Quæ Sumus: Homeric Hymns

LITERATURE Essay 1: Homer, Hesiod, Homeric Hymns

Part 4: Homeric Hymns; What We Are

* * *

IN JOY, in praise we lift our voices to God, all of them; we lift our voices in communion with the life-giving force of the universe; in song we participate, we join in meaning, one with the Divine.  Listening back from this distance we cannot know how many songs were sung in praise of the forces which influence, which direct goodness into our lives.  There were songs great, songs formal, songs of supplication, and there were popular songs, memorable favorites that delighted the tongue.  Our first hymns … would you like to know?  Here then, a digression. 

Homeric Hymns


(diverse authors)

Michael Curtis, Suppliant Herm, 2005, Private Collection

OUR FIRST KNOWN hymns are Egyptian, offerings in praise of Nile God and of other gods of place, of personality, and of force.  Yet, for us, the “Hymn to Aten”, composed by Pharaoh Akhenaten, is the first instance of a  praise-song to that One, universal and ubiquitous God.  You might recognize in Akhenaten’s homely sentiment your own hymns of praise:

O God, singular, of Whom there is no other! / As alone You desire, all was created: / All men, beasts wild and tame, / Whatever is on earth … When you dawn, they live; when you set, they die. 

From the many Gods, One.  And so we have it, a conundrum, a Gordian Knot tangled into itself, the strings of 1,500 Egyptian Gods wrapped into Akhenaten’s One-God, Aten.  Aten, a tradition continued by the Egyptian-Hebrew Moses, and from Moses the Jewish songs of praise to the One god, the Psalms.  From the Psalms (psalm: “sacred song”), especially the passionate psalms of King David (which soon we will visit), come our Christian hymns (to be considered in another volume of “Quæ Sumus”), and recently, from these, the psudo-Christian, folksy-progressive hymns to the Nature Spirit. 

Here, I must mention that there is in our poly-mono spiritual tradition a confusion of unparalleled  significance: The hybridization of the Egyptian-Hebrew poly-monotheism with the Olympian Greek polytheism, the heaven, the hell, the Communion of Saints is a conceptual riddle never to be unriddled, not even by experiment in science. 

Attributed to the Berlin Painter, “hymn singer”, 490 B.C., Metropolitain Museum of Art

Of the work in consideration: The Homeric Hymns are composed by diverse authors in dactylic hexameter, in that pan-Ionic diction employed by the poets Homer and Hesiod.  Philologists are ambitious to discover the stylistic development of the Hymns, their chronology, et cetera; yet, we are content to know that the thirty-three hymns, by diverse authors, were created in praise of gods major and minor, recited by rhapsodes upon sacred occasions, in festival, at homely gatherings, et cetera. 

Reading or singing the hymns you will find several themes recurring; themes of parenthood and birth, of powers and acts, of incidents peculiar to place, especially if the place has a dedicated temple, or is a god’s hometown.  Some hymns are long, five-hundred lines or more, some are as-brief-as a few lines because the hymn is fragmentary, having by accident been waylaid upon its travels to us.  I would recommend several hymns, two among my favorites are the hymns to Apollo and to Demeter.  Yet, because the hymns to Aphrodite touch upon my libretto, Galatea, her hometown, Paphos, Kypria (Cyprus), the setting for “Galatea”, these lines of praise to Aphrodite: 

Hymn V: To Aphrodite

Muse, tell me the deeds of golden Aphrodite the Cyprian, who stirs up sweet passion in the gods and subdues the tribes of mortal men and birds that fly in air and all the many creatures that the dry land rears, and all the sea: all these love the deeds of rich-crowned Cytherea.

                                                                             translation, Hugh G. Evelyn-White

Hymn VI: To Aphrodite

I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously.

translation, Hugh G. Evelyn-White   

* Part Four, the concluding part of the first essay or the 280-plus essays of “Quæ Sumus: What We Are”.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts

Featured Book