The BackgrouND CuLtic Elements In The Hymn

The Homeric Hymns are intended as praises of gods. Their ancient term npooi^iov hints at their function: they were composed in order to introduce epic songs in rhapsodic agones which took place during festivals for the gods.2 Formally and thematically they are influenced by cultic choral songs, as is for example Sappho's personal prayer to Aphrodite (fr. 1 V.).3 The hymns' relation to cult and ritual has at times been denied on the grounds that their intention is not to invoke the deities to make an epiphany, but to represent them in epic style.4 However, it has been conceded that they are most likely to have been performed in a religious context, paying tribute to the deity in whose honor the festival is held.5 Thus their themes have become of special interest to the historian of religion since they are "the almost unique vehicle of a distinctive and important form of narrative about the divine world".6

There is good evidence that the narrative of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, although its purpose is obviously different from that of a prayer, relates in several points to the sphere of cult and ritual in the way it incorporates divine epiphany as an important element within the mythical narration. It has been pointed out by Parker that, in spite of close similarities in style and manner, the hymns and heroic epic diverge from each other by putting a different emphasis on describing divine epiphanies. Homeric epic is chiefly interested in the reaction of mortals, whereas for "Hymn-writers epiphany is a climactic revelation of divine power, which may lead to the foundation of a cult".7 Concerning the two protagonists, it seems remarkable that Aphrodite, at different stages of her appearance or epiphany, shifts between a goddess, a cult image and a mortal virgin. In a similar way, Anchises alternates between a worshipper and a mortal lover when he "adores" his visitor. Corresponding elements between mythical narrative and cult, which are briefly outlined here, will be discussed in greater detail in a subsequent section.8

Aphrodite's first appearance, her entry into the temple (58-67), may give us an idea of how worshippers in Archaic Greece imagined or experienced a divine ritual epiphany. Aphrodite's preparation for her encounter with Anchises there (61-7), however, recalls descriptions of other epic adornment scenes in which women (see Pandora in Hesiod's Works&Days and Theogony) and goddesses (see Hera in the Iliadic Dios Apate and Aphrodite in the Cypria) prepare themselves either to seduce mortal men or a god, or to gain the favor of the umpire of a beauty contest.9 Furthermore, the motif of dressing is also found in a number of places with Ishtar-Astarte and the Sumerian Inanna.10 The adornment of a goddess by her attendants in mythical accounts is comparable to the ritual service performed by worshippers. Thus myth could reflect actual ritual procedures.11 In her second appearance, Aphrodite is recognized as a pure goddess by the wild animals, which immediately start mating (64-74).

The third scene (81-175) is actually the most interesting one: before Anchises, Aphrodite's nature becomes ambiguous—to the eyes of the mortal— when she adopts human height without relinquishing divine beauty in order to achieve her aim. The way she is depicted and perceived while appearing in this half-human, half-divine form may remind the modern reader of a cult statue adorned with jewellery. Consequently, Anchises, impressed by her appearance, first behaves like a worshipper, offering her an altar and adoring her as a deity (100-2).12 Then, as soon as he has been assured that she is not a goddess by her lie, he adores her as if she were a woman (145-54). When he subsequently undresses her, he removes everything that is connected with her divine identity: here Aphrodite is almost a mortal herself (162-7). Getting dressed again also means that she "puts on" her true nature once more, and it is only at the end of the encounter (which is also the end of the love story) that she is, by revealing her divine nature, presented in an epiphany in a traditional way (168-90). Now, in her fourth appearance, Aphrodite is most clearly a divinity and unmistakably recognized as such by Anchises—not by her lovely clothes and jewellery, but by her height and supernatural beauty. Aphrodite's various epiphanies have a narrative function within the love story. They allow the poet to depict her in all her beauty and power, representing the sphere of influence she stands for. Within the narrative, Aphrodite uses her different modes of appearance to manipulate Anchises' reactions: first a prudish girl in order not to frighten him, then a femme fatale to make him desire her, and finally a threatening goddess prophesying his bad end if he does not keep the secret.

