De Homero: The Gods

The Pseudo-Plutarchian treatise On Homer is one of the best guides to understanding the role Homer played in Greco-Roman society, and how he was interpreted not just as consonant with, but even as pioneering then-current ideas, doctrines and fields of study. In the present sections (5-6 and 112-119), Pseudo-Plutarch explains how Homer’s descriptions of the gods can be squared with the mainstream pagan understanding of divinity in the Roman period, which has taken up elements of Stoicism and Platonism.

Translation by Ɔ. Martiana (Unhistorize).

5. If Homer depicts not only the virtues, but also the vices of the soul in his poems, the griefs, pleasures, fears and desires, it is not right to cast blame at the poet. Being a poet, he is obliged to imitate not only moral behaviors but also immoral ones – as marvellous actions cannot take place without these –, from which the audience can distinguish the better deeds.

And he has the gods meeting with human beings, not only for the sake of delight and awe, but also to show by this that the gods are concerned with humans, and are not indifferent to them.

6. And in general, the narrative of events is constructed to be marvelous (paradoxos) and mythical (mythôdês), so that, by the abundance of anguish and wonder, the audience is furnished with an awe-inspiring experience (lit. ‘hearing’). It is for this reason that he has said certain things that go against verisimilitude; for he does not always follow the plausible when he is aiming at the marvelous and exalted. For this reason, too, he not only elevates deeds above what we are used to, and changes them from what is familiar, but also does the same with words. That his novel and unusual expressions are always admired and win over his audience is obvious to all.

Besides, in those mythical passages, if one considers them not casually, but each of the passages in detail, it will become clear that there are all kinds of rational science and expertise in him, and that he offers many starting-points and seeds, so to speak, of all kinds of ideas and practices for those after him, and not only for the poets, but also for the writers in prose, in history and in philosophy (theôrêmatikoi logoi).

But we shall first consider the variety of his speech, and then the variety of learning in its contents.

112. All right-thinking people believe there are gods, and Homer first of all, since he continually mentions the gods, as when he says “blessed (makares) gods” and “gods who live with ease”. Since they are immortal, they have an easy and ceaseless nature of living, and they do not require nourishment, as the bodies of mortal animals do: “They do not need food, they do not drink fiery wine, because they are bloodless and are said to be immortal” (Iliad 5.342).

113. But because poetry requires the gods to act, he gave them bodies, so that they could be presented to the senses of the audience. But no other kind of body is indicative of knowledge and rationality than that of the human being. So he likened each of the gods to it, while embellishing their size and beauty. And this taught us to set up images and statues of gods in the likeness of human beings, to remind the less intellectual that there are gods.

114. The best philosophers believe that the leader and ruler of all these is the First God, who is incorporeal and graspable only by intellect, and Homer appears to think the same thing, as he calls Zeus “father of men and gods” and “o our father Kronides, highest of lords!” Zeus himself also says, “I am so far above the gods, and so far above human beings” (Iliad 8.27). And Athena says to him: “And we can well see that your strength is unyielding” (Iliad 8.32).

Now, if this too must be investigated, whether he knew that this god is (only) intelligible, he does not say this directly in his poetry, which is full of mythical contents, but nevertheless, it can be inferred from the lines in which he says: “She found wide-eyed Kronides seated apart from the others” (Iliad 1.498), and those in which he says: “But I will remain seated on the glen of Olympus apart, from here I will gaze and gladden my heart” (Iliad 20.22).

For this solitude and his not intermingling with the other gods, but delightning in being and deliberating with himself, keeping quietude and eternally ordering all things – this represents the nature of the intelligible god. And he knew that intellect is the god who knows all things and manages the universe; for Poseidon says: ” Both have the same ancestry and parentage, but Zeus is older and wiser” (Iliad 13.354-355). And the following (occurs) often: “But then he bethought himself again.” This means that he is eternally thinking.

115. On the thought of the god depend providence and fate, about which there are many treatises by the philosophers. Homer provided the starting-points for all of these. For concerning the providence of the gods – what could one say, when throughout all of his poetry, they not only talk with each other about humans, but even descend to the earth and meet with people? Let us consider a few lines for the sake of example, in which Zeus says to his brother (Poseidon): “You know, Earth-Shaker, the plan in my breast, for the sake of which I called the assembly; even as they are destroyed, I care for them” (Iliad 20.20-21), and elsewhere: “Oh alas! With my own eyes, I see a man dear to me being pursued around the walls; my heart laments!” (Iliad 22.168-169.)

116. Further, (Zeus) shows his royal dignity and philanthropic behavior when he says: “How then could I forget the divine Odysseus, who is beyond all mortals in intelligence, and beyond all, has given sacrifices to the immortal gods, who hold broad heaven?” (Odyssey 1.65-67.) In these lines, it is (to be seen) that he commends the man first for possessing intelligence, secondly for his revering the gods.

117. How he depicts the gods meeting with human beings, we can learn from many passages, as when Athena once (talks) to Achilles, and always to Odysseus, or Hermes to Priamus and again to Odysseus. For he believes that in general, the gods always help human beings; for he says: “And the gods appear as strangers from far away, taking on all kinds of shapes, and they visit the cities to observe the transgressions and righteousness of people” (Odyssey 17.485-487).

118. It belongs to the providence of the gods to wish that humans live justly, and the poet says this very clearly: “The blessed gods do not love cruel deeds, but honor justice and the just deeds of humanity” (Odyssey 14.83-84), and “Zeus, who is full of anger and wrath against men who with violence give crooked judgements in the gathering-place” (Iliad 16.386-387).

And just as he introduces the gods as having forethought for humanity, so he has people be mindful of the gods, whatever their luck. The successful general says, “In good hope, I pray to Zeus and the other gods to drive out from here the fate-borne dogs” (Iliad 8.526-527), and the person in danger, “Father Zeus, deliver the sons of the Achaeans from the darkness” (Iliad 17.645). Again, the person who has killed says, “Because the gods have granted us to kill this man” (Iliad 22.379), and the one who is dying: “Now take heed, lest I become a cause of wrath for the gods” (Iliad 22.358).

119. From this and from other passages, that doctrine of the Stoics is (to be derived), namely that the cosmos is one, and that gods and people are common citizens within it, sharing in justice by nature. And when he says “Zeus commanded Themis (‘Justice’) to summon the gods to council” (Iliad 20.4), or “Why, you of bright lightning, have you summoned the gods to council? Are you devising something concerning the Trojans and Achaeans?” (Iliad 20.16-17) – what else do these show than that the cosmos is ordered and that the gods give decrees in the manner (nomos) of a state (polis), while the father of gods and humans presides over them.