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The Concept of Miracle in Homer

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2015

R.K. Fisher*
The University of Birmingham


My aim is to establish whether there is a concept of ‘miracle’ or ‘the miraculous’ implicit in the Homeric poems (and therefore perceived and understood by Homer's audience). Such a question is fraught with difficulties, as it necessarily involves broader (and still widely debated) issues such as Homeric man's view of the gods and the essential nature of the early Greek oral epic tradition. But, if an answer can be found, it should in the process help us to gain more insight into those wider issues—the theological basis of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the world-view of Homer's audience.

Research Article
Copyright © Australasian Society for Classical Studies 1995

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1 Grant, R.M., Miracle and natural law in Graeco-Roman and early Christian thought (Amsterdam 1952) 41Google Scholar.

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19 Cf. Russo, J. and Simon, B., ‘Homeric psychology and the oral epic tradition’, Journal of the history of ideas 29 (1968) 483498CrossRefGoogle Scholar (reprinted in Wright, J. [ed.], Essays on the Iliad [Bloomington 1978] 4157)Google Scholar. I. Morris argues that the Homeric poems reflect the contemporary ethical and theological outlook, i.e. that ideas no longer relevant or recognisable to the current audience quickly disappear from the oral tradition (The use and abuse of Homer’, Classical antiquity 5 [1986] 81138)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; if true, this reinforces rather than weakens my point here.

20 B. Snell (above, n. 14) 29. Cf. C. Emlyn-Jones (above, n. 18) 93-96.

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22 The formula is also used by a god in Homeric Hymn to Hermes 219, when Apollo discovers the tracks of Hermes and the stolen oxen.

23 M.M. Kokolakis refere to the effect which marvellous works of art had on the popular mind in early Greek society, in ‘Homeric animism’, Museum Philologum Londiniense 4 (1981) 89113Google Scholar.

24 Taplin's, O. translation of Il. 2.318-19Google Scholar is noteworthy: ‘The god who had brought the snake to light made it a miracle (ἀρίζηλον, conspicuous), plain for all to see’, and he suggests that the stone snake was ‘something visible in Homer's day, and known at least to some of his audience’; see Homeric soundings (Oxford 1992) 87 and n.11Google Scholar. G. Kirk points out that the vividness of the detail in this passage ‘deliberately stresses the authenticity’ of Odysseus' reminiscence of it; see The Iliad: a commentary 1 (Cambridge 1985) 148Google Scholar.

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28 O. Taplin (above, n.24) 42-44.

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30 See Griffin, J., ‘Homeric words and speakers’, Journal of Hellenic studies 106 (1986) 3357CrossRefGoogle Scholar and G. Kirk (above, n.24) 2 (Cambridge 1990) 30-35.

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32 G. Kirk (above, n.24) 2 (Cambridge 1990) 3.

33 T.B.L. Webster has shown the 'startling' increase in the number of times verbal abstracts ending in -σις occur from Homer to Plato, and also points out that the element of abstraction in the use of the -σις nouns in Homer is usually limited by reference to some particular event; see Language and thought in early Greece’, Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society Memoirs and Proceedings 94 (19521953) 1738Google Scholar.

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36 J. Beckert has also shown this in his Die Diathesen von ἰδεῖν und όρᾶν bei Homer (Munich 1964); in addition he points out that phrases like θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι invariably have a link with divinity—the seeing and the wonder are essentially derived from an external, divine source.

37 Kirk, G. and Raven, J.E., The Presocratic philosophers (Cambridge 1957) 354-5, Fr. 112Google Scholar.

38 See Rogerson, J., The supernatural in the Old Testament (London 1976) 4Google Scholar.

39 Edwards, M.W., The Iliad: a commentary 5 (Cambridge 1991) 16CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Burkert, W., ‘Oriental myth and literature in the Iliad’ in Hagg, R. (ed.), The Greek Renaissance in the 8th century B.C. (Stockholm 1983) 5156Google Scholar.

41 See Burkert, W., ‘Itinerant diviners and magicians: a neglected element in cultural contacts’ in Hagg, R. (above, n.40) 115119Google Scholar.

42 See n. 14 above.

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