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The Homeric Hymns


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My course on Greek and Roman Mythology moves on this week to look at the Homeric Hymns. Here again are the notes from my course and again I must credit Peter Struck with excellent videos giving us an insight into these wonderful writings.

Introduction to the Homeric Hymns

(Credit : studyblue.com)

In Greek, the term ‘hymnos’, means a song in praise of a divinity. They’re called ‘Homeric Hymns’ because they’re written in a Homeric style and they’re actually claimed to be written by Homer .They are probably written by a lot of people that followed Homer and wrote hymns in his style as a  homage to him. The hymns then are in praise of not only the gods but also to Homer.

The subject of the praise of any of these individual divinities is the god to whom the hymn is given. Individual hymns honour individual divinities.  We are going to be reading just two the hymns that survived from antiquity, the extended Homeric Hymns to Apollo and Demeter. These hymns are two particularly rich ones.

In terms of this genre of writing in the Hyms the style is reminiscent of the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod. They use the same dactylic hexameter. There is also a similar diction to Homer’s language. It’s pastiche drawn from lots of different dialects around ancient Greeks. They are also drawn from that same Homeric register of connections between the many different aspects of ancient Greek. There are some stylistic measures that are similar in terms of using similes, digressions and some use of narrative in that Homeric way that introduces us to really intense stories .The narrative is used more like the way that Hesiod uses narrative, as one device among many to structure the engagement that a person wants to make with the material. None of our poets feel obliged to tell us a clean, clear, linear story. They just get all this good stuff about this god in there that they possibly can with interruptions, some back and forth movements in the narrative and some non-linear things.

Hyms also contain lists in the same way that Hesiod did. There are long lists of places, people or events and those lists are again, characteristic of the same impulses that drove them in Hesiod’s case, the idea of total inclusiveness trying to make sure everything is told. It would have also been a mark of the virtuosity of the poet to demonstrate, look, I can even sing this long list of proper names from memory.

Ancient Greek Temple (Credit : stockfreeimages.com)

One common theme just like with Hesiod is that there are lots of different traditions sewn together. The poet will make reference to places that claim some direct linkage to the god, for example they have a temple in their town even though lots of places might have temples to that god.  What typically happens in a hymn is that all of these places get some calling-out in the story. They get pulled out and fronted so that the people who have the temple to Apollo or to Demeter or whoever the god might be in the hymn, have a chance to see their own name of their town represented in the story. They operate according to different techniques and there is some direct address talking directly to the god. There is a lot of praise sometimes reliving past great things that the god has done. Then there are some narrative elements followed by a goodbye where the poet says please remember me fondly, divinity, I have always been nice to you, and now try to be nice to me, asking for a divine favour at the end.

There are different themes and characteristic common across the different hymns. One that comes out very strongly is a sense of actually getting to know the god. We find out that some things that we might think in our standard intuition about the gods’ lives are not quite what a god’s life is really like. First of all gods are born, they didn’t exist for all time. Their lives are not simple and straightforward. Typically, there’s some struggle. Maybe they have to find a place to be born or to live. They want to have a temple and so try to find someplace on earth they can call their own house and that requires some work. They have to convince people to build a temple for them. They suffer some pain or isolation as they are trying to make their way to find these spots. They’re also trying to make sure they secure areas of their power so they have some exclusive claim over certain kinds of things in the universe. Apollo has a claim over music, prophecy, medicine, the sun and archery. Demeter has special claim over grain and fertility. Finding what these things are and working them out with respect to the rest of the divine family takes negotiation and some time to settle in. Part of what this sense of belonging is for these gods is they have to find people to do nice things for them, in, worship, and in ritual. Gods like it when we worship them. The ancient Greek gods really enjoyed that and trying to secure a situation in which they  get the  rituals and rites that they like is something that is definitely built into the lives of the gods as portrayed in these Homeric hymns. The ritual background is very important.

Ritual and Religion


In the Homeric Hymns the establishment of rituals in honour of the gods is very important and in many of them ritual activity is built into the mythic narrative. Rituals and myths are intimately connected and focusing on the Homeric hymns gives us a chance to draw up these connections and look at how these two areas are interestingly and mutually illuminating of each other.

