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Author: Fritz Graf
Editor: Lindsay Jones
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of Religion
From: Encyclopedia of Religion(Vol. 6. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Nationality: Greek
Occupation: Poet
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Page 4107


HOMER (eighth century BCE), according to unanimous ancient Greek tradition, was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. His authorship of other epic poems and of long hexametrical hymns was already disputed in antiquity. Tradition assigns to him several dates, all earlier than the foundation of the Olympic Games in 776 BCE. All ancient information, however, is much later than any of these dates and has rightly been seen as unhistorical in modern scholarship. The Iliad and Odyssey are now seen as the result and culmination of a long tradition of oral poetry; in their substance, they were composed between the late eighth century BCE and the early seventh century BCE, with a growing consensus for a later rather than an earlier date. As part of a tradition reaching back to the Late Bronze Age, the poems are an important source of information on early Greek religion and cult practice. Because throughout most of later Greek culture the poems had become normative, they in turn shaped the Greek way of perceiving polytheism.


Homer's gods are fully anthropomorphic, with the exception of river gods, whose descriptions oscillate between anthropomorphism and their element. Anthropomorphism regards not only the gods' appearance but also their way of thinking and feeling. The major gods live together as a loose family that comprises Zeus, patriarch and king; his siblings Poseidon and Hera (who is also his wife); and his children from several women—Apollo and Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, and Athena. Only Demeter and Dionysos are curiously nonexistent. They live in a palatialPage 4108  |  Top of Article setting on Olympus, a mythical place that in Homer has already transcended its starting point in geographical reality, Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Their common meals are usually the occasion for extensive and often heated policy debates that precede the decisions of Zeus. Although the other gods have some independence of action, Zeus's will runs the world. The Iliad and Odyssey differ somewhat in their views of how human life relates to the divine world. The Iliad tends to see humans helplessly exposed to divine caprice, even though Zeus's decisions are just and well balanced, whereas the Odyssey explicitly rejects divine causation of bad moral decisions by humans. The overall impression is that the gods of the Odyssey are more willing to warn and sometimes even guide humans, but in the end to let them take their decisions alone. This reflects different concerns with theodicy in the Iliad and Odyssey. Whereas the Iliad juxtaposes Zeus and Fate without ever clarifying their mutual relationship or exploring the origins of bad things, the Odyssey makes it clear at its very beginning that Zeus is not responsible for evil but that humans (such as Aegisthus) often act foolishly and against the will and warning of Zeus and thus cause their own downfall.

Divine mythology in Homer is independent from specific local and cultic traditions. The local connections of some gods are acknowledged, such as Hera's with Argos, Apollo's with Delphi and Delos, or Aphrodite's with Cyprus, but the myths are not the local cult stories of Argos, Delphi, or Delos. To some extent this is even true for the four long and early Homeric Hymns. Only the "Hymn to Demeter" narrates a cult myth, the foundational story of the Eleusinian mysteries, and the "Hymn to Apollo" combines the Delian birth story with the foundation myth of the Delphian oracle. This independence from local traditions made Homeric mythology extremely well suited to give a translocal, Panhellenic appearance to the Greek gods.

The world of ritual practice that the Iliad and Odyssey depict must to some degree reflect the contemporary religion. Cities possess temples of their important gods (Athena or Apollo in Troy, Apollo in Chryse, Poseidon at the Phaeacian harbor, Apollo in a grove near Ithaca's town). Athena's Trojan temple contains a sitting image of the goddess. The major Panhellenic sanctuaries—Delphi, Delos, Dodona—are known; Delphi has a stone temple, Delos a famous altar. Humans perform festivals (for example, the festival for Apollo on Ithaca) and sacrifices, either as a group or individually. Twice Homer describes these sacrifices in loving detail, and once he describes an oath sacrifice. Homeric sacrifice is similar to later sacrificial practice with one exception. Whereas later a seer inspected the killed animal to determine whether it was welcome to the gods or not, this custom is absent in the Homeric poems. It is somewhat unclear whether this is a conscious stylization or an indication of contemporary usage. Divination as such is known to Homer, and seers appear in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. But their art seems to concentrate on observing omens, especially from the flight of birds. Extispicy, especially the art of consulting the liver of a sacrificial animal, is widespread in the ancient Near East and in Iron Age Etruria, where it must have arrived from the Orient. It is conceivable, although somewhat surprising, that the transfer of extispicy to the Greek world resulted from cultural contacts in the Early Iron Age at about the epoch of Homer.

