Out of the Shadows: New Translations of the Homeric Hymns

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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. …