BMCR 2003.11.27

The Narcissus and the Pomegranate. An Archaeology of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter

, The Narcissus and the pomegranate : an archaeology of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. x, 268 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 047211249X $60.00.

Starting from her motto, in which she is quoting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, S. treats the poem as a mystery murder that needs investigation, further tracing back. She focuses on the enigma of its creation and its prehistory both in terms of récit (the story told) and narration (the narrator’s telling of the story1).

The book’s main body consists of nine chapters: 1. Introduction, 2. Nothing to do with Olympos, 3. Having likeminded hearts . . . , 4. The Pomegranate Again, 5. Hieros Gamos, 6. Confrontation and Accommodation: The Evidence of the Hymn, 7. Outside the Myth: The Linguistic Evidence, 8. Outside the Hymn: The Archaeological and Historical Evidence, 9. Some Summary Thoughts.

In the introductory first chapter S. deals with several different topics that are pivotal to the understanding of her main thesis and the sections that follow. According to her the Hymn is an innovative and up-to-date reworking of some traditional elements, an ingenious and complex amalgamation of different and often divergent narratological and “theological” strands that are still recognizable and call for disentangling. More importantly, it offers aetiologies for two cults: for the Thesmophoria in the Demeter-Demophoön episode and for the Mysteries in the ending. In addition it is read as some sort of chronicle of Demeter’s subordination of Persephone on a mythical and probably cultic level and as the Olympian/patriarchal subversion of the mother and daughter coming-of-age story (the core story) on a narratological level.

In reading the Demophoön episode as the aetiology for the other major cult of Demeter, the Thesmophoria at Eleusis, S. is largely following Clinton [1992].2 In fact, she fully subscribes to his theory except for two points: a) the abduction and the return of the Kore is not essential to the cultic acts of the festival and was added only later; and b) Kore/Thea is the earliest goddess of the cultic site rather than Demeter. From my point of view, both her assumptions though highly appealing are also highly speculative and not free from some sort of circularity. I am not sure how anyone can argue persuasively in favour of the first thesis, since we know so little about the festival of Thesmophoria.

S. credits feminist literary theory for having raised important issues, and though her feminist sensitivities are obvious she has chosen to use a great variety of different interpretative/methodological approaches (such as oral-diction analysis, speech-act theory, genre-stylistics, narratology, psychoanalysis, anthropology, linguistics, and history of religion) to do justice to the richness and the complexity of the Hymn.

Chapter 2 looks at the Hymn more as an individual’s masterpiece than a traditional product of the hymnic genre. S. discerns the poet’s genius that, without ignoring the other traditional versions of the myth, carefully and smoothly interweaves the core story/earlier version of the myth with the poet’s poetical and political agenda; specifically the poet accommodates the earlier version of the mother and daughter coming-of-age myth into the wider Panhellenic-Olympian framework of the late archaic age. Though very artful, such a narrative interweaving is still recognizable, according to S., through diction and genre stylistics analysis. Extra emphasis is given to the “metanarrative” character of Persephone’s version of the story. For S. Demeter is the poet’s primary audience [p.45], and we are the secondary one. The poet gives us hints about how he wants us to perceive his version of the myth by alluding to Demeter’s ideal reception of her daughter’s words. By underscoring the differences, both in terms of substance and stylistics, between the main narrator’s version of the events and Persephone’s, S. makes a strong case for a still discernible multi-layered narrative, though this attempt to trace the poet’s intentions flirts dangerously with the so-called “intentional fallacy”. In any case she comes up with the same conclusion: from a narratological point of view, the Hymn is the result of a subversion of a “Zeus-los” [Lenz 1975, 59] early version of the myth, where male characters might have been present but were marginal, to a Panhellenic-Olympian framework.

S. reaches the same conclusion in chapter 3, except that this time she takes (among several others and certainly not without some regrets) a psychoanalytic methodological path known as object relations, as opposed to the most popular Freudian model of child development, adopted by Arthur [in Foley 1992]. According to the object relation theory problems arise in the psychological development of a girl when the tripartite structure self-mother-father is not successfully substituted by the new self-child-male “other” schema (S. seems fully aware of this certain difficulty). Strictly speaking, however, I cannot see how this schema is applicable to Persephone’s case, since she does not have a child, or how we can read the Hymn as a the story of a middle-aged woman’s reactions to her adolescent daughter’s increasing sexuality and independence [p.70], and the Demophoön episode and that of Demeter as a middle-aged woman’s illusions of youth and denial of ageing process, esp. in view of ll. 101-2, where we are emphatically told that Dem. assumed the appearance of an elderly woman deprived of the pleasures of childbearing and sexual potency. “Psychoanalysis as the product of the late nineteenth-and twentieth century industrialized west” [p. 12], in general, is too culture- and society-dependent, at least for my taste, and does not contribute much to our understanding of Greece of the late seventh century.

