The Poetics of Distress: Indo‑European Phraseology and Themes in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter
Both my research and teaching activity until now have been informed by the deep conviction that cross‑disciplinary methodologies are essential for understanding the development of ancient and contemporary linguistic and cultural phenomena, as well as the close relationship between them. My project at CHS thus attempts to apply an interdisciplinary methodology both to the analysis of a specific scientific issue, namely the possibility of an Indo-European background for the Greek myth of Demeter and Kore, and to the study of a topic which may be relevant for a non‑specialist audience as well: how emotional and physical distress is conceptualized by linguistic means.
The Greek myth of Kore’s abduction and Demeter’s subsequent rage, most famously told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, has a series of thematic parallels in Babylonian, Ugaritic, Canaanite, Egyptian, and, especially, Anatolian mythical narratives such as the Hittite myth of Telipinu’s rage and disappearance. These parallels have long been taken into consideration by standard commentaries on the Hymn. Close correspondences between Greek and Hittite mythology and poetics have often been interpreted as the result of cultural contacts between Greece and Anatolia (the historicity of which has been long ascertained). This is certainly true in several cases, but, given that both Greek and Hittite are, as is well-known, Indo‑European languages, my hypothesis is that some of these close correspondences may be inherited and accordingly traced back to the common ancestor of both Greek and Hittite, namely Proto-Indo-European. This may especially be true when such correspondences are shared by other Indo-European traditions as well.
My research thus focuses not only on the correspondences between the Homeric Hymn and the Hittite myth of Telipinu, but also between these narratives and three other Indo-European mythical traditions, whose main characters find themselves in some sort of distress (mental, physical, even death), namely: the Norse myth of Baldr’s death, the Vedic myth of the wounding of the Sun and the Vedic and Sanskrit narratives about Cyavana’s old age and rage. Consider, for instance, the similarities between the aftermath of Kore’s disappearance in the Hymn and that of Baldr’s death in the Old Norse narratives, both of which comprise characters going through a nine-day-long wandering period and abstaining from washing:
Greek: Hom. Hymn to Dem. 47–50 ἐννῆμαρ μὲν ἔπειτα κατὰ χθόνα πότνια Δηὼ / στρωφᾶτ᾽ […] οὐδὲ χρόα βάλλετο λουτροῖς […] “For nine days then did the lady Deo roam the earth […] and she did not splash her body with washing water”.
Norse: Gylfaginning 49 […] hann reið níu nætr […] dala […] “He (Hermóðr) rode for nine nights through valleys”; Vǫluspá 331 Þó hann æva hendr “He (Váli) never washed hands”.
A further exemplary parallel might be that between the opening lines of the Homeric Hymn and those of the Indic myth of Cyavana as told in the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, both of which introduce a female character called ‘Maiden’ (later forced to marry a male character, namely Hades and Cyavana, respectively) while she playfully picks flowers with her girlfriends:
Greek: Homeric Hymn to Dem. 5–6 παίζουσαν κούρῃσι σὺν Ὠκεανοῦ βαθυκόλποις / ἄνθεά τ᾽ αἰνυμένην […] “while she (Kore ‘Maiden’) was playing with the deep-bosomed maidens of Ocean, picking flowers”
Indic: MBh. 3.122.8–9 […] sakhī vṛtā […] / babhañja vanavṛkṣāṇāṃ śākhāḥ paramapuṣpitāḥ “[…] surrounded by her friends, […] she (Su‑kanyā ‘Good‑Maiden’) broke off the most flowering branches from the forest trees.”
The Homeric Hymn and all of these Indo-European mythical traditions share several further features, which are not likely to be due to chance and which deserve to be thoroughly investigated.
The aim of my project is thus a systematical study of the onomastics, phraseology and thematic structures of the myth of Kore and Demeter, both as attested in the Homeric Hymn and in related Greek texts, and in comparison with its Indo-European counterparts, in order to reconstruct their common background by means of the methodology of Comparative Indo-European Poetics, a discipline combining Philology and Oral‑Formulaic Theory with Historical Linguistics, which has developed greatly in the past decades through the efforts of scholars like Enrico Campanile, Gregory Nagy, Rüdiger Schmitt, and Calvert Watkins.
Understanding to what extent the Hymn to Demeter reflects the “Hellenization of Indo-European poetics, myth and ritual” (as formulated by Gregory Nagy) may have several advantages: on the one hand, it allows us to better appreciate how traditional poetic devices were handled by Greek poets; on the other, it provides us with a new starting point for an analysis of the interplay between inherited Indo-European poetics and narrative motifs of areal diffusion (e.g. of Near Eastern origin) within the traditional devices of Oral Poetry (i.e. formulas and thematic structures) occurring in the Homeric Hymn.
Finally, investigating the poetic devices employed within these ancient mythical narratives to describe their protagonists, all of whom find themselves in a state of suffering of various kind, allows us to approach ancient conceptualizations of emotional and physical distress by means of a linguistic methodology, enabling us to identify the concepts, actions, and even symptoms which the speakers of these ancient languages associated with the conditions of happiness vs. unhappiness, of health vs. sickness, and even of life vs. death. The results of this enquiry may be of interest not only to scholars of Classics and Linguistics, but also to the general public, which nowadays has to deal with the same problems of mental, emotional, and physical distress as it did in ancient times. The CHS, with its thriving interdisciplinary research activity, its rich library and its unrivalled human resources is thus an ideal place for carrying out this research.
Riccardo Ginevra received his PhD in Historical-Comparative Linguistics in 2018 from the Università per Stranieri di Siena (Italy) in joint supervision with the University of Cologne (Germany). Before that, he studied Classics (BA 2012; MA 2014) with a focus on Archaic Greek epic poetry and historical linguistics at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano (Italy). In his doctoral dissertation, he analyzed the onomastics and the phraseology occurring in the Old Norse mythological poem Vǫluspá ‘Prophecy of the Seeress’ and in other traditional Germanic texts from the perspective of historical linguistics, systematically taking into consideration the comparative evidence attested in Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hittite, and Celtic languages, among others. He has published, given talks, and taught at the university level on the comparative analysis and reconstruction of Indo-European poetic formulas, theonyms, and myths. As a Fellow of the CHS, he will carry out a systematical study of the phraseology, thematic structures, and onomastics of the Greek myth of Kore and Demeter as attested in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (and related texts), with particular focus on their Indo-European background and on the interplay between inherited poetics and narrative motifs of areal diffusion.