ἐς Πύλον And Other Stories

Tony Sig

To what shall I compare source criticism? It is like a scholar who stumbles upon a pile of pebbles of similar hue arranged in a definite pattern and proceeds to posit a parent rock for one pebble in particular despite the fact she has never seen the parent stone, there is no evidence primary or secondary to substantiate the conclusion that there is such a stone in existence, and the color of the stone can best be accounted for by direct evidence inherent in the pebbles.

I exaggerate only slightly.

In Greek this semester we are reading the homeric Hymn to Hermes in which Hermes steals some cows of Apollo. It’s a lively story, quite entertaining, and is taken by many to be a a kind of comedy before its time. *SPOLER ALERT*

In the hymn, after Hermes steals the cattle, Apollo is running around looking for them. Being so far unsuccessful he stumbles upon an old farmer digging at his vines. The farmer had in fact seen Hermes with the cattle but the infant god gave a barely veiled threat to the man that he ought keep his lips tied. Nevertheless, the farmer does tell Apollo that he may have seen a little baby driving some cattle, but he’s not really sure. He reveals nothing about the identity of Hermes to be sure.

Conveniently for Apollo, a bird-omen flies by. Miraculously this silent omen tells Apollo what he needs to know. It is revealed to him that it was in fact Hermes who took his cattle. Apollo then flies himself “off to Pylos” to try and find him. Later in the poem, when Apollo is pleading his case against the messenger god to their mutual father Zeus, he explains that the cattle were being driven “off to Pylos.”

The poet never explains how Apollo came to know about Pylos. A certain German scholar takes this as an opportunity to assert that there was probably an earlier and/or another Hymn to Hermes known to the poet and/or that there was some kind of tradition that connected Hermes and/or Apollo to Pylos. Strangely, there’s nothing else in the poem as we have it that suggests that such a source exists, and we certainly have no evidence for it whatsoever, unless the useless, if publishable, ramblings of a German scholar count as “evidence.”

There is another easier and more obvious way to account for Pylos; one which does not invent texts, communities, cults, and other fanciful myths, namely, that the bird-omen, the one which apparently revealed to Apollo who the thief was, also suggested it was in Apollo’s best interests to head off to sandy Pylos. We are never told that the omen said anything, only that it happened — but immediately after seeing it Apollo 1) Exclaimed that Hermes was found out, and 2) Headed off to Pylos. (He was even following the backwards tracks.)

This solution relies on the text as we actually have it, explains quite well how Apollo knew to go to Pylos from internal narrative thrust, and all without taking ἐς Πύλον to some absurd end. While there may be some limited place for the continued practice of source criticism, as a general rule I take it to be hermeneutically suspect, and this is a classic example why.

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7 Comments

  1. It occurs to me that we actually have a project now which looks a lot like source crit theory of how documents are written, which is to say: Wikipedia. We even have cases where two versions of the same document are edited together into one. I think it is safe to say that most text crit guys couldn’t pick apart such an article and identify which parts came from whom.

    Reply

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