Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.13

Susan C. Shelmerdine (trans.), The Homeric Hymns. Newburyport, MA: Focus Classical Library, Focus Books, 1995. Pp. vi + 180. ISBN 0-941051-15-13.

Reviewed by Ingrid E. Holmberg,, Department of Greek and Roman Studies, University of Victoria.

I was delighted when I discovered that Susan Shelmerdine [S.] had prepared a translation of and commentary on the Homeric Hymns for the Focus Series. I have long regretted the absence of an accessible, moderately priced, and reasonably explanatory translation and commentary for the Hymns. Previous recent translations have been primarily poetic renditions with minimal commentary, leaving the student with less familiarity with the literary and cultural context of early Greek poetry in aporia.1 S. embarks upon a different endeavor, and the list of the contents of the book indicates the broad scope of the volume: Table of Contents; Preface; List of Illustrations; General Introduction; Chronological Table of Literary Works with Identification by Genre; Genealogy of the Gods based primarily on the Theogony; Maps (2); 11 Illustrations "for fun" (p. iv); Translations of and Notes on the thirty-three Hymns classified as Homeric plus one more included in some manuscripts and the OCT; Pronunciation Guide; Suggestions for Further Reading; Index with the common Latin spelling or name in brackets after the Greek. The translation itself is thus the cornerstone of a volume which intends to provide the student with a full cultural context for reading and interpreting the corpus of the Hymns. The audience S. has in mind is twofold: "the novice reader of early Greek poetry and the more experienced reader of classical literature" (p. iv).

The volume for the most part is quite successful in achieving its goals. Any failures seem to arise from an over-eagerness for inclusiveness which does, in fact, presume a novice reader. The desire to incorporate so much material seems to have invited a number of inaccuracies in the various "accessories": the Chronological Table and the Genealogy of the Gods both contain mistakes (the latter is rather impenetrable).2 The illustrations are helpful, and encourage readers of the Hymns to think about the pervasiveness of the narratives represented in the Hymns in Greek culture. There seems to have been some confusion, however, between the author and the press about the picture which was to appear on the cover: several times S. refers to a cover picture of Apollo and a Muse (p. 5; Hymn to Muses and Apollo, note on line 25), while the actual cover picture is "The Return of Persephone." The vase painting of Apollo and a Muse features full frontal nudity on the part of Apollo, which may explain the publisher's shyness. The "Suggestions for Further Reading" is the only section which presumes a "more experienced reader of classical literature," citing Janko's Homer, Hesiod, and the Hymns along with Morford and Lenardon's primer on Greek mythology without any indication of the widely different level of difficulty between these works. In addition, there are books incompletely cited in the textual notes which are also not included in the "Suggestions for Further Reading."3

The background material of the book could be much improved in a second edition by correcting mistakes and by firmly assuming a novice reader. Fortunately, the strongest parts of the volume are the introductory material, and the translation and commentary. In the preface, S. mentions the importance of the Hymns in the history of Greek literature and mythology without belaboring the point, contrasting the Hymns with the Homeric epics and observing that the Hymns are "worth reading in their own right" and that "[a]lthough their nature is different from that of the epics, they too deserve to find an audience" (p. iii). The general introduction (pp. 1-10) provides fine background for the novice reader of these hymns. It is distinguished by some nice features, such as a list (p. 2) of the most well-known poems of the epic cycle and their themes. A short and concise overview of Greek poetry includes the literary tradition of Greek poetry, the sources of Greek mythology, the form and nature of the hymns, and the context for the performance of the hymns.

