Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 11.

J. Strauss Clay, The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2006[2]. Pp. vi + 291. ISBN 1-85399-692-0. UK£16.99.

Christian Werner,
Department of Classical and Vernacular Languages,
University of Sao Paulo, Brazil

On her web-page,[[1]] Jenny Strauss Clay writes: ‘the focus of my scholarly work has been on archaic Greek poetry, more specifically what I call the theology of the early Greek poets, that is, their views on the relations between gods and men’. That is exactly the main concern of her books on the Odyssey, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns.[[2]] More than that, in these three books there is not only a convergence of content but also of methodology. On the same web-page, Clay states that 'I believe firmly that texts can tell you how they want to be read, if you listen long and carefully enough'. That means that Clay pretends not to be imposing on ancient texts a reading model from outside, but tries to concentrate on the texts themselves, so that some of their features help the modern critic to understand them, building a way back to what its author must have wanted.

After the second edition of The Wrath of Athena, a second edition of The Politics of Olympus attests that the path chosen by Clay to investigate archaic hexametric poetry has proved quite fruitful. That does not mean that her work belongs to or has founded a new orthodoxy -- far from it. The reviewers of the first edition, while recommending the book (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm), also insisted on the controversial character of many of its ideas.[[3]] A second, paperback edition of a book suggests that it has reached a wide public. Cora A. Sowa was certainly right to recommend The Politics of Olympus 'for students who are beginning their study of the Hymns'.[[4]] The structure and content of the book is highly suitable for them, and one reason is that, considering the point of view of its author, the book emphasises certitudes rather than puzzles. If a student should not begin his or her contact with a text in the midst of too many aporias, then the present volume should be in the bibliography of many a course on Greek Literature or Mythology.

In a not very long introduction (pp. 3-16),[[5]] Clay clearly and objectively delineates the method she will follow in the analysis of the four major hymns, a method that goes hand in hand with Clay’s respect to 'their autonomy as works of literary art and significant religious thought' (p. 4). That procedure is finally the result of Clay’s theory that these hymns belong to a literary genre that must be set apart from archaic theogonic and epic poetry.

Each hymn is centered around a narrative that focuses on a god’s deeds and words that happened in a time that is roughly located between Zeus’ conquest of his power (as told in Hesiod’s Theogony), the separation between gods and men (as told in Hesiod’s Works and Days), and the age of the heroes (as told in the Homeric poems). The hymn depicts how a god earns or loses some of his prerogatives, timai, so that Zeus is able to reinforce the new balance of power that defines Olympus forever. That explains the title of Clay’s book. Culturally, hymns like the Homeric and Hesiodic poems show the success of a Panhellenic Olympian religion. It is a general characteristic of them to avoid local religious concerns.

The formula of the book sketched above follows all of Clay’s well-written, very didactic, handleable analyses of the individual hymns, in which she systematically downplays performative, ritual, cultic, and historical theories; she is also not interested in the Parry-Lord theory and its consequences to the analysis of archaic Greek texts. Each hymn is thoroughly discussed in an individual chapter. The discussion follows the narrative itself and some poignant questions raised by it; the story is often paraphrased, a good part of the Greek text is printed, and all Greek is translated.

In the analysis of the Hymn to Apollo (pp. 17-94), the author defends a unitarian view of the poem, and understands that the structure of the hymn reflects the complexity and ambiguity of the god himself. Many steps of Clay’s most developed chapter are controversial, such as the understanding of Apollo as a possible enemy of Zeus in view of the Succession Myth depicted in the Theogony and the meaning of Hera’s rage in face of the 'politics of Olympus' conducted by Zeus. The Hymn to Hermes (pp. 95-151) is carefully read against the Odyssey and the deeds of the Hesiodic Prometheus. By his deeds and words, Hermes is shown to be a god maximally concerned with mankind and very near to it. But the most epic (the most Iliadic?) hymn is the Hymn to Aphrodite (pp. 152-201), since, according to Clay, the narrative it tells is the consequence of Zeus’ plan to interrupt the breeding of heroes; Aeneas should be the last one. Finally, the Hymn to Demeter (pp. 202-66) is also read as a 'document of Panhellenic thought' (p. 207). The narrative is concerned not with an agrarian myth, but Olympian theological speculation; what guides its author is not a local cult, but Panhellenic orientation. Clay understands, for example, that Demeter’s attempt to immortalize Demophoon is mostly a transgressive act against the tyrannical action of the powerful Zeus, and not a reference to some ritual act in the historical Eleusinian Mysteries. Demeter’s act is part of another 'critical chapter in the mythological history of the Olympians' (p. 11). Each chapter, each hymn tells how the world of Olympus was built out of conflicts between the gods themselves.

Whether you accept this argument or not, Clay’s attempt to draw the way the hymns portray a coherent theological thought (summarized in the conclusion, pp. 267-70) is well constructed if not always well documented. This book is no less useful than it was eighteen years ago when it was first published. Nevertheless, the second preface and the bibliography to the second edition could have been less economical (exigencies of the press?). Clay’s two pages amount to no more than a summary of her book, and the bibliography is limited to works in English between 1989 and 2005 (and even so it is not complete).[[6]]



[[2]] The Wrath of Athena: Gods and Men in the Odyssey (Lanham 1997; first edition Princeton 1983); Hesiod’s Cosmos (Cambridge 2003). The Politics of Olympus was first published by Princeton University Press in 1989.

[[3]] W. G. Thalmann, CP 86 (1991) 144-47; R. Janko (who gives a list of misprints), CR 41 (1991) 12f.; and C. A. Sowa, AJP 113 (1992) 93-96.

[[4]] Sowa [3] 96.

[[5]] Maybe to be read alongside with Clay’s chapter in I. Morris and B. Powell (edd.), A New Companion to Homer (Leiden 1997) 489-507, since here she refers to the short hymns also.

[[6]] To mention but one important paper: Egbert J. Bakker, 'Remembering the God’s Arrival', in Arethusa 35 (2002) 63-81 = Egbert J. Bakker, Pointing at the Past: From Formula to Performance in Homeric Poetics (Cambridge, Mass. 2005) 136-53.