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Commentary On The Homeric Hymn To Demeter Notes

Classics Notes > Early Greek Hexameter Poetry Notes

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Homeric Hymn To Demeter Commentary Passage One: Lines 256-280


This passage is from the section of the hymn where Demeter has disguised herself as the human nurse of Metaneira's child Demophoon; she has been trying to give the child immortality by anointing him with ambrosia and by placing him in the fire at night. His mother spies on the nurse one night and when she sees her son in the fire and interrupts the process of making him immortal, forever denying him this privilege. Here Demeter rebukes her and reveals her true identity.


The fundamental inferiority of humans compared to the gods is a common theme in the hymns and Demeter's speech here emphasises the unbreakable distance between gods and humans. For instance at the beginning of her speech she calls humans "ignorant" (neides), "witless" (aphradones), and "irremediably misled by your folly" (aphradieisi teeis nekeston aasthes). In order to highlight the gravity of the mother's mistake she really emphasises the immortality that he has lost, saying "deathless" (athanaton), "ageless" (ageraon), and "unfading" (aphthiton), within the space of a line and a half. To complement this she stresses what he has been left with "death" (thanaton) and "keras" (mortality). To compensate for this fact however she reveals that Demophoon will be honoured in a manner typical of heroes with games in his name, however this in itself puts a sombre emphasis on the necessary limits of human existence; deprived of true immortality the only other options are to either be remembered like Demophoon or seek a better afterlife, which links this passage to the institution of the Eleusinian Mysteries, referred to here but only fully developed upon later.


The prophecy that he will be celebrated in the form of an everlasting battle among the Eleusinians may sound ominous but it simply refers to a ritual mock battle, the Balletys, which was celebrated at the Eleusinian games, and accounts for the prominence of Demophoon in his hymn alongside other extensive references to the foundation and form of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The etymology of Demophoon's name is also interesting because the two interpretations of it reflect different aspects of the Mysteries. Firstly it could be read as "giver of illumination to mortals", which would fit well with his part in the Mysteries because they promised to ensure a better afterlife for all initiates. It also could be read as "destroyer of the people" which would fit nicely with his role in the institution of this mock battle.


The divine appearance in this passage, which leads to the institution of honours for Demeter, follows a very traditional formula; the phrase "eimi Demeter" is characteristic of an epiphany (e.g. Ody 11.252) and the fact she promises blessings is the same structure as found in later hymns. Her epiphany also involves a physical transformation in which she casts off her old age and reveals her supernatural beauty

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