The Homeric Hymn to Demeter

demeterreviewTitle: The Homeric Hymn to Demeter:  Translation, Commentary, and Interpretive Essays
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Editor: Helene P. Foley
Pages: 297 pp
Price: $39.95
ISBN: 0-691-01479-5.

The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is perhaps best recognized as the “Persephone myth,” and this version of it is the oldest literate form known.  For all of its popularity and importance, however, it is also one of the most frequently misunderstood texts of Greek antiquity in existence, for reasons which will be detailed below.  While a variety of translations of the Homeric Hymns are available, the present version, with its parallel Greek text and English translation, extensive textual notes, and lengthy interpretive essay, is perhaps one of the most useful and comprehensive editions currently available.  There is a great deal about this volume which would make it a welcome addition to any modern polytheist’s library.

The most common retellings and interpretations of the myth of Persephone’s rape by Hades and Demeter’s search for her daughter often interpret the entirety as a myth which gives the etiology for the change in seasons and the apparent “death” of nature in the fall and winter months of the year.  However, this reading is at odds with the text itself, which Foley makes clear throughout her notes and discussions.  Once Persephone is stolen by Hades, Demeter looks for information on where she has gone and what has become of her (with the help of Hekate and Helios), and then goes wandering the earth in disguise.  She takes up residence as a nurse for the king of Eleusis, Keleos, and begins to look after his infant son, Demophoön.  Demeter attempts to immortalize Demophoön, but is thwarted when Metaneira, the child’s mother, looks in on them and cries out in fear when she sees her child in the fire.  Demeter then reveals herself, and retreats to the safety of her temple in Eleusis, and it is only then that she removes the fertility from the earth.  It is the lack of vegetable produce, which in addition to causing human starvation also deprives the gods of their sacrificial offerings, which prompts the gods to intervene, to bring Persephone back to Demeter, and for Demeter to gain additional honors once her mother Rheia returns her to the company of the gods on Olympus.

Note, therefore, the barrenness of the earth is not directly a result of Persephone’s disappearance within this earliest version of the narrative, and the time of her reappearance cannot be taken logically as any sort of metaphor for the agricultural cycle which Demeter eventually gives to humans.  This interpretation does not require a close reading of the text, it simply involves one that pays attention to the actual events of the narrative as they unfold.  While many further implications could be taken by these events — and Foley points toward them in her discussion and textual notes — it is important to pay attention to these basic structural facts when considering the myth of Demeter and Persephone.  Foley never fails to do this.

Foley’s interpretive essay includes sections on many different topics, including the relationship between the Hymn’s narrative and the Eleusinian Mysteries, the importance of feminine deities to the cosmological traditions of Greece, the differences between this version of the myth and later ones, the relationship of Demeter and Persephone and how understanding it (including psychologically) as a “romance” is key to one’s interpretation of the Hymn, and the text’s later legacies in Christianity and in poetry and culture down to the modern day.  Almost every useful question raised by the Hymn itself gets at least some treatment in the course of Foley’s essay.

The other essays included in the book are also extremely useful (with exceptions noted below).  Mary Louise Lord’s contribution compares a Homeric epic story-pattern to what occurs in the Hymn to Demeter, with convincing results.  Nancy Felson-Rubin and Harriet M. Deal treat some aspects of the importance of the Demophoön episode — as mentioned previously, a highly unappreciated episode given that it is Demeter’s failure to immortalize him (due to meddling human intervention) that causes her to retreat from all company and bring barrenness to the earth — in a brief but useful manner.  Jean Rudhardt’s contribution makes a number of useful points, including that the connection of Persephone to the agricultural and vegetation cycle is an interpretation that cannot be connected to this Hymn in a way that does justice to the text as it stands.

