Tradition and Originality in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo (Blast)


Of the hymn’s major narrative passages, the account of Apollo’s involvement in the founding of Cyrene is by far the longest.13 And yet the story as told by Callimachus is far more concise than the three versions of Pindar. Furthermore, it  seems that Callimachus is indebted to Pindar not only for certain details of the story but also perhaps for the technique of composition whereby he compresses the three longer accounts. At Pythian 9.76-79, Pindar writes:

ἀρεταὶ δ’ αἰει μεγάλαι πολύμυθοι·
βαιὰ δ’ ἐν μακροῖσι ποικίλλειν
ἀκοὰ σοφοῖς· ὁ δὲ καιρὸς ὁμοίως
παντὸς ἔχει κορυφάν.

Glorious achievements are always worthy of many words,
but to tell with art a few things among lengthy is a thing fit
for the wise to hear; and due measure is best in everything alike.

The question confronting Pindar as he sings the praises of the victor Telesikrates is similar to that facing Callimachus as he takes up singing the praises of Apollo. Pindar’s πολύμυθοι is similar to Callimachus’ description of Apollo as εὔυμνος (31). Moreover, the notion of elaborating a few things among lengthy material for the hearing of those who are wise, as well as the importance of due measure are both in harmony with Callimachean poetics, both as articulated in the Aetia prologue and as suggested by the spring and bees in this poem.14 It thus appears that Callimachus has reshaped and abridged a story originally told by Pindar on grounds similar to those that Pindar himself put forward. Callimachus, then, is applying the same sort of technique that Williams’ discovers in his use of the Homeric material: by carefully selecting and modifying the material of his source, Callimachus creates a “new idiom” in Williams’ phrase (p. 4). In this case he does so with a subtle nod toward the technical principles that guide his own work as well as the poet from whom he draws.15 Homer is a model for both the hymnic form and the epic diction; Pindar on the other hand provides additional subject matter, as well as a model for treating succinctly a very broad theme. It now remains to see how Callimachus further emphasizes this debt in the final lines of the hymn.
Williams (ad loc.) notes that the phrase ἄκρον ἄωτον in line 112 is likely modeled upon a similar phrase in Pindar (Isth. 7.18: ἄωτον ἄκρον), but he offers no discussion of the significance of this borrowing. The word ἄωτον/ἄωτος occurs several times in Homer referring specifically to the quality of cloth or wool.16 Eventually the word is more broadly applied to mean “the choice” or “finest” part of something.17 Later poets, including Bacchylides and Aeschylus, use the word only once each; Pindar uses it twenty times.18 It is worth quoting the example that Williams sees as a model for Callimachus. In his seventh Isthmian Ode Pindar writes (Isth. 7.16-19):

ἀμνάμονες δέ βροτοί,
ὅ τι μὴ σοφίας ἄωτον ἄκρον
κλυταῖς ἐπέων ῥοαῖσιν ἐξίκηται ζυγέν·

Mortals do not remember whatever does not reach
the choice pinnacle of wisdom, joined to glorious
streams of verses.

Not only the phrase ἄωτον ἄκρον but also the water imagery used with reference to poetry is similar to the passage in Callimachus. Pindar’s following enjoinder to “celebrate Strepsiadas with honey-sweet hymn” (20-1) further suggests a link with Callimachus and his bees. Additionally, there are other passages in Pindar in which water imagery is used with reference to poetry, and these too are relevant to Callimachus’ spring.19
The end of Pindar’s fourth Pythian ode, which also describes the foundation of Cyrene, contains a sphragis in which Pindar refers to his poem as “a spring of ambrosial verses” (παγὰν ἀμβροσίων ἐπέων, 299). Again at the end of his sixth Isthmian Pindar says he will offer to Lampon and his sons “a drink of the holy water of Dirce” (πίσω σφε Δίρκας ἁγνὸν ὕδωρ, 74), referring to the poem he has written in their honor.20 The close parallels in imagery and placement between these examples and the spring in line 112 suggest that Callimachus is following Pindar. Yet his variation of the motif is as striking as his imitation; for the addition of the bees which bring water to Demeter is a significant refinement.

