Apollo travels from Pytho to Olympus, and the other gods greet his arrival (186–93):
ἔνθεν δὲ πρὸϲ Ὄλυμπον ἀπὸ χθονὸϲ ὥϲ τε νόημα
εἶϲι Διὸϲ πρὸϲ δῶμα θεῶν μεθ’ ὁμήγυριν ἄλλων⋅
αὐτίκα δ’ ἀθανάτοιϲι μέλει κίθαριϲ καὶ ἀοιδή.
Μοῦϲαι μέν θ’ ἅμα πᾶϲαι ἀμειβόμεναι ὀπὶ καλῇ
ὑμνεῦϲίν ῥα θεῶν δῶρ’ ἄμβροτα ἠδ’ ἀνθρώπων
τλημοϲύναϲ, ὅϲ’ ἔχοντεϲ ὑπ’ ἀθανάτοιϲι θεοῖϲι
ζώουϲ’ ἀφραδέεϲ καὶ ἀμήχανοι, οὐδὲ δύνανται
εὑρέμεναι θανάτοιό τ’ ἄκοϲ καὶ γήραοϲ ἄλκαρ.
From there he goes quick as a thought from the earth to Olympus, to the house of Zeus, in order to join the gathering of the other gods. Immediately the immortals concern themselves with lyre music and song. All the Muses together, responding with their beautiful voice, hymn the divine gifts of the gods and the endurance of men, all that they have from the immortal gods and yet live ignorant and helpless, unable to find a remedy for death and a defence against old age.
Lines 189–93 describe a song of the Muses that expresses a divine view on the human condition. Scholars uniformly hold that the Olympians rejoice in hearing about how they themselves inflict pain on mankind. Thus Förstel, for example, writes that this passage presents the gods as, in a certain general sense, the source of human sorrows and finds here ‘a unique testimony to Greek pessimism’.Footnote 1 But such an interpretation depends on a number of debatable philological premises. This article advocates a new reading which better accords with usage, syntax and thematic context. I first treat interrelated semantic and grammatical difficulties in lines 189–93 and then situate the Muses’ song within the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as a whole. At stake here is nothing less than the theological outlook of the poem.Footnote 2
Most scholars have understood θεῶν δῶρ’ ἄμβροτα (190) to mean the privileges that the gods themselves enjoy, in particular immortality;Footnote 3 some recent scholars instead understand this to mean the gifts which the gods give to mortals.Footnote 4 The latter sense is preferable. In early Greek epic, ‘the gifts of the gods’ uel sim. often describes gifts which the gods give to men, and never describes gifts which the gods themselves receive.Footnote 5 If θεῶν δῶρ’ (190) had that unparalleled sense here, then one would be faced with an awkward question: from whom did the gods receive these gifts? Personified Fate, one might be tempted to reply, but the question itself is strange. Finally, if θεῶν δῶρ’ ἄμβροτα (190) is included within the larger category of ὅϲ’ ἔχοντεϲ ὑπ’ ἀθανάτοιϲι θεοῖϲι (191),Footnote 6 as I will argue that it is, then these must certainly be gifts which men receive from the gods.
