Girl, interrupted, and some possibilities for linking the hymeneal songs of Sappho with the etymologies of two Greek words, humḗn (ὑμήν) and húmnos (ὕμνος)

2020.10.23 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. Ιn Fragment 114 of Sappho, we read the words of a girl who is lamenting her loss of girlhood: ‘where oh where, my girlhood, my girlhood, have you gone off to, leaving me behind?’ (παρθενία, παρθενία, ποῖ με λίποιc’ ἀποίχῃ). Diana Gibson (1996), in a thesis slated for re-publication online in Classical Inquiries, has convincingly shown that such examples of wistful singing by girls can be linked with another kind of song, conventionally called ‘hymeneal’, which would be sung in the context of ancient Greek weddings. Her thesis, as I argue in this essay here, lays the groundwork for understanding the etymologies of two Greek words that seem related in form but that also seem at first, on the surface, to be unrelated in meaning. In the course of my argumentation, I hope to show the relevance of the expression “Girl, interrupted,” which I have placed at the head of the title for my essay. As I noted in a previous essay, the title for which shows the same heading, “Girl, interrupted” (Nagy 2015.12.03), this expression evokes the title of a book by Susanna Kaysen (1993). I have found that title to be most relevant to the poetics of Sappho—and it is also most relevant, as I will argue here, to ancient Greek wedding songs in general. The relevance can be traced back ultimately to the title of a painting by Johannes Vermeer, “Girl interrupted at her music,” which is I think an ideal illustration for my essay here—especially if we view that painting, as does Joseph Leo Koerner (2019.02.07), through the lens of Marcel Proust.  

Girl interrupted at her music (c. 1658-1661), by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. So, what is a ‘hymeneal’ song? As the genial thesis of Diana Gibson shows clearly, it is a kind of wedding-song that marks the moment when the bride, attended by her bridesmaids and by her family, reaches the destination of her wedding procession, arriving at the house of her soon-to-be in-laws, where she will be spending her first night together with her bridegroom. Once inside the bed-chamber of her new home, she will be “deflowered”—to use, for the moment, a conventional way of saying it in old-fashioned English—while all outside the house sing a song marked by variations on a refrain that addresses the god Hymen, who literally personifies the “virginal” hymen that will be ruptured, notionally, by the “deflowering” of the bride.

§2. The wording of Fragment 111 of Sappho shows an example of such ‘hymeneal’ singing:

ἴψοι δὴ τὸ μέλαθρον· | ὐμήναον· | ἀέρρετε τέκτονες ἄνδρες· | ὐμήναον. | γάμβρος ἔρχεται ἴσος Ἄρευι, | ἄνδρος μεγάλω πόλυ μέζων

‘Raise high the roofbeam—we sing the Hymeneal One—yes, raise it, O you carpenters!—we sing the Hymeneal One. The bridegroom, he is coming, he is equal to Ares, he is much bigger than a big man.’

(A note on the Greek text here: the “daggers” that surround the wording †εἰσέρχεται ἴσος† Ἄρευι in various editions can safely be removed if we read ἔρχεται instead of εἰσέρχεται, as I argue in Nagy 1974:95n58.)

§3. In the poetics of Sappho, I must add, loss of girlhood at the climax of a bride’s wedding is not the only occasion for a sense of loss felt by girls in their twilight zone of a brief lifetime that hovers, all too romantically, between adolescence and marriage. There can also be losses, episodic ones, in the course of a young girl’s emerging love-life. For example, there is the bittersweet heartbreak of sadly “breaking up” with a lover. More sadly, there can even be a tragic “breaking off” of life itself, or—perhaps this may be the saddest thing of them all—there can be a severe “breakdown,” which becomes a rupture in the passage of time left for a girl to be spending her precious time as a girl, to live life as a girl. Here I evoke again the heading of the title I have given to this essay—as also to my previous essay (Nagy 2015.12.03), where I had already analyzed poetic examples of such bittersweet sensibilities of time lost. And I evoke again the title of the painting by Vermeer as viewed through the lens of Proust. Even further, I now evoke a study of Sappho’s own breakdown as imagined in the Ovidian “Letter of Sappho to Phaon,” Heroides 15, as analyzed by Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi (2018), who demonstrates most elegantly how Proust is “good to think with” if we contemplate the original poetics of Sappho as viewed through the lens of Ovid.  

§4. But what about the etymologies of the two Greek words that I have highlighted in the title of my essay here, humḗn (ὑμήν) and húmnos (ὕμνος)? In the case of humḗn (ὑμήν), a definitive explanation can be found in the thesis of Diana Gibson (1996). Applying her expertise in classical philology, she shows (pp. 6–31) that the word humḗn (ὑμήν), as the essential part of the refrain that is sung in any ‘hymeneal’ song, refers in such a song to the god Hymen, who literally personifies the “virginal” hymen that will be ruptured, as we already saw, by the “deflowering” of a girl who is presented as a bride to a bridegroom. But then, applying her expertise in Indo-European linguistics, Gibson also shows (p. 16) that this same word is a metaphor referring to the making of fabric, visualized primarily as weaving or sewing. The hymen is metaphorically a fabric, a tissue that is sewn in the process of fabric-work made by girls and women. And the Indo-European root is *syuH / *siHw, clearly attested as Sanskrit syū / sīv, basically meaning ‘sew’. In my own work on metaphors involving the making of fabric (Nagy 2020.07.03 at 3§2), where I cite the work of Gibson, I have argued that this same root *syuH / *siHw can be posited for the etymology of húmnos (ὕμνος) in the sense of ‘song’. Thus the common thread, as it were, for the meaning of humḗn (ὑμήν) as ‘hymen’—to use the terminology of Gray’s Anatomy—and of húmnos (ὕμνος) as ‘song’ in preclassical Greek poetry is simply the idea of fabric-work, used as a metaphor.

§5. I should add that the etymology I propose for húmnos (ὕμνος) is compatible, at least in part, with the views of Brent Vine (1999:575–576), who in his most acute analysis of seven different etymological explanations insists on one overriding criterion: we need to account for the earliest attested uses of this word, where it shows the general meaning of ‘song’, not the specific meaning of ‘hymn [to a god]’. Right or wrong, my proposed explanation fits that criterion.

§6. I leave this essay without any closure, since it calls for further debate about remaining uncertainties. One thing, though, is for certain: the work of Diana Gibson, adopting an anthropological perspective also exemplified in a pathfinding book written by her former teacher Stephanie Jamison (1996), is a major advance in research centering on the ongoing lives of girls and women. My hope is that such research will continue without interruption.

For bibliographical references, see the dynamic Cumulative Bibliography here.

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