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Interim Readings > Homeric Hymns: The Hymn to Demeter

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments While the James discussion is still going strong, and I expect will for some time, it's also time to introduce our next Interim Read. For a break between two Victorian era works (well, Varieties was published the year after her death, but who's counting) I'm taking us back to ancient days with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Not, almost certainly, written by Homer, but called Homeric because – well, because really depends on who you ask.

The Hymn to Demeter is one of the richest myths in Greek literature. It works on almost every level of myth analysis, from Frazier’s totemism to Levi-Strauss’s Structuralism to Freud’s psychological approaches and on and on. It also provides significant insights into Greek cultural practices, including marital practices, child rearing, theories of death, and more. It also gets into the origin of the famous Eleusinian Mysteries.

There are a number of translations of the Homeric hymns – just search any online bookstore to see. [Some editions have two Hymns to Demeter; the one we want is the longer, usually appearing early in the publication; the other is very short, only about 10 lines.] Several online translations that seem to me to be reasonably credible, though being in the public domain they are older translations, can be found here.

From Gutenberg.org, Andrew Lang translation:
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/16338
(There’s a lot of introductory material; the actual Hymn to Demeter starts on page 183, or search for “Of fair-tressed Demeter, Demeter holy Goddess, I begin to sing:”

From Gutenberg.org, the complete Loeb Classical Library edition of Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, translated by H.G. Evelyn-White
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/348
(Use the Table of Contents to find The Homeric Hymns; II is the Hymn to Demeter, 495 lines)


Gregory Nagy translation, with some notes: two places
http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology...
(Larger text, but notes pop up in a separate window)
or
http://uh.edu/~cldue/texts/demeter.html

The Perseus version in case you want to check the Greek or read their notes.
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/t...

Those are only a few. There are plenty more!

For other information, here’s an excerpt from the OUP work Classical Mythology on the Hymn to Demeter:
http://global.oup.com/us/companion.we...

A segment on Youtube from a MOOC course (don’t know which one) from Penn which discusses the Hymn:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oiYT...

For those who have Vandiver’s Teaching Company lectures on Classical Mythology, she has an excellent lecture on the Hymn.

And if you do your own search you’ll find that there is a lifetime (almost, and maybe even actually if you’re old like me) of other links on the Hymn, it being one of the most famous and most analyzed myths of the whole Greek mythology.


message 2: by Gloria (new)

Gloria Sun (sunrequiem) | 5 comments I took the Penn MOOC (from Coursera) and so I had to read this hymn as part of the course. I agree, really rich and worth revisiting!


message 3: by Rosemarie (new)

Rosemarie It sounds fascinating. I have been reading a lot of Victorians lately and am looking forward to reading this soon.


message 4: by Borum (new)

Borum | 535 comments I've got Michael Crudden's translation and the notes were pretty helpful. I also read this book as a part of the Coursera course, but only read parts of it.


message 5: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments I gave you a link to a MOOC episode on the Hymn to Demeter, but as I started watching it at more length I realized that it was part (the fourth) of a sequence of lectures on the Homeric Hymns.

You can find the first of this sequence here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywvfv...

I can't find a link to the second lecture on the hymns, but here's the link to the third, which seems to be the first on the Hymn to Demeter.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHR7G...


message 6: by Borum (last edited Jul 20, 2016 09:13PM) (new)

Borum | 535 comments I've had the impression that Demeter wanted to 'make up' for the loss of her daughter by trying to make Demophoon immortal and free from the domain of Hades (and not repeat the loss of her loved child to Hades).

I also see her teaching the Eleusinian mysteries as making up for her failure to revert the mortality of Demophoon or the return of Persephone to the underworld in winter. When she rebuked Metaneira with the words
"Ignorant humans, who lack the discernment to know in advance
Your portion of good or ill, as one or the other draws near!
Woman, your folly's misled you beyond all chance of a cure."

I thought that she could have said the same to her own daughter as she lacked the discernment before eating those pomegranate seeds.

Maybe she felt regret for the lack of insight on behalf of the humans AND the Gods themselves and maybe felt pity or sympathy of some kind, and hence the iniation into the Eleusinian mysteries that lets us glimpse into the transcendental and elusive domain of the afterworld and puts us on the path to mystic wisdom and rebirth.


message 7: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Borum wrote: "I've had the impression that Demeter wanted to 'make up' for the loss of her daughter by trying to make Demophoon immortal and free from the domain of Hades (and not repeat the loss of her loved ch..."

