Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.36

Martin L. West (trans.), Homeric Hymns. Homeric Apocrypha. Lives of Homer. Loeb Classical Library, 496.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2003.  Pp. xii, 468.  ISBN 0-674-99606-2.  $21.50.  



Reviewed by R. Scott Garner, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (rsg@uiuc.edu)
Word count: 1610 words

This welcome volume is part of the current revision of the 1914 Loeb by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. The original edition contained the poems and fragments of Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, the Homeric Epigrams, remains of the Epic Cycle, the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, and other Homerica. According to West's preface, the new Loeb versions will distribute and expand upon this material across three volumes, with this particular volume containing 1) the Homeric Hymns, 2) Homeric Apocrypha (Margites, Cercopes, Epikichlides, The Battle of the Weasel and the Mice, and The Battle of Frogs and Mice), and 3) ten ancient Lives of Homer. The three sections of the work are presented quite separately with distinct introductions, and even a separate index for the Lives, and it therefore seems best to discuss each portion of the book according to its own individual merits.

In the first section, West provides texts and translations of the thirty-three canonical Homeric Hymns and includes one further fragment from Aelius Dionysus that he considers to be an isolated line from the closing section of a hymn not included in the regular corpus. For the Hymns as well as for the rest of this volume, West states (ix): "I have edited and arranged the texts according to my own judgment, but relied on existing editions for information about manuscript readings." And although the Loeb series does not permit full details concerning variant textual readings, he has "tried to ensure that the reader is alerted to the significant textual uncertainties" (ix-x). The result is an edition that differs from previous collections at several points, though it is nearly always clear to the reader when West has introduced his own conjectures or departs from his predecessors in his interpretation of the text.

Perhaps the two editorial decisions most likely to provoke discussion are 1) West's omission of a thirty-fourth poem (Εἰς Ξένους) commonly printed in collections of the Homeric Hymns and 2) his arrangement of the longer Hymn to Dionysus. The first decision is in the end inconsequential since this poem is preserved in its context within the pseudo-Herodotean Life later in the volume, but the incorporation of four separate fragments into a single Hymn to Dionysus relies on West's own reconstruction of the hymn as presented in ZPE (134 [2001]: 1-11), and many readers are likely to quibble with one aspect or another of his grouping of the various fragments.

West has previously demonstrated his adeptness at rendering early Greek poetry in English (see, e.g., his Greek Lyric Poetry [Oxford UP: 1993]), though in this case he has followed the recent Loeb conventions in using prose rather than verse translations for the archaic poetic texts. Nevertheless, West is able to retain much of the paratactic style and formulaic consistency found within the dactylic hexameter, while making few compromises as to actual readability, in which his translations compare favorably with those of Athanassakis (Johns Hopkins UP: 1976), Shelmerdine (Focus: 1995), and Crudden (Oxford UP: 2001). Every translation, though, has its idiosyncrasies, and at least a few of West's turns of phrase are likely to raise eyebrows. Among the more interesting are the formulaically repeated translations of πολυσημάντωρ ("Major-General"), Στυγὸς ὕδωρ ("Water of Shuddering"), αἰγίοχος ("goat-rider"), Γαιήοχος ("Earth-rider"), and κελαδεινός ("of the view-halloo").

General notes of explanation are scattered throughout the translations, but most discussion of background and interpretation is contained within the general introduction that West provides for the Hymns. West's expertise in this area is undeniable and his discussions of the purpose, performance contexts, dates, and possible authorship of the Hymns will be of great value to the novice reader of this material. More advanced readers, however, will note that West has a tendency to simplify or gloss over scholarly debates to a greater extent than is common even in the Loeb series. As an example, in reference to the Hymn to Apollo, West states "as has been almost universally accepted since Ruhnkenius (1782), it is a pantomime horse, a combination of two originally separate poems" (9). Such an origin for the poem may be correct (though perhaps beside the point if the poem had its genesis in oral traditional performance), but scholars have hardly been unanimous in declaring the poem to be the combination of two separate poems, with some arguing for the integral nature of the poem and others deriving it from more than two earlier poems. (See, for instance, the lengthy discussion and bibliography given by Allen, Halliday, and Sikes in their commentary on the Hymn to Apollo [The Homeric Hymns; Oxford: 1936].)