The word ‘cult’ here is going to be used to describe ritual and ritual activity. It holds no judgement.

We don’t know a lot about specific religious rituals across the board in antiquity. There’s not a lot of information about how specific rituals worked. We do have windows in to some of them and Homeric hymns give a close up look at Eleusinian mysteries. It’s one of the cultic practices details we know something about. There are some things about them in general. They are very important in each city. The cities themselves have a civic component to their religious activity. To worship the god or goddess that is the patron of the city is also an expression of civic collectiveness and being together, of having a sense of identity as a Spartan or an Athenian etc.

The festivals in honour of a god could be in special locations. Sometimes in the civic center, sometimes far away, a long’s day walk maybe even two to three days walk and be cast outside of the normal environs of the city giving us an open space in which we can engage in something that’s a little bit out of the ordinary for our normal civic life.

Ritual activities.

There are many that are common in antiquity. There is the act of purification. In order to get engaged in an activity before we engage in ritual action we’ve got to clean ourselves. That could mean in a river, in any piece of water any body of water. An ablution that helps wash away whatever impurities might be on us. We may then put on special clothing that is certainly clean and not normally worn in everyday life.

We have processions, where we’ll have a dedication. A long march of us, all together walking up to a temple or an altar and some dedication given to the god. There may be fasting involved at different points in the ritual calendar. There might be fasting that leads into ritual activity, during ritual activity or after it. There are certain kinds of foods that we may associate with these ritual actions.

There maybe some special drink or food that we only eat during certain times, that are connected, with our ritual action.

(Credit ; Wikipedia)

One focus that generally shows up in ancient cult is the practice of sacrifice. The ancient Greeks would take animals, the larger the mammal the better, and specially prepare it, making it go through certain purification. There may be particular kinds of decoration that are attached to the animal. It is then led to an altar and ritually slaughtered, in honour of the divinity. The humans then carve up the meat and share it out and have a chance of having a large protein rich dinner in honour of a god. They would give a god a certain sacrifice which we’ve already discovered from Hesiod’s Theogony is thigh bones wrapped in fat. Cows are the sort of best of the sacrifice a person could give, bulls, oxen, the largest ones larger ones the better. Typically the ancients wouldn’t have sacrificed fish or birds apart from poultry. The things that a god likes to eat, map on pretty closely to things we like to eat. At the end of this ceremony comes the consumption. There could also be a non-animal sacrifices such as grains or fruits.

They would pour out ablutions to the gods, pouring out wine, water, milk whatever it might be. In the sacrifice it’s a curious custom to imagine that the gods want us to kill animals. It’s not idiosyncratic to the Greeks; it’s common all around the ancient Mediterranean and in other parts of the Old World too.

There are generally different kinds of customary explanations for why this activity is engaged in. As anthropologists in the contemporary world have looked back on the rituals some suggestions have been made as to why it might be done. There’s a clear indication that there’s a demand by the god that such a thing be done and it’s been a suggested among contemporary scholars that humans are transferring, whatever guilt they might feel at killing an animal and consuming its flesh onto the gods.  The thematics of sacrifice are pretty clear, we kill an animal and that reinforces its mortality which reminds us of our own. It sets all humans and animals, in strong contrast to those Olympian divinities that live forever. The death of a sacrifice confirms by contrast the deathlessness of the gods to whom we sacrifice. Then also at the end of the sacrifice we get a chance to share some meat, some really extraordinary foodstuffs for those living on grain-based diets.

Wine is an important part of the sacrifice ritual. There may be some wine poured onto the alter as a libation, but it is also consumed. In the rites of Dionysus, wine is consumed to utter excess, to the point where a person is drunk, in an almost violent way, extreme and completely out of their mind. This was part of what the ritual was all about. Wine was perfectly acceptable in ancient religious context.  Excessive drunkenness, such as we see in Dionysiac cults though, is idiosyncratic to Dionysus.

