“As it is our custom in prayer to call the Gods by the names and places which They prefer.”
Plato, Cratylus, 400e
‘Hymn’ is, of course, a Hellenic word (Hymnos) ; we find a number of ancient etymologies: the Etym. Gud. 540.38 Sturz gives the following account: “Hymn comes from ‘remain’, being something which ‘remains’, because it draws the words of praise and the virtues into a durable form” as also states the Et. Magn. “‘hymn’: a thing which is lasting (hypomonos), because it draws the deeds and powers of those praised into a durable and memorable form”; this ‘etymology’ is also given by Proklos, who records another possible derivation, from the (rare) verb hydein which he glosses as ‘speak’, and, a number of passages in poetry exploit the similarity between the stems hymn- and hyph- from the verb hyphaino, ‘weave’- to weave a hymn (Bacch. 5.9)
An ancient definition of hymnos used in the religious sense runs “hymnos is discourse in the form of adoration, with prayer conjoined with praise, addressed to a God”. (Etym. Gud.
s.v.)- the definition contains a number of essential points: the hymn worships (proskyneo) Gods with combined prayer (euché) and praise (epainos). It agrees with an another ancient
definition given by Dionysios Thrax: “the ‘hymn’ is a poem comprising praises of the Gods and Heroes with thanksgiving (eucharistia)”.
A statement of Didymos quoted by Orion (p. 155-6 Sturz) runs: “The hymn is distinct from enkomia, prosodia and paians not in that the latter are not hymns, but as genus (sc. is
distinct) from species. For we call all forms of song for the Gods hymns, and add a qualifying expression such as prosodion-hymn, paian-hymn etc.” Proklos appears to be quoting Didymos when he writes: “They (sc. previous authorities) called generically all compositions to the Gods hymns. That is the reason why one finds them relating the prosodion and the
other genres already mentioned to the hymn as species to genus. For one can observe them
writing (sc. such expressions as): ‘prosodion-hymn’ or ‘enkomion-hymn’ or ‘paian-hymn’ and the like”. It is in this general sense in which it is legitimate to use ‘hymn’ to mean any song celebrating or petitioning a divinity (notes also the definition in the Onomastikon of Pollux I 38: “Songs to the Gods are called ‘hymns’ generally, an oupingos to Artemis specifically, a paian to Apollo, prosodion to both”.)
Plato gives the first indication (Laws 700b1) of an ancient taxonomy of religious song. First he distinguishes hymns as sung prayers to the Gods from a conceptual opposite – dirges,
songs of mourning – then he goes on to name paians, dithyrambs and nomes as separate categories of musical song. The categories are said to represent ‘musical types’ but the
dithyramb is additionally described as a song about Dionysos’ birth.
Proklos begins, like Plato, by distinguishing religious from non-religious types of song, although allowing that some types fall into an intermediate category (partheneia, daphnephorika, which, says Proklos, “are written for the Gods but contain praise of men”). Of religious songs he names the hymn, prosodion, paian, dithyramb, nome, adonidion, iobakchos and hyporchema. Of mixed types – performed within the context of a religious service but possibly containing praise of humans – he lists partheneion, daphnephorikon, tripodephorikon, oschophorikon and euktikon. After explaining how ‘hymn’ has both a generic and particular sense, he describes the chief attributes of these classes.
The prosodion is defined as a hymn sung to aulos accompaniment while the chorus processes to the altar; this is distinguished from the ‘hymn proper’ sung at the altar to kithara music. The other genres are defined principally by the deity and/or specific cult to which they belong: paians, nomes, daphnephorika, tripodephorika were at home in various cults of Apollo; the dithyramb and iobakchos belonged to Dionysos; the oschophorikon was an Athenian cult song belonging to Dionysos and Athena; the adonidion was clearly named after Adonis. In the case of the nome and dithyramb he gives a more detailed analysis, explaining that the dithyramb employs wild and exciting rhythms and musical modes in keeping with its patron deity, Dionysos, whilst the nome is stately and dignified to match this quality of Apollo.
Procession and sacrifice, both typically accompanied by hymn-singing – focussed on the spatial transition from town to temple and in particular on the altar erected outside the
temple entrance. Aristophanes (Clouds 307, cf. Peace 397) mentions ‘most holy processions to the Gods’ ; according to Pausanias (4.4.1) processional hymns (prosodia) were current
from the beginning of the archaic period, as Eumelos composed one for the Messenians when they wanted to send a theoria to Delos. Heliodoros’ novel Aithiopika contains a detailed description of the processional hymns performed by girls’ choruses during an embassy of Ainianes from Thessaly to Delphi where they intended to entreat the hero Neoptolemos for protection of their city. After describing the hecatomb of cattle which ambled – presumably up the Sacred Way – toward Apollo’s precinct, Heliodoros’ narrator states:
“Some pretty and shapely Thessalian girls with their hair down accompanied these herds of cattle with their drivers. They were divided into two choruses; the girls in one chorus bore
hand-baskets filled with flowers and fruits in season, the other group carried head-baskets full of sacrificial cakes and incense-burners with which they filled the air with sweet-smelling smoke. Their hands were not occupied by holding these baskets, which they bore aloft on their heads; they held each other’s hand either in a straight or in a crossing chorus-
line so that it was possible for them simultaneously to walk forward and to dance. The other chorus provided the actual musical song for them for it had the job of singing the entire
We note how one chorus sang the hymn while the other danced an accompaniment – an arrangement similar to that mentioned for Delian choruses in Call. H 4.304-306, where a
men’s chorus sang while a women’s chorus danced.
