Out of the Shadows: New Translations of the Homeric Hymns
Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, M.A. Harvard University Press 1982. 657 pp. Out of print.
Works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. Translated by Daryl Hine. The University of Chicago Press 2005. 220 pp. $35.00
The Homeric Hymns. Translated by Charles Boer. Asphodel Press 2006. 216pp. $16.95 (paper)
The Homeric Hymns. Translated by Michael Crudden. Oxford World's Classics 2001. 159 pp. $11.95 (paper)
Homeric Hymns. Translated by Sarah Ruden. Hackett Publishing 2005. 104 pp. $8.95 (paper)
Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, Lives of Homer. Edited and translated by Martin L. West. Harvard University Press 2003. 467 pp. $21.50
The Homeric Hymns. Translated by Jules Cashford. Penguin Classics 2003. 174pp. $12.00 (paper)
The Homeric Hymns. Translated by Diane Rayor. University of California Press 2004. 164 pp. $14.95 (paper)
The Homeric Hymns, second Edition. Translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis. The Johns Hopkins University Press 2004. 106 pp. $18.95 (paper)
IN Moscow in 1777, Christian Friedrich Matthaei, a Russian professor of Greek, discovered an old tome on the floor of a stable "where, for many years, it had lain concealed among the chickens and pigs." The manuscript, which later came to be called the "Mosquensis" after the city of its discovery, contained an amazing find. Two poems, whose existence had been attested by other sources, but which were otherwise entirely lost for centuries, were preserved therein: the fragmentary Hymn to Dionysus (I) and the full text-with the exception of a handful of lacunae-of the Hymn to Demeter (II). To date, these are the sole known manuscripts of either work. How appropriate that these texts, which treat, respectively, the only god in the Greek pantheon to cyclically die and be reborn (leading some to view him as a precursor of Christ) and the agricultural goddess whose daughter is stolen away by Hades into the gloom of obscurity until her mother manages to win her release back into the upper air, should resurface, after centuries of absence, in a stable!
The two texts complete a corpus of thirty-three to thirty-five poems-some editors choose to exclude the last poem, the Hymn to Xenoi, or Guest-Friends/Hosts, while others choose to divide the Hymn to Apollo (III) into its Delian and Pythian sections-collectively known as the Homeric Hymns because their meter, vocabulary, and style resemble that of the Iliad and Odyssey. Moreover, the Hymns have something of a prequel quality, detailing, in many cases, how the deities whose powers are showcased in the epics (particularly in the Iliad) first came to exert them. The fully developed Hermes who guides Priam through the Achaean camp to retrieve Hector's body (Iliad, Book XXIV), or who shows Odysseus how to overcome Circe's magic (Odyssey, Book X), here may be seen, in the hymn devoted to him, as a mischievous infant who rustles his half-brother Apollo's cattle in order to blackmail his way into a place in the pantheon. Apollo too, in the Hymn to Apollo (III) is presented as a newborn god who sets out to reveal his divine abilities, albeit-as one might expect-by more honorable means, slaying monsters and convincing mortals to consecrate temples to him.
Other Hymns deal with particular episodes in the lives of goddesses, such as the aforementioned abduction of Persephone in the Hymn to Demeter (II) and, of special interest to a reader of the Iliad, the tryst between Aphrodite and the handsome shepherd Anchises in the Hymn to Aphrodite (V). The latter, of course, resulted in Aeneas, who is, in fact, the only hero of the epics to be mentioned in the Hymns-neither Achilles nor Odysseus receives so much as an aside. Why so few references to heroes? Because these are, after all, hymns, all of which (save the last) are addressed to one or more divinity and celebrate the gods' various aspects and domains. In a few cases, there is more than one hymn to the same deity, which is why each text is identified not only by the deity's name, but by the hymn's number in the corpus.
While the vocabulary and syntax of the poems is quite accessible (any student of Greek with a year or more under her belt should be able to understand them relatively well), the composition of the poems, i.e., who wrote what and when, is a matter of much debate. For example, while Classicists agree that its piling up of epithets dates the Hymn to Ares (VIII)-circa the fourth century C.E.-as the latest addition to the collection, no one is sure who composed it. In fact, no information survives regarding the authorship of any of the poems save the Hymn to Apollo (III), for which we have only a scholiast's reference to a certain Kynaithos-a "son of Homer," or Homer reciterof Chios, a rocky island often referred to as the blind bard's birthplace.
