his words, he brought joy to his listeners” (ἐν τοῖς λόγοις ἔτερπε τοὺς ἀκούοντας).
[ back ] 16. On Homer’s name, see Durante 1957:94; Nagy 1979:296–300, 1996:75; West 1999:366, 373–376.
[ back ] 17. West 2003:370 emends the last three words to ὀλιγηπελέοντα, “in my debility.”
[ back ] 18. Translation by Evelyn-White, adapted. On this epigram see Markwald 1986:84–94; Peppmüller 1895. Markwald, at p. 286, notes that it is closely connected with the Vita.
[ back ] 19. For Homer as satirist, reputed author of the Margites, see Rankin 1974:15; West 2003:225–228, 240–253. Cf. “Herodotus” Vita §15, eparēsamenos. See below on the kiln poem.
[ back ] 20. For divinity creating the poet’s miserable vocation, see below, chapters 7 (Ibycus); 15 (Socrates); 23 (Ovid).
[ back ] 21. Cf. Diogenes Laertius 2.46 (Socrates): Homer was assailed [ephiloneikei] by Syagrus in his lifetime. Perhaps Syagrus is this Cymaean burger.
[ back ] 22. ap. Diogenes Laertius 2.43. Plato (see above) supports this detail.
[ back ] 23. δεῦρο καὶ Ἠελίου θύγατερ, πολυφάμακε Κίρκη, / ἄγρια φάρμακα βάλλε, κάκου δ’ αὐτούς τε καὶ ἔργα. . . . πίπτοι δὲ κάμινος· / αὐτοὶ δ’ οἰμώζοντες ὁρῴατο ἔργα πονηρά, translation by West, cf. Watson 1991:69–74. See, in addition to Markwald 1986:219–229, Schönberger 1912; Cook 1948:55–57, Cook 1951:9; Milne 1965; Gager 1992:153–154 (who notes that half a millennium after the Homer epigram, in Pliny Natural History 28.4.19, potters believe that curses can shatter their wares); Faraone 2001. Watson sees a comparatively playful tone in this poem that leads to “literary” Hellenistic curse poems. In fact, some portions of the poem may be Hellenistic, see Markwald 1986:29–41, Milne 1965, Faraone 2001, but the body of the poem is archaic.
[ back ] 24. Epigram 6, lines 7–8 (17/241–242). See above, chapter 2 (Aesop at Delphi); chapter 3 (Archilochus); chapter 4 (Hipponax); below chapter 9 (Alcaeus); chapter 23 (Ovid). For another notable “begging song” among the Homeric epigrams, see Epigram 15 (33/467–480), an Eiresione, the song used in the Thargelia, the festival in which the pharmakos was driven out of Athens. The song was associated with Samos, so Homer had to visit the island to compose it. For the Eiresione, see Toepffer 1888:142–145; Nilsson 1972:36–39; Harrison 1922:79–82.
[ back ] 25. See above, chapter 2, for riddle warfare in the life of Aesop; also the riddle poem contest of Homer and Hesiod, chapter 6.
[ back ] 26. Contest of Homer and Hesiod 5 Wil. / 59–60 Allen. Translations of the Contest are by Evelyn-White, modified, unless otherwise noted.
[ back ] 27. Contest of Homer and Hesiod 18 Wil. / 334–335 Allen. Ὅσσ’ ἕλομεν λιπόμεσθα, ὅσ’ οὐχ ἕλομεν φερόμεσθα. For Homer’s death in the Contest, see O’Sullivan 1992:104; Janko 1982:259–260; West 1999:378; Levine 2002 (valuable, but missing the “theology” of Homer’s death).
[ back ] 28. Alcaeus of Messene, in Palatine Anthology 7.1. ἡρώων τὸν ἀοιδὸν Ἴῳ ἔνι παῖδες Ὅμηρον / ἤκαχον ἐκ Μουσέων γρῖφον ὑφηνάμενοι.
[ back ] 29. See chapter 16 below (Marsyas and Thamyris); chapter 2 above, the death of Aesop.
[ back ] 30. εἰκόνα δὲ χαλκῆν ἀναστήσαντες ἐψηφίσαντο θυσίαν ἐπιτελεῖν Ὁμήρῳ καθ’ ἡμέραν καὶ κατὰ μῆνα καὶ κατ’ ἐνιαυτὸν <καὶ> ἄλλην θυσίαν πενταετηρίδα εἰς Χίον ἀποστέλλειν.
[ back ] 31. Contest of Homer and Hesiod 17 Wil. / 304–314 Allen.
[ back ] 32. Clay 2004:75–76, 136–143, discussion of the pan-Hellenic nature of Homer’s cult, as opposed to the local cult of Hesiod. For further on Homer’s cult, Farnell 1921:367, 425n304.
[ back ] 33. Thepseudo-HerodoteanVita is found in Allen 1919 5:192–218, also in von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1916b.There are English translations in Lefkowitz 1981:139–155 and West 2003:354–403;translations in this section are from Lefkowitz, unless noted otherwise. This document is dated by West, in its present form, to the “late second or early first century B.C.,”(West1984:125),but is based on earlier Ionic traditions that were perhaps made into a written text by the fifth century BC(ibid.,cf.West1999:378). In Isocrates Helen 65, the Homeridae have stories of Homer’s life. The Homeric epigrams found in the biography—one of which, the fourth, reflects the trial theme—can be comfortably dated to the seventh or sixth centuryBC, see Markwald 1986:281n7 for further bibliography on dating of the text. On the legend, see Schadewaldt 1959a; Schadewaldt 1959b:54–130; Brelich 1958:320–321; Wade-Gery 1952; Jacoby 1933; vonWilamowitz-Moellendorff 1916a:356–366, 396–413 (on the Contest of Homer and Hesiod),413–439 (on the pseudo-Herodotean Life); older literature in Jacoby 1933:9n2; Schadewaldt1959a:69–71. Schadewaldt, p.41, reasonably concludes that the legend of Homer was developed by rhapsodes in the sixth century BC. Thus we find the following themes in the vita of Homer: 1b, crime against hero; 1b1, inhospitality; 2b, communal disaster caused by the poet’s expulsion (curse); 4a1, beggar; 5, best; 5a, sacred; 7, selection by public meeting; 10a, exile; 13, hero cult; 18, divine persecutor-patron; 22e, curse; 23a, consecration; 24, conflict with political leader or leaders; 25, contest theme; 25a, riddle/poetry contest.