Selected Excerpts from Chapters of Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns

by Dr. Cora Angier Sowa

Minerva Systems home page
Chapter 1 of The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar, "A Guide to the Labyrinth"
"The Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verses" (1845)
"Verbal Patterns in Hesiod's Theogony"
Selected Excerpts from Chapters of Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns
"Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry"
"Holy Places", a study of myths of landmarks
"Epilogue to 'Holy Places': the World Trade Center as a Mythic Place"
Writings on Building and Architecture
"Ancient Myths in Modern Movies"
Archived "Quotations of the Month"
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Untermyer fountain

Nymphs or maidens dancing and picking flowers (an activity which may be interrupted by a threatening male figure) constitute one of the mythic themes identified in the author's study of the Homeric Hymns (illustration: Untermyer Fountain, Central Park, New York City; sculpture by Walter Schott, ca. 1910, photo by C.A. Sowa)

Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns by Cora Angier Sowa, from which the selections on this site were taken was originally published in 1984 by Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Mundelein, IL.

This book is again available from Bolchazy-Carducci, by means of "on-demand" production. Contact the publisher for information.

The complete Table of Contents of the entire book can be seen below. Chapters 1 ("Introduction") and 10 ("Conclusion"), Appendix I, and diagrams that outline the themes are available for free reading on this site.

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Summary of the arguments advanced in Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns

The identity of the Homeric Hymns

The Homeric Hymns are a group of ancient Greek poems belonging to the same poetic tradition as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days. Their exact date and authorship are unknown. They vary from three to 580 verses in length; each is dedicated to a god, such as Apollo, Demeter, Dionysos, Hermes, or Aphrodite. The shorter Hymns are simple invocations. The longer ones are little epics, each telling a complete story, such as Persephone's abduction by the King of the Underworld, Apollo's birth, or Hermes' invention of the lyre. They are composed in the same oral formulaic language found in Homer and Hesiod. The plots, too, are built up of modular elements, building blocks of traditional themes that are found in more ornamented versions in Homer's poems. These same themes, with their constituent modules, are also found in Sumerian, Egyptian, and other ancient epics. These are themes such as the Journey, the Marriage of the Fertility Goddess, the Young God Consolidates His Power, Invention, and the Epiphany of a God. More surprisingly, these themes survive into later times, reappearing in our own popular movies (see Cora Angier Sowa, "Ancient Myths and Modern Movies", which can be read on this Web site).

The mythic themes are adapted to fit each poem

Although the themes and the vocabulary are traditional, the elements always seem completely appropriate to the poem in which they occur. One reason is the presence of vocabulary that is peculiar to the particular poem. Some of the work in identifying clusters of associated words in the Hymns was done using a computer program called the Clump Finder, which was an adaptation of methods of information retrieval and propaganda analysis. A description of these mathematical methods can be found in Cora Angier Sowa and John F. Sowa, "Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry" Computers and the Humanities, Vol. 8, Pergamon Press, 1974, pp. 131-146. It is also reproduced on this Web site. (A version of the CLUMPS program is now part of the author's self-study CD The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar.)

Characters in the stories, too, are made up of elements that are put together in different ways. Aphrodite, for example, combines the elements of human sex, animal fertility, motherhood, and deceit, whereas Athena is given the elements of maidenhood, motherhood, craft, war, city-protection, and water. Poseidon also has water, but in addition has rulership, earthquakes, and horses.

Repetition as punctuation

The use of repeated formulae (like "godlike Achilles" and "then when rosy-fingered Dawn appeared") and other repeated elements provides an aid to quick composition for the oral poet, but the repetitions also serve as punctuation and articulation, marking off the parts of the poem when it is listened to by the audience. This phenomenon, as found in Hesiod, was discussed in Cora Angier (Sowa), "Verbal Patterns in Hesiod's Theogony," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol 68 (1964), pp.332-344, also on this Web site.

Whether the Hymns as we have them were composed later or earlier than our surviving versions of the Iliad and Odyssey, the little stories are more archaic in their simplicity than the full flowering of the Homeric poems with their wealth of psychological and social detail. The Hymns are nevertheless charming poems in their own right.

Table of Contents

(Complete contents of the entire book)

Hermes stealing Apollo's cattle

Illustration: Hermes steals Apollo's cattle, on a Caeretan hydria in the Louvre. Photo by R. Schoder, S.J.. It is reproduced in C.A. Sowa, Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns, Chapter 7, "Invention and Trickery."

(highlighted chapters are available on this site)


1. Introduction
a) Towards a Thematic Aesthetic
b) Mechanical Aspects of Style in the Hymns
c) Themes, Myths, Characters, and Historical Fact

2. The Marriage of the Fertility Goddess: Demeter and Aphrodite
a) The Theme of the Goddess and Her Lover
b) Multiplication of Themes and Characters in the Hymns to Aphrodite and Demeter
c) The Influence of the Poet's Vocabulary on the Theme
d) Further Divergence of the Stories of Aphrodite and Demeter

3. Seduction: Aphrodite and Hera, Odysseus and Paris

4. The Withdrawal and Return of the Hero: Demeter and Achilles; Meleager, Hera, and
a) Elements of a Typical Withdrawal
b) Analysis of Various Withdrawals
c) Verbal Connections in the Withdrawals of Achilles and Demeter
d) Withdrawal in Relation to Other Themes

5. Rape: Persephone and Ganymede, Helen and Demeter, and the Cattle of Apollo
a) The Theme of Abduction and its Place in Greek Mythology
b) The Maiden Abducted While Dancing and Picking Flowers

6. The Young God Consolidates His Power: Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, and Herakles
a) The Succession Myth and the Hero's Life
b) Some Poems About Young Heroes
c) On the Unity of the Hymn to Apollo
d) Key Words in the Hymn to Apollo
e) On the Unity of the Hymn to Hermes

7. Invention and Trickery: Hermes and Prometheus

8. The Journey: Demeter, Leto, Apollo; Odysseus, Telemachos, Menelaos,
Nestor, Kadmos
a) The Journey Theme
b) Verbal Patterns in Journey Stories

9. Epiphany of a God and Institution of Rites
a) How the Supernatural Enters the Human Plane
b) Epiphany and Institution of Rites as a Thematic Cluster
c) The God Welcomed by Maidens: Demeter and Odysseus
d) Some Other Types of Epiphany
e) Mortals Who Take on Divine Characteristics

10.Conclusion: The Place of the Hymns in the Ancient Greek Oral Tradition

Appendix I: Outlines of Themes Identified in the Hymns

Appendix II: Thematic Analyses of the Longer Hymns

Appendix III: Key Words and Significant Repetitions in the Longer Hymns
















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