If θεῶν δῶρ’ ἄμβροτα (190) describes gifts that gods give to men, are these gifts good or bad or a mixture of both good and bad? In early Greek epic, the gifts of the gods can be good or bad or a mixture of both good and bad.Footnote 7 Context is decisive in each case. The gifts of our passage have been interpreted as badFootnote 8 or as a mixture of both good and bad,Footnote 9 but these gifts are qualified with the significant adjective ἄμβροτα (190). In early Greek epic, this is standardly an honorific word applied to things associated with the gods. In the numerous instances when it describes things given from the gods to mortals, these are invariably desirable things.Footnote 10 The gifts of the gods are probably desirable here too.Footnote 11
Scholars have long translated τλημοϲύναϲ (191) along the lines of ‘sufferings’,Footnote 12 but Heitsch makes a powerful case for instead taking it to mean ‘endurance’.Footnote 13 Nowhere else in extant ancient Greek literature does the noun mean ‘suffering’.Footnote 14 The forthcoming Cambridge Greek Lexicon s.v. recognizes ‘endurance’ as the sole attested meaning of the noun, and with good reason. We expect τλημοϲύνη (at Hom. Hymn 3.191 and not in the Iliad or the Odyssey) to relate to τλήμων (at Il. 5.670 and elsewhere) much as φραδμοϲύνη (at Hom. Hymn 3.99 and not in the Iliad or the Odyssey) relates to φράδμων (at Il. 16.638) or much as ζηλοϲύνη (at Hom. Hymn. 3.100 and not in the Iliad or the Odyssey) relates to ζηλήμων (at Od. 5.118).Footnote 15 Before the fifth century, τλήμων and related words convey an idea of endurance or daring rather than suffering, although this last sense comes to predominate in later texts.Footnote 16 Wilson writes that ‘only in Bacchylides [5.153] does τλήμων first collapse into the sense of “wretched”, “miserable”’.Footnote 17 We should hesitate to attribute to τλημοϲύναϲ (Hom. Hymn 3.191) a meaning which is certainly not attested anywhere else and which would probably be anachronistic for our passage.Footnote 18
ὅϲ’ (191) does not agree with τλημοϲύναϲ (191), although it is often translated as if it did.Footnote 19 It will not do to take ὅϲ’ (191) as the equivalent of ἅϲ. The passages which Heitsch adduces as ‘distant analogies’ are not convincing.Footnote 20 One might instead understand an omitted genitive: ‘endurance [of all those things], as many as men have …’.Footnote 21 The grammatical phenomenon is common enough,Footnote 22 but it would be harsh here. Words from the τλη– stem do not take a genitive of the thing endured, and so it would be difficult for ancient audiences to supply a missing genitive in our passage.
Two simpler solutions also deserve consideration. First, the antecedent of the neuter plural ὅϲ’ (191) may be the neuter plural δῶρ’ (190; cf. Il. 3.65–6). On this reading, the genitives θεῶν (190) and ἀνθρώπων (190) mark a polar contrast reflecting the two separate topics of the Muses’ song:Footnote 23 gifts that come from the gods and acts of endurance that belong exclusively to men. The plural τλημοϲύναϲ (191) makes the abstract noun concrete and refers to specific instances of endurance.Footnote 24 The Muses here, like the Deliades earlier in the poem (158–61) or the Muses in Hesiod's Theogony (36–52), sing first of the gods and then of men.Footnote 25 The bipartite subject of their song is reflected in the bipartite structure of the following relative clause: ὅϲ’ ἔχοντεϲ ὑπ’ ἀθανάτοιϲι θεοῖϲι (191) looks back to the gifts of the gods, while the ensuing description of mortal weakness (from ζώουϲ’, 192, to the end of the sentence) looks back to what men must endure.
Despite the merits of this reading, I prefer to construe somewhat differently. The inherently inclusive ὅϲ’ (191) (‘all that, as many as’) may be most naturally taken to include as its antecedent both the feminine plural τλημοϲύναϲ (191) and the neuter plural δῶρ’ (190).Footnote 26 On this reading, τλημοϲύναϲ (191) is a different part of what men have from the gods. Thematic parallels support this interpretation. In Archilochus, the gods granted men the same noun in the singular: ἀλλὰ θεοὶ γὰρ ἀνηκέϲτοιϲι κακοῖϲιν | ὦ φίλ’ ἐπὶ κρατερὴν τλημοϲύνην ἔθεϲαν | φάρμακον … τλῆτε (13.5–10 W2), ‘but since, my friend, the gods have established mighty endurance as a palliative for incurable ills … endure’. In Iliad Book 24 the Fates, according to Apollo, gave men an enduring heart (τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέϲαν ἀνθρώποιϲιν, 49). In our passage, too, human endurance is a gift from on high. τλημοϲύναϲ (191) would either be a ‘distributive’ plural, reflecting the fact that the gods give endurance to many men,Footnote 27 or the plural would be more or less equivalent to the singular.Footnote 28
On the interpretation advocated here, δῶρ’ ἄμβροτα (190) describes positive gifts, while τλημοϲύναϲ (191) describes a positive capacity for enduring negative things, which are not said to be bestowed by the gods. If either of these instead referred to bad things, then one would expect the rest of the sentence, which describes human suffering, to depict these divinely apportioned evils as the source of that suffering.Footnote 29 But this is not what we get. Men are ‘ignorant’ (ἀφραδέεϲ, 192) not because of what the gods give to them but just because of how human beings are.Footnote 30 Death and old age (193) are not gifts from the gods; human mortality, like divine immortality, is not a gift from anyone but simply a given.Footnote 31
Since lines 190–1 refer to two sorts of good things, we should follow West in taking the participle ἔχοντεϲ (191) as concessive: ‘all that they have from the immortal gods and yet live witless and helpless’ (my emphasis).Footnote 32 Here men are ‘helpless’ (192) not because of, but rather despite, all that they have from the gods.Footnote 33 Rather than stressing the extent of the evils that the gods give to men, ὅϲ’ (191) stresses the extent of their aid. Here the Olympians are presented as ‘the givers of good things’ (δωτῆρεϲ ἐάων, Od. 8.325).Footnote 34 It is not necessarily that, in the world of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, the gods are never responsible for giving anything bad to mortals,Footnote 35 but rather that the Muses’ song of celebration,Footnote 36 like the framing hymn itself, focusses on divine benefactions rather than malefactions. Here encomiastic rhetoric is as important as cosmology.
