Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns
by Dr. Cora Angier Sowa
Chapter 10: Conclusion: The Place of the Hymns in the Ancient Greek Oral Tradition
Herodotos thought that Homer and Hesiod invented the ordered system of Greek gods, with their functions and attributes, their human relationships, and their anthropomorphic appearance.259 He was right in one sense, for Homer and Hesiod probably gave definitive form and organization to concepts that were hitherto vague and implicit in Greek belief. Ironically, this happened just when the Greeks themselves were beginning to question these concepts.
People commonly systematize their beliefs just when they are already ceasing to believe in them, and are replacing them with a new system. The need to confront or assimilate new knowledge forces a person or a society to make explicit the underlying assumptions on which its view of life has been based, threatened now by the onrush of new data and new experience. Homer and Hesiod lived at such a time of change, and gave expression to a suitably codified system. Jean Piaget has shown how small children articulately express their belief in the consciousness of inanimate things just when they are ceasing to believe in it:
"It is usually just when an implicit conviction is about to be shattered that it is for the first time consciously affirmed ... The youngest children are thus animistic, without being able consciously to justify the tendency. But, directly the child comes up against a new
hypothesis likely to unsettle it, the first time, for example, that it wonders whether a marble moves intentionally or mechanically, it probably adopts the animistic solution, for lack of a better, and then by reflection and by systematising extends its meaning ... Thus thought never progresses in straight lines, but, so to speak, spirally; the implicit motiveless conviction is succeeded by doubt, and the doubt by a reflective reaction, but this reflection is itself prompted by new implicit tendencies, and so on. This is the explanation that must be given as to why so many older children show a more extensive animism than the youngest; these children have momentarily found need for this animism, because they have encountered some phenomenon which their thought cannot explain mechanically . . . "260
While we should not equate the Greeks' belief in an environment populated by divine forces and mythic characters with a childish animism soon to be outgrown, Piaget's findings show how the acquisition of new knowledge or the raising of new questions may lead to codification of positions previously taken for granted.
The pre-Socratic philosophers, as John Burnet observed, probably underwent a similar evolution in regard to their belief in eternal motion. While the earliest pre-Socratic philosophers apparently assumed that there was eternal motion, they probably did not state this belief explicitly:
"According to Aristotle and his followers, the early cosmologists believed also in an `eternal motion' (aidios kinêsis), but that is probably their own way of putting the thing. It is not at all likely that the Ionians said anything about the eternity of motion in their writings. In early times, it is not movement but rest that has to be accounted for, and it is unlikely that the origin of motion was discussed till its possibility had been denied. As we shall see, that was done by Parmenides ... The eternity of motion is an inference, which is substantially correct, but is misleading in so far as it suggests deliberate rejection of a doctrine not yet formulated. "261
Once Parmenides had stated that change is only an illusion, his statement had to be faced, and either accepted or rejected, by his successors.
In much later times, the same phenomenon of codification in response to new ideas is illustrated by the work of Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica, the crowning achievement of mediaeval scholasticism, was created as a result of acquaintance with the entire work of Aristotle, the existence of which European scholars had only recently learned of. Scholasticism was based on the idea that theological faith in the truth revealed by the Gospels could be supported by Platonic philosophy and Aristotelian logic. But the synthesis, carefully added to over many centuries, was threatened by an influx of new data, with the discovery by Western theologians of the rest of the Aristotelian corpus, with its vast Arabic and Jewish commentaries. Thomas' Summa was a tour de force, an astonishingly brave and successful effort to harmonize the new information with the old system, proving them to be compatible. But his work illustrates another point about such heroic efforts, their precarious and Janus-like position. Thomas was the last great representative of his tradition; none of his successors were able to hold together his synthesis of fides and ratio, and it broke down after him into the antithetical disciplines of theology and secular science.
