At this time of year our thoughts often turn to food and drink, so we start our exploration of the topic in Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. Where does their food come from? What kinds of foods does the poetry represent? How is it prepared and served?
There is evidence for herd animals being reared. For example, in the Odyssey Eumaios mentions the flocks on Ithaca and its neighbors:
There are twelve herds of cattle [agelai] upon the mainland, and as many flocks of sheep [pōu], there are also twelve droves [subosia] of pigs [sûs], while his own men and hired strangers feed him twelve widely spreading herds [aipolia] of goats [aix]. Here in Ithaca he runs even large flocks [apolia] of goats [aix] on the far end of the island, and they are in the charge of excellent [esthloi] goatherds.
Odyssey 14.100–104, adapted from Sourcebook
Goats and sheep also supply milk. Menelaos mentions a particular abundance in Libya which he saw on his travels:
Every one in that country, whether master or man, has plenty of cheese [turos], meat [kreas], and sweet [glukus] milk [gala], for they [=ewes] yield milk [gala] for-sucking all the year round.
Odyssey 4.87–89, adapted from Sourcebook
The epics also mention cultivation of grain. The fields first need to be plowed, and the Hesiodic Works and Days provides advice:
When the time for plowing [árotos] reveals itself for mortal men,
everyone must set out to work, servants and master alike,
460 plowing [aroûn] dry or moist land [árotos], according to the season [hōrā].
Get to work early, so that your fields [aroura] will yield produce in plenty.
Work over your fields in the spring. But fallow land broken up in the summer will not disappoint you.
Sow on fallow land [aroura] when it is still loose [from the rain].
Fallow land can be a talisman, warding off disaster.
465 Pray to Zeus of the Underground [Khthonios], and to holy Demeter,
that the sacred grain [aktē] of Demeter may become heavy with ripeness,
as you begin the plowing [árotos], laying hold of the end of the plow-handle [ekhetlē]
and coming down on the backs [nōton] of your oxen [boûs] with a switch
as they pull at the yoke-pole with their strappings. Standing a bit further back,
470 the servant who has the mattock [makella] should give the birds grief
as he makes the seed [sperma] disappear inside the earth.
But if you plow the Zeus-given earth [khthōn] at the [winter] solstice,
480 you will reap [amân] squatting, having little to grasp in your hand,
binding the sheaves the wrong way. You will be covered with dust, an unhappy man.
You could fit into a basket [phormos] everything you have to bring back. Few people indeed will marvel at you.
The noos of Zeus is different at different times,
and it is hard for mortal men to take note of it in their noos.
485 For if you plow [aroûn] late, you could have this remedy that I will now tell you.
When the cuckoo first sounds its call amidst the leaves of the oak tree,
bringing pleasure to mortals throughout the boundless earth [gaia],
then it is that Zeus might rain on the third day, and it might not stop
till the water rises to a point where it does not quite spill over inside the imprint of an ox’s [boûs] hoof.
490 And then it is that the one who plows late [opsarotēs] will compete with the early.
Works & Days 458–471, 479–490, adapted from Sourcebook
The scene that Hephaistos creates on the Shield of Achilles provides idealized details of a rich harvest:
 He wrought also a king’s estate, and the hired servants were reaping [amân] with sharp sickles [drepanē] in their hands. Swathe after swathe fell to the ground in a straight line behind them, and the binders [amallodetēr] bound them in bands of twisted straw. There were three binders [amallodetēr],  and behind them there were boys who gathered the cuttings in armfuls and kept on bringing them to be bound: among them all the owner of the land stood by in silence and was glad.
Iliad 18.550–557, adapted from Sourcebook 
There are also various fruits. For example, near the palace of the Phaeacians is an ideal orchard:
Outside the gate of the outer court there is a large garden of about four acres with a wall all round it. It is full of tall productive trees [dendron]—  pears [ogkhnai], pomegranates [rhoiai], and apples [mēlon] with beautiful fruit [aglao-karpos]. There are sweet [glukus] figs [sukē] also, and olives [elaia] in full growth. The fruits [karpos] never rot nor fail all the year round, neither winter nor summer, for the air is so soft that a new crop ripens before the old has dropped.  Pear [ogkhnē] grows on pear, apple [mēlon] on apple, bunch of grapes [staphulē] upon bunch of grapes, and fig [sukē] on fig. And there is an excellent vineyard [alōē].
Odyssey 7.114–122, adapted from Sourcebook
There are similar fruit trees in Laertes’ orchard (Odyssey 24.340–344).
