The Poetics of Distress, the Rape of the Heavenly Maiden, and the Most Ancient Sleeping Beauty: Oralistic, Linguistic, and Comparative Perspectives on the (Pre-)Historical Development of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter

  Ginevra, Riccardo. "The Poetics of Distress, the Rape of the Heavenly Maiden, and the Most Ancient Sleeping Beauty: Oralistic, Linguistic, and Comparative Perspectives on the (Pre-)Historical Development of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter." CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020).

§0. Abstract

Often compared with West Asian and Egyptian texts, the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (hereafter Hymn) and the other variants of the myth of Demeter and Persephone-Kore have a number of onomastic, phraseological, and thematic parallels in texts composed in other Indo-European languages. By means of an oralistic, linguistic, and comparative approach, my research aims to, firstly, reconstruct the common background of the Hymn and its Indo-European counterparts on the strength of a systematical study of their correspondences and, secondly, analyse the interplay between Indo-European poetic-mythological heritage and other components of different origin (e.g., motifs of West Asian influence or international folktale patterns) within the compositional devices of Greek oral-traditional poetry.

§1. Introduction: the “Withdrawal and Return” theme and the West Asian component of the Hymn

A product of Greek oral poetics (Cantilena 1982:26ff; 175ff), the Hymn is significantly shaped by the traditional theme “Withdrawal and Return” (Lord 1967; Sowa 1984:95-120). Its plot relies on a typologically quite common mythical theme, whose two main elements are:

  • (a) some sort of distress, in which one or more main characters find themselves;
  • (b) some sort of cosmic disorder, which is somehow linked to (and usually caused by) the distress of the protagonist(s), and which prompts other characters to try and restore cosmic order by eliminating the distress of the main character(s).

Accordingly, the Hymn has long been argued to show correspondences in West Asian and Egyptian myths about the withdrawal and return of a deity (Richardson 1974:258-259), cf., e.g., the motif of the seasonal journey of the deity into the Netherworld attested in the Sumerian/Akkadian myths of Inanna/Ishtar. These parallels, however, are not nearly exact (nor numerous) enough to allow for the assumption of a non-Greek background for the Hymn (compared to, e.g., the well-known parallels between Hesiod’s Theogony and the West Asian “Kingship in Heaven” mythical theme): they seem to reflect “not a case of textual influence, because the literary works are quite different from the Greek hymn and its versions”, but rather “a creative process of combining presumably native Greek material with the Mesopotamian journey ideas” (Penglase 1997:121).

The two main goals of my research have thus been to uncover the sources of this “native Greek material” and to explore how it was combined with other components, including the West Asian one.

§2. Findings: the Hymn’s Indo-European background

Close parallels have long been noted between the Hymn and other Indo-European mythological traditions which follow the same basic plot, such as the Hittite myth of Telipinu’s rage and disappearance and the Norse myth of Baldr’s death (cf., e.g., Burkert 1979:126 and Bugge 1889:244-248, respectively), similarities that have often been interpreted as the result of either cultural contact or universal tendencies.

The research findings presented below (§2.1-3) rather lead us to the conclusion that (at least some of) these correspondences may reflect a common poetic and religious heritage, also attested by other Indo-European traditions, such as the Indic mythical narratives about the seer Cyavana’s old age and rage (whose evolution has been studied by West 2017), as well as those about the dawn goddess’s rape and the sky or sun god’s wounding (first reconstructed by Jamison 1991; cf. Jackson 2006:63-93).

§2.1 The Indo-European “Poetics of Distress”

Several parallels involve poetic devices which are independently attested in various Indo-European traditions and which may thus be analysed as reflexes of inherited poetic phraseology: an Indo-European “Poetics of Distress”, according to which a person’s well-being was metonymically associated with every-day actions like standing, eating, speaking, and seeing, while cosmic disorder was associated with a specific set of catastrophic events such as plants not growing and disruption of sacrifices (Ginevra 2020).

Research carried out at the CHS has enabled me to explore the inner workings of this inherited poetics and to investigate how it came to be all-pervading in the Hymn, heavily shaping, inter alia, the repeated descriptions of Demeter sorrowfully sitting in the dark and refusing to eat and speak (e.g., lines 197-201), as well as the account of the cosmic disorder caused by the goddess keeping plants from growing, destroying humanity and ultimately depriving the Olympians of their sacrifices (lines 305-312).

§2.2. The Indo-European myth of the “Rape of the Maiden who is the Daughter of the Sky”

As is well known, the narrative of the Hymn combines “Withdrawal and Return” with a further oral-traditional theme, “Rape” (Sowa 1984:121-144), an aspect of this text that may reflect Indo-European heritage as well. A linguistic and comparative analysis (Ginevra submitted, building on, inter alia, Janda 2000:153-7; 174-6) allows for the identification of Kórē ‘Maiden’, daughter of Zéus (whose name is a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European word *di̯éu̯– ‘sky’), as a Greek reflex of the “Maiden who is the Daughter of the Sky” (a by-name of the dawn goddess, at least originally) attested in various Indo-European mythological traditions, e.g.:

  • in Vedic Sanskrit texts, in which the goddess Uṣas ‘Dawn’ is referred to as ‘maiden’ (several synonyms) and as “sky’s daughter” (divó duhitár-; divó ‘sky’s’ is another reflex of the same word *di̯éu̯-);
  • in Old Norse texts, in which the goddess Nanna ‘Maiden’ has an exclusive patronymic Neps-dóttir ‘daughter of Nefr’ (a reflex of *nébhes-, another ancient word for ‘sky’, cf. Greek néphos ‘clouds, mass of clouds’).

