The Orphic hymns are a collection of 88 poems: a proem in which Orpheus addresses his friend Musaeus an 87 hymns, each dedicated to a deity to whom the poet addresses, listing his/her names and attributes; almost all the hymns are accompanied by an indication of the perfumed offerings suitable for the deity. According to traditions, Musaeus himself would have written down the hymns composed by Orpheus; Pausanias mentions also a hymn by Musaeus, the hymn to Demeter for rites in Flia. A complex of myths and beliefs we usually call ‘orphism’ claims to have been inspired by Orpheus and his works (apart from the hymns, the Argonautica and the Lithica, a poem about the magical use of stones), but it has never been a religious unity: there are many theogonies with an orphic origin, among which there are the Derveni papyrus theogony and the three mentioned by Damascius.
While the Derveni theogony assigns a central place to Zeus, identified with Fanes, the one ‘who shows’, the generative god, in the hymns we find instead Dionysus playing this role (and the Derveni theogony says that Dionysus is another name of Zeus). But the Orphic hymns, unlike the Homeric ones, only rarely tell myths and deeds of gods and goddesses; they are instead made of a list of names, like litanies, and often invite the deity to take part to the ritual. There are also few mentions of religious beliefs and principles in the hymns and at the end of the hymn peace, health and prosperity are often generically asked. According to what some ancient authors say, like Pausanias, the annotator of the Derveni Papyrus and Menander the rhetorician, there used to be other Orphic hymns, different from those included in the collection we own today.
We don’t know exactly when or how the present collection of Orphic hymns was born. According to some scholars, at least some of the hymns could have been written in Egypt, because of their resemblance with some Greek magical papyri, while according to Otto Kern the hymn would have originated in Asia Minor: in facts in Pergamon, in the temple of Demeter excavated in 1910, there are dedications to several deities mentioned in the hymns. Language and style in the hymns lead us to think they could have been written down in their ultimate form between the second and the third centuries of current era, when the cult of Dionysus was very strong in Asia Minor: to Dionysus are in facts dedicated eight hymns in the collection. A religious community (probably a private one, since the collection lacks of an hymn to the emperor, compulsory for public communities) would therefore have collected the hymn it used during rites: it’s not clear if members wrote the hymns by themselves, asked someone to write them or used pre-existing hymns. The arrangement of the hymns reveal a non-casual project: the collection begins with ten verses to Hecate, which were part of the proem in manuscripts bearing the hymns, but philologist believe they should be separated. After them, there’s the hymn to Prothyraia, goddess of birth, and the collection ends with the hymn to Thanatos, the death.
According to Gabriella Ricciardelli, the hymn to Hecate would have been probably inserted in the collection later, because it would be more logical to put the hymn to the goddess of birth before the others; the proem too would have been added in a succeeding time, because it mentions gods that don’t have a hymn of their own and there are hymns to gods who are not mentioned in the proem. But on the opposite we could say that in Orphic beliefs, Hecate had a role we don’t fully understand and according to which the position of the hymn would be perfectly logical, like a relation between Hecate and a baby’s prenatal life. For what concerns the proem, it’s a proem and not a table of content: we can again suppose a religious reason we don’t know behind the choice of the gods’ names and position of the poem.
After an understandable period of silence during Middle Ages, during Renaissance Humanism the Orphic Hymns provoked both curiosity and fear: Marsilio Ficino, who translated them from Greek to Latin when he was young, never wanted to publish them in full, because he didn’t want to be charged of renewing paganism. This had been the attempt, just some years before Ficino, of George Gemistos Plethon, a Greek humanist who also wrote 27 hymns to the gods now being published on the European Pagan Memory Day website. But even though he never published the whole translation, Marsilio Ficino often mentions the hymns in his other works, so contributing to spread knowledge about them. We mustn’t forget that the figure of Orpheus was used by the elder christians to create the image of Christ; Orpheus in Renaissance was considered a theologian and not merely a poet. While the Homeric hymns could be settled as ancient people’s fantasies, the Orphic hymns were considered dangerous on one side, because they were the work of an ancient theologian, potentially a rival for Christianity, but fascinating on the other side, because keepers of ancient secrets and loaded with a magical potential that could go beyond the ancient times.
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