Long before the works of Homer were committed to vellum (most likely sometime in the eighth century B.C.E.), they, and coundess variations of the myths they contained, were recited by itinerant rhapsodes ("song-stitchers") at private banquets and public festivals. The performative nature of these works accounts for a great deal of their technical, and specifically structural, qualities. Homeric Greek teems with mnemonic formulae, metrical place-holders such as "wine-dark sea" or "far-shooting Apollo," which allowed a wandering singer to commit long passages to memory and to improvise as the occasion saw fit, while the elastic nature of epic, wherein whole years might be summarized in a few lines, or a description of, say, a shield, might extend to over a hundred, would allow him to lengthen or shorten his performance without calling too much attention to the fact. If the house that received him fed-or, better yet, paid-him well, the singer could stretch out his story, keeping Achilles from returning to the fray for just a little while longer. Conversely, he could trot out the wooden horse in a hurry if his host and/or audience proved less than hospitable.
Eventually, as more and more performers got into the act, recitation contests blossomed and spread across the Mediterranean like some hexametric version of American Idol. Those who sought to compete in these rap battles of old would have to be able to sing for hours at a time, and it was no wonder that they often call on the gods beforehand to come to their aid and grant them victory. They would do so with these Hymns, which most likely functioned as prooimia, or warm-up pieces, designed to give singers an opportunity to dust off their chops while asking for divine aid in reciting the longer piece, to which they would presently turn.
How do we know the Hymns served this prefatory purpose? Because thirty of the thirty-four Hymns are simply too short-the longest of this group is only fifty-five lines, and the majority are between five and twenty-to stand on their own. Even the four longer Hymns, which run from 293 lines (the Hymn to Aphrodite [V]) to 580 (the Hymn to Hermes [IV]) were probably not enough to satisfy their original audiences, who were used to lengthy recitation contests.
Size still matters. For while beautiful moments abound in the shorter poems, these four Hymns, to Demeter (II), Apollo (III), Hermes (IV), and Aphrodite (V), respectively, are the stand-outs, not only for their length, but for the complete narrative structures and thematic developments their lengths allow them. Without these four poems, it is unlikely that the corpus would hold much interest for the modern reader: The remaining Hymns are fragmentary and highly formulaic. Take, for example, the Hymn to Athena (XI), translated here in its entirety:
Pallas Athena, protector of cities, I start to sing,
Powerful, who takes with Ares pleasure in the works of war,
Sacking of cities and clamor of battle and warfare itself,
Yet also protects both the host as they set forth and as they return.
Farewell now, goddess, but grant us good fortune and great
wealth as well.
This hymn's style and structure are representative of nearly all the Hymns. It opens with an invocation of the deity and a declaration of the singer's intentions, lists various responsibilities and epidiets of the goddess (e.g., "protector of cities"), and closes with a farewell and a prayer for future favor. Another important aspect, not only of the Hymns, but of Ancient Greek religion in general, is also visible here: the containment of opposites. Just as Athena is the goddess of both protecting cities and destroying them, so is Apollo the god of sickness and healing, Hermes of thievery and recompense, and so on. While other religions are content to assign entirely positive qualities to some divinities and negative ones to others (Jesus vs. Satan, Horus vs. Set, etc.), the Greek system allowed for deities who were irreducibly dualistic. This, in part, is what makes them so deeply human.
Because the Greek texts of the Hymns are not difficult, nearly every translation available is faithful to the original, at least as far as meaning is concerned: A 1914 edition will likely prove almost identical, semantically, to one published this year. It is more than a little surprising, then, that the last three years have witnessed no fewer than six new translations, as well as new editions of Charles Boer's 1970 translation and Apostolos N. Athanassakis' from 1976. This is even more remarkable considering the relative obscurity of these texts, which have never enjoyed a wide readership.
Why such an outpouring? No doubt the popularity of the Iliadana Odyssey is partially responsible; both prove perennial bestsellers and are constantly being adapted, whether into a Ulysses or a laughably atrocious Troy. Perhaps a broader nostalgia, and the accompanying popularity of the classics in general, is the cause. Or should we attribute the newfound favor of these poems to their shadowy, precursor status? Just as music fans are sometimes desperate for early concert bootlegs of their favorite bands, so perhaps readers have begun to develop an interest in those chapters of oral history that precede Homer.