Just like Kore, the Vedic dawn goddess is the protagonist of a myth of her rape at the hands of a male god, allowing for the reconstruction of an Indo-European mythical theme of the “Rape of the Heavenly Maiden who is the Daughter of the Sky”, traces of which may also occur in a Medieval Latin version of the Norse myth of Baldr (where the god aggressively desires Nanna).

§2.3 The most ancient “Sleeping Beauty”

One further component was essential in the development of the Hymn and of its Indo-European counterparts: international folktale patterns and motifs. As argued in Ginevra 2019, the so-called “Demophon episode” which comprises the central part of the Hymn – an account of Demeter’s unsuccessful attempt to make the Eleusinian prince Dēmo-phō̂n (‘he who shines on the dē̂mos’), “born late and beyond expectation”, invulnerable – has a series of close matches not only in other ancient Indo-European traditions such as the Norse myth of Baldr, but also in the well-known folktales of the type ATU 410 “Sleeping Beauty”, stories of failed attempts to ensure the safety of a doomed character who often has a non-ordinary birth and/or a (direct or indirect) connection with light.

Further research conducted at CHS has led to the addition of a number of such correspondences to the list; cf., e.g., the events which follow Demophon’s loss of invulnerability in the Hymn (lines 284-295) and those which follow the princess’s misfortune in Charles Perrault’s (1697) fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant: both narratives attest a type scene (of the kind originally discussed by Arend 1933) which involves, in immediate succession, (1) a helpless character screaming, (2) other characters hearing the screams and coming to help, (3) the same characters unsuccessfully trying to fix the problem, (4) the king learning about the misfortune and (5) taking action to counteract it.

The Hymn thus seems to attest, beside the other components discussed in the previous sections, features of an ancient Greek version of the “Sleeping Beauty” folktale type (which would be its most ancient attested version by far); the fact that these parallels are sometimes shared by its Indo-European counterparts, however, points to even greater antiquity for this combination of myth and folktale.

§3. Impact of the research

The findings set forth above, together with a number of further correspondences in texts belonging to several different traditions, will hopefully, on the one hand, contribute to establishing the Hymn as an Eldorado for scholars of comparative poetics and mythology (and of historical and comparative linguistics in general), a true textbook example of the “Hellenization of Indo-European poetics, myth and ritual” (Nagy 1990:2).

On the other hand, from an oralistic perspective, the greatest contribution of this comparative research is to provide evidence that several peculiar features of the Hymn are not the invention of a single poet, but rather ancient and traditional devices born from the interplay of Indo-European heritage, West Asian influence, and international folktale patterns and motifs.

§3.1 The (pre-)historical development of the Hymn

The development of the Hymn may thus be envisaged in the framework of Nagy’s (1996:29ff) evolutionary model for the development of the Iliad and the Odyssey, namely as the gradual fixation by means of recomposition-in-performance – “which turns each new performance of the poem into a conscious quote of the previous one” (Bakker 2013:169) – of an originally fluid tradition which comprised a number of oral texts of different origin about Demeter and Kore.

During this multiform stage, poets would have been able to consciously quote multiple distinct traditions within single oral performances (“interformularity”, as per Bakker 2013:157-169; cf. Currie 2016:79-104 for a slightly different, neoanalytical perspective), each time unifying them into new, complex versions which established logical and causal relationships between them, e.g., by identifying the rape of Kore (a reflex of the Indo-European myth of the “Rape of the Heavenly Maiden”) as the cause of Demeter’s sorrowful wanderings (a combination of Indo-European “Poetics of Distress” and West Asian journey myths), which, in turn, came to include the “Demophon episode” (a Greek version of the folktale type ATU 410 “Sleeping Beauty”).

§3.2 The Hymn’s “monumental composition” and its relevance to the Humanities

Ultimately, the composition of the Hymn to Demeter may have resembled what Richard Martin (1989) has proposed in regard to the Iliad’s “monumental composition”: starting “from the need to outdistance previous epics” (ibid.:227) – i.e., in our case, previous oral texts based on single particular versions of the myth of Demeter and Persephone –, the poet created a (relatively, of course) monumental Hymn “expanded out of smaller parts” (ibid.:230), whose complexity arose out of its author’s desire to “obliterate [the other poets’] performances by speaking in more detail, about more topics – in short, in a more monumental fashion than any other epic performer” (ibid.:248) – i.e., in our case, by consciously quoting as many oral-traditional versions of Demeter and Kore’s myths as possible and combining them into a single, greater, “monumental” Hymn. This long process may possibly account (in part, at least) for the remarkable way in which the Hymn carefully deals with a number of extremely complex topics, such as motherhood, emotional distress, loss, and rape – displaying a depth of insight which is likely to be the final product of a long tradition. An improved understanding of the layers of composition of this incredible text and of its parallels in other cultures will hopefully have an impact not only on the fields of Classics and Linguistics, but also on other fields of Humanities in general, possibly serving as the foundation for further comparative and interdisciplinary research – uncovering the ways in which even the most distressful and traumatic experiences can be conceptualized in language and transposed in narrative form.

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———. 2020. Myths of Non-Functioning Fertility Deities in Hittite and Core Indo-European. In Dispersals and Diversification. Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives on the Early Stages of Indo-European, ed. M. Serangeli and T. Olander, 106-129. Leiden and Boston.

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