The Homeric Hymns

The Homeric Hymns, traditionally attributed to Homer but with much controversy over that attribution, is another one of those works that shouldn’t really need much of an introduction. Since I know I’m not the only one whose formal education has failed me, though, there’s probably no harm in offering a brief overview of this, as well.

As one may guess from the title, this is a collection of poems praising several of the Greeks’ various gods. They vary greatly in length, the first few going on for over a dozen pages in my edition, but most of them fit easily onto one or two pages. The longer ones tend to be narratives, like Hymn II (to Demeter), and Hymn III (to Apollo), usually covering the god’s birth and one or two other tales. The rest are short hymns of praise, recalling to the audience the god’s accomplishments, things sacred to him, and so on. For example, here’s Hymn XXIV, to Hestia:

you are the one
who takes care of the holy house
in sacred Pytho, the house
of the archer Lord Apollo,

soft oil
flowing forever from your hair.

Come into this house,
come, having one heart
with wise Zeus,

and be gracious to my song, too.

One common theory regarding the origin of these hymns is that they served as preludes to longer works. That seems unlikely for the long narrative ones, but would explain why so many refer to “my song” at the end. As another example, here’s Hymn XIII, to Demeter:

Demeter with her lovely hair,
sacred goddess,

I begin to sing
of her and her daughter,
the surpassingly beautiful

Farewell, goddess.
Save our city
and guide my song.

As an interesting side point, Hymn III has a possible reference to Homer himself, as “the blind man who lives in rocky Chios.” Homer, of course, was supposedly blind and lived on Chios, which makes this seem like evidence that Homer did indeed write these. However, as Nicholas Richardson, who wrote the introduction and notes to my Penguin Classics edition of the book, points out, this could’ve worked the other way around. That is, Homer may have been assumed to be the author of the Homeric Hymns, and these traditions about him came from these lines.

Richardson’s introduction and notes are interesting and helpful, but the translation itself, by Jules Cashford, doesn’t impress me. As usual, I can’t say how accurate it is; as poetry, though, it’s sub-standard. The imagery is good, of course, but as far as I can tell the poems don’t have a regular metre or rhyme scheme, and the line breaks appear to be largely arbitrary. Another arbitrary choice that annoys me is that some poems are centred, and others are left-justified, but that’s a small thing. In any case, there’s nothing inherently wrong with free verse, but in general it’s more difficult to write a good poem in free verse than in a standard form, and only the best poets tend to succeed. I won’t cast stones at Cashford; the translation isn’t bad, and my guess is that she decided to prioritise accuracy over poetry, and in a translation that’s a perfectly legitimate approach. Some people are primarily interested in the literal meaning of what Homer (or his fan club, or whoever wrote these) said. However, I prefer a translation that focuses primarily on form, and wouldn’t mind seeing these translated by a poet, rather than a Classicist.

So, should you seek out the Homeric Hymns? At some point, certainly, especially if there’s a better translation out there. However, based on my reading it’s a lower priority than other Classical works, and certainly a lower priority than The Iliad and Odyssey. Once you’ve read the other standards of Classical literature, though, by all means pick this up as well.