BMCR 1994.05.08

1994.05.08, Foley (ed.), Homeric Hymn to Demeter

, The Homeric hymn to Demeter : translation, commentary, and interpretive essays. Hymn to Demeter.. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. xvi, 297 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780691068435. $16.95.

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, as Helene Foley emphasizes throughout this book, is unique among early Greek narrative poetry in concentrating on female experience in ancient Greek society and the ways in which that experience was symbolically expressed, and mitigated, in cult and ritual. In this way, the Hymn can supplement for us the fragments of Sappho and other women poets. Although the Hymn and its myth have attracted the attention of feminist writers both within and outside of Classics, this book now makes it possible for a wide audience to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by this text to gain some understanding of Greek social and religious practices and the subjective experience of them on the part of a group heavily disadvantaged by the structure of society, and thereby to gain some perspective on our own culture as well. At the same time, the book also suggests how the Hymn implicitly locates this experience within the broader context of Greek culture and belief. Other themes that run through it include the poem’s depiction of a patriarchal cosmic order that has not yet reached its final form, the relation of this version of the myth and of the Eleusinian Mysteries to the evolving and fully developed polis (specifically, Athens), and the Panhellenic character of the Hymn and the appeal of the Mysteries to initiates from all over Greece and of all classes, male as well as female. There is much here to interest and instruct various kinds of readers, from specialists in ancient literature and culture to anyone, classicist or not, concerned with gender issues and the poetic representation of social processes and the tensions arising from them. And the book should be valuable in a correspondingly wide range of courses; it seems to me a model of how to present an ancient text attractively and interrogate it from the perspective of contemporary concerns.

Foley brings together various materials. N.J. Richardson’s Greek text of the Hymn is accompanied, on facing pages, by a fairly literal and quite readable English translation. A commentary follows that succinctly gives just the amount of help that a first-time reader might need on questions of text and diction, evident allusions in the narrative to the preliminary rites in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and significant literary effects in various passages. Next, short accounts are given of the Mysteries themselves and women’s rites to Demeter and Persephone. These sections lay the groundwork for Foley’s own lengthy “Interpretive Essay.” Finally, five articles are reprinted to give a sample of earlier work on the Hymn and related issues: Mary Louise Lord on a story pattern common to the Hymn and the Homeric epics, Nancy Felson-Rubin and Harriet Deal on the relation between the Demophoon episode and the framing story of Demeter and Persephone, Jean Rudhardt’s examination of the Hymn (here in English translation) against the background of the divine division of timai, Marilyn Arthur (Katz) on the structural unity of the poem, analyzed with a notable use of psychoanalytic theory, and Nancy Chodorow’s “Family Structure and Feminine Personality.” These papers were all published previously and need no comment here, except to say that they are well-chosen and together bring out different aspects of the Hymn‘s main concerns. Chodorow’s article, in particular, although not about the Hymn itself, makes it possible to connect the goddesses’ suffering and its resolution with the psychological development and role of middle-class women in modern Western capitalist societies, and provides the basis for a pivotal part of Foley’s own interpretation. Despite the variety of these parts, the book guides the reader to a unified and richly subtle view of the poem.

Forging this coherence is one of the accomplishments of Foley’s “Interpretive Essay,” which (without slighting the work of the other contributors) can fairly be called the core of the book. Foley synthesizes important insights of the articles she reprints and of much other scholarship besides, and builds on them to construct a comprehensive and persuasive reading of her own.

In contrast to many other treatments of the Hymn, Foley sees the foundation of the Eleusinian Mysteries at the end as integral to, and indeed prepared for by, the entire narrative structure. In one way or another, this sense of the Mysteries’ importance pervades the interpretation throughout, and is confirmed by the strong reading it generates. The Hymn is distinctive, Foley suggests, for depicting not only a sharp separation between gods and mortals but also, in the episode at Eleusis, a “prolonged and intimate encounter between divinity and humankind,” which results in the inauguration of the Mysteries. The parallels between divine and human experiences (traced in the essays by Arthur [Katz] and Felson-Rubin and Deal) suggest that just as Persephone’s cyclic return from Hades mitigates Demeter’s loss and sorrow, the Mysteries perform a parallel function among mortals. The epic story pattern of wrath, withdrawal, and return disclosed by Mary Louise Lord also emphasizes the mingling of divine and human, as does the initiatory pattern that the Hymn‘s mythic narrative and the Mysteries themselves have in common. Finally, the oddities of the narrative—the suppression of Attic / Eleusinian versions of the myth and the lack of motivation for key events—allow these same thematic emphases. They may also be explained by the poem’s Panhellenic character, although, Foley argues, they have nothing to do with the date or circumstances of its composition that others have suggested.

In her anger over the rape of Persephone with Zeus’s connivance, Demeter challenges patriarchal authority, and her partial success simultaneously brings about an adjustment in cosmic order (since, as Rudhardt shows, Persephone’s marriage to Hades links the Underworld with Earth and Olympos) and reaffirms the importance of bonds between women. The Hymn thus emphasizes the creative potential of female wrath, and it significantly modifies the perspective of Hesiod’s Theogony on the role of gender conflict in cosmology and the portrait of patriarchal order given in Homeric epic (although the outcome is still inscribed within that order). The Hymn therefore imports into the Panhellenic epic tradition a myth and a cult that were “potentially antagonistic” to it.