In the next two chapters, the core story, that of a mother and a daughter coming-of-age, comes to the forefront of S.’s detective investigation. After dismissing several anthropological analyses that read Persephone’ s abduction and marriage to Hades as a coming-of-age initiation ritual, she concludes that the union between Persephone and Hades is a hieros gamos, a sacred marriage between a fertility goddess and her consort. The hieros gamos serves as a sympathetic rite to stimulate vegetal fertility. The pomegranate according to S. is the telltale sign, the decisive evidence she needs to make such a connection: it is the link between human and vegetal fertility. In our Hymn this union takes place by Zeus’ will and is another indication of an attempt to control the power of an originally independent fertility goddess and accommodate her into the Olympian-patriarchal cultic and narratological framework. In Chapter 5 S. seeks to consolidate her argument by examining other hieros gamos myths and rituals from all over the Greek-speaking world; after her rather long survey she notes that several of them reflect a combination of chthonic and agrarian concerns, and with Jeanmaire in mind (as quoted in chapter 43) she makes the following suggestion: in the Mysteries the chthonian aspects of the two goddesses were of primary concern, whereas in the Thesmophoria, which was concerned primarily with animal and vegetal fertility, the agrarian aspects of the goddesses were the most prominent. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is a combination of the two.

Chapter 6 starts with an overview of the other versions of the myth as found in a) the so-called Orphic poems, b) the pinakes of Epizephyrian Lokroi, and finally c) Pamphos’ poem as quoted by Pausanias. This gives way to highly imaginative speculation on the formation of the myth that unfortunately remains without any solid foundations. Three elements appear in different combinations: a) the hieros gamos, b) gifts to humanity, c) the mention of the Underworld. With this survey in mind S. comments on two notoriously difficult points of the Hymn, namely Demeter’s motivation for visiting Eleusis and her establishing of the cult. The first of these two “anomalies” is attributed to the poet’s poetical and political agenda (he wanted to emphasize Demeter’s priority over Persephone, the earliest goddess of the site) and to the fact that the Mysteries were in fact taking place in Eleusis, while the second one is read as further evidence for her main hypothesis that the Hymn offers aetiologies for the two cults. S. points out that it is problematic that Persephone is not mentioned in the two passages that she reads as the aetiologies of the two cults, but I have difficulties in sharing her view that, “if we had only the Hymn to tell us about the Thesmophoria and the Mysteries, we would never suspect that Persephone was worshipped at them” [p. 146]. The double invocation, both in the beginning and the end of the poem, her long speech, almost as long as that of Demeter, and the key role she plays in the earth’s regaining of fertility — points that are all marked down by S. and interpreted as signs of an earlier rivalry between the two goddesses — count against such an extreme thesis.

The search “outside the Hymn” is continued in chapters 7 and 8. Experts in the field of linguistics and (the rather slippery field of) glossogony need to evaluate S. detailed research on the meaning and the origins of the names of Demeter and Persephone. Chapter 8 offers an impressive overview of the archaeological data that may throw some light on the background of the relationship of the two goddesses. Both the linguistic and the archaeological data suggest they were worshipped as a pair for the first time no earlier than the Dark Age. In view of this survey, S. dates the version of the myth as found in the Hymn to the late Archaic Age. The poet is offering a radically new version of earlier materials. The earlier-core myth was a story connected with fertility. “The Hymn incorporates the kourotrophos myth into the hieros gamos myth and turns the later into an abduction myth, using the Hesiodic story of Hades’ “snatching” of Persephone. … Eventually, the story of the Hymn — the abduction, the search and mourning, and the reunion of mother and daughter — became the canonical version of the myth” [p. 214].

In the last, epilogue-like chapter 9 S. provides a summary of the previous eight chapters. Finally these chapters are complemented by two Appendixes (A. ‘Reconstructions by Religious Historians’; B. ‘Evidence from Traditional Diction’), a selective bibliography (241-259), and an Index (261-268).

This book is designed for professional scholars, but its extensive extent bibliographical references and long summaries (I found some of them quite tiring) of the several different approaches offered may be of use to any student of the Hymn. Some of S.’ s views are speculative and based on imaginary reconstructions of the systems of religious beliefs of different times and societies. But speculation is not easy to avoid when dealing with issues such as the origins of the Demeter and Kore relationship or the original character of the Thesmophoria. S. offers several caveats to her readers and invites them to be well prepared to face countless difficulties and uncertainties in this open dialogue with the past textual and contextual surroundings. Only minor misprints occur, such as “Mylonas 1991”, instead of “Mylonas 1961” [p.90] and “Seaforth”, instead of “Seaford” in the bibliography and where quoted. There is one other point that needs a brief mention. S. admits that she finds attractive the idea of female authorship, at least for some parts of the Hymn, and there is a great deal written on the author of the Hymn and his agenda. Maybe S. would have helped the reader more had she also confronted directly the question of the circumstances of performance of the poem.4 Overall, S.’ book is a welcome contribution to the scholarly discourse on the much loved and remarkably enigmatic Homeric Hymn to Demeter.


1. I have borrowed these two terms from G, Genette (1972) “Discours du récit”, in Figures II, Paris, Seuil. They do not appear in S.’s book.

2. See BMCR review of the book by R. Hamilton.

3. Jeanmaire (1939, 297, 303). He reads two myths in the hymn: that of la Mère éplorée, which was the hieros logos of the Thesmophoria and the myth of la nourrice divine, which was the hieros logos of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

4. See for instance J. M. Foley (1997) “Oral tradition and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter”, in Françoise Letoublon (ed.) Hommage à Milman Parry. Le Style formulaire de l’ épopée homérique et la théorie de l’ oralité poétique, Amsterdam. This book is not in S.’s bibliography.