Temple as Ship in Odyssey 6.10
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Temple as Ship in Odyssey 6.10

Like the good eighth-century oecist that he was,1 the founder of Scheria, Phaeacian king Nausithous, son of Poseidon and grandfather of Nausicaa and Clytonaus, adorned his new city with temples of the gods (inline graphic, Od. 6.10). This phrase, a hapax in Homer, occupies the same metrical seat immediately before the hephthemimeral caesura as the common ship formula inline graphic (cf. inline graphic, 24.299, also a hapax). It is plausible, therefore, that the bard who described the work of this ship-loving king used the formula as a formal model. The note argues that this bard thought that temples were ships in which gods traveled. Though this claim may seem surprising at first, cultic, architectural, and linguistic aspects of the epics all support it.

Let us begin with cult. From Iliad 1 on, epiphanies are common (43-47, 194-95, 359-61).2 While some gods like Apollo work from afar, most need physical contact, for example, in helping suppliants, and human travel to Olympus like that of Otus and Ephialtes or Bellerophon is out of the question. Gods periodically irrupt into the natural world: Zeus comes down in lightning (e.g., Ar. Pax 42); drinkers take in Dionysus and grow giddy (e.g., Soph. Ant. 964); one sees Pan in any sudden skittishness of the flock (e.g., Eur. Med. 1172). The trick, then, is to channel the gods' [End Page 541] strength to make it propitious. Perhaps for this reason, the basic prayer is the cletic hymn (Men. Rhet. 334.25-336.4) that asks the god to come to the worshipper (carm. pop. 871.1 PMG; Sappho fr. 1.5, 25, 2.1 Lobel-Page, Voigt; Anacreon 357.7 PMG = fr. 14.7 Gentili; Pl. Leg. 712B; Apocalypse 22.20) and may describe a magic vehicle for the purpose (Sappho fr. 1.8-9 Lobel-Page, Voigt),3 like the self-moving aerial car, vimāna, of Sanskrit verse to which a boat is compared at Raghuvanśa 16.68.4 Those who pray often do so by the sea (Il. 1.34, 348-51; Od. 2.260-61; Pind. Ol. 1.71-73, 6.58), and ships may be the site of epiphanies (e.g., Hymn. Hom. Dion. 2, etc.; cf. Exekias ABV 146,21; Hymn Hom. Ap. 388-451).

When the Trojan women dedicate a robe to Athena (Il. 6.269-78), we are not told that they use a ship to carry it, but in the similar offering at the Panathenaea, such was indeed the case.5 This ship may have been a comparatively late addition to the Athenian festival, but it has a good Bronze Age antecedent as proved by the Theran ship-fresco.6

Turning now to architecture, we note that early temples were perhaps quite small, since as adyta (Il. 5.448, etc.) or abata, which worshippers did not enter,7 they have no functional lower size limit. Surviving Greek temples, all of archaic date or later, are imposing stone structures but bear traces of wooden prototypes, pillars having replaced roughhewn logs and decorative guttae treenails. Excavators have found terracotta model-shrines at Perachora and in the Argive Heraeum,8 some of which may have been portable like those of the Egyptian Amun, Mut, and Chonsu, the juggernaut of Puri in Orissa, or the Tent of Meeting, the earliest Israelite shrine (Exod. 33.7, etc.).

Greek temples were astronomically oriented, typically facing sunrise on the foundation day (cf. Plut. Num. 14.4; Lucian De Domo 6), while snubbing humbler coordinates like roads or nearby buildings.9 In [End Page 542] this, they resemble Khufu's pyramid in Egypt, the so-called air shafts of which helped the pharaoh's soul sail to its eternal home in the constellation Orion, giving like an alidad the angles between the tomb itself, the pharaoh's "horizon of eternity," (3ḫ.t (nt) inline graphic, Papyrus Abbott 2.2; The Great Harris Papyrus 3.6),10 the pole-star, and his final destination.11 This fact suggests a link with navigation, for Greeks connected ships and stars, thanks to the navigator's art. With both magnetite and iron,12 but...