Dionysus. (Creedit :pantherfile.uwm.edu)

As the wine became part of the sacrifice too grand events started to happen around festivals. There are theatrical performances built into religious festivals such as what happens at the lovely theatre of Dionysus. There are also games built into religious sacrifices, songs, contests of all kinds. It’s likely, but we’re not absolutely sure, that it is within these festival and religious contexts that the hymns would have originally been performed. So when we there was a long weekend festival in honour of Athena, and there were games and feasts and festivals, sacrifices, drinking, all in her honour, we would have a closing off ceremony where there would be at least some moment during the ceremony where there would be some singing in honour of a god or goddess, and a hymn would have been a very appropriate form for that to be. It seems a reasonable assumption that this ritual activity was built into not just the thematic of the stories, but also into the modes by which they were performed and heard by the ancient audiences.

The Hymn to Demeter

Demeter (Credit : theoi.com)

We are starting with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter the full text can be found {here} there are some familiar themes. Demeter was connected with her daughter Persephone who went astray and was sucked down to the underworld and needed to be extracted from that situation. Her mother was deeply upset by it and this affects her fertility and her dominion over the earth.  When Demeter is upset reproductivity doesn’t happen so much.

The story is connected with the seasons. We have a story of fertility connected with a careful rendering of a mother-daughter relationship. There are also strong themes that connect to women’s transitions in the cycle of the aging of a woman from childhood to adulthood through puberty, entrance into marriage and child-bearing years and then moving from there into old age and beyond child-bearing years. Each of these is a very rich theme.

Credit : Classics.upenn.edu

There are strong identifiable links with one particular ancient festival that is the Eleusinian mysteries. This map shows what generally happens in Eleusinian mysteries. We start off in Athens in the red circle. A quick trip down to Piraeus gives us a chance to do our ablutions and clean ourselves up. This is a type of purification in the sea. Then a trip back to Athens and there’s a couple of days there with some ceremonies. The main procession starts on the fifth day as we move from Athens. There are some taunts and ritual abuse hurled at us as we go over a bridge crossing a river. We make our way to Eleusis where the main ceremony happens there on days six and seven, followed by a procession on day nine, and we make our way home.

This very famous nine day festival in antiquity was well known from as far back as we have written records. We don’t know a lot of the details but what we do know comes from this Homeric Hymn to Demeter. We try to fill that out details as best we can with the archaeological records and some references and later sources, most of which are dependent on the tradition that we can see on this map.

The Eleusinian Mysteries (Credit :mihaidohot-2.blogspot.com)

One connection between the story told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries is the location. Demeter, when she gets to Eleusis, finds a place to work out her grief over the loss of her daughter. This tells us right away that there’s a special connection between Demeter and these mysteries located at Eleusis. The name ‘mysteries’ gets pulled out in the story. We hear that Demeter understands that these rites in her honour are mysteries in her honour. There is a focus on fertility in the Eleusinian Mysteries which is clearly an important component of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. There is an explicit discussion in the story of the setting up of rites.  Demeter wants to make sure that there is a temple made to her and then an altar is set up for her. This comes up several times during the story and is a large part of what Demeter’s demands of the world to pay her back for the loss of her daughter.

We hear about secrecy and initiation. There is an initiation into these mysteries and that has to be according to a secret process. That’s characteristic of Eleusinian Mysteries, it’s mentioned explicitly in the hymn. A nine day period, such as we know the Eleusinian Mysteries followed, is also referenced in our story. We get a sense that the nine day chunk of time is important. There’s reference to, to Demeter wandering around for nine days looking for her daughter.

“Then for nine days queenly Deo wandered over the earth with flaming torches in her hands, so grieved that she never tasted ambrosia and the sweet draught of nectar, [50] nor sprinkled her body with water. But when the tenth enlightening dawn had come, Hecate, with a torch in her hands, met her, and spoke to her and told her news:”

We hear of a special drink, that she insist that she have, when she’s offered wine, a human drink, Gods wouldn’t probably drink that.Instead, she ask that a special drink be made for her, water with barley and mint.

“Then Metaneira filled a cup with sweet wine and offered it to her; but she refused it, for she said it was not lawful for her to drink red wine, but bade them mix meal and water with soft mint and give her to drink.”

We know that this played an important part in the Eleusinian Mysteries ritual tradition.