On the usual reading of our passage, the gods enjoy hearing about the sufferings which they themselves inflict on men. This might strike us as grotesque,Footnote 37 but it is easy to imagine how, with some historicizing, our modern sentiment might turn out to be an argument for, rather than against, this reading. Yet, it is not easy to provide such historicizing arguments. The disconcerting thing about the standard interpretation of our passage is not that the gods give bad things to men, but rather that they blithely rejoice in recounting how they do so (cf. παίζουϲ’, 201; παίζοντα, 206). One would want a convincing parallel not for the gods taking pleasure in inflicting suffering on some particular mortal(s) for some particular reason(s), however capricious those reasons might be, but rather for the gods taking pleasure in perpetually inflicting suffering on mankind for no particular reason at all. The closest thing to such a parallel would seem to be the embittered words of Achilles in Iliad Book 24: ὡϲ γὰρ ἐπεκλώϲαντο θεοὶ δειλοῖϲι βροτοῖϲι, | ζώειν ἀχνυμένοιϲ⋅ αὐτοὶ δέ τ’ ἀκηδέεϲ εἰϲί, ‘for thus the gods spun the thread of fate for wretched mortals, to live in grief; they themselves are without sorrow’ (525–6). It is questionable whether such a bleak world-view is appropriate to the hymnic genre in general and to this hymn in particular. We expect hymns not only to please divine addressees but also to present deities who are not highly unsympathetic to their mortal worshippers.Footnote 38 Certainly the rest of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo does so.
The unusual and difficult language of the Muses’ song in lines 189–93, I suggest, expresses the same theological vision that is expressed more clearly and at greater length throughout the rest of the hymn. We need not necessarily assume that the theology of the Muses’ song is consistent with that of the framing poem,Footnote 39 but the structure of the text encourages one to look for congruity. The Muses’ performance on Olympus, as scholars have not failed to observe,Footnote 40 has obvious connections with the performance of the Deliades (156–64) and also with the performance of the bard of this very hymn (165–78). Like the Muses’ singing in Hesiod's Theogony (11–21, 36–52, 65–79) or in Pindar (Nem. 5.22–5, Isthm. 8.56a–60, fr. 31) or in Theognis (15–18) or like other divine performances elsewhere in the Homeric Hymns (4.418–33, 19.27–31, 27.16–20), here too the Muses’ song serves as an inset parallel for the framing song (cf. ὑμνεῦϲιν, 190, of the Muses; ὑμνήϲωϲιν, 158, of the Deliades; ὑμνήϲω, 19; ὑμνέων, 178; ὑμνήϲω, 207, all of the hymnic speaker).
