That’s Frederic Leighton’s treatment of the Persephone myth up above.
Thursday, November 10, 2011

Homeric Hymns

There is a series of Greek poems, dating from around the time of Hesiod (750–650 BC) or a bit later in the 7th century, that are known as the Homeric Hymns. They were used in the worship of the ancient gods and goddesses, so they are hymns in at least that sense. Modern Christian hymns, however, are predominantly lyric in nature. Hymns such as A Mighty Fortress is Our God, Amazing Grace, or Onward Christian Soldiers, to say nothing of Adeste Fideles, or Silent Night have no narrative content. The four long hymns, numbers 2 through 5, are primarily narrative, rather than lyrics of praise.

As befits a narrative poem the hymns are dactylic hexameter catalectic. That is the poem consists of 6 dactyls, a long syllable followed by two short ones, and a final spondee, two long syllables. In English the equivalent would be an accented syllable followed by two stressed syllables. In Joyce’s Ulysses Buck Mulligan tells Stephen that his name, MAL-a-chi MULL-i-gan is absurd because it’s two dactyls. Walt Whitman has a poem that uses dactyls within a framework of free verse:

OUT of the | CRAD-le | END-less-ly | ROCK-ing

The three syllable dactyls are set off by the two syllable trochees.

Since the final spondee and the initial stress of the dactyl in the following line would form a three stress pattern, something which is rare in English, the rules for the classical dactylic hexameter don’t work too well in English. Most translators have gone with either prose, as in some Victorian translations of Homer (Samuel Butler, Lang, et al., or somewhat later T. E. Lawrence and E. V. Rieu), or have used some sort of iambic meter such as the fourteener (Golding’s Ovid), or other verse forms (Pope). The present translator has chosen to do a verse translation that is oriented towards a dactylic-trochaic meter.

The four long hymns (2-5) are narratives that focus on Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, and Aphrodite. The one to Hermes, the trickster god of Greece, is particularly amusing.

Some of the hymns are rather short. The introduction says that some of the hymns were from poetic contests of one sort or another, but doesn’t, to my recollection, say which ones. Hymns 20–24, however, are of roughly the same length, and may have been the products of one or more poetical contests, and may be impromptu compositions.

The volume is relatively short, and can be read in a few hours.

Next up, some brief comments on Petrarch.