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Hybrid Meter in an Orphic Hymn to Zeus

Jacobo Myerston

In this paper I argue that the Orphic hymn to Zeus quoted in the Derveni papyrus, the Aristotelic De mundo, and by a series of later writers, was composed in a hybrid meter that combines Greek hexameters with the meter found in the poetry of Northern Syria and Mesopotamia. Using metrical analysis, I propose a new reconstruction of the hymn to Zeus. I contend that the earliest version of the hymn comply both with the standards of hexametrical and Semitic poetry, but that later versions sometimes display no familiarity with Semitic verse making. Based on this observation, I claim that the older version was produced by a bilingual poet familiar both with the Greek and Semitic poetic traditions, while later additions were introduced by poets who had limited or no knowledge of Semitic verse making. On these grounds, I explore how a poem that originated in an environment of cultural hybridization was received and integrated into a more homogeneous culture. 

In 1981, making use of a variety of sources, Forderer  published a reconstruction of the Orphic hymn to Zeus and stated that the hymn was composed before the fourth century BCE. Forderer’s hypothesis was confirmed with the discovery of the Derveni papyrus, which was first published in 1986.  Bernabé has recently claimed that the hymn originally consisted of only the four lines preserved in the  Derveni papyrus.  Lopez-Ruiz, on the other hand, has noticed that those four lines show metrical similarities with some passages of the Hebrew Bible.

Regarding Forderer’s reconstruction, I consider that a reconstruction of the hymn that does not take into consideration the issue of hybrid meter conceals the process behind the hymn’s composition and reception.  In relation to Bernabé’s claim that the hymn originally consisted of four lines, I sustain that this point can be contested based on the criteria of hybrid meter because it is unlikely that later poets who contributed new lines to the hymn were versed both in Greek and Semitic poetry; there are in fact more than four hybrid verses in the hymn.  Finally, I consider that a comparison of the hymn with Akkadian poetry can be more illuminating than a comparison with the Hebrew bible. This is because first, the Akkadian poetic corpus was more influential than the Hebrew bible by the time of the composition of the hymn (6th century BCE), and second, because there is a clearer distinction between poetry and prose in Akkadian than in the Old Testament. 

To study the hybridity of the hymn, I first explain the use of parallelism in Semitic verse-making and the principle of counter-balancing of Akkadian poetry (Buccellati),  making use of some examples taken from a Babylonian hymn to Marduk. Then I move to the metrical analysis of the Orphic hymn, taking into consideration both hexametrical structure and Akkadian counter-balancing and parallelism. For instance, in the first two lines of the hymn we find a perfect hexameter that is internally organized according to the principle of counter-balancing and parallelism:

Ζεὺς πρῶτος γένετο, || Ζεὺς ὕστατος ἀρχικέραυνος,

Ζεὺς κεφαλή,|| Ζεὺς μέσσα,|| Διὸς δ ̓ἐκ πάντα τέτυκται.

The first line can be divided in two parts, each part replicating the syntactical structure of the other:  a₁b₁c₁|| a₁b₂c₂. The balance is not created using exact correspondence of parts of speech, but balancing the use of content words. In the second line, although it is divided into three parts, we find a similar distribution: a₁b₁ || a₁b₂ || a₁b₃. These two lines display the pattern a₁b₁c₁ || a₁b₂c₂ / a₁b₁ || a₁b₂ || a₁b₃, a pattern common in Akkadian stanzas. Distinguishing then between verses that display counter-balancing and those that do not, and discussing the context in which such verses are quoted by ancient authors, I explore the process of production, reception, and relocation of a hybrid that was probably conceived at the margins of an Athenocentric worldview into the Greek mainstream intellectual culture. 

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Greek Language and Linguistics

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