Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.60

Andrew Faulkner, Athanassios Vergados, Andreas Schwab (ed.), The Reception of the Homeric Hymns.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xiv, 409.  ISBN 9780198728788.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen Sansom, Stanford University (

[Authors and Titles are listed at the end of this review.]

On the evening of September 30th, 1991, roughly 11 million viewers of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation heard Captain Jean-Luc Picard respond to his first officer that he was reading not only Greek, but, more specifically, the Homeric Hymns. After a heroic encounter with an alien people who speak only in allegorical myth, Picard turns to the Hymns as “one of the root metaphors of our own culture,” with the hope that “more familiarity with our own mythology [may] help us to relate to theirs.” For the scholar interested in the reception of the Homeric Hymns, a problem of interpretation presents itself: what do we do with such a Classical name-drop? Is it a reference, citation, allusion—a 'tag'? How deep should we go in the intertext, if it is an intertext at all? What should we make of this bit of hymnic reception?

The Reception of the Homeric Hymns (Oxford 2016), edited by Andrew Faulkner, Athanassios Vergados, and Andreas Schwab, identifies and interprets instances of the reception of the Homeric Hymns. Although the above instance is not featured, it lies only slightly outside the volume's capacious purview. The book provides the most wide-ranging account of the reception of the hymns to date, from 1st century BCE Rome to 19th century England and Germany. The book grew out of a Heidelberg workshop of 2012 and joins the recent increase of scholarship on the Hymns in the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic eras.1 With its publication, it brings the account of the reception of the Hymns to the cusp of the 20th century. The book is organized into five parts, with each part, except for the first, dedicated to a literary time-period: Narrative and Art (Part 1), Latin Literature (Part II), Imperial and Late Antique Literature (Part III), Byzantine Literature (Part IV), and Renaissance and Modern Literature (Part V). Along with bibliographic references, the book also includes a helpful list of citations to ancient texts as well as a general index.

The volume does not simply fill a gap in scholarship in the reception of the hymns. Rather, it convincingly challenges the received opinion on the “impression of neglect” (3) of the Hymns in antiquity and thereafter. While the Homeric Hymns were never as universally known as the Iliad or the Odyssey—no texts were, of course—the purpose of the volume is to illuminate the instances in later literature where their influence is most apparent. After looking briefly at the introductory material and methodology, I will treat each part of the book in turn.

In addition to previewing the book's contributions, the introduction provides a useful survey of the Classical and Hellenistic reception of the Hymns, as well as the fundamental methodology for the project. The survey catalogues verbal echoes of the Hymns in the few Classical examples found in Pindar, Attic Drama, and Antimachus of Colophon, and in prominent Hellenistic poets, including Philitas of Cos, Aratus, Sotades, Apollonius of Rhodes, Callimachus, Theocritus, and Moschus. The method for identifying the presence of the Hymns in later texts follows the now conventional approach to literary intertextuality, in which scholars interpret or argue for meaning in “verbal parallels combined with thematic elements or motifs” (17). This approach benefits from the wide range of modes of reception to which it can be applied, including poetry, prose, commentaries, translations, and visual art.

Part One of the volume is an outlier in its focus on the visual, rather than literary, reception of the Homeric Hymns in Archaic and Classical vase painting. In both prominent and lesser known vases, Jenny Strauss Clay (Ch. 2) identifies several ways in which visual art represents the content of the Hymns. Some vases synopsize the major events found in a hymn, as the Louvre's Caeretan Black-figure Hydria (E 702, c. 550-530 BCE) does for the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. By way of contrast, the famous kylix of Exekias (Munich Glyptothek, c. 530 BCE), with its reclining Dionysus on a ship surrounded by dolphins, displays the god immediately after the moment of epiphany and full power, “serenely reclining on his ship, tranquilly asserting and basking in his divinity” (34). Clay seamlessly moves between visual and verbal art and continually raises awareness of the complexity of the thematic relationships between them, making the chapter particularly valuable.

