BMCR 2006.03.04

Homeric Hymns

, Homeric hymns. Indianopolis, IN: Hackett, 2005. xxiv, 104 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0872207269 $8.95 (pb).

The Homeric Hymns have finally become compulsory reading for most undergraduate students taking courses on Greek mythology. It was not always this way. For decades, the only easily-available translation in English was the lumbering 1914 translation by Hugh Evelyn-White in the Loeb Classical Library. But it has been many years now since there was no serviceable and convenient translation into English. The literal translation and commentary by Apostolos N. Athanassakis has been available for over thirty years (and now has a 2004 second edition). There have also been translations into English verse by Charles Boer (1970; 2nd ed. 1987) and Thelma Sargent (1970), both of which are now out of print. In 2003, the Loeb Classical Library brought out a new text and translation by Martin L. West. There are also several introductory textbooks on Greek mythology that offer prose translations of the longer, more commonly-assigned hymns. Despite the somewhat crowded field, the new translation by Sarah Ruden will clearly fill a niche for a convenient and inexpensive translation of the Homeric Hymns into English verse.

The text comes with a preface, glossary, and notes (supplied by Professor Sheila Murnaghan of the University of Pennsylvania). The notes are brief and confined to explanations of mythological content such as the names and genealogy of gods and goddesses. The preface is suitable for what appears to be the target audience for this edition, undergraduates in an introductory course on mythology. The preface begins with a brief outline of the Olympian “regime” under Zeus and suggests that the Homeric Hymns are pan-Hellenic rather than local in their focus. Murnaghan may have been overly mindful of Hesiod’s Theogony in suggesting that the Homeric Hymns are unified by a common theme of mankind’s relation to the Olympian gods (but why then is the Hymn to Aphrodite, No. 6, sung to the pre-Olympian Aphrodite Urania?). It may be unwise to generalize much about the Homeric Hymns given that we know so little about how, when, and why they were composed (let alone how they have come down to us in their present form). But the introduction does a good job of introducing the Homeric Hymns to a general audience and assisting the inexperienced reader in reading the longer hymns, in particular. There is also an extremely limited “selected bibliography” containing a handful of other translations, editions of the Greek text, and specialized monographs, including one in German on Greek meter. The selected bibliography omits the 2004 second edition of the Athanassakis translation.

Unfortunately, there is no translator’s preface. The hymns are presented in the canonical order. This follows the traditional, but apparently accidental arrangement of the extant manuscripts. We are therefore left to wonder why, in her translation, Ruden did not reorder the hymns, grouping them by god or theme or length. We are also left to wonder why Ruden went with the title Homeric Hymns when the preface correctly points out that the attribution of the hymns to Homer is untenable and the description of these poems as hymns is likely erroneous.

Where this translation by Ruden might claim to offer something special is in providing a new, fresh English verse translation. Although there are places where the translation moves along at a smart and elegant pace, particularly in the longer hymns (lines 142-50 of the Hymn to Hermes, No. 4, for example), one is brought up short with lines such as “Long ages they’ve remained there since they were put there, / continually till now” (line 125-6, Ibid.) or “As browse-contented heifers and does go prancing through spring pastures” (lines 174-5, Hymn to Demeter, No. 2).

Ruden’s commitment to a line of eleven syllables seems to have limited the scope for poetic expression. The only apparent justification for an eleven syllable line is that Ruden manages to translate the hymns into as many lines as in the original Greek text. But the result in places is metrically jarring. Thus in the Hymn to Hermes (No. 4) we encounter an overly-compressed (and rather bureaucratic-sounding) line that reads “brilliantly expedited his way home” (line 85) whereas in line 116 of the same hymn we get a more expansive and alliterative line that reads “Now Hermes dragged two bellowing, round-horned bovines.” Both lines are eleven syllables but read far differently due to the combination of vowels and consonants. It would have been interesting to know why Ruden committed herself to a line of eleven syllables (she is not completely consistent) and to learn what she has to say about the process of translating the Homeric Hymns into English verse.

While Ruden is clearly a writer with considerable skill in poetic expression, she can be quite uneven. Her phrase “sexy-glancing darling” for Aphrodite in line 19 of the Hymn to Aphrodite (No. 6) casts an interesting persona for Aphrodite (compare Athanassakis’ more literal “honey-sweet goddess with the fluttering eyelids”). Similarly, her description of Persephone as a “trim-ankled child” (later abandoned for the more conventional “slender-ankled”) and “flower-faced girl” create superb images (lines 2 and 8, Hymn to Demeter, No. 2).

