Friday, February 4, 2011

Hymn to Herakles the Lion Hearted

Birth of Herakles

Jean Jacques Francois Le Barbier (1738-1826)

Homeric Hymn 15 - Herakles the Lion Hearted

Hear me sing of Herakles, divine son, the finest
And bravest of all born from this earthy compost.

In Thebes, of the spacious dancing gardens,
Alcmena mingled with the storm cloud covert
Son of Kronos. Carried and bore him.

Even the gods themselves could not
Conceive his wide roaming across earth and sea.

Bound to the arrogance of King Eurystheus.
Much wickedness he performed, much he endured.

And now fair he sits on snow capped Olympus
Dwelling in delight with Hebe of the well turned ankle.

Rejoice in the son of Lord Zeus
Exult and grant us happiness.


I have no right to inflict my attempts at translations upon the world. Nothing to justify but simple enthusiasm and passion for the ancients and for poetry in general. This I think will have to be sufficient. I understand my faults and weaknesses, mainly in that I can only do this translation like a lazy and ignorant school boy. Painstakingly fighting though lexicons and slowly identifying the inflections and parts of speech and then slopping it all together with a vague hope for inspiration.

I have not tried too hard at creating a word for word translation. I have not tried to capture the rhythms of the original. This is to me a pointless endeavour. The techniques used by the ancient oral song-stitchers are far too alien to fit into modern English poetry. All I have done is to render the Greek into a close approximation of how I understand the poem to flow. Unlike working in chemistry, there is no single right answer as to how a poem should be interpreted. I am banking on this simple fact to be my armour against any errors and flaws I may have planted. As this is not meant to be, as I said, a word for word translation, any errors can be seen as adding elements to the poem, maybe even pointing out new interpretations. Errors are, as Joyce has suggested, portals to discovery. While I gladly admit to not being expert in the nuance of Ancient Greek.,I do feel I am able to work my way through the poem and come up with some words and lines that capture something of the spirit of the original.

I was happy to fracture the standards of English poetry in an attempt to capture some of the strangeness of the distant past. I was more than happy to create lines that seemed to, to quote the often heard complaint raised by the professional academic poet, suffer of poeticism. This seemed to allow for the wide gap that exists between our modern Anglophones, and the world view of the ancients. The Greeks had a musical language and a poetry based on alterations of long and short vowel sounds. A Swinburne would be able to approximate these song lines, but I am not able to do so in a way that I find convincing. So I fell into a simple free verse outline to hang the translation. In the end I felt looseness of technique would be the most useful path to follow. I do not think we can understand fully what life for the ancients felt like, but I am sure that our present worship at the altar of crass stupidity and short term material gain was not in the Ancients program.

To be able to show something of the abyss that stands between us and the long ago past, I had to attempt to recall the dramatic elements from my all but forgotten Catholic teachings. Even with (or maybe because of) the playful sexuality of the work, and the hints of darks acts performed, the simple style of the Bible seemed to me a fitting structure for the work.

There were several words in particular which caught my attention, and seem worthy of brief mention.

leontothymon - leonto-thymon lion hearted - obvious in it's description of Herakles as having no fear, of having the heart of a lion. Also used to describe Achilles in several places, including book 7, 228 of the Iliad, in this instance the word has changed shape and is thymo-leonta, but the idea is the same.

kallikhoros - kalli-khoros. The Greeks liked to mash words up, and so here we have the word for beautiful combined with the word for dancing place, and in this we can see a similarity to our word chorus. This was a common epitaph to describe a wealthy city with wide open spaces. I envisioned this word as describing wide green parks, open spaces that allowed dance and theatre.

michtheisa - To mix or to mingle, properly of fluids. Extended to mean to join battle, as in hand to hand combat, or to have intercourse with. A well rounded patriarchal admixture of violence and sexuality. I liked the images of Zeus and Alcmena mingling to conceive Herakles. Light-bearing, rapacious Zeus concealed himself as a dark storm cloud, and impregnated Alcmena. Hera, the wife of Zeus, was jealous of the many children Zeus had spawned with mortal women. This is the source of the enmity Hera felt towards Herakles, and also explains his name of Hera-kles, glory of Hera. Either this name was given to further enrage Hera, or it describes the power and majesty Hera held over Herakles. Either makes sense, but I do get a certain amusement in the idea of the mortals teasing and enraging the Queen of the Heavens. In the end Hera was reconciled with Herakles, and after his death she adopted him. Herakles crawling out from between her legs in the ceremony of adoption which imitated childbirth.

athesphatos - a-theos-phatos - 'not to be said even by a god', unutterable. A very nice word indeed and one that stands for unutterable, awesome, ineffable, and such connotations. I used a wordy convoluted phrase, because it seemed to be more 'alien' and also because words such as awesome have lost mich of their mysterious qualities.

kallisphyron - kalli-sphyron - beautiful ankle. A common epitaph used to describe the beauty of a goddess. It can also be used to describe foothills, and even the furthermost part of a land. Unlike the Spartan women who wore dresses with a slit up the leg, earning the nickname Phainomerides - the thigh flashers.

My favourite word found in this poem was epichthonion. Epi-chthonion literally it means upon the earth, but in connotation it means something like the life on earth, and is also a phrase used to describe going under. I was quite intrigued with this word, as it expresses the complex and apparent contradiction of being the vegetative life giving force, as well a being the grave, the pit of the dead. This idea allowed me to bring in the word compost. The compost pile where I throw the scraps is alive with potatoes and pumpkins spreading out from the warm rotting mound. A rotting mound that brings forth new life seemed to be a good way to describe 'being upon the earth.'

1 comment:

nancy said...

that's brilliant Tom! love the way the concepts mix in the words - a doorway to so much feeling and meaning.