Thursday, March 15, 2018

Hymn to Demeter Notes 1

At the beginning of Hymn 2 of the Homeric Hymns, the hymn to Demeter, she is described as ἠύκομον, well haired or good haired. I never know what to do with this kind of epithet. "Trim coiffed," is how Pound translated the same epithet, though as applied to Aphrodite, in his Canto I. "Well haired" or "with good hair" don't really cut it, so "with luxurious hair?"

Another word that gives me pause is ἥρπαξεν. Traditionally it is translated as "seize," but it is where we get our word "rape," and it is in every sense a rape. Persephone is a child and unwilling. She is being carried away against her will, crying for her mother. In the ancient world the gods could rape with impunity--witness all the loves of Zeus. Men too seized and raped. It was part of the expected plunder and rewards from war. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is common to raid villages to steal their supplies and women. The lot of women was often harsh. But this hymn does acknowledge the trauma of it, in Persephone's screams and Demeter's sorrows.

As she is being carried away she cries out in a shrill voice to her father, the son of Chronos, and ὕπατον καὶ ἄριστον, most high and virtuous. The epithet seems ironic to the modern ear. He, after all is the instigator of this rape. She is calling out to the one who authorized her abduction. But I suspect there was no irony to the Greek ear. Zeus, by his nature, being the most powerful being, defines what virtue is. Whatever he wills is just, even if his subjects cannot see the justice or wisdom of it.

I also find it interesting that among the list of those who did not hear her cries--gods and men--olive trees are included

but no one of the immortals or of mortal men 
nor even the fruit bearing olive trees heard her voice

This is heartbreaking and beautiful

So, the god, Ruler of Many, Host of Many, 
Son of Chronos bearing many names, carried her away 
against her will with his deathless horses, his own brother's child. 
For so long as the goddess could see the earth and the stars in heaven, 
the flowing swells of the fish breeding sea 
and the rays of the sun, as long as she hoped to see her trusted mother 
and the tribes of the eternal gods, for so long 
hope bewitched her great mind from despairing, 
and the peaks of the mountains and the depths of the sea 
rang with her immortal voice, and her queenly mother heard

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Bull God

I have always wanted to translate all the Homeric Hymns, so I finally decided why not. It is something I can work on while working on my long poem, currently titled "Standing Water."

The first hymn is to Dionysus. It is a fragment. (Most of the hymns are intact, but this one, not.) There is a word in the second line, "εἰραφιῶτα." Hugh G. Evelyn White, a translator I much respect, translates it as "insewn" and notes that Dionysus was sewn into the thigh of Zeus to hide him from Hera. This is how the Hellenistic scholars read it. They saw the letters "ραφιῶ" and related it to "rapio" "to sew." We get the word rhapsody from it--a sewing together of melodies or song--. Modern scholars, however, trace the word back to Sanskrit for "Bull God."

Translating this, one is faced with the question which to use. The later Greeks, at least, read it as referencing sewing and the god sewn into the thigh of Zeus. Did it once mean Bull God to the earlier Greeks? It is hard to know. I am tempted to go with both:

Some at Drakanos, some say on windswept Ikaros,
some in Naxos, divine born, god of bulls, 
                             sewn into Zeus’s thigh

But then, I am left with what to do with it when the word occurs again in line 17:

ἵληθ᾽, εἰραφιῶτα, γυναιμανές:

Be gracious, Lord of bulls, thigh born, who drives women to frenzy

Not sure

Saturday, February 24, 2018


Reading Philosophical Investigations I came across this discussion of The sword Excalibur: "The word Excalibur is a proper name in the ordinary sense. . ." But in the German text, which is en-face, has no mention of Excalibur. Rather the sword is Nothung,, the sword Siegfried places between himself and Bruenhilde to guarantee her chastity. It is obvious translator has substituted the English sword for English readers. It saves a footnote, and the point of the passage is that a name applies whether a thing exists or not, so that the idea that there is a direct relationship between a noun and a thing doesn't really make sense. Both are famous swords within their own cultural context.

Yet, i will say, i would have preferred the original sword, even if i am less familiar with the legend and the Wagnerian Opera. I like to get the feel of the cultural context of the original. I like a bit of otherness, strangeness.

I see this done a lot with Greek texts too. A strange or difficult idiom or reference is substituted for with a familiar one. In The first elegy of Kallimachos, I remember, the translator wrote "from an ancient people." In the Greek the word was not ancient but προυσέληνς, "before the moon", because the people were said to be so ancient they were older thαn the moon. A much more poetic and interesting take.