Iambe cheers Demeter by offering some funny things, and some light hearted commentary that she gives. There is, in antiquity, a tradition of nasty satirical poetry that’s very, very funny and does add a humorous tone to any subject. It also is pretty direct, racy and a little bit satire is not gentle. Now, the harshness that’s involved in the form of Iambe, the ancient satiric genre that’s referenced through this name also has a connection with this procession. At a certain point during the procession the celebrants go over a bridge over a river and they are teased mercilessly. The others that are hidden underneath hurl nasty insults and epithets at people going across.  This is a part of the festival and it’s built right in here to our account of Demeter’s story. Iambe ‘s purpose is to make a reference to this moment of ritual abuse that’s built into the cultic ceremony.

There’s a promise in the Eleusinian Mysteries also of a better after life. That’s an interesting thing to show up in ancient, ancient ritual. Mostly, ancient cultic worship, is about giving the gods a gift, and asking them to be kind in return. As we saw in Homer, it’s not a good thing to be dead. The underworld is not a place where ethical scores are settled the dead live the grey life of a shade. In the Mysteries there is a promise of a long and enduring afterlife where things would be very nice. Those who have been through the mystery and initiated into the cult learn a special sacred code word that lets them into a nicer place to spend eternity. That quality and characteristics of the Eleusinian Mysteries is reflected in the stories in the deep meditation on the power and possibilities of immortality and the face of mortality. We see Persephone, this immortal goddess go through a death. She visits the underworld and comes back out. The story connects mortality and immortality.

The exclusive rites that are practiced at Eleusis included a code of secrecy. The secret is revealed in the lecture by Peter Struck via the writing of Christian writer named Clement of Alexandria  in a piece of his writing The Exhortation to the Greeks,

In a way he tried to be quite nasty with these Greeks. He says, look, they have this, totally silly ritual that they practice in honour of this god that they think is Demeter, and they have this secret code word that’s supposed to be so important in their initiation rites. Well, here is  their secret code word, and Clement of Alexandria wrote it down and revealed it to us.

From – chapter ii.—“The absurdity and impiety of the heathen mysteries and fables about the birth and death of their gods”.  Of Clement’s “Exhortation to the heathen”

“And the following is the token of the Eleusinian mysteries: I have fasted, I have drunk the cup; I have received from the box; having done, I put it into the basket, and out of the basket into the chest. Fine sights truly, and becoming a goddess; mysteries worthy of the night, and flame, and the magnanimous or rather silly people of the Erechthidae, and the other Greeks besides”

Now if Clement is conveying it accurately all of us now know the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Themes in The Hymn to Demeter

Continuing the Homeric hymn to Demeter, we have a strong focus on women’s experience. The main characters, the main driving themes are things that are connected specifically to women. In the Odyssey, by contrast, the main focus was the Anthropos that was gendered male.

There are interesting doublings that happen inside of the story.

(credit ; Wesleyan.edu)

Metaneira and Demeter is an interesting pair of figures. Metaneira is near the end of her childbearing years, it says that she is someone who was waiting for a long time for Demophon to come. She was quite frightened that he wasn’t coming at all. She was praying to the Gods to see if he would come. When Demophon arrived she was thrilled and excited. We have someone who is nearing the end of that reproductive window, coming to a close on those childbearing years. Now she’s entering into a maturing state of taking care of this child and raising it, and nurturing it. Demeter, in the story is also beyond her childbearing years. In her disguise, she shows up as a person who has just been cast aside. She’s referred to by people that see her in disguise before they know who she is as granny. They start to peg her as a person who belongs in a society only in certain places. With that age come different rules for Demeter. Most of these rules are not the thing that a woman who is aspiring to a grand position in society would aspire to. Demeter is someone who has limited responsibilities and possibilities in this older stage of life. Metaneira is, by contrast, someone who can have those rules. She has a head of the household; the fullness of her reproductive powers has been shown through this through this child. She has capabilities, influence, and authority by those powers of reproduction. The same thing is mostly deprived of Demeter because of her position on the other side of this divide.