I admired S.'s willingness to admit lack of concensus or even knowledge about certain aspects of the hymns. This comes into play first in her description of the form and nature of the hymns, when she begins her several paragraphs about the nature of the hymns by stating "[t]he nature of the hymns is less easy to specify, since we know so little about their authors or the context in which they were created" (p. 7). S. does not thereby abrogate responsibility in putting forth various theories and stressing those which seem most likely and most sensible, but at least she does not dogmatically claim that all of the hymns in their final form are definitely prooimia, which several of the poetic translations do. S. also displays this pragmatic approach when dealing with issues of unity and structure in the Hymn to Dionysus and the Hymn to Apollo, both of whose unity is a source of scholarly controversy. On the Hymn to Dionysus, constructed from a combination of two fragments, S. writes "[t]here is no absolute proof that the two sections belong to the same poem, but there is equally no reason to suspect they do not" (p. 27). As for the Hymn to Apollo, S. presents a plausible explanation of the discrepancy between the two parts of the Hymn, settling upon the view that the two parts of the Hymn may have initially been separate, but that they are joined tightly in this Hymn, and that the end-product should be viewed as a unified poem even though it reveals signs of its initial separateness. S. claims that the poem is "consciously structured to connect the most important themes and events of the two" (p. 59).

The style of translation reflects S.'s sensible approach to these texts: the English lines often exactly mirror the Greek, and the English words chosen are what one would find if one looked up the words in a Greek-English lexicon. The translator has tried "to stay as faithful as possible to the structure of each line, to translate epithets and common formulae as consistently as possible, and to allow the occasional awkwardness of the Greek to show through in the English rather than trying to correct it" (p. iii). Thus, I noticed when the English lines did not match the Greek closely, e.g., when the translator inverted the order of a set of lines here or there. There is the minimum of poetic intervention in the translation. The translations are clear, lucid, and admirably suited to the purposes of the book. Because of S.'s direct style of translation, there were relatively few instances where I disagreed significantly with the translation.4 Another part of a translator's task is making choices concerning manuscript variants which will inevitably affect her translation: in general, S. chooses variants which will allow the narrative to make the most sense. This approach is reasonable given the ultimate uncertainty of the Greek and the nature of this project, even though scholars might, for various reasons, prefer the lectio difficilior.5

The explanatory and interpretive sections of the volume (the introductions to the hymns and the extensive notes) are definitely adequate and workmanlike, sufficient information for an undergraduate class. In some places, however, the text could have been presented in a more exciting manner either by introducing generally accepted and informative approaches to these texts or by adducing newer modes of analysis. The presentation of the Hymn to Demeter would have been helped by either of these additions, and consideration of one may have led S. to the other. S. neglects to inform the reader of the importance of the concept of time in this Hymn, and in several of the others; the word or a variant is used thirteen times in the Hymn to Demeter alone by my rough count, and at crucial junctures. The establishment of the boundaries of individual divinities' timai is the salient theme in the corpus of the Homeric Hymns as we have it: Zeus and Hades violate what Demeter sees as one form of her time and she relies on another form of her time to revenge herself and her daughter; Apollo is shown establishing a sanctuary to honor his time; Hermes, in his own devious way, acquires time; and Zeus feel the necessity to assert dominance over Aphrodite's time. Perhaps it is this neglect of time which leads S. to read the Hymn to Demeter (pp. 31-32) and other hymns as exercises in tension between mortality and immortality. Although several of the longer hymns do feature mortals, the hymns focus almost exclusively on the individual gods and their establishment of realms of power; the tension is thus between gods and goddesses, with mortals the pawns in their struggles.

A consideration of time in the Hymn to Demeter, and in the Hymn to Apollo and the Hymn to Aphrodite, might have alerted S. to one of the crucial oppositions in the tension around time in these Hymns: the opposition between male and female, and the appropriation or consolidation of power by the male gods. The gender dynamics in the Hymn to Demeter, Hymn to Apollo and Hymn to Aphrodite could have been introduced more strongly; students may find this more fun to think with than descriptions of the relationship of the Hymn to Demeter to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The relationship between Persephone and Demeter, however, has received increased scholarly attention in the past few decades, and S. ought to have mentioned that this Hymn is one of the few surviving texts from antiquity which deals with the emotional life of and between women. The Hymn to Apollo features a young god whose acquisition of status involves conquering (violently) two females for his greater glory, while presenting an embedded narrative about a struggle over reproduction between Zeus and Hera. In the Hymn to Aphrodite, the narrative represents Zeus demonstrating dominance in the realm normally controlled by Aphrodite as a means of both asserting his own control in that realm and also punishing the goddess for her strength. These three hymns taken together, then, work to re-inforce the subordinate cosmic position of the female.

