Core Vocab: makar

This time the Core Vocab word (mentioned in The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (H24H)[1] and in the associated Sourcebook[2]) is makar [μάκαρ] ‘blessed; happy’. This has a similar meaning to olbios; Gregory Nagy explains in H24H 8.§44 that olbios has an everyday meaning when applied to mortals, “fortunate, wealthy, happy” and a specialized meaning when applied to the gods, “blessed”. But it can also be applied in a sacral context to heroes, after they are dead and have cult status. It seems that makar is used in much the same way. In addition it is used to to one of the “eschatological phases in an afterlife,” the Islands of the Blessed (Nēsoi Makarōn).

Elysian Fields

Gregory Nagy makes a connection between the two words makar and olbios:

Of all these paradisiacal locations that are reserved for immortalized heroes, I highlight here the Islands of the Blessed, since we know a detail about the inhabitants of this mythical place that helps explain why Achilles is addressed as olbios, ‘blessed’, at the beginning of Text A, Odyssey xxiv 36. In the Hesiodic Works and Days, this same word olbios is used to describe cult heroes who are immortalized after death and who enjoy a state of bliss in the Islands of the Blessed, which is a paradisiacal setting that transcends the temporal and the spatial constraints of mortality.

H24H, 11§15

He goes on to quote the passage in question:

|170 And they live with a carefree heart [thūmos] |171 on the Islands of the Blessed [Nēsoi Makarōn] on the banks of the deep-swirling river Okeanos, |172 blessed [olbioi] heroes [hērōes] that they are, and for them there is a honey-sweet harvest [karpos] |173 that comes to fruition three times each year, produced by the life-giving land.

Hesiod Works and Days 170–173, translated by Gregory Nagy, H24H

and provides an example of an inscribed lamella in a tomb from the fourth century BCE: “olbie kai makariste, ‘O blessed one, you who are called blessed’ (IG XIV 641 = Orphicorum Fragmenta 488, line 9).”

So I wondered if the words were used interchangeably, or whether makar had a more specific use in particular contexts, or in set phrases, perhaps particularly in the poetry. And was it used more, or less, at different periods of time?

Persephone and Hades

Here are a few examples from a variety of passages, to start the discussion.

much justice [dikaiosunē] and much temperance [sōphrosunē] are needed by those who are deemed the as doing the best things [arista] and who enjoy all the things counted as blessings [makarizein], like the persons, if such there be, as the poets say, that dwell in the Islands of the Blest [Nēsoi Makarōn]; these will most need wisdom [philosophia], temperance [sōphrosunē] and justice [dikaiosunē], the more they are at leisure and have an abundance of such good things [agatha]. It is clear therefore why a state [polis] that is to be happy [eudaimoneîn] and righteous must share in these virtues [aretai].

Aristotle Politics 7.1334a, adapted from translation by H. Rackham[3]

Plutarch describes some islands in the Atlantic, described by sailors, and which, he tells us, many believe are The Islands of the Blessed:

These are two in number, separated by a very narrow strait; they are ten thousand furlongs distant from Libya, and are called the [Islands of the] Blessed [Makarōn]. They are furnished with moderate rains at long intervals, and winds which for the most part are soft [malakoi] and precipitate dews, so that the islands not only have a rich soil which is excellent [agathos] for plowing and planting, but also produce a natural fruit [karpos] that is plentiful and wholesome enough to feed, without toil [ponoi] or trouble, a leisured folk [dēmos]. 3] Moreover, an air that is salubrious, owing to the climate and the moderate changes in the seasons [hōrai], prevails on the islands. For the north and east winds which blow out from our part of the world plunge into fathomless space, and, owing to the distance, dissipate themselves and lose their power before they reach the islands; while the south and west winds that envelope the islands sometimes bring in their train soft and intermittent showers, but for the most part cool them with moist breezes and gently nourish the soil. Therefore a firm belief has made its way, even to the Barbarians, that here is the Elysian Field and the abode of the blessed [eudaimōn] which is not true, of which Homer sang.

Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 8.2–3, adapted from translation by Bernadotte Perrin[4]

Apart from the Islands of the Blessed, the word makar most frequently collocates[5] with theos, ‘god’, and indeed sometimes stands alone to refer to the gods. So I wondered where it was used to describe mortals whether it definitely means “happy, fortunate” or whether it is used in a sacral sense. Here are a few examples:

Pausanias, discussing Smyrna, tells us:


{7.5.2} It is said that Alexander was hunting on Mount Pagus, and that after the hunt was over he came to a sanctuary [hieros] of the Nemeses, and found there a spring and a plane tree in front of the sanctuary [hieros], growing over the water. While he slept under the plane tree it is said that the Nemeses appeared [epi-phainesthai] and ordered him to found a city [polis] there and to remove into it the Smyrnaeans from the old city.

