Homeric Hymns

Genre: songs to Olympian dieties that may do several types of things: describe their ancestry and birth; retell some notable event in which they were a major actor; explain their names or powers; invoke their presence; pray for their assistance, etc.  They may have been written in the century before the "Classical" era (i.e., C8-7 BCE vs. C6-5 BCE) and they may have been written to introduce recitations of full-scale epics attributed to Homer.

General issue questions:

1)  Based upon these examples, what kind of thing is a "hymn"?   What are its functions‑‑what kinds of things does it say it is  doing, and what other purposes might it serve?

 2)  Compare these hymns to other lyrics you might be familiar  with that also are called hymns, for instance "The Battle Hymn of  of the Republic," or "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  How do  their parts, subjects, and attitudes compare with the Homeric  Hymns?

 3)  Check a good, large dictionary definition of "anthem."  How  is the genre of anthems (e.g., "The Star Spangled Banner" and  "God Save the Queen) related to the genre of hymns?  What does  this tell you about the relative importance of their subjects in  ancient and modern times?

 4)  What is the relationship between the gods and goddesses who  are the hymns' subjects, and the poets' claims to mastery of  their art?

 5)  For what purposes does the poet use narration in hymns?   Follow one example closely, and watch for the moments when the  praise‑song shifts to story‑telling.

Hymn #1 (To Dionysus)

1)  The poet begins by invoking the memory of other poets who have explained where Dionysus was born, but eventually calls them "liars" and claims to know the truth about the god's birthplace.  First, why does this matter?  (Think about sacred sites for the world's religions--any birthplaces there?)  Second, what does the ongoing dispute with the "liars" mean about the poet's job.

2)  The second section ends a story about how the god's mother, Semele, will be worshiped in accordance of Zeus's will, and then prays to the god, naming him in two ways ("Eiraphiotes" and "woman-maddener").  The translator leaves intact the Greek word for "he who was sewn in," explaining its uncertain meaning in the note on 72 as a reference to Dionysus' being sewn into Zeus's thigh when he was "born" prematurely when his mortal mother asked to see her anonymous lover in his true appearance and was incinerated by Zeus's full glory.  What does the double birth of this god mean if we think about how vinyards produce wine, especially the autumnal practice of burning the previous year's vines in the fields to fertilize the soil for next year's crop, or the double "birth" of wine, itself, first as the grape and then as the fermented juice?  When the poet says remembering Dionysus is essential to any poet's performance, could this refer to the wine god's double birth, as well? 

3)  Dionysis' second epithet, gynaimanes or "woman-maddener" refers to the dionysiac rituals in which female worshipers (bacchantes or maenads) waving decorated wands (thyrsis) and drinking copious quantities of the god's beverage roamed the forests hunting animals with their bare hands.  The records of this ritual worship are conflicted because male writers (of course?) found the practices terrifically dangerous to patriarchal authority.  The translator's note directs you to Euripides' Bachae for an example because the play depicts the deadly results of a male ruler's refusal to honor the worship of Dionysus.  His mother and sister, not recognizing him when they encounter him among the other maenads, tear him to pieces.  How might the Apollonian principle of "medan agan" or "nothing in excess" explain what "excess" the male ruler had committed with respect to the powers Dionysis rules?

4)  See Athanassakis' "Introduction" (x) and the endnote (72) about the reconstructed nature of this poem.  The first ten lines come from one source which was also partly the inspiration for Shelley's "Ozymandias," and the rest fame from a badly mutilated fifteenth-century manuscript fragment found in Moscow in the eighteenth century.  See especially the translator's note that suggests these could be the head and foot of a longer poem of 400-600 lines.  Compare it with the arguably complete hymn #2 ("To Demeter") in structure and length and see if you can imagine what might have been lost.  Based in the first section, what would an ancient poet do if s/he realized this?

Hymn #2 (To Demeter)

1)   Look up the Eleusinian Mysteries in an encyclopedia.  How  might the narrative of Persephone's capture by Hades and semi-salvation by Demeter relate to that religious cult?  What do adherants of a rebirth or afterlife cult seek from their religion and what does that mean about human psychology, social relations, etc.?

2)  The introduction positions Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, both harvest dieties, in association with Gaia, the goddess of the Earth.  What might it mean that the only earth-bound member of the Olympian brothers (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) captures the daughter of this set of female Earth-goddesses?  How might this represent the reception of an older "layer" of mythos?

3)  Persephone's grasp of the flower is paralleled by Hades' grasp of Persephone.  Can you explain the cosmic significance of this in terms of human desire for beauty and the forces which bring us to death?