S. has written two articles on the Hymn to Hermes, and one could expect her analysis of this Hymn to be confident and well-informed. It is both, and makes a difficult, sometimes confusing, and bizarre work of Greek literature accessible. I was surprised, however, by a certain hesitancy at adducing comparisons between the Hymn and the Odyssey, which is the topic of one of S.'s articles. I also felt that similarities to Hesiod and the Prometheus/Pandora narrative nexus would have been fruitful, but these are strongest at a semantic level which might not be appropriate for novice readers.

The weakest treatment in the volume is of the Hymn to Aphrodite. Sex, which is the basis of the struggle between Zeus and Aphrodite, may give the Hymn a slightly lighter tone than the devastation of the human population or the defeat of a nasty female snake does, but the Hymn is nevertheless still about a power struggle, and a serious one at that. S. perhaps oversimplifies, then, when she writes that Zeus is "tired" of Aphrodite's power to enthrall gods to mortals (p. 123); her power is an affront to his supposedly omnipotent power. Referring to the sexual encounter between Aphrodite and Anchises, S. continues: "The power of desire may lead her to an unworthy lover but, even so, love is sweet." The sweetness of love is not borne out by the narrative: for Aphrodite, the event is completely degrading and a source of shame, hence the name she assigns for her son Aeneas. For the mortal Anchises, the event is a source of continual fear, which is in some traditions fulfilled by his being struck by a thunderbolt. S. also claims that the examples of Ganymede and Tithonus show the goodwill of Zeus to Anchises' family (p. 124). On the contrary, they seem to me to be exempla of why Anchises should not wish for immortality and why Aphrodite will not seek it for him. The narratives of Ganymede and Tithonos suggest that mortals, even if they can be made immortal, will forfeit something significant in the process of apotheosis: Ganymede forfeits his adulthood; Tithonos his bodily health.

This book is the only book of its kind for the corpus of the Homeric hymns, and for this it deserves high praise. The inconsistencies and errata can surely be remedied for later editions. Some of the points I have made about matters of interpretation doubtless are open to debate, and S. obviously had to make certain choices regarding what was included and excluded. I for one will definitely use the book the next time I teach a class which touches upon the Hymns, and I expect my students will be grateful for the resource.


1. Charles Boer, (Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1970); Daryl Hine, (New York: Atheneum, 1971); Thelma Sargent, (New York: W. W. Norton, Inc., 1973). S.'s closest competitor is Apostolos N. Athanassakis' book, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), which features a short general introduction, an individual introduction to each of the longer hymns, and brief line-notes on most of the hymns. The Loeb translation of the Hymns as always is serviceable, forming part of the Loeb volume which also includes Hesiod, the Cycle, and other Homerica; this volume, however, is not practicable for the majority of students.  

2. In the Chronological Table (p. 11), the Hymn to Aphrodite (ca. 675) is listed before the Hymn to Apollo (Delian) (ca. 690): the dates are correct, but the order of the works is not. In the Genealogy of the Gods, it is unclear who the parents of Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus are; the Hymn to Apollo, note to line 62, cites Koios as the father of Leto, which is not evident in the Genealogy.  

3. Hymn to Demeter, note to line 23, Tod; Hymn to Apollo, note to line 324 (325 in Greek), Forstel; Hymn to Hermes, note to line 11, West (1978).  