Part Two focuses on the reception of the Hymns in Augustan Rome. Each chapter addresses Alessandro Barchiesi's observation about the lack of scholarly attention to the influence of the Hymns in Roman literature.2 In one of the few chapters to trace a hymn through numerous sources, James J. Clauss (ch. 3) tracks Hermes and his theft of Apollo's cattle from Hermes through Callimachus and Apollonius to its multiform as the Hercules-Cacus story found in Virgil, Livy, Propertius, and Ovid. Here the Hellenistic reception, specifically Callimachus' Hymn to Zeus, mediates the Augustan, e.g. through its “embedding of an unnamed monarch, a trope that Ovid inverts by naming names” (78). Stephen Harrison (ch. 4) works across the hymnic poetry of Horace and uncovers several thematic clusters shared with the longer and shorter Homeric Hymns, for example Ode 1.21 and the Homeric Hymn to Artemis (27). In several instances, Harrison helpfully untangles Horace's cultic models, such as Catullus 34, from the Homeric. In chapter 5, John F. Miller sifts through Ovid's account of the nautical abduction of Bacchus and turns up not only persuasive reliance on Hymn 7—for example, both have the “divine boy seized on the shore...rather than present[ing] himself to the pirates” as in Hyginus (99)—but “still other (lost) narrative accounts that are reflected in other surviving sources” (103). Alison Keith (ch. 6) demonstrates that the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite supplies a pattern of details and mythopoetic plot points that can be found throughout the Metamorphoses, but not without a debt to Virgil and the well-studied encounter between Aeneas and Venus in Aeneid 4. Both Keith and Harrison, in fact, point to “Virgilian poetry as an important site of the Homeric Hymns' naturalization in Latin literature” (125). Jason Nethercut (ch. 7) mixes scanty textual and visual evidence, e.g. Apollo and the tripod relief from Augustus' Temple of Apollo Palatinus (138-9), to argue for a type of syncretism of Heracles and Apollo in Ovid.

Part Three pursues the use of the Hymns by Imperial and Late Antique authors, including Lucian, Aelius Aristides, Cornutus, and Proclus. Polyxeni Strolonga (ch. 8) catalogues the multifarious ways that Lucian appropriates the Homeric Hymns in his Dialogues of the Gods for parodic effect, including transposition, literalization, analogy, rivalry for honor (timai), even reformulation of the formulaic ending of many hymns (“farewell [chaire], and now I will remember you (mnêsomai) and another”) in parodic prose (“but do me this favour [charis], Cyllenian, so that I will always remember it [memnêsomenôi],” 161). Similar to Harrison in his focus on a single author, Athanassios Vergados (ch. 9) surveys the hymnic work of Aelius Aristides and concludes that Aristides not only knows and alludes to the Hymns in his own prose hymns, but also considers them to be 'prooimia' in emulation of archaic and classical poetic practice (185-6). José B. Torres (ch. 10) treats the broader difficulties of Quellenforschung and identification of the Hymns in later mythographic tradition, especially Cornutus. The final two chapters of part three both assess the Hymns' influence in late antiquity: Robbert M. van den Berg (ch. 11) in the hymnic corpus of the Neoplatonist and Homeric scholar Proclus; and Gianfranco Agosti (ch. 12) in the contestation for Greek paideia between Christians and Pagans (in which Hermes is 'usurped' as a pawn by both).

Part Four follows the Hymns to Byzantium in two very different contributions. Christos Simelidis (ch. 13) elaborates the scribal practices that produced many of the extant manuscripts containing the Hymns. Most importantly, Simelidis argues that the famous manuscript M (Leidensis BPG 33 H), which groups the Hymns with the Iliad, is likely the result of the idiosyncratic interests of its copyist, John Eugenikos. Andrew Faulkner (ch. 14) provides readings of the historical poems of Theodoros Prodromos, which likely contain only brief allusion to Aphrodite but are exemplary as praise poetry in the long hymnic tradition.

Part Five gathers five cases of hymnic reception in Renaissance and Modern literature of Italy, England, and Germany. The two from Italy cover the scholarly production and artistic reinterpretation of the Hymns in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Oliver Thomas (ch. 15) shows how early modern scholars and poets, including Michael Marullus and Francesco Filelfo, deftly maneuvered and ultimately constructed the reception of the hymns as either Homeric texts or as another set of pagan hymns—essentially the origins of “the 'Homerizing' approach that won out historically” (298). M. Elisabeth Schwab (ch. 16) focuses on Florence and the work of Angelo Poliziano, especially his Stanze, in which Schwab finds continual interaction with Aphrodite. Nicholas Richardson (ch. 17) treats the poetic translations of the Hymns in England by Chapman, Congreve, and Shelley. Richardson's description of Shelley's translation of the shorter Hymns and Hermes as a therapeutic practice (337) is particularly touching. In the final chapter (18), Andreas Schwab writes on the 18th and 19th century Heidelberg philologist J. H. Voss's edition, commentary, and German translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, a version which emphasized the potential insights into Greek religious thought to be gleaned from the newly discovered hymn.

