On the etymology of ὕμνος (húmnos)

2021.11.08, re-written 2022.04.30 | By Gregory Nagy

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), Penelope at Her Loom. Private collection. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to the work of Jill Robbins, the image shown here has been lightened and sharpened slightly—and the contrast has been adjusted—in order to improve legibility of (1) the Greek lettering that reads “IΛIOΣ” (Ilios) marking the walled city that is pictured in Penelope’s web, and (2) the Greek lettering for the Homeric verses or fragments of verses written further below, as likewise pictured on the surface of the web. These verses are taken from Rhapsody 1 of the Homeric Iliad. And the thread of Penelope, held in her left hand, leads directly to her husband Odysseus as named in these Iliadic verses.

§0. This essay, written 2021.11.08 (re-written 2021.11.10, further rewritten 2022.04.30), picks up from where I left off in a previous essay, written 2021.11.01 (re-written 2021.11.07), just as the picture that I have chosen as the illustration for the present essay is a close-up taken from the illustration for the previous essay—a close-up that picks up from the line of thought that I wrote—and then re-wrote—for the ending of that essay at §15. I quote from there: “In the essay that follows […] in Classical Continuum, I plan to elaborate on […] shifts in the starting of a song—or, better, in the re-starting of a song, as symbolized by the daily re-weavings of the web that gets un-woven night after lonely night by Penelope.” Relevant to my follow-up here is the etymology of the word ὕμνος (húmnos), which, as I argue, basically means ‘song’ in the metaphorized sense of a ‘threading’ of song—and which is cognate with the etymology of the words οἶμος (oîmos) and οἴμη (oímē), both of which, I argued in the previous essay, can likewise be explained as basically meaning ‘song’ in the metaphorized sense of a ‘threading’ of song, so that the derivative noun προοίμιον (prooímion) can be explained as the initial phase of such ‘threading’.

§1. In the third edition of an ongoing project of mine that goes by the title Plato’s Rhapsody and Homer’s Music: The Poetics of the Panathenaic Festival in Classical Athens (Nagy 2021.10.01 in the Bibliography below), in Chapter 3 §2, I have re-written (re-woven?) my earlier attempts at analyzing the etymology of ὕμνος (húmnos), now agreeing with Laura Massetti (2019:153, 162) that this noun derives from a root that Indo-Europeanists reconstruct as *sh2e(i)-. As I now re-write further what I write in PR 3§2, continuing to agree with the formulation of Massetti, the Greek noun ὕμνος (húmnos) can be traced back to an Indo-European verb-root *sh2e(i)‑ meaning ‘to thread’, which can be interpreted metaphorically as ‘to thread a web of song’; noun-derivatives of such a root are attested in Hittite išḫamai‑ ‘song’, also in Vedic sā́man‑ ‘song’. The Hittite noun išḫamai‑ ‘song’ is derived from the verb  išḫai– in the general sense of ‘connect’, as observed by Heiner Eichner (1979:205), whose observation  is validated by Laura Massetti (again, 2019:153, 162). Thus Greek hú-mn-o- can be reconstructed as a thematic noun that was formed by way of derivation, internal to the Greek language, from a noun built on the same verb-root plus stem –men- that we see attested in the Vedic noun sā́man- ‘song’. I also now agree with a connected view of Massetti (per litteras 2021.11.09): that the Greek nouns οἶμος (oîmos) and οἴμη (oímē) derive from the same verb-root *sh2ei‑ meaning ‘to thread’: in this case, the i-extension of the root is present, whereas in the case of ὕμνος (húmnos) the i-extension of this same root *sh2e(i)- is absent. Finally, as Michele Bianconi has recently pointed out to me (per litteras 2022.03.31), the semantic connection between οἶμος (oîmos) and οἴμη (oímē) as well as the comparison with the Hittite noun išḫamai‑ ‘song’ as derived from the verb išḫai– in the general sense of ‘connect’ had already been argued by Romano Lazzeroni (1967:53–55), even before Heiner Eichner (1979:205), though Lazzeroni mentions only οἶμος (oîmos) and οἴμη (oímē), without connecting the etymology of ὕμνος (húmnos).

§2. In my current re-writing, what differs from my earlier re-writings is that I now avoid writing ‘to weave’ and prefer to write instead ‘to thread’, since the technologies involved in producing a fabric that we can describe generically as a ‘web’ will involve a variety of different kinds of threadings, as I now more generally refer to fabric work. In this regard, I take the points made by Ellen Harlizius-Klück and Giovanni Fanfani (2017.03.20) in an essay with a most telling title: On weaving and sewing as technical terms for ancient Greek verbal arts, written in response to an earlier essay of mine on “weaving” and “sewing” as metaphors for songmaking (Nagy 2017.01.18).