The Rape of Persephone (Picture credit : wesleyan.edu_

Persephone interestingly shows up in this understanding this meditation as well. She’s making a transition of a certain kind from being a girl living with her mother to living in another man’s home as a wife of some other person. This transition in the story is very clearly cast as a violence done to her. It’s not a pleasant thing, it’s painful for her and for her mother. It is the source of the most dramatic moments in the story and none of this drama is good drama. Persephone shows this transition into the husband’s household as filled with fear and isolation, a loss of innocence, and she has to now reimagine her relationships that she had, that were most dear to her with her mother and others. This is made in to in her case, an absolutely explicit parallel between moving away from her matrilineal home, being pulled in to the home of her new husband, the man who takes her away, in this case, being pulled away. That is characterized specifically as a death .Persephone, who is immortal experiences what it is to be dead. Hades spends all his time in the underworld but none of the other gods do apart from the odd trip, they try to avoid it. Persephone lives as an immortal experiencing the life of a mortal after death. She is positioned as a girl is making a transition from childhood into adulthood, characterized as a death. It’s quite heart wrenching and poignant to think about all the trauma that happened as her life undergoes great change. For Persephone, it also characterizes her entering into the stage of fertility. She’s entering into the stage when her relationships with men are changing.

The pomegranate seed is an interesting symbol, likely to be a symbol of a man’s seed. The fact that she took it in is something that now changes her status completely. When she comes back and has a moment of audience with her mother again after having been gone for so long. Her mother is very worried and asked:-

“My child, tell me, surely you have not tasted any food while you were below? Speak out and hide nothing, but let us both know.”

It’s as though she already knows because she could, can see it in her daughter, and having ingested the pomegranate seed means that now Persephone is now in a different stage in her life. Again, it is not a happy moment but a moment filled with drama, pain and loss.

The sons of Theseus, Demophon and Acamas rescue their grandmother .(Picture credit : maicar.com)

Persephone and Demophon make an interesting pair.  Demophon is Metaneira’s child from late in her reproductive life and she gives him to Demeter to be raised. Demophon clearly represents a substitute for Persephone. She gets a chance to take this figure in. She tries to make him immortal she gives him no mortal food. He doesn’t have mother’s milk but instead, she gives him ambrosia, the food that the gods eat. In the Homeric tradition, the eating of ambrosia and drinking of nectar is exactly what the gods do. When humans get a chance to taste these things, they start to show signs of being immoral. Keeping human food away from Demophon, and him ambrosia, brings him towards the immortal side of things. She also does this odd thing of burying him in the fire at night, which causes Metaneira to be a little upset. This has a linkage to blacksmithing; heating up metal can make it harder, firmer, and more durable. She thinks that through this cycle of treatments she will make Demophon immortal to compensate the loss of her daughter’s immortality. The book ends with the question of death, mortality, and immortality. We have the figures of Demophon and Persephone framing them, also Metaneira and Demeter. Demophon is the mortal who is may make a transition to immortality. Persephone is the immortal who makes the transition to mortality.

There is a lot of meditation around the question of reproduction. Human fertility and its complexity are themes built into the story. Each of them is connected with a question of mortality and immortality. We’re reminded each time there is a birth happens, we have the miracle of new life, then just as we learn about them, there is some quality that also reminds us that all of us are mortal. It’s as though with enfolding these two things together the author is telling us that we can’t really have one without the other.

Demeter and Persephone. (Photo credit : ancienthistory.about.com)

Here is a frieze that has Demeter and Persephone. Demophon may be the figure standing between the two of them or it might be Triptolemus who’ is one of the figures in the household. In a later tradition he and Demophoon exchange places. It could be that that’s what the artist is representing here. What we see in the story is a set of meditations on really important core themes about what it is to be human. We learn about stories through intimate portrayals of characters and going through these upsetting, difficult times. These characters just happened to be immortals but they seem extremely human.

 The Hymn to Apollo

Belvedere Apollo (credit ; Wikipedia)

From Demeter, we move on to the story of Apollo, the full text is [here]. The Homeric Hymn to Apollo is interesting just looking at its outlines. The translator separates the hymn to Apollo into to parts, one is the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo and the other is the Homeric hymn to Pythian Apollo. Those are legitimate separations, but they’re not there in the original manuscript. We don’t know for sure that these were thought of as two separate hymns. What we have is a story about Apollo that at the beginning has a lot of action and then seems to end after a couple of hundred lines. The poet says, Goodbye, Apollo, then we jump into a new story about Apollo that tells a more extended story with another goodbye Apollo at the end. So it looks like two hymns sewn together. It’s helpful to remember that it is one in the original as a poet would present this as a single hymn to Apollo.

