Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.01.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.37

Richard Bouchon, Pascale Brillet-Dubois, Nadine Le Meur-Weissman (ed.), Hymnes de la grèce antique: approches littéraires et historiques. Collection de la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, 50; Série littéraire et philosophique, 17.   Lyon:  Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée – Jean Pouilloux, 2012.  Pp. 408.  ISBN 978235668031042.  €42.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Leanna Boychenko, Williams College (

Table of Contents

This volume presents the proceedings of a conference on Greek hymns held in Lyon in June 2008 and organized by Richard Bouchon, Pascale Brillet-Dubois, and Nadine Le Meur-Weissman—also the volume’s editors (and in the case of Le Meur-Weissman, a contributor as well). It contains 22 papers, roughly half in French and half in English, in a variety of styles and lengths, including short commentaries, genre studies, and literary analyses. The volume is divided into three sections, Hymne et procédures hymniques, Commenter un hymne homérique, Hymne, histoire religieuse et théologie, and is capped with a concluding essay by Jenny Strauss Clay.

These proceedings are a welcome addition to the recent surge in scholarly interest in hymns, perhaps spurred by William D. Furley and Jan M. Bremer’s 2001 two volume collection, Greek Hymns,1 and exemplified by, among other things, the 2009 Kyknos conference “Hymns as Narrative and the Narratology of Hymns” (whose proceedings are forthcoming), several recent commentaries on the Homeric Hymns, Andrew Ford’s discussion of the hymnic genre in Aristotle as Poet,2 and Andrew Faulkner’s edited volume The Homeric Hymns.3 There is predictable overlap between Hymnes de la grèce antique and this last book, manifest mostly in the contributors to each, but, for the most part, the scholars tackle quite different texts and issues in each.

In the introduction, the editors stress the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to hymns, especially in terms of philology and religious history, and highlight the question of the distinction between literary and cultic hymns. While they preemptively defend possible criticism that the conference—and volume—pays disproportionate attention to the Homeric Hymns, the prominence of these hymns is entirely reasonable. The Homeric Hymns are our largest surviving group of texts with the title “hymn,” making them a strong starting point from which to consider questions of genre, performance, occasion, and theology. I regret that I do not have the space here to discuss each contribution in depth, but I will attempt to sketch out the progression and general feel of the volume.

The first section, Hymne et procédures hymniques, is arranged more or less chronologically, beginning with two papers on the Homeric Hymns and ending with Bremer’s publication of a 14-line hymn to Augustus with a translation and commentary. Some of the most innovative and exciting articles of the volume are in this section. In one of these, Christine Hunzinger focuses on the narrative modes of the Homeric Hymns: she identifies the typical form of third-person narration followed by a closing prayer with a direct address to the god as well as departures from this pattern—most notably in the Hymn to Pan and the Hymn to Apollo. Her analysis of the unique modulation between third-person and second-person narration in the Hymn to Apollo is especially persuasive. She demonstrates how second-person narration appears in catalogs, priamels, and aporetic passages, but that the hymn returns to third-person narration just as the narrator reaches the cap—whether this is the last item in the list, the answer to the question “How shall I sing about you?” or the god’s arrival at his oracle. In the other article on the Homeric Hymns in this section, Françoise Létoublon catalogs and categorizes opening and closing formulae, focusing on the formulaic and performative aspects of certain phrases (for the latter, especially the opening formula ἄρχομ᾽ ἀείδειν and the closing formula αὐτὰρ ἐγὼν ὑμέων καὶ ἄλλης μνήσομ’ ἀοιδῆς).

Three articles examine the boundaries of the hymnic genre. Le Meur-Weissman disentangles ancient testimony and definitions of hymns to examine the relationship of the dithyrambs of Bacchylides and Pindar to the larger category of hymns. Claude Calame examines hymnic elements in didactic poetry, pointing to the cletic aspects of the beginning of the Works and Days and Empedocles’ On Nature, the two mini-hymns to Apollo and Artemis at the beginning of the Theognidean corpus, and divine initiation in Parmenides. Évelyn Prioux moves to the Hellenistic period, exploring the hazy boundary between hymns and encomia, especially in Theocritus’ Idylls celebrating Ptolemy Philadelphos and Hieron II. All three articles expand the scope of the volume, thoughtfully considering songs and poems that are not usually included in the corpus of hymns. Although taking the form of a translation and commentary, Bremer’s presentation of a hymnic epigram celebrating Actian Apollo and Augustus also questions hymnic categories, as we see the unusual combination of the celebration of a historical event alongside some typical conventions of hymns.

The ancient reception of hymns is taken up in two of this section’s contributions. Maria Vamvouri Ruffy examines the interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes in the time of Plato, arguing that the hymn’s audience at that time would have viewed the god and his actions as those of a sophist. Benjamin Acosta-Hughes and Christophe Cusset discuss the organization of Callimachus’ six hymns as a poetry book and the influence of certain Homeric Hymns on Callimachus’ hymns—in particular the many allusions to the fragmentary Homeric Hymn to Dionysus in Callimachus’ Hymn to Zeus and the use of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as a model for Callimachus’ own Hymn to Demeter.

