Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.23

S. Douglas Olson, The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and Related Texts: Text, Translation and Commentary. Texte und Kommentare 39.   Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter, 2012.  Pp. x, 328.  ISBN 9783110260724.  $154.00.  

Reviewed by Adrian Kelly, Balliol College, Oxford (


As he acknowledges in the preface, Olson’s commentary on these texts joins a recently crowded field, with studies of the major Hymn to Aphrodite by Faulkner (OUP 2008) and the Homeric Hymns to Apollo, Hermes and Aphrodite by R(ichardson) (CUP 2010) in particular forming the competition.1 A constant agonism therefore pervades Olson’s commentary, but does not always detract from its utility. Olson also includes Hymns 6 (again to Aphrodite), 9 (Artemis), 10 (Aphrodite), 11 (Athene), 12 (Hera), 24 (Hestia), 27 (Artemis), 28 (Athene) and 29 (Hestia), though much, if not all, of the preface and introduction is concerned with the major Hymn. Whilst Olson’s study will be essential for anyone working on early Greek epic poetry, it needs constantly to be supplemented by Faulkner’s commentary.

The introduction is devoted to studies (1) of the Aeneidai and their putative role as patrons for the hymn (Olson is sceptical), (2) the date of the hymn when tested on the basis of Richard Janko’s linguistic criteria (again Olson is sceptical), (3) the Hymn’s poetic affiliations, (4) the relationship between Aphrodite and sexuality in the narrative, (5) the metre and (6) the transmission of the text (which fills out Càssola’s discussion and largely follows his overall stemma). As one of his central principles, Olson assumes that the major hymn (amongst others in his collection) consciously reworks fixed texts. This is a perfectly respectable position, but some reference to its voluminous discussion in recent scholarship would have been useful, and at times Olson seemed to have inconsistent views on the significance of traditional language and structure: for instance, there is a notable tension between the way in which the Hymn’s relationship with older texts is so readily reconstructed (pp. 16–21), whilst its subsequent (Archaic and later) reception (pp. 21–8) is subject to much greater levels of scepticism.2 It is also regrettable, especially after the detailed manner in which Olson takes on Janko’s diachronic model, that he briefly dismisses (one sentence on p. 10 of the preface) the Ancient Near Eastern background. Given the prominence enjoyed by this material in all modern discussions of early Greek epic, and most recently in Faulkner’s commentary, it is more than a missed opportunity: this reviewer, for one, would have welcomed a demonstration of the weaknesses in the orientalist approach to this text, or at least the reasons why the explanatory power of the Hellenic context is to be preferred.

The texts themselves are set out very clearly, with three apparatuses, the first (in descending order) showing direct intertexts, the second formulaic language which may not have intertextual significance (the distinction here is of course inevitably subjective at times), and the third – the actual app. crit. – textual variants. There is also a facing-page (literal but not unpleasant) translation.

The text which Olson prints is based on a fresh collation of the 13 major medieval MSS, some representatives of the P family (which he weighs more heavily than CF), and the editio princeps of Chalcondyles (1488 AD). Olson is a conservative editor,3 whilst discussion of textual decisions in the commentary is on the pithy side, so that Faulkner’s notes (certainly his bibliography) are usually fuller and frequently more useful. Many of Olson’s interventions and decisions are of an archaicising nature: ἅδε (9) for εὔαδεν; ἅδε ἔργα (21) for ἅδεν ἔργα; κεδνὰ ἰδυῖαν (44) for κεδν’ εἰδυῖαν (dat. 134); υἷας (51) for υἱεῖς; πολυπίδακος (54) for πολυπιδάκου; θαυμαίνεν (84) for θαμβαίνεν; χρυσέη (93) for χρυσῆ; χλαίνηισι μαλακῆις for χλαίνηισιν μαλακῆις (158); ἥρπασε ὅν (203) (Matthiae) over ἥρπασεν ὅν; ῥέει (237) (Wolf) for ῥεῖ; ἠ’ (264) (W) for (CFR); τεμένεα (267) (Faulkner) for τεμένη. One could quibble with some of these decisions, since e.g. nu mobile before ἔργα (9, 21) is already established in Homer (Il. 24.733, Od. 11.428; cf. also Od. 14.272 = 17.441) and so is not necessarily suspicious.

Nonetheless, Olson is not trying (à la Fick) to make the text uniformly older, or more Homeric (e.g. δὴ ἔπειτα 56 and 209 for (Hom.) δἤπειτα), as revealed by sundry differences from other modern editions (Olson is often ranged against the majority): 114 δὲ διάπρο (W) against δὲ διάπρο (FR; C διὰ πρό), though none of CWFRO notes or comments on the alternative readings (tacet Olson’s formular apparatus); 125 ψαύσειν (C) for ψαύειν (WFR); 145 γ’ (Wolf) for τ’ (CWFR); 173 ⟨δέ⟩ (Ruhnken) (W) to obviate asyndeton (contra CFR); 183 Olson deletes τ[ε] (W) and retains singular χλαίνηι despite hiatus (contra FR who delete and print χλαίνηις; C retains τε and singular); 237 οὐδ’ τι (C) for οὐδέ τι (WFR); 252 στόμα χείσεται (Martin) (W) against Matthiae’s στόμα τλήσεται (CFR) for the MSS’ στοναχήσεται; 262 σιληνοί (FR Σιληνοί) against Σειληνοί (CW); 276–7 are deleted by Olson (FR; C del. 274–5); 284 φάσιν (Humbert) (C) for MSS’ φάσι against φάσθαι (Matthiae) (WFR).

