The Orphic Hymns

Hrafnkell has put up a nice “starter” pagan reading list, with an emphasis on Heathenry. I commented with a couple of additional suggestions for the Classical section, and mentioned that I don’t care for the Thomas Taylor translation of the Orphic Hymns. Another commenter asked me to elaborate on this, and my reply grew so long that rather than clutter up somebody else’s combox I decided to turn it into a post.

[NOTE: this is NOT a discussion of Orphic theology – for instance, the identification of Pan’s name with the word “pan” meaning “all”, as opposed to deriving it from “paon” or “shepherd” – this argument began among the ancient Greeks themselves, and we’re certainly not going to settle it here. :) This is just about the poetry. Also, I should make it clear that I don’t have the Greek necessary to be able to comment from the original; such is the tragedy of our decadent age. If anyone DOES know the Greek, please chime in! I’d be very interested to know how my judgment stacks up against comparison with the original. EDITED TO ADD: Here is the original text for comparison, courtesy of Pablo Ianiszewski.]

A large part of the judgment of any translation, particularly of poetry, is purely subjective. That said, I just don’t care for the Taylor translation. It begins with his technical choices, I think – the Hymns are written in dactylic hexameter, the “epic meter” of Homer and Virgil, while the Taylor translation is in end-rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter (the “Shakespeare meter”, if you will). I really don’t want to get into the technical details, but the basic difference looks a little like this:

Greek: | dum-da-da | dum-da-da | dum-da-da | dum-da-da | dum-da-da | dum-dum

English: da-DUM| da-DUM | da-DUM | da-DUM | da-DUM

(Greek (and Latin) meter doesn’t relate to stressing syllables, but rather to their length, which is why you don’t see any DUMs in the Greek line.)

Now, I’m pretty sure the reasoning behind this choice had to do with wanting the English to be in the most “prestigious” meter – the official meter of “high culture”, if you will, which is the position that the original meter held for the ancient Greeks. Still, it feels weird to me; from a poet of Taylor’s (limited) ability, I’d rather have had a solid prose translation that focused on closely translating the meaning of the original.

I also have some issues with Taylor’s word usage; I know that the kind of artificially pompous language he favored was popular in the Victorian era, but there are better poets who *didn’t* write that way.

I have pulled the first few lines from the “Hymn to Pan” from every translation I could find (all but Taylor’s are modern, and unfortunately I don’t currently have access to M. L. West’s version), by way of illustration:

Thomas Taylor (link)

I Call strong Pan, the substance of the whole,
Etherial, marine, earthly, general soul,
Immortal fire; for all the world is thine,
And all are parts of thee, O pow’r divine.
Come, blessed Pan, whom rural haunts delight,
Come, leaping, agile, wand’ring, starry light;
The Hours and Seasons, wait thy high command,
And round thy throne in graceful order stand.
Goat-footed, horned, Bacchanalian Pan,
Fanatic pow’r, from whom the world began,
Whose various parts by thee inspir’d, combine
In endless dance and melody divine.
In thee a refuge from our fears we find,
Those fears peculiar to the human kind.

Apostolos Athanassakis (link)

I call upon Pan, the pastoral god, and upon the universe,
That is, upon sky and sea and land, queen of all,
And the immortal fires; all these are Pan’s realm.
Come, O blessed, frolicsome and restless companion of the seasons!
Goat-limbed, reveling, lover of frenzy, star-haunting,
You weave your playful song into cosmic harmony,
And you induce the phantasies of dread into the mind of mortals.

Virginia Stewart-Avalon (link)

From the Aethers and the darkling Sea,
From the Mountain and immortal Fire,
Soul of the World – Pan!
Blessed Pan, come leaping from the wild wood under the stars, and banish mortal fears!
The Hours and the Seasons dance in endless circle,
with the Goat-Footed God who pipes the divine melody.

R. C. Hogart (link)

Great Pan, God of the wild
We honor you, ruler of the sky
sea and earth, Light
ensouling all.

The world is yours
Every thing reflects you

Delighted by shady groves
dancer under the stars
you rule the seasons

Pan, shepherd of goats,
giver of milk, meat and skin,
your horns sprouted
and the world began.

Inspire us
with dance and song.
Protect us from fear.

Shawn Eyer (not online)

I invoke violent Pan of the fields, and the panoply of the cosmos –
Heaven, Sea and Queen Pangaeia, the undying Fire I too invoke:

Come, blessed one, bounding and loping about,
You, who rule alongside the Seasons themselves,
Carousing like Bacchus on the legs of a goat,
You who love the influence of divine possession!
Living as You do beneath the starry skies,
Weaving your playful song into a cosmic harmony,
You excite feverish fantasy, terrible fear in mortals!

Now, we can see a number of thing from this comparison. (As an aside, one of the most fascinating to me is that the translators can’t seem to agree on whether Pan causes fear or protects from it! Given what we know about Him, I lean towards the former.)

First, we see that Taylor’s version is about twice as long as almost everybody else’s… I imagine he was thinking “stately”, but I find it ponderous. Again, I think this is to do with Taylor’s limitations as a poet – I could read Shakespeare all day in this meter and never get bogged down.

Also, there are theological aspects to his translation that just don’t seem to add up; in the interest of space, I’ll take one example and let it stand for the whole:

The Hours and Seasons, wait thy high command,
And round thy throne in graceful order stand.

The imagery in this line seems more appropriate for Zeus than for Pan; and, in fact, in none of our other translations is there anything like this kind of static tableau. Athanassakis calls Him the “companion” of the seasons, Stewart-Avalon shows them dancing together; Hogart and Eyer say he “rules” them, but even Hogart pairs that line with the dancing reference. I find it hard to believe that *anybody* envisioned Pan sitting on a throne with folks just standing around; it goes against everything I understand about His nature.