Homer and Hesiod, too, came at such a time of transition. The "oral" traditional society, depending on word-of-mouth transmission of information, whose chief educator and repository of information was the oral bard, was giving way to a new "scientific" culture, which is our "modern world." Its hallmarks were the use of writing, which made easy the recording of individual facts and observations, instead of the typical, generalized units most easily transmitted by oral composition, and an intellectual curiosity, of which the Greeks already had a large share. The cosmological speculations of the Ionian philosphers provided mechanical explanations for phenomena hitherto attributed to the actions of a set of humanly capricious if cozily familiar divine beings.
We can be sure that the old assumptions of the archaic Greeks were vague and unsystematic compared to our written sources; even in them, the stories conflict -- in one version, the mother of Helen can be Leda, in another, Nemesis. The local Fertility Goddess or Hero may, in fact, have had no explicit genealogy at all, and may have had little existence outside of a post or altar. There was a virtue in those old beliefs, innacurate though they were, never recaptured by modern science, for they separated human life less from its surroundings, and perhaps made human beings more responsible
for a nature of which they were a part. This empathy with universal forces was shattered by the scientific system that gave control over these forces, as it removed the observer from what he observed, and emphasized the discrete and individual at the expense of the universal and of the symbol of many meanings. Only when the rational speculation that would lead eventually to philosophy and science was well under way, would it occur to the epic poets to harmonize their stories, and try to make them, too, rational in appearance.
The formal, traditional style of Homer can also be compared to the musical style of Johann Sebastian Bach in Western music. Like Bach, the poet we know as Homer stood at the end of a long formal tradition of artistic composition, and like Bach, he put the maximum of content into it. In the polyphonic style in which Bach worked, vertical harmony emerged from the counterpoint of individual melodies played simultaneously. In the formulaic epic, nuances of character and individual motivation arise only from the interplay between traditional formulae, type scenes, and themes. The character of Nausikaa emerges from a combination of Maiden Dancing and Picking Flowers, Epiphany of a God in Disguise, and various other standard elements such as Visit scenes, Chariot journeys, and dream visitations. The complex motivation of her trip to the seashore, like Achilles' return to battle, is built of parts from the traditional framework. Just as Bach charged the old forms of church music and the baroque concerto with flowing melodies and subtle harmony, so the rich character study and complex associations of Homer pushed the forms of heroic epic to their limits. Never before or since had the old formulae or the old polyphony been stretched to give the world such music.
It is in the nature of genius working within a tradition that it "overstuffs" the tradition. After that, new structures arise. Not by accident were Homer, Bach, and Aquinas the last important figures of their traditions. Homer was starting an exploration of individual character that could not be contained within the stereotypes. Bach's expressively flowing melodies and rich harmonies threatened to burst the polyphonic structure. Aquinas' successors failed to hold together his synthesis of natural logic and Christian revelation. The trends whose seeds were evident in their work could develop fully only within new forms created by their successors, in answer to the demands of these same trends. For both Bach and Homer, the change was in the direction of a more flexible, expressive style. The fugue, the chorale, and the concerto
grosso gave way to the symphony, the opera, and the sonata; so the explorations of human character and the observable world adumbrated by Homer were continued, on the one hand, by philosophers and historians, on the other, by the dramatists and lyric poets. Euripides' Elektra and the poetess Sappho are spiritual descendants of Nausikaa, just as Thukydides' Peloponnesian War is a successor to Homer's Trojan War; Empedokles and Anaxagoras are Homer's successors in cosmology. The geniuses who follow a Bach or a Homer -- a Mozart, Beethoven, or Mahler, an Aischylos, Sophokles, or Euripides, a Thukydides or Plato -- will be found working in the new forms, in turn straining them to the limit.
The formal tradition in which Homer and Hesiod worked was changed by a rising personalism, by written transmission, and by the appearance of new formal structures. The genealogy, the heroic exploit, the lament, and the hymn of praise did not die out, but were pushed from their positions of monopoly. The repetitive forms of the hexameter were largely replaced by non-repetitive forms such as lyric and prose. Specialization became necessary; the explosion of knowledge made it impossible for one man to know everything society considered worth knowing, and the bard, like his poetic composition, was ousted from a position as society's chief educator and the repository of its wisdom. The curiosity about human nature that we admire in Homer divided into two distinct streams, one more logical, represented by history and philosophy, the other more intuitive, represented by drama and poetry, just as Western philosophy after Aquinas broke apart into theology and science.
