BMCR 2022.06.37

Hexametrical genres from Homer to Theocritus

, Hexametrical genres from Homer to Theocritus. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780197552971 £64.00.

The basic idea behind this well-argued monograph is that there were, at an early stage, many minor genres of shortish hexametric poems whose existence we can deduce from the traces they have left on surviving literary compositions. That is, it is an exercise in reconstructing (mainly) lost genres of hexametric verse as they existed from (and before) Homeric times. As a corollary to that enterprise Chris Faraone examines how literary artists (Homer, Theocritus and others) can draw on generic features established by these traditional—perhaps local—forms when they “embed” them in literary works meant for pan-Hellenic reception. A local (he calls them epichoric) hymn tradition associated with a cult centre might be incorporated in a major Homeric Hymn, for example, or an epithalamium-style passage in an idyll of Theocritus. So the argument runs two ways: from transmitted literature back to lost genres, and from these minor forms to their imprints, as it were, in literature. However, that is not to imply that the argument is fatally circular—although sometimes one might wish that actual examples of these lost hexametric forms had survived, even if in fragmentary papyri, for example—as, for one thing, the thesis is intrinsically likely, and secondly, the cumulative evidence is strong and convincing. I indicate one or two doubts along the way. This is a valuable contribution to the early history of hexametric poetry, in particular, forms with local, occasional, specific, and ritual background. It is not an edition of texts (although the appendices A-E are useful in collecting some relevant classes of extant texts), nor a technical study, like Faraone’s work on amulets or incantations, for example. Rather, it bridges the literary and, for want of a better word, sub-literary divide.

In the first main section Faraone argues that the Chryses episode in Iliad may well be based on a tradition of hexametric hymns surrounding the cult of Apollo Smintheus on the Ionian/Aeolian coast. He says there are signs that the ’embedded’ hymn is not perfectly assimilated with its new context. In note form: two hecatombs instead of one; repeated purification rites; abrupt mention of the concluding paian. All this, Faraone suggests, allows us to posit epichoric hymns for Apollo Smintheus at this locality, a genre of text that the poet of the Iliad has incorporated and adapted to his purpose. Moreover, the theme of Apollo’s anger at Agamemnon’s impiety comes out clearly in the alternative proems to the Iliad, which Faraone discusses. Local hymns for Apollo Smintheus may have thematized the god’s punishment of a theomachos like Erysichthon in Callimachus’ Hymn to Demeter, Lykurgos in the Tbilisi Hymn to Dionysos, Pentheus in the Bacchae. Further examples of such hymnic embedding discussed by Faraone are (1) elements of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, specifically the Delian episode and the Cretan paian at the end, (2) the proem of Hesiod’s Theogony, a kind of ‘hymn to the Muses’ that might be considered a standalone composition, (3) Demeter’s visit to Eleusis in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

This is all well and good but is it evidence of exclusively hexametrical epichoric hymns (my emphasis)? I willingly grant that the passages discussed by Faraone show attention to details of local cults known to us from other sources and that this epichoric cult material has been ’embedded’ in its literary context. But this is not the same as saying that local hymns, if there were such, were necessarily in hexameters. Why not choral lyric of some sort, or even monody, which probably was equally venerable? Cult worship was very much a song (-and dance, choreia) culture and hexameters, as far as we know, did not lend themselves readily to song or dance. Faraone might have mentioned the short hexametrical hymn from Epidauros that is transmitted with musical notation to show that cultic hexameters could have been sung (West, ZPE 63, 39-46). Likewise the demonstrations of Latacz, West and others that some Homeric verses must be really ancient (even pre-Mycenaean) as they only scan at an earlier linguistic stage, might have been adduced to show the venerable age of the hexameter.

This question applies to other forms apart from local cult hymns: for example, when Faraone argues that the epithalamion in Theocritus Idyll 18 (Epithalamion of Helen) is evidence of a hexametrical genre of epithalamia, like fragments of Sappho’s epithalamia. However, lines 7-8 here unequivocally refer to dance steps, which tells against embedding of traditional epithalamia in hexameters. Faraone’s analysis of the Idyll into stanzas puzzles me as well: are there anyprecedents for hexametric poems in stanzas? If the analysis into stanzas is cogent, it would point strongly in the direction of strophic composition, i.e. not stichic hexameters. It should also be pointed out that many have seen in Callimachus’ (hexametric and elegaic) Hymns evidence that he is adapting or incorporating forms and content originating in lyric poetry (e.g. B. Acosta-Hughes (2010), Arion’s Lyre. Archaic Lyric into Hellenistic Poetry, Princeton 2010).

But my doubts about these forms do not apply to other genres (or ‘types’) of shorter hexametric compositions that Faraone argues for in his book. There is no doubt that the metre was traditionally used in oracles, epitaphs/epigrams (before/beside elegiacs, which took over), begging songs, magical incantations, hymns too (!), and an interesting class of text Faraone calls hypothêkai, a kind of wisdom literature.

Of these Faraone first discusses Circe’s instructions to Odysseus in the Odyssey and Nausikaa’s instructions to Odysseus (about entering town) comparing them with oracular instructions about how to proceed when founding a colony, for example. As Faraone says, scholars had already compared the Circe passage with another hexametric genre: the Orphic-Bacchic lamellae (fifth century on) instructing souls how to proceed in the Underworld. However, Circe only tells Odysseus how to get to the Underworld, not how to descend into it and find paradise—and Odysseus is not a defunct soul! Nevertheless, the parallel is illuminating and also has relevance for Nausicaa’s words, as Scheria, her home island, is a bit reminiscent of the `Isles of the Blessed’. Faraone adds to the discussion now a comparison of these passages to ‘colonization oracles’, that is, the type of oracle instructing colonists how to find a suitable site and what rites to perform there when they found a colony. Faraone sees Odysseus as a ‘prototypical colonist’ (p. 104), which, when one stands back, is odd, as Odysseus wants above all to get home rather than to found a colony. But we can plausibly accept that theOdyssey was popular in the age of early Greek colonialism (East and West) and the discovery of similarities of expression between such ‘colonization oracles’ and Circe’s instructions is plausible enough.

