Hymnic Elements in Empedocles

[A French-language version of this essay was printed in Revue de Philosophie Ancienne 24 (2006), 51–62. In this online English-language version, the page-breaks in the printed French-language version are indicated within curly brackets “{…|…}”.]
The language of Homeric poetry has often been used to help solve problems in interpreting the poetic language of Empedocles. Conversely, the language of Empedocles may at times help solve problems in understanding Homeric poetry. In this investigation, I offer an example of such a solution, which raises an important question: is it possible that the poetry of Empedocles stems from a tradition that is at least partly independent of Homeric poetry and even cognate with it? The example in question centers on the poetic conventions of the humnos or ‘hymn’. I will argue that the hymnic elements that we find in one particular passage of Empedocles (B 35 DK = 201 Bollack) help explain the use of the word humnos in the epic of Homeric poetry.
I begin with the passage of Empedocles, adding my own working translation:

|18 αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ παλίνορσος ἐλεύσομαι ἐς πόρον ὕμνων, |19 τὸν πρότερον κατέλεξα, λόγου λόγον ἐξοχετεύων, |20 κεῖνον· ἐπεὶ Νεῖκος μὲν ἐνέρτατον ἵκετο βένθος |21 δίνης, ἐν δὲ μέσηι Φιλότης στροφάλιγγι γένηται, |22 ἐν τῆι δὴ τάδε πάντα συνέρχεται ἓν μόνον εἶναι, |23 οὐκ ἄφαρ, ἀλλὰ θελημὰ συνιστάμεν’ ἄλλοθεν ἄλλα. |24 τῶν δέ τε μισγομένων χεῖτ’ ἔθνεα μυρία θνητῶν· |25 πολλὰ δ’ ἄμεικτ’ ἔστηκε κεραιομένοισιν ἐναλλάξ, |26 ὅσσ’ ἔτι Νεῖκος ἔρυκε μετάρσιον· οὐ γὰρ ἀμεμφέως |27 τῶν πᾶν ἐξέστηκεν ἐπ’ ἔσχατα τέρματα κύκλου, |28 ἀλλὰ τὰ μέν τ’ ἐνέμιμνε μελέων τὰ δέ τ’ ἐξεβεβήκει. {51|52} |29 ὅσσον δ’ αἰὲν ὑπεκπροθέοι, τόσον αἰὲν ἐπήιει |30 ἠπιόφρων Φιλότητος ἀμεμφέος ἄμβροτος ὁρμή· |31 αἶψα δὲ θνήτ’ ἐφύοντο, τὰ πρὶν μάθον ἀθάνατ’ εἶναι, |32 ζωρά τε τὰ πρὶν ἄκρητα διαλλάξαντα κελεύθους. |33 τῶν δέ τε μισγομένων χεῖτ’ ἔθνεα μυρία θνητῶν, |34 παντοίαις ἰδέηισιν ἀρηρότα, θαῦμα ἰδέσθαι.
|18 As for me, I [autar egō], starting again [palin-orsos], will now come back to the watercourse [poros] [1] of my humnoi, |19 the one [= the poros] that I had pronounced in due order before, [2] as I stream-channeled [okheteuein] one set of words from another. [3] |20 That is the one [= the poros]. When Strife [Neikos] came to the lowest depth |21 of the swirling stream [dinē], and Bonding [Philotēs] was generated in the middle of the swirl, |22 and it is in her, now I see, [4] that all these things came together to become a single thing, |23 not all at once, but different things coming together willingly from different directions. |24 And from the things that were being mixed together there poured [kheîn] forth countless groupings of things mortal. |25 But many other things stayed as they were, unmixed, in alternation with the things that were being mixed together, |26 I mean, all the things that Strife [Neikos] was still holding {52|53} back, keeping them in suspension. For it did not happen that, without taking exception, |27 the entirety of them stood outside toward the outermost limits of the circle [kuklos], |28 but some of the members were staying on the inside while others had gone out to the outside. |29 As much as they kept on running away toward the outside all the time, so much did it keep on coming toward them all the time, |30 I mean, the immortal onrush, with a disposition that is kind and gentle, of Bonding [Philotēs] herself, the one who does not take exception. |31 Then, all of a sudden, things were becoming mortal that had previously learned to be immortal, |32 and things that had been pure and unmixed before had now changed their ways. |33 And from the things that were being mixed together there poured [kheîn] forth countless groupings of things mortal. |34 They were fashioned in all manner of shapes, a wonder to behold.
This passage from Empedocles makes it explicit (at verse 18) that the speaker’s discourse is a matter of singing songs that are humnoi, which I continue to translate for the moment as ‘hymns’. Moreover, as we will see in what follows, the wording autar egō ‘as for me, I …’ in the same verse signals a feature that is characteristic of humnoi.
Next I proceed to the use of the word humnos in the epic of Homeric poetry. The case in point is the expression ἀοιδῆς ὕμνον ‘humnos of song’ in the Homeric Odyssey (viii 429). The reference here is to the singing of the blind singer Demodokos at the court of the Phaeacians. The question is, how are we to understand humnos as ‘hymn’ in this context? The etymology of humnos helps provide an answer.
As I have argued at length in another work, the noun humnos can be explained as a derivative of the verb-root that we see in huphainein ‘weave’, in the metaphorical sense of ‘web’ or ‘fabric’ of song. [5] For {53|54} the moment, the particulars of the etymological explanation are less important than the general fact that metaphors referring to the craft of fabric-workers pervade the use of humnos in archaic Greek poetics, and that the basic idea inherent in these metaphors is that poets must make a perfect beginning with the making of the humnos just as fabric-workers must make a perfect beginning with the making of the fabric. [6]
Here is an example of this idea. It comes from the beginning of a Pindaric ode that imitates the beginning of a Homeric Hymn to Zeus:

