BMCR 2002.03.33

The Homeric Hymns

, The Homeric hymns. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xxviii, 159 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199240256. £35.00.

This is Michael Crudden’s (henceforth C.) English translation of the Homeric Hymns with introduction and notes. There is no Greek text nor is Greek used in the commentary so that this volume is aimed at the Greek Studies market but might well serve to spark off interest in learning Greek The short introduction includes details on background, structure, the long hymns, the hymns and humans, a note on the translation and select bibliography. There are then explanatory notes at the end, followed by a rather useful glossary of names.

The book is slim. The introduction and notes are rather sketchy. There is, however, reference to further reading on issues such as the unity of the Hymn to Apollo, the Eleusinian Mysteries vis-à-vis the Hymn to Demeter and the possible link between the Aeneiadae and the Hymn to Aphrodite. The author’s strength is in the sheer beauty of his translation, which bears comparison to competing versions. C. imitates the Greek word-order surprisingly closely but successfully (e.g. hymn (henceforth h.) 7,53 “and into dolphins turned”) so that it is pleasing both to read the translation in its own right and side-by-side with a Greek text. The book is in many ways a fresh, crisp Euro note, un dernier cri, an update of Athanassakis’ edition from 1976, with which it should be compared and contrasted. On p.xxiv C. refers to the numerous English-language translations of the hymns in recent decades such as by Boer (1970), Sargent (1973), Athanassakis (1976) and Shelmerdine (1995). He omits mention of earlier English translations of parts of the hymns by Way (1934 in rhyming couplets), Shelley (1818) or Chapman (1615) excerpts of which can be found in Steiner’s Homer in English (1996).1 C. states at the outset that he decided not to consult English-language translations of the hymns though Evelyn-White’s work for Loeb (1914) was already familiar to him from previous study. Slightly oddly, C. found Shewring’s (prose) translation of the Odyssey instructive but omits to mention Fitzgerald’s, Lattimore’s, Lombardo’s or Fagles’ translations. He acknowledges his debt to the French version by Humbert (1936), to the German version (Weiher 1989) and to the Italian of Cassola (1975) in moments of perplexity. The question and the challenge is — what does C.’s Targum add to all the other renditions other than being a non-American, an Irish-English epexegesis?

Hymn 10 reveals Crudden’s typical style:

Of the Native of Cyprus, Kythera’s goddess, I’ll sing. She gives
To mortals soothing gifts, and upon her desirable face
Has always a smile, while upon her plays a desirable bloom.
Farewell to you, goddess who over firm-founded Salamis reign
And sea-surrounded Cyprus; grant desirable song.
But I will call to my mind both you and another song.

C.’s “firm-founded” and “sea-surrounded” are original. “Farewell” for “Hail” seems rather odd. “Grant desirable song” is a little bit blunt. C. is forced to use the conventional “Cyprus” but putting “Kythera” next to it looks particularly strange. Sargent and Boer make more compromises on their transliteration of Greek: “Cyprus-Cytherea”. C’s only notes are that “soothing gifts” means sexual pleasure and a reference for comparison to the last line of h. 2,495. Athanassakis, by contrast, hazards the suggestion that this may been composed by a patriotic Cypriot and has three short notes with references to Hesiod’s Theogony and to Sappho.

Since C. offers translation and commentary, he will be most often compared to Athanassakis whose version reads as follows:

I shall sing of Kythereia, born on Cyprus,
Who brings sweet gifts to mortals and whose lovely face
Ever smiles radiant with lambent beauty on it.
Hail. Goddess and mistress of well-built Salamis
And of sea-laved Cyprus! Grant me enchanting song.
And now I will remember you and another song too.

This may be compared to Sargent:

I will sing in praise of Cyprus-born Cytherea,
Who bestows gentle gifts upon mortals and whose lovely face
Ever smiles. Lovely too the flight of the blushes upon it.
Hail goddess, guardian of strongly built Salamis
And of Cyprus set in the sea! Grant that my song be enchanting.
But I will remember you and another song too.

Boer calls this “The third hymn to Aphrodite”:

The Cytherean
born at Cyprus
is who I shall sing,
she who presents
with such nice presents.
That seductive face of hers
is always smiling, always
carrying its seductive flower.
Hello, goddess,
sovereign of Salamis
with its good buildings
and of the sea place, Cyprus.
Give me the kind of song
that seduces, please,
and I will remember you
in another one.

The English or American reader of the Homeric Hymns is pampered and mollycoddled by a plethora of good translations. Athanassakis himself in reviewing Cassola praised the beauty and fluency of the Italian language that could not be rivalled in English but I would dispute this and would uphold C.’s version as displaying a milky liquidity and a lambent succulence.