But the poem is not only concerned with the place of the female in the structure of the cosmos and of human society; it presents women’s own psychological experience within that context. Foley fruitfully applies to the Hymn‘s narrative Chodorow’s discussion of childhood psychological development, which uses object-relations theory to adapt the Freudian model. According to this account, the girl’s successful maturation depends on retaining a close identification with her mother and at the same time developing an independent identity and transferring libidinal desire to heterosexual relations. This transition can be problematical in societies such as those in ancient Greece and the modern West, where marriage isolates women from each other. The Hymn begins with a particularly devastating, sudden and forcible, separation of mother and daughter and depicts its psychological consequences not only for Persephone but more centrally for Demeter herself. That the narrative focuses on the mother’s response, and traces accommodation to marriage and the ultimate re-establishment of the bond between mother and daughter largely from her perspective, is not a problem because, as Chodorow remarks, the mother typically re-experiences this development through her daughter. Foley’s reading of the poem from this perspective accounts not only for the major events (Persephone’s rape from a paradisal setting of female unity, Demeter’s experience of mortal women successfully functioning within patriarchal society at Eleusis, her attempt to compensate for Persephone’s loss to the Underworld by immortalizing a male child, her anger and resistance, and the final accommodation), but also for the roles of other female figures, Hekate and Demeter’s own mother Rheia. The latter’s function as intermediary is especially significant because, as Chodorow emphasizes, intergenerational female relations are quite important in societies where female maturation is not especially problematical. One addition to Foley’s interpretation might be suggested, that the Hymn also suggests an adjustment in the formation of heterosexual relations in marriage on the part of males whereby force is replaced by persuasion. Whatever exactly he does with the pomegranate seed, Hades tries to persuade Persephone of the advantages of their marriage when told that he must return her to her mother, and Zeus is compelled to resort to persuasion and the promise of timai in the final resolution.

As Foley recognizes, this outcome is an ideal one. In Greek society, girls did not actually return to their mothers for significant periods of time after marriage but were separated from them. But this disparity between the ideal and the real only reinforces Foley’s suggestion that the myth and women’s rituals to Demeter based on it served to “compensate women for marriage.” The Eleusinian Mysteries, however, were a slightly different matter, and Foley goes on from her discussion of female experience in the Hymn to ask how the Mysteries, founded as a result of that experience according to the myth, could appeal so broadly: to men as well as women, to people of all classes and from all over Greece.

One of the most interesting differences that Foley suggests between the Hymn and other early Greek poetry concerns contrasting attitudes to death. The epic (and lyric) view of death as the end of significant life produces an anxiety for fame, and specifically immortality in song. This compensation for death was available principally to aristocratic males. The Hymn and its myth, on the other hand, promise benefits in this world and in the afterlife to all, regardless of class or gender. It might be added that the Hymn itself juxtaposes these two economies of death in the heroization of Demophoon and the institution of the Mysteries. As for gender, it is true, says Foley, that “mortal women experience Demeter’s suffering both in their encounter with her in the poem and … in the process of their own lives; men are initiated into these Mysteries.” But the Mysteries offer to initiates of both sexes the experience of “fusion with the mother”—an experience that would be psychologically disabling in real life but which can be beneficially undergone in ritual, as often as the initiate wishes.

There is much more in this fine essay than I have indicated—for example, Foley’s suggestions about the relation of the Hymn to the polis, and her survey of the influence of this poem and its myth. On the other hand, one obvious problem is skirted: how does a (probably) male-authored poem portray female experience with such depth and sympathy, especially given the great differences in the psychological development and social lives of ancient Greek men and women? Foley glances at this question several times but perhaps ought to have confronted it directly.

I would also question one part of the discussion, which, however, is not essential to the interpretation as a whole. Following Rudhardt, Foley correctly observes that Zeus attempts to impose on Persephone a form of marriage foreign to Olympos, where daughters usually are not separated from their mothers or from the company of the other gods. She then characterizes this other, mortal kind of marriage as “patriarchal and virilocal exogamy.” Later, she suggests that the Hymn favors endogamy over exogamy and connects this preference with most cities’ (and especially Athens’) concern to define themselves as discrete communities, partly through discouraging marriages into families outside the city. Her use of “exogamy,” which she goes on to define as “marriage between members of two different social groups,” is confusing. As used by anthropologists, “endogamy” and “exogamy” refer respectively to marriage inside and outside of kinship groups. The terms have nothing to do with where the married couple lives, whether in the husband’s or the bride’s family’s house. Foley has in mind Persephone’s transplantation through marriage from Olympos to the Underworld. But in fact, Hades is her paternal uncle, as Foley herself remarks, and this marriage, strictly speaking, is endogamous. For the same reason, it seems to stretch the point implausibly to suggest that marriage between communities is at issue here. All that is essential for Foley’s argument is the perfectly correct observation that marriage in the poem and in Greek society is virilocal and thus separates women from each other, and that the problems treated by the Hymn follow from this fact.

This is hardly a serious adjustment to an interpretation that is illuminating in so many ways. It is the central part of a book that, as a whole, shows how much can be accomplished when attention to gender, social issues, and the psychological development of men and women is joined to more traditional questions, such as the Hymn‘s relation to the Mysteries. The results go far beyond the customary conclusions about what aspects of the ritual are “reflected” in the narrative. The book offers significant insights into Greek religion, society, and culture, and through a sensitive and sympathetic reading of the text, it recovers for us, if only indirectly, something of what it was like to live as a woman in that world. Given our sources’ general silencing of women and other marginalized groups, the attention this book draws to the Hymn‘s testimony is all the more important.