We do not hear much about what happens with the other fruits, but we hear about the grape harvest as depicted on the Shield of Achilles:
He [=Hephaistos] wrought also a vineyard [alōē], golden and fair to see, and the vines were loaded with grapes [staphulē]. The bunches [brotus] overhead were black, but the vines were trained on poles of silver. He ran a ditch of dark metal all round it,  and fenced it with a fence of tin; there was only one path to the vineyard [alōē], and by this the vintagers [phoreus] went when they would gather the vintage. Youths and maidens all blithe and full of glee, carried the honey-sweet [meliēdēs] fruit [karpos] in plaited baskets [talaros]; and with them  there went a boy who made sweet music with his lyre, and sang the Linus-song with his clear boyish voice.
Iliad 18.561–571, adapted from Sourcebook
The grapes grown by the Phaeacians are processed into wine:
on the level ground of a part of this [vineyard], the grapes are being made into raisins; in another part they are being gathered;  they are treading [trapeîn] some, others further on have shed their blossom and are beginning to show fruit [omphax], others again are just changing color.
Hesiod provides some practical advice about wine:
But when Orion and Sirius reach the middle of the sky [at dawn],
610 and when rosy-fingered Dawn sees Arcturus,
then it is, Perses, that you should cut off and take home all the grape-clusters [brotus].
Show them to the sun ten days and ten nights.
Then shade them over for five more, and, on the sixth, draw off [aphussein] into jars
the gifts of joyous Dionysus.
Works & Days 609–614, adapted from Sourcebook
As for the grain, first it is winnowed or threshed. Hesiod is, of course, ready with advice:
Get your servants busy with winnowing [dineîn] the sacred grain [aktē] of Demeter,
when strong Orion first appears,
on a threshing-floor [alōē] that is exposed to the winds and is smoothed over
600 Then, with a measure, store it in jars.
606 Bring in the fodder [khortos] and the chaff. This way, there will be enough
for your oxen [boûs] and your mules. After that,
let your servants give a rest to their knees and unyoke your pair of oxen [boûs].
Works & Days 597–600, 606–608, adapted from Sourcebook
The Homeric evidence is often given in similes:
As the breezes sport with the chaff [akhnē] upon some goodly threshing-floor [alōē],  when men are winnowing [likmân] —while golden-haired Demeter blows with the wind to sort [krinein] the grain [karpos] from the chaff [akhnē], and the chaff-heaps [akhurmia] grow whiter and whiter…
Iliad 5.499–502, adapted from Sourcebook
as one who yokes broad-browed oxen [boûs] that they may tread [tribemenai] barley [krî] in a threshing-floor [alōē] —and it is soon bruised small under the feet of the lowing cattle [boûs]…
Iliad 20.495–497, adapted from Sourcebook
then it is ground:
a miller [aletris] woman from hard by in the mill room [mulē] lifted up her voice and gave him another sign. There were twelve women who worked hard to grind barley [alphiton] and wheat [aleiata] which are the staff of life [muelon] for men. The others had ground their wheat [puros] and had gone to take their rest,  but this one had not yet finished, for she was not so strong as they were
Odyssey 20.105–110, Sourcebook
Another simile tells us that beans and pulses are crops, and that they are also processed in a similar way:
As black beans [kuamos] or pulses [erebinthos] come pattering down on to a threshing-floor [alōē] from the broad winnowing-sieve [ptuon],  blown by shrill winds and shaken by the winnower [likmētēr]
Iliad 13.588–590, adapted from Sourcebook
Hesiod says of the plowman:
For his meal, let him eat a loaf [artos] scored into eight portions and broken into four.
Works & Days 442, Sourcebook
Other workers in the fields have other types of meals, but still outdoors, as depicted on the Shield of Achilles:
The heralds [kērux] were getting a meal [dais] ready under an oak, for they had sacrificed a great ox [boûs], and were busy preparing him,  while the women were sprinkling it with much white barley [alphiton] for the laborers’ dinner [deîpnon].