The translation itself is highly readable, if padded, which, as C. admits on p.xxii, is the temptation for translators using a fixed metre. It is the triumph of the English language and of C’s ingenious usage of it that he has succeeded in squeezing such a different version out almost every line. The line between padding and fluency is hard to draw and comes down to a matter of taste in the long run. De gustibus non est disputandum : some like their Budweiser, others Newcastle Brown Ale or even Guiness. Double-barrelled adjectives are a bane to the translator: C. uses both short and long forms. Short forms occur, for example in h.2 as follows: h. 2,1 fair-tressed, h.2,5 full-bosomed, h.2, 96 deep-girdled, h.2,33 strong-flowing (of the sea), h.2,78 slim-ankled, h.2,130 honey-sweet, h.2,215 boldly “doom-dealing”, h.2,384 fair-crowned, h.2,460 deep-crashing, far-seeing but long forms are deployed for Zeus “who gathers the clouds” h.2, 79 (=60) and for Pan’s nymphs “whose nature it is to dance” h.19,3. C.expands “well-benched” into “benched well for rowers” (h.7,6), “rosy-armed” into “whose arms are rose-pink” (h.31,6) and “fair-tressed” into “whose tresses are fair” (h.31,6). Much of C’s rhythmic fluency stems from this expansion of double-barrelled adjectives.

At times fluency suffers in lines such as h.26,15 “She hangs up there with its arrows her bow that springs back from the pull”. At times C. succeeds with master-strokes h.28.12 “and the deep was stirred in a mass of seething waves”. Rarely do we glean information on the uncertainty of the textual tradition, such as at p.127 commenting on l. 461 of the Hymn to Hermes: “the text seems to be corrupt and the sense uncertain”. Again on p.107 for lines 162-164 of the Hymn to Apollo “if another MS reading is adopted”. There is a reference on p.109 to a lacuna before l.213 of the Hymn to Apollo.

C.’s bibliography is indeed select, stressing more works to do with history and cult rather than hymnology. Callimachus is nowhere mentioned in the introduction so we would expect not to find N.G. Devlin’s doctoral thesis The Hymn in Greek Literature (1994) either. True, Proclus is referred on p.139 in discussion of the Hymn to Ares. Weiher’s lesser known Homerische Hymnen is included but Dorothea Fröhder’s important work on the middle-length hymns ignored.2 Smith’s seminal work on the Hymn to Aphrodite is omitted.3 The explanatory notes refer repeatedly to Hornblower and Spawforth’s Oxford Classical Dictionary. Since this work is aimed at the Greekless, all references to Greek words are transliterated though I would quibble with the spelling of “nektar” (h.5,11; h.2,50) and the literal use of “join” (h.4,5) for “mignumai”. C.’s transliterating of Greek leads to some linguistic monsters such as Taygetos (p.82, h.17,3) and Bakkheios (p.84, h.19,46).

As a brief look at the notes for h.8 show, this edition does not fully supersede Athanassakis who often, amongst other things, describes modern Greek traditions to compare with ancient ones. Scholars will in the future too want to refer to the classic English edition by Allen, Halliday and Sikes (1936). C. includes no notes for h.11, 16, 20 or 22 and gives only one line of comment on h.12, one note for h.9, and provides only two notes for h. 6 (21 lines long) and h.10. There is no mention of Hymn 6 to Aphrodite being a subsidary to h. 5 though on p.140 the derivation of h.13 from h.2 is pointed out, also h.18 from h. 4 (p.160). It is a shame that C. did not use Zanetto’s edition (1996) of the hymns as his bibliography is much fuller, including lists of works on each individual hymn. C. could have referred to Cassola’s latest (5th) edition of 1991 rather than to the first edition of 1975.

A newly cracked and accessible construction of the Homeric Hymns is to be welcomed as it will foster further radiation of the poems. The hymns deserve an audience, as C. states, but as hymns, not sources of cult-history, as Cassola has done. The book’s forthcoming publication as a paperback will only serve to increase its availability and wider dissemination since the current hardback edition is rather expensive. As Richardson said of Cassola: “I hope that this new edition will stimulate further study of these delightful but sometimes enigmatic poems.”


1. Of older versions one could mention Andrew Lang’s New Prose Translation and essays, literary and mythological, London 1899. Southern Europe is better served than Scandinavia. Besides the two Italian translations and editions (Cassola, 1991 and Zanetto, 1996) Alicia Esteban is currently preparing a Spanish version. There is no complete Finnish translation. The Danes have their own translation from 1961 by Alex Garff and Leo Hjortso, illustrated by Karen Westmann.

2. Fröhder, D., Die dicherische Form der Homerischen Hymnen untersucht am Typus der mittelgrossen Preislieden, (Hildesheim/Zurich/New York, 1994).

3. Smith, P.M., Nursling of mortality. A Study of the The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, (Bern 1981). We now await Andrew Faulkner’s commentary on this hymn.