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

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Steve. You have a fascinating mind.

    Your writing is of some personal interest to me. Much of it seems connected to specific things in my own life.

    For example, as I first read this blog entry last night, my girlfriend put down what she was reading to tell me about it -- a book about Persephone.

    There are themes here of deeper meaning to me than that sort of "coincidence", (though those happen with such regularity to me that I think there is more to it than mere coincidence) but that is a topic for another day.