As a whole, the volume certainly affirms the presence of the Homeric Hymns in the Classical tradition. It will be a useful resource to scholars of the Hymns themselves as well as of the individual authors and texts that receive and revive them. Some may feel that more work could be done at times in sifting through the topoi, motifs, and tropes of mythological, hymnic, and epic language to arrive at a 'core' of Homeric Hymns— perhaps an impossible task. Other readers might desire a more explicit position on the state of intertextual studies. The book makes no claim in this regard. Finally, as is inevitable with edited volumes, there could be a more robust cross- referencing of meaningful connections between chapters.3 The general index, however, does much to assuage this concern. Otherwise, the volume contains few errors that I noticed,4 and it generously translates most non-English texts. Most importantly, the The Reception of the Homeric Hymns demonstrates that the 'deuterocanonical' status (3) of the Hymns has been exaggerated and comprehensively demonstrates that they were read and reinterpreted for a long time, especially within the genres and discourse of hymnology, praise, myth, religion, Homeric epic, and—as Captain Picard attests—science fiction.

Authors and titles

1. “Introduction” by Andrew Faulkner, Athanassios Vergados, and Andreas Schwab Part I. Narrative and Art
2. “Visualizing Divinity: The Reception of the Homeric Hymns in Greek Vase Painting” by Jenny Strauss Clay
Part II. Latin Literature
3. “The Heracles and Cacus Episode in Augustan Literature: Engaging the Homeric Hymn to Hermes in Light of Callimachus' and Apollonius' Reception” by James J. Clauss
4. “The Homeric Hymns and Horatian Lyric” by Stephen Harrison
5. “Ovid's Bacchic Helmsman and Homeric Hymn 7” by John F. Miller
6. “The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite in Ovid and Augustan Literature” by Alison Keith
7. “Hercules and Apollo in Ovid's Metamorphoses” by Jason S. Nethercut
Part III. Imperial and Late Antique Literature
8. “The Homeric Hymns Turn into Dialogues: Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods” by Polyxeni Strolonga
9. “The Reception of the Homeric Hymns in Aelius Aristides” by Athanassios Vergados
10. “The Homeric Hymns, Cornutus, and the Mythographical Stream” by José B. Torres
11. “The Homeric Hymns in Late Antiquity: Proclus and the Hymn to Ares” by Robbert M. van den Berg
12. “Praising the God(s): Homeric Hymns in Late Antiquity” by Gianfranco Agosti
Part IV. Byzantine Literature
13. “On the Homeric Hymns in Byzantium” by Christos Simelidis
14. “Theodoros Prodromos' Historical Poems: A Hymnic Celebration of John II Komnenos” by Andrew Faulkner
Part V. Renaissance and Modern Literature
15. “Homeric and/or Hymns: Some Fifteenth-century Approaches” by Oliver Thomas
16. “The Rebirth of Venus: The Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite and Poliziano's Stanze” by M. Elisabeth Schwab
17. “'Those miraculous effusions of genius': The Homeric Hymns Seen through the Eyes of English Poets” by Nicholas Richardson
18. “The Reception of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter in Romantic Heidelberg: J. H. Voss and 'the Elusian Document'” by Andreas Schwab


1.   E.g. A. Faulkner (2011) The Homeric Hymns: Interpretative Essays. Oxford. BMCR 2012.06.07.
2.   (1999) “Venus' Masterplot: Ovid and the Homeric Hymns.” in Ovidian Transformations: Essays on Ovid's Metamorphoses and its Reception. P. Hardie, A. Barchiesi, and S. Hinds, eds.. Cambridge. BMCR 2000.07.23
3.   E.g. discussion of Dionysus' agency in leading Hephaestus back to Olympus (and West's comments thereon), pp. 167 and 198; to Proclus and ch. 11 at pp. 223n.8-9; Tyrrhenian pirates and Dionysus at pp. 33n. 8, 96/99, and 166; and the ideological pressures on hymning political figures at pp. 78, 270, and 292.
4.   E.g. p. 57n.6 should read Pindar P. 4.148-50 (not P. 41.148-50); p. 116 ἅδεν and Ἱστίῃ instead of ἅδε and Ἱστίη (Aphr. 21- 22); p. 232 should feature a comma instead of semicolon at “having drawn out a portion of his diverse power[;]<,> he is Hermes-Nous...”; p. 266n.14 would benefit from an ellipsis at “Ηοm. 32.8 εἵματα<...>τηλαυγέα,” and p. 336 from a space at ἀθανάτῃ/παρέλεκτο (167).

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010