The good news is they have plenty to choose from. Because the language is relatively simple, and there is no rhyme scheme to which a translator might be ruinously tempted to remain faithful, none of the translations is abysmal and most are adequate. But those translations that manage to give a finer sense of the original, both in tone and sound, are relatively few. These are, after all, not only poems but songs, and the translation should reflect this. Part of the difficulty lies in transferring the Greek meter to an English equivalent. Why equivalent? Because Greek meter relied (as did Latin) on quantity, not quality, which is to say that it drew a distinction not between stressed and unstressed, but short and long syllables. Like many other classical poems, the Hymns are rendered in dactylic hexameter, wherein any of the dactyls may be replaced by a spondee (the final foot, even if it is actually a trochee, is considered a spondee for the sake of not ending on a weak syllable), with a caesura occurring in the third or fourth foot. Thus, the transliterated first two lines of the Hymn to Aphrodite (V) would be scanned as follows:
Mousa moi / ennepe/ erga po//luchru/sou Aphro/dites
Kupridos / hete the/oisin e/ pi glukun / himeron / orse
This meter presents a host of problems to anyone attempting to recreate it in English. The line is very long by modern standards, and Greek, being a heavily inflected language, has a higher percentage of polysyllabic words, and verbs in particular, than English. For example, "laughed" is the four-syllable "" while "grew out" is the five-syllable "." A translator working in dactylic hexameter would therefore have to vigilantly guard against the temptation to pad the line to account for all those missing syllables. While dactylic hexameter has occasionally been employed to striking effect in English (most notably by Longfellow), it is devilishly difficult to maintain, especially for a translator struggling to remain faithful to the meaning of the original. And since the meter doesn't sound nearly as natural in English as in Greek, it risks calling inordinate attention to itself, with fatal results.
Undaunted by these challenges, one translator, Daryl Hine, has attempted to preserve the Hymns' dactylic hexameter. His dedication to meter occasionally yields awkward moments, such as "she shrieked and belabored her flanks" (meaning "struck her thighs with her hands"), and Hine sometimes goes in for obtrusively lofty phrasing-"the superlative flower of beauty," for instance. But overall the results are remarkably successful. Consider Hine's translation of the first two lines of the Hymn to Aphrodite (V):
Muse, will you / narrate the / doings of/ her who has / plenty
of / gold, the
Cyprian / queen, Aphro/dite, who / rouses the / gods
to de / sire?
Hine has taken the minuscule liberty of using one stressed syllable-some might say one and a half-to replace the spondee or trochee of the ultimate foot of the second line, but otherwise these are perfectly faithful. Some might protest his breaking the first line on the word "the," but not only does dois follow the metrical scheme (the allowable ultimate trochee), but also gives some sense of the fluidity of the original, wherein the placement of words was much freer. The syntax of the original, employing the words from Hine's translation, might run as follows:
Muse to me will you narrate the doings of who-has-plenty-of-
Cyprian queen who the gods to desire rouses?
Furthermore, breaking on "the" makes for a more casual tone, one not at all inappropriate to the original performative context of a singer seeking intimacy with the divine.
It is important to remember that although this is a hymn addressed to a goddess, it is also a humorous tale of her folly and seduction: The beginning of the poem tells us that for a long time, Aphrodite has been boasting to the other gods that she has used her amorous powers to make them shamefully mate with mortal women. These unions produced heroic, yet mortal, children, much to the dismay of their immortal parents. Zeus consequently decides to give her a taste of her own medicine, and has her fall in love with Anchises, a handsome Trojan shepherd to whom she appears in the guise of an unwed maiden so as not to frighten him off-unpleasant fates, such as emasculation, blindness, and death, often befell men who slept with goddesses-and tells him an elaborate story of how Hermes kidnapped her and brought her to Anchises to be his wife. Anchises is no fool, though, and is very suspicious of his supposed good fortune. He first greets her as a goddess, and only after she has sworn that she is a mere mortal girl, who happens to know the Trojan tongue because her nurse was a Trojan woman -what are the chances?-does he agree to sleep with her. The description of the unwitting hero undressing the goddess of love is one of the most beautiful and charming in the corpus. Here is Hine's version:
Saying these words, he took hold of her hand. Wreathed in
Crept to the comfortable bed that already was spread for its master,
Strewn with luxurious cloaks, and on top of that heaped up
with furs like
Bearskins and pelts that belonged to the deep-throated lions
High in the mountains; she went, although turning aside at
each step and
Casting her beautiful eyes, as if hesitant, bashfully downward.
When they had clambered together upon the well-carpentered
First he removed all the glittering ornaments decking her body,
Brooches and necklaces, spiral-shaped bracelets and flowerlike
Then he proceeded to loosen her girdle and shimmering garments;
Taking them off her, he laid them aside on an armchair of silver.
Thus did Anchises, fulfilling the will of the gods and of heaven,
lie with an immortal goddess, unconscious of what he was doing.
Afterward, she casts him into a deep slumber, reassumes her divine form, and awakens him tauntingly, saying:
Rise, son of Dardanus! Why are you sleeping a sleep without waking?
Tell me, do I now appear in your eyes at all similar to the
Woman that first I appeared to be when you beheld me and
As these quotations attest, this translation is very commanding. If you want to get a sense of the pulse of the Greek without sacrificing meaning or tone, Hine is your man. He also mimics the original's soundplay without overdoing it, as in "Crept to the comfortable bed . . . spread for its master" and "clambered together upon the well-carpentered bedstead."
