A. E. Stallings

Singing to the gods: a millennium’s span of ancient Greek hymns, gloriously portrayed

Much of the mythology concerning the Greek gods comes to us from hymns, presented here in new translations by Barry B. Powell, who wears his learning as lightly as seersucker

Orpheus surrounded by animals: Roman mosaic, 2nd century. Credit: Bridgeman Images

We are experiencing a boom of popular books on Greek mythology: Stephen Fry’s Mythos; Natalie Haynes’s Pandora’s Jar; Liv Albert’s Greek Mythology: The Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes Handbook, to name a few. Admittedly, Greek mythology has it all: love, sex, murder, incest, cannibalism, magical transformations, pirates, monsters, miracles. Surely some readers, though, will want to go even deeper, to tap into the ancient sources, incorrigibly plural and various.

These sources include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Hesiod’s genesis and who-begat-whom of the gods, the Theogony. (Plus a chunk of ‘Greek’ mythology which we actually get via the Roman poet Ovid.) But much of the mythology concerning the Greek gods — not just the 12 Olympians but figures such as Hekate, Pan, the Sun and the Moon — comes to us from hymns.

In this gem of a book, Barry B. Powell gives us new translations of a millennium’s span of ancient Greek hymns. Organised not by chronology or manuscript but deity (starting with Zeus), it can be read straight or flipped through as a handy reference. Physically gorgeous — cloth, sewn, with a starry dust jacket and celadon-green end-papers — it would make a fine gift for a myth buff or classics enthusiast, or an ideal source book for a mythology course. With maps, sharp full-colour photographs of relevant ancient art and a glossary-cum-index (complete with pronunciation guide), the book is a pleasure to hold and easy to use, the size of a slender, well, hymnal.

Powell, a scholar and a translator who has tackled the three major epics, wears his learning as lightly as seersucker. He elucidates complex scholarly matters — manuscript traditions, Greek meter, Neo-Platonism — in layman’s language. ‘A hymn is a song to a god, originally sung, usually to a lyre,’ he begins, quietly tuning up.

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