According to ancient Greek legend and folklore, the famous poet Homer (author of the Iliad and the Odyssey) may have been inspired by poems and other stories attributed to an ancient Pythia—a title designating a priestess of Apollo employed at the Oracle of Delphi. The Pythia in question was known as Daphne (and may have been nicknamed Sibylla), and her obscure life was dated back to the ancient Greek age of legendary and mythical heroes. Daphne not only lived in the era of heroes; she was also closely connected to the famous figures of myth. As the tales goes, she was the daughter of the storied blind prophet, Tiresias, and she grew up around her father’s usual haunt of Thebes during the chaotic time of Oedipus’ downfall and the resulting power struggle between Oedipus’ sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, who fought over the throne of Thebes. Polyneices, the initial loser in the mythical power struggle, eventually recruited a coalition of allies to wage war against Eteocles and Thebes. Polyneices’ coalition—known as the Seven—failed in their assault, but in the battle Polyneices and Eteocles slew each other. Sons of the leaders of the Seven later launched their own campaign against Thebes. This second coalition was led by men called the Epigoni (the Afterborn), and this time the coalition was successful in their war. It was during this legendary or mythical struggle between the Epigoni coalition and the Cadmean clan in Thebes that Daphne’s fate as a future priestess of Apollo was allegedly sealed. As was summarized by the Greek-Sicilian scholar, Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE), “the Epigoni took the city and sacked it, and captured Daphne, the daughter of Teiresias, they dedicated her, in accordance with a certain vow, to the service of the temple at Delphi as an offering to the god of the first fruits of the body” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.66). Although her route to becoming a priestess was not quite voluntary, Daphne would go on to shine in the role and gain a great reputation.
The phrase, like father like daughter, was a true fit for Daphne. Although she was not blind like Tiresias, Daphne shared much of his supernatural insight into the past and present, as well as his prophetic wisdom about the future. Through her role as a Pythia, Daphne eventually began divulging what she knew and her utterances and stories were recorded in some way or another. On Daphne’s reputation as a priestess and general wise woman, Diodorus Siculus wrote, “This maiden possessed no less knowledge of prophesy than her father, and in the course of her stay at Delphi she developed her skill to a far greater degree; moreover, by virtue of the employment of a natural gift, she also wrote oracular responses of every sort, excelling in their composition” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.66). These compositions from the priestess, so the ancient legends tell, may have been used as inspiration or source material for the poet, Homer. Diodorus Siculus even alleged that Homer may have stolen some of Daphne’s verses for himself, saying, “indeed it was from her poetry, they say, that the poet Homer took many verses which he appropriated as his own and with them adorned his own poesy” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.66). Although this particular legend of Homer’s poetry being inspired by Daphne is highly mythical and historically unlikely, Homer did indeed build his poems off of preexisting myths and legends that he pulled together into his epic poems.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Priestess of Delphi, by John Collier (c. 1850 – 1934), [Public Domain, Open Access] via Creative Commons and the Art Gallery of South Australia).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).