Occasions And Genres Hymns and praise poetry

The Homeric singer existed to tell forth 'the doings of men and gods' (Od. 1. 338). Having listened to the bard Lomaharsana, the chieftain Saunaka knew 'the celestial tales, the tales of gods and Asuras, all the tales of men and snakes and Gandharvas' (MBh. 1. 4. 4). Whether or not these phrases represent a Graeco-Aryan formula, the celebration of gods and men is not a bad summary of the Indo-European poet's principal obligations. The gods had to be addressed and hymned in worthy style, and it was naturally for the professional exponent of the verbal arts to compose the words. But it was not the gods who gave him his daily bread and his gifts of horses and cows. It was the mortal king or noble at whose court he performed, and he too required the poet's praises.

As this king or noble was usually the patron of the sacrifice as well as of the poet, it often happened that he and the gods received their eulogies on the same occasion. Many of the Vedic hymns include praise of the patron. At the Asvamedha, as described in the Satapatha Brahmana (13. 1. 5. 6, 4. 2-3), priestly singers performed during the sacrifice and lauded the prince's sacrifices and liberality, and later in the evening the royal bard, accompanied on a zither or lute, 'sings three stanzas composed by himself (on such topics as) "Such war he waged,—Such battle he won" '(13. 4. 3. 5, trs. J. Eggeling). The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, like the other hymns in the collection, contains no explicit reference to living persons, but it is generally inferred, from the narrative of the goddess's seduction of Anchises and the prediction of unending rule for his descendants in the Troad, that it was composed to glorify and please these claimed descendants; it may have been performed at an Aphrodite festival instituted by them.

The hymn to the god or gods was typically of an invocatory nature. The poet invited him or them to come and participate in the ceremony, and prayed for blessings. We shall consider the characteristic ingredients of hymnic poetry in more detail in Chapter 8. For the moment let us note only that it could contain a narrative element, a recital of the deity's mythical exploits or of some particular exploit. This is something found in the Rigveda, especially in hymns to Indra and to the Asvins, and in more extended form in all the longer Homeric Hymns.

There is an intrinsic connection between praise poetry and narrative, and this applies also to the eulogy of mortals. It is not enough just to list the honorand's virtues. He wants to be famed for specific achievements, especially the most recent, if they have not been sung of before; or if not his own, then those of his forefathers, for his ancestry is essential to his identity, and the praise poet typically refers to it.98 He also wants to be ranked with other famous heroes of the past, and for his deeds to be set beside theirs. A commentator on the Taittiriya Brahmana (3. 9. 14. 4) says that the bard in praising the king's prowess in battle likened him to past heroes such as Prthu, Bharata, Bhaglratha, and Yudhisthira. To be able to compose such eulogies the poet needed to be learned in the ancient legends. As it is stated in one of the Welsh bardic grammars: 'The appropriate activity of the prydydd is approbation, and praise, and generating fame . . . It is not appropriate for the prydydd to concern himself with charms, and divination . .. [but rather with] ancient poetry, and written legends'.99

This is well illustrated by a passage in Beowulf (867-915). After the hero had killed the monster Grendel, a poet of Hrothgar's company, a man with a memory stocked with many old legends, composed and sang a new poem about the exploit; he paralleled it with the tale of the earlier dragon-slayer Sigemund, and told the latter's story at some length. This must reflect the methods of actual praise-poets of the time. The tales they told of great deeds of the past were of interest not only to the descendants of the persons involved. They could engage a wider audience, and so heroic narrative poetry could maintain an independent existence.

As an example of Greek praise poetry linked to heroic episodes from the past we may cite Ibycus' ode to Polycrates of Samos. After recalling the Trojan War at some length, it promises the prince unfading glory, so far as Ibycus' own artistry and reputation can achieve it. Then there are the odes of Pindar and Bacchylides celebrating various kings and nobles on the occasion of their sporting victories, with regular reference to their families' past glories. These poems may represent a last, luxuriant outgrowth from a Greek tradition of royal praise poetry, but we can still recognize in them elements of an ancient inheritance.

