European Pagan Memory Day

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Callimachus from Cyrene (310 – 240 b.c.e.) wrote his hymns probably between 280 and 270, after Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Hellenistic Egypt, called him to move in Alexandria. Callimachus' hymns come to us from some papyrus and parchment fragments, which can be dated from the first century b.c.e. to the seventh c.e., but above all from some manuscripts of a collection including the so-called Orphic hymns, the Homeric hymns and Proclus' philosophical hymns; these manuscripts can be dated approximately at the tenth century c.e.

There are six hymns by Callimachus and probably they have been passed down in the order arranged by their author: first there's the hymn to Zeus, then the hymn to Apollo, to Artemis, to Delos, the Bath of Pallas and to Demeter. Since his high grade of erudition, Callimachus should have known well themes and verses from other literary compositions, included the Homeric hymns, and therefore used them in his own hymns: the hymn to Zeus that is first in Callimachus' series recalls the hymn to Dionysus that begins the Homeric hymns' series as we know it (this is also a confirmation of what was lately found in the Moscow-Leiden manuscript, that the hymn to Dionysus was at the beginning of the Homeric collection as known in Callimachus' times). The hymn to Demeter, the last one, recalls in some verses the seventh Homeric hymn, to Dionysus, too: these are the poet's plays, turning to learned readers, as usual in Alexandrian poetry. References to Homeric hymns are quite common (see Faulkner's work in Reference works at the end of page), but there are also references to Simonides, Pindar and Bacchylides.

As usual when poems are the work of a single author, the hymns have several ties with Callimachus life situation. At that time, the hymn was a poetic composition allowing to show an author's knowledge about myths and rites, but also to celebrate someone (there are many references to the Ptolemaic dynasty) or a particular event, or to spread ideas through hints more or less easy to understand. For instance, some scholars saw in Apollo killing Python in the second hymn a symbolic killing of bad poetry, raw and unelaborated, unlike real poetry according to Callimachus. But the hymns are also a reflex of religious vision on that times: Zeus is represented not much as god of the sky, but more as the god of everything happens, as distributor and giver, and here Callimachus is closer to the Orphic hymns and to Hesiod's Theogony than to the Homeric hymns.

Nevertheless, we mustn't consider the hymns as a mere celebrative or for amusement poems, because a poet celebrating the gods was considered somehow a theologian: it's not a chance if Epicurus, a couple of decades before, blamed the poets of having caused people to fear the gods and the afterlife. When Callimachus wrote the hymns, many ideas about the gods and cult practices had already consolidated, but it's a feature of polytheism allowing the coexistence of more than one theological idea. We can't underestimate the fact that Callimachus chose to underline this or that aspect of a deity: it's a personal religious choice. To fully understand Callimachus' religious ideas, we have to read the whole complex of Callimachus' works, since also in the Iambi many references to the Gods are made and the Iambi are a less celebrative work, more tied to literature and art than to politic situation.

Callimachus' gods are actually rooted in time and space: the hymn to Artemis presents her as a universal goddess, but only because she's 'made of' several local Artemises; the gods of other works too are rooted to a special place (Hera of Samo, the Zeus made by Phidias and so on…). Callimachus' Apollo is the Delian Apollo but above all is the Apollo patron of Cyrene, Callimachus' birth city. This can be seen for example in the prescriptions of purity in the hymn, recalling the prescriptions made in a religious document of Cyrene. So the hymn to Apollo is the source to understand Callimachus' ideas not only about poetry, but also about religious practice.

Reference works

Manuela Simeoni


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