The beauty of the Orphic Hymns lies primarily in the mystery of their provenance. Legendary poet Orpheus, companion of Jason, descender into Hades, and father of ancient Greek theology, certainly had a busy and well-documented life of adventure. Due to the variety of legends and stories involving Orpheus, it is impossible to offer a sequentially arranged and definitive synopsis of his life. According to the different traditions, his father was either a quasi-legendary Thracian king named Oeagrus, or the god Apollo. Regardless, at some point in his early youth, Apollo became fond of him and gave him a golden lyre, which he taught him to play. Orpheus’ mother, who was either the Muse Calliope or a mortal woman descended from a Muse, instructed him on the writing of verse. The key aspect of the Orpheus myth resides there, in his felicity with song and poetry. According to Aeschylus, Orpheus’ talent was such that the very rocks and trees responded to his compositions. He was a member of Jason’s crew on the Argonaut, and saved his companions from the Sirens by outsinging those legendary temptresses. He later descended into Hades to reclaim his deceased wife, Eurydice, and his songs were such to move the pity of Death himself. Eurydice was granted life, on the condition that Orpheus could lead her out of the underworld without looking back. He failed, and she remained in the clutches of Hades. He was so distraught by this that he renounced the love of women, and is sometimes credited with the invention of Greek homosexuality. The most famous account of his death is at the hands of a group of enraged, female followers of Dionysus, who resented his love of male youths and his rejection of their god. The Dionysian priestesses ripped him to shreds in a drunken fury, but could not prevent his severed head from singing. His golden lyre was reclaimed by Apollo and installed in the heavens, where it can be viewed to this day as an arrangement of stars.
There is no definitive statement within any of the ancient sources of the Orpheus myth to explain when and for what reasons he sat down to compose his hymns, which are the only extant complete body of his writing. In addition to the hymns, there have come down to us a fragmented Theogony, known as the Rhapsodic Theogony, and pieces of an Argonautica told from Orpheus’ perspective, which are also attributed to Orpheus himself. The complete hymns were known and read at least as early as 500 CE, when they were mentioned in a Latin codex (Athanassakis xii). The current collection, on which our two English translations by Thomas Taylor and A.A. Athanassakis are based, appeared around the 12th century. Our translators offer widely differing scholarly ideas about the true history of the hymns, opinions which greatly influence the style and content of the respective translations. Even their answers to the key questions – Did Orpheus exist? and Did he write these hymns?–are widely divergent.
Thomas Taylor published the first English translation of the hymns in 1792. An avowed classicist and ‘liberal mind,’ Mr. Taylor prefaces the hymns with a lengthy dissertation on the life and theology of Orpheus. His purpose for embarking on the work is to reveal the heritage of Greek philosophy as beginning with Orpheus and continuing through Pythagoras and Plato, and to also showcase the striking similarities between the religious ideas of the ancient Greeks and modern Christian beliefs.
Ultimately, his prefatory dissertation is of more value than the translations themselves. Mr. Taylor, through close study of obscure ancient sources, many of them available to him only as crumbling medieval manuscripts, has provided us with a clear and sensible historical outline of the hymn’s genesis, and also a revelatory summation of the life of the author. Mr. Taylor accepts it as a matter of fact that Orpheus did in fact exist, that he (more or less) accomplished all the feats attributed to him, and that he composed his hymns as a repository for his spiritual and philosophical knowledge. The ingenuous solution to the obvious biographical paradoxes – i.e. how could one person die so many different ways – is that Orpheus is a reincarnate spirit, like the Buddha, and that there were actually four ancient Orpheuses, and five if you count the first Orpheus’ decision to reincarnate initially as a swan, so as not ‘to be born of woman.’ Each of these Orpheuses accomplished different things; for the sake of this review, we need only identify that it was the fourth Orpheus who composed the hymns, sometime between 800-600 BCE.
