Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.04

Dorothea Fröhder, Die Dichterische Form der Homerischen Hymnen untersucht am Typus der mittelgrossen Preislieder. Spudasmata 53. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1994. Pp. 390. DM 68,--. ISBN 3-487-09863-6.

Reviewed by Jenny Strauss Clay, University of Virginia.

While the longer Homeric Hymns have recently begun to receive the attention they deserve, the shorter compositions in the collection have generally continued to be ignored. Rectifying that neglect, Fröhder's workmanlike monograph, as its sub-title indicates, focuses on the middle-length Hymns. Yet one cannot help feeling that an opportunity for a more radical re-evaluation of these intriguing poems has been missed.

F. begins with a general introduction to the typology and tripartite structure of the Hymns. An opening section announces the divinity to be praised and includes epithets and commonly a relative clause, which leads into the middle section describing the god's characteristic functions or activities or, as in the long Hymns, a narrative centered on the god. The closing section bids farewell to the god and often includes a prayer for success or prosperity and a break-off formula in which the poet promises "another song." In two Hymns (31 to Helios and 32 to Selene), the other song is clearly designated as heroic epic.

Without discussion, F. accepts the communis opinio, which goes back to Wolf, that the Homeric Hymns were introductions (prooimia) to the recitation of Homeric epic presented at religious festivals. F. thus traces the origin of the hexameter hymns to the development of public rhapsodic contests. The Hymns are therefore Gebrauchsdichtung, utilitarian and occasional poetry, but nevertheless artful, since the rhapsodes and their audiences were schooled in the poetry of Homer. Prior to the emergence of such public festivals, epics were presented as they are depicted in Homer, before a small audience by an aoidos who accompanied himself with a lyre, whereas hymns in honor of the gods were liturgical choral productions which included music and dance. F. here appears to overlook the evidence of the "Lay of Ares and Aphrodite" in Odyssey 8, which bears a striking resemblance in style and tone to the longer Hymns and suggests the existence of an older and independent hymnic genre.

According to F., our Hymns are "rhapsodifications" of the choral ritual hymn and must be considered a secondary sub-genre of epic and simultaneously a Mischform combining elements of the ritual hymn and heroic epic. Since the long Hymns share the same formal patterns with the shorter ones, they must belong to the same genre and share the same functions. Moreover, the shortest Hymns should not be considered abbreviations of the long ones, as some have thought, but, on the contrary, would be especially useful to the rhapsode as a kind of minimalist acknowledgment of the divinity at whose festival he was performing. While the long Hymns constitute an expanded form (and F. follows Lenz1 in classifying H. 7 to Dionysos among the long Hymns), the middle-length Hymns represent the generic norm. Drawn from a doubtless much larger corpus, our collection of Hymns forms a kind of textbook for rhapsodes.

F.'s exposition, while quite conventional, raises a good number of questions. If the Hymns are really such occasional pieces, why do they contain so little indication of the specific occasion or festival at which they were presented? And why are some of the Hymns dedicated to divinities who are not the gods of cult at all? I think here not only of Gaia (30), but also of Helios (31) and Selene (32), which must in any case be late (later, I would judge than the 5th century B.C.E. to which F. dates the collection), and which surprisingly enough are the only Hymns which specify the performance of heroic epic to follow. And if, as F. so provocatively suggests, our collection provides a textbook for rhapsodes, how did they use it? Were they literate? F. never openly confronts the question of literacy; in fact she sidesteps it.

In her second chapter, F. sets out to define the basic structures and contents of the ritual hymn in order to compare them to those found in the hexameter hymns of our collection. While the mode of presentation of the cult hymn with its choral dance and musical accompaniment and the possible alternation of an exarchon and chorus clearly differentiates it from the Homeric Hymns, their formal patterns and motifs coincide for the most part. Thus the opening invocation of the god, followed by epithets and relative predication, a middle section praising the divinity, and a closing section containing greetings, prayers, or requests are common to both types of hymns. But in the ritual hymn, where the chorus represents the entire cultic community, the request for the god's presence at the religious festival is more marked and the Du Stil predominates, while in the rhapsodic hymn, the god's presence is taken for granted -- hence it contains no invocation proper, but merely a statement that the rhapsode will sing about the god, or in epic fashion he invokes the Muse. The Du Stil is rare and generally limited to the closing (XAI=RE) formula. The hexameter hymn thus takes a more distanced stance than the cult song.