Iliad 18.558–560, adapted from Sourcebook
And when Nausicaa and her maids travel to the river on a mule-cart to wash clothes, they take ready-prepared food:
Her mother prepared her a chest with all sorts of satisfying [menoeikēs] food [edōdē] and put in it cooked-relishes [opson], and a goat skin full of wine [oinos]
Odyssey 6.76–78, adapted from Sourcebook
Some of the food and drink eaten outdoors at least may be appropriate to the season:
When the golden thistle [skolumos] is in bloom and the loud-sounding cicada,
perched on a tree, pours down his clearly-heard song
incessantly from under his wings, in the season [hōrā] of summer, with all its labors,
585 then it is that goats [aix] are fattest, wine [oinos] is best [aristos],
women are most wanton, and men are weakest;
for Sirius dries up their heads and their knee-caps,
and the skin gets dry from the heat. At this time, at long last,
let there be a shady place under a rock, wine [oinos] from [Thracian] Biblos,
590 barley-cake [mâza] soaked in milk [gala], the milk of goats [aix] that are reaching the end of their lactation,
and the meat [kreas] of a cow [boûs] fed in the woods, one that has not yet calved,
and of first-born kid goats [eriphos]. That is the time to drink [pinein] bright-colored wine [oinos],
sitting in the shade, having one’s heart sated with food [edōdē],
turning one’s face towards the cooling Zephyr.
595 Then, from an ever-flowing spring that flows downward, untainted by mud,
pour a drink that is three parts water [hudōr], but make the fourth part wine [oinos].
Works & Days 582–596, adapted from Sourcebook
Wine is typically mixed with water, although the proportions may not always be the same depending on the occasion; when Achilles welcomes his embassy guests:
he led them forward,  and bade them sit on seats covered with purple rugs; then he said to Patroklos who was close by him, “Son of Menoitios, set out a larger bowl [kratēr], mix [the wine] more strongly, and give every man his cup [depas], for these are very dear friends, who are now under my roof.”
Iliad 9.199–204, adapted from Sourcebook
but it may depend on the type of wine, as some may be stronger than others:
I also took a goatskin of sweet [hēdus] black [melanos] wine [oinos] which had been given me by Maron, … he made me some presents of great value—seven talents of fine gold, and a bowl of silver, with twelve jars of sweet [hēdus] wine [oinos], unblended [akērasios],  and a godlike drink [potos]. Not a man nor maid in the house knew about it, but only himself, his wife, and one housekeeper: when they drank the honey-sweet [meliēdēs] wine [oinos] he mixed one part with twenty parts of water [hudōr],  and yet the fragrance from the mixing-bowl [kratēr] was so exquisite [hēdus] that it was impossible to refrain from drinking.
Odyssey 9.196–197, 201–211, adapted from Sourcebook
Managing the household supplies is an important task.
The thirtieth day of the month is best [aristos]
for inspecting different kinds of work that have to be done and for apportioning [dateasthai] food-supplies [harmalia].
This is the day that people spend by sorting out [krinein] what is alētheia and what is not.
Works & Days 766–768, adapted from Sourcebook
few people know that the thrice-nine of the month is best [aristos]
815 for opening a wine-jar [pithos] and for putting yokes on the necks
of oxen [boûs], mules, and swift-footed horses,
or for hauling a swift ship with many oars down to the wine-colored [oinops] pontos.
Few give it its alēthēs name.
Open your jar [pithos] on the fourth. The fourth of the mid-month is the most holy of them all.
Works & Days 815–819, adapted from Sourcebook
Take your fill when the jar [pithos] [of wine] is up to the top or nearing the bottom,
and be sparing in the middle. Thrift is dreadful when you reach the bottom.
Works & Days 368–369, adapted from Sourcebook
There are many details about sacrificing animals and preparing meat for a feast:
When they had done praying and sprinkling the barley-meal [oulokhutai] upon the victim, they drew back its head, killed it, and then flayed it. They cut out the thigh-bones [mēros], wrapped them round in two layers of fat [knisa], and set pieces of raw meat on the top of them.  These they burned upon the split logs of firewood, but they spitted the innards [splanghnon], and held them in the flames to cook. When the thigh-pieces [mēros] were burned, and they had tasted the innards [splanghnon], they cut the rest up small, put the pieces upon spits [obelos], roasted [optân] them till they were done, and drew them off;
Iliad 2.421–429, adapted from Sourcebook
he [=Patroklos] set the chopping-block [kreîon] in front of the fire, and on it he laid the back [nōton] of a sheep [ois], and of a fat [piōn] goat [aix], and the chine [rhakhis] of a fat [sialos] hog [hus]. Automedon held the meat while radiant Achilles chopped [temnein] it; he then sliced [mistullein] the pieces and put them on spits [obelos] while  the son of Menoitios made the fire burn high. When the flame had died down, he spread the embers, laid the spits [obelos] on top of them, lifting them up and setting them upon the racks; and he sprinkled them with salt [hals].  When the meat was roasted [optân], he set it on platters [eleos], and handed bread [sitos] round the table [trapeza] in fair baskets [kaneon], while Achilles dispensed them their portions of meat [kreas]. Then Achilles took his seat facing the godlike Odysseus against the opposite wall, and bade his comrade Patroklos  offer sacrifice to the gods; so he cast the offerings into the fire,
Iliad 9.206–220, adapted from Sourcebook
In the second passage, the meat is sprinkled with salt. However, when Odysseus tells Penelope about Teiresias’ instructions, he says:
he [= Teiresias] instructed me to go to very many cities of mortals 268 while holding my well-made oar in my hands, till I came to a country where the people have never heard  of the sea, and do not even mix salt [hals] with their food [eidar]. They know nothing about ships, nor oars that are as the wings of a ship. He gave me this certain sign [sēma] which I will not hide from you. He said that a wayfarer should meet me and ask me  whether it was a winnowing-shovel [athērēloigos] that I had on my shoulder.
