BMCR 2005.09.08

Works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns

, , Works of Hesiod and the Homeric hymns. Homeric hymns.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 220 pages : maps ; 21 cm. ISBN 0226329658 $35.00.

Hine’s volume brings together his translations of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days and of The Homeric Hymns. The book also includes H.’s translation of the epic parody The Battle of the Frogs and Mice. It opens with two small maps depicting Greece in the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., respectively, and ends with a thorough index. There is a 19-page general introduction and a 3-page “Translator’s Note” between the Hesiod poems and the Homeric hymns. H.’s purpose in bringing his own translations of these poems together in one volume seems to be to facilitate the comparative study of archaic Greek poetry. The introductory material and notes included in the volume are brief and limited, but clear; the translations themselves are both firmly grounded in the Greek and skillfully rendered in readable, fluid English verse. H. has managed to compose his translations in meter roughly equivalent to that of the original Greek, sacrificing neither sensible, readable English nor faithfulness to the original.

The translations in the volume are none of them entirely new. H. acknowledges this, in part, on the copyright page: ” The Homeric Hymns and The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice were previously published by Atheneum in 1972; some changes have been made in this edition.” His translations of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days are also already available, online at The Chicago Homer, along with his translations of The Homeric Hymns.

It is clear from the introduction that H. intends his book for an audience somewhat familiar both with the ancient world and ancient literature in general and with the content of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in particular. H.’s general introduction serves well to introduce such a reader to Hesiod and to the composers of the Homeric hymns, so no prior familiarity with these poets is assumed. Knowledge of Greek is helpful, of course, but not necessary for understanding H.’s introduction, notes, or translations.

H.’s general introduction addresses primarily what the ancient sources, including the poems themselves, tell us about the identities of the poets and about their historical and literary contexts. The bulk of the general introduction concerns Hesiod, understandably, as he is the poet included in the text about whom there is the most evidence and who is most personally present in his poems (cf. pp. 3-5). Hesiod’s work also makes up the bulk of H.’s volume, and H. apparently intends his reader to study the rest of the poetry in relationship to Hesiod’s.

H.’s notes are not numerous, and each appears conveniently at the bottom of the page to which it refers. Many of his notes simply identify a god or place mentioned in the text. For example, a note referring to the mention of Circe in Theogony reads “Enchantress and priestess in Odyssey, book 10” (p. 85, note 42), and H. informs the reader of hymn V, to Aphrodite that “Ilion” refers to Troy (p. 164, note 13). There are a few notes inviting the reader to compare the texts. In hymn IV, to Hermes, H. includes the following note on the “narrow-winged bird” at line 207 of his translation: “Compare Hesiod, Works and Days, 201-10; perhaps the hawk, as a raptor, was associated with rapacious Hermes” (p. 142, note 8). Similarly, when in The Battle of the Frogs and Mice, Swellcheek comments, “Stranger, you boast overmuch of your belly,” H. notes that this is “A reference to Hesiod, Theogony, 25: ‘merely bellies'” (p. 198, note 2). Hesiod’s works elicit the highest frequency of notes from H., and this makes sense, given their content: both poems contain many references to potentially unfamiliar people, gods, places, events, practices, etc., with little explanation. Although he still largely leaves the text to speak for itself, H. takes a little more time to explain here. For example, in a note on Theogony, line 201, he observes, “Why Fate is a single goddess here and three goddesses just below is unclear; a certain inconsistency must be apparent by now, not only in the genealogies” (p. 60, note 15). The notes rarely if ever go into greater depth than this. H. rather gives his readers largely unbiased tools with which to develop their own ideas.

H. takes seriously his responsibility in accurately representing the original Greek, and he discusses openly some of the elements of his translation which have the potential to raise the eyebrows of the literalist reader. For example, in his “Translator’s Note” preceding the Homeric Hymns, H. warns:

I have not invariably reproduced in position the celebrated formulary epithets and phrases so typical of this once oral poetry, and I have, from a strict constructionist’s point of view, culpably, even whimsically, varied the translation of any given stock expression. The modern ear and, what is more important, the modern eye like variety; so hekatabolos, the most common title of Apollo, becomes in turn ‘long-distance archer,’ ‘accurate marksman,’ ‘Guard from afar.’

This decision to use varied English expressions in translating the same epithet may seem careless or questionable to one who desires as accurate a translation as possible. Surely the repeated use of the same word in conjunction with the god’s name had an impact both on the poetry and on the depiction of the god. The poetry was not written for “the modern ear,” much less for “the modern eye,” and much will seem foreign to the contemporary reader, despite this variation in H.’s translation. However, if the Greek epithet bears a variety of associations but there is no single English word capable of carrying the same range of meanings, then the use of these varied English translations may be a more honest and even more accurate solution. To choose one translation and use it wherever the epithet appears may be equally distorting, if not more so. A reader will never get from a translation a full and complete sense of the original; the translator must decide what is more important. This translator has been conscientious enough to point out a place where his translation may be misleading, and he has offered a reason.