4)  In addition to constructing relations among the female "chthonic" (earth-born) dieties and the male sky-gods, the hymn also sets up the roles of one of the chief sky-gods, Hades the "All-receiver" and "ruler of many" (ll. 17, 30).  How does the older, female view of our lives and deaths relate to the newer, male view of what dying means about our relationship to the earth.

5)  "Hekate of the shining headband" is the moon.  In what sense is her epithet accurate?  Look up images of classical Greek headbands and "tiaras" or jeweled head ornaments.  Helios, the sun, is also involved in the discovery of Persephone's fate.  Why would the moon goddess and the sun god be the ones to inform Demeter, the harvest goddess, of her daughter's fate?  What links the moon and the sun to the harvest?

6)  Demeter's grief because of the loss of her daughter is given a large number of lines, and considerable detail.  What does a goddess's grief for a lost child do for human readers?

7)  Helios explains that Zeus "gave [Persephone] to Hades, his own brother, to become / his buxom bride" (ll. 79-80).  This conflicts with modern readers' expectations of how women are wed and how rulers ought to behave.  Assume for the sake of argument that our rules are not the only ones that work.  How would a society operate according to this poem's rules?  What problems might such a system solve?

8)  Demeter's disguised wandering among mortals might be called a "digression," interposing a new agenda between the loss of Persephone and her return.  What purpose does this episode serve, and how might it have been logically "grafted" onto the lost-daughter's-return plot?

9)  Kleos Eleusinides' name means "Fame born of Eleusis," and his daughters' names are similarly significant if translated.  Work out how this family functions as the source of the Eleusinian mystery cult.  Especially note the function of Demeter's "cover story" of her abduction, and her nursing of the mortal child, Demophoon.  What is Demeter attempting to do, and how does it relate to Persephone's abduction?

10)  When Demeter enters Kleos' house, the child's mother immediately is overcome with "Awe, revernce, and pale fear" (l. 190).  The mother immediately gives up her seat and the daughters bring the goddess a seat, warm covering, and a specific food and drink she requests.  This careful household dance is a dramatic illustration of xenia, guest-friendship, which is one of ancient Greeks' most ancient and cherished traditions.  Welcoming and pleasing, even pampering an unknown guest is a ritual protected by Zeus and represented in countless works of art and literature.  Its violation is also portrayed, perhaps even in Hades' treatment of Persephone.  What alternative behaviors might this tradition be intended to displace or prevent?  Keep in mind that ancient Greece is a mountainous, difficult place to live, and each household might easily define its own laws and traditions.

11)  The failed immortalization of Demophoon has what might seem an unexpected consequence (ll. 251-300).  This central to the poem's second narrative purpose, the establishment of the Eleusinian Mystery cult.  How does Demeter's loss of Persephone, which is likely the older layers of mythos, set the stage for the mystery's narrative of what its worshipers will obtain by obeying the rituals necessary to join the cult?  Note that even to this day scholars have never learned what the final stages of the initiation ritual entailed or exactly what the cult's members expected as a result.

12)  Persephone's temporary recovery by Demeter returns the hymn to its older narrative line, and uses the daughter's acceptance of food in Hades' Underworld hall as a reason for her inability to free herself from the "All-receiver."  How does this affect the xenia conventions governing host-guest relations?

Hymn #5 ("To Aphrodite")   

1)  Aphrodite's powers are defined by the three dieties whose minds she cannot compel to obey her: Athena, Artemis, and Hestia, goddesses of weaving/strategy, the hunt and virginity, and the hearth.  First, why are these three impervious to erotic love's destructive compulsions?  Then, what does the fact that all other beings, divine or mortal, are under her power?  Remember this includes Zeus.  Does this even up the gender-power balance, or is it part of the patriarchal problem?

2)  Note also that Zeus can instill erotic longing in Aphrodite's mind, in this case, leading to an affair with the Trojan, Anchises, which made her mother to Aeneas, Virgil's epic hero.  Keep this in mind at the end of the course when we are reading about Aeneas as an epic hero whose mother is the goddess of erotic love.  What would you expect the retults to be?  If you were Greek, you would be surprised by how Virgil, the Roman, handles this tricky ancestry.

3)  Anchises' encounter with a goddess might have turned out badly had he responded differently (or not at all!) to her appearance (ll. 81-106).  If you had to convert this passage to an etiquette instruction for the young Greek male meeting a divinity, what would the general advice be, stage by stage?

4)  How does the "abduction" theme figure in this hymn as compared with its use in #2, "To Demeter" as an alabi for goddesses wandering among mortals?  What common features do the two stories share?

