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The Homeric Hymns: A Translation, with Introduction and Notes Hardcover – February 12, 2004
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"This translation beautifully captures the style of the Homeric Hymns, at once pictorial and flowing. With an art that conceals art, Rayor finds the right euphonious language: accurate, vibrant without calling attention to itself, varied in tone, and natural. It is a delight to read."-Eva Stehle, author of Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece
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As I have commented in reviews of other translations, by Apostolos N. Athanassakis (Johns Hopkins, 1976), Jules Cashford (Penguin Classics, 2003, with Introduction and Notes by Nicholas Richardson) and Martin L. West ("Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, Lives of Homer," Loeb Classical Library, 2003, with a newly-edited Greek text), this long-neglected body of texts has received several bursts of attention over the last few decades.
After a gap between World War I (Evelyn-West's old Loeb bilingual edition of 1914, last revised 1936; probably still available for awhile) and the 1960s, we now have English renderings by Boer (1970; a second edition [1975?] restored a Hymn to Apollo), Sargent (W.W. Norton, 1973), Athanassakis, Shelmerdine (Focus, 1995), Crudden (Oxford World's Classics, 2002), Cashford, West, and now Diane Rayor (University of California, 2004) -- counting only those currently in print. There are also editions and translations of individual hymns. Although English readers await a modern full critical text edition (the most recent are Italian: West, following the Loeb format, gives only major manuscript variants and those emendations he uses, with minimal, albeit useful, notes), and a full commentary to replace the venerable Allen, Halliday and Sikes (second edition, 1936), this is still a superabundance. "Get just one, or collect the whole set!" comes to mind.
A recent review by a professional classicist (Stephen Evans, on-line in the "Bryn Mawr Classical Review" 2004.08.02) points out that the Crudden, Cashford, and Rayor translations all have annotations and / or introductions which survey recent literature on the hymns, but that they tend to favor different approaches, and so display remarkably little overlap in their coverage.
Rayor does join Crudden in discussing Near-Eastern parallels to the hymns. Where Crudden cites comparisons of Hymn 3, the great Hymn (or Hymns) to Apollo, to Babylonian and Assyrian compositions about the exploits of the warrior-god Ninurta, though, Rayor is willing to go back to their Sumerian predecessors for the Hymn to Aphrodite. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the stripping of the love-goddess Inanna (= Ishtar) of her magic vestments as she passes the gates of the Netherworld has much to do with the undressing of the disguised (as a mortal) Aphrodite by the Trojan prince Anchises in Hymn 5 -- particularly since the living body of Inanna is described throughout in terms of the materials of her own cult statue (something even the smitten Anchises would have noticed). The passage comes from "The Descent of Inanna," which Rayor calls a hymn, although it is usually classed as a narrative. These are not mutually exclusive, as both Greek and Mesopotamian examples show, but if it *is* a hymn, it is *not* to Inanna, but to her rival, the Queen of the Netherworld: it ends with the invocation "Holy Ereshkigal, sweet is your praise!" Still, taken as a "type-scene," it is an interesting parallel, particularly since the setting of the Hymn to Aphrodite is explicitly *not* Greece, but "foreign" (Asia Minor); and Greek re-workings even of Greek sources can be rather drastic.
Diane Rayor's translations are not only the product of a distinguished classicist; they have been polished over several years of public readings, and with her students, to create a version which actually works in performance -- at least in American English. Most other available translations are worth reading aloud (with perhaps the exception of Boer's visually experimental free verse, and certainly of Evelyn-White's stodgy prose), but Rayor's alone invites it.
Here is a sample of three recent versions of The (Delian and Pythian) Hymn(s) to Apollo (Hymn 3), lines 331-339, for comparison. Hera, Queen of the Gods, is furious over the many children fathered on others by her husband Zeus, the successful rebel against their father Kronos and his fellow Titans, and current King of the Gods -- particularly the "motherless" Athena, who emerged from his head.
When she had spoken, she went away from the gods,
Her heart very angry. Then immediately
She prayed, the lady Hera with her cow-eyes,
And she struck the earth
With her hand flat against it, saying:
`Hear me now, Gaia, and broad Ouranos high above,
and you Titan gods who live beneath the earth
around great Tartaros from whom men and gods come.
Listen to me now, all of you,
And give me a child apart from Zeus
And one not lesser than him in strength.
Rather, may he be as much stronger than Zeus,
Who sees all things, as Zeus, for his part,
Is stronger than Kronos.'
So saying, she went apart from the gods, angry at heart. Then straightway she prayed, did the mild-eyed lady Hera, and struck the earth with the flat of her hand and said, "Hear me now, Earth and broad Heaven above, and you Titan gods who dwell below the earth around great Tartarus, and from whom gods and men descend; all of you now in person, hear me and grant me a son without Zeus' help, in no way falling short of him in strength, but as much superior as wide-sounding Zeus is to Kronos."
In great fury, she stormed from the gods.
Eyes dark and wide as a cow's, Queen Hera prayed
And with down-turned palms struck the earth:
"Now hear me Earth and wide Heaven above,
and Titans, gods beneath the earth, dwelling around
great Tartaros, from whom men and gods derive:
all hear me and grant me a child apart from Zeus,
in no way weaker in strength than he, a child greater
than Zeus by as much as Zeus is greater than Kronos."