Furthermore, Hine has done his readers the useful service of reinterpreting several stock phrases. A translator of any classical text must decide how closely to hew not only to the sense of the original but to the translational tradition. Because Ancient Greek is a dead language, students learn it with the aid of textbooks and dictionaries, in which they are unlikely to meet with much variance of meaning or phrasing. For example, all major dictionaries, as well as six of the eight new translations, render the formula "" as "winged [or 'winged'] words," while Hine translates them as "words that went straight to their target," hinting that perhaps the "" in this context did not signify wings so much as feathers, namely those attached to arrows. By departing from tradition, Hine gets at what may very well have been the original connotation.
Michael Crudden, another translator, has also chosen to work in dactylic hexameters. But in his case the effort is crippled by the book's narrow format, which results in a high percentage of runover lines, such as these from the Hymn to Apollo (III):
Many shrines and wooded groves are yours, and yours to hold
Are all peaks and topmost ridges of mountains that rear up
And rivers that on to the sea are flowing; but, Phoibos, at
You delight in Delos the most, where Ionians trailing their
With children and wives who are worthy of reverence, gather
And they remember and please you with boxing, dancing, and
song. . .
The translator isn't necessarily to blame for this, but one wishes he'd convinced the press to make the page just a little wider, or the typeface slightly smaller, to respect the integrity of the lines.
But even putting typographical considerations aside, Crudden's version falls prey to all the traps lying in wait for one willing to sacrifice syntax, sense, and smoothness on the altar of meter. Note the strange, sometimes perplexing inversions and transpositions in the following: "taking of pasture their fill," "of Leto labor took hold," "[Apollo] onto Kenaion stepped of Euboia famed for ships" (i.e., Apollo stepped onto Euboian Kenaion, famed for ships), "neither ambrosia touched / nor sweet-tasting nektar in grief," "of all these men there are wives." And consider, as examples of padding, "standing close near by" and "as did the men also themselves." While the Greek does feature a number of expressions that a modern audience might regard as annoyingly redundant, there's no need to introduce new ones, especially when they're so awkwardly phrased. Translating the Hymns into dactylic hexameters is a potentially worthwhile task, but not when the price is so high.
In light of these pitfalls, it makes perfect sense that a translator might decide to render the Homeric Hymns into prose, which rarely tempts one to pad lines or sacrifice meaning for sonic effects. That would seem to be the governing philosophy of the Loeb Library, the generations-old face-en-face standard of classics students everywhere. Loeb has recendy published a new translation by Martin West to replace the lovely but somewhat dated version by Hugh G. Evelyn-White of almost a century ago. Much to his credit, West has taken the lofty diction down a notch, but not to the point of vulgarity. Compare, for example, Evelyn-Whites version of this passage from the Hymn to Hermes (IV), in which the infant god, sneaking out of his cradle and home, encounters a tortoise and addresses it, coveting the shell that he will use to make the first lyre
An omen of great luck for me so soon! I do not slight it. Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, sounding at the dance! With joy I meet you! Where got you that rich gaud for covering, that spangled shell-a tortoise living in the mountains?
-with that of West:
Here's a portent of good fortune for me, I don't mind this! Hello, my lovely, my dance-beat dinner companion, welcome apparition! Where did you get this fine plaything, this blotchy shell that you wear, you tortoise living in the mountains?
The meanings are virtually identical, but West does a better job (at least for the contemporary reader) of striking a conversational tone while conveying Hermes' smooth-talking, mischievous nature. Furthermore, West's version is more sonically rich, deftly employing repetition, consonance, assonance, and a flowing rhythm without calling much attention to any of it. All of this makes his version eminently readable.
Because it is published by the Loeb Classical Library, it also comes with all the bells and whistles of an academic production. West's introduction to the Hymns is illuminating and thorough, as are his notes, which touch on many points of interest to the classicist and a few to the layman, such as the fact that the name of the Styx, that dread river of the underworld, translates as "Shuddering." And while West's translation draws on the tradition of translators before him, he occasionally chooses to diverge from it, offering his own interesting interpretations. For example, an epithet of Zeus, "," usually translated as "bearer of the aegis," West renders as "goat-rider." (Because the aegis was made of goat-skin, one could read the epithet as either "goat-skin holding" or "goat-holding"). Such efforts serve as useful reminders that just because a particular translation of a phrase has enjoyed longstanding favor doesn't mean it's the only viable one.