The Hymn to Apollo: Delos

Apollo is a very powerful god. He is frightening. So, frightening that when Leto is trying to find a place to give birth to him, most places turned her down they don’t want that god to be associated with them. We hear of Leto’s journey as tries to find a place to give birth to Apollo. The locations that are mentioned are all places that give cultic worship and have cultic connections with Apollo. The hymnic author is giving us a way, to understand that this is the connection that this place has with Apollo.  We can see also another example of the use of lists.

“Among those who are in Crete, and in the township of Athens, and in the isle of Aegina and Euboea, famous for ships, in Aegae and Eiresiae and Peparethus near the sea, in Thracian Athos and Pelion‘s towering heights and Thracian Samos and the shady hills of Ida, [35] in Scyros and Phocaea and the high hill of Autocane and fair-lying Imbros and smouldering Lemnos and rich Lesbos, home of Macar, the son of Aeolus, and Chios, brightest of all the isles that lie in the sea, and craggy Mimas and the heights of Corycus [40] and gleaming Claros and the sheer hill of Aesagea and watered Samos and the steep heights of Mycale, in Miletus and Cos, the city of Meropian men, and steep Cnidos and windy Carpathos, in Naxos andParos and rocky Rhenaea — [45] so far roamed Leto in travail with the god who shoots afar, to see if any land would be willing to make a dwelling for her son. But they greatly trembled and feared, and none, not even the richest of them, dared receive Phoebus, [50] until queenly Leto set foot on Delos and uttered winged words and asked her:”

Leto giving birth to Artemis. (Credit ; greek-gods.info)

Artemis emerges from her at the same time she has twins. Apollo is the one that we hear about in this story, but the linkage between Apollo, Artemis and Leto is strong, rich and well-attested throughout the tradition. Leto finds her birth place for Apollo on Delos. To do so she has to promise abundance of crops and a temple among other bribes. Delos relents after the, the promise of riches and fame and allows that the birth should happen there. The island is personified in the story.  Leto enters into nine days of labor. The number nine shows up again as indicative of a very long time. This number showed up in the Hymn to Demeter in the context of something very long connected to the rites of the Eleusinian mysteries.

Apollo and Artemis. (Credit ; Wikimedia)

Apollo then emerges, declares his powers, what he’s all about and what his specialties are. He has the overlook the overview over prophecy. One of the important pieces of the world that Apollo keeps an eye on is prophecy. He’s careful to say that, although he will have a prophetic view, it is a view of the will of Zeus. Apollo’s relationship with Zeus is interesting. Apollo is an extremely strong and powerful god indeed some aspects in the tradition suggest that Apollo may have been, at some point the very top of all the gods. They’re very small and very subtle suggestions built into this Hymn to Apollo. One of them is his explicit mentioning of Zeus as he’s declaring his powers and talking about himself, but he’s being careful not to make a challenge to Zeus. We never hear a direct challenge of Zeus. But there are some of the aspects of Apollo that lead us to think he really was extremely powerful in the Pantheon and maybe even suggest so powerful that he could have been the most important one.

Apollo then initiates his cultic practice by finding his place in the world and having humans worship him. We hear about the famous Delian maidens and the song that they sing in Apollo’s honour.

So Leta makes it to Delos and gives birth and we hear about this establishment of a cult there. It seems very much like a conclusion. Goodbye and off we go be nice to me, gods. This is the way hymns end. In the traditional manuscript in Greek, there is no distinction, between these two hymns. One line flows right into the next.

 The Hymn to Apollo: Delphi

The second part of Apollo’s story is centered on the Temple at Delphi.

Delphi (Credit : Wikimedia)

Delphi is a very famous place in antiquity with a long and deep connection with Apollo. Apollo is connected with the Delos where he was born then we move stories and we move to the stories that center on Delphi. The suggestion is that we what we might have here is a single hymnist’s attempt to bring two very different traditions together into one hymn and that way please both sides of a powerful audience. Those at Delos that like to think that Apollo is especially connected with them and those at Delphi they think Apollo is especially connected with them. This author gives them both pride of place and cuts out some of the parts that maybe would have made the transition a little bit abrupt. Themes carry over from the earlier part of the hymn into this second piece.