It is still debated how much the Homeric poems owe to ancient Near Eastern culture, mythology, and literature. Given that both Bronze Age and Geometric Greece were part of a much wider Near Eastern common culture, the influence should not be underrated. On a general level are the common and widespread mythological patterns, such as the succession myth Homer (as well as Hesiod) shares with Near Eastern mythologies. On a second, more specific level are direct influences in mythological motives, such as the (rather isolated) mention of Okeanos and Tethys as "ancestors of the gods" (Iliad 14.201). This reflects the Akkadian Apsu and Tiamat as ancestors of the gods as narrated, for example, in the Enuma elish. On a third level are highly specific narrative motives shared between literary works, such as the apparition of Patroclus's shadow to Achilles in a dream (Iliad 23.65–107), which recalls the apparition of the dead Enkidu to Gilgamesh and points to a close connection between two narrative traditions.


In the course of the Archaic epoch, the poems of Homer became normative for Greek culture. The poems' descriptions of the gods decisively shaped a Panhellenic mythology and iconography. But the anthropomorphism of the Homeric gods that made them act and react like humans provoked the criticism of religious thinkers who were devising a theology in which the gods were viewed as ideal moral beings and who were transcending anthropomorphism for the sake of theology. Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570–c. 480 BCE) rejected anthropomorphism as a human projection onto the divine, and he heavily criticized Homer and Hesiod for their representations of immoral gods who "steal and lie and commit adultery." Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 BCE) went even further. In the Republic he proposed that the ideal state would censure poetry and prohibit immoral representations of the gods.

As a way of dealing with these criticisms, rhapsodes and later Stoic philosophers developed the allegorical explanation of such Homeric scenes. The assumption was that the poet was hiding physical or ethical statements behind a misleading narrative surface; allegorization would reconstruct these original intentions of Homer. Originally developed by the rhapsodic interpreters of Homer, such as Stesimbrotos of Thasos (fifth century BCE), allegorical interpretation turned into a major tool for adapting the understanding of canonical texts to a given society without changing their textual forms.



Broccia, Giuseppe. La questione Omerica. Florence, 1979.

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Buffière, Félix. Les mythes d'Homère et la pensée grecque. Paris, 1956.

Burkert, Walter. "Homer's Anthropomorphism: Narrative and Ritual." In New Perspectives in Early Greek Art, edited by Diana Buitron-Oliver, pp. 81–91. Washington, D.C., 1991.

Graf, Fritz. "Religion und Mythologie im Zusammenhang mit Homer: Forschung und Ausblick." In Zweihundert Jahre Homer-Forschung Rückblick und Ausblick, edited by Joachim Latacz, pp. 331–362. Colloquiun Rauricum, 2. Stuttgart, 1991.

Heubeck, Alfred, Stephanie West, J. B. Hainsworth, A. Hoekstra, and Joseph Russo, eds. A Commentary on Homer's "Odyssey." 3 vols. Oxford, 1988–1992.

Kirk, G. A., ed. The "Iliad": A Commentary. 6 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1985–1993.

Kullman, Wolfgang. "Gods and Men in the Iliad and the Odyssey." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 89 (1985): 1–28.

Kullman, Wolfgang. "Zum Begriff der 'Homerischen Religion.'" In Religio Graeco-Romana: Festschrift für Walter Pötscher, edited by Joachim Dalfen, Gerhard Petersmann, and Franz Ferdinand Schwarz, pp. 43–50. Grazer Beiträge, Supplementband 5. Graz, Austria, 1993.

Lamberton, Robert. Homer the Theologian. Berkeley, Calif., 1986.

Morris, Ian, and Barry Powell, eds. A New Companion to Homer. Leiden, 1997. On the history of modern Homeric scholarship, see esp. chaps. 5–7, pp. 123–188.

Morris, Sarah. "Homer and the Near East." In A New Companion to Homer, edited by Ian Morris and Barry Powell, pp. 599–623. Leiden, 1997.

Privitera, G. Aurelio. Dioniso in Omero e nella poesia greca arcaica. Rome, 1970.

Vermeule, Emily Townsend. Götterkult. Archaeologia Homerica 3, fasc. V. Göttingen, Germany, 1974.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424501380