HYMN TO HERMES
A. LUDWICH, Hymn. Hom. in Mercur. (Acad. Alb. Regimontii, 1890, iii.).
Hymn. Hom. Mercurii Germanice versus (Acad. Alb. Regimontii, 1891, i.).
A. LANG, The Homeric Hymns (Translation) p. 35 f., 1899.
ROSCHER AND SCHERER, art. Hermes in Roscher's Lex.
PRELLER-ROBERT, Griech. Myth. i. p. 385 f.
I. Subject and motive.The theme is more varied than those of the other great hymns. There is a unity of time, for the action is continuous, taking place in the first two days of Hermes' life; but there is no close unity of subject: the several episodes are not integral parts of a single myth, and the commentators have vainly puzzled themselves to discover one underlying motif to connect the different parts of the hymn. The connexion lies simply in the fact that the episodes all deal with the first exploits of the infant god, and shew how, by his cunning and dexterity, he vindicated his birthright, and won the attributes which distinguished him in maturity.58 Hermes has perhaps the most complex character of any deity in Greek mythology, and the poet has tried to do justice to some, at least, of the god's many qualities. Of these, one of the most characteristic was thievishness. To the Greeks, who too often prided themselves on successful deceit, and who had made lying a fine art, a patron-deity of cunning came natural. Even in the later parts of the Iliad Hermes is known as the Thief; cf. Il. 24.24, where the gods urge him to steal the body of Hector. Autolycus is in Homer (Il. 10.267) the human representative of the Masterthieves who figure largely in folk-tales; but he learnt his craft from the divine thief Hermes (cf. Od. 19.395 f. ὃς ἀνθρώπους ἐκέκαστο
κλεπτοσύνῃ θ' ὅρκῳ τε: θεὸς δέ οἱ αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν
Ἑρμείας. See also Hes. Op.67Hes. Op., 78, fr. 130, Hippon. fr. 1, Plut. 1139 and often). Additional force is given to these stories of trickery and mendacity, when the rogue is a new-born babe, or is otherwise insignificant; and Mr. Lang well remarks that the poet chiefly revels in a very familiar subject of savage humour (notably among the Zulus), the extraordinary feats and tricks of a tiny and apparently feeble and helpless person or animal, such as Brer Rabbit.59 The poet emphasises the deceitful ways of Hermes at the outset of the hymn, in a string of epithets, πολύτροπον, αἱμυλομήτην . . . νυκτὸς ὀπωπητῆρα, πυληδόκον (13 f.). In the same language he sums up the god's character at the end: παῦρα μὲν οὖν ὀνίνησι κτλ. (577 f.).
The theft of the cattle of Apollo was the most striking myth which exemplified these knavish tricks; and the poet takes this to form the main thread of his narrative. But Hermes was by no means a mere thief; in his higher and more Olympian province he was the messenger of the gods, and a great pastoral deity, especially in local cult. These divine conceptions are recognised at the beginning of the hymn (2 f. Κυλλήνης μεδέοντα καὶ Ἀρκαδίης πολυμήλου,
ἄγγελον ἀθανάτων; and 331 φυὴν κήρυκος ἔχοντα). Again, Hermes was not always untrustworthy in his dealings with men; he was also the luck-bringer, ἐριούνιος (3, 28, 551). The finding of the tortoise is the first ἕρμαιον (30 f.).
But, while Hermes had many specific attributes which differentiated him from all other deities, he had also many points of contact with one member of the Olympian circleApollo.60 Both were pastoral gods; both were patrons of music, and had prophetic powers, although in this respect the place of Apollo was superior. This close connexion undoubtedly impressed the poet, who gave an explanation common in Greek mythology, that the similarity of attributes was due to an exchange of gifts. Apollo presented Hermes with cattle, and in his turn received the cithara (498 f.). The poet, too, felt that all forms of prophecy rightly belonged, under Zeus, to the Lord of Delphi. But he knew that, in common superstition, certain processes of divination were under the patronage of Hermes, the god of luck.61 He App. therefore naturally assumed that these lower powers had been delegated to Hermes from the abundance of Apollo's higher prerogative. Apollo still remained the keeper of the knowledge which Zeus possessed; but he transferred to Hermes the Thriae, with whom he had served an apprenticeship in prophecy (533566).
