European Pagan Memory Day

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When we consider the philosophic hymns in the context of the pages we published about the religious hymns of ancient Greece, we must first of all ask ourselves if those hymns can be considered religious hymns, even if they formally turn to ancient Gods. Actually, like Callimachus' hymns that are literary texts that reflect the worldview of one precise author, often the philosophic hymns don't want simply to celebrate this or that god or goddess , but aim to explain an interpretation of a god or goddess or an idea represented under the guise of the god or goddess. It could seem strange, but it's perfectly normal in a polytheistic view, where there's space for different ideas behind the same cult act and where every aspect of life reflects itself in religion but not in the sense that religion rules on life, as happens when thinking to monotheistic fundamentalism.

Therefore, even they aren't strictly for celebration, the philosophic hymns too can be considered pagan hymns, but only if we understand the idea they want to spread; this is true for hymns that address to 'classical' deities and not to personifications of ideas outside 'traditional' pantheons. The hymn to the virtue by Aristotle is the celebration of an idea, and not of a goddess, even if reinterpreted, so it doesn't fall within the pagan philosophical hymns we are dealing with. The eighth hymn of the Homeric collection, the hymn to Ares can instead be considered a philosophical hymn because expresses a conception of Ares close to the neoplatonic one.

The most known philosophical hymns of ancient Greece are the hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes and the hymns by Proclus; since they come one from the stoic philosophy and the others from Neo-Platonism, they present some issues of interpretation because both these currents of philosophy have been plagiarized by Christianity, so some concepts they express can be misunderstood. I invite all curious people about them to read the hymns and then to look for information about their philosophic context. In this page I'll give only a few notes about their context and history as an introduction.

Cleanthes of Assos was Zeno's successor in leading the stoic school; his hymn to Zeus was composed between the fourth and the third century b.c.e. and it's the only stoic work of that time that has been handed down in full. The hymn must be considered not only in the frame of stoic philosophy but also in the context of Hellenistic religion and literature. There are some titles and fragments of Cleanthes' works from which we know that he wrote about religion and poetry, especially about how poets were able to express the truth about the Gods, but we don't know how the hymn should be located inside this frame. Scholars believe that the hymn, that presents Zeus like the active principle of the cosmos, its mind and becoming order (an idea that is immanent in stoicism, not transcendent like in Christianity), as he is in stoic conception, was also used as a worship hymn inside the stoa, because it ends with a 'prayer'. The hymn begins with an invocation to Zeus as lord of nature and source of the laws that govern her; the central part is the more philosophic one, dealing with ethical themes, like humans' wrong behaviours and their consequences. The hymn ends with the prayer that Zeus could save he who invokes him from the 'destructive ignorance'. The hymn mixes more traditional elements, references to Homeric hymns, with the stoic philosophical conceptions.

Eight hymns by Proclus have been instead passed on: to Helios 'king of intellectual fire', to Aphrodite, to the Muses, to the Gods, to Aphrodite of Lycia, to Hecate and Janus, to Athena Polymetis, to Dionysus. It's not a wonder that a so Italic god like Janus appears in this collection of Greek hymns: first of all because Proclus writes in fifth century c.e., when the Greek culture and the Roman-Italic one had already been in touch for a lot of time, then because in the hymn Proclus identifies Janus with “the supreme Zeus”. Some scholars believe that the hymn to Hecate and Janus could be not authentic because it begins, unlike the others, with the list of the names of these deities. The hymn to Athena polymetis raised some doubts too, because in its central part some deeds of the goddess are told, and it lacks a philosophical interpretation of the deity. The hymn to Dionysus has been handed down incomplete and only through quotes by other writers. According to Proclus' biographer, Marinus, the philosopher wrote other hymns we don't know nowadays, among which a hymn to Asclepius, and other to 'foreign' deities, like Marnas of Gaza, Theandrites and Isis. This is why all the hymns we listed before as Proclus' are generally believed to be authentic, in spite of all the doubt we said.

With Proclus, we are actually outside the classical tradition: Proclus' Neo-Platonism, like Plotinus', is already facing Christianity and feels the need to give new interpretations for ancient gods and goddesses. During the fifth century paganism built a religious identity it didn't need before. We cannot though reduce Proclus' hymns to philosophical explanations in verses: Proclus felt himself actually a pagan and a gods' worshipper.

Reference works

Online texts

Manuela Simeoni


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