Hymen (Ancient Greek: Ὑμήν), Hymenaios or Hymenaeus, in ancient Greece, was a god of marriage ceremonies, inspiring feasts and song. Related to the god's name, a hymenaios is a genre of Greek lyric poetry sung during the procession of the bride to the groom's house in which the god is addressed, in contrast to the Epithalamium, which was sung at the nuptial threshold.
Hymen was supposed to attend every wedding. If he didn't, then the marriage would supposedly prove disastrous, so the Greeks would run about calling his name aloud. He presided over many of the weddings in Greek mythology, for all the deities and their children.
Hymen was celebrated in the ancient marriage song of unknown origin (called a Hymenaios) Hymen o Hymenae, Hymen delivered by G. Valerius Catullus.
At least since the Italian Renaissance, Hymen was generally represented in art as a young man wearing a garland of flowers and holding a burning torch in one hand.
Bring the light, uplift and show its flame! I am doing the god's service, see! I making his shrine to glow with tapers bright. O Hymen, king of marriage! blest is the bridegroom; blest am I also, the maiden soon to wed a princely lord in Argos. Hail Hymen, king of marriage!
He is also mentioned in Virgil's Aeneid and in seven plays by William Shakespeare: Hamlet, The Tempest, Much Ado about Nothing, Titus Andronicus, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Timon of Athens, and As You Like It, where he joins the couples at the end —
- "'Tis Hymen peoples every town;
- High wedlock then be honoured.
- Honour, high honour, and renown,
- To Hymen, god of every town!"
- High must be the chamber –
- Make it high, you builders!
- A bridegroom's coming –
- Like the War-god himself, the tallest of the tall!
Other stories give him a legendary origin. In one of the surviving fragments of the Megalai Ehoiai attributed to Hesiod, it's told that Magnes "had a son of remarkable beauty, Hymenaeus. And when Apollo saw the boy, he was seized with love for him, and wouldn't leave the house of Magnes".
Later story of origin
According to a later Romance, Hymen was an Athenian youth of great beauty but low birth who fell in love with the daughter of one of the city's wealthiest men. Since he couldn't speak to her or court her, due to his social standing, he instead followed her wherever she went.
Hymen disguised himself as a woman in order to join one of these processions, a religious rite at Eleusis where only women went. The assemblage was captured by pirates, Hymen included. He encouraged the women and plotted strategy with them, and together they killed their captors. He then agreed with the women to go back to Athens and win their freedom, if he were allowed to marry one of them. He thus succeeded in both the mission and the marriage, and his marriage was so happy that Athenians instituted festivals in his honour and he came to be associated with marriage.
He was killed by Nicaea.