4. Hymn to Demeter, line 24, S. translates atala phroneousa as 'youthful'; although atalos in Greek can be associated with 'youth', as Allen, Halliday and Sikes [AHS] note, the word is most likely associated with kindness and gentleness, thus the phrase seems to mean 'with kind intent'. Hymn to Apollo, line 77, S. translates 'sleek' for melaina, which means 'black' or 'dark'. Hymn to Hermes, line 12, the subject of agagen is disputed: AHS recommend Zeus; Loeb translates as Maia; but S. chooses "tenth month" of the previous line, which seems to stretch it a bit; line 188, I don't like the choice of "a brutish old man building up the wall of his vineyard beside the road," preferring the typical meaning of nemo as 'graze' and for knodalon 'beast' of the man; line 495, S. translates kerdaleon as 'seeking an advantage', but translates the same adjective at 463 as 'crafty': surely one could find a translation which would work in both places. Hymn to Aphrodite, line 156, S. translates herpe as 'went', when the translation of 'crept' seems to reflect some of Aphrodite's reluctance; S. translates line 255, hupo zwnh as 'in the womb'; I prefer the more literal 'under the girdle', although S.'s choice might be clearer for students.

5. Hymn to Dionysus, line 11, S. admits that the manuscript is "garbled beyond hope and the translation here accepts an emended version of the text": hos de tamen tria, soi pantos (Allen's in the OCT and also in AHS), which she translates as "As he cut you into three pieces," reflecting the myth of Dionysus' dismemberment. S. concedes that the singular subject is "odd," but doesn't belabor point. The alternative would be to read the M manuscript's version, ta men triasoi pantos, which the Loeb retains and translates "and as these things are three" which doesn't make much sense at all. At Hymn to Hermes line 542, however, peritrapwn 'perplexed' (M) seems to make more sense than peritropewn 'rounding up' in the context even though it is the less well attested word.  


"Genealogy of the Gods": "Echnida" for "Echidna".

Hymn to Dionysus

introduction (p. 27) "To" added into text before "The" beginning sentence.

Hymn to Demeter

note to line 86 i in Iliad should be capitalized, and word italicized;

line 112, "winged words," S. does not comment upon this epic turn of phrasehere, but does later in Hymn to Aphrodite 184;

line 497 S. uses "Argeiphontes" for Hermes instead of eriounos which is in the text.

Hymn to Apollo

note 57, 4th from bottom, "and (presumably island)." should not have parentheses;

note to line 195, 2d line from bottom, last word "the" misplaced; line 355 line 2, misplaced "," after "hymn";

line 499, misses meliphronos with sitoio for "sweet food".

Hymn to Hermes

line 3, S. offers speculation on eriounios, which could have been put forth at Hymn to Demeter 497;

line 10, S. states that the line is formulaic, citing Iliad 1.5, Theogony 1002, Cypria fr. 1.7, when it is only formulaic with respect to the half line of Theogony 1002, and not with the other two although it is very similar;

note on lines 47-51, Stringed should be in italics;

line 91a omitted, nor is possible lacuna noted;

note to lines 172-173 4th line from top and 5th line from bottom, "time" should be italicized; note to line 409, 5th line from top, "theam" should be "them".

Hymn to Aphrodite

note to line 5b, "Karpo" should be in italics;

note to line 36, Il. 214-223 missing "14"; note on line 42 should go at line 22 for Kronos angkulometis;

note to line 88, author of article "Shining and Fragrant Cloth in Homer" in Carter and Morris, eds., The Ages of Homer.

Page 161, notes on 12-13 belong with Hymn to Athena 28 on 160, not with Hymn to Hestia 29.

Hymn to Dionysus

7, line 1, erikudeos should be "of glorious Semele"--in genitive, not "glorious Dionysus" in accusative, see Hymn to Dionysus 26, line 2. Hymn to Pan 19, line 24, misses "clear/sharp" songs.

P. 172 no indent for Kirk, Morford.