In short, I just don’t trust Taylor to accurately present the sense of the original. It’s still better than nothing, but I’d like to see better translations more readily available. It seems that the problem may be similar to that described at the Elder Edda Project – “…none of the published English translations… is at once accurate, complete and pleasing to the ear.” (HT to Hrafnkell for that link as well!)

In my original comment on Hrafnkell’s site, I said I preferred the Athanassakis translation. That’s still true as far as getting the meaning, but I have to say that based on this exercise I really, really want to read more of Hogart, who I had not known of until I began to research this post.


20 thoughts on “The Orphic Hymns

  1. Nettle

    The Athanassakis translation sounds the most “Greekish” to me of all of them, and hence is probably the closest translation. That’s just a judgment by ear, though – I’ve never actually looked at the Greek text for the Orphic hymns. I would love to have a look at it, though, if you know of an online source. I’m also interested in the “cause” vs “protect” translation – I would bet that the original text is purposefully ambiguous.

  2. executivepagan Post author

    purposefully ambiguous
    Could be!

    I didn’t find the original online during my initial poking around (I wanted to be able to post it as well), but if I do find it I’ll add it as an edit.

  3. Hrafnkell

    Excellent post. The same problem exists with Hollander’s translation of the Poetic Edda. In trying to preserve the poetry, it became unreadable and ponderous. Rhyme over matter is never a good choice.

  4. executivepagan Post author

    Thanks! I agree… sometimes a great poet can fuse the two, but it’s always risky; that’s why I’ve heard it said that poetry can’t be truly translated, only adapted.

  5. Pitch313

    Translation is a tricky endeavor. Translating poetry may be even trickier.

    One choice has to do with the form–Should the translation preserve the meter? The rhyme scheme? The pattern of alliteration?

    Another choice has to do with the content–Should the translation preserve the complex of meanings?

    Yet another has to do with the feeling and fervor–Should the translation preserve the emotions and energies and vectors of the poem?

    Most probably blend these considerations with others to arrive at a representative translation. And the translation that we like probably has something to do with our intellectual interests and our aesthetic preferences.

    Reading as a poet, I prefer a translation that preserves form and feeling more than content. Reading as an intellectual, I prefer a translation that preserves content and meaning.

    I tend to dislike translations that add meanings not present in the original work. Or that suppress meanings that were.

  6. executivepagan Post author

    The translation that we like probably has something to do with our intellectual interests and our aesthetic preferences.

    Of course.

    You make a number of good points, particularly reinforcing that this is all subjective. Generally, I feel that while there is always a trade-off among the aspects you mention, it’s important not to tilt *too* far in any one direction… you have to balance it out so that the losses in any given passage are proportional to the gains. And, that in different places in the same work, different aspects should receive the emphasis.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. Luigi

    With the original in front of me, I must say that all translations seem to be somewhat wide off the mark. The closest to the original and most elegant is Athanassakis’, (but why “companion” for “sunthronos”, and not “reigning together”or similar, “fires” for “fire”? Etc.)while some of the others are wild.

  8. executivepagan Post author

    The closest to the original and most elegant is Athanassakis’

    Why doesn’t that surprise me? :)

    I’d love to see somebody make an interlinear literal translation, just as a baseline reference for those of us without Greek.

    Thanks for the comment!

  9. Ερμότιμος

    I invoke powerfull Pan, shepherd, the universe of the cosmos, (in greek ΣΥΜΠΑΝ the word for universe literally means With the Whole. Sim-pan, Or With Pan. So it’s the totallity of the one in all, the cosmos.) sky, sea, all-queen earth and immortal fire; for these are Pans limbs.
    come, forever-happy, leaper, around-goer, co-throned with the Hours(times)(Ωρες);
    goat-limbed, bakchic, friend-of-the-god-possesed(φιλένθεος), cave-dweller.
    weaving harmony of the cosmos with playful song,
    more-helper of fantasies, causer of fear to mortals;
    happy ammong goat-shepherds and cowboys in the water-sourses;
    well-intender, hunter, Echos friend(Soundys friend), nymphs co-dancer;
    in-all-growing, generator of all, many-named daemon;
    cosmo-bearer, increaser, light-bearer, fruitful healler;
    cave-enjoyer, heavy-mooded, truly horned Zeus.
    for on you stands earths endless plain, and also the heavy-flowing water of tiredless sea,
    Oceanos who in water spirales around Earth;
    the airial part of food, lifes’ begining,
    and the lightest eye of fire over the summit.
    because all these godly many-judjed things stride by your command,
    you change the nature of all by your pre-thoughts(predictions)
    herding the human race in the infinite cosmos(world).
    But forever-happy, bakchic, friend-of-the-god-possesed, come
    onto my sacred offerings, granting us a good end of life,
    sending panic mania to the ends of the Earth.

    thats the most literal translation I can achieve (I hope to shed light) greetings..

  10. Ερμότιμος

    I’d like to add that in the line “αρμονίην κόσμοιο κρέκων φιλοπαίγμονι μολπή” (weaving harmony of the cosmos with a playful song) the verb “κρέκω” doesn’t only mean to weave, to wave is “υφαίνω”. “Κρέκω” also is connected to “κράζω”(shout) and “κρούω”(beat rythmicaly). It also means beating on fabric (a thing connected to the weaving process)

  11. Kullervo

    I also think Taylor’s rhymes make the hymns sound goofy. Maybe if you sung them it would seem fine, but I don’t like reading them aloud.

  12. executivepagan Post author

    Athanassakis site is down
    That sucks. I checked out and the Wayback Machine, but no joy…

    infuriating reasons

  13. Pingback: Sol Ascendans - The Website of Alex Sumner

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