West also provides a tantalizing glimpse of the fragmented sections of the Hymn to Dionysus (I) that were damaged beyond repair in the Mosquensis manuscript, sections that other texts omit entirely, usually glossing them with a single ellipsis. While we cannot know for certain what the damaged and missing lines recount, there seems to be some consensus that they told the following story: Hera, ashamed of her handicapped son, Hephaestus, casts him out of heaven, but the clever craftsman quickly gets revenge by constructing a chair for his mother, fitted with invisible snares, that traps her. Unable to free herself, she sends Ares to try and force Hephaestus to return to Olympus, but the god of war is powerless against Hephaestus' fire. Dionysus, on the other hand, promises to win over Hephaestus if Hera will promise to give the god of inebriation his rightful place in the pantheon. Hera, with no other options, reluctantly agrees, and Dionysus goes to earth, where he gets Hephaestus drunk. The two return to Olympus, and Hephaestus frees his mother.
Even though only bits and pieces of the text survive, they show how much has been lost to us and provide an inside look at the jigsaw-process of textual reconstruction. The brackets contain the editor's metrically and semantically viable suggestions:
(Vine rows) luxuriant with their own dark grape clusters . . .
(Zeus speaks to Hera) "... you wish. What else could happen to you [worse than this? I was stupi]d myself, from [. . . ] left of his own accord [. . . ] as they [sur] mise ever [ ... he tricked you and pu] t you in hellish fettfers. Who] could set y[ou] free, my dear? [A painful b]elt encircles y [our body, while he], heed [ing neither co]mmand [nor entreaty, has formed] an unshakeable r[esolve in his heart. It's a cruel] son you have borne, sis [ter . . . craf]ty, even though a cripple [ . . . ] in front [of . . . ] feet good [ . . . ] wrathful [ . . . ] ... angry [. . . ] Let us find out [if he will soften his hear] t of iron. For there are [two] clever [sons] of mine at hand [to help with] your [suffering. There is Ares, who] has raised his [keen] spear, a th[ick-hide fighter ...] to look and bra[ndish ... ; and there is] also Dionysus . . .
It is also worth mentioning that the same volume contains, in addition to the Hymns, West's translations of the Homeric Apocrypha and the so-called Lives of Homer, which contain, respectively, works erroneously attributed to Homer in antiquity and dubious biographical accounts of the bard. Of the former, the most delightful (and most well-known) is the epyllion, or mini-epic, of the Battle of the Frogs and Mice, in which rodents with such colorful names as Champbread, Filchpiece, Creephole, and Pastrygobble face off against such amphibians as Macmudd, Loudhaylor, and Dambread in order to avenge the accidental drowning of the mouse Filchcrumbe by Puffjawe, king of the frogs. Of the Lives, the most celebrated is The Contest of Homer and Hesiod, in which the Muses award the prize to the latter for being a poet of peace.
The only drawback to West's version is one common to other Loeb productions: the unavoidable loss of music that comes of translating poetry into prose. In the specific case of the Homeric Hymns, this also means that we lose all sense of the poems as songs, which is most regrettable. Nevertheless, West has gone beyond the requirements of the series in trying to invest his prose with some of the aural texture of the original. This, combined with the fine sense of tone and meticulous notes, makes his a valuable translation for classicist and layman alike.
Three other recent translators have chosen to follow a sort of via media, rendering the Hymns as poetry rather than prose-and even employing line-breaks that approximately correspond to the originals-but without attempting to preserve their meter. Of these, the most formal is Sarah Ruden, who employs syllables-almost always eleven syllables per line. Because there was no punctuation in the original Hymns, where sentences begin and end is, to some extent, a question of interpretation, and Ruden's version favors shorter sentences, giving it a decidedly staccato feel. This, in combination with her syllables, helps to impart a sense of the regularity and consequent rhythmic energy of the original, especially in the more action-packed passages, such as this one in the Hymn to Dionysus (VII), in which the new god, captured by pirates, reveals his terrible powers:
Right then, amazing things began to happen.
First, a delicious, fragrant wine went gurgling
Over the fast, black ship, transcendent odors
Rose, and the sailor witnesses were staggered.
Along the sail's top edge a vine extended:
Bunches of grapes were dangling thickly from it.
Around the mast black ivy wound itself,
Covered with blossoms and enticing berries.
Garlands festooned the oarlocks. seeing all this,
They gave belated orders to the helmsman
To bring the ship to land, but now the god changed
To a savage, bellowing lion on the prow.
A shaggy bear amidship was the next sign.
It reared in frenzy. From his height the lion
Burningly glared to rout the sailors sternward.
In fear they stood around the sober helmsman.
The lion did not hesitate to pounce.
He took the captain, sent the sailors leaping
Into the bright sea to escape a dark fate.
