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Resonant Presence in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo

Stephen White

University of Texas at Austin

Hymns honor gods by celebrating their splendor, their beneficence, and above all their presence, without which the celebrants sing their thanksgiving in vain: hence the dynamics of epiclesis, of ceremonial occasion and sacred location, of ritual epithets and objects, of aetiological myth and iconography. The ingenuity and artistry with which Callimachus weaves these many strands into his song celebrating Apollo in his native Cyrene are now more widely and fully appreciated: its densely textured web of Cyrene-centric rites and legends (Calame, Petrovic); its polyphonic renewal of poetic archetypes (Bing, Cusset, Fantuzzi); its mimetic depiction of ritual choral performance (Depew, Fantuzzi and Hunter, Cheshire); its allusions to indigenous Libyan and Egyptian cult and custom (Selden, Stephens 2003); and much more (Stephens 2015). Yet one dimension that has eluded critical attention is the hymn’s elaborate deployment of euphony (cf. Gutzwiller, Romano, Steiner) to conjure Apollo’s divine presence by purely aural means, manipulating diction to make the epiphanic god audibly present throughout his song. Most striking is the resounding frequency of the god’s names and epithets. More subtly, abundant wordplay creates uncanny echoes of his name; and subtle distortions of his titles uncover aetiologies for his influence. Not only does the god’s presence resonate throughout the hymn; constant overtones of his divinity invite attentive listeners – celebrants and readers alike (Acosta-Hughes and Stephens) – to harken to his audible significance: “Not to all does Apollo appear, but to any who’s good” (ὅτις ἐσθλός in 9; cf. Heraclitus fr. 93 DK). 

The hymn is densely packed with the god’s own name and titles: “Apollo” sixteen times, “Phoebus” seventeen times (three times the frequency in the Homeric hymn: 55 in 546 lines); another eight epithets and titles twelve more times, personal pronouns another seven. All told the hymn invokes or addresses the god by name or epithet 52 times in its 113 lines – nearly every other line. More evocatively, Callimachus makes the god’s name resonate numinously at critical points in the hymn. Three passages illustrate his strategies and artistry: the hymn’s dramatic opening (1-8), its initial choral litany of the god’s attributes (32-41), and the Delphic epiphany that crowns the Cyrenean song (97-104). The first two passages each open by distorting Apollo’s name (τὠπόλλωνος and τὠπόλλωνι) in ways that both indicate avenues for wordplay and alert listeners to attune their ears to the sounds of an aurally present but elusive god. Each then evokes a series of familiar epithets and titles that redirect audience expectations in telling ways. Each thereby imbues the surface texture of its verses with richer significance than meets the casual ear or eye. The closing epiphany reverses the strategy to intensify its effect, eliminating any explicit mention of Apollo’s name or titles but emphasizing his numinous influence all the more by deploying a series of multivalent puns that at once echo and etymologize both the primal drama they depict, and the ephebic chorus now celebrating him as their divine avatar.

Session/Panel Title

Hellenistic Poetry

Session/Paper Number

72.5

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