II. The theft of the cows of Apollo.The myth was very ancient, and has been assigned by the solar school of mythologists to the stock of Indo-European stories belonging to the undivided Aryan race.62 It is known to have been related by Hesiod, in the Μεγάλαι Ἠοῖαι, but no fragment is preserved. Alcaeus handled the same story in a hymn to Hermes, of which only one stanza is extant (fr. 5; cf. Hor. Od. I. x.). In later Greek, the most important version of the myth is in Apollodorus iii. 10. 2. The mythographer deals with an account much resembling the hymn; for the events are the same, although not in the same order. He differs from the hymn in the following details:
(1) Hermes eats some of the flesh: τὰς μὲν βύρσας πέτραις καθήλωσε, τῶν δὲ κρεῶν τὰ μὲν κατηνάλωσεν ἑψήσας, τὰ δὲ κατέκαυσε.
(2) Hermes finds the tortoise after stealing the cows. He makes the strings of the lyre ἐξ ὧν ἔθυσε βοῶν, not from sheep-gut, as in the hymn.
(3) Apollo inquires at Pylos, not Onchestus.
(4) Apollo discovers the thief ἐκ μαντικῆς.
(5) Maia shows Hermes to Apollo.
(6) Apollo desires the σῦριγξ also, and exchanges it for τὴν διὰ ψήφων μαντικήν.
Apollodorus names no authority, and his precise debt to the hymn has been disputed. According to the general view (see Gemoll p. 191), he used the hymn, but supplemented its account from another (unknown) source. Greve (de h. in Merc. Homerico p. 37) thinks that Apollodorus drew little from the hymn. Some scholars, on the other hand, argue that the hymn was the sole ultimate authority, and that the variations of detail are the invention of the mythographer. Gemoll, who supports this view, believes that these variations partly proceed from carelessness, as (3), partly from a desire to explain or amplify the hymn; e.g. the variant (2) is due to Apollodorus' wish to utilise the cows, and so connect the two incidents of the cithara and the cattlestealing. Gemoll also assumes, with no adequate reason, that Apollodorus used a text with the present lacunae in the hymn. The differences between the two accounts seem too wide to admit the theory that Apollodorus used no other source; indeed, it may be doubted whether he was even at all acquainted with the actual text of the hymn, although he may have borrowed from sources (written or oral) which were ultimately drawn from the Homeric version.
The version of Antoninus Liberalis 23 is confined to the incident of Battus. Hermes steals 12 πόρτιας, 100 βόας ἄζυγας, and a bull from Apollo, and ties branches (ὕλη) to the tail of each, ὡς ἂν τὰ ἴχνη τῶν βοῶν ἀφανίσῃ. Battus, who was paid by Hermes not to tell, proved false, and was changed into a stone. Ovid ( Met.ii. 676 f.) also narrates the story of Battus. The popularity of the myth (in its different forms) is shewn by the list of sources quoted by Antoninus: Νίκανδρος ἑτεροιουμένων ά, Ἡσίοδος ἐν μεγάλαις ἠοίαις, Διδύμαρχος μεταμορφωσέων γ́, Ἀντίγονος ἐν ταῖς ἀλλοιώσεσι, καὶ Ἀπολλώνιος ὁ Ῥόδιος ἐν ἐπιγράμμασιν.
The geographer Philostephanus, a disciple of Callimachus, dealt with the subject in his περὶ Κυλλήνης (F. H. G. iii. 28), a book which might have given us much information of which we stand in need. Another Alexandrian, Eratosthenes, in an unnamed work, narrated the birth of Hermes and his theft of his mother's and her sister's clothes, and of Apollo's cows (schol. on Il. 24.24), and interpreted the Homeric Ἑρμείας ἀκάκητα (Immerwahr l.c. p. 72).