Demeter caring for Demophon as her own is one instance of how the gods care for mortals (in a rather human way), but the importance of the divine-human relationship really struck me at the moment when Zeus realizes that mortals are unable to offer sacrifices because of the famine that Demeter has caused. Unless the gods treat the humans well, the gods reap no rewards. So Zeus must make amends, lest the gods go as hungry for honor as the mortals go hungry for food. Humans are not dispensable, as puny and mortal as we are.


message 8: by Borum (new)

Borum | 535 comments Thomas wrote: "Borum wrote: "I've had the impression that Demeter wanted to 'make up' for the loss of her daughter by trying to make Demophoon immortal and free from the domain of Hades (and not repeat the loss o..."

So I guess it's a give-and-take interdependent relationship.. :-)
and the Greeks were giving us good reasons to make us feel better about ourselves. Way to boost the ego.


message 9: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Yes, an interdependent relationship, similar perhaps to the way we think of an ecosystem today. A disruption in the harvest on earth results in a disruption on Olympus. I guess that follows from the role of Demeter in the pantheon -- as the goddess of agriculture, famine must be her fault, somehow, and there are ramifications both on earth and in the heavens. Ultimately the famine can only be lifted by the gods though, so the relationship is interdependent but not equal.


message 10: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments I notice that in the Perseus version that lines 387-400 have been "reconstructed." (A note in the Nagy translation says that there is only one manuscript of this hymn, and those lines have been lost due to a tear in the page.) Does anyone know how this was done? Is it just conjecture?


message 11: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: Demeter caring for Demophon as her own is one instance of how the gods care for mortals (in a rather human way).."

Hmmm. I find it's almost always a mistake to disagree with Thomas, especially on the Greek writers, but I'm not sure about this one.

I'm not she it's a matter of caring for the mortals, as much as wanting to have someone to mother in place of Persephone. After all, she wants to turn Demophon into a God, to take him away from morality and his moral parents. In a way, to steal him away from his parents as Persephone was stolen away from her.

And another possible aspect of this: her daughter has gone down into the underworld, the world of death, has been taken by Hades/Aidoneus (same person; why does the author use multiple names?) so she's responding by taking a child who would normally be destined for death, for Hades's world, and is in essence stealing him away from Hades -- tit for tat.

I do wonder how much she cares for Demophon as a mortal, since as soon as her plan is discovered she tosses him away. If he can no longer serve her purposes, she has no caring for him.

My sense of the gods is that they really don't care about mortals except when they can have sex with (usually rape) them, and the fact that they are useful for offering sacrifices -- this seems to me why Zeus negotiates the end to Demeter's famine-inducement; not because he cares for the humans for their sake, but because if they all die off the gods won't get any more sacrifices.


message 12: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Zeus giving his daughter Persephone away in marriage without consulting or telling her mother is apparently, according to Vandiver, an accurate representation of Greek marital customs of the time. The father gave his daughter away. While some men may have consulted their wives or daughters before giving her away, but was under no obligation to, and often didn't. (Nearly 3,000 years later, and even in a traditional modern wedding the father still gives the bride away to the groom.)

Like much of modern western society, Greek society was patrimonial, with the woman going to live with the man (that's been breaking down in the past half century or so, but it's still I think the more common way). But that was the standard in ancient Greece. (Actually, having the husband move in with the bride in many ways makes more sense, since the woman would probably prefer to have her mother helping her through childbirth and early child rearing rather than her husband's mother whom she might never have met before the wedding. But that's not how they did it, or how we generally do it.)

Another aspect is that upper class women seldom ventured out of their houses or immediate neighborhoods, so if the daughter moved very far away, the mother might only see her a few times a year at best. So Demeter grieving for losing her daughter would have been a very recognizable and common experience for a Greek mother; in this aspect, as in Zeus just giving Persephone away, the hymn is transplanting the human customs on to the gods.

One other aspect in which this divine marriage reflects Greek society: Zeus gives Persephone to her uncle. Since property descended by the male line, if a woman had only female children (as Demeter has only a daughter), on the death of the father the property would go away from his family to the bride's family, and be lost to his family. (It wouldn't go to brothers, cousins, etc., but to the child, in that case the daughter, but of course in reality to her husband and his family.) To avoid this, when a couple had only female children, it was quite normal to marry one off to the uncle with the hope that they would have a male child and the family property would remain in the family. Meaningless here, since Zeus isn't going to die and so no male child is needed to protect his property (not to mention that he has plenty of sons, but we're talking here about the offspring of Demeter and Zeus as a couple). Again, a human custom imposed onto the gods.


message 13: by Rex (new)

Rex | 206 comments Some quick thoughts:

Demeter is the giver of life. As an agricultural goddess, the harvest is in her hands, and with it the survival of humanity. With humanity also hangs their sacrifices, the peculiar honor of the gods (313). Demeter therefore plays an integral role in divine-human reciprocity. As the story of Demophoon's near-immortality and the subsequent forcing of Zeus's hand make clear, her powers even to an extent transcend death (Hades). Thus she is worthy of the rites of Eleusis.

