In some previous published pages we had a brief introduction to Greek Pagan main collections of hymns: the Homeric hymns, the Orphic ones, Callimachus', and some philosophic hymns, all arranged in verses. There are also Pagan prose hymns, even though they were composed lately and even theories about hymns composition; on this page we'll deal with Pagan hymns in general, while in a forthcoming one we'll focus on prose hymns and hymn theory by Menander the rhetor.
At the beginning, the Greek word hymnos didn't mean a praise to the gods, but a praise in general: the word is used with this meaning in some Greek tragedies, also when men are the object of the praise. Only later, during the Hellenistic period, some Greek authors tried to put the idea of hymn in a theorical frame, but in this point of the time a lot of hymns had been already composed, from the Homeric hymns to the hymns by Callimachus who lived just after Alexander's death. Between those, several hymns were composed: lyric poems, odes by Pindar, Plato's dialogues, which also have some hymns in them. It's Plato himself who will be later pointed out as the model for prose hymns by the rhetor Menander, who lived during Diocletian's reign between the 3rd and the 4th century c.e. and who shouldn't be mistaken with the playwriter Menander, who lived between 4th and 3rd century b.c.e. This rhetor Menander left us a classification of hymns based on their aim or content: hymns that talk about the relations between man and gods, that relate the gods to natural elements, that tell a mythological tale, that list the genealogy of one or more deities, fiction hymns telling about invented myths or deities, deprecation hymns and prayer hymns. This list tells us that we are far beyond the idea of hymn as a generic praise. Plus, Menander said that the poetry hymn was much more better than the prose hymn, because poetry is a form of participation to the divine and has more liberty of arrangement than the prose. According to Menander, the prose is totally human, so even though the prose hymn has its own value, the prose is less participating to the divine than poetry is. As we told a few lines above, we'll dedicate a page to Menander's theories.
On the opposite, Aelius Aristides, who wrote his "Sacred Tales" before the rhetor Menander, believed in the superiority of the prose, just because it's something human. According to Aristides, the prose is the man's most ancient and natural expression, therefore it allows us to develop a more spontaneous relation with the gods. Apart from what Aelius Aristides says, poetry was certainly the first form in which the hymns were composed. Probably this is the reason why scholars like Walter Otto identify the poet and not the prose writer as he who creates the myth and the cult from the apparition of the gods. In Christian times too, from Boccaccio in the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the 17th century, the poet, even a pagan poet, is considered also a theologian, but according to the Christians it's only because there are some spiritual truths, that are Christian truths, that can be expressed also by non-christian poets.
In the ancient Greek culture instead, the poet was some kind of theologian because he gave shape to the myth with his work. Even though sometimes poets were considered inspired by or in touch with a god, this doesn't mean that their word was considered a dogma. The value of the poetry hymn and of the poet himself was important also in other pagan cultures which didn't leave us much written testimonies of their pagan age, like the Celtic and the Germanic ones. We know that people telling the tales of the Gods had great importance within these cultures; let's just think to Odin, who was also related to poetry and who conquered the runes by sacrificing his eye and hanging from the world tree for nine days, in order to get also the knowledge to be passed down through the runes. Even though we don't have writings dated to the pagan age, we can nevertheless suppose that the hymn to the gods (or the invocation, or the genealogy, or the mythological tale) must be important for them too.
Going back to the Classic, it's the Greek world that influenced the Latin one on the use of hymns. In facts, before Rome got deeply in touch with the Greece, there are just a few Latin hymns: the Carmina sung by the Salii and by the Arvales, all hymns related to celebrations. Only with the merging of these two cultures the hymn became a popular literary genre in Rome, famous writers like Catullus and Horace wrote hymns, but in a literary way, as personal composition and no more as poems for rites.
The emotional power of the hymn, especially the poetic one, doesn't fade along the centuries: among the last works by Pagan authors, like Neo-Platonists, before Christianity overwhelmed old religions, there are hymns, that is Proclus' and Julian's (to Helios and to the Mother of the Gods). Hymns were the last to disappear and the first to be reborn, both as ancient text to be rediscovered, as Ficino's translation of Orphic hymn demonstrates, and as a way to renew the cult of the Gods, like in Plethon's attempt.
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