BMCR 2002.05.36

Greek Hymns, Volumes I and II

, , Greek Hymns: Selected Cult Songs from the Archaic to the Hellenistic Period. Volume I. The Texts in Translation. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001. xxii, 411 pages. ISBN 9783161475276.
, , Greek Hymns: Selected Cult Songs from the Archaic to the Hellenistic Period. Volume II. Greek Texts and Commentary. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001. viii, 443 pages. ISBN 9783161586729.

Many readers of Greek might claim to be reasonably familiar with the corpus of Homeric Hymns and with the well known hymns of Callimachus. Few, however, will be able to make the same claim about Greek hymns outside these major literary collections. Although hymns are recognised to have been used extensively in Greek religious cult, only a small fraction of what once existed has survived, and scholarly attention has naturally focused upon the more cohesive literary collections that we possess. In this new two volume collection, W.D. Furley and J.M. Bremer attempt to redress this imbalance and, by focusing more on examples of cult hymnography, offer ‘as full a picture as possible of the sum of ancient Greek hymns’ (vol. I, p.5).

The authors have chosen a selection of hymns, which are divided into twelve chapters according to the cult centre in which they were used. Chapter one focuses on Crete, two on Delphi, three on Delos, four on Lyric Hymns from Lesbos and Ionia, five on Thebes, six on Epidauros and seven on Athens. Chapters eight to eleven then look at examples of cult hymns found in Athenian drama, devoting a separate chapter to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes respectively. The final chapter looks at some miscellaneous hymns, which do not fit elsewhere into the collection. A text, translation, general analysis and detailed commentary are provided for each piece. The first volume contains a broad introduction to Greek hymns, the texts in translation and the general analysis of each hymn. The second volume has the Greek text with a full apparatus criticus, an examination of the metre of each hymn and the detailed commentary. The first volume also contains a general index, while the second has four useful appendices devoted to 1) epithets and attributes of the gods in the hymns, 2) sacred places in the hymns, 3) musical accompaniment to the hymns and 4) an index of Greek words. Both volumes are equipped with a full bibliography.

Of particular note is the decision to omit the Homeric Hymns and the hymns of Callimachus from the collection. Two principal reasons are given in the preface for their exclusion: 1) ‘excellent editions of these texts already exist’ and 2) ‘they serve a more literary purpose, being assimilated to other literary genres more concerned with narrative and literary mimesis than worship pure and simple.’ Regarding the first of these reasons, it is indeed true that excellent editions of these hymns already exist.1 The production of a new critical text would have served little useful purpose. Moreover, even though full commentaries for all of the major Homeric Hymns are still lacking, except for Demeter,2 this is clearly not the place for them to appear; a publication which already requires two rather substantial volumes would have become unmanageable had any of these longer hymns been included. But what of some of the shorter Homeric Hymns? Having drawn the above distinction between literary and cult hymns in their preface, the authors rightly go on to speak of the difficulty in marking a clear separation between literature and cult hymns. They suggest that the distinction is a matter of emphasis and purpose, summed up by the following: ‘The cult hymn is a form of worship directed towards winning a god’s goodwill and securing his or her assistance or favour. Literature is concerned with the entertainment and enlightenment of the audience addressed’ (p.2). While this distinction is useful, and perhaps applicable to the intent of the longer Homeric Hymns, it is particularly problematic when applied to some of the smaller hymns in the collection. It is difficult, for example, to say that the five-line Hymn 11 to Athena is not a cult hymn in any real sense, based upon these criteria. It has no formulaic transition to a longer rhapsodic piece which many of the Homeric Hymns possess, and its final line can quite legitimately be read as a genuine attempt to gain the favour of the goddess (χαῖρε θεά, δὸς δ’ ἄμμι τύχην εὐδαιμονίην τε). Even the longer hymns can have been genuinely directed towards winning the god’s goodwill; see for example H.H. 2.494 πρόφρονες ἀντ’ ᾠδῆς βίοτον θυμήρε’ ὀπάζειν. Nonetheless, the authors of this book are acutely aware of the subtleties of this problem. Referring also to the arguments of Race, who made the useful distinction between the more impersonal ‘Er-Stil’ of literary hymns and the more personal ‘Du-Stil’ of cult hymns (pp.42-43), they are cautious about formulating a single definition of either type of hymn, cult or literary. Importantly, despite the omission of any section devoted to either Callimachus or the Homeric Hymns, the two major collections are far from being ignored. They are referred to often throughout the two volumes and are discussed as they relate to and elucidate the other hymns being examined. If the Homeric Hymns and those of Callimachus are not examples of cult hymns proper, they do provide a great deal of insight into the practices of Greek religion and cult worship. The authors have here dealt with them effectively while refreshingly concentrating attention elsewhere.

The command of previous scholarship which Bremer and Furley bring to this collection is impressive and is one of the great strengths of these books. Throughout both the general analyses of the first volume and the detailed commentary of the second volume, previous scholarly arguments are presented in summation and evaluated with experienced balance. Bibliography is meticulously up to date and complete, including even a reference to the web-site of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, where recordings of the musical notation found with two paians to Apollo can be heard ( Each Greek text is prefaced by a list of previous editions and significant studies, and both the experienced reader of these hymns and the beginner are provided with an excellent platform for further inquiry. In addition, this collection is well designed for readers of varying levels in other ways. The first volume will be particularly attractive to readers with little or no Greek, while the second caters for the Greek reader who desires a closer look at the language of these texts. Yet, while this distinction exists, neither volume is intended exclusively for one type of audience. Throughout the first volume, Greek passages referred to, which are translated in the main body of the book, consistently have the original Greek provided in footnotes. Similarly, while much of the discussion in the second volume will be of limited use to a reader without Greek, the first volume refers readers to the second when the discussion is particularly relevant.

Mistakes are few and far between in these editions and the Greek text is prepared with particular accuracy; accents and breathings have been carefully checked. There is the occasional typo: one is surprised to hear in a book published in 2001 that the main fragment of Makedonikos’ paian to Apollo and Asklepios, discovered at the end of the 19th century in the Athenian Asklepion and published by Kumanudes, was found ‘at the end of the last century’ (vol.I, p.267). But errors are rare and certainly no impediment to the reader. In the preface, the authors speak of creating a ‘source-book’ of Greek cult hymns; these editions are that and more and it seems that for scholars and students alike they are bound to be very popular indeed.


1. See A. Gemoll, , Die Homerischen Hymnen, Leipzig, 1886; T.W. Allen and E.E. Sikes, The Homeric Hymns, London, 1904; T.W. Allen, W.R. Halliday and E.E. Sikes, The Homeric Hymns, Oxford, 1936. F. Càssola, Inni Omerici, Lorenzo Valla, 1975. There is also the edition of Zanetto in 1996, which is not, however, major.

2. N. Richardson, The Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Oxford, 1974.