But Ruden has an undue fondness for such hyphenated epithets and noun phrases used as adjectives. In the Hymn to Selene (No. 32), the second line “teach me the fine-winged Moon’s hymn” reads very nicely, but in twenty lines she uses ten such hyphenated descriptors (nine in the first twenty lines of the Hymn to Hermes, No. 4). The over-all effect quickly becomes tiresome. In line 11 of the Hymn to Selene (No. 32), the phrase “month-splitting orbit” is cumbersome and does not read well. The participle “splitting” strikes me as too active a verb for the moon, which passes silently in the night and passively reflects the light of the sun. So too “godly-beautiful” in the Hymn to Helios (No. 31, line 7) fills out the eleven syllables of the metrical line but has a peculiar cant. Similarly “birth-pain Eileithyia,” repeated several times, is simply ungrammatical. The first line of the Hymn to Helios (No. 31) reads, “Sing Helios, Muse, Zeus-born Kalliope.” I wonder what a non-specialist, struggling through the names and genealogies of the Greek gods, would make of this line.

Ruden also seems to struggle with her imagery in some places. The line “The lady’s knees subsided” (translating the middle voice ἔλυντο) in line 281 of the Hymn to Demeter (No. 2) creates a strange image. In the Hymn to the Muses and Apollo (No. 25), Ruden writes at line 5, that “a voice flows from his mouth like honey.” Translating the Greek word στ literally rather than as an metaphor for the organ of speech creates a grotesque image. Something like “a honey-like voice flows from his tongue” would better express the English idiom. The use of the common cliche, “winged words,” in line 112 of the Hymn to Demeter (No. 2), is hardly inspiring. The phrase is repeated in line 247 of the same hymn in a context that cries out for a better choice of words: Metaneira has just seen Demeter placing Demophoon in the fire and she screams at Demeter in shock and grief. Ruden’s stock use of “winged words” here does not capture the full sense of ἔπεα πτερόεντα, namely that Metaneira is speaking words in anger and fear, that is, she is flinging words that cannot be recalled, and she is speaking from her bedchamber, and therefore shouting.

Furthermore, it is regretable that the first hymn in the collection, the Hymn to Dionysus (No. 1), begins in line 1 with the awkward “Some say that you were born, O stitched-in god” — helpfully explained for the non-specialist reader in a footnote — and later continues with “seam-born Dionysus.” In fact, “stitched-in” is a gloss based on one possible interpretation of the word — or name — εἰραφιῶτα. While the myth literally speaks of the birth of Dionysus in that way, surely it is meant to convey more than that; for example, Dionysus as a new god who became a “stitched-in” newcomer to the Olympian pantheon; also, Dionysus as the god who “gets under the skin” or who comes out from within. Perhaps it is asking too much of a translation to convey all the possible nuances of a text, but it is dangerous to rely on footnotes to explain what the text is supposed to mean.

This raises the larger question to which there is no clear answer. Is Ruden aiming for literal accuracy or poetic effect? She begins the Hymn to Aphrodite (No. 5) with “Muse, tell what golden Aphrodite did once…” (perhaps playing on the theme later in the hymn of Aphrodite “doing it” against her better judgment). But the hymn begins by speaking of Aphrodite’s ἔργα — her deeds — and so the translation is not quite accurate. But Ruden does a nice job with Aphrodite’s reaction to her “doing it” with a mortal: “I went crazy — / Terribly: left my mind somewhere behind me, / Slept with a man — beneath my belt’s a baby” (lines 253-5, Ibid.). But in the same hymn, while speaking of Aphrodite’s deeds, Ruden slips into a literal and far too prosaic voice: “Technical education for the earthbound / Began with her” (lines 12- 13). She continues with “men made bronze-sculpted chariots,” but bronze is cast rather than sculpted, and the sense of ποικίλα has more to do with embroidery (its root) or intricate design rather than sculpting. Similarly the description of Keleus in line 97 of the Hymn to Demeter, No. 2, as “insightful” renders the dictionary meaning for δαΐφρων but does not capture the irony of the context. Perhaps Ruden could have done more with the word here, conveying the sense that Keleus is “so insightful” (in the same way that Zeus has been, i.e., not at all).

In summation, although Ruden’s emphasis on meter comes at a price that detracts at times from her poetry, this translation will serve well, with an instructor’s guidance, as a supplementary text in an introductory course in Greek mythology.

[For a response to this review by Brian Rak, please see BMCR 2006.03.17.]