As noted by Williams (ad loc.), who follows Pfeiffer,21 Callimachus bases this description upon a passage in Aristotle’s Historia Animalium (596b).22 After describing insects which feed on animal flesh or various juices, Aristotle then describes the bee which “alone does not settle near anything rotten and does not eat any food except what has a sweet juice; they also take for themselves the most pleasant water wherever it springs up pure”.23
Based on the evidence of this passage, both Pfeiffer and Williams argue that the μέλισσαι in 110 are bees and not priestesses as once thought by earlier commentators. But given the presence of Demeter Williams admits that “one must at least concede the possibility that the bees are more than bees, that Callimachus may incidentally be alluding to some rite in which μέλισσαι (priestesses) did carry water to Demeter” (p. 93). Moreover, he goes on to point out that μέλισσα is often used figuratively meaning poet,24 and he draws a parallel between the bees of this passage and Callimachus’ comparison of himself to the cicada that drinks drops of dew (Aetia fr. 1.29ff.). But again Williams overlooks a very precise connection between a passage he references in Pindar (Py. 10.53-4) and the bees in this hymn. In Pythian 10 Pindar writes:

ἐγκωμίων γὰρ ἄωτος ὕμνων
ἐπ’ ἄλλοτ’ ἄλλον ὥτε μέλισσα θύνει λόγον.

The finest of victory hymns like a bee flits
from one theme to another.

Here the word ἄωτος used of ὕμνοι is compared to the movement of a bee. Callimachus borrows the vocabulary and imagery of his source but works subtle refinements upon it: his bees gather that which is ἄωτον from a pure spring and take it to Demeter.25 Perhaps this image represents Callimachus drawing upon the poetry of Pindar in service of the god Apollo, yet the other senses of the word μέλισσα are still present as well. There is then a remarkable fusion of possible meanings in this single word: the μέλισσαι are at once actual bees as described by Aristotle, priestesses participating in a rite of Demeter, and poets (especially Pindar and Callimachus) with an outstanding sense for what is most pure. Far more than a simple dichotomy between long and short poems, Apollo’s reply to Phthonos is rich in imagery that draws not only upon Homer but also Pindar, and even Aristotle. The reply is not merely programmatic as far as it articulates Callimachean poetics in general terms, but is itself an excellent example of what that kind of poetry should be.
The full significance of the final lines, then, has implications not only with reference to Callimachean poetics generally, but also, and more directly, as a comment upon the simultaneous originality and engagement with literary tradition that constitute the body of the poem itself. Certainly those features of style and procedure which figure prominently in the hymn will be seen as well throughout the Callimachean corpus; yet, Apollo’s description of bees bringing water to Demeter, which they draw from the finest mist of a holy spring, has especial relevance to this poem in particular. While Williams is right to identify πόντος as Homer, his analysis fails to account for non-Homeric sources in the hymn, most notably Pindar. I believe that the image of the finest mist of a pure spring owes much to Pindar and has been chosen by Callimachus precisely in order to figure that act of borrowing and remaking that constitutes the composition of this hymn.