The middle section, Commenter un hymne homérique, is drawn from a round-table discussion led by Nicholas Richardson focusing on four scholars’ recent work on commentaries on Homeric Hymns as well as the format of commentary itself. Mike Chappell discusses different approaches scholars have taken to understanding the opening vignette of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, but does not extend his scope to include Nancy Felson’s contribution to the interpretation of this passage, which appears in this volume. Athanassios Vergados, whose full commentary on the Hymn to Hermes appeared this year4 discusses the date of the hymn, material he also covers in his larger commentary. Oliver Thomas compares two approaches to commentary: French structuralism and the lemmata preferred by German- and English-speaking scholars. The standout of this section is Andrew Faulkner’s contribution. He revitalizes the argument that the Hymn to Aphrodite was composed to celebrate local aristocracy in the Troad who claimed Aeneas as their ancestor and therefore, that the hymn was likely performed in a court-setting at a feast or banquet. The hymn’s link to the Aeneadae has long been an issue of scholarly debate—in fact, as part of a larger objection to the linkage of Homeric Hymns to specific cult settings, Clay challenges this claim in the conclusion to this very volume—but, controversies aside, Faulkner’s reinforcement of the possibility of different performance settings for the Homeric Hymns has broad implications for the future study of these texts.

The third section, Hymne, histoire religieuse et théologie, best succeeds in fulfilling the editors’ call for interdisciplinarity. Sylvain Lebreton’s article brings the page to meet the stone, comparing the epithets of gods in orphic hymns to those found in religious inscriptions in Greece and Asia Minor. Printed one after the other, the contributions of Robert Wagman and Furley present different approaches to inscribed Epidaurian hymns. Wagman gives an overview of the stones themselves, placing the hymns in a physical and historical context. Furley discusses the Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, suggesting that it reflects rites for a syncretic goddess who combines aspects of the Mother of the Gods and Demeter and that the anger the goddess displays towards Zeus in the hymn is due to sexual violation. Pierre Brulé writes on another inscribed hymn, known as the Palaikastro Hymn of the Kouretes, which has been traditionally viewed as depicting Zeus as a vegetation god. Brulé closely examines the semantic range of the contested phrase πανκρατὲς γάνους (line 2)5 and argues that the hymn’s representation of Zeus should not be viewed as problematic or incongruous with Zeus’ wider portrayal.

The last three papers of the volume each focus on one of the major Homeric Hymns, only leaving out the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Felson offers an insightful feminist reading of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, viewing the hymn from the perspective of the narrative’s victims—Telphusa, Delos, and Hera—as well as considering the reaction of audience members such as foreigners, members of the lower class, or women (especially worshippers of Hera), who might not be fully on the side of the violent young god. Dominique Jaillard focuses on the vocabulary of praise in the Hymn to Hermes—especially ὁσίη and τιμή—demonstrating how Hermes restructures and joins the Olympian pantheon. Seth Schein argues that the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite stands apart from other Archaic religious poetry in that it focuses equally on the human and divine spheres. By combining “cosmic history” and the ordering of the universe with a more epic sensibility, that is, using the divine world to contrast with the world of mortals, the hymn presents a unique approach to the divine.

Finally, Clay, whose 1989 Politics of Olympus has become the foundation for the study of the Homeric Hymns, closes the volume with an argument for the Pan-Hellenic, but not cultic genre of the Homeric Hymns. She argues that despite their distance from cult practices, these hymns show an awareness of cult that allows for “theological speculation” within their narrative as well as the combination of different traditions and songs (e.g., the use of the paeanic cry in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo) into one “portable,” Pan-hellenic hymn. This is a fitting cap for the volume and allows for the consideration of the theological and religious implications even in hymns that cannot be tied to specific cults. This may not knock down the too-strict barrier between literary and cultic hymns, but it certainly gives it a shake.

There are few textual or typographical problems that I have noticed, although the substitution of the name Aineias for Anchises on p. 311 leads to an accidental incestuous encounter between mother and son. It is a shame that in the illustrations, Figure 18, which depicts the stone on which the Epidaurian hymn to the Mother of the Gods is inscribed, is far too small to be legible. There are three valuable indices: authors and texts cited, inscriptions, and a general index.

Although each contribution deals specifically with Greek hymns in some way, the material in this book has a wide scope, both chronologically and methodologically, and should be useful to any scholar of Greek poetry or religion. As conference proceedings, this volume cannot be expected to comprehensively cover the entire corpus of hymns and does not include, for instance, Archaic hymns outside of the Homeric Hymns or hymnic elements in dramatic choral odes. I expect, however, that much of the work in the volume will inspire further scholarly interest in hymns and that the editors’ stress on the value of interdisciplinary approaches and the reevaluation of traditional dichotomies like “cultic” and “literary” will not go unheeded.


1.   Bremer, J.M. and W.D. Furley. 2001. Greek Hymns. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
2.   Ford, A. 2011. Aristotle As Poet: the Song for Hermias and its Context. New York: Oxford University Press.
3.   Faulkner, A. 2011. The Homeric Hymns: Interpretative Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.
4.   Vergados, A. 2013. The Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Berlin: De Gruyter.
5.   Contrastingly, Martin West prints πανκρατές, γᾶν ὅς (West, M. L. 1965. “The Dictaean Hymn to the Kouros.” JHS 85: 149-159.)

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