Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.02

Nicholas Richardson (ed.), Three Homeric Hymns: To Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite. Hymns 3, 4, and 5. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xiii, 272.  ISBN 9780521457743.  $34.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Patrick James, University of Cambridge (


Publisher's Preview

This "Green and Yellow" commentary on three of the four longer Homeric Hymns effectively supplants the treatment of them in the full edition of Allen, Halliday and Sikes. It also complements the larger-scale commentary by Richardson himself on the Hymn to Demeter and that by Faulkner, one of his doctoral students, on the Hymn to Aphrodite.1 Richardson states that his goal has been "to enable students of these delightful poems both to understand and to enjoy them more fully" (p. ix). By drawing on years of teaching and of supervising graduate work on these texts (p. x), he has achieved exactly that for these early hexameter poems about the exploits of three Olympian deities.

The Introduction begins by examining the nature, purpose, and origins of the whole corpus of Homeric Hymns (pp. 1-9) before focusing on Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite individually and discussing their structure (and unity), authorship and date, language and style, interests (especially, in aetiologies for cults, oracles, festivals, and family-lines), matters of genre and performance, and points of contact both with the other Homeric Hymns and with early Greek poetry (pp. 9-31). This final subject is treated more fully than in the passing references made by Allen, Halliday and Sikes and is addressed with the aid of subsequently published papyri of Sappho and Alcaeus.2

Richardson concludes that the Hymns originated as preludes for longer performances at festivals and featured in sympotic contexts. He draws together a close reading of Thucydides' quotation from Apollo and his reference to a προοίμιον, the scholiast to Pindar, Nemean 2.1, the figure of Demodocus in Odyssey 8, and internal evidence both from the Hymns (especially the closing formula for introducing a new song) and from Hesiod. The Introduction is generally clear, but one might quibble that it could be more accessible in places. Although there is no need to quote and translate Thucydides 3.104, a text and translation of the scholion to Pindar, Nemean 2.1 might be helpful additions (note that the Cologne Sappho is quoted in full and translated in Aphrodite 218-38n.). Also, although there is detailed discussion of Thucydides and the term προοίμιον here and in the Commentary, there is no prominent explanation of the label ὕμνος (used to refer to these poems as early as Diodorus Siculus) nor is there any qualification of English "hymn".3 It would be helpful to rule out the irrelevant connotations of "hymn", which relate to praise and certain structural features, since Aphrodite is concerned with the goddess' defeat and shame (memorialised in the name of her son, Aeneas; cf. Aphrodite 198-9n.) and Apollo is presented as ridiculous and greedy in Hermes (for comic purposes, p. 19).

Richardson argues against the division of Apollo into a Delian (lines 1-181) and a Pythian/Delphic (182-546) hymn to Apollo. A case is made cogently for one poem of three, thematically-linked movements. Linguistic arguments for its unity are also adduced. He settles on an early sixth-century date (earlier than Janko, but later than Allen, Halliday and Sikes) on the basis of archaeological evidence for Apollo's temple at Pytho and the internal reference to male priests, rather than to to the female Pythia of later times.

The distinctively comic aspects of Hermes are discussed, as are other versions of the myth - notably that in Sophocles' Ichneutae. Hermes is dated before 500 BC on the basis of a literary dependency on Apollo (as "a light-hearted counterpart") and its own influence on Pan.4 Evidence from visual culture and the spread of cults is also cited in support. The final scene, often viewed as an appendix, is shown to be linked thematically with the main body of the hymn.

The atypical nature and features of Aphrodite are considered (its extra-long proem and an unusually long speech by the hymn’s honorand). The influence of Homer and Hesiod and, in turn, on Demeter as well as points of contact with Lesbian poetry are noted. This literary and linguistic web supports a seventh-century date and an origin in the Ionic or Aeolic regions of Asia Minor as reasonable possibilities. Richardson reports the hypothesis that Aphrodite was performed to honour a descendant of Aeneas, but leaves the details to Faulkner's larger-scale treatment.

Although the Introduction contains sections on the language and/or style of each hymn, there is no overview of the epic "dialect" as represented in the Homeric Hymns, in contrast to the editions of Homer in the Green and Yellow series. Although it is fair to assume that students will come to the Hymns with some familiarity with the epic "dialect" from reading some Homer, the utility of this edition in pedagogical contexts is somewhat diminished in this way. Aphrodite, in particular, could be used as a more manageable set-text before embarking on a full book of the Iliad or Odyssey.

The language of the Hymns is discussed primarily in relation to dating the individual hymns. Richardson engages critically with Janko's investigations,5 discussing formulae, false archaisms, neologisms, and matters of literary dependence. The statement "the concept of 'false archaism' is particularly problematic, since it requires one to distinguish supposedly false from genuine archaic forms" (p. 16) seems to need elaboration. We surely know enough about the origins and early history of the dialects of Greek to be able to distinguish between inherited features, which have been retained (genuine archaisms), and artificial innovations, licences, and extensions within the epic "dialect". Janko employed the term "false archaism" in a particular sense as a poet's "overuse of an archaic morph… not current in his own era's vernacular" rather than "an archaism incorrectly formed or used" (Janko's italics),6 but this is not explicitly the reason why "false archaism" is regarded as "problematic" here.

