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"At Once a Poet, Philosopher, and Expounder of Mysteries:” Porphyry’s Embodiment of Homeric Scholarship

Jacob Lollar

Florida State University

      At a feast in honor of Plato shortly after he had joined the circle of Plotinian disciples, Porphyry read and interpreted a poem, “the Sacred Marriage” in front of Plotinus and his fellow pupils. While his colleagues were baffled, since it was expressed in mysterious language (διὰ τὸ μυστικῶς), and exclaimed “Porphyry is mad!”. Plotinus, for his part, declared “You have shown yourself at once poet, philosopher, and expounder of ancient mysteries” (ποιητὴν καὶ τὸν φιλόσοφον καὶ τὸν ἱεροφάντην). Indeed, Porphyry’s career as a Homeric scholar in particular demonstrates that Plotinus’ praise was well-deserved. Two extant works reflect these three praises of Porphyry’s abilities, specifically in regard to Homeric scholarship: his Homeric Questions and his famous allegorical interpretation of the cave of the Nymphs from the Odyssey. This paper will reflect on Porphyry’s wide-ranging engagement with Homeric scholarship and will argue that he not only engaged it in his Neoplatonic philosophical discourse, but also redefined it for subsequent generations.

      Porphyry subtly distinguishes between modes of engagement. On the one hand, he sets up his Homeric Questions as a “preliminary exercise” that leads to knowing about Homer. On the other hand, Porphyry later says he is “putting off the greater studies in Homer for a time that is fitting for inquiry.” Such “greater studies” undoubtedly included his Nymphengrotte allegory. The two works demonstrate two modes of hermeneutical engagement, one literary/poetic, one philosophical and religious. The recent work of René Nünlist demonstrates the care and precision practiced by literary critics, including Porphyry, in regard to Homer’s poems. I will add that Porphyry’s engagement with Homer went beyond poetics and literary considerations. Porphyry distinguished between modes of knowing Homer. To think about Homer required literary criticism. To know Homer, required more than this; it required a sophisticated, philosophical, religious reading of the poems.

      By late antiquity, Homer was credited a sort of divine status. As a result, as Lamberton shows, he appears in iconography as prophet and seer; the embodiment of seers in the epics themselves, such as the Muses, the Sirens, and Tiresias. Pseudo-Heraclitus (Hom. Prob. 76.1) refers to Homer as hierophant. Homer was, in short, master poet and expounder of mysteries. Only a master poet or, as Heraclitus says, a fellow hierophant was equipped to interpret the master. Porphyry, for his part, was so equipped, but also brought to Homer the robust philosophical hermeneutic worthy of a founder of Neoplatonic thought. The best example of this is Porphyry’s allegory of the Nymphengrotte (Od. 13.102-112). This text would be a lasting icon of ancient criticism and would subsequently change Homeric scholarship for the Neoplatonist writers after Porphyry. What is unclear, as Lamberton points out, is how his work of Homeric Questions relates to Porphyry’s career and, more specifically, how it relates to his exegetical endeavors displayed in his essay on the cave of the Nymphs. Porphyry seemed to find himself in a transitional period in Homeric scholarship, in which he was determined to have a say in what direction the discipline would take moving forward.

      I look at Porphyry’s career as a Homeric scholar through the lens of Plotinus’ remarks about him. Based on his own statements, I suggest that Porphyry was embodying a kind of curriculum for a holistic Homeric scholarship. Rather than propose a chronology of when he produced his works, I consider Porphyry’s Homeric engagements as an embodiment of his own scholarly self-image. Porphyry extricated a spectrum of interpretive modes. His conflicting approaches to epic poetry in his Homeric Questions and allegory of the cave of the nymphs have left  scholars feeling like Porphyry's colleagues after his reading of the "Sacred Marriage." I offer a resolution to this tension in a binary offered by Porphyry himself between knowing about, and knowing Homer. Porphyry's approaches to Homer represent not a contradiction, but an embodiment of Plotinus' praise; approaching Homer as poet, philosopher, and hierophant. 

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Porphyry the Polymath

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