5)  Aphrodite offers to become Anchises' wife, but first they "mingle . . . in love" (l. 150).  Compare the details the poet notices in the undressing of Aphrodite with what Anchises says in lines 58-63 and 84-90.  Then, when Anchises awakes and Aphrodite reveals herself to be divine, how does he detect this and what is his response?  The prophecy Aphrodite utters about "Aineias" is an important anchor-point for Virgil in his adaptation of the Trojan material to the epic about the founding of Rome.  Our translator unpacks his name as "Ai-neus" from "ainos" or "awesome," a word which has lost almost all of it original meaning through casual overuse.  Think about what true "awe" might be, and about what its relative absence from our lives means for our attempt to recover Greek culural norms.

6)  As Aphrotite prepares Anchises for her departure, she tells him a suite of two god-mortal abduction narratives : Zeus and Ganymedes (also a Trojan prince) and Eos (Dawn) and TIthonos (ll. 202-238).  This gives the poet opportunity to consider two of the crucial distinctions that separate Greek gods from mortals--immortality and eternal youth.  Aphrodite, perhaps naturally, sees Eos' error from the goddess's point of view, but uses the example to explain to Anchises why she will not ask for his immortality.  Instead, she ends by offering him an alabi of his own for the child she will deliver to him "toward the fifth year," and a threat should he ever reveal their relationship (ll. 274-88).  Can we psychoanalyze the goddess of love?  Why does she forbid Anchises to name her as the child's mother?  As we shall seein Virgil, he could not resist and was lamed, though not killed, by Zeus's thunderbolt.  What consequences do you forsee for Aeneas, and for those who encounter him, because his divine mother is known to the mortal world?

7)  This hymn ends with the narrator forecasting that it will be followed by another hymn, perhaps number 6 which is also to Aphrodite but has only a very compressed bit of narrative content (her birth and adornment by the "Horae," variously the Muses or the Seasons (see note on page 76.  Then the poet prays for her to help him win "this contest" (l. 20).  What kind of contest do you imagine these hymns to be part of?  (See Plato's Ion for Socrates' dialogue with the slightly clueless rhapsode/singer whose great successes come only when he sings Homer, whom he scarcely seems to understand rationally.)

#7 ("To Dionysus")

1)  The translator spends an unusual amount of space in his note on page 77 defending the artistic quality of this particular hymn, apparently because critics thought it was too preoccupied by a single narrative episode.  Compared with hymns 1, 2, and 5, or any of the others, would you agree with the critics, or with the translator, and why?  Have you been able to develop a personal aesthetic sense by which you can tell a good hymn from a great one, or a good one from  mediocre or bad one?  If you are a creative writer, try composing a hymn of your own.  You do not, of course, have to praise the Greeks' gods, as long as you believe that you and some community of interpretation (Stanley Fish) would consider your subject worth awe-struck worship.

2)  The narrative begins with the god "like a young man / in the first bloom of manhood" (ll. 3-4).  Gods are immortal, but they have "births" (see hymn #1).  What does this suggest about their "lives"?  Especially given Demeter's and Aphrodite's ability to shape-shift, taking on the appearance of older or younger or just different bodies, how might we interpret the poem's characterization of the god at this moment?

3)  One reason for asking the question in 2 above is that the failure to recognize the gods is a frequent topic of Greek literature, and its consequences are rarely more violently displayed.  If you were a god, even if you were Dionysus, would you consider what happened to the pirate/kidnappers (another abduction narrative!) a stern punishment, a joke, an ironic comment on all human understanding, or something designed to produce some other effect?

4)  The helmsman serves as a moral norm in this hymn's narrative, recognizing the god immediately, urging appropriate treatment for the captive, and their treatment of him typifies mortal ignorance, adheranace to routines as safe behavior vs. deviation.  How does the hymn pose their contrasting points of view as choices that readers/hearers must discern in order to pick the right behavior?  What would be the consequences of universalizing this lesson, i.e., treating every captive young man as if he were a god?

5)  The magical apparitions which terrify the pirates include bears and lions.  If you cruise ancient art museums (e.g., the Sackler Museum in D.C.'s current exhibit of Arabian "insense-road" exhibit), you will see some sculptures, mosaics and jewelry which show young children associated with the "great cats," panthers, lions, tigers, etc.  Bears are associated in Athenian Greek culture with the cult of Artemis where the "little bears" were orphans under Artemis' protection and sheltered at her shrine just outside the city (at Brauron, now spelled/pronounced Vrouron in accordance with the b->v replacement shift that turned Pan-Hellenist British poet-hero Lord Byron into "Vyron").  How do the Greek myths and hymns use animals, especially African animals, to illustrate the powers of gods and heroes?    Look for similes and metaphors.  In one important example, the power of the rulers of Mykenae is depicted in the relief scultpture on the fortress's famous "Lions Gate."  Two lions rise to rest their front paws, possessively (if you know cats) upon a central pillar, and all visitors to the fortress had to pass beneath them through the 8-10-foot double wall that their gate protected.