Like the Muses, the blind bard of Chios sings about the relationship between men and gods. Like the Muses, the blind bard of Chios focusses on divine benefactions. Leto gave birth to Apollo as ‘a delight to mortals’ (χάρμα βροτοῖϲι, 25), and this description proves to be programmatic.Footnote 41 In this poem Apollo features as a lover—quite literally—of mortals, and a serial one at that (ἐνὶ μνηϲτῇϲιν … φιλότητι, 208). The god, ‘a delight to mortals’ (25), also slays an inhuman monster who was ‘an evil bane to living mortals’ (ζωοῖϲι κακὸν δήλημα βροτοῖϲιν, 364; cf. πῆμα βροτοῖϲιν, 306) and ‘did many evils to men on the earth’ (κακὰ πολλὰ | ἀνθρώπουϲ ἔρδεϲκεν ἐπὶ χθονί, 302–3; cf. 355). The deity of this hymn is not an avatar of love for mankind or their saviour from suffering, but benefactions to mankind repeatedly feature in his own explicitly stated and honour-driven motivations (ἀνθρώπων, 248; πᾶϲι, 253; ἀνθρώποιϲ, 288; πᾶϲι, 293; βροτοῖϲιν, 364). Both the Delian and the Pythian sections of this hymn emphasize, in different ways, how the divine gifts of Apollo benefit mankind.
Apollo's birth transforms the uninhabited Delos into a scene of collective human joy (146–55). There mortals who cannot ‘find a remedy for death and a defence against old age’ (οὐδὲ δύνανται | εὑρέμεναι θανάτοιό τ’ ἄκοϲ καὶ γήραοϲ ἄλκαρ, 192–3) transiently approach the intransient state of the gods through their worship of him: φαίη κ’ ἀθανάτουϲ καὶ ἀγήρωϲ ἔμμεναι αἰεὶ | ὃϲ τότ’ ἐπαντιάϲει’ ὅτ’ Ἰάονεϲ ἀθρόοι εἶεν, ‘one who encountered the Ionians then, when they are gathered together, would say that they are immortal and ageless forever’ (151–2).Footnote 42 Apollo is not responsible for human mortality, but he is responsible for an enduring cultic institution through which that human frailty is nearly, if only for a moment (τότ’ … ὅτ’, 152), transcended.
Apollo also establishes an oracle in Delphi through which he discloses the will of Zeus to men (132, 252–3, 292–3; cf. 393–6, 484). He thus alleviates, if only partially, the inherent ignorance of mankind (ἀφραδέεϲ, 192).Footnote 43 Apollo is not responsible for human ignorance, but he is responsible for an enduring cultic institution through which men attain knowledge otherwise unavailable to them. In this hymn, the gifts of the gods are good and work to mitigate, not exacerbate, mortal frailties.
When asked by the Cretans how they will live off the infertile land of Delphi, Apollo, with a smile (ἐπιμειδήϲαϲ, 531), addresses them with language that recalls the Muses’ song: νήπιοι ἄνθρωποι, δυϲτλήμονεϲ, οἳ μελεδῶναϲ | βούλεϲθ’ ἀργαλέουϲ τε πόνουϲ καὶ ϲτείνεα θυμῷ, ‘ignorant mortals of misplaced endurance, you who want anxieties, hard labours and difficulties for the heart’ (532–3). As their unfounded concerns for their livelihood show, the Cretans share in the ignorance common to mankind (νήπιοι, 532; cf. ἀφραδέεϲ, 192). The god cures this common ignorance by disclosing the uncommonly blessed future which they will enjoy through their service to him (535–43).
As νήπιοι (532) looks back to ἀφραδέεϲ (192), so δυϲτλήμονεϲ (532) recalls τλημοϲύναϲ (191). Scholars generally translate δυϲτλήμονεϲ (532) along the lines of ‘suffering hard things’ (LSJ9 s.v.),Footnote 44 but this interpretation is questionable. The –τλήμων stem is, before the fifth century, unlikely to convey the idea of suffering by itself (see pages 2–3 above). Perhaps the δυϲ– prefix here adds the notion of suffering (‘enduring bad things’), but it seems more probable that the following relative clause helps to explain this rare word.Footnote 45 The Cretans are δυϲτλήμονεϲ (532) not because of what they suffer—they are not suffering anything at the moment—but rather because, as Apollo ironically alleges, they act as if they want (βούλεϲθ’, 533) to endure ‘anxieties, hard labours and difficulties for the heart’ (532–3). Their ritual office entails that they will not have to undertake the common human hardships of making a living off of the land (528–30, 535–7). δυϲτλήμονεϲ (532) may thus be translated as ‘of misplaced endurance’.
