For my term paper in my Homer class, I’ll be examining the Homeric influences in Gregory of Nazianzus’s Poemata Arcana. These are the first eight of his dogmatic poems. Written in the epic hexameter of Homer, the poems are exquisite statements of Christian dogma and aesthetics. The third poem, entitled “On the Spirit” commences in dramatic fashion. Indulge me as I translate a few lines (with suitable poetic license):
“O Soul, why are you troubled?
Sing the boast of the Spirit,
Lest you divide the one not made so by nature.
Let us tremble at this great Spirit,
My God, by whom I know God;
The Spirit of God in the Heavens,
Who yet makes me a god here on the Earth.
Almighty, All-giving, the Song of the Sacred Dance,
Bearer of Life, both seen and unseen;
Divine counselor, He proceeds from the Father;
Divine Spirit he goes un-bidden.
He is not the Child;
But one is worthy of such honor,
Yet apart from God he is not;
Divine, he is equal in nature.”
Θυμέ, τί δηθύνεις; καὶ Πνεύματος εὖχος ἄειδε,
μηδὲ τέμῃς μύθοισιν ὃ μὴ φύσις ἐκτὸς ἔθηκε.
Πνεῦμα μέγα τρομέωμεν, ὅ μοι θεός, ᾧ θεὸν ἔγνων,
ὃς θεός ἐστιν ἔναντα, καὶ ὅς Θεὸν ἐνθάδε τεύχει·
πανσθενές, αἰολόδωρον, ἁγνῆς ὕμνημα χορείης,>
οὐρανίων χθονίων τε φερέσβιον, ὑψιθόωκον,
Πατρόθεν ἐρχόμενον, θεῖον μένος, ἀυτοκέλευστον,
οὔτε Πάϊς (μοῦνος γὰρ ἑνὸς Πάϊς ἐσθλὸς ἀρίστου)
οὔτ᾽ ἐκτὸς θεότητος ἀειδέος, ἀλλ᾽ ὁμόδοξον.
If you look at the Greek, you’ll see quite a few differences: I make no apologies here. Translating poetry demands poetic license. Of course, I’m hardly a competent English poet. Hopefully, my translation brings out some of what is truly beautiful in the original. Gregory’s poetry is difficult, but stunning in its erudition and loveliness.
I’ve bolded a few things I found particularly interesting or appealing in the Greek. First, one has acknowledge Gregory’s debt to Homer. The very first word of the poem, θυμός, is extremely common word for soul or spirit in Homer. Likewise, his command to his soul to “sing the boast of the Spirit” uses Homer’s singing and boasting language. One is reminded of the very first line of the Iliad, “Wrath, Goddess, sing!” One thinks too of Homer’s heroes always boasting in their lineage. Before a battle there was usually an exchange of words, each opponent boasting in his family line. So too, Gregory exhorts his soul to boast in the Spirit, so that it may be prepared for battle with those who “divide what by nature is indivisible.”
Of course, Gregory writes as a Christian poet as well. Though Homer has an immeasurable influence on his form and vocabulary, Gregory melds with it a web of Christian influences and theology. One particularly glaring incident comes in the 7th line, where the Spirit is called, θεῖον μένος. Μένος is another extremely common Homeric word. It means something like our english word “spirit,” but a bit more like in our use of “high-spirited.” Sometimes “battle strength” or “battle rage” is more fitting (the flexibility is rather like the Latin animus). But here, the Spirit the divine μένος! Gregory has taken an extremely common Homeric word, and filled it entirely with new content.
The Scriptural resonances are evident as well. The first line, while clearly echoing Greek epic, also echoes the Psalmist, “why are you downcast O Soul!” The Spirit is the “bearer of Life” for both “the heavenly ones and the earthly ones,” which I translated “seen and unseen” to evoke the allusions to the great creed. But my favorite phrase of these lines definitely comes from the fifth line, where the Spirit is the “ἁγνῆς ὕμνημα χορείης,” “the Song of the Sacred Dance.” It is turns of phrase like that that have established Gregory as one of the greatest Christian poets. His use of language so carefully and beautifully exhibits the truth of Christian theology. The two meanings of orthodoxy, which is both true worship and true theology, come together exquisitely in Gregory. Rightly has the Church remembered with the simple epithet, “the Theologian.”