H.’s translations vary in their strict literalness, but all are thoughtful and careful in representing the original. A short example from the Homeric Hymns, compared with two other translations, both more literal than H., will serve as an example. Hymn X, to Aphrodite, reads as follows in Greek 1:

Κυπρογενῆ Κυθέρειαν ἀείσομαι, ἥτε βροτοῖσι
μείλιχα δῶρα δίδωσιν, ἐφ’ ἱμερτῷ δὲ προσώπῳ
αἰεὶ μειδιάει καὶ ἐφ’ ἱμερτὸν θέει ἄνθος.
Χαῖρε, θεά, Σαλαμῖνος ἐυκτιμένης μεδέουσα
εἰναλίης τε Κύπρου. δὸς δ’ ἱμερόεσσαν ἀοιδήν.
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ καὶ ἄλλης μνήσομ’ ἀοιδῆς.

Hugh Evelyn-White’s translation in the Loeb edition, reads as follows:

Of Cytherea, born in Cyprus, I will sing. She gives kindly gifts to men: smiles are ever on her lovely face, and lovely is the brightness that plays over it. Hail, goddess, queen of well-built Salamis and sea-girt Cyprus; grant me a cheerful song. And now I will remember you and another song also.

Susan Shelmerdine, in her 1995 translation,2 gives a very literal and readable translation:

Of Cyprus-born Kytherea, I shall sing, who gives
gentle gifts to mortals, and on her lovely face
always there are smiles and a delightful bloom shines over it.

Farewell, goddess, ruler of well-built Salamis
and Cyprus on the sea; grant me a delightful song.
And I shall remember both you and another song.

H.’s translation is not as literal, but is nearly so, and has smoothed over some of the rough edges, presumably in the interest of sounding more natural in English:

Now I shall sing the Cytherean, born upon Cyprus, who gives to
Mortals her gifts, which are kind; and upon her desirable face there
Always are smiles, and the bloom of desire is effulgent upon it.
Hail to you, guardian of pleasant Salamis, the queen of
Cyprus, enisled in the sea! Yours the gift of desirable song, and
I shall remember yourself and a ballad about you and sing it.

The translation reflects faithfully the meaning and most of the diction of the original, although I wondered at first, among other things, why H. chose not to open his translation with the words “Cytherean, born upon Cyprus,” as the original poet did. He does not always reverse this sort of word order, as his translation of the very next hymn, XI, to Athena, opens, “Pallas Athena, the city’s protector, I shall begin singing,” remaining more faithful to the original order. I suppose he chose to change the word order in hymn X because of the relative pronoun, which, in English, should follow its antecedent immediately. H. thus has greater concern for the standards of English than some translators, but he does not allow it to overshadow his concern for the original vocabulary and diction. I would have chosen to change the pronoun rather than move the epithets from their privileged position at the start of the poem, but here, as elsewhere, H.’s choices to depart from strict translation seem clear and reasonable. The rendering of the imperative δώς as “Yours the gift” is a bigger stretch and does depart more significantly from the sense of the Greek, but it seems necessary to achieve the meter, upon which H. has placed high priority in these translations.

H.’s inclusion of the later Battle of the Frogs and Mice, a “burlesque” piece modeled after Homer’s Iliad, adds an interesting perspective on ancient attitudes toward Homeric epic (pp. 18-19). H. suggests, however, that his main purpose in offering it is to entertain: “Its appeal for the reader should consist in the literary absurdity and microcosmic rough-and-tumble fun of the action, which suggests some Hellenistic Mickey Mouse cartoon” (p. 93). Students, who make up the bulk of H.’s intended audience, will no doubt appreciate the humor in this piece at the end of a term or unit spent studying epic. Here, for example, the bard describes the arming of the mice for battle:

Such were the phrases with which he persuaded them all to get armed, and
Ares, whose business is warfare, equipped them, moreover, with helmets.
First did they fasten the greaves on, whereby they protected their shinbones,
Greaves that were made of green beans that they split into two equal portions,
Chewing them out overnight, on their feet as they stood to their labor.
Breastplates they had that were made out of hide that was stretched over wattles,
Hide that they cleverly had manufactured by flaying a ferret.
Shields were the broken-off bases of oil lamps; a spear was a pointed,
Well-tempered needle of unalloyed bronze, a creation of Ares,
As were the helmets they set on their temples, the shell of a peanut.
Thus were the mice up in arms, and the frogs, when they learned of the matter,
Rose from the water as one and then, coming together in one place,
Swiftly collected a council of war — which is ever an evil.

There certainly already exist good published translations of Hesiod’s poems and of the Homeric hymns. However, it is important that scholars and poets continue to rethink the translation of ancient texts, so that students and other readers do not begin to assume that any one translation is authoritative or equivalent to the original. For this reason, it is always useful when a talented poet who has clear knowledge of Greek offers his or her version of an important text. These translations are not only responsible with respect to the original but they are a pleasure to read in their own right. The comparative study of these ancient texts is facilitated by the easy availability of them all translated by the same individual, so that distinctions among the works cannot be attributed to the differences among translators. At the same time, H. has pointed out in several places the drawbacks of studying ancient texts in translation, and this invites the reader to explore other translations and, if possible, the Greek text itself, for a full appreciation of any given passage or text.


1. The Greek text and Evelyn-White’s translation are from Goold, G.P. (series editor) and Hugh G. Evelyn-White (transl.), Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936 (revised), pp. 434-435.

2. Shelmerdine, Susan C., The Homeric Hymns. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 1995; p. 147.