An analysis of the three sections of the rhapsodic hymn follows. In the middle section, F. catalogues four types of praise, which again are common to both the hexameter and ritual hymns: 1) the god's gifts to mankind; 2) the appearance of the divinity; 3) typical or characteristic activities; and 4) a narrative of a unique event in the god's history, most commonly, the story of the god's birth. These different types can, of course, be combined, and the long hymns contain elaborations of the fourth type of praise. F. offers several explanations as to why the birth narrative is a favored subject, first, because noble genealogy is important for the heroes and hence is also important for the gods. In addition, the account of a god's birth serves to characterize that god and his relations with his parents and other gods. Finally, F. speculates that the prominence given to the god's birth is connected with the cultic significance of the birth place of a divinity and religious festivals celebrating the event. The last point is not fully argued and finally unpersuasive, since most of the Hymns, and especially the middle-length Hymns, do not unambiguously refer to a specific cultic occasion or place of performance.

For F., the rhapsodic hymn offers a prolongation or continuation of the epiphanic experience of the audience evoked by the festive cult hymn. The closing section with its requests and prayers leads into a transition to, or announcement of, the epic recitation to follow. Thus the Hymns stand midway between the choral cult hymn and the heroic epic and incorporate the structures and themes of the former, while simultaneously embracing elements from the Homeric epic.

Next F. enumerates the Homeric elements in the Hymns including their use of the Homeric Kunstsprache, diction, and, of course, the hexameter. She remains non-committal as to whether the Hymns were written or not -- they are, she maintains rather vaguely, still under the influence of the oral tradition -- 2 nor does she make any distinction between early and late Hymns. Hoekstra, we remember, did not even consider Hermes as sub-epic.3 The rhapsodes, according to F., use formulas and epithets inherited from Homer as well as some new ones created for their new subject-matter and frequently deploy them in a more self-conscious manner. Frequently, the epithets in the opening section adumbrate the structure and content of the Hymn that follows. F. claims that the composers of the Hymns were closer to Homer than to Hesiod. From the epic, the rhapsodes also learned their narrative and descriptive style, especially the dynamic rather than static descriptions of divinities, the emphasis on their characteristic activities, which F. traces to epic similes, as well as typical scenes and motifs such as dressing, arrival on Olympus, and epiphany. Finally, the very character and nature of the gods depicted in the Hymns derive from their depiction in epic. For F., then, the Homeric Hymns constitute hymnic structures and themes dressed, as she says (p. 61), in the clothes of Homeric poetry. While admitting some Hesiodic influence, their relation to Homer is linear and sometimes even imitative. No consideration is given to the views of Notopoulos, Pavese, and their followers, that place the Hymns in a divergent continental tradition embracing both Hesiod and the Hymns.4 Even Janko, who rejects Pavese's arguments, detects more complex relations between the major Hymns and various epic traditions.5 Böhme and Koller, who connect the origins of the Hymns with the citharodic nomos, a view recently revived by Nagy, are ignored and do not even appear in the bibliography.6

In the second half of her work, F. examines five middle-length Hymns (30, 27, 28, 6, and 19). She offers not a full commentary, but rather an investigation illustrating the features she had identified in part one. The discussion of each Hymn is prefaced with a survey of the conception of the divinity in Homer, Hesiod, and later writers, in order to determine which traits the hymn poet took over from his predecessors and which are new. An analysis of the poetic diction follows, which, while it looks like a formulaic analysis à la Parry, is in fact something quite different, as a comparison with the analyses in Cantilena reveals. For example, in the Artemis Hymn 27.6, STONO/ENTA BE/LH is underlined in F., but not in Cantilena, because F. considers it a parallel to BE/LEA STONO/ENTA, which, however, does not occur in the same metrical position. Thus F. is not interested in formulas per se, but rather in verbal and conceptual parallels. Secondly, F. examines what she calls the mode of representation, that is, how the four types of praise she had earlier outlined are exploited and combined in the individual Hymn. But her main interest is the conception of the divinity which informs each Hymn and its relation to Homer and other poetic sources. She presupposes that the gods in the Hymns are largely poetic constructs and that the festive and cultic occasions she posits for their performance had little impact on the poems.