But Ruden's version is also uneven. Particularly problematic are the awkward phrasings and glosses that seem to exist either for the sake of the meter or in order to "make it new." For example, in the Hymn to Demeter (II), a woman named Metaneira has been playing hostess to an old woman, who, unbeknownst to her, is Demeter in disguise. The poor woman is so frightened by Demeter's revelation that " . . . ": Literally, "her knees went slack," i.e., buckled, which Ruden renders as "her knees subsided." A few lines later, the poem charmingly describes how the infant, Demophoön, cries when his sisters pick him up (from where the angry goddess dropped him on the floor) and try to soothe him; he is upset "," which might be translated as "since inferior nurses and caregivers were holding him"-a delightful reminder that immortals are superior in every respect, even when it comes to the rearing of mortal children. But this is lost in Ruden's version; she chooses to gloss the line, stating merely that Demophoön was "disappointed in his present tending."
Also troubling are certain anachronisms, as when Metaneira, first meeting the disguised Demeter, compliments her, saying, in Ruden's version, "in your eyes is a devout grace ..." To read this, one might think that Metaneira, by speaking of "devout grace," is making a proto-Christian reference to piety or religious propriety, but this notion is simply not to be found in the original, which says only "," "in your eyes modesty and grace are evident." Another example is the first line of the Hymn to Aphrodite (V). The original refers to the "e'pya . . . ," literally the "deeds . . . of Aphrodite." Ruden chooses to make this more active by rendering it as "what Aphrodite did once," but in doing so she introduces the past tense, giving the false impression that Aphrodite has lost her charm. Part of the pleasure of reading these poems lies in being transported back in time, to when the poet singing of Aphrodite honors her for her then-current amorous prowess. To be sure, Ruderis are neither glaring errors nor gross misinterpretations, nor do they occur in every other line. But it is such nuances that separate adequate translations from good ones.
Unlike Ruden, Diane Rayor and Apostolos N. Athanassakis do not follow any strict syllabic scheme. They attempt to compensate for this departure in different ways. Rayor, whose lines tend toward the pentametric, often incorporates inconspicuous rhymes and off-rhymes, which, while alien to Greek, do serve to heighten, however slightly, our sense of the Hymns as songs. Here, for example, is a passage from her translation of the Hymn to Apollo (IV), in which the personified island Delos tells Leto why she is afraid to let the latter give birth to Apollo on her:
Though I tremble to speak, I will not hide it from you:
Leto, they say Apollo will be extremely reckless
and rule mightily over the immortal gods
and mortal men on the wheat-growing earth.
In my mind and spirit I have a terror, a fear
that when he first sees the light of the sun,
Apollo might dishonor this island-since I am too rocky
trampling it, he will thrust me into the briny sea.
Then crashing great waves will pile over my head
and he will go to another land that might please you,
Leto, there to establish his temple and sacred grove.
Octopi will make their bed on me and dark seals
will make their home, undisturbed by people.
Some of the rhymes, being far apart, add sonic resonance without falsely suggesting any correspondent rhyme in the original: "over my head" pairs with "make their bed" while "tremble" in the first line is echoed by "trampling" in the eighth, and rhymed with "temple" in the antepenultimate. Others are placed close together to create a feeling of finality, as in the last two lines of a sonnet: "I am too rocky" with "into the briny sea," "on me and dark seals" with "undisturbed by people."
By employing a very loose pentameter, Rayor achieves both a degree of regularity and a natural tone-a balance fitting to the Hymns, which feature a rich mixture of lofty and lowly. This is most noticeable in the Hymn to Hermes (IV), whose narrative often quickly shifts between tonal opposites, as when Apollo, infuriated at Hermes' theft of his cattle, searches the home of the little rascal and his nymph mother, Maia:
Looking around, up and down the inner chambers
of the great house, with a shining key he opened
three closets full of nectar and lovely ambrosia.
Ample gold and silver lay within the house
and the nymph's many purple and silvery clothes,
as are kept in the sacred homes of the blessed gods . . .
Finding nothing, he picks up the baby to force him to reveal the herd's whereabouts:
Seizing the baby, Phoibos Apollo carried him off.
Then, taking stock, the strong Slayer of Argos [Hermes]
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. Apollo heard
and flung glorious Hermes to the ground.
Talk about the sacred and the profane! Rayor s tone, somewhat lofty but tempered with ordinary speech-"gassy omen," for instance-allows everything to seem of a piece, as it should. This evenness, along with her careful attention to sound and helpful notes at the back of the book, make Rayor's a precise, elegant translation.
The same can be said of Athanassakis' version, though his employs longer lines and leans more toward the syntax of the Greek to give the reader a greater sense than Rayor's of the experience of reading the Hymns in the original. Compare, for example, Athanassakis' rendition of the passage in which Apollo searches Hermes' home:
He peered into every niche and nook of the great dwelling,
and he took a shining key and opened three vaults
filled with nectar and lovely ambrosia;
inside them lay much gold and silver
and many purple and silver-white garments of the nymph,
such as the holy dwellings of the blessed gods contain.