Odyssey 23.267–275, adapted from Sourcebook
In a more formal setting there are more elaborate preparations for guests, such as in the palace on Ithaca:
Heralds and attendants [therapontes] were bustling about to wait upon them,  some mixing wine [oinos] with water [hudōr] in the mixing-bowls [kratēr], some cleaning down the tables [trapeza] with wet sponges and laying them out again, and some cutting up [dateasthai] great quantities of meat [kreas]. …..
A maid servant then brought them hand-washing-water in a beautiful golden ewer and poured it into a silver basin for them to wash their hands, and she drew a clean table [trapeza] beside them. A venerable housekeeper brought them bread [sîtos],  and offered them many foodstuffs [eidar] of what there was in the house, the carver [daitros] fetched them platters [pinax] of all manner of meats [kreas] and set cups [kupellon] of gold by their side, and a herald brought them wine [oinos] and poured it out for them.
Then the suitors came in and  took their places on the benches and seats. Right away heralds poured water [hudōr] over their hands, maids went round with the bread [sîtos] in baskets [kaneon], youths filled the mixing-bowls [kratēr] with drink [potos]
Odyssey 1.109–112, 136–148, adapted from Sourcebook
There are certain cuts of meat that are prestigious and are given as a token of honor, in particular the back:
And wide-ruling Agamemnon the hero, son of Atreus, gave as honorifc portion [geras] to Ajax the whole back [nōton] [of beef].
 Then he [=Menelaos] handed them [=Telemachus and Peisistratos] a piece of fat [piōn] roast [opton] back [nōton] beef [boûs], which had been set near him as being an honorific portion [geras]
Odyssey 4.65–66, adapted from Sourcebook
The actual act of eating and drinking is rarely described; instead there are two verses that indicate the start and end of the meal which appear in many places.
And, with hands reaching out swiftly, they made for the good things [oneiata] that were prepared [hetoima] and waiting.
When they had satisfied their desire for drinking [posis] and eating [edētus] ….
Odyssey 8.71–72, adapted from Sourcebook,
also for example Iliad 9.91–92, 9.221–222, 24.627–628, Odyssey 1.149–150, and so on
But when Nausicaa instructs her maids to provide food to Odysseus, who has endured an arduous journey at sea:
They did as they were told, and set food [brōsis] before noble and long-suffering Odysseus, who drank [pinein] and ate [esthein] ravenously,  for it was long since he had had food [edētus] of any kind
Odyssey 6.247–250, adapted from Sourcebook
After a feast, there may be singing and dancing:
When they had satisfied their desire for drinking [posis] and eating [edētus], the suitors wanted music and dancing, which are the crowning embellishments of a banquet [dais], so a servant brought a lyre to Phemios, whom they compelled perforce to sing to them.
Odyssey 1.150–155, adapted from Sourcebook
The gods’ feasts and meals are similar in style, but they have different food and drink:
she [= Kalypsō] drew a table [trapeza] loaded with ambrosia [ambrosiē] beside him [= Hermes] and mixed him some red nectar [nektar]
Odyssey 5.92–93, adapted from Sourcebook
There are some meals where proceedings are not well-ordered, and a few other distinctive meals which fall into the category of healing or magic. These topics will be included in future posts in this series.