If Homer is Bach or Aquinas, then the poets of the Homeric Hymns are W.F. Bach, Telemann, and Siger of Brabant, lesser creative talents able to continue but not to renew the tradition, which was being replaced by other leading systems of thought and art. The old culture did not die out all at once (it never does; in a sense the mythic and oral tradition is still with us), but was continued in popular and in second-rate art. After Homer, the oral epic tradition seems to have degenerated either into "re-runs" of Homer (as recited by the rhapsodes) or into solid "B" productions like the Hymns.
A study of the Homeric Hymns has the effect of increasing our admiration for the Iliad and Odyssey, as we see what heights Homer attained using the same materials as the Hymns. Yet the Hymns can be more useful to us than Homer in teaching us about "Homeric" poetry, if we mean the total tradition of Greek oral/formulaic epic. Lesser productions
(like minor Baroque composers, minor Academic painting, "B" movies, and so forth) often exemplify their traditions better than the great artists. Because the themes as used in the Hymns are in a more elemental state, they can be identified more easily; their relative lack of adornment permits us more easily to see the skeleton beneath.
We have discovered that every part of the Hymns can be related to one or more of the mythic themes, whose elements generally follow each other in the same order, but which combine and overlap in many complex patterns that never seem to duplicate each other. The themes, taken together, form a system that organizes and explains the universe as Homeric man experienced it and described his life within it. The same themes and the same elements, once identified, can be seen beneath the full exuberance of Homer's narrative; every part of the Iliad and Odyssey could undoubtedly be referred to one or more elements of the themes. Yet in Homer the variations are so subtle, and the transitions so artful, that they are difficult to perceive; the smooth result obscures what the poet is doing.
The Hymns can be read as a microcosm of Homer. All the mythic themes are represented in them; but they offer a further advantage in their small size, for they are a mostly homogeneous corpus, yet each Hymn is the whole of something, not an isolated part, as is the Nausikaa episode of the Odyssey or the Embassy scene in the Iliad. Despite the Hymns' archaism, which shows in their simple directness, and their lack of subtle character delineation and description, they offer a comparable systematization to that of Homer, owing perhaps to their probably post-Homeric date.
The Hymns should be enjoyed, most of all, on their own terms. They should be listened to, but that is difficult today. The composers of the Hymns delighted in developing the attributes of their style, rather than developing depth of characterization or adroitly motivated plot. In their verbal echoes from one part of the poem to another (serving to cue a live audience to the movement of the story), and in their refrains, catalogs, and ring-composition, the abstract formal patterns of the Hymns are exceedingly satisfying. The more we examine poems like the Hymn to Demeter or the Hymn to Apollo, the more they reward us with their richness of pattern and of myth. The Hymns, with their emphasis on the human encounter with the supernatural, also give us an unequalled look into archaic man's view of the fear and beauty of the relationship between the human and the divine.
The preservation of the Hymns was a stroke of chance; the vicissitudes of time have denied us the rest of the Epic Cycle, the Theban epics, the other Theogonies, monuments of Athenian drama like the rest of Aischylos' Prometheus trilogy, and so many more. If the preservation of the Hymns was an accident, it was a happy accident. From them we see that early Greek epic grew in more than one way. The Hymns afford us a treasure house of mythic story, and show us another, if minor, flowering of archaic epic, a crocus, as it were, frozen in amber.
Notes to Chapter 10, Conclusion.
259. Herod. 2. 53.
260. Jean Piaget, The Child's Conception of the World, transl. by Joan and Andrew Tomlinson, Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1969, p. 191.
261. John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th ed. (1930), Cleveland: World (Meridian Books), 1957, p. 12, par. VIII.
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