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The Homeric Hymns have survived for two and a half millennia because of their captivating stories, beautiful language, and religious significance. Well before the advent of writing in Greece, they were performed by traveling bards at religious events, competitions, banquets, and festivals. Thirty-four poems that invoke and celebrate the gods of ancient Greece, the Homeric Hymns raise questions that humanity still struggles with—questions about our place among others and in the world.
"Homeric" because they were composed in the same meter, dialect, and style as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, these "hymns" were created to be sung aloud.
In this superb translation by Diane Rayor, which deftly combines accuracy and poetry, the ancient music of the hymns comes alive for the modern reader. Here is the birth of Apollo, god of prophecy, healing, and music and founder of Delphi, the most famous oracular shrine in ancient Greece. Here is Zeus, inflicting upon Aphrodite her own mighty power to cause gods to mate with humans, and here is Demeter rescuing her daughter Persephone from the underworld and initiating the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries.
With her introduction and notes, Rayor places the hymns in their historical and aesthetic context, providing all the information needed to read, interpret, and fully appreciate these literary windows on an ancient world. As introductions to the Greek gods, entrancing stories, exquisite poetry, and early literary records of key religious rituals and sites, The Homeric Hymns should be read by any student of mythology, classical literature, ancient religion, women in antiquity, or the Greek language.
The Homeric Hymns is a collection of thirty-four poems: thirty-three invoke and celebrate the gods and one addresses "hosts," either the host of the immediate performance or all those in general who provide hospitality. The Hymns are "Homeric" because they are composed in the same traditional epic meter (dactylic hexameter), dialect, and style as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. They are "hymns" in that each poem celebrates the attributes or epiphany of the god or goddess to whom the hymn is addressed. The longer hymns worship a deity by telling the story of how he or she obtains or exercises power. In general, the hymns express the essence of the particular deity. Although Thucydides (3.104), our earliest reference to the Hymns, assumes that Homer himself composed and performed these works, they are actually anonymous poems. Most were written in the archaic and early classical periods in Greece (700-500 b.c.e.); a few may have been composed as late as Hellenistic times (third to second centuries b.c.e.), and one may be from fifth century c.e. (see the notes on Ares 8). The earliest Hymns may be contemporary with the poetry of Homer and Hesiod; more likely, they appeared immediately afterward.
The Homeric Hymns were collected in antiquity and set in the order presented here. Multiple copies of the collection that survive from the Byzantine period begin with the third hymn, the Hymn to Apollo (3). These manuscripts were attached to copies of Homer's epics or were included with the works of later poets. It is unknown how the Hymn to Ares (8), which does not match the others in style or subject, came to be included with the others. The editors of the standard English-language commentary on the Hymns speculate that "some one at a late period, observing there was no hymn to Ares in the collection, added this one, and put it in the 8th place to come alphabetically before Artemis" (Allen, Halliday, and Sikes 1936: 385). Chance and good luck led to the survival of a fragment of the Hymn to Dionysos (1.10-21) and the entire Hymn to Demeter (2) in a fifteenth-century c.e. manuscript, which was discovered in a stable in Moscow in 1777.
The Hymns provide introductions to the principal ancient Greek deities, and they include some of the earliest literary references to key religious rituals and sites. The Hymn to Demeter, one of the most beautiful and moving stories in Greek literature, is also the earliest literary version of one of the myths behind the foundation of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a popular mystery religion practiced from the eighth century b.c.e. to the fourth century c.e. Its story of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone or Kore (Girl), is the basis of various women's festivals, such as the Thesmophoria. Similarly, the Hymn to Apollo describes the mythical foundation of Delphi, the most famous oracular site in ancient Greece.
In religious terms, to "hymn" the god is to sing a song of praise, to celebrate the god through song. Most of the Homeric Hymns end with a prayer to the god of that hymn. The ancient singer (bard) and community worshipped the deity through the song. The poet's rendition of these stories was synonymous with worship; their telling invoked the gods even as it recalled events that changed the world. Because Apollo slew the dragon and established his temple at Delphi, ancient worshippers believed they were granted access to "unerring counsel" (Apollo 3.253, 293). They could go to Delphi and consult Apollo through his oracle. Because Demeter experienced the loss and recovery of her daughter Persephone, she established the Eleusinian Mysteries. For initiates, the daughter's descent to the underworld and return continued annually, giving them hope for better afterlives. These foundation or birth myths had essential significance for communities of worshippers.
