The Homeric Hymns are a collection of thirty-three anonymous Ancient Greek hymns celebrating individual gods. The hymns are "Homeric" in the sense that they employ the same epic meter—dactylic hexameter—as the Iliad and Odyssey, use many similar formulas and are couched in the same dialect. They were uncritically attributed to Homer himself in Antiquity—from the earliest written reference to them, Thucydides (iii.104)—and the label has stuck. "The whole collection, as a collection, is Homeric in the only useful sense that can be put upon the word;" A. W. Verrall noted in 1894, "that is to say, it has come down labeled as 'Homer' from the earliest times of Greek book-literature."
The oldest of the hymns were probably written in the seventh century BC, somewhat later than Hesiod and the usually accepted date for the writing down of the Homeric epics. This still places the older Homeric Hymns among the oldest monuments of Greek literature; but although most of them were composed in the seventh and sixth centuries, a few may be Hellenistic, and the Hymn to Ares might be a late pagan work, inserted when it was observed that a hymn to Ares was lacking. Walter Burkert has suggested that the Hymn to Apollo, attributed by an ancient source to Cynaethus of Chios (a member of the Homeridae), was composed in 522 BC for performance at the unusual double festival held by Polycrates of Samos to honor Apollo of Delos and of Delphi.
The hymns, which must be the remains of a once more strongly represented genre, vary widely in length, some being as brief as three or four lines, while others are in excess of five hundred lines. The long ones comprise an invocation, praise, and narrative, sometimes quite extended. In the briefest ones, the narrative element is lacking. The longer ones show signs of having been assembled from pre-existing disparate materials.
Most surviving Byzantine manuscripts begin with the third Hymn. A chance discovery in Moscow in 1777, recovered the two hymns that open the collection, the fragmentary To Dionysus and To Demeter (complete save some lacunose lines), in a single fifteenth century manuscript. Some at least of the shorter ones may be excerpts that have omitted the narrative central section, preserving only the useful invocation and introduction, which a rhapsode could employ in the manner of a prelude.
The thirty-three hymns praise most of the major gods of Greek mythology; at least the shorter ones may have served as preludes to the recitation of epic verse at festivals by professional rhapsodes: often the singer concludes by saying that now he will pass to another song. A thirty-fourth, To Hosts is not a hymn, but a reminder that hospitality is a sacred duty enjoined by the gods, a pointed reminder when coming from a professional rhapsode.
List of the Homeric Hymns
- To Dionysus, 21 lines
- To Demeter, 495 lines
- To Apollo, 546 lines
- To Hermes, 580 lines
- To Aphrodite, 293 lines
- To Aphrodite, 21 lines
- To Dionysus, 59 lines
- To Ares, 17 lines
- To Artemis, 9 lines
- To Aphrodite, 6 lines
- To Athena, 5 lines
- To Hera, 5 lines
- To Demeter, 3 lines
- To the mother of the gods, 6 lines
- To Heracles with the heart of a lion, 9 lines
- To Asclepius, 5 lines
- To the Dioscuri, 5 lines
- To Hermes, 12 lines
- To Pan, 49 lines
- To Hephaestus, 8 lines
- To Apollo, 5 lines
- To Poseidon, 7 lines
- To Zeus, 4 lines
- To Hestia, 5 lines
- To the Muses and Apollo, 7 lines
- To Dionysus, 13 lines
- To Artemis, 22 lines
- To Athena, 18 lines
- To Hestia, 13 lines
- To Gaia, mother of all, 19 lines
- To Helios, 20 lines
- To Selene, 20 lines
- To the Dioscuri, 19 lines
- A.W. Verrall. "The Hymn to Apollo: An Essay in the Homeric Question". The Journal of Hellenic Studies 14 (1894:1–29) p. 2.
- Walter Burkert. 'Kynaithos, Polycrates and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo' in Arktouros: Hellenic studies presented to B. M. W. Knox ed. G. W. Bowersock, W. Burkert, M. C. J. Putnam (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979) pp. 53–62.
- "husks, introductions and conclusions from which the narrative core has been removed" as Robert Parker calls them, "The 'Hymn to Demeter' and the 'Homeric Hymns'" Greece & Rome 2nd Series 38.1 (April 1991, pp. 1-17) p. 1. Parker notes that, for instance, Hymn 18 preserves a version of the beginning and end of the Hymn to Hermes.
- The Homeric Hymns, Apostolos N. Athanassakis (translation, introduction and notes) Baltimore, MD; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. ISBN 0-8018-1792-7
- The Homeric Hymns: A Translation, with Introduction and Notes, Diane Rayor (2004). This translation sets the hymns in their context of Greek folklore, culture and geography, and offers parallels with Near Eastern texts.
- English etext of the Homeric Hymns Translation by H.G. Evelyn-White at Perseus. Annotated with links to proper names, Greek text, etc.
- English etext of the Homeric Hymns at the Berkeley Sunsite
- Scholarly bibliography on the Homeric Hymns
- Introduction to the Homeric Hymns A condensed version of the introduction by Diane J. Rayor, The Homeric Hymns : A Translation, with Introduction and Notes (2004)
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- Thomas W. Allen, William R. Halliday, and Edward E. Sikes, The Homeric Hymns. Oxford: 1936.