BMCR 2023.10.42

The Homeric Hymn to Hermes

, The Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Cambridge classical texts and commentaries, 62. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. x, 532 p.. ISBN 9781107012042.

Oliver Thomas has written an in-depth study of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes (h.Merc.) that confidently claims its place among the many recent publications devoted to h.Merc. and the Homeric Hymns in general.[1] His study presents itself as an independent partner to Vergados’ commentary in particular, who is referenced most frequently, whereas Richardson and Schweinsberg (the latter in particular) only rarely surface. Since the many merits of this publication have been appreciated in a number of reviews already, I shall largely restrict myself to points previously not covered. Thomas’s monograph is an exemplary, rigorously researched and argued publication; any suggestions I make must be read against the background of the deserved and unexaggerated praise Thomas’s painstaking work has already garnered in the scholarly community.

The introduction of about 90 pages provides a convenient summary of Thomas’s views and findings regarding the poem’s date, location, function (“Generating charis”), influence, and transmission. Thomas’s argumentative strategy is particularly commendable insofar as it evidences his methodological reflection by repeatedly addressing possible counterarguments,  being accepting of inconclusive findings, and even retracting a former thesis of his own.[2]

He dates the hymn to about 450 BC, based especially on intertextual arguments. These arguments are sound, supported by appropriate textual evidence, and can stand their ground easily against the many arguments invoked by other scholars. A note that intertextuality (understood by Thomas to be more or less equivalent to allusivity) can be hard to distinguish from motifs and language shared across a more diffuse mythological repertoire of which we only possess a fragmentary portion in texts and images would perhaps have been welcome, since Thomas rejects the approach (endorsed, among others, by Richardson and Burgess) that epic texts can be dated by cross-referencing them with iconography (p. 6).

Thomas argues for an original performance of the hymn at Olympia because the poem showcases “a level of local knowledge” of this area that it lacks for other areas (p. 32). In terms of the hymn’s genesis, Thomas takes the relative stability in its transmission to imply that “we can consider our text to derive in its essence from one act of transcription” (p. 1). The notion of textual transmission underlying this argument seems a little simplistic coming from someone with Thomas’s impressive publication record and editorial achievements in the publication under review here.

The edition makes significant additions to our knowledge of h.Merc.’s manuscript tradition, not an easy feat considering Cássola’s immense achievement in editing the hymn. Thomas is able to present a stemma of his own that sheds new light especially on the p family. Other notable findings of his include: P (Pal. gr. 179) was probably written by Ioannes Eugenikos; there was a “shared ancestor for NV (v)” (p. 81); there are conjunctive errors between β1 and R1, which are siblings; P was corrected from q.

Thomas describes his editorial approach as “conservative” (p. 86). Yet he is not afraid to take action where he is dealing with a locus vexatus. He “hesitantly” introduces the (unattested but morphologically possible) dual form ἀγκάλα in h.Merc. 82 because it “best explains the transmitted readings” (p. 194), the errors of which Thomas speculatively but convincingly retraces.  Many editors have been content with Ψ’s ἀγκαλόν.

Another passage with which Thomas, like other editors before him, takes issue is l. 85-86, which features three consecutive participles. While Vergados is content to accept these, Thomas emends the last participle αὐτοτροπήσας to αὐτοτρόπησεν. I am not sure I follow Thomas’s claim that we are dealing with a case of textual corruption (and not just one difficult line of several, made even more difficult by the hapax αὐτοτροπήσας).[3] Thomas himself seems to harbor some doubts in this matter (“The truth may lie farther afield”, p. 196). In any case, Thomas has a worthy predecessor in Adorjáni, who also suggested an emendation (αὐτοτροπῆσαι), the elegance of which Thomas appears to readily acknowledge. Thomas provides further aid to the uninitiated reader of the poem by providing a crisp paraphrase of l. 85-86: “Hermes plucked sandals while he avoided roads, inasmuch as he acted after his own manner while he hastened his long journey” (p. 196).

The prose translation is agreeably to the point and no-nonsense. Thomas navigates even somewhat unwieldy passages with ease. To cite a few examples: “Cow-killer, contrivance-man, working companion of the feast” (l. 436); “However, up to now nothing else has concerned my senses in this manner – a thing like the left-to-right business at young men’s feasts” (l. 453-4); […] “you will lay down the business of interchange for humankind across the nurturing earth” (l. 516-7).

