When I took the survey course in classical mythology (mandatory for classics majors, of course!) I read parts of the Homeric Hymns. But I never set down and read them all.
Just some background. Greek literature pre-Common Era is divided roughly into three periods: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. Hellenistic literature comes from the Greek world after Alexander the Great’s conquests around the eastern Mediterranean and Persia (336-323 BCE); this period includes the comedian Menander, the pastoral poet Theocritus, and the epic Argonautika. Classical period literature hails from the heyday of the Athenian empire in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, and includes the dialogues of Plato, the comedies of Aristophanes, and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The Homeric Hymns were mainly composed in the Archaic period (ninth-sixth centuries BCE), along with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.
We have lost a lot of archaic literature. Hesiod refers to other writings of his, now lost. We have found fragments of epics from this time which we have lost. (An example: we know of a lost epic of Herakles’ great deeds written by Herodotus’ uncle.) If someone finds one of these epics in some undiscovered papyrus heap in Egypt, scholars could unlock entirely new understandings of Homer.
First things first, the “Homeric hymns” are actually seriously misnamed. Although they are written in dactylic hexameter like Homer, Hesiod was too, so this seems like a standard meter in archaic poetry, rather than something associated specifically with the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Homeric hymns also use many of the oral formulae that Homer does, and shows evidence of oral composition as well. But this just proves there was a shared oral poetic culture. And not all of these sing the praise of a god in the way we think of a “hymn” as doing. The Homeric hymns provide creation stories, etymologies, geographies, and other facets of Greek culture, and they were possibly used as preludes to worship of the gods.
Anyway, I really enjoyed Diane Rayor’s translations of these bad boys. Here’s a few things I learned.
- The hymns are not a uniform collection. We have 34 hymns. Most of them are short, taking up less than a page. Four of them are really long: hymns to Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite. Some of them are directed at abstractions or personified forces of nature we seldom think of the Greeks as worshipping; we have hymns, for example, to Gaia (earth), Selene (moon), and Xenoi (guests and hospitality).
- The hymns demonstrate that Archaic Greek literature does not provide a unified portrait of the gods. Diane Rayor writes:
The long narratives … show the cosmos itself in the process of being ordered in its details, though its broad patterns are already in place. Zeus’ rule, too, is new and perhaps not yet firmly established. The story of the divine realm as told in the Hymns provides the missing link between Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s epics. Zeus first takes power in the Theogony; in Homer, this power is firmly set and unchallenged, and the hierarchy of the gods fixed. (8)
Rayor is suggesting that Hesiod depicts a period when Zeus has first taken power but not solidified it yet. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but perhaps overstated. I can point to incidents in Homer where Zeus does not seem to be fully in control either, like when he has to let Sarpedon die in Iliad Book 16. But does the difference between the Homeric Hymns and the Theogony stem from a real theological difference, or from the genre difference between poetic songs and theogonies? I honestly don’t know.
- These myths provide many origin stories for Greek cultic and cultural practices. This is most obvious in the long hymn to Apollo, which explains the origins of names such as “Python” and “Delphi,” and explains how Apollo’s main temple came to be located at Delos. The long hymn to Demeter explains how the seasons originated, and provides the origins of the Eleusinian Mysteries, an important Greek cult.
- As a human, interacting with the gods is always dangerous. When I took Greek mythology, our professor gave us two major principles for humans and gods interacting. First, the gods punish humans for things the humans can hardly be held responsible for. In the hymn to Demeter, Demeter punishes Metaneira for snooping on her putting her son Demophon into the fire by stopping the process of turning Demophon into a god. But Metaneira was not aware that the disguised Demeter was actually a goddess. Is it fair to punish her? Second, romance and sex between the gods and humans almost always ends badly for humans. When Aphrodite falls in love with the human Anchises in her hymn, he is honored and beloved, though warned not to boast of his sexual relation with the goddess or else. The hymn ends there, so we do not know from this text whether or not he kept his mouth shut. But Anchises is lucky, the exception to the rule. Most importantly: Greek gods, unlike the Christian god, are not primarily worshipped for their compassion and love.
Anyway, one more down from the summer reading list. Right now I am reading through Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, a bit of a chronological leap forward. Soon I’ll post my notes on Homer’s Iliad, which I have been reading in Greek for the past quarter.