Persephone, then, is a kind of intermediate figure between Demeter and Hades, with each of whom she spends part of the year. If Demeter is the source of life, Persephone is that life as soul. She is doomed to death by the will of the divine, and lured to that death by a flower, like the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then she is forced to taste the fruit of death (cf. Demeter, in whose hands are the fruit of life). However, Demeter prevents her from falling utterly into Hades, creating a cycle of death and renewal.

Those who pay no honor to Demeter and Persephone, the hymn states, are doomed to a dark afterlife. But devotion to these goddesses, through the Eleusinian Mysteries, binds the mortal soul to the divine life-font.


message 14: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Everyman wrote: "Thomas wrote: Demeter caring for Demophon as her own is one instance of how the gods care for mortals (in a rather human way).."

Hmmm. I find it's almost always a mistake to disagree with Thomas, ..."


I'm happy that you disagree -- either it means I'm wrong and I need to rethink this, or I'm not communicating something and I need to restate it. Or something in between... in any case, I always learn something from disagreement. Especially when I'm wrong!

So in rethinking this, it seems to be a question of care. How do the gods care for, or about mortals? I think you're right that the gods, in general, do not care about the welfare of humans, except insofar as they affect their own cravings for the "timai" that come from sacrifice. But the Greek gods are anthropomorphic, and in this myth Demeter emulates human care for a child -- Demeter is stricken with grief at the loss of her child, and she does want someone to mother, a surrogate for Persephone. Why a human mortal? Is it surprising that a human child might be sufficient for a goddess?

When the children encounter Demeter, she is sitting in the shade of an olive tree, "like those nursemaids who belong to kings." (This scene reminds me a little of the scene in Book 4 of the Odyssey when Odysseus washes ashore in Phaeacia and is led back to the palace of King Alcinous.) Demeter tells them, "it is not unseemly to tell you the truth" and proceeds to tell them a series of lies about who she is. Later on, when she agrees to raise Demophon, she hides how she is "raising" the lad until she is caught by Demophon's mother. Metaneira is scared witless and Demeter is furious. There seems to be something forbidden about this relationship, this intimacy between gods and mortals... it may be inappropriate, but it does seem to me to be a kind of care.

Maybe Demeter's urge to mother Demophon is an extension of her nature as a caretaker of crops and the harvest. It's true that she abandons Demophon, but in the depths of her despair she abandons her crops as well. The time is out of joint.

There are a few different lines that are repeated in the hymn, but this one seems to me most poignant:

We humans endure the gifts the gods give us, even when we are grieving over what has to be.


message 15: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "Demeter is stricken with grief at the loss of her child, and she does want someone to mother, a surrogate for Persephone. Why a human mortal?."

Perhaps simple availability? She mated with Zeus to have Persephone, but as far as we know she's not married, so she would have to have another affair and out of wedlock child (which doesn't seem to bother the gods) to have her own child to nurture. And presumably wait nine months, though god children can be produced in some very bizarre ways. But unless she can find another goddesses's child to raise, which seems dubious, her only option is a human child. Which she promptly decides to turn into a god.


message 16: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments Everyman wrote: ""

Perhaps simple availability? She mate..."


Certainly she is opportunistic, but I wonder why the gods have any interaction with mortals at all if they are of no real concern to them. This question could be put just as well of the gods in the Homeric epics. Why does Athena take a special interest in Odysseus?

The hymn to Demeter seems to have an interest, ultimately, in explaining or justifying the rite of Eleusis, which Rex very nicely summarized above. The mortal who is initiated in the rites is "olbios," blessed or happy. (This is the same word that Herodotus uses in the story about Croesus and Solon... "count no man happy (olbios) until he is dead." ) At the end of this hymn it is those who have been initiated who are "olbios" because they (Demeter and Persephone) decide to love them. This love is far from unconditional and clearly bound up in the rites, a give-and-take relationship, but it still seems to me a relationship of care, even if it does end up being a bit business like.


message 17: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1750 comments Isn't it odd that this "hymn" is basically just a narrative story? There's little or none of the praises to the divinity, or requests for favors, such as one finds in the Rig Veda, and certainly little of the appeals for justice and righteousness, as one finds in the Psalms.


message 18: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Roger wrote: "Isn't it odd that this "hymn" is basically just a narrative story? There's little or none of the praises to the divinity, or requests for favors, such as one finds in the Rig Veda, and certainly li..."

