Homer’s famous duology of epics was written down and copied over and over until it reached us. But his forgotten poem, The Margites was not so preserved.
Homer is a famous blind bard, a teller of legends—and a bit of a legend himself. In fact, many are unsure if he actually existed. Regardless, he’s said to have lived and told his stories in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.
His two epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey—follow the stories of legendary Greek heroes such as Agamemnon, Achilles, Menelaus, Ajax, and especially Odysseus. But the protagonist of Homer’s lost story is much different than these awe-inspiring heroes.
All we have of the Margites are a few references to it by other authors, such as Aristotle and Plato. Scholars are even unsure whether Homer wrote it, but we’ll take Aristotle and others at their word, since they attributed it to our blind bard. So what do we know about the Margites? Enough to recognize it is very different than his other works.
So here’s a list of what we do know, or probably know, about the story. It’s hard to be sure with something so old.
1. The protagonist fails at everything
Margites, the protagonist can’t get a normal Greek job, because… Well, he can’t. Maybe he’s really clumsy? Here is the line Aristotle attributes to the Margites:
“Him, then, the Gods made neither a delver nor a ploughman,
Nor in any other way wise; he failed every art.”
2. Margites is foolish
The line Plato quotes speaks for itself: “He knew many things, but he knew them badly…”
3. Margites is simple, but deadly?
Zenobius records this line: “The fox knows many a wile;/but the hedgehog’s one trick can beat them all.” See, a fox is creative and comes up with new ways to defend and feed itself. When it comes to defense, hedgehogs have only their sharp quills. By analogy, then, perhaps Margites’ own foolishness and inexperience save him?
4. Margites could have lived in ancient Ionia
One line speaks of an old man coming to Colophon, a city in modern-day Turkey. This old man was musician, so it seems unlikely it is our Margites. Perhaps this Colophon is where Margites lived? This is what Atilius Fortunatianus qoutes:
“There came to Colophon an old man and divine singer,
a servant of the Muses and of far-shooting Apollo.
In his dear hands he held a sweet-toned lyre…”
5. The Margites is a Comedy
Maybe you’ve picked up on this already, but the Margites is clearly what we would call a comedy. All of the quotes we have point to this, and Aristotle himself says it: “as are the Iliad and Odyssey to our tragedies, so is the Margites to our comedies.”
So, are you up to reading the Margites? Well, if you’ve read this far, you’ve read all there is to it: the rest is lost to history and left to our imagination.