BMCR 2004.08.02

The Homeric Hymns. A Translation, with Introduction and Notes

, The Homeric hymns. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xii, 164 pages) : map.. ISBN 0520937473. $14.95 (pb).

‘Shaped in the fire of the classroom’ (xi-xii), this is yet another English translation and edition of the Homeric Hymns, topped up for scholars and serious students of the classics with an introduction, notes, an academic bibliography and glossary. The Greek text used is basically Allen’s from 1912 but combined with emendations from Càssola and Richardson’s Hymn to Demeter. It would be a splendid thing to find English translations of the Homeric Hymns regularly stipulated as compulsory reading, alongside the Iliad and Odyssey, for students of classical civilisation and literature. This new and inexpensive book is a further step towards that goal.

R. has focused on the harmonious sound of the language and, like Rodney Merrill with his Odyssey translation, has given public readings as part of the translation process, aiming at ‘what is pleasant in the mouth and to the ear’ in order to accurately convey the Greek original. Unlike Merrill, she has eschewed archaisms and opted for modern, poetic language. Having worked with Stanley Lombardo on a translation of Callimachus’ hymns, R. adopts a similar liberty with translating traditional phrases or double-barrelled epithets. R. has given lectures on the Homeric hymns since 1982 and has obviously begun this work with reference to the big guns, Allen, Sikes and Halliday’s classic edition of 1936 (repr. 1963), and Allen’s text from 1912.

R. plays poet and scholar, writing both translation and commentary in the manner of Athanassakis and Crudden, in contrast to the recent Penguin edition where Richardson drew up the commentary and Cashford the translation. R.’s version is more suitable for American university courses in being close and faithful to the Greek than for example Boer’s, who experimented with a freer recreation and paginal architecture. It must be stressed that there are now several recent translations of the Homeric Hymns on the market, unlike Scott Bradbury’s recent ‘first ever’ English translation of certain Letters of Libanius.1 R. believes that the English translator must compensate for certain formal aspects, such as the metre, that do not work well in English. Where Crudden and Athanassakis succeeded in using a six-foot line and Boer and Cashford a very short one, R. has a compromise solution of four or five beats per line.

R., like Crudden and Richardson, includes references to very recent scholarship on the Hymns and, at many points, new light is thrown on numerous questions, be it derived from the new Bryn Mawr commentaries on the hymns, Clinton (1992), Nixon (1995), Bakker (2002) or an observation from Molly O’Connor, a student of Rayor’s. There is a healthy bias towards women researchers, such as Deborah Beck, Susan Cole, Nanci DeBloois, Helene Foley, Anne Giacomelli, Jennifer Larson, Nicole Loraux, Lousie Pratt, Eva Stehle, Laura Slatkin, Ann Suter and Froma Zeitlin. Like Richardson and Crudden, R. reiterates the importance of the work done by Jenny Strauss Clay and Cora Sowa.

The introduction is full of new insights. R. suggests (p.6) that though the set formulae are thought to have just provided breathing space for the bard to improvise, yet in the hymn to the earth mother Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility, she is said to grow ‘abundant hair’ and Apollo, god of healing and plague, shoots his arrows of sickness ‘from far off’. In translating these epithets, however, R. is ready to substitute a noun phrase ‘strong rush’ for the epithet ‘strong-flowing’ or ‘strong-rushing’ at h.Dem.34 or write simply ‘sweet’ for ἡδυπότοιος at h.Dem.49. R. uses the adjective ‘large’ for ‘well-benched’ ship at h.7 to Dion.6 and ‘young’ for ‘tender-skinned maidens’ at h.Aphr.14. So on the one hand R. is ready to assign the epithets meaning but on the other she is willing to translate them freely. Further, on p.6. R. refers to the custom in Greek prayers of invoking the deity by name and major attributes, often mentioning important cult sites or other mythological connections. Here she could have included references to recent work on Greek prayer, paeans, and to the exciting new work being developed on dithyrambs.2 R. nicely points out that the formula ‘I will now turn to the rest of the hymn or ‘to another hymn’ could have been simply a traditional closure without referring to any actual transition to another song.

In discussing the long hymns, R. notes how the god or goddess in question acts in relation to Zeus by disrupting him or leaving him alone, also holding the anarchy of Hesiod’s Theogony in mind (pp.8-11). She develops this into a theme in her treatment of the long hymns. R. points out how Demeter and Aphrodite are fully mature goddesses in these poems, which celebrate their primary aspects of fertility and sexuality. These aspects could have been brought out in the notes as well, since, in practice, R. makes more use of Richardson’s commentary on ‘Demeter’ than Foley’s more feminist account.

I start with Hymn 2 to Demeter. The reader must deduce from the introduction (p. 2) that the manuscript of this hymn was found in 1777; this important fact could have been repeated in the notes to this hymn. In the introduction (p.11) R. refers to Ann Suter’s forthcoming work where she hazards a guess at a woman author for this hymn, which would be intriguing. R., perhaps by accident, avoids repeating notes that could be found in Richardson or Crudden so that these three commentaries, read side by side, form a stimulating triad for the curious reader, and it is a pity that R. did not refer to either recent commentary, though Richardson’s may have been in the press at the same time.