In its structure and constitutive elements, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite follows the other longer hymns transmitted in the corpus, in particular that of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter:13 the welcoming of a guest by a mortal and the final revelation of the guest's true divine identity in an epiphany is a topos in the Homeric Hymns.14 However, in contrast to the hymns to Demeter and Apollo, the hymn to Aphrodite does not provide an obvious aition for her particular cult places, temples or festivals, although hints of cult places and, possibly, cult practices are given. The place where Aphrodite goes for her adornment is the temple in Paphos (66f. and 292), one of Aphrodite's most important sanctuaries in Greece.15 Anchises, assuming that a goddess has come to visit him, immediately offers her what is usually intended, and in fact achieved by the epiphany of a deity: an altar and sacrifices (100-2). Although this offer does not lead to the basic foundation of a cult—moreover, cultic veneration of Aphrodite is already presupposed—,16 the hymn has some reference to religion also when, for example, at the beginning of the narrative, Aphrodite's epiphany on Mount Ida in Troy (68f.) provokes a mating among all the animals (70-4).17 This, combined with the geographical setting, is likely to be reminiscent of the worship of the local Phrygian goddess Cybele, the Great Mother, with whom Aphrodite is identified, here as elsewhere, on grounds of having similar functions.18 Like their common Oriental predecessor Ishtar-Astarte (Aphrodite's Eastern origins are again discernible), they are not only both responsible for sexuality and reproduction, but share also a passion for mortal men, whose punishment by the love-goddess after the encounter is a common element in these myths.19

As in other hymns, the mythical story displayed in the narrative focuses on the divinity, relating an important episode of her life and involving a conflict.20 Nonetheless, in the case of Aphrodite it is different. We learn nothing about her own birth, nor do we get an aition explaining why her main sanctuary is at Paphos or why she is called "Cypris" or "Cythereia".21 The way the epithets are used suggests rather that the cults of Aphrodite are already presupposed as a known fact, just as her beauty trip to Paphos seems to be a habit. Another type of aition aims to explain not a cult, but the semi-divine parentage of the Aineiadai. It has been suggested therefore that this hymn was composed as an encomium of a historical family in Scepsis (Troad) who considered themselves descendants of Aeneas—the same family the poet of the Iliad honoured in Aeneas' aristeia (Il. 20).22 While this theory has been discredited, most scholars agree upon the early date of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite and its temporal proximity to the poems of Hesiod and Homer.23

However dubious the actual external evidence for a historical family may be, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite does emphasize in the prophecy the fate of Anchises' offspring (191-291), the upbringing of Aeneas (256-73) and his presentation (274-80) at the end. Thus it is implied in the text that Aeneas and the subsequent generations are accorded great importance as being notable examples of the spya A^poStrriq. It is this offspring which Aphrodite herself has produced in her union with the mortal Anchises, and it is the result of her activity in her own realm. As the hymn focuses on Aphrodite and her epiphanies in particular, one could ask why a noble family should have been glorified in a hymn. One might assume that the divine genealogy for a family of mortals praised in the hymn refers to its actual commissioners within a religious community. It was perhaps they who paid for the statue of Aphrodite and her adornment in the cult.24 There are certainly parallels for tracing back the parentage of historical figures to divine origins for the sake of political propa-ganda.25 Had such a family still existed at the time and the place the hymn was written, it seems quite natural that the poet would have alluded to their origin. The conception of the hero Aeneas and Aphrodite's prophecy about the future lineage of Anchises, both of which are important elements of the hymn indeed, may be seen as tribute paid to the family.

The core of the composition is the praise of Aphrodite's power over sexuality and creation on earth, as is suggested by the introductory lines. This is illustrated by the seduction scene, which is to be considered as a significant episode of Aphrodite's life. It presents her in an epiphany during which she has to succumb to her own power. As a result, Aphrodite and Anchises become the parents of Aeneas, a genealogy already mentioned in the Iliad.26 It is conceivable that the poet, by following the traditional pattern of hymnic narrative, intended to illustrate divine genealogy by showing how the hero was conceived according to traditional epic.

Although the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite does not allude to the circumstances in which it was presented, it is likely that its occasion was a festival for Aphrodite at which the family could have been present.27

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