The two are very similar, conveying the same information in the same number of lines, but there are some interesting differences. First, the latter's lines are much less regular, ranging from nine to fourteen syllables, while the former have between eleven and thirteen. This is because Athanassakis' translation is less concerned with uniformity and more with conveying finer points of meaning. He is not satisfied to render "" as "white" or "silvery" (both acceptable), as the majority of translators do; he wants the modern reader to have a fuller sense of what the Greek adjective connotes. Furthermore, the abundance of long lines, which average six strong stresses each, gives the impression of, if not dactyls, at least hexameters. While such subtleties might be lost on many readers, some will appreciate Athanassakis' precision.
Nearly every translation features notes and/or glossaries to introduce and describe to unfamiliar readers the divinities the Hymns honor. Most of these are quite useful, but those of Athanassakis are exceptionally so. His exacting scholarship and wide knowledge of modern Greek folkways help elucidate many of the Hymns' more perplexing moments, such as the following from the Hymn to Demeter (II):
Thus he [Hades] spoke and wise Persephone rejoiced
and swiftly sprang up for joy, but he himself
gave her to eat a honey-sweet pomegranate seed,
contriving secretly about her, so that she might not spend
all her days again with dark-robed, revered Demeter.
In his usual thorough fashion, Athanassakis explains:
In Ovid's Metamorphoses 5.535, Persephone is not given the fruit by the god of the Underworld, but she finds it in a garden and eats seven seeds. Some obscure numerological allusion may be hidden in this version. The pomegranate was widely used in both ritual and folk medicine, but our poet may have chosen it rather than some other fruit because the plant had definite chthonic connections. The tree was thought to have sprung from the blood of Dionysus Zagreus (Clement of Alexandria Proteptikos 2.19), and pomegranate seeds are still used by Greeks as decorations in the kollyba, wheat offerings that are distributed to the congregation in memorial services in honor of the dead. By eating a fruit that is especially connected with the world of the dead and by accepting what is a gift from the ruler ofthat world, Persephone establishes a xenia, a guest-host tie that comes with an obligation for her both to come back and give in return.
By drawing connections to other classical works, as well as to modern Greek practices, Athanassakis helps us appreciate both the influence the Hymns have exerted on literature and the lingering sociological significance of the myths they contain. More than any other translation, this one makes these ancient poems seem familiar without eroding our sense of them as profoundly archaic and foreign.
Two other translators have chosen to sacrifice the linear structure of the originals for what might be viewed as a modern equivalency. The contemporary audience is unlikely to register even the most rhythmic of dactylic hexametric renditions as song-like because of the length of the line (current songs tend to favor trimeters or tetrameters). Therefore, translators who seek to retain the feeling of song, the lyricism (in the oldest sense of the word) of the Greek, may feel obligated to take a more radical approach, as do Michael Crudden and Charles Boer, who both have chosen to depart from the original linelength and introduce stanzaic divisions.
This is especially true of Boer, who dramatically breaks lines and positions the fragments on the page in a manner that often seems suited to the particular nature of the divinity in question. Here, for example, is a passage from the Hymn to Pan (XIX):
but only in the evening
relaxing from the hunt,
he makes music,
playing a song
on his flute
and no bird
weeping a lament,
no bird crying
the song of its honeyed voice
in the leaves
of Spring's many flowers
could outrun him,
And the mountain nymphs
with clear voices
go along with him,
their feet excited,
they sing too,
by the springs of dark water
on the mountain-top
And the god
on this side
on that side
of the chorus
enters the dance
speeding his feet
into their midst, dancing
the red skin of a lynx
on his back
his head delights in
the piercing songs
in a soft meadow
where crocus and hyacinth
with their sweet fragrance
mix in with the grass
The quick turns and playful back-and-forth indentations do an excellent job of capturing the essence of the randy, goat-hooved god of the pastoral, just as the centered, varying line-lengths of the Hymn to Demeter (II) resemble the flowers and grain-stalks over which the goddess holds sway:
they reached the house
who was cherished by Zeus,
and they crossed
where their mother sat
waiting for them
near the door posts
so solidly roofed,
holding in her lap
a new flower.
And when they had run over to her,
put her foot on the threshold
and touched her head
on the ceiling
and filled the doorway
with a divine light.
and with respect,
turned their mother pale!
She got up
from her couch
and bid the goddess
who brings the seasons,
whose gifts are so brilliant,
did not want to sit down . . .