As one would expect of such an experienced commentator, the commentary is useful, but there is once more a constant need to read it alongside Faulkner’s study, especially (but not only) for supplementary bibliography. There is no space here to give a detailed critique of the notes (and I restrict myself to the major Hymn), but Olson is good – aside from the textual discussions above – when elucidating the poem’s use of focalisation (passim), or its deployment of conventional structure or language (e.g. on Κύπριδος 2, 1–2, 4–5, 7–33, 16–20, 33–5, 69–75, 113, γύναι εἰκυῖα θεῆισι 152, 166–7, ‘carrying off’ motif 207–9, ἀελλοπόδεσσιν 217, 259–72); formular or poetic language in general (e.g. on χρυσηλάκατον 16, ἀγκυλομήτης 22, καλὸν γέρας 29, ἀθανάτηισι θεῆισι 41, 54, 81–3, 143–4, ἐπιοινοχοεύει 204, χρυσόθρονος 218, ‘sloughing off old age’ 224, βαθυκόλποι 257) and typical scenes (e.g. on oaths 25–7; yet no mention anywhere that I could see of the typical seduction scene, which is a rather important part of this poem);4 scribal errors and diplomatic discussions more generally (e.g. on 6, 18, 22–3, 38–9, 52, 63, 98, 136, 141, 214, 147–8, 152, 174, 242, 274–5, 290); cultic intimations (e.g. on ἐυστεφάνου 6, 31–2, 175, 287) and religious or mythical iconography (e.g. on 18, 20, 262–3, 264–8); literary affiliations (e.g. on 21–32 and 28–9 on Sappho F 44A V, or on 22–3 re Hestia’s status as ‘first and last’ of Kronos’ children, 38–9 and 66–8 on the Dios Apate, 58-68 on that episode and the Ares and Aphrodite song in Od. 8, 91–106 on the encounter between Odysseus and Nausikaa, 218–38 and 220–5 on the early stories of Tithonos in Sappho 58 and Mimnermos).

Quibbles are inevitable: there is much less guidance about structure than one finds in Faulkner (whether one agrees with that analysis or not) or even in Richardson; Olson claims (p. 193 on 102–6) that Anchises “is not yet a distinguished person” when he makes his promise to Aphrodite, but he is a member of the Dardanian royal line (despite his shepherding on Ida); the introductory note to 107–42 unhelpfully explains its structure from the perspective of the questions which might have been asked of Aphrodite “in a more naturalistic style” (p. 194); the intertextual analysis is often forced or extreme, e.g. on 176–80, where the allusions supposedly draw from Iliad 3, 10, 18 and 24 to “evoke the interconnected tragedies of the Trojan War” (pp. 225; cf. also on 193–5), or on 291, where the expression describing Aphrodite’s departure for Olympos, ἤιξε πρὸς οὐρανόν (= Il. 23.868, where it refers to the bird freed by Teukros’ shot flying off whilst the cord falls to the ground [Faulkner’s note wrongly refers this to the arrow shot]), thus bears the tremendous intertextual weight of being “a pointed final reference to the interlocking tragedies of Priam, Hector and Achilleus”. If so (which this reviewer doubts), are the audience to remember that the freed dove (~ Aphrodite in the Hymn) is then killed by Meriones, or do they simply limit their understanding of the Trojan ‘tragedy’ to the context of the Funeral Games or indeed the Iliad in general?; the claim (p. 228) that 184 (πολλὰ λισσόμενος ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα) is taken from and thus alludes to Odyssey 22 (where it appears 3x) ignores (as does the first apparatus on p. 86) the verse’s occurrence at Il. 21.368.

The book closes with a very brief index rerum, which is entirely inadequate for a commentary of this detail and scope. I noted only very few errata: p. 82: 150 next to the text should be 155; p. 134: Κύθερα; p. 191: ‘cf. p. 000’; p. 192: διαμετρητωι, κρατερωι; p. 230: “Anchises in [for “is”] not that”.

In summary, this work will prove useful for students of early Greek epic, not least in actually presenting the minor Hymns with commentary. Despite several missed opportunities and a continuous sense of incompleteness or haste – which will mean that the work must always be supplemented by Faulkner’s more thorough study – we should be grateful for the new multiplicity of learned perspectives on this fascinating poem.


1.   For comparative purposes, the editions of (C)àssola, (W)est, (F)aulkner and (R)ichardson will be cited by their initial letters.
2.   For instance, Olson allows a direct engagement between the Hymn and the Ares and Aphrodite scene of Odyssey 8 and the Dios Apate in Iliad 14, but does not mention the fact in his introduction (nor in his note on 58-68) that these episodes are all examples of the typical seduction sequence (this does not preclude interaction, incidentally, but it needs to be acknowledged). It is thus confusing that Olson then denies Richardson’s link between the epiphany in this Hymn and the Hymn to Demeter on the basis inter alia that the connected episode is a “type-scene” (pp. 23–4). This selectivity is also to be found in the discussion of formular language throughout the commentary, which at times is held to be merely formulaic and at others is given pointed significance of an almost Vergilian nature.
3.   I found five new emendations (“scripsi” in the app. crit.), but only three had no precedent: ἅδε (21), κεδνὰ ἰδυῖαν (44, cf. 134), and the ingenious μήτιδας (249) (though cf. Hom. μήτι, μῆτιν and μήτιος); ἅδε (9) for εὔαδεν follows both Pelliccia (cited by Olson) and Matthiae (ἅδεν), with Olson’s innovation consisting in removing nu mobile; δὴ ἔπειτα (56, 209) was anticipated by Hermann.
4.   The reader should, however, always be aware of the qualification outlined in note 2 above.

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