The arrival of the chorus at the temple is an another setting for a hymn: the worshippers stand before the temple and wait for the gates to open: this is shown by the opening lines of
Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo. The speaker is stationed in front of Apollo’s temple, and when he observes that the God is about to appear, he orders the doors to open and the boys to
begin their singing and dancing: “Bolts of the gates, open now of your own accord! You locks do likewise! For the God is no great distance away. And you young men! Prepare yourselves now for the song and dance!”
Sacrifices, which took place in front of the temple, were often accompanied by hymn- singing; the term parabomion, ‘by-the-altar’, is used to denote such a song, and sometimes the location around the altar is given in the text of the hymn (the Dictaean hymn to Zeus, lines 9-10) or in the instructions accompanying the hymn (e.g. the lex sacra accompanying the Erythraean paian: “first sing the following paian round Apollo’s altar”)
– Form and composition
According to Aristotle, a ‘whole’ consists of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Previous writers on the subject have identified a similar tripartite scheme for hymns. The first part
has been identified as the invocatio, or epiklesis, the invocation which establishes contact between the speaking person(s) and the divine addressee. The typical opening of a Hellenic
hymn contained two elements: a linguistic marker indicating the speaker’s intention of commencing his hymn and the announcement of whom he chooses to address. A typical
example of this combined opening is provided by the Delphic paians to Apollo: “Listen, fair-armed daughters of loud-thundering Zeus. . . come here to praise in song your brother
Phoibos. . . ” and “Come here to jutting twin-peaked Mt. Parnassos. . . and conduct my hymns. . . Sing of Pythian Apollo. . . ” The name(s) should normally come as one of the first elements of the hymnic text, and sometimes the worshippers show themselves aware of this ‘duty’, cf. Soph. OT 159 : “First I call on you, daughter of Zeus, almighty Athena. . .’ Patronyms or metronyms abound in hymns, in other cases additional names are provided by alternative cult-titles or by the God’s location, etc (hymns frequently mention a number of the God’s favourite locations using such formulæ as “whether you abide in x, or y, z, or “who abides in. . . x, y or z”.)
The elements of the invocation – which may not all be present in any one text – may then be identified as follows:
• attributes (epithets, titles)
• place (abode, places of worship)
• companion deities
HHApollo 19: “How should I hymn you, who are in every respect rich in hymns?”
Several appellations have been proposed for the middle section: pars epica, sanctio, pars media, eulogia; in this middle part the worshipper presents the deity arguments for the God to be propitious. Because these ‘arguments’ generally take the form of elaborate praise of the God’s powers and privileges, we have the definition ‘eulogy, praise’.
The God will be most pleased by a narrative, diegesis: the story of the God’s birth; the narrative of the birth of a God with a specific benefit conferred by him on mankind; description in epic manner of the prowess of the God in combating monsters; the story of the God’s epiphany; elaborate account of the God’s central activities, etc.
We may summarize the possible elements of the praise part of a hymn as follows:
• predication of powers through relative clauses or participles
• repeated (anaphoric) addresses
• hypomneseis, ‘reminders’, of earlier benefits conferred by the deity,
or earlier worship offered by petitioners
• ekphraseis, ‘descriptions’, of the God, his haunts, actions
The last part is the prayer, euché, itself: “the best thing is – in the manner of the authors of dithyrambs and paians – to wind up one’s speech with a concluding prayer” (Arist. 1. 369)
In its most normal form the final prayer calls on the godhead to confer protection, well-being, prosperity, peace etc. on the worshipping community. The prayer is the climax, the point of the hymn as a whole: the two previous sections have been leading up to it, securing divine good-will and preparing the ground for this final appeal to the divinity as meticulously as possible (on a formal level the prayer closing a hymn might be compared to the orator’s gnome)
As we have seen, the general way was to please the deity addressed by choice of words, themes, melody and dance steps performed by the chorus if there was one. The key concept here is Charis, a word with a double meaning corresponding to the two sides of the relationship involved in worship. It has many meanings, all giving the idea of reciprocal pleasure and goodwill: first, it can mean “grace, gracefulness, charm and amiability”, so we can say that it conveys the basic meaning of Beauty, as it is often associated to Goddess Aphrodite (the Charites). The second possible translation is “joy, happiness, pleasure and delight”, thus implying something that brings about pleasure and satisfaction – as a victory, as the good wine in the rites of Bromios, as a relief from pain and suffering, and so on. The third meaning is “favor, goodwill, kindness, a grateful thing done in favor of someone”, and it is used both when we ask for and when we receive favors, when we call upon someone in order to receive advice and help in a spirit of friendship and reciprocal goodwill. A fourth possible meaning is “gratitude and thankfulness”, as when we receive a very valuable or beneficial gift from someone and we wish to express deep gratitude for the grace we have received. The last meaning is “respect, mark of veneration, honor”, indicating that the salutation to the Gods carries beauty and gracefulness (thus reminding us about Aphrodite, who calls the souls back home through the ecstatic principle of Beauty – Aphrodite who is in the triad of the Elevating Gods). This beauty brings about joy and happiness, because the only true satisfaction of the soul is to dance and to revel around the Gods. This divine happiness, perceived when we salute the Gods, is a favor coming directly from Them, and thus we salute Them with chaire also to thank Them for this gift: the opportunity to pray Them. So finally, we give Them Their due honors, as we are saying that we honor Them with the divinely inspired hymn.
“Enthusiasm appears to partake of a certain divine inspiration and to be close to the prophetic state. Music, which encompasses dancing and rhythm and melody, leads us thereby toward the divine through the pleasure in skilled performance. For whilst it is well said that men imitate the Gods best whenever they do good, it is perhaps more appropriate to say ‘whenever they are truly happy’. And that (viz. happiness) is found in joyful gratitude, in the celebration of festivals and making music.”
See also: On prayer- according to the Tradition..