“The Homeric Hymns”

The Homeric Hymns are a collection of thirty-three hexameter poems which honor the ancient Greek gods. Modern scholars believe most of them were written between 700 and 500 BCE. The hymns were traditionally attributed to Homer.

The Hymns vary from three to over five-hundred lines. Here are the longest and most interesting hymns:

  1. Hymn to Demeter, Persephone and the origin of winter
  2. Hymn to Apollo, how his temples came about
  3. Hymn to Hermes, his birth and theft of Apollo’s cows
  4. Hymn to Aphrodite, affair with mortal Anchises
  5. Hymn to Dionysus, pirates and dolphins
  6. Hymn to Pan, his domains and dances

The hymns appear to be used as preludes at poetry competitions or ceremonies.

All of the quotes here are from the H.G. Evelyn-White translation, and the line numbers are approximate.

A central theme in the hymns, as in The Theogony, is the birth of the gods. They seem especially interested in the location of the birth:

For some say, at Dracanum; and some, on windy Icarus; and some, in Naxos, O Heaven-born, Insewn; and others by the deep-eddying river Alpheus that pregnant Semele bare you to Zeus the thunder-lover. And others yet, lord, say you were born in Thebes; but all these lie. The Father of men and gods gave you birth remote from men and secretly from white-armed Hera. (1.1–7)

Rejoice, blessed Leto, for you bare glorious children, the lord Apollo and Artemis who delights in arrows; her in Ortygia, and him in rocky Delos, as you rested against the great mass of the Cynthian hill hard by a palm-tree by the streams of Inopus. (3.13–8)

I will sing of Heracles, the son of Zeus and much the mightiest of men on earth. Alcmena bare him in Thebes, the city of lovely dances, when the dark-clouded Son of Cronos had lain with her. (15.1–4)

Another theme is the relationship between gods and men:

Thence, swift as thought, he [Apollo] speeds from earth to Olympus, to the house of Zeus, to join the gathering of the other gods: then straightway the undying gods think only of the lyre and song, and all the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice, hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men, all that they endure at the hands of the deathless gods, and how they live witless and helpless and cannot find healing for death or defence against old age. (3.186–92)

Sing, clear-voiced Muses, of Hephaestus famed for inventions. With bright-eyed Athene he taught men glorious gifts throughout the world, — men who before used to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaestus the famed worker, easily they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round. (20.1–7)

And now because of you [Anchilles] I [Aphrodite] shall have great shame among the deathless gods henceforth, continually. For until now they feared my jibes and the wiles by which, or soon or late, I mated all the immortals with mortal women, making them all subject to my will. But now my mouth shall no more have this power among the gods; for very great has been my madness, my miserable and dreadful madness, and I went astray out of my mind who have gotten a child beneath my girdle, mating with a mortal man. (5.247–50)

The Hymn to Demeter describes the Eleusian mysteries:

Then she [Demeter] went, and to the kings who deal justice, Triptolemus and Diocles, the horse-driver, and to doughty Eumolpus and Celeus, leader of the people, she showed the conduct of her rites and taught them all her mysteries, to Triptolemus and Polyxeinus and Diocles also, — awful mysteries which no one may in any way transgress or pry into or utter, for deep awe of the gods checks the voice. Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries; but he who is uninitiate and who has no part in them, never has lot of like good things once he is dead, down in the darkness and gloom. (2.472–82)

The Hymn to Gaia is beautiful:

I will sing of well-founded Earth, mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all creatures that are in the world, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. Through you, O queen, men are blessed in their children and blessed in their harvests, and to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men and to take it away. Happy is the man whom you delight to honour! He has all things abundantly: his fruitful land is laden with corn, his pastures are covered with cattle, and his house is filled with good things. Such men rule orderly in their cities of fair women: great riches and wealth follow them: their sons exult with ever-fresh delight, and their daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field. Thus is it with those whom you honour O holy goddess, bountiful spirit.

Hail, Mother of the gods, wife of starry Heaven; freely bestow upon me for this my song substance that cheers the heart! And now I will remember you and another song also (30.1–19)

There are a handful of similes. Here is one which I particularly enjoyed:

As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. (4.43–5)