Additional room for argument will be found with West's statement that the Homeric Hymns are a collection of thirty-three prohoimia, or songs to be sung before the theme of the epic singer's narrative has begun (3). Once again, West may be correct here, especially for the shorter poems, but the case is hardly so clear for the longer hymns (cf. the various possibilities of poetic function for the Hymns mentioned by J. S. Clay ("The Homeric Hymns" [esp. pp. 494-98] in A New Companion to Homer, eds. Ian Morris and Barry B. Powell, Brill: 1997), and even West's own description of the evolution of the Hymn to Apollo mentioned above lacks any explicit connections with the performance of epic, even to the point of denying that the changes to the Hymn to Apollo took place in anything other than a written, textualized environment (12). In general, West treats the Hymns as written texts, though he sometimes invokes the traditional performance arena in order to explain the fuzzy details of authorship within the poems and does allow for traditionally enabled cross-referencing (either through oral means or otherwise) among hymns or between a hymn and an epic poem (with epic regularly placed in a hierarchically superior position). The situation is murky, to be sure, but one would like to see a bit more consistency in the treatment of orality/literacy issues -- or at least greater admission of the difficulties involved in such investigations.

The second section of the volume contains the Homeric Apocrypha, and, although this portion of the book is necessarily much shorter than the other two, it is perhaps here that West's book makes its greatest contribution, as it marks the first time that these particular materials concerned with the Margites, Cercopes, Epikichlides, The Battle of the Weasel and the Mice, and The Battle of Frogs and Mice have ever been published together in a single volume. For each of these works, West has provided the relevant testimonia and fragments, giving sources and contexts for each. The introduction to this section is also quite helpful in providing a background for interpretation of the fragments, though the scant remains necessarily make any examination of this type a bit uneven in nature.

Of particular note in this section are The Battle of Frogs and Mice and The Battle of the Weasel and the Mice. The appearance of the latter of these poems marks its first publication outside of a periodical, and its text has been provided as a companion piece for the more commonly read Battle of Frogs and Mice, which was attributed to Homer by at least the time of imperial Rome if not before. Both of these works appear to be quite late (likely dating to between the second century BC and the first century AD), but they seem to be representatives of a very old tradition of what West terms "Animal and Bird Epics" (229) that may have had its ultimate roots in Egypt long before the Iliad and Odyssey arrived on the scene. West has done a remarkable job in arranging and editing the various fragments of these epics, organizing them into narratives that at the very least make good sense even if they necessarily remain quite incomplete and conjectural. Additionally, West's English translations here are superb, especially in his choices of character names (such as Creephole, Cheesegobble, Mudfred, and Sludgecouch) that allow for easy distinction of the types of animals involved.

The volume concludes with the ancient "Lives" of Homer, which consist of ten texts: 1) The Contest of Homer and Hesiod; 2) Pseudo-Herodotus, On Homer's Origins, Date, and Life; 3, 4) Pseudo-Plutarch, biographical sections from On the Life and Poetry of Homer; 5) Proclus, Life of Homer; 6) the Hesychian portion of the Suda entry on Homer; 7-9) 3 anonymous Lives from medieval manuscripts of Homer or Homeric scholia (the Vita Romana and Vitae Scorialenses); and 10) some non-biographical material that appears following the Vita Romana. These texts and their translations are quite straightforward in presentation, and West provides several explanatory notes that will be helpful to the reader coming to these texts for the first time. An introduction to the section provides further information -- especially concerning further biographical details on Homer that did not become canonical -- and also points out very clearly that these Lives and the traditions from which they derive are not to be confused with actual historical facts concerning the poet of the Iliad.

To sum up, the bringing together of disparate texts such as the Hymns and the Apocrypha into one volume will make this book useful to dedicated scholars, while the excellent translations offer easy access to the Greek texts for casual readers as well. There will always be disagreement over specifics in the interpretation of these materials, and therefore many readers will be likely to find a few of West's explanatory statements or textual conjectures objectionable, but on the whole this is a volume that is quite worthy of one of the top individuals working in the field today and a welcome addition to the Loeb Classical Library in general.

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