Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Cameron, Alan. Callimachus and His Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Cameron presents a revisionist view of Callimachus’s work and the world in which he lived. He refutes earlier accounts depicting Callimachus as an erudite, “ivory-tower” poet, providing evidence to show his participation in civic festivals and other public activities; Cameron also furnishes new information about the lives, dates, works, and interrelationships of many other poets who lived in Callimachus’s time. Chapter 15 is devoted to a discussion of “The Hymn to Apollo.”
Ferguson, John. Callimachus. Boston: Twayne, 1980. An extremely useful and accessible overview of Callimachus’s life and works. Chapter 7 offers a superior examination of important themes in the Hymns and a detailed discussion of the literary style, political ramifications, historical context, and composition of each hymn. Includes a concise bibliography on all aspects of Callimachus’s work, notes, a chronology, and an index. An excellent source to begin a study of Callimachus.
Hunter, Richard. The Shadow of Callimachus: Studies in the Reception of Hellenistic Poetry at Rome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Describes how Roman poets of the Late Republic and Augustan eras sought to establish their own poetic identity amid the works of Callimachus and other Greek poets. Includes analysis of some of Callimachus’s hymns and other works.
McKay, K. J. Erysichthon: A Callimachean Comedy (Mnemosyne Supplementum 7). Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1962. Examines the style and meaning of the sixth hymn and its reflection of Callimachus’s wit.
Pfeiffer, Rudolfus, ed. Callimachus. 2 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1949-1953. The standard commentary on the structure and meaning of Callimachus’s texts. Technical and advanced.
Tress, Heather van. Poetic Memory: Allusion in the Poetry of Callimachus and the “Metamorphoses” of Ovid. Boston: Brill, 2004. Examines the use of allusion in the “Hymn to Delos” and two other hymns and the prelude to Aitin by Callimachus and in Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Webster, T. B. L. Hellenistic Poetry and Art. London: Methuen, 1964. The chapter on Callimachus provides a solid and rewarding discussion of the poet in relation to the literary and historical context of his time.