But in several of the other Hymns, Boer's typographical choices
seem to border on the arbitrary. Take, for example, the Hymn to
Hephaistos (XX), given here in its entirety:
do sing it
he taught men
work that was
for men to do
on the earth
now on the
whose skill is
and they live it
do give us
Why are the lines so short, so halting? Is it because the god in question was born with a limp? Or is Boer obliquely alluding to his powers of metallurgy by beating a rather short poem into a drawn-out, bracelet-like form? Either way, the clipped lines and lack of punctuation render any sense of rhythm or flow, well-lame.
But Boer's stanza-shapes are, in general, happily chosen, subtly connoting the powers of each divinity. In addition, his faithful mixture of lofty and colloquial diction contributes to our sense of these poems as still very much alive. So while this is probably not the best version for a newcomer, it is worthwhile for those interested in seeing a modern, typographically oriented attempt to capture the feeling of a remote vocal tradition.
A similar approach is taken by Jules Cashford, whose variable stanzas and line-lengths make the Hymns seem more like modern lyric poems. The line-breaks feel quite natural, and the stanza-breaks and positioning of words on the page build up tension and surprise to dramatic effect, as can be seen in the opening lines of the Hymn to Dionysus (I):
Some say it was at Drakanon,
some on windy Ikaros,
some in Naxos,
Others say it was beside
the deep-whirling waters
of the river Alpheios
that Semele gave birth to you,
pregnant from Zeus who loves thunder.
Others, lord, say you were born at Thebes.
I say they lie.
As with Boer, one might wonder about Cashford's arrangement of certain poems. For example, the "first" Hymn to Aphrodite (V) is in left-justified long lines:
Muse, speak to me of the works of Aphrodite,
the golden one, the Cyprian,
she who awakens sweet longing in the gods
and subdues the race of human beings
and the birds that fly through the air
and all the wild beasts and the many creatures
that the dry land feeds, that the sea nourishes.
All these love what she brings to pass,
the Cytherean of the lovely crown . . .
The "second" Hymn to Aphrodite (VI), however, is in short, centered lines:
I shall sing,
she who possesses the heights
where Zephyros swept her
with his moist breath
over the waves
of the roaring sea
in soft foam...
But if Cashford's reasons are unclear, her effects are usually so lovely that one rarely pauses to question them. She uses line-breaks as most modern poets do, to imbue a particular line with a significance or shade of meaning that the following line may deepen or refute, as in "she who possesses the heights / of all / sea-wet Cyprus," where the penultimate line, however briefly, universalizes the goddess's sphere of influence just before the ultimate localizes it. Also evident in these lines is Cashford's wonderfully mimetic use of consonance and assonance: There's an oceanic quality to the sibilance of "sea-wet Cyprus / where Zephyros swept her . . . sea," and an orgasmic one to the moaning o's in "golden . . . Aphrodite .. . over .. . foam." By employing both contemporary line-lengths and stanza-shapes and the sonic devices of the original, Cashford has managed to strike a very effective balance between the ancient and modern. There is the odd infelicitous phrasing or strangely rendered epithet-"an unspeakable scream came into being," "while sweet sleep held the white arms of Hera" (as opposed to the usual "Hera of the white arms")-but too few to significantly detract from this translation, whose lively linebreaks, rich soundplay, and constantly shifting stanza-shapes communicate the vibrancy of the original.
The old Italian adage "traduttore traditore" is true, but not, perhaps, in the way it is usually taken. To translate well is to betray neither the sound nor sense of the original, but to reveal both the inherent differences and vital similarities between languages, cultures, and, in the case of these poems, ages. In this respect, one might view any successful translator of the Hymns, or the classics in general, as a kind of time-traveling messenger, a Hermes plunging into the underworld of the past to retrieve a lost beauty, dress her in the latest fashions, and reintroduce her into the upper air of the present.
ADAM L. DRESSLER
* This tradition is self-referentially described to wonderful effect in the Odyssey, when, for example, the bard Phemios sings of the return voyages of the Achaeans, or when Demodokos sings of the dalliance of Ares and Aphrodite.
* It is worth noting that although the metrical systems of Greek and English differ, the same effect-a galloping pattern of emphasis (be it quantitative or accentual)-is readily apparent in each. To my ear, the ancient system, with its shifts between long and short syllables, is slightly more lyrical, because it feels more sung.
* Not only is this comically dubious explanation the first reference to bilingualism in any Greek text, it also offers an explanation, albeit a tenuous one, for what has often seemed strange to readers of the Iliad: why the Trojans, a foreign people with their own language, have no trouble communicating with the Greeks.
* Diane Rayor's translation, the other exception, translates it as "words flying out."
ADAM L. DRESSLER holds an A.B. from Harvard, an M.A. in poetry from Boston University, and an M.F.A. from Columbia. He serves as the review editor for Perihelion and as an assistant editor at Parnassus. He lives with his fiancée in Brooklyn.…