῞Οθεν περ καὶ Ὁμηρίδαι | απτῶν ἐπέων τὰ πόλλ᾿ ἀοιδοί | ἄρχονται, Διὸς ἐκ προοιμίου.
(Starting) from the point where [hothen] the Homēridai, singers, most of the time begin [arkhesthai] their stitched-together words, from the prooimion of Zeus …
In this ode, prooimion ‘proemium’ is a synonym of humnos. The synonymity of these two words is evident in the explicit reference made by Thucydides (3.104.3–4) to the Homeric Hymn to Apollo as a prooimion ‘prooemium’.
The expression hothen ‘(starting) from the point where’ depending on aoidoi arkhontai ‘singers begin’ in Pindar’s imitation of a Homeric {54|55} Hymn to Zeus is parallel to the expression ek sethen ‘(starting) from you’ depending on arkhom’ aeidein ‘I begin to sing’ in a genuinely attested Homeric Hymn:

αὐτὰρ ἐγώ σε πρῶτα καὶ ἐκ σέθεν ἄρχομ’ ἀείδειν
As for me, I sing you first of all and from [ex] you do I start off [arkhesthai] to sing.
The verse that follows the verse I just quoted from this Homeric Hymn makes it clear that the notionally perfect beginning of the hymn, made possible by way of beginning ‘from’ the divinity Artemis, makes the rest of the song perfect as well:

σεῦ δ’ ἐγὼ ἀρξάμενος μεταβήσομαι ἄλλον ἐς ὕμνον
And, having started off from you, I will move ahead and shift forward [metabainein] to the rest of the humnos. [7]
I draw attention to the transition signaled by the verb metabainein ‘shift forward’. From here on, I will refer to this transition as a hymnic metabasis. The process of transition or metabasis, signaled by the verb metabainein, which I have just translated as ‘move ahead and shift forward’, is activated by the hymnic salutation khaire / khairete, which I interpret as ‘hail and take pleasure’. In the Homeric Hymn that I am currently examining, the wording of this salutation is as follows:

καὶ σὺ μὲν οὕτω χαῖρε θεαί θ’ ἅμα πᾶσαι ἀοιδῇ
I say ‘hail and take pleasure’ [khairein] to you and to all the goddesses with you—may you take pleasure in the song.
Implicit in the imperative forms of the verb khairein is the meaning of the related noun kharis, which conveys the idea of a ‘favor’ achieved by reciprocating the pleasure of beauty. Making this idea explicit, I now offer this paraphrase of khaire / khairete in the context of all its occurrences in the Homeric Hymns: Now, at this precise moment, with all this said, I greet the god (or gods) presiding over the festive occasion, calling on them to show favor [ kharis ] in return for the beauty and the pleasure of this my performance. What drives the performative gesture of khaire / khairete is the fundamental idea that the reciprocal favor of kharis is the same beautiful thing as the pleasure that it gives.
The question remains, what comes after the hymnic metabasis? I have developed an answer in another work, arguing that the meaning of the expression metabēsomai allon es humnon here (as also in Homeric Hymn 5.293 and 18.11) is not, as is commonly understood, ‘I will shift forward [metabainein] to another humnos’ but rather ‘I will shift forward [metabainein] to the rest of the humnos’:

