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Whose Hymns?: The Architecture and Authorship of the Homeric Hymn Collection

Alexander Hall

Scholars generally consider the Homeric Hymns to be without organization.  Exceptions are Van der Valk (1976), who argues that the Homeric Hymns are arranged according to “archaic religious principles,” and Torres-Guerra (2003), who believes they are arranged by narrative type.  I outline a new organization for the Homeric Hymns, one which alters our understanding of the Hymns as a group and suggests that the collection is much older than is generally thought.

The key to this organization lies in the closing formulae of individual Hymns.  Three pairs of Hymns (1 and 7, 9 and 14, 15 and 20) employ closings that are both parallel to each other and otherwise unattested within the collection.  These pairs enclose six-poem groupings that are similar in length, dedicatee, or both.  Hymns 1 and 7, both to Dionysus, close by stating that “no one forgetful of you is able to adorn holy/sweet song” (HHom. 1D.9-10; 7.58-9).  Hymn 1 also states that bards sing Dionysus “beginning and ending” (ἀρχόμενοι λήγοντές τ᾽, HHom. 1D.9).  These two Hymns bracket the four major Homeric Hymns (and the shorter Hymn 6, likely a later addition [Faulkner 2011]).  Hymns 9 and 14, to Artemis and the Mother of the Gods, conclude “and so rejoice in my song, you and all the goddesses together” (HHom. 9.7; 14.6), an appropriate bookend to a group of six short Hymns to goddesses.  Hymns 15 and 20, to Heracles and Hephaestus, ask their gods to “grant courage and wealth” (HHom. 15.9; 20.8), and surround a group of Hymns dedicated to second-generation male gods.  A fourth six-poem group, beginning with a short Hymn to Apollo (which, like Hymn 1, speaks of hymning him “first and last”) focuses on as yet unsung Olympians, and concludes with another Hymn to Dionysus (HHom. 26), parallel in content with Hymn 1, but this time with a unique (and final) ending.  These twenty-four Hymns, in four groups of six, were the original Homeric Hymn collection.

With this organizational scheme in mind, content latent in the Hymns is thrown into higher relief, in particular how the collection is divided between Homeric (or Ionian) and Hesiodic (or mainland) sections.  Graziosi (2002) has argued that Hymn 9, the first of its grouping, refers to the biographical traditions linking Homer with Smyrna and the river Meles.  This Homeric/Ionian orientation continues through the other poems of the sub-group which Hymn 9 inaugurates.  The next group, by contrast, shifts its focus to the Greek mainland, both in terms of the locales mentioned and in its borrowing of content from the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women.  Once again, the first poem in the group sets the tone, with its mention of Thebes activating an association with Hesiod.  This connection with Hesiod is much less emphatic than that with Homer found in Hymn 9, however, as if the compiler sought to incorporate Hesiodic content while suppressing the figure of Hesiod.  

Such an approach would conform to Nagy’s (2009 and 2010) account of the Homerus Auctus, the prevailing view of the Homeric corpus before Panathenaic standardization, in which content that would later be distinguished as Homeric, Hesiodic, Orphic, and Cyclic were all treated as “Homer’s.”  More specifically, it would mean that the Homeric Hymn collection constitute part of a “Polycratean recension,” posited by Nagy in Homer the Preclassic as the broad precursor and rival to the narrower, Athenian Peistratean recension.

That would fix the date for the compilation of this original collection in the late sixth or early fifth century BCE, a substantial change from the Hellenistic or Imperial date usually cited.  It would also make the Hymns a much more coherent unity than is usually appreciated, and indicate their relevance not only individually but as a group to larger scholarly debates about the shifting nature of “Homeric” authorship.


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