My primary critique of the volume is in terms of some of the essays selected for the final section, and in particular, two of them were less useful than the others.  The two final essays in the book, “Politics and Pomegranates:  An Interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter” by Marilyn Arthur Katz, and “Family Structure and Feminine Personality” by Nancy Chodorow, are the ones over which I have serious reservations.  Arthur Katz’ essay is included for primarily historical purposes, as it was an important and innovative essay when it was first published in 1977; Marilyn Arthur Katz does provide a short preface to it in this volume, written nearly twenty years after the initial paper was given.  The essay’s interpretive schema is a modified psychoanalytic viewpoint, which while it does “work” (with some refinements of Freud’s original theories), does not tell us anything about the original Hymn, its writers, or the people who were its audience.  This is the case with a great deal of scholarship in the last forty years when it comes to many premodern topics, including polytheism and magic, especially when modern interpretive schemata or theories are used to analyze these older materials.  To interpret any ancient or premodern text in psychoanalytic terms will always yield these same results; it is an exercise, in the present case, in interpreting one mythological framework with another — and make no mistake, Freudian-based psychoanalysis is just as much a mythological framework (with its reliance upon Oedipus and other mythic archetypes as developmental models) as classical Greek myth itself, with the exception that its mythologies purport to be “true” in clinical and practical settings when they are in fact simply myths.  Furthermore, the primary subjects of Arthur Katz’s interpretations are not humans in clinical settings, but instead the figures of Demeter and Persephone, who are (no matter what interpreters may think or what anthropomorphism might suggest) deities, and thus human psychological developmental models are entirely useless and inapplicable to them.

It is for this reason that Chodorow’s essay was even less useful than Arthur Katz’s, as the latter at least had the advantage of referring to the text and discussing its characters.  There is not a single mention nor reference, either in the text or the notes (as given in this volume), in Chodorow’s article to Demeter or Persephone, or any other Greek being, deity, or mythological character.  Thus, its inclusion in this volume is highly questionable as anything other than as a potentially long appendix to Arthur Katz’s article, which wasn’t entirely necessary or useful given the number of pages it encompassed.  While I can excuse Marilyn Arthur Katz’s essays inclusion for purely historical reasons, and indeed it should be acknowledged for its importance in that regard, the essay by Chodorow served no purpose whatsoever, in my view, and should have been excised in favor of something more useful.

Overall, I think this book would be of great interest to anyone with a devotion to Demeter or Persephone, or who is interested in the etiological myths of certain aspects of the Eleusinian Mysteries — particularly the hero-cultus to Demophoön at the site — and who has an interest in ancient Greek hymnody and myth generally speaking.  The in-depth notes and analysis of the Hymn present in this volume will be an indispensible reference for anyone who wishes to analyze and interpret this important ancient Greek mythic text further, and the language of its explication is equally suited to both an academic audience as well as a lay readership.

[P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a metagender person, and one of the founding members of the Ekklesía Antínoou–a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related deities and divine figures–as well as a contributing member of Neos Alexandria and a practicing Celtic Reconstructionist pagan in the traditions of gentlidechtand filidecht, as well as Romano-British, Welsh, and Gaulish deity devotions. Lupus is also dedicated to several land spirits around the area of North Puget Sound and its islands.

Lupus’ writings are available in several Bibliotheca Alexandrina devotional volumes, including Unbound: A Devotional Anthology for ArtemisWaters of Life: A Devotional Anthology for Serapis and Isis, and Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate;From Cave to Sky: A Devotional Anthology for ZeusOut of Arcadia: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of PanThe Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of ThothAnointed: A Devotional Anthology for the Deities of the Near and Middle East, andQueen of the Sacred Way: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Persephone, a sole-authored book of poetry, The Phillupic Hymns. Lupus’ poetry has also appeared in the Scarlet Imprint anthology Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis and Galina Krasskova’s anthology When the Lion Roars: A Devotional to the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet. An essay by Lupus appears in the anthology edited by Lee Harrington, Spirit of Desire: Personal Explorations of Sacred Kink. Fiction by Lupus has appeared in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina anthology The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of Thoth, Inanna Gabriel and C. Bryan Brown’s Etched Offerings: Voices from the Cauldron of Story, and the e-zine Eternal Haunted Summer. Three books in The Red Lotus Library, the Ekklesía Antínoou’s publishing imprint, are now available, The Syncretisms of AntinousDevotio Antinoo: The Doctor’s Notes, Volume One, and All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A TransMythology. Further publications will be mentioned here as they become available!]

2 thoughts on “The Homeric Hymn to Demeter”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s