As you may have noticed if you've been reading this blog over the last two months, I went a little overboard on my odyssey through the Odyssey. I read the epic itself but also several modern versions and updates. While I found them fascinating, I must admit that I've been feeling a little burned out on Homer. It has taken me a couple of recovery side books as well as a lot of knitting and film watching to finally get on to the next book on my Lifetime Reading Plan list: the Homeric Hymns.
Unlike Homer's classic epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns are primarily stories about the ancient Greek gods. While gods certainly appear in these big epic narratives, the main plots deal with the experiences of human beings. Homer spends the stories contemplating Achilles's heroism and Odysseus's long journey home. Both of these mortal men have interactions with the gods throughout the stories, but it is their own growth as humans that moves the reader.
In the Homeric Hymns, on the other hand, we have a collection of short poems--sometimes very short--about the birth of various gods, about their strengths and powers, and often about their relationships (and struggles) with the head god Zeus. If you want to brush up on your Greek mythology, this collection of stories is an excellent place to start. Also unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, each of the poems is a clear homage to a particular god, celebrating his or her power and asking him or her to favor the speakers in whatever lies ahead.
We know very little about who wrote the Homeric Hymns, how they were performed, or even when exactly they were written. Although Thucydides believed that Homer wrote these poems, very few people then or now seem to agree with him. They were probably written by a variety of poet-performers--and sung or recited aloud at a variety of celebrations or rituals. Many of the hymns seem to be introductory material to invoke the gods before a larger presentation. Some are long enough that they might have been solo performances. Most scholars seem to agree that the poems were written sometime during Homer's era, but they differ in opinion about whether they come slightly earlier or slightly later.
While the poems do not have the psychological resonance for me that I got from Homer's big two epics, I am very much enjoying the poetry of the Homeric Hymns. Below you'll find links to five different respected translations of the Hymns. Although I adore almost every book I've seen put out by either Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics, in this case I have not actually seen either translation. Personally, I have been reading Ruden, Rayor, and Athanassakis. All three editions have strengths to recommend them. I'll talk a little next time about a few of the differences between them.
Please join me next time when I start a brief discussion of the Hymns. I hope you can find a translation of this very short little book at your local library or bookstore and read along with me. If any of you have additional suggestions or comments about translations, speak up!