Andrew Beer

Braswell, B.K. (1988) A Commentary on the Fourth Pythian Ode of Pindar. De Gruyter.
Bundy, E.L. (1972) The “Quarrel between Kallimachos and Apollonios” Part I: The Epilogue of Kallimachos’ Hymn to Apollo. CSCA 5:39-94.
Calame, C. (1993) “Legendary Narration and Poetic Procedure in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo”. Callimachus. Groningen: Egbert Forsten.
Cameron, A. (1995) Callimachus and His Critics. Princeton.
Cane, G. (1987) “Bees without Honey, and Callimachean Taste”. AJP 108: 399-403.
Carey, C. (1981) A Commentary on Five Odes of Pindar. The Ayer Company.
Denniston, J.D. (1954) Greek Particles. Oxford.
Erbse, H. (1955) “Zum Apollonhymnos des Kallimachos”. Hermes 83: 411-28.
Hutchinson, G.O. (1988) Hellenistic Poetry. Oxford.
Kambylis, A. (1965) Die Dichterweihe und ihre Symbolik. Heidelberg.
Köhnken, A. (1981) “Apollo’s Retort to Envy’s Criticism”. AJP 102: 411-22.
Lefkowitz, M.R. (1980) “The Quarrel between Callimachos and Apollonios”. ZPE 40: 1-19.
———-. (1981) The Lives of the Greek Poets. London.
Pfeiffer, R. (1949-53) Callimachus. 2 vols. Oxford.
———-. (1968) A History of Classical Scholarship. Oxford.
Poliakoff, M. (1980) “Nectar, Springs, and the Sea: Critical Terminology in Pindar and Callimachus”. ZPE 39: 41-7.
Powell, J.E. (1925) Collectanea Alexandrina. Oxford.
Silk, M.S. (1974) Interaction in Poetic Imagery. Cambridge.
Slater, W.J. (1969) Lexicon to Pindar. De Gruyter.
Traill, David A. (1998) “Callimachus’ Singing Sea (Hymn 2.106)”. CP 93: 215-22.
Williams, F. (1978) Callimachus, Hymn to Apollo: A Commentary. Oxford.


13 The account of Apollo’s service as herdsman near the river Amphrysus (47-54), and the description of his construction of the altar of horn on Delos (55-64) take up eight and nine lines respectively. The story of Cyrene’s founding occupies 32 lines (65-96). There is also a brief reference to Apollo’s slaying of Pytho at Delphi, in the form of an aetiology for the ritual cry ἱὴ παιῆον (97-104).

14 cf. Aetia fr. 1.3-4: οὐχ ἕν ἄεισμα διηνεκὲς … ἐν πολλαῖς ἤνυσα χιλιάσιν; and 17-18: τέχνῃ κρίνετε,] μὴ σχοίνῳ Περσίδι τὴν σοφίην.
15 In this respect it is interesting to note that Pindar’s sentence is itself a reminiscence of Hesiod Op. 694: μέτρα φυλάσσεσθαι· καιρὸς δ’ ἐπὶ πᾶσιν ἄριστος. For further discussion see Carey (1981) p. 89.
16 Williams cites Od. 1.443: οἰὸς ἀώτῳ, “the softest of woolen blankets”; cf. Il. 9.661, 13.599 and 716.
17 See Silk (1974) Appendix xi and his comments in CQ (1983) 316f. on the meaning and development of this word.
18 Silk (1974) Appendix xi; see also Slater (1969) sub ἄωτος.

19 Several of these examples were previously noted in a little discussed article by Michael Poliakoff (1980) ZPE 39: 41-7.
20 Noticed by Lefkowitz (see above n. 10) in her reading of the end of Callimachus’ hymn.
21 See Hist. Class. Schol. i. 284.
22 Cane (1987) p. 400 denies this connection, but the reasons he gives for doing so are, at least to my mind, unconvincing.
23 ἡ δὲ μέλιττα μόνον πρὸς οὐδὲν σαπρὸν προσίζει, οὐδὲ χρῆται τροφῇ οὐδεμίᾳ ἀλλ’ ἢ τῇ γλυκὺν ἐχούσῃ χυμόν· καὶ ὕδωρ δ’ ἥδιστα εἰς ἑαυτὰς λαμβάνουσιν ὅπου ἄν καθαρὸν ἀναπηδᾷ.
24 cf. Bacchylides Odes 9 (10).10; Aristophanes Birds 748ff.; Pindar Py. 10.53-4; Plato Ion 543a.

25 So Poliakoff (1980) p. 42: “Callimachus derived and developed from Pindar the imagery of the pure small stream, droplets, and sweetness as terms of literary criticism”. Poliakoff, however, takes a different view on the relationship between Callimachus and Homer.

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