Apollo does not inflict suffering on his Cretan officiants or act with malicious intent towards them (οὔ τι κακὰ φρονέων, 482); he makes them honoured and prosperous (478–85, 521–2, 536–9). If they some day fall under the power of others (542–3), then this will be because they disregard the god's prophetic warning and succumb to vices inherent to mankind: they will have other men as their masters if ‘there will be any rash word or deed or hybris, as is the way of mortal men’ (ἠέ τι τηΰϲιον ἔποϲ ἔϲϲεται ἠέ τι ἔργον, | ὕβριϲ θ’, ἣ θέμιϲ ἐϲτὶ καταθνητῶν ἀνθρώπων, 540–1).Footnote 46 These particular mortal men will suffer not because of, but rather despite, all that they have from the gods.
Among the gifts of the gods is song (δῶρα θεάων, Hes. Theog. 103; cf. 93), the realm of the Muses and of Apollo himself (cf. Hom. Hymn 3.131, Hom. Hymn 25). The Homeric Hymn to Apollo hints self-reflexively at how this gift too may palliate human suffering. The blind bard imagines a visitor to Delos conversing with the Deliades (166–70):Footnote 47
ἐμεῖο δὲ καὶ μετόπιϲθε
μνήϲαϲθ’, ὁππότε κέν τιϲ ἐπιχθονίων ἀνθρώπων
ἐνθάδ’ ἀνείρηται ξεῖνοϲ ταλαπείριοϲ ἐλθών⋅
ὦ κοῦραι, τίϲ δ’ ὔμμιν ἀνὴρ ἥδιϲτοϲ ἀοιδῶν
ἐνθάδε πωλεῖται, καὶ τέῳ τέρπεϲθε μάλιϲτα;
Remember me in the future, whenever some mortal man, a stranger who has endured trials, comes here and asks, ‘o maidens, which singer who visits here is most pleasing to you, and whom do you most enjoy?’
Someone who has endured trials (ταλαπείριοϲ, 168) seeks a beautiful song that will draw his mind away from his cares.Footnote 48 The faceless portrait of this stranger invites audiences to reflect on the nature of their own pleasure in the hymn of the blind bard from Chios. Like Apollo's Delian festival and his Delphic oracle, this song in celebration of the god may also help to alleviate, but not erase, human pain.
In this hymn the gods too take pleasure in song but not as a relief from pain. On the usual reading of lines 189–93, the Olympians rejoice in hearing about how they themselves make human beings miserable. On the interpretation of the Muses’ song advanced here, the nature of their pleasure is less malevolent and more complex. The Olympians celebrate their own power to give good things to men, but the Muses’ song also includes humans bearing those pains which none the less define mortal existence. As the Phaeacians enjoy poetry about war in Odyssey Book 8, so for the gods human pain, transmuted through poetry, becomes a source of pleasure.Footnote 49 As in Pindar's Isthmian 4 Ajax's deadly serious exploits in battle and suicide become, through Homer, a theme for later men to ‘play with’ (λοιποῖϲ ἀθύρειν, 39),Footnote 50 so for the gods of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo a song about mortal suffering becomes a source of sport (παίζουϲ’, 201; παίζοντα, 206). So far from feeling that human sorrow is cheapened by providing entertainment for the gods, one might feel that it is instead dignified by becoming the object of their attention.Footnote 51 The immortals on Olympus, in a scene of supreme happiness, are not wholly absorbed in their own magnificence but turn their minds to mortal hardships on earth.
This passage may indeed deserve a special place among the evidence for ‘Greek pessimism’,Footnote 52 but the pessimism at issue pertains to human beings, not to the gods. The Muses’ song combines a view of divine benefactions that is profoundly optimistic with a view of the human condition that is profoundly pessimistic—or, we might prefer to say, realistic. Within their performance, the spectacle of human pain serves to enhance, by contrast, the beatitude of the immortals.Footnote 53 Within the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as a whole, this dark view of human life provides a foil that brings out the brilliance of Apollo and his ‘divine gifts’ (190) to wretched mortals. The Muses’ song about the relationship between men and gods expresses a different perspective on the same world that is depicted throughout the rest of this hymn. By allowing its audiences to glimpse the world as the gods see it, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo may help some mortals to understand a little bit better their own very different place within that shared world.