{7.5.3} So the Smyrnaeans sent ambassadors to Klaros to make inquiries about the circumstance, and the god made answer:

“Thrice, yes, four times blest [makares] will those men be
Who shall dwell in Pagus beyond the sacred [hieros] Meles.”

So they migrated of their own free will, and believe now in two Nemeses instead of one, saying that their mother is Night, while the Athenians say that the father of the goddess in Rhamnus is Okeanos.

Pausanias 7.5.2–3, adapted from Pausanias Reader[6]

In Homeric epic, makar is applied to an ordinary man, in a simile:

And now as a band of reapers mow swathes of wheat or barley upon the land of a rich man [anēr makar], and the sheaves fall thick before them, [70] even so did the Trojans and Achaeans fall upon one another…

Iliad 11.67–71, adapted from Sourcebook[7]

And makar is applied to the “best of the Achaeans,” Achilles, in Hades; however, there is an implication that it applied even before his death:

Achilles, no man was ever yet so fortunate [makar] as you have been, nor ever will be, for you were honored equally to the gods by all us Argives as long as you were alive, [485] and now that you are here you are a great prince among the dead.

Odyssey 11.482–485, adapted from Sourcebook[8]

Perhaps the word here combines both meanings: “fortunate” when alive and “blessed” now; but “happy” doesn’t seem to apply in either case!

Odysseus and Nausicaa

Odysseus offers Nausicaa a compliment when he first supplicates her—from a safe distance, given his state of nakedness (give or take an olive branch to cover himself):

“O queen,” he said, “I implore your aid—but tell me, are you a goddess or are you a mortal woman? [150] If you are a goddess and dwell in the sky, I can only conjecture that you are Zeus’ daughter Artemis, for your face and figure resemble none but hers; if on the other hand you are a mortal and live on earth, thrice happy [makar] are your father and mother— [155] thrice happy [makar], too, are your brothers and sisters; how proud and delighted they must feel when they see so fair a scion as yourself going out to a dance [khoros]; most happy [makar], however, of all will he be whose wedding gifts have been the richest, and who takes you to his own [160] home.

Odyssey 6.149–159, adapted from Sourcebook

Here, “happy” or “fortunate” fit their mortal status, although the close comparison with the gods perhaps raises the tone, especially with the sacral contexts he mentions: a dance [khoros] would often be in a ritual, and a wedding would elevate the bride and groom, at least temporarily, as an epiphany just like the gods, as in Sappho’s poem 31 and Gregory Nagy’s analysis in H24H 5§38ff.

Other examples of makar apply to special groups: for example Pindar refers to the Hyperboreans:

Neither by ship nor on foot could you find [30] the marvellous road to the meeting-place [agōn] of the Hyperboreans— Once Perseus, the leader of his people, entered their homes and feasted among them, when he found them sacrificing glorious hecatombs of donkeys to the god. In the festivities of those people [35] and in their praises Apollo rejoices most, and he laughs when he sees the erect arrogance [hubris] of the beasts. The Muse is not absent from their customs; all around swirl the dances [khoroi] of girls, the lyre’s loud chords and the cries of flutes. [40] They wreathe their hair with golden laurel branches and revel joyfully. No sickness or ruinous old age is mixed into that sacred [hiera] breed [genos]; without toil [ponoi] or battles they live without fear of strict Nemesis. Breathing boldness of spirit [45] once the son of Danae went to that gathering of blessed men [andrōn makarōn], and Athena led him there.

Pindar, Pythian 10. 29–46, adapted from translation by Diane Arnson Svarlien[9]

As with the Pausanias passage about Smyrna, Apollo is featured; but in this case instead of even one Nemesis, this special group do not have to fear her. Are they merely happy and fortunate, given their idyllic lifestyle, or does their “sacred” status mean that makar here indicates some sort of immortality and blessedness, or is it a temporary state of being during festivals and ritual occasions?

Looking at the author frequencies by searching on Perseus and Perseus under PhiloLogic, makar is most frequent in Homeric epic and the Homeric Hymns, and in drama, Euripides uses the word more than Sophocles (which is not entirely due to the larger number of extant plays); Euripides also uses the variant makarios which is the version of the word favored by Plato, particularly in the Republic. Here is one passage to illustrate it; here the words related to makar are used alongside eudaimōn, another Core Vocab term, “being blessed with a good daimōn,” but perhaps the former is as a result of applying good practices, and the latter a result of outside influences.

