Monday, October 11, 2010

Hermes, Lord of Robbers (Homeric Hymn #4)

As a picture book. Nancy found it in the public library, and we read it to our daughter. It is a fairly complete (and very nice) translation of the short fourth Homeric Hymn (to Hermes, Lord - or Leader - of Robbers - or Thieves), with some truly lovely illustrations. Some bits and pieces are missing (stuff about sacrificial meat that would be hard to explain in any book, an episode about Hermes' invention of fire that is incomplete in the original), but I suspect it is all the better for it (the original hymn lacks some thematic unity).

Hermes is born and the first thing he wants to do is steal Apollo's cattle, which he succeeds in doing that very night. He is clever and thus makes the cattle walk backwards, so that they leave tracks that point in the wrong direction, but he is seen by an old man, so Apollo quickly learns who stole his cattle. He goes to seek Hermes and accuses him, and some funny banter ensures (Hermes: "I was only born yesterday! My feet are soft, and the ground is hard!"). Apollo is not amused, and wants to beat Hermes up. Hermes appeals to Zeus, who laughs at his fibs and tells him to go get Apollo's cattle ("Dad, I really didn't do it. Zeus: ok, now go get the cattle"). They go (big brother and little brother: Apollo and Hermes are sons of Zeus) but Apollo discovers that Hermes has slain two of his cows (this is a bit abrupt in the picture book, since the stuff about sacrifice is omitted), so he gets really mad again and wants to beat Hermes up. But Hermes is clever again, and soothes him by playing music - and giving Apollo the lyre he had fashioned out of a turtle's shell. Apollo, grateful for the music, decides to let the matter go, and gives him a staff and tells him that he shall always be known as the prince of robbers - and so given the tribute and recognition he had craved since he was born (the day before). Hermes promises never to steal anything from Apollo's house. (I don't tell the story well enough. It really is charming, in a cheerfully amoral way, and the illustrations in the book are beautiful).

The hymn depicts a world that is truly different from our own - a world where Hermes' excellence lies in his ability to steal Apollo's cattle and then charm him so that Apollo does not beat him up, where political authority - including the authority of Zeus - is at best the authority of mediators, not enforcers, where population densities are low and the natural world is intensely present; it's a world closer to the world of nomadic foragers than to the world of farmers and cities of later antiquity. (This is a very old piece of poetry, a survival in writing of an even older oral tradition; one can apparently learn much from Homer's epic poetry and the Homeric hymns about Bronze-age society). Hermes is praised as the prince of cattle-raiders, not condemned; he is excellent because his cleverness is beautiful, not because he is a good boy. (There is something in Nietzsche about this, I think - which I am probably misremembering). We quite enjoyed it, though I can see why Plato thought the Homer-heavy popular culture of his time was very corrupting; the poem reminds me a bit of Roald Dahl's tales.

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