The term hymn, I've read, isn't a good translation (just as god isn't really a good translation of the Greek divinities; Vandiver has said that she wishes she could teach her classics courses without ever using the term, just use the Greek theos, but she would have to translate all the works herself to get rid of the term. But the term god carries for modern readers/students a lot of assumptions that the Greek theos don't have. And I think similarly the term hymn.


message 19: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4614 comments The term "hymn" is not in the Greek text -- the title is just "To Demeter." I would guess that the title was supplied by an editor rather than the author anyway. But the poet begins with a typically Homeric line "I begin to sing of fair-haired holy Demeter," the style is that of the Homeric epics (dactylic hexameter) and it ends with a prayer to Demeter -- so it must be a "hymn" like the others.

Apparently the only manuscript of this hymn was found in a stable in Moscow in 1777. I stumbled across this little gem but haven't had much time to delve into it:

https://books.google.com/books?id=9gk...


message 20: by Clarissa (new)

Clarissa (clariann) | 215 comments Everyman wrote: "While the James discussion is still going strong, and I expect will for some time, it's also time to introduce our next Interim Read. For a break between two Victorian era works (well, Varieties wa..."

I don't always have time to look in on the online reading groups, but I'm glad I did today. Thank you for the links, I enjoyed this piece immensely. The video on youtube was very enlightening, it made me think of the Persephone story in a new way. I've been familiar with it for such a long time, but never thought about it in this way before as a reflection of the stages of a woman's life. The idea of the end of girlhood and the entrance to a sexual world as a death, is thought provoking and perhaps reflected as well in how Demeter shreds her goddess beauty and appears as an old woman near the end of her life.


message 21: by Clarissa (new)

Clarissa (clariann) | 215 comments Thomas wrote: "Everyman wrote: "Thomas wrote: Demeter caring for Demophon as her own is one instance of how the gods care for mortals (in a rather human way).."

Hmmm. I find it's almost always a mistake to disag..."


I read the poem as Demeter does care for the mortal child, she hides her true identity as she wants to be free to nurse the boy without the reverence that would be given to her real identity. When she is discovered I didn't see her abandoning Demophon, but angry because the true mortal mother is claiming him back before Demeter was able to make him immortal. Thus Demophon will die and leave her just as her true child, Persephone, has disappeared.


message 22: by Borum (new)

Borum | 535 comments Clari wrote: "Thomas wrote: "Everyman wrote: "Thomas wrote: Demeter caring for Demophon as her own is one instance of how the gods care for mortals (in a rather human way).."

Hmmm. I find it's almost always a m..."


I've seen mothers who lose their child through an accident, diseases or kidnapping and when they get another child or adopt another one they're extremely careful (some are even obsessive) not to let the same thing happen again. People who lose beloved pets usually can't help getting another one to love.

Observations like that made me understand Demeter's behavior to Demophoon in that light. I guess it also has some of the 'exchange' factor and the 'opportunistic' side as well, being a reflection on the collective social norms. However, I think that every myth involves a human emotional aspect to some extent whether in its creation or interpretation.

I may be mistaken here but I also think that Demeter's status as a mother nature goddess may set her care of mortals apart from the other gods. This is true in most societies but especially true in the ancient Greek world. We don't expect the same kind of love from our mother and father (or uncle or aunt or lord or teacher or what have you).


message 23: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany (ladyperrin) | 269 comments #11 Everyman wrote: "... has been taken by Hades/Aidoneus (same person; why does the author use multiple names?) ..."

I encounter a similar thing when reading Asian classics. One translator mentioned that it had more to do with which aspect of the character being mentioned that the author wanted to draw forward or emphasize. Just consider the following comments from Rex (#13) (my bolding):

Demeter is the giver of life. As an agricultural goddess, the harvest is in her hands, and with it the survival of humanity.

Not sure if this is the same tradition in the Greek classics. But focusing on different aspects of the person/character is definitely something we do when talking about the Greek deities (and other famous people).

I also find it interesting the ways the different translators approach this. The Nagy version appears to aim for faithfulness to the original with additional notes for clarity (I'm assuming as I don't read Greek) while the Evelyn-White version seems to aim for general readability.


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