The geography of the two versions represented by the hymn and Antoninus Liberalis is quite different. In the hymn, Hermes passes Onchestus, where he finds the nameless old man corresponding to Battus; thence, by an undefined route, he reaches the Alphean Pylos (139, 398), near which place he slaughters the cows. Antoninus gives a long itinerary, starting from Phthiotis and ending at the Messenian Pylos; there Hermes hides the cattle in a cave at Coryphasium in which Nestor had housed his booty (Il. 11.677, Paus.iv. 36. 2). The meeting with Battus took place near Maenalus. Thus a Pylos is mentioned in both versions as in the neighbourhood of Hermes' cave. Probably the original account referred to the Triphylian place of that name; the neighbourhood of the Alpheus is a natural route along which to retire to Cyllene.63 The view that the Messenian Pylos is original (Preller-Robert i. p. 392 n. 2) rests on O. Mller's very doubtful theory that the stalactites in a cave at this place were thought to be the skins of the beasts slaughtered by Hermes (see on 124 f.). The cave, on the northern slope of Coryphasium, is described by Frazer (who accepts Mller's explanation) on l.c. But it is clear from 398 that Hermes' cave was near the Alpheus. The cave of Hermes is mentioned also in Lithica 18 and 55.
The site of the Triphylian Pylos is unidentified, but is defined by Strabo 343 fin. κατὰ ταῦτα δέ πως τὰ ἱερὰ [that of Poseidon at Samicum and of Athena at Scillus] ὑπέρκειται τῆς θαλάττης ἐν τριάκοντα ἢ μικρῷ πλείους σταδίοις ὁ Τριφυλιακὸς Πύλος ὁ καὶ Λεπρεατικός, ὃν καλεῖ ὁ ποιητὴς ἠμαθόεντα. The coast south of the Alpheus is sandy and largely covered by lagoons (see the references given on h. Apoll. 424), and this suits the wording of the hymn.64 The town, with its cave, was obscured in later days by the Messenian Pylos.
III. Place of composition.As in the case of nearly all the hymns, the place of composition is doubtful. There are a certain number of Atticisms, and usages of forms and words which approach to the style of the Attic tragedy.65 Some of these forms may be due to scribes familiar with the Attic dialect; others may be common to other dialects, and only testify to a comparatively late time of composition. There is really nothing in the hymn which suggests Athenian composition, and much which distinctly negatives such an idea. Besides numerous reminiscences of Homer, which are a feature in all the hymns, there are many lines which show the influence of Hesiod in a marked degree (cf. 10, 19, 30, 36, 67, 76, 80, 98, 106, 110, 120, 124, 236, 243, 415).
Possibly the commentators have been too chary of suggesting a locality; at all events, a very good case can be made out in support of a Boeotian origin. The influence of Hesiod points in this direction, although of course this fact is inconclusive, as Hesiod, like Homer, early became the property of all the Greeks. But the part played by Onchestus, which does not appear in the other versions, is more striking; the mention of this place seems motiveless, except on a supposition of Boeotian influence. There appear to be traces of local dialect in ἀθρόᾰς 106, the elision of ι in περ' ἰγνύσι 152, θᾶττον 255, and in ἡχοῦ 400, on the analogy of ἡχοῖ in an Oropian inscription.66
In any case we may reject Fick's earlier suggestion (B. B. ix. p. 201) that the poem was originally composed, in old Ionic, at Colophon in Asia, for the festival of Apollo Clarius. His view that Apollo, not Hermes, is the real hero utterly misconceives the spirit of the hymn.
