Term Paper: Homeric Hymns

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Homeric Hymns: Strength and Trickery in the Lives of the Ancient Greek Gods and Heroes

Often it is said that the Greeks 'had a word for it,' in reference to Greek sexual, political, and social matters. Yet frequently 'it' for the Greeks, even when discussing heroism, is trickery, as noted by Peter Mazur in his 2005 analysis of the "Homeric Hymn to Hermes," published in the most recent addition of the Journal of the American Philological Association's Journal of Philology. In the Hesiod Homeric-style hymn that bears the name and sings the origin of Hermes, the god Apollo describes his half-brother Hermes as melain I nukti eoikos or like the "black night" (line 358) rather than the light represented by Apollo in the Homeric hymn to Apollo's creation. Where the baby Apollo, after his birth, (lines 131-32) claimed his two most prominent symbols as the lyre and the bow. Hermes steals his brother's lyre, and his first act as a young god after inventing fire is to inevitably start thinking about cooking and feeding his growling belly! (Lines 94-137) Hermes steals Apollo's cattle, rather than does upfront battle with a she-dragon, as did Apollo in his chronicled hymn of origins. (Lines 300-310)

Thus, Apollo rightly sees that beneath baby Hermes' innocent appearance lies something more sinister: although Hermes was born at dawn. (Line 17) Unlike his brother, Hermes is a companion and creature of the night. The two related gods, seen together, and when their hymns are paired together, are not polar opposites of good and bad, as they might be seen in a Christian context. Rather, the two gods are manifestations of two sides of the divine and heroic nature, in context of the larger catalogue of the hymns. Hermes uses deception, while Apollo uses strength. Apollo sings songs from his lyre. Hermes steals from his elder half-brother and uses music for devious purposes.

Thus the most famous Homeric hymns to the male Olympians Apollo and Hermes were each intended to give the original listeners of the texts not simply a sense of the young god's characteristic activities and natures through narrating the myths of their births and early lives, as noted by Robin Mitchell Boyask in his commentary on the hymns. Rather, in such hymns, the classicist Peter Mazur suggests that the contemporary reader must keep in mind the observation concerning the rise of Zeus in Hesiod's "Theogony" that the origin myths of the gods also attempt to give the Greek readers a sense of what it means to apprehend the full nature of the divine in his ideal, heroic form. The gods can demonstrate tricks in their own instances, with great bravado and show in a positive fashion, as well as show higher, elevated qualities as manifest in Apollo's killing of the dragon and his playing of the lyre.

Robin Mitchell Boyask, however, stresses that Homeric hymns tend to be patterned on human hero myths such as the Homeric "Iliad" and "Odyssey." The Hesiod use of divine myths helped prepare the original auditors for what to look for in a hero, both when apprehending the greatest Greek author of all, that of Homer, who authored the primary texts of every ancient Greek boy's education, as well as how to be heroic in one's own life. To be heroic, one could not be pure like Apollo alone -- one had to be strong like the god of the sun, but also be aware of trickery, and use trickery like Hermes. If Apollo was unaware of trickery and unable to do battle with it, he would have lost his cattle and his superior power to his younger brother. Also the nymph Telephusa would have been able to trick Apollo, much as the female influence of witchcraft occurs again and again in Homer's narrative of Odysseus. (Lines 244-276)

In fact, the Hesiod Hymns were originally called Homeric by scholars not simply because they were written in the narrative style of Homer, but their content also corresponded to important themes and patterns in Homeric epic poetry of heroic cunning. The two hymns, stressed Robin Mitchell-Boyask, thus were often read in consort to celebrate the qualities Zeus first… [END OF PREVIEW]

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