Symbolic Action in the Homeric Hymns: The Theme of Recognition

Classical Antiquity 21 (1):5-39 (2002)


The Homeric Hymns are commonly taken to be religious poems in some general sense but they are often said to contrast with cult hymns in that the latter have a definite ritual function, whereas "literary" hymns do not. This paper argues that despite the difficulty in establishing a precise occasion of performance for the Homeric Hymns, we are nevertheless in a position to identify their ritual function: by intoning a Hymn of this kind, the singer achieves the presence of a god before participants in a public festival. The key mechanism by which the hymnist does this is the evocation of a god via the elaboration of a typical unit of traditional hymnic discourse, what I call the "theme of recognition ." The pragmatic operation of narrative such as this is similar to the device known in the study of magical texts as the historiola, or short narrative that serves as a verbal model for a desired outcome in the patient's world. This kind of operation is called, in this paper, "symbolic action," a term borrowed from the rhetorician Kenneth Burke. The theme of recognition is traced in the fabric of the expansive Hymns , and the paper further argues that an important generic marker in the Hymns, the greeting of the god , discloses their pragmatic function, the hymnist's skillful deliverance of the god before his hearers

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John Garcia
William Rainey Harper College

References found in this work

A Grammar of Motives.Kenneth Burke - 1946 - Berkeley: University of California Press.
A Rhetoric of Motives.Kenneth Burke - 1950 - Berkeley: University of California Press.
A Rhetoric of Motives.Kenneth Burke - 1950 - Philosophy and Rhetoric 3 (2):124-127.

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