In the Homeric Hymns, which refer to themselves explicitly as humnos, […] the point of departure is marked by the collocation of arkhomai ‘I begin’ with the name of the specified god in the genitive ([Homeric Hymns] 4.293, 9.8, 18.11, 31.18, 32.18). From the standpoint of the Homeric humnosas a performance—the god who is specified as the point of departure thereby presides over that performance in its entirety. The humnos is not just the beginning of the performance: everything that follows the humnos becomes part of the humnos, by virtue of the invoked god’s authority. The concept of arkhē is not just a matter of beginnings: it is also a matter of authority. Even if a given humnos, as a performance that started off with the subject of a god, switches from that subject to some other subject, such as the exploits of heroes, that performance is still notionally a humnos because it started as a humnos. [8] {56|57}
Here I return to the verse in the Odyssey referring to the humnos of song as sung by Demodokos. I now quote the verse in its entirety:

δαιτί τε τέρπηται καὶ ἀοιδῆς ὕμνον ἀκούων
… so that he [= Odysseus] might take delight [terpesthai] in the feast [dais] and in listening to the humnos of the song.
Odyssey viii 429
The context of the verse is this: Alkinoos, king of the Phaeacians, is expressing his wish that Odysseus, his disguised guest, may take pleasure (terpesthai) in hearing the humnos of the singing of Demodokos on the occasion of an ongoing feast (dais) that is being celebrated by the Phaeacians in honor of their guest.
In the verses that follow, the singer will be singing the third of the three songs he sings in Odyssey viii. Each of these songs is a separate story. The third time around, the story is about the destruction of Troy, the Iliou Persis. Here is how the third song is introduced:

ὣς φάθ’, ὁ δ’ ὁρμηθεὶς θεοῦ ἤρχετο, φαῖνε δ’ ἀοιδήν, | ἔνθεν ἑλών, ὡς …
Thus he [= Odysseus] spoke. And he [= Demodokos], setting his point of departure [hormētheis], started [arkhesthai] from the god. And he made visible the song, | taking it from the point where…

The start of this third song is clearly a hymnic start:

When Demodokos starts singing his third song, which is specified as aoidē [at viii 499], he starts with a god, the identity of whom is not specified by the narrative: hormētheis theou arkheto ‘getting started, he began with the god’. What follows this start, as we hear it paraphrased by the Odyssey, is an epic account of the Iliou Persis, the destruction of Troy (viii 500–520). The reinforcing expression hormētheis ‘getting started’ [at viii 499] has to do with the singer’s point of departure: the verb hormân is derived from the noun hormē […]; hormē can mean ‘setting oneself in motion’. {57|58} […] The expression theou arkheto ‘he began with the god’ at viii 499 indicates that Demodokos is singing a humnos. [9]
The starting of this epic narration by Demodokos is expressed through the technical language of performing a perfect restarting of the humnos mentioned earlier (at verse 429), and this restarting is signaled by the expression theou arkheto ‘he began with the god’ (at verse 499). Further, the technical procedure of restarting the humnos is being equated here metaphorically with the technical procedure of restarting the weaving of a web, as marked by the wording hormētheis ‘setting his point of departure’ (at verse 499). The root *or- of the Greek expression hormētheis is the same root *or- that we see in Latin exordium ‘proemium’: that word refers to the initial threading of a web. [10]
The metaphor of restarting a project of weaving that had already been started is evident in Latin as well. Here is a striking example involving the verbs ordīrī ‘start the weaving’ and contexere ‘restart the weaving’:

cum semel quid orsus, [si] traducor alio, neque tam facile interrupta contexo quam absoluo instituta
Once I have started weaving [ordīrī] something, if I get distracted by something else, it is not as easy for me to take up weaving where I left off [contexere] than to finish off what I have started. [11]
By now we see that the semantics of humnos are inextricably connected to the idea of wholeness, which in turn is connected to the idea of an absolutizing point of departure:

In terms of these connections, we may say that a beginning—wherever that beginning may be—must have a continuum that follows {58|59} it, producing a whole. The wholeness of the humnos, as performance, is marked by the beginning. It is authorized by the beginning. Its arkhē is both beginning and authorization. This idea, implicit in humnos, of wholeness as marked by an authoritative beginning, is remarkably similar to Aristotle’s idea of sustasis ‘order’ in the plots of tragedies (Poetics ch. 7 1450b). [12]
This idea of an authoritative beginning as authorized by a humnos is also attested in a passage of Simonides (F 11W2), a fragment from a song celebrating the victory of the Hellenes who fought the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. We see here once again the characteristics of a humnos: after glorifying the deeds of the Achaean heroes at Troy (in verses 11–18), the speaker of the song turns to Achilles and addresses him in the second person as a cult hero, greeting him with the hymnic salutation khaire ‘hail and take pleasure’ (at verse 19), which is followed by a hymnic metabasis signaled by the expression autar egō ‘as for me, I …’ (at verse 20), which leads into a narration of the glorious deeds of the Hellenes who fought at Plataea, starting with the Spartans (at verse 25). [13]
This same idea is also evident in the passage from Empedocles that started this whole investigation (B 35 DK = 201 Bollack). There too we see a metabasis signaled by the expression autar egō ‘as for me, I …’ (at verse 18). In that case, the metabasis leads into a restarting of the narration of Empedocles. So also in the Odyssey, we see a metabasis that leads into a restarting of the narration of Demodokos:

|485 αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ πόσιος καὶ ἐδητύος ἐξ ἔρον ἕντο, |486 δὴ τότε Δημόδοκον προσέφη πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς· |487 “Δημόδοκ’, ἔξοχα δή σε βροτῶν αἰνίζομ’ ἁπάντων· |488 ἢ σέ γε Μοῦσ’ ἐδίδαξε, Διὸς πάϊς, ἢ σέ γ’ Ἀπόλλων· |489 λίην γὰρ κατὰ κόσμον Ἀχαιῶν οἶτον ἀείδεις, {59|60} |490 ὅσσ’ ἕρξαν τ’ ἔπαθόν τε καὶ ὅσσ’ ἐμόγησαν Ἀχαιοί, |491 ὥς τέ που ἢ αὐτὸς παρεὼν ἢ ἄλλου ἀκούσας. |492 ἀλλ’ ἄγε δὴ μετάβηθι καὶ ἵππου κόσμον ἄεισον |493 δουρατέου, τὸν ᾿Επειὸς ἐποίησεν σὺν Ἀθήνῃ, |494 ὅν ποτ’ ἐς ἀκρόπολιν δόλον ἤγαγε δῖος Ὀδυσσεὺς |495 ἀνδρῶν ἐμπλήσας, οἳ Ἴλιον ἐξαλάπαξαν. |496 αἴ κεν δή μοι ταῦτα κατὰ μοῖραν καταλέξῃς, |497 αὐτίκα καὶ πᾶσιν μυθήσομαι ἀνθρώποισιν, |498 ὡς ἄρα τοι πρόφρων θεὸς ὤπασε θέσπιν ἀοιδήν.”
|485 When they had satisfied their desire for drinking and eating, |486 then Odysseus, the one with many a stratagem, addressed Demodokos: |487 Demodokos, I admire and pointedly praise you, more than any other human. |488 Either the Muse, child of Zeus, taught you, or Apollo. |489 All too well, in accord with its kosmos, do you sing the fate of the Achaeans |490—all the things the Achaeans did and all the things that were done to them, and they suffered for it—|491 you sing it as if you yourself had been present or had heard it from someone else. |492 But come now, move ahead and shift forward [metabainein] and sing the kosmos of the horse, |493 the wooden horse that Epeios made with the help of Athena, |494 the one that Odysseus, the radiant one, once upon a time took to the acropolis as a stratagem, |495 having filled it in with men, who ransacked Ilion. If you can tell me in due order [katalegein], in accord with proper apportioning [moira], |497 then right away I will say the authoritative word [muthos] to all mortals: |498 I will say, and I see it as I say it, that the god, favorably disposed toward you, granted you a divinely sounding song.
Odyssey viii 485–498
Starting or restarting with a god leads to a visualization of what comes after the metabasis. I repeat the verses that express the idea of the blind poet’s visualization: {60|61}

ὣς φάθ’, ὁ δ’ ὁρμηθεὶς θεοῦ ἤρχετο, φαῖνε δ’ ἀοιδήν, | ἔνθεν ἑλών, ὡς …
Thus he [= Odysseus] spoke. And he [= Demodokos], setting his point of departure [hormētheis], started [arkhesthai] from the god. And he made visible the song, | taking it from the point where…
Odyssey viii 499–500
The poet is revealing here a vision of his epic narrative. This vision comes from the blind poet’s own inner vision of his starting point, that is, of the divinity who authorizes the humnos in its entirety. An absolutized hymnic beginning, which comes from the divinity, leads to a perfect visualization of that divinity, which in turn leads to a perfect visualization of whatever follows the hymnic metabasis. What follows in this case is the epic narrative of the Iliou Persis. Such is the theology of the humnos as it extends into epic. This theology helps explain why it is that Herodotus defines Homer and Hesiod as the first poets who ‘revealed’ (sēmainein) the ‘visible forms’ (eidē) of the gods to mortals (2.53.2).
Another passage of Empedocles reveals a comparable theology:

εἰ γὰρ ἐφημερίων ἕνεκέν τινος, ἄμβροτε Μοῦσα, | ἡμετέρας μελέτας ‹ἅδε τοι› διὰ φροντίδος ἐλθεῖν, | εὐχομένωι νῦν αὖτε παρίστασο, Καλλιόπεια, | ἀμφὶ θεῶν μακάρων ἀγαθὸν λόγον ἐμφαίνοντι.
If for the sake of any ephemeral being, immortal Muse, | it <pleased> you to care about what concerned me, | then, I pray to you, come now once again and stand by me, Calliope, | as I make visible [enphainein] the genuine wording about the blessed gods.
For more on this passage, see Obbink 2001:70–71.
The use of enphainein ‘make visible’ here in Empedocles (B 131.4 DK) is comparable to the use of phainein ‘make visible’ with reference to the visualization of Demodokos in narrating his version of the epic Iliou Persis in the Odyssey (viii 499)—after performing a hymnic metabasis (signaled at viii 492 by metabainein and at viii 499 by theou arkheto).


Bakker, E. J. 1997. Poetry in Speech: Orality and Homeric Discourse. Ithaca NY.
Bakker, E. J. 2005. Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics. Cambridge MA and Washington DC.
Boedeker, D., and Sider, D. 2001. eds. The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire. Oxford.
Bollack, J. 1969. Empédocle III: Les Origines. Commentaire 1. Paris.
Koller, H. 1956. “Das kitharodische Prooimion: Eine formgeschichtliche Untersuchung.” Philologus 100:159–206.
Nagy, G. 2005. Review of Boedeker and Sider 2001. Classical Review 55:407–409.
Obbink, D. 2001. “The Genre of Plataea. Generic Unity in the New Simonides.” In Boedeker and Sider 2001:65–85.


[ back ] 1. On the meaning of poros (in such contexts) as ‘watercourse’, not ‘path’, see Bollack 1969:194; also Obbink 2001:73n28.
[ back ] 2. What was said ‘before’ corresponds to the wording we see in Empedocles B 17. The verbal correspondences are studied by Bollack 1969:195.
[ back ] 3. I translate okheteuein as ‘stream-channeling’: the metaphor derives from the irrigation of land. The sequence of consonants and vowels here in line 19 imitates the flow of elements in what is said …έλεξα λόγου λόγον ἐξ… […elexalogōlogonex…]. See Bollack 1969:195.
[ back ] 4. The particle δή here has an “evidentiary” force, indicating that the speaker has just seen something, in other words, that the speaker has achieved an insight just a moment ago (‘aha, now I see that…’). See Bakker 1997.74–80, 2005.146.
[ back ] 5. Further discussion in Nagy 2002:70–71, with special reference to the collocation of huphainein ‘weave’ with humnos as its object in Bacchylides Epinicia 5.9–10. In that discussion I also consider other explanations, including the theory that humnos may be related to humēn – more specifically, that humnos and humēn may both be derived from another word for fabric-working, the verb *syuH– ‘sew’.
[ back ] 6. Nagy 2002:70–98. As I explain in those pages, I say “fabric-worker” instead of “weaver” in order to include various kinds of specialized fabric production, not just weaving, in the overall historical context of the Greek-speaking world in the second millennium BCE and thereafter. Such a differentiation, I argue, is reflected metaphorically in the word for ‘rhapsode’, rhapsōidos, in the etymological sense of ‘he who sews together the song(s)’. In other words, the metaphor inherent in this word implies the existence of professional male fabric-workers.
[ back ] 7. Note the wording in the beginning of this hymn, in verse 1: Ἄρτεμιν ὕμνει Μοῦσα ‘make Artemis, O Muse, the subject of my humnos’.
[ back ] 8. Nagy 2002:73, following Koller 1956:180, with special reference to the ending of Homeric Hymn 31, verse 19, where the erga ‘deeds’ of hēmitheoi ‘heroes’ are made explicit as the topic of the “main part” (so Koller) of the performance.
[ back ] 9. Nagy 2002:72–73.
[ back ] 10. On the expression hormētheis, see Nagy 2002:25–26, 72.
[ back ] 11. Nagy 2002:81.
[ back ] 12. Nagy 2002:74.
[ back ] 13. For a brief commentary on the relevant themes in Simonides F 11W2, see Obbink 2001:72–73.