Sunday, November 9, 2014

TFBT: Homer is Thessalian

“From Colophon some deem thee sprung,
From Smyrna some, and some from Chios;
These noble Salamis have sung,
While those proclaim thee born in Ios;
And others cry up Thessaly
The mother of the Lapithæ."

                             "On Homer’s Birthplace” Antipater of Sidon

                                      Translated by J. H. Merivale


“Homer is Thessalian”.  I realize that is a ludicrous unfounded sounding statement, but follow along and see what you think. If you read the Iliad closely you will see something odd about the Nereid Thetis.  Several authors have.   Slatkins most famously in The Power of Thetis.   For an obscure goddess of minor rank; Thetis is exceptionally powerful and influential among the Olympians.  She rescues Zeus and none of the gathered rebels attempt to stop her (Iliad 1. 393).  None of the sharp wagging tongues of the immortals criticize her thwarting the will of Zeus.  (Put all the fancy words on it you want, bottom-line Thetis alters the will of Zeus at Iliad 1. 495.)   She rescues the Olympian Hephaestus. (Iliad 18. 369)  She rescues the Olympian Dionysus. (Iliad 6. 135)  The gods have to beg her to rescue the body of Hector. ( Iliad 24. 77)


I have always assumed that the Olympic deference to Thetis was Homer’s nod to other theogonies.  A famous such nod is to Oceanus and Tethys; when Hera referes to “Oceanus, whence the gods have risen, and Tethys our mother” (Iliad 14. 200)   Homer might be us a sign about other such theogonies in the relationship of the Nereid Thetis and Oceanid Eurynome.  Gods don’t have friends.  Almost all divine relationships are with a family member.   (See Friendship Amongst the Gods.”) And yet here are two unrelated goddess dwelling on the shores of the great River Ocean. Thetis is a primordial goddess in the Spartan theogony of Alcman who “presented Thetis as the primal divine creative force, the generative principle of the universe”. (Power of Thetis, p82) Eurynome is a primordial goddess in other theogonies;  in the beginning, Ophion and Eurynome, daughter of Oceanus, governed the world from snow-clad Olympus; (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 503)  So I always assumed that Homer’s references to Oceanus, Thetis and Eurynome were just a tip of the hat. 


But recently with Sarah at Hour 25 and Maya M on my blog I discussed Thetis and Emily Schurr’s opinion came up.  Schurr suggests that Homer is not invoking the Muse at the start of the Iliad.  The text in the original Greek does not say Μοῦσα  (Muse) it says Qea (Goddess) .   Schurr suggests the goddess in line 1 of the Iliad is Thetis.  Now that’s a horse of a different color!  It is almost as if the Iliad is actually the “Homeric Hymn to Thetis”. What came to my mind at this point in our conversation is the relationship of Hesiod and Hecate; the so-called "Hymn to Hecate".  In the Theogony Hesiod goes way out of his way to grant the goddess unheard of honors and influence, what  Clay refers to as “Hecate's special status.”   In “Hesiod’s Cosmos” Clay dismisses the belief that “Hesiod's family had a special attachment to the Hecate cult,” or  Hecate cult was already well-established in Boeotia in Hesiod's time… Accordingly, we ought not to be surprised to find Hesiod giving a privileged position and rendering  homage to the chief local goddess” . 


How about we test the same logic on Homer’s adoration of Thetis?  Aaron Atsma ( lists three cult sites for Thetis; two are Peloponnesian and one in Thessaly where the Aeolic dialect is used.  If Homer was Dorian we’d expect the Iliad’s theogony to be based on Alcman and vocabulary on the Doric dialect.  Instead with find a poet with an Aeolic name settling his goddess in southern Thessaly with a mortal husband and son.  So it would make more sense to associate Homer with the goddess cult site on the headland of Sepia in Euboea


There is a problem with the suggestion that Homer is Thessalian. He never mentions Thessaly in the Iliad and all the peoples the Achaeans conquer while waiting for Troy to fall are Aeolic  I only see one way out of the dilemma.  That is the application of the lesson from Matt 13:57, Luke 4:24 and Mark 6:4, that no man is a prophet in his home town.  I am suggesting an Aeolic speaking Homer rejected by Thessaly, who traveled to Ionia where he found great success in their dialect.  He wrought his revenge on those back home by deleting them from history and enslaving all the Aeolians. As Maya M asks, “Homer vents his menis by writing about the menis of Achilles?”