As for the Taylor translation itself; it is, in a word, terrible. Mr. Taylor himself seems to acknowledge this, and offers in his preface not only the timeless translator’s complaint of the ultimate impossibility of their enterprise, but also an explanation of the Hymn’s singular difficulty. Apparently their construction around conclusive epithets involves so many hermetic devices that it is impossible to communicate their meaning to the uninitiated. According to Mr. Taylor:
Most of the compound epithets of which the following Hymns chiefly consist, thought very beautiful in the Greek language; yet when literally translated into ours, lose all their propriety and force. In their native tongue, as in a prolific soil, they diffuse their sweets with full-blown elegance; but shrink like the sensitive plant at the touch of the verbal critic, or the close translator (ix).
None of this, however, explains Mr. Taylor’s most grievious injury to his source material: his decision to render the hymns in a contemporary idiom, wholly prosaic and entirely inappropriate, complete with an awkward a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. Yikes.
A. Athanassakis does a much better job with the actual translation, and in his preface offers a much more sober–some would say boring and unexciting–explanation of the hymn’s provenance. According to him, Orpheus existed in the same way Hercules did: as a mythical character that, over time, accumulated a symbolic/spiritual significance which attracted a band of worshippers. The Orphic hymns were thus composed around 400 CE by a nameless priest of the Orphic cult, for use in a ritual setting.
Mr. Athanassakis, who has taught in the Classics Department of UC Santa Barbara for nearly thirty years, composed his translation in the 1960s, on a commission from a group concerned with making available obscure ancient religious texts for scholarly study. It is intended as a corrective for the Taylor translation, which, according to Athanassakis, obscures the intermittent literary quality of the original. Mr. Athanassakis, a professional scholar of Greek and translator, has also done celebrated, academic translations of the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod’s Theogony; having no personal knowledge of Greek, I take this to signify a greater fidelity to the original than that offered by Mr. Taylor.
The Athanassakis translation is, as he states, straightforward and unadorned. There is no rhyme scheme, no attempt to resolve linguistic obscurities; the result is a batch of hymns that are intermittently dull, often interesting, and, on a couple of occasions, truly stunning. Take, for example, the two renderings of Hymn LXXX.
TO THE WEST WIND
Sea-born, aerial, blowing from the west,
Sweet gales, who give to weary’d labour rest:
Vernal and grassy, and of gentle sound,
To ships delightful, thro’ the sea profound;
For these, impell’d by you with gentle force,
Pursue with prosp’rous Fate their destin’d course.
With blameless gales regard my suppliant pray’r,
Zephyrs unseen, light-wind’d, and form’d from air.
Western breezes, ethereal begetters of all,
as you blow gently your whisper brings deathlike rest.
Vernal and meadow-haunting, you are loved by havens
because to ships you bring . . . soft and light air.
Come in a spirit of kindness and blow perfectly,
O airy, invisible and light-winged ones.
Again, I have no personal knowledge of ancient Greek, but “vernal and grassy” can’t sound good in any language. It can be seen that in the Taylor translation we get a stilted example of English Romantic poetry, stamped upon an ancient Greek source; in the Athanassakis, a simple but moving poem of ethereal beauty. The value of the Taylor translation, as stated, resides in his explication of Orphic theology and adventurous interpretation of the hymn’s compositional history. As a purely literary document, however, the Athanassakis work stands on a higher level. It is impossible to determine the historical accuracy of the Orpheus myth. According to Orphic scholar M.L. West, who bases his determination on various ancient Greek sources, Orpheus would have predated Homer by several centuries, and even the ancient accounts that document that era are secondhand and steeped in allegory. Regardless, whether the hymns are the literal utterances of Apollo’s son, or the creation of “a religious association of people who called themselves mystic initiates” (Athanassakis 4), their literary quality is revealed in the more recent translation. It can be hoped that more scholarly attention may solve the riddle of their appearance, but until then, we must enjoy them for what they are: beautiful poems of indisputably spiritual significance.
by Doug Matus
a writer from Texas who now lives in Los Angeles