Apollo is frightening, he’s a very powerful god and the other gods are a little concerned about it. His power causes people to shake. His grandeur is so grand that it causes some anxiety. The geographical lists show up again. Apollo makes his way around the Mediterranean as he moves along the Greek Coast and farther pieces of the Mediterranean trying to find a spot to build a temple. He needs to find his place on Earth, and those place names, just as we saw in the earlier hymn, are connected with specific features of Apollo’s cultic worship. There are temple sites at these places; there are other, pieces of Apollo’s background that map onto these geographical locations. Each of them has a connection with Apollo. The hymnist shows an encyclopaedic attempt to get all of the traditions around Apollo, listing them together. That is his way of being able to join together lots of different Apollo traditions into a single hymnic form.

Apollo, as he emerges and causes some fright among the people, declares his power once again. We have a prophecy, song, medicine; these things show up and come out of Apollo, as he declares what his view of the future. His prophecy here is to declare the will of Zeus, which means that Apollo’s being careful to cede to Zeus, his father. He’s authoritative and powerful, but he wants to make sure also that everyone realizes he understands his role is subordinate to Zeus.

Our main story is Apollo trying to find a place to settle. He is looking around, trying to find a place where he can build a temple. That place turns out to be Delphi. He establishes rites and gets himself set up. So, once again there is a sense of a god in search of something, a god in search of a place, trying to find a spot where he belongs. That’s definitely true in our Homeric hymn to Demeter. She needs to get re-acquainted and rebuilt built back into her Homeric her Olympian society after this trauma with her and Persephone.  Apollo is just trying to find his spot, where he belongs on Earth and what rites are to be established in his honour, a place where he can be worshiped.

A ritual dimension of this story is extremely pronounced apart from Apollo trying to find a spot where he can be worshiped. This seems to be a really important part of what gods want. They like it when we pay attention to them. We’re a critical piece of their identity. Trying to find that spot and establish it in Apollo’s hymn really comes through as a critical part of him finding his own place in the universe is finding a place for human beings to worship him.

We hear a story of Telphusa, a personified spring. Apollo tells her that he wants to build a temple there and laid out the foundations.

“..when Telphusa saw this, she was angry in heart and spoke, saying: “Lord Phoebus, worker from afar, I will speak a word of counsel to your heart, since you are minded to make here a glorious temple to be an oracle for men who will always bring hither perfect hecatombs for you; yet I will speak out, and do you lay up my words in your heart. The trampling of swift horses and the sound of mules watering at my sacred springs will always irk you, and men will like better to gaze at the well-made chariots and stamping, swift-footed horses than at your great temple and the many treasures that are within.”

Apollo listens to goes up into the folds of Parnassus.  Up the hill you don’t have room for people to be make gestures with their herds and horses; instead you get into Dephi’s territory. People’s movement is a little bit more constricted and there is a geographical focus on one spot, and that is this wonderful temple shrine at Delphi. Apollo finds it to be his special spot on Earth. He’s ready, sets up his temple, and gets himself established. He’s finally found a place to be.

Altar of Zeus. (Credit :uned.es)

“Apollo spoke and laid out the foundations wide, solid, and very long. And a stone threshold was placed by the sons Erginus, Trophonius, and Agamedes, friends of the deathless god, the endless human nations raised a temple of carved stone to be sung about forever. A lovely spring flowed near, where the noble son of Zeus killed a huge snake by his stout bow, there. A savage, bloated monster who brought outrage continually on the country’s people and slender-footed sheep, a gory curse.”

