Picturing Homer as a cult hero

2016.03.03 | By Gregory Nagy


§0.1. This posting for 2016.03.03 in Classical Inquiries centers on the head of a bronze statue, dated somewhere between 227 and 221 BCE. The bronze head, on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC until 2016.03.20, is on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a photograph of this head has been featured as the cover illustrations for two other postings in Classical Inquiries, 2016.02.22 and 2016.02.29. As Claudia Filos and Keith Stone report in the second of these two consecutive postings, there was a panel discussion concerning this bronze head at a public event held at the National Gallery of Art, 2016.02.25. In the context of that discussion, Gloria Ferrari Pinney argued that the Houston head is a representation of Homer. Taking my lead from that argument, I argue here in this posting for 2016.03.03 that Homer is in this case imagined not only as the greatest of all poets but also as a cult hero.

§0.2. An essential aspect of Gloria Pinney’s argument is the fact that the Houston bronze head resembles closely the head of the god Zeus himself as represented in statues and coins. In terms of this argument, Homer is figured as the greatest poet of the ancient Greeks just as Zeus is figured as their greatest god.

§0.3. There is further evidence, as Gloria Pinney shows, for the artistic construct of such a resemblance between Homer and Zeus. A most telling example is a marble monument known as the Archelaos Relief, conventionally dated to the second century BCE. The lower zone of the relief sculpture shows an enthroned Homer receiving sacrificial offerings while the upper zone shows Zeus himself, holding a scepter. Similarly, Homer holds a scepter, which is in his left hand. Also, he holds a scroll in his right hand. There is no mistake about the identification of Homer here, since the Archelaos Relief features adjacent lettering that reads ΟΜΗΡΟΣ (Homēros). We see comparable representations of an enthroned Homer as pictured on two coins, one from the city-state of Smyrna, reputed to be the place where he was born, and another from the island-state of Ios, where he was supposedly conceived—and where he died.

Picturing Homer as blind or as sighted

§1. As Gloria Pinney argues, the artistic construct of such a resemblance between Homer and Zeus comes with a requirement: Homer must be pictured as sighted, not blind. If Homer is to be compared to Zeus, he cannot be deformed by blindness, since the greatest of all gods must surely be exempt from such deformity.

§2. But there are well-known examples of an alternative artistic construct that features Homer as blind, and this construct is amply attested in the visual arts. Further, such an artistic construct of a blind Homer matches what we read in the stories produced by the verbal arts of mythmaking about Homer’s life. In those stories as I analyzed them in my posting for 2016.02.25 and, earlier, for 2016.02.18, Homer in various different ways becomes a blind man in the course of his life. So, the question arises: what is the difference between a blind Homer and a sighted Homer?

§3. If we follow the logic of the artistic construct that we see at work in the Archelaos Relief, the enthroned Homer as pictured in that relief must surely be situated in a state of existence that follows his death. In other words, Homer now exists in an afterlife. That is why the Archelaos Relief has been thought to represent what is called the “apotheosis” of Homer: it is as if the greatest of poets had now become a theos or ‘god’, just as Zeus is a god.[1] And, in this transcendent state, Homer regains his vision. Here is a close-up of this transcendent Homer as represented in the Archelaos relief:

Detail of a relief depicting the “Apotheosis of Homer,” attributed to Archelaos of Priene, ca. 225 BCE-205 BCE. In the British Museum.  Photo, Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of a relief depicting the “Apotheosis of Homer,” attributed to Archelaos of Priene, ca. 225 BCE–205 BCE. In the British Museum. Photo, Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

Picturing Homer as a cult hero

§4. I argue, however, that Homer in such a state of afterlife is not so much a god as he is a cult hero who looks like a god. Here I find it most useful to consult a book by W. H. D. Rouse on the iconography of votive offerings.[2] He collects images of cult heroes in the afterlife who are pictured as enthroned or reclining or engaged in other such poses.[3] In each case, as Rouse shows, the pose is matched by gods who are similarly engaged: in one particular case, Rouse describes the picturing of a reclining hero “with face approaching that of Zeus or Hades.”[4]

§5. Just as the enthroned Homer in the Archelaos relief receives sacrificial offerings from his worshippers, so also the enthroned cult heroes in the collection put together by Rouse are seen in the act of receiving offerings from their worshippers. Here is an example:

hero cult relief from Rouse
Line drawing of hero relief from Patras, Roscher i. col. 2571, fig. 8. Appeared as fig. 2 in Rouse 1902.




Clay, D. 2004. Archilochos Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis. Hellenic Studies 6. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC.

H24H. See Nagy 2013.

Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Ancient_Greek_Hero_in_24_Hours.2013.

Rouse, W. H. D. 1902. Greek Votive Offerings: An Essay in the History of Greek Religion. Cambridge.



[1] For a brief history of this terminology, which also inspired the painting “L’Apothéose d’Homère” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1827), see Clay 2004:1.

[2] Rouse 1902.

[3] Rouse 1902:20, 34 (heroes enthroned); 22 (heroes reclining).

[4] Rouse 1902:22.