Callimachus’s collected hymns are an important contribution to the body of literature produced in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the period following the death of Alexander the Great. The classical era of Athens had long passed, and under Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander’s general who established Egypt as an independent kingdom in 305 b.c.e., literary and intellectual influence had shifted to Alexandria and its famous library.
Callimachus was born in Cyrene, a Greek city (modern Shahat) in Libya. He was trained in Athens, taught at Eleusis, and was eventually invited to Alexandria by King Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the youngest son of Ptolemy I Soter. Under the patronage of the Ptolemies, Callimachus served as librarian for about twenty years, during which he composed the catalog (Pinakes) of the library. This opportunity provided Callimachus a solid educational foundation and fostered the erudition for which his poetry is known.
Callimachus’s hymns are difficult to date. Although it is likely that they were written for religious occasions, it is not known for which ceremonies each was composed, nor whether they were for public or private celebrations. Their style—and in some cases, their content—display Callimachus’s assertion that the age of the epic had long passed and that short and polished poems were best. It was this attitude that led to a dispute between Callimachus and his pupil Apollonius of Rhodes, who challenged Alexandrian standards and continued the Homeric epic tradition in his Argonautica (third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1780). The argument is reflected within the hymns themselves.
The first hymn, the shortest of the six with its ninety-five lines, addresses the birth and youth of Zeus, the most important of the Greek gods, and his subsequent rise to supremacy. This hymn exemplifies Callimachus’s erudition, his delight in witty play with local geography and customs, and, finally, his interest in competing traditions. Callimachus immediately introduces the contention between the island of Crete and the Peloponnesian region of Arcadia as the location of Zeus’s birthplace. According to most traditions, Zeus’s father, Cronus, fearing his children would one day overthrow him, threatened to devour them. Cronus’s wife Rhea therefore fled from him when she was pregnant with Zeus. Tradition tends to favor Crete as the place where Rhea secretly gave birth to Zeus. Callimachus, however, elects Arcadia and cites a proverb of the Cretan poet Epimenides, “Cretans are liars, always,” to justify his reasoning. He further accuses the Cretans of mere foolishness for having constructed a tomb for Zeus, who as a divinity is obviously immortal. To support Arcadia’s claim, Callimachus notes a region there called “Rhea’s primal childbed.”
After he was born in Arcadia, Zeus was turned over to the nymph Neda and brought to Crete; en route to Knossos the navel falls at the town Thenae, nearby which was a place the locals called the Plain of the Navel. Callimachus decides another argument, that between Mount Dicte and Mount Ida as the Cretan mountain where Zeus was reared, in support of the former. On Mount Dicte, Zeus is protected by the Curetes, fostered by the nymph Adrasteia, and nourished by the milk of the she-goat Amaltheia and the honeycombs of the mountain’s bees. Callimachus also addresses an alternative explanation of Zeus’s ascent to superiority. Whereas many previous poets had attributed Zeus’s rule to his luck when drawing lots with his brothers Poseidon and Hades, Callimachus ascribes Zeus’s power rather to his ability to devise and execute perfect plans while young. Here the poet is likely alluding to Ptolemy II Philadelphus’s rise to power over his elder brothers.
By all the means at his disposal, Callimachus removes Zeus’s right to supremacy from mere acts of chance to his meritable power and might. The poet also addresses the symbols of Zeus, notably the eagle and mortal kings who rule all aspects of life (for which he cites the poet Hesiod), and connects Zeus’s selection and favor of them as proof of his all-encompassing supremacy. The hymn closes on a prayer that petitions Zeus for prosperity.
The second hymn presents the joyful worship at Cyrene and the expectations of Apollo’s epiphany on the Carneia, one of his...
(The entire section is 1809 words.)