In the next section Faraone draws out a perceived connection between Helen’s pharmakon in the Odyssey which serves to cheer up the present company, and a form of spoken or chanted text called epaoidê (or epôdê), incantation. Faraone maintains this form was traditionally hexametrical, but there are in fact exceptions, for example the “sleep-song” in Sophocles’ Philoktetes or the Erinyes’ desmios hymnos in Eumenides. Some are also unmetrical such as those in P. Maas’ Philinna Papyrus. Faraone’s point here is not that Helen’s addition to the brew is a herbal pharmakon but that Homer is drawing on the essential ambiguity of pharmakon in Greek, which can also mean spoken, or better, sung, ‘charm’. Faraone runs through a number of known sung charms of hexametric form, including curse texts and love charms, to show that the Odyssey passage has syntactic points in common with these: (1) a conditional form along the lines of ‘whoever utters these words…’ + apodosis, and (2) negative formulations such as ‘neither will harm befall them nor any illness’. True enough, but one could object that such protasis + apodosis expressions are very common in other areas as well, for example omen texts (‘If the head of the liver is absent, defeat in battle’), which have nothing to do with hexametric incantation. Second, in the case of Helen’s pharmakon the text says quite clearly ‘whoever drinks this down…’, whereas spoken/sung charms cannot by nature involve drinking or swallowing. I would not wish to deny that epôdai may have existed already at the time of the composition of the Odyssey, but I wonder if we need Faraone’s hypothesis here. After all, all manner of drugs were known to the poet (Circe’s potions, the moly, lotus) and pharmaka was the term for them: the description of the psychotropic power of Helen’s herb here may coincide partly with that used for sung charms without any need to postulate linguistic ’embedding’ here. Otherwise, Faraone’s treatment of epôdai displays his well-known expertise on magical incantations in various contexts.

In the next section on women’s laments Faraone continues his hunt for lost hexametrical genres. Beginning with the women’s laments in the Iliad he argues that Homer is probably drawing on an existing folk genre of hexametric laments, rather than setting a precedent which would be copied later by such poets as Erinna (Distaff), Theocritus, and Bion. He suggests that laments for Adonis might have been known already to Homer as they came from Anatolia, and two references to “like Aphrodite” (said of Briseïs and Cassandra in the Iliad) might reflect Aphrodite’s traditional lament for the dying Adonis. A rather weak link, it seems to me, because the other lamenting women in Homer (Andromache, Hekabe, Helen) are not compared to Aphrodite, and Cassandra’s utterance on seeing Hektor’s corpse is not a formal lament at his funeral. Another question-mark in my mind here is that an early witness to the genre of “lament for Adonis” in Sappho’s fragments is not in hexameters, but asclepiads. Faraone further argues in this section that, contrary to other scholars’ view, the lament form is not analogous to encomia/hymns— as being tripartite—in form, because the dead heroes (Patroklos and Hektor) are not praised for their prowess on the battlefield in the middle section. However, the dead warriors are praised by the women, only in different terms: they defended the women and were kind to them when they were alive, and now they’re dead. Again, why need laments have been hexametrical? As Faraone’s evidence shows, there is plenty of evidence that ‘folk’ laments were sung.

If Faraone has made his case for the existence of these sub-genres of mini-epics (using epos = dactylic hexameter), one wonders who might have composed them and how. Could the Pythia spout hexameters? Could girls singing an epithalamium simply extemporize, or were they merely adapting poems which everybody knew, changing the name and dates as required? And if local poets, or even lay people, could orally compose hexameter verse, how were they taught? In schools? At the feet of ‘real’ poets? We know the names of a number of shadowy figures like Orpheus, Mousaios and Olen, but not those of really local poets. And my point about other metres applies here too: if hexameters, why not iambics, ionics and lyric metres?

There are very few misprints in the English but quite a few points of detail in the translations of quoted Greek, which could have done with another going over. With more and more people reliant on translations, this becomes doubly important. Here’s an abbreviated list of what I noticed, not meant as niggling criticism, but intended constructively (numbers refer to pages): 13 ἱαρόφωνοι is not ‘strong-voiced’. 22 ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον omitted; ὀλεῖται is not ‘be destroyed’ (rather ‘die’ or ‘fade’). 31 ἄπυ is not ‘back to’ (correct in n. 42). 88 and passim Faraone consistently translates ὁπότ᾿ ἄν (and similar) + subj. clauses in oracular instructions etc. by ‘whenever’; e.g. Od. 10.508 ‘but whenever indeed you cross through the Ocean with your ship’; ‘whenever…’ sounds to me like repeated action: I would use ‘when’, or is this a distinction in British/American idiom? 94 ὥς is atonon. μελύκρητος (sic). 96 πολιαί is ‘grey’, not ‘white’ (crows). 96 ἀμένηνα is not ‘powerful’. Τειρεσίαο is not (sc. inquire) ‘about Teiresias’ (but ‘of Teiresias’). 102 ὄπισθεν is not ‘beside’. 120 (twice) ἐπαιοδαί. 124 and 145 superfluous ‘the’s’. 128 ἀν‐ belongs in the next line. 129 τάτ (with apostrophe above second τ) has gone wrong. 146-8 ‘perfection’ is only OK for ἐς τέλος if used in sense ‘completion’.