The collection we call today Homeric hymns consists in a series of 33 hymns, attributed to Homer as a convention, but actually composed at the beginning as oral composition and lately fixed in a written form, between the seventh century b.c.e. (before current era, a neutral way to say b.C.), little after the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the third century c.e. (current era). Each hymn celebrates a god or goddess and there are hymns of various lengths: in the first ones significant myths about the deity are told, like his/her birth or the foundation of a particular worship, while the last ones, much shorter, are just a list of attributes and features. Probably these hymns were to be recited during public religious festivals, poetry agons or private feasts: in the Odyssey, the poet Demodocus at the court of the Phaeacians sings the myth about Ares and Aphrodite, in a way very similar to the Homeric hymns.
Hymns are so arranged: 1. To Dionysus, 2. To Demeter, 3. to Apollo, 4. To Hermes, 5. To Aphrodite, 6. To Aphrodite, 7. To Dionysus, 8. To Ares, 9. To Artemis, 10. To Aphrodite, 11. To Athena, 12. To Hera, 13. To Demeter, 14. To the mother of Gods, 15. To Hercules, 16. To Asclepius, 17. To the Dioscuri, 18. To Hermes, 19. To Pan, 20. To Hephaestus, 21. To Apollo, 22. To Poseidon, 23. To Zeus, 24. To Hestia, 25. To the Muses and Apollo, 26. To Dionysus, 27. To Artemis, 28. To Athena, 29. To Hestia, 30. To Gaea, 31. To Helios, 32. To Selene, 33. To the Dioscuri.
The hymn to Ares, the eighth one, is very different from the others: itís a list of epithets, like a Orphic hymn, and reveals a conception of the God that could be a Neo-Platonistís one, so itís probably the last hymn to be added to the collection in ancient times and it can be dated even to the third century of current era. According to some scholars its inclusion in the collection could be the result of a mistake in passing on. Itís curious that the most ancient of these hymns is instead the fifth, dedicated to Aphrodite, Aresí companion in mythology. Itís possible to date the single hymn on the basis of the language and of events mentioned in it. For example, it is believed that the second part of the third hymn, to Apollo, called the Pythic part because it tells the tale of the Pythic oracleís foundation, is to be dated after the 580 b.c.e.: in the hymn, Apollo warns the priests that they would lose the control on Delphi if they misbehaved, so the scholars interpreted this as a reference to the caption of Delphi by the Amphictyonic League in that time.
The collection as we know it wasnít born before the third century e.v., when the hymn to Ares was probably put in it, but probably there has been a collection before the insertion of this last hymn: in the first century b.c.e., both Diodorus and Philodemus mention the existence of a collection of Homeric hymns. Two centuries before, the Hellenistic philologists of the Alexandrian library didnít list any collection of Homeric hymns; but Callimachusí hymn to Zeus, the first of Callimachusí hymns, recalls the first Homeric hymn to Dionysus, and other references are made in other hymns, so at least the single poem should be known to ancient scholars and authors, even before the Hellenistic times (Plato, the dramatists, lyric poetsÖ in many of them there are references to the hymns).
In the hymns too there are references to other works, older or contemporary ones (the second hymn of the collection, the hymn to Demeter, is considered the most Hesiodic of all by Andrew Faulkner Ė see reference works), but also cross references between the hymns themselves. The same hymn to Demeter is for instance bound to the one to Aphrodite, because of some similarities. But the hymns also reveal cultural influences of their times: like Hesiodís Theogony, the hymns too show how Mesopotamian myths affected the Greek ones. According to Charles Penglase, the Greek poets composing the hymn consciously adapted topics coming from the East, like the three journeys sequence in the second part of the third Homeric hymn.
Until the end of Eighteenth century, the first two hymns were still unknown; only in 1777 in Moscow a manuscript, lately sold to Leiden, was found bearing these hymns at the beginning of the collection, so changing the arrangement into the one we know today. Only few recently discovered papyri report the hymns, completing the manuscript found in Moscow. The first hymn, the one to Dionysus, is still fragmented, partially reconstructed thanks to Moscow manuscript and to few verses quoted by Diodorus.
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