The Homeric Hymns A New Prose translation and Essays, Literary and Mythological

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As a go-between of Gods and men, Hermes may be a doublure of Apollo, but, as the Hymn shows, he aspired in vain to Apollo’s oracular function. In one respect his behaviour has a singular savage parallel. His shoes woven of twigs, so as not to show the direction in which he is proceeding, answer to the equally shapeless feather sandals of the blacks who “go Kurdaitcha,” that is, as avengers of blood. I have nowhere else found this practice as to the shoes, which, after all, cannot conceal the direction of the spoor from a native tracker. {37b} The trick of driving the cattle backwards answers to the old legend that Bruce reversed the shoes of p. 38his horse when he fled from the court of Edward I.

The humour of the Hymn is rather rustic: cattle theft is the chief joke, cattle theft by a baby. The God, divine as he is, feels his mouth water for roast beef, a primitive conception. In fact, throughout this Hymn we are far from the solemn regard paid to Apollo, from the wistful beauty of the Hymn to Demeter, and from the gladness and melancholy of the Hymn to Aphrodite. Sportive myths are treated sportively, as in the story of Ares and Aphrodite in the Odyssey. Myths contained all conceivable elements, among others that of humour, to which the poet here abandons himself. The statues and symbols of Hermes were inviolably sacred; as Guide of Souls he played the part of comforter and friend: he brought men all things lucky and fortunate: he made the cattle bring forth abundantly: he had the golden wand of wealth. But he was also tricksy as a Brownie or as Puck; and that fairy aspect of his character and legend, he p. 39being the midnight thief whose maraudings account for the unexplained disappearances of things, is the chief topic of the gay and reckless hymn. Even the Gods, even angry Apollo, are moved to laughter, for over sport and playfulness, too, Greek religion throws her sanction. At the dishonesties of commerce (clearly regarded as a form of theft) Hermes winks his laughing eyes (line 516). This is not an early Socialistic protest against “Commercialism.” The early traders, like the Vikings, were alternately pirates and hucksters, as opportunity served. Every occupation must have its heavenly patron, its departmental deity, and Hermes protects thieves and raiders, “minions of the moon,” “clerks of St. Nicholas.” His very birth is a stolen thing, the darkling fruit of a divine amour in a dusky cavern. Il chasse de race. {39} p. 40


The Hymn to Aphrodite is, in a literary sense, one of the most beautiful and quite the most Homeric in the collection. By “Homeric” I mean that if we found the adventure of Anchises occurring at length in the Iliad, by way of an episode, perhaps in a speech of Æneas, it would not strike us as inconsistent in tone, though occasionally in phrase. Indeed the germ of the Hymn occurs in Iliad, B. 820: “Æneas, whom holy Aphrodite bore to the embraces of Anchises on the knowes of Ida, a Goddess couching with a mortal.” Again, in E. 313, Æneas is spoken of as the son of Aphrodite and the neat-herd, Anchises. The celebrated prophecy of the future rule of the children of Æneas over the Trojans (Υ. 307), probably made, like many prophecies, after the p. 41event, appears to indicate the claim of a Royal House at Ilios, and is regarded as of later date than the general context of the epic. The Æneid is constructed on this hint; the Romans claiming to be of Trojan descent through Æneas. The date of the composition cannot be fixed from considerations of the Homeric tone; thus lines 238-239 may be a reminiscence of Odyssey, λ. 394, and other like suggestions are offered. {41} The conjectures as to date vary from the time of Homer to that of the Cypria, of Mimnermus (the references to the bitterness of loveless old age are in his vein) of Anacreon, or even of Herodotus and the Tragedians. The words σατινη, πρεσβειρα, and other indications are relied on for a late date: and there are obvious coincidences with the Hymn to Demeter, as in line 174, Demeter 109, f. Gemoll, however, takes this hymn to be the earlier.

About the place of composition, Cyprus or Asia Minor, the learned are no less divided p. 42than about the date. Many of the grounds on which their opinions rest appear unstable. The relations of Aphrodite to the wild beasts under her wondrous spell, for instance, need not be borrowed from Circe with her attendant beasts. If not of Homer’s age, the Hymn is markedly successful as a continuation of the Homeric tone and manner.

Modern Puritanism naturally “condemns” Aphrodite, as it “condemns” Helen. But Homer is lenient; Helen is under the spell of the Gods, an unwilling and repentant tool of Destiny; and Aphrodite, too, is driven by Zeus into the arms of a mortal. She is αιδοιη, shamefast; and her adventure is to her a bitter sorrow (199, 200). The dread of Anchises—a man is not long of life who lies with a Goddess—refers to a belief found from Glenfinlas to Samoa and New Caledonia, that the embraces of the spiritual ladies of the woodlands are fatal to men. The legend has been told to me in the Highlands, and to Mr. Stevenson in Samoa, while my cousin, p. 43Mr. J. J. Atkinson, actually knew a Kaneka who died in three days after an amour like that of Anchises. The Breton ballad, Le Sieur Nan, turns on the same opinion. The amour of Thomas the Rhymer is a mediæval analogue of the Idæan legend.

Aphrodite has better claims than most Greek Gods to Oriental elements. Herodotus and Pausanias (i. xiv. 6, iii. 23, I) look on her as a being first worshipped by the Assyrians, then by the Paphians of Cyprus, and Phœnicians at Askelon, who communicated the cult to the Cythereans. Cyprus is one of her most ancient sites, and Ishtar and Ashtoreth are among her Oriental analogues. She springs from the sea—