This is the story of Apollo’s conquest to secure a safe zone for those around Delphi to worship him. As we start talking about this snake there are dozens of lines talking about some other monster. In Hesiod’s tale of Zeus’ conquest there’s this monster Typheus that comes up at the very end, after Zeus has conquered everyone else, Earth produces

(Credit ;maravot.com)

Typheus, and then Typheus comes and attacks Zeus. After Zeus slays Typheus, he’s, established and that was the last challenge at his authority. In this case, we have a lot of digression about this monster, here called Typheon, but it’s clearly the same one. The story varies in some of its details but mostly it reflects the same thing, talking about Zeus’ conquest of it. The relationship between that and our snake is not absolutely obvious unless you re-read it very closely. What the author’s saying is that this monster, that Zeus slew, famous Typhaon, well known throughout the universe as the last impediment to Zeus’ authority, has a relationship with the snake. The snake served as the foster mother to this creature and raised Typhaon. Zeus slew Typheus, Typhaon, but the god Apollo, slew the mother of Typhaon. The snake was such a monster it could serve, as foster mother to Typheus.  The comparison here I think suggests very subtly that Apollo’s power in the universe is very strong. So strong in fact that some might have made a claim at some point along the way that Apollo was actually superior to Zeus.  There are no mythical or traditional references that talk about that. Zeus is top dog, and always has been top dog in the mythic stories, but it’s stories like this and the story that talks about all the gods being terrified of Apollo and how powerful he is, all the places that are scared to bring him in that I think suggest very subtly that those partisans that backed Apollo as their local divinity and god might well have had designs on trying to think about him as being top dog in the universe.

From there we get a story that builds. There is the conquering of Pytho that is linked to an important ruler who helps us understand who and what Apollo is all about. The list of epithets that show up in this story each of them are attachments to Apollo’s name, Pythian Apollo. Telephousios is

Apollo and Dolphins (Credit ;uncg.edu)

another of Apollo’s nick names. Apollo of Delphi, Delphinios, these are terms that get linked with Apollo in the tradition of rites that surround him and epithets attached to his name. This story gives us a reason for how these names got attached to him.

Pytho is the name that the beast gets because it comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to rot’. After Apollo killed it, the beast rotted there on the plain and so the term Pythian gets attached to Apollo. Telephus seems to recall Telphusa, the water nymph that talked Apollo out of settling his temple in the plains. That helps us understand cultic epithet of Apollo, Telephousios, and also Delphi.

In the final part Apollo is searching for someone who can tend his rites for him. He needs a human population to surround his temple and execute his rites on his behalf. Some Cretan sailors come sailing by. Apollo appears to them in the form of a dolphin.

“But Phoebus Apollo met them:  in the open sea he sprang upon their swift ship, like a dolphin in shape, and lay there, a great and awesome monster, and none of them gave heed so as to understand;  but they sought to cast the dolphin overboard. But he kept shaking the black ship every way and making the timbers quiver.”

They’re scared; they’re not sure what’s happening. He starts to take over their ship and guide them around. Lots of places are visited that had to do with Apollo’s cult and we have the list again of all those locations. Eventually Apollo

“Strangers who once dwelt about wooded Cnossos but now shall return no more each to his loved city and fair house and dear wife; here shall you keep my rich temple that is honored by many men. I am the son of Zeus; Apollo is my name: but you I brought here over the wide gulf of the sea, meaning you no hurt; nay, here you shall keep my rich temple that is greatly honored among men, and you shall know the plans of the deathless gods, and by their will you shall be honored continually for all time. And now come, make haste and do as I say.”

The term, Delphi comes from this Delphinian background in the story the Greek term ‘’Delphis’’, is a way of saying dolphin.

 Myth and Ritual

Peter Struck introduced another tool to put into our toolbox. At certain points in the course we step back and make some theoretical observations on how these myths work. We’ve talked about structuralism, and psychoanalysis, and functionalism as ways to get a grip on the myths that we’re working with. Here we stopped to look at myth and ritual. You can find it in the tool box.



  1. Oscar Lema says:

    English is not my native lenguage, I have found in this page the phrase: “water with barley and mint”, but in Peter Struck’ coursera on Mythology I think that I heard the same phrase as “Water with barley and peniwel (maybe pennywell”). (I have searched for several possibilites in several diccionaries but witout success). Is it then Mint?

  2. Louise Taylor says:

    Hello Oscar. I too could not find a translation for peniwel – with whatever spelling. I found a reference to water with barley and mint in another translation of the same text. I have assumed that it is a variety.

  3. I think he meant pennyroyal, though that is a herb of rather poisonous qualities. Not sure, but that is my understanding

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