§3. That said, I return to the close-up of the picture I showed as the lead-off illustration for this brief essay. We see here in the left hand of Penelope a thread that connects with the picture of the web that she has been threading. Further, as I indicate in the caption for the picture, this thread leads directly to the name of Odysseus as written in the Iliadic text as painted by our Pre-Raphaelite painter. Even further, the hero Odysseus connects, in turn, with his role in the destruction of Ilion, of Troy. The painter who painted this picture is thinking, of course, about the Iliad as we know it, but I in turn cannot help but think also of a miniaturized Iliad, only ten-odd verses in length, that is being performed by the blind singer Demodokos in Odyssey 8.72–83. In this alternative micro-Iliad, unlike our expansive mega-Iliad that stretches over 15,000 verses, the main character who is quarrelling with Achilles at the beginning of the performance is not Agamemnon but Odysseus. In the case of this micro-Iliad, then, the thread of Penelope, as she pauses pensively in her weaving, would be aiming at a hero who is even better suited for a re-telling of the story told by our Pre-Raphaelite painter.

§4. As I argue in an earlier essay (Nagy 2015.06.03), the micro-Iliad sung by the blind singer of Rhapsody 8 in the Odyssey is not a single Iliad. Rather, it is an unending succession of Iliads in the making, just as Penelope’s web is a seemingly unending succession of webs in the making. I plan to return in further essays to the point I make here, but, for now, I epitomize from what I have already written:

§5.1. What I am arguing is that the actual narrative in the first song of Demodokos is potentially so big and so long that it will never even come to an end if someone just lets it go on and on.

§5.2. Here I return to the word oímē at verse 74 of Odyssey 8, which refers to the ‘thread’ or ‘threading’ of what is pictured metaphorically as the ‘weft’ or ‘plot’ of the first song of Demodokos. For the semantics of oímē as ‘weft’ or ‘plot’, as I indicated in a posting that dates from 2015.05.27, we may compare the French word trame, which means both ‘weft’ and ‘plot’. The genitive case of oímē (oímēs) at verse 74 means that the singer starts ‘from’ a given thread of a given story: in other words, we see the starting thread of the story about to be told. And the syntax of this expression about the oímē corresponds to the meaning of the word prooímion (Attic phroímion). Functionally, the prooímion is a ‘proem’ or ‘prelude’. In terms of its etymology, as I have argued, this word prooímion is derived from oîmos/oímē and means, metaphorically, the ‘initial threading’. What the syntax of the genitive oímēs at verse 74 indicates, as I went on to argue in the posting of 2015.05.27, is that the singer is starting his epic performance by performing a prooímion. Or, to put it metaphorically, the singer starts from the initial threading of the web to be woven.

§5.3. The connectedness of this prooímion ‘proem’ to the overall epic performance of Demodokos is signaled by the continuing narrative that follows the micro-narrative about the first song of Demodokos at Odyssey 8.72–83, quoted in the posting of 2015.05.27. I now quote and translate the continuing narrative that follows that micro-narrative:

|83 ταῦτ’ ἄρ’ ἀοιδὸς ἄειδε περικλυτός· αὐτὰρ Ὀδυσσεὺς |84 πορφύρεον μέγα φᾶρος ἑλὼν χερσὶ στιβαρῇσι |85 κὰκ κεφαλῆς εἴρυσσε, κάλυψε δὲ καλὰ πρόσωπα· |86 αἴδετο γὰρ Φαίηκας ὑπ’ ὀφρύσι δάκρυα λείβων. |87 ἦ τοι ὅτε λήξειεν ἀείδων θεῖος ἀοιδός, |88 δάκρυ’ ὀμορξάμενος κεφαλῆς ἄπο φᾶρος ἕλεσκε |89 καὶ δέπας ἀμφικύπελλον ἑλὼν σπείσασκε θεοῖσιν· |90 αὐτὰρ ὅτ’ ἂψ ἄρχοιτο καὶ ὀτρύνειαν ἀείδειν |91 Φαιήκων οἱ ἄριστοι, ἐπεὶ τέρποντ’ ἐπέεσσιν, |92 ἂψ Ὀδυσεὺς κατὰ κρᾶτα καλυψάμενος γοάασκεν.

|83 These things, then, the singer sang, whose fame goes far and wide. As for Odysseus |84 he took hold of his great purple cloak in his powerful hands |85 and he pulled it over his head, veiling that face of his with its comely looks, |86 since he felt shame in front of the Phaeacians as tears started flowing from beneath his brows. |87 And whenever the divine singer would leave off [lḗgein] the singing, |88 he [= Odysseus] would wipe away the tears as he removed the cloak from his head, |89 and, holding up a drinking cup, he would offer a libation to the gods. |90 But then, whenever he [= the singer] started [árkhesthai] singing all over again [aps], urged to do so |91 by the best of the Phaeacians, since they took delight [térpesthai] in the words of his song, |92 Odysseus would veil his head and start lamenting [goân] all over again.

Odyssey 8.83–92

The epic singing of the first song of Demodokos in Odyssey 8, once it gets started by the prooímion as indicated by the syntax at verse 74, keeps getting restarted. Whenever the performer ‘leaves off’, as indicated by the word lḗgein at verse 87, he keeps on ‘restarting’ the epic, as indicated by the wording aps árkhesthai ‘start again and again’ at verse 90. The continual restarting creates the effect of an endless narrative: the epic performance of the first song of Demodokos seems to have no end in sight.


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