Plato Academy mosaic

“From all these, then, they will be finally free, and they will live more happy [makaristos] life than that men count most happy [makarios], the life of the victors at Olympia.” “How so?” “The things for which those are felicitated [= called eudaimōn] are a small part of what is secured for these. Their victory is fairer and their public support more complete. For the prize of victory that they win is the salvation [sōtēriā] of the entire state [polis], the fillet that binds their brows is the public support of themselves and their children— [465e] they receive honor [geras] from the city [polis] while they live and when they die a worthy burial.” “A fair guerdon, indeed,” he said. “Do you recall,” said I, “that in the preceding argument the objection of somebody or other rebuked us for not making our guardians happy [eudaimōn], [466a] since, though it was in their power to have everything of the citizens, they had nothing, and we, I believe, replied that this was a consideration to which we would return if occasion offered, but that at present we were making our guardians guardians and the city [polis] as a whole as happy [eudaimōn] as possible, and that we were not modelling our ideal of happiness [eudaimōn] with reference to any one class?”

Plato, Republic 5.465d–5.466a, adapted from translation by Paul Shorey[10]

Finally, the term makarios is also used by Plato in the vocative as an affectionate or respectful form of address during the dialogues, where it has become further removed from its original sacral or ritual sense; the LSJ suggests translating as “my good sir,” or “my dear sir” (for example, Republic 1.341b).

Are there other specialized usages of makar or its derivatives? To what extent is there an awareness of the underlying duality of the term when applied to immortal gods and (dead) cult heroes, as opposed to the living? Are there places where a ritual context could be supplying both senses at once? If you find other examples, please share them in the forum!

Related vocabulary

Definitions based on those in LSJ[11]

makarios [μακάριος] “longer form of μάκαρ”

makaristos [μακαριστός] verbal adjective of makarízein: deemed, or to be deemed, happy, enviable

makarízein [μακαρίζειν] to bless, to deem or pronounce happy; congratulate


1 Nagy, Gregory. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 2013. Available online at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

2 Sourcebook: The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours Sourcebook: Sourcebook of Original Greek Texts Translated into English. Gregory Nagy. 2013. Updated 2020-12-15.
Homeric Odyssey, Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power. Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

3 English: Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1944. Online at Perseus
Greek: Aristotle. ed. W. D. Ross, Aristotle’s Politica. Oxford, Clarendon Press. 1957. Online at Perseus

4 English: Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1919. 8.
Online at Perseus
Greek: from the same edition, on Perseus

5 Collocation search for makar on Perseus on PhiloLogic

6 English: Pausanias Reader. Translation based on the original rendering by W. H. S. Jones, 1918 (Scroll 2 with H.A. Ormerod), containing some of the footnotes of Jones. The translation is edited, with revisions, by Gregory Nagy. Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies
Greek: Pausanias. Pausaniae Graeciae Descriptio, 3 vols. Leipzig, Teubner. 1903. Online at Perseus

7 English: Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power. Sourcebook 2020-12-15.
Greek: Homer. Homeri Opera in five volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1920.
Online at Perseus

8 English: Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power. Sourcebook 2020-12-15.
Greek: 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

9 English: Odes. Pindar. Diane Arnson Svarlien. 1990.
Online at Perseus
Greek: Pindar. The Odes of Pindar including the Principal Fragments with an Introduction and an English Translation by Sir John Sandys, Litt.D., FBA. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1937. Online at Perseus

10 English: Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. Online at Perseus
Greek: Plato. Platonis Opera, ed. John Burnet. Oxford University Press. 1903.
Online at Perseus

11 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

Image credits

Carlos Schwabe: Elysian Fields, 1903.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pinax with Persephone and Hades Enthroned, 500–450 BCE, Greek, Locri Epizephirii, Mannella district, Sanctuary of Persephone, terracotta
Photo: Daderot, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Agora at New Smyrna and Pagos Hill
Photo: Arkiyolok, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, via Wikimedia Commons

Salvator Rosa: Odysseus and Nausicaa, c 1655.
LACMA, public domain

Plato’s Academy, mosaic, Roman, 1st century BCE, Pompeii
Photo: Jebulon, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Online texts and images accessed February 2021.


Sarah Scott has a degree in Language from the University of York, and has worked as an editor, technical author, and documentation manager. She is the Executive Producer for the HeroesX project, and one of the Executive Editors of the HeroesX Sourcebook. She is an active participant and member of the editorial team in Kosmos Society, with a particular interest in content development, document management, word studies, language learning, comparative linguistics, and digital humanities.