A Brief Intro to Greek Hymns, Part 1: The Homeric and Orphic Hymns

While I am a big fan of writing your own prayers to the gods, you absolutely do not have to do this. Maybe you don’t feel called to do it, maybe you just don’t care to, maybe you prefer using prayers with some ancient history. In any case, you have other options.

Probably the best known sources of ancient Greek hymns and prayers are the Homeric Hymns and the Orphic Hymns, both of which have been collected and made available in a number of different translations. They are lovely and there are quite a few of them, so here I’m going to provide just a little context.

The Homeric Hymns
The 34 Homeric hymns were not (as is often assumed) written by the Homer who is said to have authored the Iliad and the Odyssey during the 8th century BCE, although many are believed to have been written not long after those epics in the 7th and 6th century BCE, while others appeared hundreds of years later. They are called “Homeric” because they use the same poetic metre.

Some are very brief (as short as 3 lines) while others are quite lengthy, ranging from 293 to 580 lines. The shorter ones tend to be prayers of praise while the longer ones often include the telling of myths of the gods. They are believed to have been used to introduce longer pieces (or, in the case of longer hymns, as stand-alone works) during performances and competitions.

What that means is that these prayers were intended for an audience, not generally for use in what we would consider a religious context, and certainly not for use in personal prayer. That doesn’t mean that we can’t use them that way–just that it’s something to keep in mind. The shorter prayers in particular are often a lovely choice.

The Orphic Hymns
By contrast, the 87 Orphic Hymns were not only written for religious use but in a very specific religious context–that of Orphism, a mystery religion practiced as early as the 5th century BCE.

They are quite beautiful (I am especially fond of the Orphic hymn to Athena); they also come with incense recommendations for each, which underlines the religious context.

The Orphic hymns reflect the Orphic religion; they thus include prayers to gods not a part of the “mainstream” Greek religion, as well as references to a specifically Orphic mythology that diverged from what we may be familiar with in a number of ways.

What this means is that while we can certainly use Orphic hymns in our own worship even if we don’t subscribe to that particular belief system, it’s probably a good idea to learn a bit about the Orphic religion first because some of what is in the hymns does have a different meaning in the Orphic context.

To be continued!

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