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Notes to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter

Translation copyright 1999 Gregory Nagy; all rights reserved.

[1] This name designates both the god of the underworld and the underworld itself.

[2] As we shall now see, the narcissus is the trigger for the "trap door."

[3] On the division of the world, to be shared by three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, cf. Iliad XV 189-191.

[4] That is, with the dead.

[5] Different locales had different traditions about where Demeter was first recognized and where her cult and her Mysteries were first established.

[6] Eleusis is the locale of the Eleusinian Mysteries; both Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries were eventually appropriated by the polis of Athens.

[7] That is, the polis of Eleusis.

[8] Evidently the oldest sister was speaking on behalf of the others as well.

[9] The name suggests somebody who is a 'giver of gifts'.

[10] The textual transmission is garbled here, and my translation of this line is tentative (the key, I propose, is in the connections with lines 149-150).

[11] The "gifts of the gods" can be good fortune or bad fortune, making people rejoice or grieve. This theme is relevant to the ad hoc name of Demeter at line 122.

[12] All this is an exercise in religious hindsight. The temple of "today" is the palace of "yesterday," the age of heroes. The priest of "today," descended as he is from an influential aristocratic family, is the king of "yesterday." At a complex cult-center or "temple" like that of Eleusis, which is run by an accretive hierarchy of hereditary priesthoods, the religious hindsight requires that the accretion of priestly offices in the temple be retrojected as an aggregation of kings in the "palace," who are also the cult-heroes in the "temple." Notice that, although Kallidike promises Demeter a catalogue of the kings, what she says turns out to be a catalogue of queens, who are named in terms of their husbands. The husbands are in the foreground, but the wives in the background are the ones who manage the palace. The kings are all special cult-heroes connected with the worship of Demeter. Triptolemos, the primeval Ploughman, is a local hero of Athens. Dioklos is a local hero of Megara (according to Megarean tradition, he was the Megarean ruler of Eleusis who was expelled by the Athenian hero Theseus: Plutarch Theseus 10; the Megarean character in Aristophanes Acharnians 774 swears by him as a cult-hero). We know less about Polyxenos, but here too we have evidence for his cult in symbiosis with the cult of Demeter; keeping in mind the theme of god-hero antagonism, I note that poluxenos 'he who has many guests' is a conventional epithet of Hades. As for Eumolpos `he who sings and dances well.' he is the hero-ancestor of the ultimately dominant priestly family at the cult-center of Eleusis; he represents the most current tradition in Eleusis itself. Dolikhos was a cult-hero connected with the Eleusinian Games (Richardson commentary p. 199). Keleos seems to be a figure parallel to Eumolpos (cf. Richardson commentary p. 303).

[13] Note the roles of the father and the mother.

[14] Again, note the roles of the father and the mother.

[15] Note the diametrical oppositions between Demeter and the girls, both in movement and in appearance. In the cult of Demeter, such diametrically opposite movements and appearances are suitable for ritual reenactment, in song and dance, by ensembles of specially-chosen girls and women.

[16] An epithet appropriate to kings, reflecting a myth-pattern that connects royal sovereignty with dew from heaven.

[17] We know from other sources that such a stool with a fleece on it was a "prop" for the purification ritual at Eleusis.

[18] Iambe, as we shall now see, is a personification of the iambic tradition, which reflects a ritual discourse that provokes laughter and thereby promotes fertility. This discourse, which makes fun of its targets, is often obscene in nature. The obscenity, it goes without saying, is ritual obscenity.

[19] The name of a ritual potion in the Eleusinian Mysteries.

[20] Another name for Demeter.

[21] The hosia is whatever can be considered specific to the sphere of humans, not gods, in a ritual. For example, hosia is when humans take a drink at a ritual, whereas the god involved does not. From the standpoint of myth, however, when the ritual is founded, the god has to show the way by doing it first, so that humans will have precedent. In such a case, the god does it "for the sake of hosia" (cf. Richardson commentary p. 225).

[22] With reference to the cutting of roots: this riddling euphemism designates extracts that serve as ingredients for magic potions.

[23] Literally, an 'anti-cutting'.

[24] Apparently the same threat as the Undercutter.

[25] Literally, 'he who shines for the demos'.

[26] Commentary in Nagy, Best of the Achaeans pp. 181-182.

[27] With downturned palms: a ritual gesture, described also in the iliad.

[28] In other versions, Demeter just leaves the baby in the fire, letting him perish right then and there (cf. Richardson commentary 244).

[29] Styx (the word stux conveys the nervous reaction of recoiling at something that is chillingly ice-cold) is a river in Hades, and the gods swear by it when they guarantee the absolute truth of what they are saying.

[30] Commentary in Nagy, Best of the Achaeans p. 184.

[31] In the present version of the Demeter myth, Metaneira's mistake thus causes the boy's eventual death. In other versions, as already mentioned, it causes the boy's immediate death in the fire.

[32] This refers to a ritual mock-battle at Eleusis, a quasi-athletic event known as the Balletus, which was officially held on a seasonally-recurring basis to compensate for the death of the baby cult-hero Demophon. This mock-battle seems to have been the ritual kernel of a whole complex of events known as the Eleusinian Games (cf. Richardson commentary p. 246). Parallels: the Nemean and the Isthmian Games, pan-Hellenic athletic events, were held on a seasonally-recurring basis to compensate for the deaths of the baby cult-heroes Arkhemoros and Melikertes respectively.

[33] Meaning: 'the beautiful place of dancing'.

[34] Gods are larger-than-life-size.

[35] I see here a veiled reference to the ultimate development of the entire religious complex of Eleusis.

[36] The meaning of this word is opaque; it probably conveys some mythological theme of anthropogony.

[37] There were two ways of offering meat to the gods: as portions to be set aside and eaten (e.g. by the priests) or to be burned on the altar. The gods give vegetation to humans, who give their meat-offerings to the gods. If humans get no vegetation in order to sustain their life, the gods cannot get meat-offerings to sustain their time.

[38] Her golden wings are on her heels.

[39] Hermes was the killer of a monster called Argos, who was himself a Hermetic figure. The form argos conveys swiftness and brightness, and the form Argei-phonte-s may well convey both 'Argos-killer' and 'he who kills with swiftness and brightness'.

[40] The text of lines 349-350 is garbled, and the translation here is merely an approximation.

[41] Commentary on lines 351-354 in Nagy, Best of the Achaeans pp. 186-187.

[42] This is conventionally said about a "knowing" smile: Hades knows more than he lets on.

[43] Hades is acting furtively (Richardson commentary p. 277).

[44] Maenads are frenzied devotees of Bacchus = Dionysus.

[45] These lines are incomplete: the gaps in the text are caused by a tear in the manuscript (the Hymn to Demeter is preserved in only one medieval manuscript). The reconstructed context: Persephone also runs to her mother. Demeter finds out that Persephone has eaten of the pomegranate that had been offered her by Hades. It is determined that Persephone must therefore stay in Hades for one-third of the year, even though she may spend the other two-thirds with her mother.

[46] Demeter is asking Persephone this question.

[47] As we know from external sources, both the crocus and the narcissus are sacred to Demeter and Persephone.

[48] It is a religious principle that Demeter and Persephone, on the occasion of their mother daughter reunion, are "like-minded"

[49] A cult-place associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries and with the myth about the first ploughing. Demeter is here, at the time: see lines 457-458.

[50] There is a lacuna in the first part of this line.

[51] Editors tend to skip the next line, which repeats the names of some, but not all, of the recipients of Demeter's revelation of sacred mysteries.

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