The Hymn to Gaia (30) illustrates the first type of praise, the god's gifts to mankind, and focuses on Gaia's duality by framing the anthropomorphic personification found in the poets with her elemental character. F. dates the Hymn to the 5th century but does not suggest an occasion for its performance, which is not surprising, since Gaia is scarcely a god of cult in the classical period. Artemis (27) offers an example of the third type of praise via the goddess' characteristic activities and haunts, first in the wilds where she appears as the huntress and then dancing with her entourage at Delphi. The Hymn, according to F., is inspired by the simile in Odyssey 6.102-108 and the opening and middle of the Hymn to Apollo and was performed at Delphi. Yet if, as F. maintains, BOULH/ in line 20 refers to a cult title of Artemis, it would suggest an Athenian provenance, since the goddess was there worshipped as Boulaia. Athena (28) combines three types of praise (birth and epiphany, typical activity, and appearance) and unites the two aspects of the goddess as warrior and goddess of metis. F. believes that the same poet may have composed both Athena and the Hymn to Artemis, but thinks Athena was composed in Athens for the Panathenaia. Aphrodite (6) joins the birth motif with a description of the goddess' appearance, as well as typical scenes of dressing and the divinity's first arrival on Olympus. The Hymn presupposes, but omits the Hesiodic narrative and depicts the goddess as the passive object of desire. F. suggest the poem was performed on Cyprus in conjunction with a birthday festival of the goddess. The longest and most complex of the middle-length Hymns, Pan (19), may date from the beginning of the 5th century and was perhaps performed in Arcadia at the games on Mount Lycaon -- a guess as good as any other in the absence of evidence, but merely a guess, based on unproven assumptions. Since Pan is not found in the epic, the poet had no Homeric material to go on but followed the patterns found in other Hymns by presenting the god's typical haunts and entourage in the first half, followed by a narrative of his birth and first arrival on Olympus put into the mouths of the singing nymphs. Exceptionally, the god is not immediately named but described as the son of Hermes, which not only points ahead to the birth myth, but serves to include this new god within the Olympian orbit.

F. makes some nice observations on the structure and poetic strategies of individual Hymns and demonstrates the artistic quality of these short compositions. But there is an awful lot of repetition in her exposition, while certain fundamental questions are not even raised. F.'s notions of the Hymns' relation to Homer and of the occasion of their presentation strike me as somewhat reductive and simplistic. Nevertheless, it is good to see attention finally being paid to these important poems.


  • [1] L. Lenz, Der homerische Aphroditehymnus und die Aristie des Aineias in der Ilias (Bonn 1975).
  • [2] "Zur Beurteilung der poetischen Qualität der Hymnen ist es unerheblich, ob sie mündlich oder schriftlich abgefasst worden sind. Ausschlaggebend ist, dass die Rhapsoden sie noch ganz im Duktus dieser mündlichen Tradition gedichtet haben" (p. 64, n. 1) (italics mine).
  • [3] A. Hoekstra, The Sub-epic Stage of the Formulaic Tradition: Studies in the Homeric Hymns to Apollo, to Aphrodite and to Demeter, (Amsterdam 1965).
  • [4] J.A. Notopoulos, "The Homeric Hymns as Oral Poetry," AJP 83 (1962) 337-68; C.O. Pavese, Studi sulla tradizione epica rapsodica (Rome 1974); M. Cantilena, Ricerche sulla dizione epica I: Per uno studio della formularità degli Inni Omerici (Rome 1982).
  • [5] R. Janko, Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: Diachronic Development in Epic Diction (Cambridge 1982).
  • [6] R. Böhme, Das Proimion: Eine Form sakraler Dichtung der Griechen (Bühl 1937; H. Koller, "Das kitharodische Prooimion," Philologus 100 (1956) 159-206; cf. G. Nagy, Pindar's Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore 1990) 353-61.