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Sunday, 22 May 2016

Homeric Hymn to Hermes; Tortoise; Lyre

To Hermes

Greek Text

The tortoise-lyre:

"As he stepped over the threshold of the high-roofed cave, he found a tortoise there and gained endless delight. For it was Hermes who first made the tortoise a singer. The creature fell in his way at the courtyard gate, where it was feeding on the rich grass before the dwelling, waddling along.

When he saw it, the luck-bringing son of Zeus laughed and said: "An omen of great luck for me so soon! I do not slight it. Hail, comrade of the feast, lovely in shape, sounding at the dance! With joy I meet you! Where got you that rich gaud for covering, that spangled shell -- a tortoise living in the mountains? But I will take and carry you within: you shall help me and I will do you no disgrace, though first of all you must profit me. It is better to be at home: harm may come out of doors. Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft; but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song."

Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvellously; and, as he tried it, the god sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals. He sang of Zeus the son of Cronos and neat-shod Maia, the converse which they had before in the comradeship of love, telling all the glorious tale of his own begetting. He celebrated, too, the handmaids of the nymph, and her bright home, and the tripods all about the house, and the abundant cauldrons".


From Shelley's Hymn to Mercury

Out of the lofty cavern wandering
He found a tortoise, and cried out—
'A treasure!' (For Mercury first made the tortoise sing) 
The beast before the portal at his leisure 
The flowery herbage was depasturing, 
Moving his feet in a deliberate measure
Over the turf. Jove's profitable son 
Eying him laughed, and laughing thus begun:—

'A useful godsend are you to me now,
King of the dance, companion of the feast, 
Lovely in all your nature! Welcome, you
Excellent plaything! Where, sweet mountain-beast, 
Got you that speckled shell? Thus much I know, 
You must come home with me and be my guest; 
You will give joy to me, and I will do
All that is in my power to honour you.

'Better to be at home than out of door, 
So come with me; and though it has been said
That you alive defend from magic power,
I know you will sing sweetly when you're dead.'
Thus having spoken, the quaint infant bore,
Lifting it from the grass on which it fed
And grasping it in his delighted hold,
His treasured prize into the cavern old.

Then scooping with a chisel of gray steel, 
He bored the life and soul out of the beast.— 
Not swifter a swift thought of woe or weal 
Darts through the tumult of a human breast 
Which thronging cares annoy—not swifter wheel 
The flashes of its torture and unrest
Out of the dizzy eyes—than Maia's son
All that he did devise hath featly done.

And through the tortoise's hard stony skin
At proper distances small holes he made,
And fastened the cut stems of reeds within, 
And with a piece of leather overlaid 
The open space and fixed the cubits in, 
Fitting the bridge to both, and stretched o'er all 
Symphonious cords of sheep-gut rhythmical.

When he had wrought the lovely instrument, 
He tried the chords, and made division meet, 
Preluding with the plectrum, and there went 
Up from beneath his hand a tumult sweet
Of mighty sounds, and from his lips he sent 
A strain of unpremeditated wit
Joyous and wild and wanton—such you may 
Hear among revellers on a holiday. 

My own variation on the theme:

The First Lyre

I know now when the blues was born.
When Hermes stumbled on a tortoise
He thought "That's just what I've been looking for",
And he tore out its flesh with a chisel.
He emptied the shell, scraped the carapace clean,
A natural sound-box, but somewhat obscene.

What other animals did he not hesitate
To murder in the name of music?
He made two arms from the horns of a goat,
He stripped hide from an ox, stretched it over the shell.
He made seven strings from the guts of sheep,
And tautened them over a bridge.
He shaped a plectron of ivory, another of horn.
When he struck the strings, the sound was sweet.

As Hermes played, Apollo listened,
And at once his anger died.
But the animals howled and moaned -
Not at all the Orphic effect.
Apollo accepted the gift of the lyre,
And composed a hymn of praise.

But the god of music
Could not appease
The spirit of the tortoise.
The sheepgut strings,
The wild goat's horns
And the skin of the ox
Refused to serve his purpose.
He discovered the sound of a desperate Muse:-
And Lyric Poetry was born with the Blues.

Hermes, the Journeyer, with lyre and caduceus. British Museum.

Apollo with his lyre

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