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The Homeric Gods and Xenophanes' Opposing Theory of the Divine
Ursula DeYoung, Harvard University
Original text © 2000 Ursula DeYoung

Xenophanes, a Greek poet from the Archaic period, was born c. 570 BCE and died c. 478 BCE.[1] He was an Ionian, born in Colophon, but for most of his life he wandered throughout the Greek world.He is most well-known today for his philosophical criticisms of the anthropomorphic Homeric gods and for his own theories on the true nature of the gods.His thoughts have come down to us for the most part through quotations in later Greek writings.He wrote his poetry mainly in elegiac couplets and hexameters, the latter being his preference when he wrote philosophical verse.Xenophanes was an exception for his time.  His rejection of t

he traditional gods as put forth by Homer and Hesiod and his claim that there is only one main god, an omnipotent intellectual force, gained no followers at the time, but he has been seen as the forerunner of an increasing trend of philosophical skepticism and as such an important landmark in the development of Greek thought.

Before Xenophanes, and indeed after him as well, the predominant tradition of the divine was that seen in Homer.In the Iliad (which, since it contains a broader variety and a greater prominence of the gods than the Odyssey, is the epic this paper will focus on), the gods are entirely anthropomorphic, acting out on an immortal level the same emotions, behaviors and relationships that can be seen among humans.Homer's gods are fully realized as characters, and their actions are often affectionately and humourously narrated.There is little mystery in their decisions, and each one's realm of power is articulately delineated: Zeus as the over-lord, Poseidon as the god of water, Apollo as messenger and guide, Ares as the god of war, Hera as the eternal wife, Athena as the goddess of wisdom, etc.  "Each owns an arc, a portion of the total circle of all things, within which he can move appropriately, and beyond which he is meaningless."[2] These dynamic gods have of course merited innumerable essays and discussions by modern scholars, who have brought up the gods' relationships with the human heroes, the consequences of their immortality, their role in the structure and composition of the poems, and every other conceivable spin on the subject.Two among these myriad topics are relevant to this discussion of Xenophanes, as they illustrate the "faults" that Xenophanes later targeted.One is the theory that the gods are counterparts of the human heroes, thus elevating the heroes' powers and immortalizing them through the eternity of the divine.The second is the idea that Homer uses the comedy of his gods as a foil for the tragedy of the human drama being played out below them.

[1] David A. Campbell, ed. Greek Lyric Poetry:  A Selection of Early Greek Lyric, Elegiac, and Iambic Poetry (London:Bristol Classical Press, 1967), p. 331.

[2] Cedric H. Whitman, Homer and the Homeric Tradition (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 233.


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