Hymns and Epigrams by Callimachus (trans. A. W. Mair)

The Hellenistic poet Callimachus was born in 305 BCE in Cyrene (now present day Libya). He moved to Alexandria and worked as an educator, until being appointed to a position in Library of Alexandria by Ptolemy II, where he catalogued the library’s many manuscripts. He also embarked on his own career as a poet in which he supposedly wrote over 800 works of which only six hymns and 64 epigrams survive, along with some fragments of other works.

The hymns follow similar patterns, usually opening with a prayer and praise of the specific deity featured in the hymn (Zeus, Apollo, Artemis, etc.), relaying fragments of their exploits from mythological episodes, followed by talk about specific symbols and geographic locations associated with them, and praise for their various functions and characteristics. The poems tend to be overly formal and seem to be more about the poet showing off his mythological erudition than his lyrical prowess. The hymn to Zeus has some clever moments in that it incorporates the confused mythological history representing different cultural variants.

How shall we sing of him – as lord of Dicte or of Lycaeum?  My soul is all in doubt, since debated is his birth. O Zeus, some say that thou wert born on the hills of Ida; others, O Zeus, say in Arcadia; did these or those, O Father lie?

Overall, though, the hymns were unimpressive to me.

I liked the Epigrams a bit better. They are worth reading, even if I can think of quite a few poets a like better. They represent Callimachus’ defense of short, well-polished poetry over long epics or other bloated verse.

Epigram 7
I am the work of the Samian, who
once received the divine singer in his
house; and I celebrate the sufferings of
Eurytus and of fair-haired Ioleia; but I
am called the writing of Homer. Dear
Zeus, for Creophylus this is a great
thing.

This poem makes reference to a poem whose true author remains unclear: some say Homer wrote it, others Creophylus. Callimachus plays on this uncertainty to write his own poem, which is a literary insult. It hints that Creophylus’ poem isn’t really that good, but gets overrated because some believe Homer was the actual author. The poem is hyped because of name recognition and being associated with Homer rather than on its actual merits.

Epigram 8

A youth was garlanding the grave-
pillar of his step-mother, a short stone,
thinking that with change of life her
nature too was changed. But as he bent
over the grave, the stone fell and killed
the boy. Ye step-sons, shun even the
grave of a step-mother.

Epigram 8 is probably my favorite. Unfortunately there is some doubt over authorship. Callimachus may or may not have written it, but it is still a great and funny poem. Not only does the trope of Wicked Stepmothers live on, but it is also forerunner to the obnoxious in-laws trope as well.

Epigram 63

Ye goats of Cynthus, be of good
cheer! For now the bow of Cretan
Echemmas is laid up in Ortygia in the
temple of Artemis, – that bow
wherewith he made the great hill empty
of you. But now he hath ceased, ye
goats, since the goddess hath wrought a
truce.

What sort of truce? Well, Artemis was the goddess of virginity, hunting, and childbirth (in some incarnations), therefore presumably the truce to end his hunting activities involved acquiring a lover. There is an ironic dimension in that the goddess of hunting is powerless to stop his hunting activities, except by assuming her role as the goddess of virginity and childbirth.

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