From Rome we have the testimony of Cato (sometimes questioned for no good reason) that banqueters used to sing the praises of outstanding men; or, according to Varro, boys at banquets, accompanied by a piper, sang traditional songs (carmina antiqua) containing laudes maiorum.100

For the ancient Celts we have the reports of classical writers. Posidonius defined the bardoi as poets who sang praises: noi-qral Se ovroi rvyxavovoi per Wi89]s enaivovs Xiyovres. He wrote that the chiefs had them in their entourage

98 Cf. Schramm (1957), 110; Campanile-Orlandi-Sani (1974), 235 f.; Campanile (1988), 9.

99 G. J. Williams, Gramadegau'r Penceirddiaid (Cardiff 1934), 35. 12 ff., trs. A. T. Matonis, ZCP 47 (1995), 222 n. 39.

even when they went to war, and that they recited encomia of them before the assembled company. One who was late for a feast and missed out on the chief's hospitality sang a eulogy of him, lamenting his own misfortune, and was rewarded with a bag of gold, whereupon he produced yet more extravagant praises, trotting along beside the chariot of the departing potentate. In 121 bce Domitius Ahenobarbus, campaigning in Gaul, received an envoy from the Arvernian king Bituitus, in whose entourage was a poet who 'with barbarian music' exalted the pedigree, bravery, and wealth of Bituitus, his people, and the envoy.101

At the court of Attila the Hun, which seems to have been more Germanic than Mongolian in its cultural character, poems were recited in the evenings, celebrating the king's victories and his prowess in battle and moving some of his old warriors to tears.102 In India the tradition of royal eulogies in verse was carried on under the Gupta kings of the third to fourth century; we have texts of them from inscriptions.103 Less florid examples, more archaic-looking and more personal in tone, are preserved from sixth-century Ireland and Britain.104 From medieval Russia we have the recollection in the Lay of Igor (5) of the famous poet Boyan, whose strings used to 'throb out praise (slavu) for the princes'.

Having praised his patron in life, and having in many cases, no doubt, become bound to him by real ties of affection, the poet would lament him also in death. Jordanes (Getica 257) gives a Latin paraphrase of the praise-song performed at Attila's funeral. It recalled his achievements, and dealt diplomatically with the fact that he died ignobly of a nosebleed while slumbering in a drunken stupor. It was easier if the man died heroically in battle. We have examples in the moving laments for the British kings Urien of Rheged, Cynddylan of Powys, and others. When Hector's body is brought back to Troy in the Iliad, the poet relates that they laid him on a bed and set singers beside him to sing dirges. He then puts formal laments in the mouths of Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen, as if in lieu of those of the professional singers. There is a parallel substitution in the Irish saga Cath Finntraga, where

101 Posidonius ap. Ath. 246cd, 152e (F 172, 170 Theiler); Diod. 5. 31. 2 (F 169); Appian, Celt. fr. 12. There is an Irish tale that begins, 'Once Diarmait mac Cerbaill's panegyrists were praising the king and his peace and his good conduct' (Koch-Carey (2000), 212).

102 Priscus, Hist. 67bc (Corp. Script. Hist. Byz. i. 204).

103 Edited and translated in D. R. Bhandarkar, B. Ch. Chhabra, G. S. Gai, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, iii (revised edn., New Delhi 1981).

104 Campanile (1988), nos. 10, 12-13, 16-19; Koch-Carey (2000), 52, 58, 301, 342-51 (praise-poems for Urien), 360; Y Gododdin 30-8, 553-60, 608-16, 730-5. The Irish verses are compared with the Gupta inscriptions by Myles Dillon, The Archaism of Irish Tradition (London 1947), 15-18; Campanile-Orlandi-Sani (1974), 231-6.

Gelges laments her husband Cael, and in the Tain bo Cuailnge, where Cri Chulainn produces a series of laments for his foster-brother Fer Diad, whom he himself has killed in single combat.105 In the Battle of the Goths and Huns the victorious king Angantyr recites a lament for his fallen brother Hlo 5r.106

Lament for the dead may naturally be accompanied by consolation of the bereaved. There is a particular consolatory technique that occurs in Greek, Old English, and Norse poetry (though only in the last case actually in the context of bereavement). It consists in the recital of other bad things that have happened in the past to other people and that were overcome. The aim is to persuade the one being consoled to put things in proportion. Dione uses the technique in comforting Aphrodite over her maltreatment by Diomedes in the Iliad (5. 382-404): she rehearses a series of tales of gods who suffered at the hands of mortals and yet endured. 'Ares endured, when . .. And Hera endured, when . .. And Hades endured, when .. .' The Norse parallel comes in the first Gudrunarkvida, 3-11, where Gudrun sits dumb with grief over Sigurd's body and other warriors' wives come in turn and try to rouse her by relating their own past woes. In the Old English Deor the exiled bard consoles himself by recalling a series of five legendary tales of suffering, rounding off each one with the refrain 'That passed by: this may likewise'. This type of consolation may go back to Indo-European tradition, particularly as the technique of referring to a series of separate stories shows an affinity with the practice of listing a god's or hero's major exploits.

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