IV. Date.The date is equally uncertain, but there is every reason to believe, with the consensus of scholars, that the poem is later than the rest of the longer hymns. Hermann and Baumeister point out that there is no living digamma, although, as usual, there is often hiatus in the case of words originally digammated (Hermann Orph. p. 689). See also Eberhard die Sprache der hom. Hymn. ii. p. 34 f., and n. on 92; Pref. p. lxix. Definite evidence of date has been sought for in the mention of the seven-stringed cithara (51). The adoption of seven in place of four strings is usually ascribed to Terpander (see Flach Gr. Lyr. i. 195), who was an old man in Ol.26=676 B.C.; Smyth Melic Poets p. 165 (but see Timotheus Pers.237). Even if this form of the cithara is older than Terpander, who probably only modified the scale (Smyth l.c.), it is highly probable that the hymn is much later than that poet. As Gemoll remarks (p. 193), the hymn-writer could not have attributed the seven strings to Hermes, had not the cithara been long established in that form. On the other hand, the hymn does not approach the childishness of the Batrachomachia (attributed to Pigres, circ. 480, by Plutarch and Suidas), nor to the comic effects of fourth-century parody; still less is it Alexandrian. It is excellent and vigorous literature of an early period, and its cynical and quasi-parodic style make it unique. Its language is in places prosaic,67 but a high flight of poetic fancy would be foreign to the theme. The moral tone appears low when judged by modern standardsas low, perhaps, as that of the Lay of Demodocus (see h. Aphr. Introd.). But this was no stumbling-block to the average Greek, who acquiesced in gods made after his own image. The hymn-writer, in fact, frankly represents the popular religion; he is no opponent of it, like Euripides, nor scoffer, like Lucian. His Hermes may be akin, in some respects, to the gods of Comedy; but the character is far removed from the sorry figure of the Aristophanic Hermes in the Plutus.
V. Influence on later literature.With all its merits, the hymn seems to have made little or no impression on later Greek literature, and it is rarely cited as an authority, even where some reference might be expected. Pausanias, who quotes from the hymns to Apollo and Demeter, ignores it, and in referring to the myth of cattle-lifting, mentions only the hymn of Alcaeus (viii. 20. 4). The silence of Apollodorus is still more significant; it appears that the authority of the Homeric hymn was overshadowed by Alcaeus and Hesiod in the Eoae. The account of the invention of the cithara is equally neglected.68 Euripides speaks of the lyre as the gift of Hermes to Apollo; it by no means follows, however, that he knew the hymn, as Gemoll supposes (see on 416). In Alexandrian times, Aratus and Nicander mention the myth, but their accounts seem independent of the hymn, and the scholia on Nicander make no allusion to it. Callimachus, who certainly knew the hymn to Apollo, appears to owe nothing to the style and language of the present hymn.69 The direct citation of a line (51) by Antigonus of Carystus (iii.-ii. cent. B.C.) is quite exceptional.
As an example of modern appreciation, it may suffice to mention Shelley's well-known translation, which, of course, does full justice to the poetry of the original, although, as Prof. Mahaffy remarks (Greek Lit. i. p. 150), it perhaps accentuates the comic element too strongly.
V. State of the Text.The usages of its language make the hymn very difficult; there are a certain number of verbal corruptions, but not a single line need be omitted or transposed. The ingenuity of the higher criticism is largely wasted, although the commentators have been particularly active in dissecting the document. On the other hand, the interruption of sense in several places requires lacunae; and this is in itself more probable on graphical grounds than theories of interpolation or addition, not to say transposition.
1-9. These lines, with a few unimportant variations, form a short hymn to Hermes (xviii), where see note.
Commentary on line 1
*(erm=hn: only the contracted form is found in this hymn; it occurs also in Il. 20.72 , ε 54, ξ 334, 435, ω 1, for the older Homeric Ἑρμείας.
*maia/dos: so Od. 14.435, Simon. fr. 18, Semon. fr. 20 etc.; the form Μαῖα (3) is not Homeric; in Theog. 938 Μαίη.