The genre of Homeric hymns probably began as short introductions to the long recitations of traditional, oral epic poetry that was popular centuries before the advent of writing in Greece in the eighth century b.c.e. Most of the short hymns in this collection seem appropriate invocations to a god in prelude to a narrative tale; two hymns (31 and 32) specifically say in conclusion that the bard will next turn to a recitation of epic poetry:
I will sing about the glory of demigods, whose deeds the bards, servants of the Muses, celebrate in sweet song. (32.19-20)
As these "preludes" grew into longer, more complex narrative tales, the recitation of the hymn may have become the main event. It is possible, though, that even the long hymns continued to be preludes: Thucydides (3.104) refers to the 546-line Hymn to Apollo as a prooimion (prelude).
The Homeric Hymns were "sung or recited solo by specialists" who "preserved traditional material and passed it on, not in fixed form but through recomposition-in-performance," a kind of improvisation based on familiarity with a long oral poetic tradition (Stehle 1997: 170). Early on, those specialists or bards were called singers (aoidoi) and perhaps accompanied their songs with a lyre. Later, rhapsodes (literally, "stitchers of songs") recited poetry, while beating time with a staff. Bards traveled throughout the Greek world to perform on a variety of special occasions: "Music played a role in every moment of Greek communal life-in religious ceremonies, competitions, symposia, festivals, even in political contentions" (Comotti 1989: 6). Many performances took place in competitions sponsored by religious centers, states, kings, or prominent families. The Hymn to Apollo (3) may have been performed in the competitions at Delphi, or perhaps at the festival of Apollo on the island of Delos that is mentioned in the hymn itself (149-64). Bards may have sung the Hymn to Demeter (2) at religious festivals such as the Eleusinian Mysteries at Eleusis, or any of the local women's festivals in honor of Demeter, such as the Thesmophoria. Perhaps the Hymn to Aphrodite (5) was performed at a private banquet, like the one in the Odyssey at which the bard sings of Ares and Aphrodite's adulterous affair (8.256-366). The Hymn to Hermes (4) would be perfect fare for young men at a symposium or a feast, as mentioned in the hymn, when Hermes sings in accompaniment to his newly invented lyre (55-59).
Ten of the hymns state the context of the performance ("grant me victory in this contest, ready my song," 6.20) or make a request to the god for prosperity ("gladly grant a welcome livelihood for my song," 2.494). Thus, at the end of these hymns, the bard asks that the god praised in the hymn bestow success. In order to win a contest or otherwise perform a hymn successfully, the bard would need to select and shape material drawn from the vast range of possibilities offered by the oral poetic tradition. Since many stories and powers are connected with each god, the bard had to choose the details that would best serve the god in the context of a particular performance. In the Hymn to Apollo, the bard twice asks Apollo, "How to praise you, celebrated in so many hymns?" (3.19, 207), before settling on a specific part of the story. According to Eva Stehle, the bard must "persuade the audience that he speaks 'truth' either by adapting his story to local interests ... and winning assent that way or by offering a 'Panhellenic' story that includes no concession to the audience but signals its validity through its rhetoric" (1997: 174-75).
The hymn is a distinctive genre with formal features, including a characteristic structure (Janko 1981). Like the Iliad and Odyssey, the Homeric hymns use formulae, the building blocks of oral composition, in which phrases recur repeatedly in the same metrical position in the dactylic hexameter line. Short formulae, such as the epithets "rich-haired Demeter" or "far-shooting Apollo," recur frequently in the Hymns. It usually is thought that this use of set formulae provided breathing space for the bard to improvise, but the repeated epithets also help characterize the deities-the goddess of grain and fertility, earth mother Demeter, grows abundant hair, and Apollo, god of healing and plague, shoots his arrows of sickness from far off.
