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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 18, No. 4 (Jan. 1923), pp242‑243.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p242  Homeric Heroes and Fish
Second Note

In reply to my many critics it should be said that I did not start the theory that Homeric heroes hesitated to eat fish, but it has been commented on by a long line of eminent men from Plato to this present hour, and all have tried to find a reason for this unusual distaste for a great delicacy, certainly a great delicacy in the opinion of the ancients.

Professor Babbitt in his review of The Unity of Homer called attention to the many references to fishing in Homer and especially to the similes founded thereon, as furnishing proof that fish were freely used for food in the days of Homer. Professor Radin in a note to this Journal stressed the fact that although fish were said to  p243 come as a blessing to certain men, these men were not princes or of the nobility, but peasants or artisans, and that there was a distinct social cleavage between eaters of fish and eaters of beef.

Sir Arthur Evans in his Palace of Minos repeatedly calls attention to the use of fish in early Crete, and he rather scoffs at the idea of a taboo on fish in early times. See pp182, 556, 607, 652, 677.

So far as I know this social cleavage is confined in literature to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and no one had previously given a reasonable explanation for its presence there.

Plutarch, Moralia 668F, and Suidas, s.v. Homer, both explained the absence of fish from the battles of Homer as due to the desire of the poet to inculcate in his hearers the self-control of the warriors who denied themselves this luxury.

There must be some other reason than any of those formerly advanced and that reason I have argued is found in the early environment of the poet.

Fish caught in the lakes and streams around Smyrna are used as food by the lower classes who cannot afford other meats. I have received a letter from the Representative of the Greek Government at Rio Janeiro, a man who was born in Smyrna and who lived there many years. He says in regard to what I wrote about the fish near Smyrna: "The natives of Smyrna have a great dislike for all the fish that come from the lakes and streams near their city, and these fish are eaten by the poor, but the imported salt-water fish are regarded as good food."

This seems to me to give an easy explanation, since Homer must have been born and bred in poverty and he knew the feelings of his own class.

The Iliad and the Odyssey reflect the feelings of a poet who looked upon beef and not fish as the fit food for heroes. Just such sentiments certainly prevailed and now prevail in the regions around and within Smyrna. It may be only an accident that Homer shows this sentiment, but it is "an accident that heaven provides."

That this dislike for fish is not a figment of my own imagination may be seen by referring to Jebb's Homer, p63: "In the Homeric world, fish is not mentioned as a delicacy — rather it is regarded as the last resource of hunger. The similes from fishing point to the use of fish by poor people who could command no other animal food."

John A. Scott

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Page updated: 30 Dec 07