For Hymn 3 to Apollo R. argues for ‘a unified, though complex song’ (cf. Thalmann 1984 and Bakker 2002), admitting at the same time many scholars’ emphasis on possible ‘disjunction’ , for which R. refers to Janko 1982 and Stehle 1997 (one might add West 2003). The translation throughout is reliable and readable, without being sensational or gimmicky. Here are the famous lines that have been thought to refer to Homer (169-173):

‘Girls, which man’s song is sweetest to you
of those landing here, and who delights you most?
Then you all answer so well about us:
‘The blind man, who lives in rugged Chios,
whose songs all remain the best forever.’

The text is easy and mellifluous to read.

The notes on Hymn 4 to Hermes well sum up the multifarious nature of the hymn, at the same time noting possible lacunae, or ‘gaps’, as R. terms them. In a brilliant insight (p.5), R. notes how this hymn would be perfect fare for young men at a symposium or a feast, as mentioned in the hymn, when Hermes sings in accompaniment to his newly invented lyre. One difficult passage to translate is the famous ‘fart’ episode at 294-297, which R. renders thus:

Then, taking stock, the strong Slayer of Argos
Sent out an omen while held in Apollo’s hands:
A gassy omen from his body, a rude messenger.
And right after that, he sneezed.

Crudden gives ‘the brazen labouring man of his belly, a wicked messenger’, Athanassakis ‘a hardy effort of the belly and a wreckless (for ‘reckless’?) messenger’ at this point. West refers directly to the meaning ‘fart’ in a footnote. R. regularly sticks to a middle-course without erring to conservatism or to radicalism. Towards the end of this hymn, I particularly enjoyed the lines ‘Fluttering about here and there from their valley, they feed on honeycomb and accomplish everything’ (558-9).

The notes on Hymn 5 to Aphrodite bring out well her temporary power even over Zeus but emphasise at the same time her vulnerability and sexual availability. Aphrodite is here traditionally ‘smile-loving’, Dawn is ‘early-born’, horses are ‘wind-footed’ and mountain nymphs ‘deep-breasted’.

R. includes only the earlier fragments of hymn 1, but the notes are clear and readable. ‘Some folk say’ smacks, perhaps, of country-style hymnology at h.1.2 or h.34.2. The British reader will enjoy Apollo being ‘bested’ by Hermes (p. 127), or how the men ‘dove into the glistening sea’ (h.7 to Dion.52). ‘Bone-cold battle’ κρυερῆς, however, is a master-stroke at h.Ares.15., as is the final plea of hymns 15 and 20 ‘Grant me excellence and wealth!’

R. refers at several points to textual alternatives. One interesting case is R.’s choice at h.Herm.169 of ἄπαστοι‘with no food’ for ἄλιστοι‘without prayers,’ which West chooses. Now that West’s text is well and truly on the market, some of his suggestions, such as ‘curly-horned’ ὑπωροφίας for ‘bellowing’ ὑποβρυχίας at h.4.116, or ἄκριτοι for ἄκριτον, adjective for adverb, at h.4.126 might be well worth adopting.

‘Damlaya damlaya göl olur’ says the Turkish proverb: ‘little drops of water make the mighty ocean.’ Each new translation of these hymns makes them better known with a wider circulation and readership. Perhaps now is the time to take stock as simultaneous authorship prevents any kind of cross-referentiality or mutual benefit from joint sources. R.’s edition and translation is aimed at and well fulfills its role in the American university student market where, above all, she has experience in founding and building up whole departments and in getting students to appreciate literature ancient and modern. This compact and competent edition and translation is another landmark towards this goal.


1. It would seem that Richardson/Cashford (The Homeric Hymns, translated by Jules Cashford with an Introduction and Notes by Nicholas Richardson, London, Penguin Classics 2003) and West (Homeric Hymns et al., edited and translated by, West, M.L., Loeb Classical Library 496, Cambridge, MA 2003) were in press simultaneously with Rayor’s version. For these, see BMCR 2004.03.15 and 2003.07.36. Crudden’s book (The Homeric Hymns, transl. with introduction and notes by M. Crudden, Oxford 2001) had presumably appeared, but R. makes no mention of this. See BMCR 2002.03.33. Comparable versions are Athanassakis, A., Baltimore 1976; Boer, C., Dallas 1979 (but in my copy Connecticut 1970, 2nd ed.); Evelyn-White, H.G., Cambridge, MA, 1914, rev. 1936; Sargent, T., New York 1975. It is important to emphasise that Boer and Sargent have no notes and that Crudden has useful summaries of recent scholarship on the hymns. West has a new and corrected version of the Greek text, including his own improvements and conjectures, together with numerous observations on content. Càssola’s Italian edition and translation (Inni Omerici, 1992) is fuller than Zanetto’s (1996).

2. See Pulleyn, S., Prayer in Greek Religion, Oxford 1997 or Rutherford, I., Pindar’s Paeans: a reading of the fragments with a survey of the genre, Oxford 2001. We look forward to a publication from the recent Oxford conference on the dithyramb (11.-13.7.2004).