In our selected passages, there are more examples from the Odyssey than the Iliad. Does that reflect how many meals are represented in each text? Are the meals in the Iliad necessarily more curtailed because the heroes are living in temporary accommodation, or do they eat and drink as sumptuously? Which types of meat are served most often, and again, is there a difference between the Iliad and Odyssey? Join us in the forum to discuss food and drink in Homer and Hesiod.
agelē herd (of cattle)
aipolion herd (of goats)
akērasios unmixed, untouched
aletris female slave who grinds grain
alphiton barley; pl. alphita barley-groats or meal
aleiata (pl.) wheat-groats, wheat-flour or meal
alōē threshing-floor; orchard, vineyard
amân to reap, mow
ambrosiē ambrosia, immortality, food of the gods
aphussein to draw off liquid
árotos arable field; time for plowing, seed-time, season of tillage
aroûn to plow, till
aroura cultivated land, fields
artos bread, cake or loaf of wheat-bread
athērēloigos winnowing shovel, chaff-destroyer
brotus cluster or bunch of grapes
boûs cow, bull, ox; cattle
brōsis food, sustenance
dais feast, meal, banquet
daitros carver, one that carves and portions out
dateasthai to divide up, cut up
depas drinking-cup, beaker, goblet
dineîn to thresh
edētus food, eating
edōdē food, victuals
erebinthos kind of pulse, chick-pea
eriphos kid, young goat
esthein to eat
harmalia sustenance allotted, food
hēdus sweet, pleasant to the taste
hetoimos ready, at hand
hûs, sûs pig
kaneon basket, especially for bread, or for barley at sacrifices
karpos fruit, yield
kreas meat, flesh
kreîon meat-tray, block
kupellon drinking-cup, goblet
likmân to winnow, part the grain from the chaff
menoeikēs satisfying, to one’s taste
mistullein to cut up into pieces
muelon marrow; figuratively, nourishing food
mulē mill, hand-mill
nektar nectar, drink of the gods
ois sheep, ram
omphax unripe grape
oneiata viands, food
orkhos row of vines or fruit trees
opson cooked or prepared food, dish; relish, sauce
optân to roast, broil
optos roasted, broiled
oulokhutai barley-groats, barley-meal
pinax trencher, platter
pinein to drink
pithos large wine-jar
posis drinking, drink, beverage
ptuon winnowing-fan, sieve
rhakhis lower part of the back, chine
sialos fat hog
sîtos grain; bread; food
staphulē bunch of grapes
subosion herd (of pigs)
temnein to cut
trapeîn to tread grapes
trapeza table, dining-table
1 Sourcebook: Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook: Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English. Gregory Nagy. 2013.
Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power.
Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies
Greek text: Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
Online at Perseus
2 Sourcebook: Hesiod Works & Days Translated by Gregory Nagy
Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies
Greek text: Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Works and Days. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
Online at Perseus
3 Sourcebook: Iliad Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power.
Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies Greek text: Homer. Homeri Opera in five volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1920.
Online at Perseus
4 In lines 611 and 614 there are references to harvesting grapes, drying them for ten days and nights, then keeping them covered for another five before putting the processed fruit into jars. It is not clear whether this refers to dried grapes, or a liquid, in which case it could be wine. Whatever it is, the text uses the expression ‘the gifts of Dionysus’ but does not refer to the vine (i.e. the name oinē does not appear explicitly) or to the exactly what it is that is put in the jars, or if it is, indeed, wine. But (according to Wikipedia) in ancient Greece, one of the techniques for making wine was to dry the grapes, and then crush and draw off the liquid where it could ferment, so it is likely that he is referring to wine-making. It may be significant that the poetry seems to be deliberately avoiding using the word.
5 LSJ: Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940.
Online at Perseus
Texts accessed December 2021.
Attributed to the Painter of London. Attic red-figure rhyton in the shape of a lamb’s head. E 100, ca. 460 BCE, depicting youths playing the aulos.
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
Painter of the Burgon Sianas Ploughman. Attic Black-Figure Band Cup, c 560–550 BCE.
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen 2011, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
‘Harvester Vase‘, Minoan stone vessel, 1500–1400 BCE.
Photo: Aeleftherios, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Chiusi Painter. Sileni (aka satyrs) and maenads in a grapevine, harvesting grapes into baskets Detail from Attic black-figure cup, or kylix, c end of 6th century BCE.
Photo: Bibi Saint-Pol. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ploughman, detail from a scene representing people working in the fields. Attic black-figure band-cup. c 530 BCE. Louvre.
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen 2011, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
Black-figure oenochoe with a goat, 6th century BCE. Archaeological Museum of Eleusis. (cropped)
Photo: Zde, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikimedia Commons
Woman drinking in a storeroom, Skyphos, 470–460 BCE.
Davie & Margie Hill, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons
Detail from Nereid monument, c390–380 BCE, depicting young men with food offerings. Photo: Kosmos Society
Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.
Images accessed December 2021.
Hélène Emeriaud, Janet Ozsolak, and Sarah Scott are members of Kosmos Society.