What do you think?






P.S.       This paper was generated by a long rambling conversation between Bill Moulton and Maya M.  Those interested may attempt to follow the conversation at;



  1. You have written it excellently!

  2. I've just found something more:

    Robert Drews, "Argos and the Argives in the Iliad", Classical Philology 74(2)1979:

    "...Since the heroic society has not been found where many had expected to find it, it may be worthwhile to revive an old hypothesis. A century ago William D. Geddes published an argument that the Homeric epics originated in the area which in classical times corresponded to Malis, Achaea Phthiotis, and Thessaly, and which for the sake of convenience I shall call "Thessaly". Geddes' suggestion received vigorous though dubious support in Germany during the 1880s, when August Fick, convinced that the epics had indeed originated in Thessaly, "translated" the Iliad and Odyssey back..."

    My preview ends here, if you have a Trojan horse to get you behind the Jstor paywass, you can use it :-).

  3. Maya M. I will look. You can apply for a MyJstor passed and see it yourself. Actually read 3 docs at a time.


  4. Maya M,

    Here is Sarah's response to our paper which she made at Hour 25.

  5. Sarah says, "maybe one could argue that Iliad is the plan of Thetis? After all she not only gets the nod from Zeus, but also predicts/tells Achilles that he will die young."
    I disagree with most of it. First, while the source and mechanism of Thetis' predictions is never made clear, remember Iliad 17. 408 ff: "Often he [Akhilleus] had word from his mother [Thetis], not known to mortals; she was ever telling him what was the will of great Zeus." Zeus is in control.
    Second, Thetis clearly does not have a plan, and brutally said, does not look like a person able ever to make any plan. She is changing the direction of her action depending on what Achilles and later Zeus tell her. In Iliad 18:128-129, hearing the wish of Achilles to return to battle, she says something like, "It is really good to protect your poor comrades from the ugly death." One could ask, why doesn't she say this in Book 1, when Achilles first shares his idea with her? Keeping in mind that Thetis has life experience ages longer than that of Achilles and her judgement is not obscured by a heroic code, this belated wisdom ("a hood after the rain", as we say), points to lack of crucial mental skills. It seems to me that if you subject the Iliad gods to an IQ test, only Zeus would score above average; all others, including Athena the goddess of wisdom, would be somewhere between 70 and 80. And, respectively, only Zeus can have a true plan.
    Last but not least, even if Thetis could make a plan in the usual meaning of the word, i.e. a schedule of intended deeds with a conscious goal, she would not plan the early death of her child.

    However, she could have such a subconscious wish. Twice in the poem, she says that Peleus is in the grip of "baneful old age". She seems to find "baneful old age" the worst fate under the Sun. Maybe she subconsciously wishes her child to avoid it at any cost; and for Achilles, the only alternative to it is dying young.

  6. I think Homer deliberately uses "Thea" instead of "Muse", to let the reader/listener fill in the goddess of his choice. Most would opt for the Muse, and nothing in the text contradicts it. Those with deeper thought would ask why the verse doesn't say simply "Muse", after the metrics fully allows it, and could make a conclusion.
    The same way as, according to Nagy, the audience of the Odyssey is free to choose whether the Phaeacians survive or not. Maybe there are other examples.

  7. Maya M.
    The "Scholia as Savior" Rule disagrees your point about open ended ending. We dont know about the Phaeacian, Nausicca, polyphemus... once Odysseus moves on they are dropped from the story line. Bill

  8. I checked the conversations in the Theogony, to see whether they conform to some rule.
    Two dialogs involving Zeus are given in direct speech, one with Prometheus and the other with the Hundred-Handers. In both cases, Zeus addresses the other god(s) by patronyme. In reply, Prometheus calls Zeus by name, while the Hundred-Hander Cottus says "Divine one" (daimoni, 655) and then "son of Cronus" (660).
    I have the feeling that there is something here, but the data are too scarce. Homer gives more material for study, but the rules seem to be different. P. Rousseau writes, "The blatant use of the patronymic “son of Cronos” in the vocative, as an apostrophe, is a familiarity which only Hera allows herself, of all the gods, six times in the Iliad (Il. I.552; IV.25; VIII.462; XIV.330; XVI.440; XVIII.361). It is used, each time, to denounce an abuse of power, where the god’s conduct raises or recalls fears."

  9. Maya,

    Thanks for the insight. I had not thought of the patronymic versus name. Thanks