To the regret of the author (p. ix), and this reviewer, only a single page is given to discussing and illustrating the influence of the Homeric Hymns on Hellenistic and Roman poetry. After recognising the Hymns as precedents for Hellenistic epyllia and encomia, this section helpfully directs the reader to discussions in the Commentary and to the Bibliography.

The text is that of Càssola's 1975 edition7 and the apparatus criticus also follows this edition. As a result, the manuscript variants and conjectures are reported much more fully than in many other editions in the Green and Yellow series. More recent work on the text has also been incorporated into the apparatus.8 The Commentary contains brief discussions of passages that seem to be doublets within the tradition and of some textual problems with assessments of conjectures (e.g. Hermes 242, 346, and 508-9nn.). A single page - appropriate for an edition of this scale - outlines the paucity of papyri and the relationship of the manuscripts before referring the interested reader to several more extensive treatments.

The Commentary will certainly help the reader to understand and appreciate the Hymns as well as fuelling further study. Coverage of the hymns is proportional. The shortest of the three, Aphrodite, is treated only slightly more briefly than the others (nine lines on average are discussed per page compared to seven or eight lines per page). Some notes provide guidance with particles, the meaning of words, and syntax. A few explanatory translations are included. The notes also deal with such topics as music (e.g. Apollo 162-4n.), cult and panhellenism, Near Eastern parallels for the titles of deities, and representations in visual art (with references to the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae and one image of a lyre from a lekythos). Matters of literary technique, motifs, rhetorical figures, etymologising within the text, and word-play are discussed with parallels adduced from early hexameter and lyric poetry. A text and a translation of the Cologne Sappho (previously fr. 58 L.-P.) are included (Aphrodite 218-38n.) to facilitate discussion of its points of contact with Aphrodite's speech and use of Tithonus as an exemplum. Points of contact between Sophocles' Ichneutae and Hermes are also noted, but this satyr play is referred to opaquely as " fr. 314".

The Commentary contains a wealth of information about morphology (e.g. Hermes 17, 449nn.), syntactic oddities (e.g. Apollo 51-60n., Hermes 437n., and Aphrodite 173-4n.), and dialectal features (e.g. transmitted Attic in Aphrodite 51 and 125nn.; Ionic οἶδας in Hermes 456n.). This material is not accessible through the Index (there are no entries, e.g., for "tmesis" or "digamma"), although the Index does reference notes about instances of legal language in Hermes. The notes discuss particular words (especially those attested for the first time or rarely as well as common epic words used in an unusual sense, e.g. Apollo 61-82, 67, 125, 171, 215nn., and Aphrodite 102, 139-40, 237nn.), explain their associations in an exemplary manner, and draw on parallels from Linear B (Aphrodite 123n.) and Laconian epigraphy (Aphrodite 175n.) and from Homer, Hesiod, the other Hymns, and lyric poetry - as one would expect. There is much more of value here than the Index discloses. Numerous notes deal with metrical points, such as hiatus and prosody, but the Introduction does not give an overview and metrical points do not appear in the Index.

The twelve page Bibliography is as up-to-date as 2009 and one article in publication.9 Several sections of the Introduction helpfully end by citing relevant works.

In sum, Richardson's edition will be of great value to those being introduced to the Homeric Hymns and continuing to study and enjoy them.


1.   Allen, T. W., W. R. Halliday, and E. E. Sikes. The Homeric Hymns, Second Edition. Clarendon: Oxford, 1936; Richardson, N. J. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Clarendon: Oxford, 1974; Faulkner, A. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite: Introduction, Text, and Commentary. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2008 (reviewed at BMCR 2009.02.26).
2.   Cf. Allen, Halliday, and Sikes, op.cit., 198.
3.   This noun is discussed in relation to whether it has a specific referent in Apollo 161 (cf. 158-161n.). The possibility of a ὕμνος for a heroic or divine honorand is noted (Aphrodite 293n.).
4.   We might share the editor's regret (p. ix) that this edition was not expanded to include some of the shorter pieces, given the attention that is drawn to Pan here and to Hymn 6 as a counterpart to Aphrodite. Treatments of the latter, as a specimen short hymn, and the two intermediate length pieces - Pan (49 lines and dated to the fifth century; p. 24) and Hymn 7 to Dionysus (59 lines) - would complement the selection.
5.   See Janko, R. Homer, Hesiod and the Hymns: Diachronic Development in Epic Diction. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1982.
6.   See Janko, op.cit., 76.
7.   Càssola, F. Inni omerici. Mondadori: Milan, 1975.
8.   For example, the apparatus criticus mentions C. Cusset (‘Entre le vol et le festin, à propos de la correction du vers 136 de l’Hymne Homérique à Hermes’, RPh 71 (1997): 39-43) and O. R. H. Thomas (forthcoming) on Hermes 136, and M. L.West (2003, Homeric Hymns, Homeric apocrypha, lives of Homer, Cambridge, Mass.) on Hermes 126, 346, 385, and West's indication of a lacuna post 508 and an exempli gratia supplement (translated by Richardson in the note).
9.   Readers may be interested in Oliver Thomas' online bibliographies for the Homeric Hymns and, specifically, for the Hymn to Hermes.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 09:20:18, Friday, 01 April 2011