In terms of interpretation, Thomas approaches h.Merc. from a functional perspective – its goal is to win the dedicatee’s favor. This approach is a good basis for the interpretive work done in the commentary portion, which focuses on the editorial, linguistic, and cultural background, supplemented by a more or less ‘traditional’ approach of ‘philological close-reading’. These are all areas where Thomas excels. His excursus into botany also deserve mentioning. One noteworthy venture into more theoretical terrain is Thomas’s discussion of “narrative salience” on p. 42 and his reference to the cognition of polysemous words on p. 140. The narratological dimension is accounted for in the application of a few terms that have become the standard fare of much present-day literary analysis – Thomas usefully distinguishes concepts such as narrator and narratee, character-speech and narrator-speech, and notes instances of focalization (put simply, the aspect of “who perceives” in a statement as opposed to “who speaks”).

The phrase “friendly hymnic competition” (p. 19) is aptly coined by Thomas to describe h.Merc.’s competitive intertextual relationship with the Hymn to Apollo. Throughout the introductory chapter 3.4, Thomas convincingly unearths the hymnist’s strategies of competition. These broadly encompass, first, mirroring the intertextual relationship between the two hymns on the level of h.Merc.’s character constellation (Hermes and Apollo as opponents later turned friends) and, second, aligning the narrator with the creative, willful, cheeky Hermes himself.[4]

The concept of enargeia (‘Anschaulichkeit’, perhaps best translated as ‘vividness of depiction’) is not exploited as much as it could have been – to my mind, it is responsible for no small part of this particular hymn’s humor and charm, qualities which Thomas is otherwise deft in bringing to light. The interpretation could perhaps have gained even more depth by appreciating the aesthetic effects of enargeia more consistently and abstractly. Thomas nowhere defines the term, so that its implications remain somewhat diffuse and it is divested of its (quite substantial) theoretical and aesthetic baggage.[5] The four references in the index s.v. enargeia make it clear that he considers it equivalent to “painterly detail” (p. 164) or “a picturesque touch” (p. 210) which can be achieved through rhetorical figures, imaginative language, and similes (p. 346).

The discussion of Maia’s attribute αἰδοίη (l. 5) is exemplary in its linguistic depth. Although this would have exploded the scope of a commentary lemma, I would not have minded reading more of Thomas’s thoughts about the contradiction between Maia’s exemplary reclusive modesty and her adultery, how this possibly relates to ancient Greek moral double standards towards women, and how this  complicated background is given greater salience in Hermes coming across as a sort of illegitimate ‘social upstart’ turned brigand (a rather unique spin on the tired cliché of Zeus’ illegitimate children’s admission to Olympus).

The book is handsomely produced, impressively free of typos, and appended by useful indices of passages, Greek words, and subjects. My only quibble is the very small type-set of the commentary section, which is not for the myopic.



[1] To name just a selection: West, M. 2003, Homeric Hymns, Cambridge, MA. Faulkner, A. (ed.) 2010, The Homeric Hymns. Interpretive Essays, Oxford. Richardson, N. 2010, Three Homeric Hymns, Cambridge. Nobili, C. 2011, L’Inno Omerico a Ermes e le tradizioni locali, Milano. Vergados, A. 2012, The Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Introduction, Text, and Commentary, Berlin/Boston. Faulkner, A. & Hodkinson, O. (ed.) 2015, Hymnic Narrative and the Narratology of Greek Hymns, Boston. Di Donato, R. (ed.) 2016, Comincio a cantare. Contributi allo studio degli Inni Omerici, Pisa. Schenk-Schweinsberg, J.-M. 2017, Der pseudohomerische Hermes-Hymnos. Ein interpretierender Kommentar, Heidelberg.

[2] He retracts the view introduced in Thomas, O. 2011, “The Homeric Hymn to Pan,” in Faulkner (ed.), 151-72, 169 that h.Merc. was composed “after the Alcmaeonids finished rebuilding the temple at Delphi”, p. 7.

[3] My hesitation to discard what to me appears to be the lectio difficilior may very well arise from my relative lack of familiarity with a manuscript tradition which Thomas has studied in daunting detail.

[4] This competitive epic technique can be glossed as the deliberate design of “narrator ethos”; see Epstein, K. 2020, A Poetics of Competition in Conjugal Bedroom Conversation in the “Iliad”, the “Odyssey”, and the “Argonautica”, Hermes 148, 128-148.

[5] See, for example, Otto, N. 2009, Enargeia. Untersuchung zur Charakteristik alexandrinischer Dichtung, Stuttgart.