Most of the hymns begin with a formulaic introduction, such as "I sing to Pallas Athena, dread guardian of the city" (11.1). In the Greek, the god's name appears in the first line of thirty-one of the thirty-three hymns (all but Dionysos 1 and Pan 19); in most, it is the first word. At some point in the hymn, usually at the end, the poet directly addresses the deity. As in traditional Greek prayers, the hymn always invokes the deity by name and major attributes, and often mentions important cult sites or other mythological connections, as in this Hymn to Aphrodite (the Cyprian):
I will sing to Cyprian Cytheria, who gives kind gifts to mortals; on her lovely face, ever smiling, an alluring bloom shimmers. Hail, Goddess, ruling well-built Salamis and Cyprus in the sea: give me an alluring song. (10.1-5)
All but two of the hymns to gods have formulaic endings; the Hymn to Hera 12 is probably incomplete, and the Hymn to Ares 8 is more of a "cletic" or summoning prayer and, as noted above, was written far later than the rest of the collection. The closing formulae range from two to four lines. Twenty-nine of the thirty-three address the deity with the salutation "khaire" ("hail," "farewell," "rejoice"):
Hail, child of fair Semele! There is no way to forget you and still compose sweet song. (Dionysos 7.58-59)
Fifteen hymns end with a variation of "I began with you and will turn to the rest of the hymn" (5.293), or "But I will remember you and the rest of the song" (2.495). This means that the poet invokes the god's presence by singing that hymn-"remembering is making present"-and now will move on to sing the next part of the song, perhaps an epic tale (see Bakker 2002: 72). The word in Greek for "the rest of" (allos) could mean "another," which then would refer to another, separate song that the bard plans to sing. In time, the closing formula may also have become simply a traditional way to end a hymn, without referring to an actual transition from one part of the song to another or from one song to a different one.
The Hymns consist of four long narrative poems (293 to 580 lines) and twenty-nine short poems (3 to 59 lines). While a few of the short hymns are narratives, most are invocations that provide snapshots of the gods. The long narratives-Hymns 2-5, to Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite-each tell a revealing story about a critical event in the Deity's life that led to a change in his or her power. They 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 (see Clay 1989: 11). Zeus first takes power in the Theogony; in Homer, this power is firmly set and unchallenged, and the hierarchy of the gods fixed. Homer shifts the focus from the gods' power struggles with one another to their relationships to human beings. Even Hera's conflicts with Zeus in the Iliad are, in the end, ineffectual and do not seriously challenge his power or the world order.
In the long hymns, while all four gods are subordinate to Zeus, they remain potentially threatening, and their power gives us a more complete and complex picture of the Greek worldview. Three gods-Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite-are Zeus' children; Demeter is his sister and the mother of his daughter Persephone. Apollo and Hermes could have challenged Zeus' authority, but do not. Demeter does challenge Zeus. The Hymn to Aphrodite states that Aphrodite has disrupted Zeus in the past, by "mating him with mortal women," making him "forget Hera, sister and wife" (5.39-40). Zeus' children ultimately submit to Zeus' order. Demeter is also integrated into or subordinated to the Olympian patriarchy-although, perhaps, she finds a way to make that order acceptable to her.
The two hymns celebrating male gods tell the tale of Apollo's and Hermes' births, how they got their powers and won their places in the pantheon. Apollo could have been a threat to Zeus; the other gods fear him before his birth, because "they say Apollo will be extremely reckless/and rule mightily over the immortal gods" (3.67-68). Instead, the hymn makes clear that Apollo works for his father and in his interests. As Apollo says immediately after his birth, "I will proclaim to humans the unerring will of Zeus" (3.132).
The trickster Hermes, too, had the potential to disrupt Zeus' order. However, while his thievery and cleverness get the better of his half-brother Apollo, Hermes' birth is shown to be according to Zeus' will (4.10). As Maia, Hermes' mother, says, "Your father bore you to be a great pest/for mortal men and immortal gods" (4.160-61). When the newborn Hermes denies Apollo's truthful claim that Hermes stole his cattle, "Zeus laughed aloud to see his deceitful child/so skillfully deny the business of the cattle" (4.389-90). Hermes tricks his brother, but leaves Zeus alone. In contrast, in Hesiod's Theogony, when the trickster Prometheus challenges Zeus' authority (521-25), Zeus punishes him severely. As celebrated in the two hymns, Apollo and Hermes gain their spheres of power and join the family of gods headed by father Zeus: "the two handsome children of Zeus/hastened to snow-covered Olympos" (4.504-5).
The two hymns to the female goddesses, Demeter and Aphrodite, differ strikingly from those to Apollo and Hermes. Demeter and Aphrodite are fully mature goddesses in these poems, which celebrate their primary aspects of fertility and sexuality, respectively. Yet both hymns tell stories that demonstrate restrictions on Demeter's and Aphrodite's powers.
Excerpted from The Homeric Hymns by Diane Rayor Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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14. Mother of the Gods
25. The Muses, Apollo, and Zeus
29. Hestia and Hermes